As if I didn’t have enough reasons to hate 2020, Tuesday, Oct. 6, brought news which genuinely shook me to my very core. My favorite guitarist of all-time — the legendary Eddie Van Halen — succumbed to cancer at the age of 65.
I had spent the entire day working on The Highlander’s sister newspaper, the Burnet Bulletin, and had not had an opportunity to look at Facebook or glance at any news websites, like MSN.com. My wife Betty actually called me when she heard Eddie had died to let me know what had happened because she knew how upset I would be to hear the news.
To people of my generation — and those who grew up listening to great rock music from the 1970s and 1980s — hearing that EVH had passed is probably akin to when Beatles fans learned from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football in December 1980 that John Lennon had been shot to death by Mark David Chapman. It is on a par with learning of the criminal negligence that led to the stunning 2009 death of Michael Jackson, with whom Eddie collaborated on “Beat It.”
Van Halen has been my favorite band since I was about eight or nine years old and their music served as the soundtrack for my adolescence and early adulthood. I can remember hearing Eddie’s pyrotechnic playing on the instrumental “Eruption” (from the album Van Halen I) for the first time in the late 1970s and feeling like his artistry and brilliance spoke to me. The music genuinely made me feel alive, excited and energized.
Eddie’s musical catalog rivals or exceeds any other artist to have ever picked up a six-string. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has certified every album released by the band from 1977 to 1996 as multi-platinum, with Van Halen I and 1984 achieving Diamond status (more than 10 million units sold).
That includes music from both the David Lee Roth era and the Sammy Hagar era. And, just to get it out of the way, I have never and will never call the latter period “Van Hagar” — a derogatory term used by some alleged “fans” to separate a different musical direction the band took after the change in lead singers.
There is no such band as “Van Hagar,” just like there was never a “Van Roth” or “Van Cherone” when Gary Cherone of Extreme joined them for one album in the late 1990s.
No, the band was named Van Halen for a reason — because it did not revolve around the flamboyant Roth, the “Red Rocker” Hagar, or the journeyman Cherone. It was the synchronicity of the two Dutch-Indonesian brothers, guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex, which drove the engine and made Van Halen a colossal success.
I was on the astroturf at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on a hot summer day in 1988 when Van Halen headlined the Monsters of Rock, which was the final year of the Texxas Jam series. They are the band I have seen them most in concert (followed by three of my other all-time favorites: Def Leppard, Foreigner and Styx).
In August 2015, Betty and I were fortunate enough to go see Van Halen in concert at the Starplex Amphitheatre in Dallas, with VIP tickets that allowed us to be present for soundcheck. We were told that Roth never goes to soundcheck, and that we would not be allowed to film anything at all, but Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang (Eddie’s bassist son) would be present and performing.
As we were led down to the front of the stage, I yelled out a friendly, Texan “Hey Eddie!” The guitar virtuoso looked at me, smiled, and softly said “Hey, man.”
The trio began performing some of the band’s best hits and the 50 or so of us present started to sing along. During the classic “Running With The Devil,” I was belting out the lyrics and, at the top of my lungs, launched into the high notes Roth squeals after singing the words of the chorus. Eddie looked over at me, smiled again and nodded his approval.
It felt Eddie had bestowed his royal favor on me. Little did I know that just five years later, I would be saying farewell to the king as he ascended from his throne to his spiritual reward.
RIP Eddie Van Halen and thank you for the music and the memories. As the song by the Righteous Brothers goes, “if there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, well, you know they’ve got a hell of a band” with EVH on lead guitar.