Thoughts on Eddie Van Halen
By: Ric Hickey
“Eruption”, Edward Van Halen’s signature, was actually the first thing I ever heard by Van Halen, as WEBN had their debut LP in heavy rotation right out of the gate. I was 11 years old and already learning to play along with my KISS & AC/DC records. But this was mind-blowing and unprecedented. Joe Whiles’s sister Robin loaned me the album and I recorded it on a Certron C-90 cassette – 3 for 99 cents from K-Mart. I wore that tape out in like a month it seemed like, so I went and bought a copy of the LP and proceeded to wear out the groove on that too. Van Halen dropped right out of the clear blue sky and made ALL that came before it sound so stiff and dated. And of course, the party had just begun…
Van Halen II sounded like it was recorded in an afternoon & somebody forgot to turn up the bass. But on stage, this band unleashed pure fire the likes of which had never been seen or heard before. Their performances teetering on the brink of drunken chaos and cocaine collapse at all times, they always held it together. Already headlining arenas after releasing their 2nd album.
Family friend Todd Pierce lived around the corner from me where I grew up. His girlfriend Andrea had purchased the 3rd Van Halen LP, Women And Children First, but hated it. Todd told her I liked the band so she called and offered to give me the record if I wanted it. I think I ran all the way to their house.
By 1981 Van Halen was firmly entrenched as my favorite band and I spent countless hours trying to learn how to play along with their first three records. The band made a tremendous leap forward with their 4th LP, Fair Warning, featuring layers of Edward’s mind-boggling guitar overdubs for the first time. This will always be my favorite Van Halen album. In addition to the usual party rock anthems, Fair Warning veered into darker territory both sonically and lyrically. My friends and I sat through hours of Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo bullshit just waiting for MTV to play one of the three live clips the band released to promote the new album. I’m assuming the whole June 12, 1981 Oakland show was filmed, but to this day only three tracks have ever been seen by the public.
It was only in retrospect that anyone ever considered Diver Down to be a divisive record in the Van Halen catalog. I was 15 years old in 1982 and as far as I was concerned the band could do no wrong. Sure, the album was heavy on cover tunes, and the band was already in the routine of releasing albums that barely ran over half an hour. (Diver Down maybe the worst offender, containing barely 20 minutes of original music.) But still, they somehow managed to soar above the fray, effortlessly, drunkenly even, throwing sparks unlike any other act of that time. They not only made it look easy, but they were also messed up on weed, whiskey, and cocaine when they did it. The Big Hair Metal craze they set the template for was barely underway in ’82. And their live show continued to be light years beyond anything before or since. This band at this moment in time was setting the gold standard for Arena Rock. It’s not likely what they were doing then will ever be surpassed.
I saw Van Halen for the first time when my Dad took me to Riverfront Coliseum on Friday, November 5, 1982. It was a guitar school master class, a religious experience, and the most insane party you can imagine. This Largo show is from just 3 weeks earlier.
Van Halen’s contract for the 1983 US Festival stated that they would receive one million dollars for their performance. The contract also stipulated that no other act would be paid more than Van Halen for their appearance at the festival. So when event organizers signed David Bowie to play for $1.5 million, Van Halen pocketed another $500,000 simply for having that clause in their contract. To this day there are precious few broadcast-quality Van Halen bootlegs in circulation featuring the classic line up. Since this show was recorded for cable television the tape and video have made the rounds for years. Unfortunately, the band was in pretty rough shape for the cameras, with close to a million people in attendance at their largest gig to date. Knowing them as we do, you’d think by this time they’d have it down to a science just how to party all day long and take the stage feeling good but still capable of playing. Clearly, it was singer David Lee Roth who was overserved, with the rumor being that he drank a fifth of Jack Daniels before 10 am on the day of the show. Not on tour at the time, the band came together for this one-off, cash-in performance. So there’s probably a few reasons why they sounded so rickety. Notice how no one seems to mind and the band still puts on an amazing show in spite of themselves. For a band with close to a decade of experience playing BIG backyard parties before they were even signed to a record deal, this was a drunken cakewalk payday.
