Eddie Van Halen – guitarist
Born January 26, 1955; died October 6, 2020
Eddie Van Halen, who has died of throat cancer aged 65, was a virtuoso guitarist, whose flamboyant, restless style and grinning demeanour gave what came to be known as hair metal an image that in part defined 1980s rock and roll largesse. His fast-fingered style and innovative two-handed ‘tapping’ technique of playing the neck of his guitar was thrilling enough to watch even without Van Halen’s good-humoured showiness. An accompanying hedonistic lifestyle added a thrusting swagger to music tailor-made for hormonal adolescents who could now gawp at their rock star heroes goofing it up on MTV while emulating their excesses with similarly juvenile abandon.
Arriving in a late 1970s post-punk climate, Van Halen the band exploded onto an otherwise bleak looking landscape like the sonic embodiment of a hotel room being wrecked, something Van Halen and his band mates weren’t shy of indulging in. For all his ability for showboating bombast, Van Halen’s music largely put melody to the fore. Solos were brief, even on stand-alone works such as Eruption. This short instrumental sounded like fireworks shooting out from the band’s self-titled 1978 debut album, before segueing into a cover of The Kinks’ You Really Got Me. Elsewhere, air-punching interludes punctuated an over-riding cocksure machismo.
Van Halen played both guitar and synthesiser on anthemic 1983 single, Jump, which hit commercial paydirt on both sides of the Atlantic. Beyond the song’s triumphalist construction, its more subtle depths were mined by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, who would introduce his more nuanced rendition as an American folk song.
Coming to the fore in an era when musical tribes kept their distance from each other, Van Halen wasn’t shy of jumping musical barricades. His 37 second guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit, Beat It, gave the song’s metal funk hybrid extra bite. Van Halen went on to work with Brian May of Queen, and LL Cool J, embossing his unmistakably frenetic imprimatur on everything he touched.
Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born in Amsterdam, the younger of two sons to Jan van Halen, a jazz and classical saxophonist and clarinet player, and Eugenia van Beers. The family moved to the United States in 1962, settling in Pasadena, California, where Jan worked as a janitor and Eugenia as a maid. Van Halen and his older brother by two years, Alex, learned piano from the age of six. Eddie would improvise around compositions by Bach and Mozart, and won competitions for his interpretations, which he played by ear.
Eddie initially moved from piano to drums, with Alex first picking up a guitar first before the pair swapped instruments after Alex played the relentless drum patterns to The Surfaris instrumental, Wipe Out. The brothers formed their first band, The Broken Combs, in 1964 while still at school, later changing the name to The Trojan Rubber Co. The roots of what became Van Halen was formed in 1972 as Genesis, and then Mammoth, before vocalist David Lee Roth suggested they work with the brothers’ family name.
By this time, Van Halen was looking to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton’s work with Cream for inspiration. His hyperactive personality channelled this into something infinitely more gleefully athletic. Working the clubs in Los Angeles, the nascent Van Halen were spotted by Gene Simmons of Kiss, who admired the band’s attitude as much as their music, and produced a demo.
Van Halen were eventually signed to Warner Brothers, with their speedily recorded debut breaking through the New Wave/Disco dominance of the charts. The band’s pop-metal sensibilities hit the mainstream, and they went on to sell more than 80 million records. With Roth departing shortly after the release of the world-domination of the 1984 album, Sammy Hagar was drafted in as vocalist, and the band scaled even bigger heights, before he too left the band in 1996. A third frontman, Gary Cherone, joined the band prior to assorted reunions with Roth and Hagar.
Van Halen’s excesses took their toll. He had begun drinking and smoking aged twelve, initially to take the edge off pre-performance nerves, and his intake had grown with the band. In 2001, he parted from Valerie Bertinelli, who he wed in 1981, and they divorced in 2005. He had hip replacement therapy in 1999, and a year later was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. Van Halen speculated this was caused by years of holding guitar picks in his mouth, but was given the all clear in 2002 after having a third of his tongue removed.
Assorted comeback tours followed, with Van Halen and Bertinelli’s son Wolfgang joining the band on bass, replacing the departed Michael Anthony. Van Halen and his second wife, Janie Liszewski, married in 2008, the same year he cleaned up his act enough to announce he was sober. The first Van Halen album for fourteen years, A Different Kind of Truth, was released in 2012, with Roth back on board after 28 years.
It was revealed in 2019 that Van Halen had been suffering with throat cancer over the previous five years. His glory days with the band may have been behind him, but the stadium-sized revolution Van Halen kick-started remains as loud as it was in its 1980s heyday.
He is survived by his wife, Janie Liszewski, his son Wolfgang, and his brother, Alex.
The Herald, October 12th 2020