It took one of my heroes dying to get me out of my blog depression/ writers block/watching too many sports since they are catching up. But, the old all over the board system wasn’t reaching people, so the new format is to wait until a subject takes over my brain and only write about THAT. I guarantee that The Masters will be my next blog. Or maybe LeBron vs. MJ if LeBron closes the Heat out tonight.
It all started for me as a baby smoking a cigarette. Not me, as I was 12 at the time, but the little guy with angels on the cover of the Van Halen-1984 album. I used my weekly allowance and the benefits from mowing some neighbors’ yards to obtain the sacred cassette. The tape should receive an award for surviving the amount of times I played the thing. The faith then backtracked to cover the early albums, and then fast forwarded when Sammy Hagar took over for David Lee Roth on 5150. I came into the madness right in the prime of everyone, and it was glorious.
We lost a legend on Tuesday. Eddie Van Halen died after a long fight with throat cancer. As one of his biggest fans, I have let it marinate this week, one-word-answering texts, and staying off of the topic on social media. I wanted to organize my thoughts a little. I guess I am a little more structured today as I write this listening to VH, but the loss still hurts us fans.
I assume capturing what Eddie did to this world, and explaining the footprint he left behind would be kind of like explaining the loss of Babe Ruth. If he wasn’t the best in someone’s eyes, he was always in the same sentence in every single conversation ever uttered by human beings ever. Where do you start when talking about the loss of possibly the greatest person at his craft ever? Let’s try.
(Special thanks to my buddy, Kevin, who is in “14,000 bands,” as I like to say, and someone I jam with here and there. I always force him to play Jump and Love Walks In and other VH songs to everyone’s roll of the eyes at the time. Some of these thoughts are his, and just being transparent about any creativity or original thoughts in this. He is an expert at guitar. I am not.)
There are two people who revolutionized how to play the guitar. The short list is Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. Eddie popularized the tapping solo technique, which he would have admitted he took from a guy from Genesis. So, he popularized it, but didn’t invent it. But, popularize is an understatement. He brought it to mainstream, and changed everyone’s idea of “skilled” on the instrument. There is no third influence as of yet.
Eddie was born in Amsterdam, so he pretty much was born to be cool and in the know of all things, I guess. He grew up in Pasadena, and actually was winning classical piano contests for years before trying the…drums. Yes, drums, and THEN he pawned off the drum set to his brother, Alex, and decided to try the guitar path. Really late starter surprisingly. The rest is history. What did he play? Well, he freaking BUILT his own guitar, the Frankenstrat. Go figure.
Before I give you my planned tour, let’s cover a few other nuggets. I was lucky enough to see them live three times. I got the mixed bag of Van Hagar for my first show, and then combos of Diamond Dave and Wolfgang (Eddie’s son) in the other two shows. I wish I had more concerts on my belt, but glad I got the three. One was with Alice In Chains, another one of my favorite bands, so that will always be my favorite one.
Eddie did things during the VERSE, when the guitar is supposed to be tame, that would baffle really good guitarists. He made playing the instrument sound absolutely effortless. It was almost sickening if you were a guitarist of any rank. The band rose up in the 70’s, lived through the 80’s glam rock without falling into that group (even with over the top guitar), and then survived well after Cinderella, Dokken, and Poison were afterthoughts. You knew in a couple of bars if it was Van Halen. No one could sound like him. To give a more recent example, you know when 311 is playing…immediately. Even VH’s covers Eddie made his own. They had that magical Van Halen twist. You Really Got Me and Pretty Woman come to mind on that item. They had a large group of party songs, and they were fun, and somehow still technically ridiculous on the guitar. But, he made them sound easy and, again, effortless. And let’s not forget that the best guitarist of all time was also a singer, songwriter, producer, and keyboardist. Let’s also not forget that he played on the first big hit for Michael Jackson, Beat It, and didn’t ask to be paid, and was hard to find in any credits at the time. Let’s not forget LL Cool J also invited Eddie to play with him, since they were the best. Let’s not forget that VH replaced the front man several times, but that band would have been crushed if they replaced the guitarist. There are VERY few bands out there, if any, that this phenomenon could occur.
Let’s also not forget that sales on Van Halen albums spiked 6000% since Eddie’s death, so at least he is taking care of his band members financially for the rest of their lives in our global loss.
