By: Jesse Striewski
It’s easy to throw out cliche phrases like “legend” or “pioneer” when talking about the loss of a fallen rock hero. But few have come and gone that have been more deserving of such terms than Eddie Van Halen. And while it’s not always easy to put into words exactly why we grieve so much for a person we may have never even met, I can only do the best I can to try to explain how and why the loss of a titan like Eddie Van Halen and his music effected us all so deeply and personally, while remembering the life of a man who forever changed the face of rock music as we know it.
Van Halen were originally formed in Pasadena, CA in 1972 by classically trained Dutch brothers Alex and Eddie Van Halen, who added high school friend Mark Stone (who ironically passed away last month as well, just days before Eddie) on bass, and eventually vocalist David Lee Roth. Originally calling themselves both Genesis and Mammoth before settling on the name Van Halen in 1974, the “classic” lineup was finally solidified by the addition of bassist Michael Anthony.
In 1976, shortly after seeing them perform, KISS mastermind Gene Simmons produced the band’s first demo recording and rallied for a record deal for the group. Despite little coming from Simmons’ assistance, it didn’t take long for the band to land a deal with Warner Bros. and release their massive self-titled debut album by 1978, quickly becoming apparent this new act would soon dominate the rock world, led by this “new” guitarist, who almost instantly earned the rightful title of “guitar god.”
By the time I came into this world in 1981, Van Halen were already on their fourth album, and I had four older siblings to each introduce me to various bands, including Van Halen. My oldest sister, Tammy, owned a copy of the band’s 1982 effort Diver Down that was in our collection of vinyl records right alongside to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Journey’s Escape (and I still own each one of these to this very day). These early albums all left permanent imprints on me, and instilled a lifelong association between music, and historical moments in my own life.
More albums from the band’s catalogue were soon to make it into my collection; a cassette copy of 1984 (where Eddie re-invented the wheel again by incorporating synth in the band’s sound) was gifted to me as a birthday present one year from my grandmother, Mary (R.I.P.). A hand-me-down tape of 5150, the band’s first effort with frontman Sammy Hagar from 1986, was given to me by another older sister of mine, Wendy. And when it was still their “new” album, 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge became the first album on CD format I ever bought. Again, I still own each and everyone of these to this day.
By the time I took up playing bass around the age of 14, several of the band’s tracks became standard practice for me (what bassist didn’t start off honing their craft by playing “Runnin’ with the Devil” endlessly?!). And even though I was not a guitarist like Eddie, his dedication to being the best rubbed off on me, and I began taking practicing more seriously than school work itself (I even briefly took bass lessons from a guy named Ken who was the biggest Van Halen fan I have ever met).
Then, years later, I was a single father by the time Christmas of 2007 rolled around. My father Terry surprised me with two tickets to see Van Halen at the old Amway Center in Orlando that following February, on their first tour with singer David Lee Roth since 1985. It was honestly one of the best things I have ever been gifted, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to share my other ticket with then my big sis who started me on this journey to begin with, Tammy.
I remember that 2008 concert like it was yesterday; we arrived fashionably late, and I could hear the sounds of “I’m the One” echoing from inside the arena as we approached the front gates. From then on, it was a night full of not only the usual expected classics, but many favorites like “Little Dreamer,” “I’ll Wait,” and “Atomic Punk” also found their way in the set. And although I was initially disappointed that longtime bassist Michael Anthony was not included on this tour, it gave me a certain hope seeing Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen playing alongside his father on stage. But most importantly, witnessing Eddie play his solo that night was unmatched by any guitarist I have seen live before, or since.
By the time the band released their first new album (and what would ultimately prove to be their last) for some time, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, I had already been a freelance music journalist for a number of years. I gave the album a mediocre review in a local, now-defunct magazine at the time, and in hindsight, I’d rather have a dozen less-than-stellar Van Halen albums albums than none at all.
I was standing in the middle of a store with my wife and son when I looked down at my phone this past Tuesday afternoon and learned that Eddie had passed away. It was a time-stopping moment that hit as hard as though someone in my own family had actually died. The music of Van Halen was deeply engrained in me at an early age as much as anything from The Beatles or The Rolling Stones had been, and realizing that we’re now living in a world without Eddie Van Halen still in it was a heartbreaking revelation. But Eddie will never really be gone. He created a legacy that will truly live on for generations to come; how lucky we all were to be able to walk the Earth as the same time as him, even if only for a short time.