This was a tough one.
At a formative time in my life, Edward Van Halen went out of his way to befriend me, show me guitar techniques, invite me and my dad to his home, show me his recording studio, chat with me about life, and even give me one of his famous striped red guitars.
I was a seventeen year old nobody. He was the world's biggest rock star. It was spring 1986. My dad's band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), was opening for Van Halen on their "5150" tour. I was in high school at the time, but as Dad could never see the point of school when there was rock-and-rolling to be done, he called one day to ask if I wanted to ditch school to fly out and hang with him on the Van Halen tour for a few weeks.
It was the easiest question in human history to answer: Yes, I want to ditch school and go on tour with Van Halen. Just thinking about it felt like a dream. I'd spent most of the past few years trying to learn how to play Edward's guitar parts on "Eruption", "Spanish Fly", "Hot for Teacher", "Ice Cream Man", "Cathedral" (which I played at the church talent show), and dozens of other pieces. And Van Halen was the biggest band in the world at the time; every 20, 30, 40,000 seat date on the tour was sold out. The new album with Sammy was Number One on the Billboard charts. The three singles off the album were either smashes already or on their way.
Even better, this was the eighties—you know, when the world was still fun. There was light. There was laughter. There was big hair and acid-washed denim, just because, dammit. You could still make jokes without a Twitter mob destroying your life forever. You could try a backyard bike stunt without your friend videoing your subsequent crash on his smartphone, then uploading it on to YouTube for your grandchildren to watch fifty years later. Even with its occasional dips, the Reagan economy boomed along. Girls were still mostly cheerful and cute and sexy; they weren't the lost, hard, paranoid, alternately self-loathing/self-worshipping communist nihilists they are now. It was clear even then—not just in retrospect—the world was in a pretty fun phase. Hell yeah, I wanted to go.
And of course, Van Halen was the funnest rock band in the entire pretty fun world. They might even have invented Hard Rock Fun. It's hard to describe now how different their 1978 debut album, Van Halen, sounded from everything else at the time. It contained not a single morose, Black Sabbath-style rumination on the world; nothing like the spiritual introspection you found on Kansas records; none of the faux-gothic horror of KISS or Alice Cooper; no Led Zeppelin-style mysticism; no inclination toward baroque studio productions à la Boston, Queen, or The Eagles; no Journey-esque romantic ballads.
No, the debut Van Halen album was something new altogether: a sonic photograph of four hyperactive, girl-crazy, man-boys throwing a California beach party on musical instruments, laughing themselves silly the entire time, the end. There were no grimaces there; no sooner did Van Halen appear than the dour, pained expressions of every other rocker out there looked ridiculous. In every video you ever saw of the new band from Pasadena, they were always smiling, leaping about, and having a whale of a time. Even the "serious" songs weren't really serious; they were fake serious songs. Participating in the occasional mock seriousness was itself part of the fun.
That vibe came from all four guys in the band. Van Halen's singer was a loud, tall, blond, long-haired, muscle-bound Alpha Jew named David Lee Roth whose song lyrics combined Borscht-Belt wisecracks with unapologetic prurience, Tin Pan Alley lyrical tricks, and sarcasm. His onstage performances combined flurries of martial arts kicks with Al Jolson-style ham, tongue-in-cheek rockstar braggadocio, open-chested tops, boas, leather pants, and between-song comic patter which sounded like a cross between Don Rickles and Richard Pryor.
Edward's older brother, Alex, played drums, making up with wild enthusiasm what he lacked in finesse. The bassist, Michael Anthony, was a perpetually amiable chap happy to be in the band, and a great backup singer.
And then, there was young Edward, only 22 at the time the debut album came out, but instantly recognized as a world-changer. Rock guitar playing would never be the same after that record, especially given its second song.