I might try and rank my favorite Van Halen songs on the fly, but I will first run through my tour for you. And, note that ranking Van Halen songs will probably turn out like the time I tried to rank Seinfeld episodes. It is pointless. I tried once with Seinfeld. I ended up with my top ten, and then 47 “alternates.” I could go into detail on more not released songs off of each album, but this is a blog and not a book. Let’s hit the highlights and my personal stories for some. Hope you enjoy.
The beginning of Runnin’ With The Devil reminds me of a couple of people in funny suits playing trumpets before their king arrived in old times. It basically said “get the HELL out of my way” and sank hopes for all guitarists on the market thinking they possibly might be the best. It was game over. It was MJ dunking for the first time in the NBA. Enough said. But, wait, before the tears down guitarists’ cheeks were even wiped away, this song called Eruption occurred. Still an anthem of every solo attempt out there, it just simply…changed things forever. It made a guitar solo…cool. With You Really Got Me following Eruption, and then the heavy-hitting Ain’t Talking About Love after, you didn’t really NEED any more to make this an epic album, but what??? More? Jamie’s Cryin’ became a likeable staple for the crowd who wanted a touch of Top 40 with the same Eddie riff present. Then, along with some other quality songs, you had Ice Cream Man, a combination of fun, guitar, and more guitar. Although I tried ONCE to sing Runnin’ With The Devil karaoke, I failed on that and Ice Cream Man became a staple of mine. Singing and air guitaring? Perfect.
VAN HALEN II
This was a quality follow up to the magic of the debut album. Some brilliant non-released ones, some fun songs like Somebody Get Me A Doctor, and two of their bigger “hits” were on this released. Dance the Night Away became not only a radio hit (#15 and first Top 20 hit), but also became sort of the standard of Eddie’s “sound.” It is also rumored to be the only newly written song on that album, as most believe the rest were from the pre-popular days. Beautiful Girls not only became a staple, but they put at the END of the tape. Saved the best for last, if you will.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST
Everyone has their opinions, but, to me, this was the party album. They claimed a niche with fun songs you wanted to crank at parties in the 80’s. And the Cradle Will Rock and Everybody Wants Some were played at all the places. Hidden and tucked away at the end was a non-released song called In a Simple Rhyme. This is one of my favorites, and should not be ignored. Fantastic guitar, nice slow downs during, and more on the serious side. The balance that this song provided as opposed to the rest of the fun album was irresistible.
Mean Streets reminds me of a little more tame version of Runnin’ With The Devil. Think of those trumpet players and the king, but we already knew he was coming. It announces again Eddie is in the house, but WITH the swagger already. It is like Dr. Dre coming out with 2001. The Ace was back. Unchained becomes a favorite also from this album. If I had to can a song to explain the Eddie Van Halen groove to a stranger, it would be perfect example of his groove and I might even lead with the song in my explanation.
It took me WAY too long to find this gem. I started at the beginning after listening to 1984, and then worked my way UP to this one. Forgotten treasure, it is. Where Have All the Good Times Gone is a song that basically says “we already wrote all of the fun songs, so why aren’t you playing them more?” Dancing In the Street is a cover that is plugged with exemplary guitar. They took another song that was a crowd staple for all ages, and made it their own. Little Guitar is masterful. But, Cathedral is where the action is on this album, for me. I have been lucky enough to see Cathedral in 2 of the 3 shows I have attended. It is magical, underrated, and shows that this genius can pivot 180 degrees and transform guitar yet again. Different sound, different groove, and the cadence is mesmerizing.