I didn’t go to a lot of parties in high school and I could probably count on one hand how many I actually attended. It may sound like an overrehearsed airbrushing of my past but it really is true: I was more interested in staying at home and practicing my guitar back then. Unlike a lot of kids I knew at the time, I didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. So parties held little promise for me other than awkwardly standing around a bunch of guys who were much cooler than me and a bunch of girls who I had no idea how to talk to. And I was already doing that Monday through Friday at school. Evenings and weekends were a welcome respite from social awkwardness. But one incident in particular that I do vividly recall and I will take with me to my grave is the night a friend’s band played on the patio at a huge backyard party. Probably 200 kids there. You had to park a few blocks away and walk around the neighborhood, following the sound of the band to find the party. On their set break, the guys in the band asked me if I wanted to play a song with them in the next set. I blurted out, “Hot For Teacher.” If memory serves, there was an awkward pause in the conversation indicating equal measures of disbelief and concern that the band not embarrass themselves if I didn’t actually know how to play the song. Then someone said, “Sure! Let’s open the next set with it.”
I don’t believe I’d ever really performed in front of people before that night. Certainly not a crowd this size. I was nervous. I knew the song. I was ready to play it at a moment’s notice. I had sat on the edge of my bed practicing these licks for countless hours. But this opportunity to play the song with a real live band in front of a crowd of my classmates was completely unforeseen. I knew these guys from school but I had never rehearsed with them. At this point in my young life in fact I had never been to any kind of a band practice before. We would be playing this song together for the very first time in front of hundreds of other teenagers without anything like a rehearsal at all. It must have been the half-gallon of Mountain Dew coursing through my veins that gave me the courage to do it.
I don’t believe we played the song with 100% accuracy but I do think we all surprised ourselves at how close we came. I think it’s fair to say we nailed it. Crooked smirks broke out among the acne on the musicians’ faces as we sailed through the song, which was followed by a roar from the crowd at the song’s conclusion. As a performing musician for almost 40 years now, I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced another moment quite like that one.
I felt bad handing the Stratocaster back to the band’s regular guitarist afterward. Granted, they had invited me to play. But I had taken his guitar, and performed with his band in front of his crowd, throwing gasoline on the fire that was the hottest song of the day at that time. At the very least depriving him of having that moment on stage that he certainly deserved more than I did because the band was putting in the time to learn a ton of material and play out as often as possible. The dude was then and remains to this day a far more talented guitarist than me. I rarely see him anymore but certainly still consider him a friend. It wasn’t personal. But he stared daggers at me as he reclaimed his guitar and his rightful spot on the stage. As the applause died down I disappeared into the crowd, too embarrassed to really talk about what just happened. Misjudging where I’d parked my car I tried to cut through an adjacent cornfield and got lost for over an hour before reemerging at the same party. I sheepishly walked the suburban streets alone until I found my car and drove home, maybe still buzzing just a little from the experience.
For the record, since that night my life has been a lot more like that hour lost in a cornfield than the four minutes of playing that song at the party.
My taste in music and guitar style has evolved over the years. I was already listening to Frank Zappa music at that time and I would soon discover Punk Rock, the Blues, Hank Williams, and lots more. Edward Van Halen certainly wasn’t my first guitar hero. But he was probably the most influential. The humor in his playing, the reckless abandon, and seemingly endless inventiveness on the instrument will forever be a burning inspiration to me. One of a kind. Not of this earth. And now gone from this world. We’ve lost a lot of great musicians in my lifetime. For me, with the possible exception of Frank Zappa, this one cuts the deepest. Truly, there were four incredible musicians in the original lineup of Van Halen, and it was their interpersonal chemistry that made the music great. But it was Edward who put the fire in my veins as a young guitar player. I’ve changed and grown over the years, evolved and matured. (A little, anyway.) But that fire has never gone out. As a musician, I owe him more than words can say.
Producer Ted Templeman, a man who knows a thing or two about music, compared Edward to Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. As outrageous as that may sound, there are some of us who feel it is a bit of an understatement.