In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen
Turned out the simple life, weren’t so simple
When I got out on that road. (Van Halen 1978).
In his Smithsonian Institution interview, Van Halen spoke of the immigrant story, of a family thrown into an alien world, back in 1962 when the to-be-virtuoso guitarist was a mere seven years old. Not speaking English was the greatest barrier at first, but there would be others. A study in contrasts that nevertheless ended up making eminent sense, Van Halen’s life was defined at the outset as an American dream; unlikely, hard-working, persistent, celebrated, resented, and ultimately cut short by the perennially pallid penury of professional entertainment. He spoke of their debut album, which went on to sell more than ten million copies and usher in a new kind of popular music that blended the angst of punk and the romance of the dance floor, as being the beginning of experience, of lost innocence: ‘we cut a best-selling album, went on a sold-out tour for a year, and when we got back the record company told me, congratulations, you owe us a new album and three million dollars.’
No life can be said to be simple, no matter what it might look like from without. A musical hero, however brilliant and with an impulsive and improvisatory genius however breathtaking, remains human. And yet that is what I always felt was so compelling about Van Halen’s guitar playing; its resonant humanity. Hendrix was god-like, and one could be forgiven if one imagined that he was something more than human. Howe is distant, unforgiving, beautiful in the way great art is and yet oddly removed from the heart of things. Clapton guttural and bitter, abrasive and sometimes even smug. McLaughlin a single strike through the conscience of consciousness, transporting the listener quite literally to ‘visions beyond’. Metheny cool, even chill, the perfection of a sculptor who renders his music as if it could retain its sonic solidity indefinitely. Of all the virtuosos that come easily to mind, only Eric Johnson, like Van Halen, comes across as a great human being first, his humanity guiding the music and creating an over-souled bond with the listener.
But Van Halen’s perfection came in the midst of mayhem, banality, and a musical form that would not, at first glance, be a likely birthplace for virtuoso genius. Compared with the other great electric players in the above paragraph, Van Halen as a band was the bread and butter, meat and potatoes variety of music. This too made Edward Van Halen stand out without forcing him to stand apart. Millions showed to see him first, as the feature, the lead, the hero, the star. In the most unlikely of places we are struck by the exactitude of his solos – perhaps the most obvious example would be the utter perfection exhibited in ‘Somebody get me a Doctor’ (1979) wherein we are transfixed by seemingly the only series of notes that could elevate a throw-away song into something we would play over and over again; but there are many others – and if Van Halen as a performing act often came across as rock and roll’s answer to Barnum and Bailey, its bombast always had the good graces to never take itself so seriously as to vanish up its own posterior, as did many – if not all – of the biggest acts previous to them.
I was one of uncounted teenage guitar players fascinated by Van Halen’s technical innovations, attempting to mimic them and feeling inordinately proud when I even came close. And though we are aware that both Hendrix and Hackett regularly used the right-handed ‘hammer-on’ move, for instance, it was Van Halen who perfected it and let it transform the guitar into a broader musical palette. His instrument was inseparable from his person, prefiguring the relations of production in the as yet mythical communism of Marx and Engels, when they speak of the ‘authenticity of the product of labor’. In this too Van Halen was a visionary, and the intriguing mix of juvenilia and critical politics to be found in the actual song-writing of the band is suggestive of a manner of speaking to youth of the difference between things that matter now and those that matter for all time, of some things that matter as much to a mature human life as we as young people might imagine does romance, sex, relationships, money and fame. The band and its blueprint appear to be an essay in confrontation, but by now, after long having the entirety of their catalogue within easy grasp, the whole of what Van Halen was really about appears without such blur.
And what this whole is, is a kind of freedom from needless and mindless restraint, rule, form and norm. It isn’t simple, just as a human life can never be. To attain a sense of one’s life is to have the courage to get past what has been the past, something that Van Halen never ceased to accomplish. This is the greater freedom of historical being; that history is not yet done. It is a freedom that celebrates its true cause by singing the praises of its passing effects. A freedom that speaks to each generation when it is most receptive of listening, but one which also hopes that in a more sober stage of existence all of us will begin to heed its call and take life itself to be the open and powerful instrument of popular art that Edward Van Halen took to be his own.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.