And now this is where I jumped in. 1984 was the opening song, and the trumpeters for the dictator, if you will, of guitar basically said “did you ALSO know he did THIS?” Synthesizer was cool for Van Halen too, so it was cool for all. After that song? Jump occurred and it was Van Halen’s ONLY pop #1 hit. As a piano player, I knew that song and solo COLD. And I played it constantly. It didn’t get me any chicks, and probably made them go farther away since I played it every time I sat at the piano. Eddie mixed in a killer guitar riff in the middle of the song to remind us that he was indeed still king coupled with the synth. Then? It just got better. Panama. Hard core, standard Eddie riffs, and it became legendary. Family Guy made an entire 12 minutes of a show about Peter adopting this song in his new fast car. When given the option to pick any country in the world to perform an oral report on in 8th grade, the choice was easy. Banana capital of the world. Panama. I turned on a strobe light and air guitared on the desk in front of the teacher to really earn my A++ on the report, and show my classmates I wasn’t your typical confusing nerd/athlete mix. I forget the person’s name, but pretty sure I lost a friend on the next song, as I remember breaking down every part of Top Jimmy’s guitar solo in excruciating fashion at a party. Drop Dead Legs. Killer riff, and not a “filler” song. Hot For Teacher became a cult hit, and then came I’ll Wait. I played that song on Karen Johnson’s voicemail instead of talking because she wouldn’t go out with me. It didn’t pan out surprisingly but is a funny story decades later (I actually DID this, people.). Girl Gone Bad and House of Pain brought back the early roots of dominating guitar from the early albums. You could argue that this was the best album start to finish IF you weren’t talking to The Fillerbuster, as…
…this was the best album. I am Van Hagar with full respect to Diamond Dave’s days. Where do I start? Good Enough was the riveting starter song. Why Can’t This Be Love was their planned hit, which it was. Get Up went back to hard-hitting roots of the early albums and truly showed Hagar’s ridiculous range and Eddie’s dirty guitar. We lobbied for Dreams to be our class song in graduation, but Mr. Flutie nixed us for some bicentennial thing with the country. Summer Nights was the song you blasted in the corn fields of New Jersey during parties. Best of Both Worlds was what everyone in life wanted, but with killer guitar from Eddie. Love Walks In was hit #2. 5150 was the lost song on this one, and teased you with more jealously-inducing riffs. Inside was the odd closer that still seemed to sum things up. I can confidently say that I know every lyric and every guitar note from this album like the back of my hand. We had a 90210 and Melrose Place party (we were really smart frat guys) in Myrtle Beach after UVA exams where I remember boring the hell out of Scott (best man at my wedding) and 20 other people in explaining this was the best album of all time. More lost friends, I assume.
This was an important album for Sammy, to prove he was here to stay. And man did Eddie and him sure prove that idea. Mine all mine COMBINED the synth and guitar in an in-your-face song. I thought Cabo Wabo was the name of the town in Mexico (Cabo San Lucas) until literally being on the shuttle between the airport and Cabo in my 40’s. My wife let me go to Cabo first when we landed as she knew the pull. Kind of like I didn’t realize that cucumbers and pickles were related until I was 40. Want a hidden gem? Source of Infection was Van Halen II-like in power, and should be listened to, if only for guitar. Black and Blue got on the radio and continued the crowd pleasing tactics. I consider When It’s Love to be Love Walks In II, and it worked. But, there was also Finish What Ya Started, which broke ALL Van Halen rules, and then popped on the top 40 to remind us all that they could pretty much pivot any way they wanted and we would love Eddie. Brilliant, underrated song.
FOR UNLAWFUL CARNAL KNOWLEDGE
It spells a bad word. Get it? This is where Van Halen coined their third sports anthem. Right Now is now as commonplace as every song outside of Crazy Train by Ozzy. I would say Runnin’ With the Devil, Right Now, and Jump were the three sports anthems by Van Halen off the top of my head. Top of the World was my favorite from this one, and had that perfect time capsule “what did Eddie sound like” riff.
You could call this the weakest Sammy effort, but listen to these two songs for Eddie’s brilliance. Amsterdam and Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do), with the latter sounding nothing like the title. Amsterdam-old Roth sound in 1995.
(I stopped here, as it was a lot of retread after this album)
That is my tour. My sadness will continue for a long time, but I hope that:
- My outlet was enjoyable to read as it was to write.
- You might go back and Google some of the masterpieces above and escalate your Eddie knowledge.
This is all coming from a guy who has played piano his entire life and just got started on guitar during the pandemic grounding. But, whatever instrument you play, genius can not be ignored. Eddie is gone, but what he has done for guitar and music is transcendent. Everyone will be compared to him. Everyone will remember his magic. Everyone will try and BE him, which they will totally fail at achieving. And, to add insult to injury to cocky guitarists across the globe, he was such a cool, humble, down to earth dude. In the words of your own cover, Eddie, Happy Trails to you, sir.
If a gun is put to my head, then this is my on the fly ranking of VH songs. It will change as I sleep, it will change tomorrow, and it will change a year from now. But, It was fun TRYING, just like the Seinfeld list.
- Summer Nights
- Cabo Wabo
- Runnin’ With The Devil
- I’ll Wait
- In a Simple Rhyme
- Ice Cream Man
- Finish What Ya Started
- Top of the World
- Top Jimmy
- Right Now
- Best Of Both Worlds
- Source of Infection
- Jamie’s Cryin’
- Love Walks In
- Mean Streets
- Mine All Mine
- Dance The Night Away
- When It’s Love
- About 25 more VH songs