Entitled "Eruption", the piece featured one minute and forty two seconds of scorching, extra-terrestrial guitar virtuosity displaying some of the unique guitar techniques the wunderkind had developed over the previous few years: vibrato arm dives; classically-influenced melodic bursts; spectacular speed; pinch harmonics; tap harmonics; and most strikingly of all, a two-handed finger tapping technique which more than anything else would make him famous (Edward explains how it's done in a 2015 piece here).
Over the next eight years, the hits kept coming, all driven by Edward's constantly evolving guitar playing: "Dance the Night Away", "So This Is Love", "Hot for Teacher", "Panama", "Beautiful Girls", "Mean Streets", a cover of "You Really Got Me", and the synth-pop departure, "Jump", and more...until finally, singer David Lee Roth left the band in 1985, and my dad's old chum, Sammy Hagar, replaced him.
And after he did, he called Dad and asked him (actually, BTO) to be the opening act on their new tour. And that's how I wound up, as a seventeen year old aspiring guitarist, touring for a few weeks with the biggest rock band on earth, which just happened to feature one of my guitar heroes.
Dad introduced me to the guys as soon as I arrived. Sammy was friendly as always (I'd met him a few years earlier when he'd come over to songwrite with my dad). But the other guys were just as chummy. They were all exactly as they'd seemed on the videos: it was a laugh a minute, with zero airs or attitude. Alex in particular was funny. He'd married a very nice girl a couple of years earlier who came out to visit while I was on the tour. She was a total smokeshow, and yet Alex relentlessly told marriage/wife jokes as though he were chained to some monstrous, life-destroying battle axe—each joke more hilariously horrible than the one before.
But it was Edward I really hit it off with (by the way, everyone in the band and crew always called him Ed or Edward, never "Eddie", which is why I never did, either). It never crossed my mind we might hit it off, but it felt completely normal. We would wind up backstage, or in one of the dressing rooms, chatting almost every day about something or other: guitars, the tour, how he played something or other on one of the records, etc. It was like hanging around with an uncle.
And every night, when the three other guys would slip offstage to let Edward do his extended guitar solo, I would walk into the barricade area to watch from right in front of the stage. Often he sat on the edge of the stage during this segment, so I would be literally inches away from him. Most nights, I could have reached out and strummed his guitar while he was playing, and it was really something to see up close what, from afar, looked like unfathomable witchcraft.
We ended up friendly enough that when we finally rolled into LA, Ed invited Dad and me up to his house in Coldwater Canyon to show us his new studio. I expected something like I'd seen from my dad a decade earlier when BTO was on top (and before divorce wiped out all his wealth): total rock star excess, with a giant mansion and giant studio. As it was, Edward's set-up was much like the man himself: surprisingly modest.
I could mention many more things, but I'll end with this: my most enduring memory is from a night in Wisconsin. Edward and Alex's father Jan passed away on the tour (he played clarinet on Van Halen's "Big Bad Bill"), and the brothers flew back to LA for the funeral. The night they returned, Edward and I fell into conversation in his dressing room. He wound up speaking so openly about his dad, and about some of the things he wanted to change in his life, that I'll never think of that conversation without feeling moved, and without feeling a kind of wonder that it happened at all, even though it seemed natural at the time.
The day after was my last day on the tour. I approached Ed during soundcheck to thank him and say goodbye, when to my shock, he brought me up to the stage and asked his guitar roadie, Zeke, to grab one of his stage guitars...which he then signed and gave to me as a present. I was stunned and didn't know what to do in return, so I gave him the grey fedora I always wore at the time.
Over the ensuing years and decades, folks in the Van Halen camp sometimes reported Edward had grown difficult to deal with. And maybe he did.
But my own experience, all those years ago, wasn't like that at all. I spent three weeks hanging around the guy, and he was awesome.
For some reason—maybe because I've bumped into Sammy a couple of times since—I always thought I'd bump into Ed again one day, too. I was only ever a guy or two away. But now, Death has taken him, and he is gone. Thankfully, I still have the memories of my time with him and Dad on that tour, and we still have all the tunes, but...
...this one was a tough one.
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