Van Halen took us ‘higher and higher’
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - For the first time in my life, the death of a celebrity truly impacted me and left me totally bummed. Edward Van Halen - guitar god and innovator, creator of countless hard rock and pop anthems - passed away on Tuesday, Oct. 6, at just 65 years old.
The thought of being saddened over the death of someone you never met or even knew you existed can be laughable to many. But to those truly connected to the sports teams and entertainers we’ve cheered on throughout our collective existence, it really needs no explanation. A piece of your youth dies with that person and the memories and positive emotions he or she created take on new meaning.
This might be blasphemy to some of the old school Van Halen guard but my true love for this band and the musical genius of EVH began in earnest with the band’s 1986 release, “5150.” This, of course, marked one of the biggest transitions and landmark shifts in the history of popular music, as veteran rocker Sammy Hagar took over on vocals for the departed David Lee Roth. Many could argue that the iconic front man Roth was just as famous and worshipped as Eddie at that time and was deemed totally irreplaceable. But the show would certainly go on. It’s my opinion that “5150” has always been the perfect blend of hard rock and melodic pop. You can bang your head to “Get Up,” get goosebumps from “Love Walks In,” or be spiritually elevated by the soaring vocals and composition of “Dreams,” which, to this day, is my favorite Van Halen tune and the one I’ve listened to more than any other. And, of course, lead single “Why Can’t This Be Love” was an instant smash that vaulted the band into Mach Two of its existence, as Van Halen continued to sell millions of albums, cranked out hit single after hit single, and packed arenas with Hagar for the next decade. It’s my humble take that Van Halen’s live version of the title track “5150,” which was captured on that same tour and later featured on the “Live Without A Net” video release could be the pinnacle of Eddie Van Halen’s powers and the Van Hagar incarnation of the lineup - four guys simply having a blast on stage (in very colorful and baggy 80s pants) and Eddie delivering some of the most mindblowing shredding ever, all the while being in perpetual motion, grinning and leaping from all areas of the stage. The top comment on this “5150” YouTube video comes from a man named Rob “Beatdown” Brown, a popular session drummer and a man with 179,000 YouTube subscribers himself - “This video should be a universally recognized, medically recommended cure for depression.”
And that’s a significant part of Eddie Van Halen’s powerful connection to his fans - he just made you feel good. Eddie was always smiling while performing, constantly giving a thumbs up to the tens of thousands who paid money to witness his greatness night after night. He seemed to be conveying the message that we were all equals and in this together during this 2.5-hour party known as a concert - he was just the one lucky enough to be standing beneath the white-hot lights.
But there was nothing lucky about the skill of Edward Van Halen. He was the Michael Jordan of guitarists. While the best mere mortals could execute was a fancy finger roll, Van Halen was leaping from behind the free throw line and soaring to slam the basketball through the hoop. Like LSU and worldwide icon “Pistol” Pete Maravich, he did things so quickly and effortlessly that many awestruck and jealous competitors had no idea what he did or how it could be emulated. And his pinpoint accuracy while executing those incomprehensible, blitzkrieg notes? It was right there with young legend Joe Burrow surgically dismantling defenses on his way to the Heisman Trophy and LSU’s undefeated 2019 college football national championship.
A few more thoughts on the Van Hagar years, because I have always championed that time, while many others have condescendingly dismissed it. To me, it’s never been a crime for hard rockers to also create beautiful, melodic pieces of music - it showcases their versatility and comprehension of scope. It was Eddie Van Halen writing and playing all those wonderful keyboard harmonies on “When It’s Love,” another top five hit with Hagar that might be one of the ultimate power ballads, from “OU812” (1988). The very next track on that album was “AFU,” a pedal to the metal rocker that clearly sent the message that despite the Top 40 friendliness of this new lineup, Van Halen was still here to blow your speakers out. “Finish What You Started” sounded like something you might hear on your favorite country radio station, with Eddie brainstorming something completely outside of the box and consequently delivering a different kind of single that, likewise, soared up the charts.
The next album, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” in 1991 would spawn hits like “Top of the World,” which was the first song that blared over the loudspeakers in Miami as I stood on the field watching the New Orleans Saints celebrate their life-changing victory in Super Bowl 44. That was a bit surreal. And, of course, “Right Now” from that same record might be the most recognizable song from the Sammy period, winning three MTV Music Awards, including “Video of the Year,” in 1992. Whatever sporting event I’m covering, wherever I am, the chances are very strong I’m going to hear Eddie hitting those familiar notes on the piano as the complex arrangement begins, before eventually launching into another inspired and dazzling guitar solo. The emotional chorus hits you right in the face and the lyrics are simple, yet poignant - “Right now. It’s your tomorrow.”
