Edward Van Halen (1955–2020)

October 14th, 2020

I HAVE A FOND MEMORY of sitting on our ratty red velvet couch—or rather, on the small rug that covered the gaping hole in said couch, into which one might fall ass-backwards and not be able to exit without assistance—and earnestly explaining to my parents why Van Halen’s 1984 “Jump” was such a fucking masterpiece. It had something to do with the fact that Eddie Van Halen had introduced the synthesizer into hard rock—something that had never been done before*—or at least so I (thought I) had read. I was actually in the process of hearing this classic for the very first time, via our newly subscribed-to MTV, when I decided to enlighten my poor, ignorant parents as to just how amazing and groundbreaking the song was. As a result, I was really only visually—and barely—able to take in David Lee Roth crawling depravedly about the stage and the fact that Eddie Van Halen seemed to be some sort of elderly man wearing a too-large, banana-yellow, zebra-print jacket. He might as well have been wearing his glasses around his neck on a chain and leaning on a Zimmer frame. I mean he had to be at least twenty.

Turns out he was probably twenty-nine, as I learned when he died last week at the age of sixty-five, presumably (and hopefully) borne aloft to heaven on the wanking strains of 1978’s “Eruption”—though likely not as played by Jack White, who declined to tear through that or any other Van Halen classic on Saturday Night Live, on which he was guesting as a last-minute replacement for a country artist seen masklessly kissing coeds on TikTok the previous week. WWEVHD? What would Eddie Van Halen do? Who knows, but White wisely took the high road. “I won’t insult the man’s talent by trying to play one of his songs tonight,” he said before the performance, instead tapping a few licks in the shredder’s signature style on his custom blue EVH Wolfgang near the end of one of his own compositions. White, by the way, is a man unafraid to cut heads with JIMMY PAGE OF LED ZEPPELIN. What better tribute to your skills than to have the guy refuse to play your songs in public? If I were Eddie Van Halen I would be ripping off my banana-yellow, zebra-print jacket in joy.

As anyone who’s ever held a guitar, a blunt, or a shit-paying entry-level job knows, Van Halen was a genius. A phantasmagorical guitar player and a fiery dynamo continuously (and often shirtlessly) emitting liquid hot solos, crackling arpeggios, and memorable, incendiary riffs in the service of partyful hard rock (cue Michael Anthony wielding Jack Daniels–shaped bass), he was also an inventor. Among the devices he built was his iconic spray-painted “Frankenstein” guitar which he made by fusing Gibson and Fender parts with other, less standard objects, including duct tape and spare change. In 1985, he patented a device that would allow a guitar to rest on his standing body without the aid of his hands, leaving him free to deploy the tapping technique that he popularized and that has become synonymous with his oeuvre. Even in his decline he continued to innovate: mid-period Van Halen vocalist Sammy Hagar averred that the guitarist claimed to have had “pieces of his tongue liquefied and injected into his body” as part of his fight against the cancer that ultimately killed him, and that Van Halen had told him he’d “stayed awake” through a hip operation and “helped the doctor drill the hole.”

In the past few days, fans have launched a campaign to light New York’s Empire State Building red and white in his honor, created a video game segment in which pirates perform a slightly tropical-tinged and totally awful version of “Jump,” and relabeled a Brooklyn subway stop Van Halen Avenue. Tributes have appeared across all realms of social media and in established publications from the New Yorker to the National Review, Al Jazeera to Stars and Stripes, Vanity Fair to Car and Driver. It’s hard to get people to agree on much these days, but it seems pretty much everyone misses Eddie Van Halen.

Polly Watson is a musician, editor, and writer based in New York.

*This was and remains patently untrue.