R.I.P., Eddie Van Halen

Yesterday, after I heard the news of Eddie Van Halen’s untimely passing at the age of 65, I strapped on my rollerblades and skated for almost an hour, listening on shuffle to all the Van Halen music on my iPhone. I needed to be alone with the music.  

Almost all of their music is on there, because Van Halen is a band I’ve loved since I was 11 and first heard “Jump.” It was EVH’s keyboards that loured the world to that song and hooked everyone in, but it was the guitar solo that blew my mind. Seeing him with his red, black and white “Frankenstrat” guitar, jumping around, smiling huge while he played impossible solos, is one of the reasons I would pick up a guitar for the first time a few years later. And I’ve never put it down. And I’ve never stopped playing “Panama” on it.

I don’t often wish I was older, but I do wish I was old enough to have been, say, 15, when Van Halen’s first album blew the minds of rock fans everywhere. I want the experience of hearing “Eruption,” his signature instrumental explosion of rock lava, when everyone else heard it for the first time, before I was listening to ‘80s hair metal guitarists doing their best and failing to come anywhere close to its greatness. “Eruption” was alien. It was so inventive and energetic, unlike anything anyone had heard before. Probably the most unique guitar playing anyone had heard since Jimi Hendrix died about eight years earlier.

“Energy” is the best word I have to describe EVH’s sound. When I listen to “Unchained” or “Panama” or “Hot for Teacher,” or almost anything in their songbook, I feel like there’s this energizing hurricane of guitar blowing over me, all thanks to his unique tone, style and skills.

When I think about Van Halen’s role in “my shuffled life,” I think about this:

“D.O.A.”: From their second album, this song was never released as a single and I’d never heard it until the mid-‘90s, when I asked for a bunch of early Van Halen CDs for Christmas. I couldn’t believe this amazing riff was buried on an album track.

“Unchained”: Every time I hear that opening guitar riff, I get chills. I was too young to have been aware of this song when it was released, in 1981. But it was bedtime in my teens, when I’d lay listening to the radio on my Walkman because I couldn’t get to sleep, when I first heard it. This is that hurricane of guitar I was talking about earlier.

“Panama”: I’ve long said this is my favourite Van Halen song, but lately I’ve wondered if it’s actually “Unchained.” Either way, they both bowl you over with raw rock energy. And the solo in this one absolutely slays. It starts off almost sounding like a Chuck Berry solo, then leaves the stratosphere, then quiets down into Diamond Dave’s little chat about stuff happening between his legs.

“Jump”: It was one of my family’s “Florida songs,” on what I believe is the only mix tape my dad ever made, alongside Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and Blondie’s “The Tide is High.”

“Why Can’t This Be Love”: Another keyboards-first song, it’s one of those “love songs” that came out when I was developing my first crushes, so it brings back that “lovesick puppy” feeling. Also, I remember watching a concert from this era on Much Music, scrambled with all the lines through it because at the time Much was not on basic cable. Some of you will have no idea what “scrambled” means.

“Poundcake”: This song takes me right back to the summer of 1991, driving up to Newmarket to visit my childhood best friend, Shane, to play tennis and goof around.

“Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)”: For my money, this is one of the most underrated Van Halen songs of all time. Maybe THE most underrated. The verse riff is so simple, yet dramatic. I love that he was known for playing at the speed of light, but he knew when to slow it down for effect. And then the guitar solos. There are two of them and it’s maybe some of the most emotional work he’s ever done. I don’t know how to phrase that in an objective way, other than it’s all in the structure, how they build, and it’s in the artfully bent notes. Especially that second solo, which resolves back into that awesomely chunky riff.

“Amsterdam”: It’s a simple memory. I just remember being in a class at university and I was reading a guitar magazine before class with EVH on the cover, and this guy I didn’t really know started talking to me about how great “Amsterdam” and the Balance album were.

“Fire in the Hole”: I was floored when I heard the singer from one of my all-time favourite bands, Gary Cherone of Extreme, had been tapped to take over lead singer duties with Van Halen in the late ‘90s. The album was a disappointment to many, but there’s some great guitar playing on songs like this, and it was fun to hear Gary belting out alongside that EVH riffage.

“Outta Space”: This is from their last album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth. The tone and guitar playing on this song wouldn’t sound out of place on their early albums. I was so happy to hear how vital his playing still sounded on this album.

I finally saw Van Halen for the first time during their last tour, back with David Lee Roth promoting their last album. While it did make me wish I’d seen them in their prime, I was also impressed by their energy at that age. I think rock and roll keeps you young. And I was also sitting there feeling enormously grateful. I remember thinking this, astonished by my good fortune: “I’m in the same room while Eddie Van Halen is playing the riff in ‘Unchained.’” Every rock fan was lucky to be alive while he was.

R.I.P., E.V.H.

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