By 1995, the darkness of grunge had already set off an epic earthquake, taking over the musical landscape a few years prior with downtrodden offerings from the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden. At this point, Van Halen was considered passe by many of my college peers. There, likewise, were rising rockers from different, new alternative genres like Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, and yes, Better Than Ezra, who were taking over the radio and local bars. Many of the hard rock giants of the 80s had been wiped out by this point but Van Halen still managed to release its fourth No. 1 album in four tries with Hagar, Balance. “Don’t Tell Me” was an uncharacteristically dark growler from the band (actually inspired by Kurt Cobain’s suicide roughly a year earlier), before the poppy “Can’t Stop Loving You” became Van Halen’s final Top 40 hit to date. I saw VH for the first time ever in March of 1995 at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, as a band called Collective Soul opened the show. It was an awesome night. Eventually, Hagar was out of Van Halen in the summer of 1996 and quite honestly, there were quite a few disappointments over the next 24 years before Eddie’s very unfortunate passing. But for the sake of keeping this tribute as positive as possible, we won’t go down that road. No one is perfect, not even our heroes.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the greatness of the gravity-defying “Diamond” David Lee Roth.
Because I lived on planet Earth, I was already familiar with the album that preceded 5150, the 10-million selling juggernaut, “1984.” You would have to say at this time Van Halen was the biggest band in the world, with its most popular single ever released, the keyboard-driven “Jump,” which stayed at No. 1 on the charts for five straight weeks. With Eddie playing those keys and continuing to perform witchcraft on the guitar, “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” would, likewise, become hard rock staples for an entire generation moving forward. Just this past weekend, I heard all three of the aforementioned songs blasted during the LSU-Missouri football game in Columbia. For the moment, let’s continue to talk about Eddie and not that game. “Where have all the good times gone?” indeed!
Although I was too young to grow up on the initial six Roth albums, including the immaculate first release (which like “1984” has also sold over 10 million units), I would definitely purchase them all and learn my history. The DLR era of Van Halen is, for the most part, a relentless and bombastic attack on your ears and overall senses. It reminds me of Tyrann Mathieu, during the 2011 LSU football season, flying off the edge to knock the football out of the quarterback’s hand or manically weaving his way through an entire sea of men to return a punt for a touchdown. It’s nonstop energy and explosions - an exhilarating and unpredictable rollercoaster ride. The truth is many VH diehards will tell you “Jump” isn’t all that great, while “Unchained,” “Running With The Devil,” “Mean Street,” “Romeo Delight,” “Atomic Punk,” “Light Up The Sky,” and countless other Roth-era bangers are the true essence of the band’s classic lineup.
Fifty years from now, someone somewhere will be arguing over the two legendary singers of Van Halen and who was better - Roth or Hagar. In the end, they were both heavyweight champions of the world and the fact that both were members of this timeless band allowed us all to win. Because of each man’s contributions, a huge, very diverse, and distinct catalog of music was created. And all that music, whether it was the game-changing guitar solo, “Eruption,” that introduced this pioneer to the world in the late 70s or the squealing of a power drill over the axe’s strings in the early 90s with “Poundcake,” began with one Edward Van Halen.
And a quick mention to other important members of this famous fraternity. I certainly should’ve mentioned Ed’s older brother, Alex Van Halen, on the drums and bassist Michael Anthony by now. Alex always brought the thunder and without Anthony’s insane background vocals, Van Halen simply isn’t Van Halen. I will also tell you Gary Cherone is a very talented vocalist and a class act. The Cherone-fronted “Van Halen III” did not live up to typical Van Halen commercial success in 1998 but I don’t really fault him. And although I was never thrilled about Eddie’s son, Wolfgang Van Halen, replacing Anthony on bass during the band’s final years, I’m now actually glad it happened. The virtuoso father and his very talented son got to share those amazing moments together onstage. Who can complain now?
Van Halen became the first musical act ever to release 10 straight multi-platinum albums, meaning each sold two million or more. Twenty-three of its singles have cracked Billboard’s Hot 100. The band has sold 56 million albums in the US alone.
If there’s any positive about a legendary musician passing away, it’s that with his or her death, the music in many ways is reborn. It seems countless people around the globe who once shrugged off that obnoxious, screeching Van Halen (my high school basketball coach once humorously called it “cat music”), are now diving into the legendary albums and epic riffs. I’ve seen teenagers online performing VH tunes with true passion and it’s fantastic. A coworker just shared with me she had no idea Eddie played the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s monstrous single, “Beat It,” in 1983. Because I’m a dork, I also passed along Van Halen not only did it for free as a favor for musical giant, Quincy Jones, it took all of 15 minutes to lay down the iconic work. That’s what you call a true boss move.
To quote my favorite Van Halen creation, “Dreams,” Eddie indeed took us “higher and higher” - songs for pounding beers with buddies, songs for weddings, including his own. In my humble opinion, there will never be another Eddie Van Halen. And the outpouring of respect and heartfelt tributes from the millions of fans and fellow musical superstars from all different genres - Billy Joel, Gene Simmons, Brad Paisley, Lenny Kravitz, Steven Tyler, Keith Urban, Boy George, Billy Idol, Jack White, Kenny Chesney, and Brian Wilson, just to name a few - makes something else abundantly clear.
I wasn’t the only crazy one.
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