© Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

In Memory of Eddie Van Halen

Why the legendary guitarist’s music will live forever

Edward — who gave his name to the band he led with his drummer brother Alex — may have been best known for the blazing guitar solos that coloured dreary heavy metal iridescent, but at heart he was a songsmith who served up four-minute pop treats to the tune of 50 million albums sold worldwide.

That number does not include the approximately 70 million also sold of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, on which Edward contributed a solo to Beat It that in 30 dazzling seconds changed the course of music history, propelling the youngest of the Jackson 5 into rotation on a conspicuously pale-faced MTV. Released a year after Thriller, only Jackson’s album kept Van Halen’s own 1984 from the top of the U.S. charts, although its lead single, the effervescent Jump, did spend five weeks at number one.

Jump was Van Halen at its zenith: a highly accessible but stunningly multi-layered synth cut that Edward had written at his home in 1982, his cat Edgar on his lap. Also with him in the moment was his wife, Valerie, of TV’s One Day At A Time, who in 1980 had been as struck by his babyface charm as those who voted him a cut above the rest in rhetorical guitar magazine polls.

The music on 1984 was a turn in a different direction for the band, marked by Edward taking the control of the recording to his makeshift home studio. Whereas previous albums had exploded off the turntable due to their summertide pyrotechnics (1978’s Van Halen) or ominous swagger (1981’s Fair Warning), 1984 also delivered a second keyboard-led single, the deliciously rhythmic I’ll Wait, much to the chagrin of charismatic lead singer David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman. The track had so bamboozled the didactic, loquacious Roth that the lyrics and vocal melody had to be written by an outsider, the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald, for the one and only time in Van Halen history.

Edward’s defiance of Roth and Templeman in part led to the former’s departure from the band in 1985, but with the endlessly eager and vocally boundless Sammy Hagar stepping up to the microphone, a year later Van Halen secured their first number one album, 5150, the term alluding to the Los Angeles police code for a “mentally disturbed person”.

The protocol of Edward writing the music and Hagar thereafter penning words and melodies remained unchanged, but despite neither Roth nor Templeman being around to attempt to dissuade him from his instincts, Edward still rebelled from within the confines of his “guitar hero” status, developing keyboard hits such as “Why Can’t This Be Love”, “Dreams”, “Love Walks In”, and “When It’s Love” for 5150 and its successor, OU812. As grunge slammed its fist on rock’s door, 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was a return to a quintessential guitar album, even though its most impressive single, the mature Right Now, witnessed Edward in front of a grand piano instead of an Oberheim OB-Xa.

At three for three in number one albums alongside Hagar, the concluding track, the whimsical Top Of The World, could easily have signified the group’s status as independent of the broader landscape below.

In interviews, the band was fond of saying that each album was autobiographical of the period in which it was written. Easily dismissed as simply borrowing from the grunge of its time, 1995’s Balance was thus a deeper, more introspective record that, with some guilt, confessed to Edward’s reliance on alcohol and drugs. Indeed, the surprisingly shy musician had recently shaved his head in a desperate act of incredulity at his own inability to kick his addictions. The album’s first single, the crunching Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do), was not written about Kurt Cobain, but was overtly applicable to the depression that led to his suicide. Crossing Over, a harrowing B-side that concluded the Japanese release of the album, was a song resurrected a decade after it was demoed, when the band lost its dear friend and manager, Ed Leffler, to cancer.

Hagar left the group in 1996 in a whirlwind of personal and creative acrimony and, as a songwriter, somehow proved more difficult to replace than Roth had been 11 years earlier. After a brief dalliance with “Diamond Dave” that twice explored the depths of his fading register, the full-throated Gary Cherone, previously of Extreme, was valiant in his attempt to fill the void. However, when 1998’s Van Halen III attempted emotional pull, it merely pushed listeners over the edge, especially when Edward sang a discomfiting lead vocal on the tearfully pathetic How Many Say I. The exile of bassist and key background singer Michael Anthony, now considered too closely associated with Hagar, contributed to an album so poorly received that it has since been removed from Van Halen’s official discography.

No doubt hurt by the blunt response, for nearly 15 years thereafter Edward’s desire to write and record was supplanted by his love of building guitars. The skill and passion of his son, Wolfgang, was intrinsic to getting him to record once again, for a 2012 A Different Kind Of Truth album that re-worked old, previously bootlegged demos into a blaze of molten nostalgia. Backed up by contemporary classics like You And Your Blues, stellar tracks such as the soaring She’s The Woman, the frenetic Outta Space, and the enduring Big River proved that, even if you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the old tricks are better anyway.

The album sold well over half-a-million copies and allowed the band to tour twice, in 2012 and 2015.

On those tours, Wolfgang Van Halen replaced Michael Anthony on bass, meaning that, despite tentative plans for 2019, the original members of Van Halen never did get to reunite on stage. The Van Halen name will live on, however, as Wolfgang’s own album will be released as soon as social restrictions allow him to perform it live for an audience.

The 29-year-old was named by Edward after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the virtuoso composer of the 18th century. Over 200 years apart, it’s fascinating to note that Edward and Mozart shared much of the same life in music.

“You know that I plunged myself into music, so to speak — that I think about it all day long,” Mozart wrote to his own father in 1778. “That I like experimenting, studying, reflecting.”

A fellow trailblazer, Edward Van Halen leaves us having enriched rock ’n’ roll as much as Mozart did the Classical Period.

We will still be in awe of his technical brilliance, and delighting in the genius of his melodies, in a future of which we cannot yet conceive.

Editor specialising in soccer, MMA, pro wrestling & classic rock. BYLINES: Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports. EMAIL: brian(at)hardcopy(dot)ie.

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