Celebrity deaths come and go. You hear the news, pause, then get on with your day. But some passings linger for a few days. Eddie Van Halen’s death is like that for me.
He was 65 and died last week after a long, arduous battle with throat cancer, his son said in a statement. Even rock gods aren’t immune to the ravages of time.
The news sent me digging for my old vinyl albums, and I was surprised to see I have four. Haven’t listened to them in years. No turntable. For a moment I wish I had, just to put on those bulky black Koss headphones and have my eardrums ruptured by Eddie’s blazing guitar.
The first time I heard VH, what fans call the band, I was working Saturday OT at Total Warehouse in Bristol, the old Simon & Shuster distribution center on Radcliffe Street. I was 18, in the union, in jeans and work boots, and punching out most days with some part of my body sore or strained or aching. Good work for a young man.
Weekdays, the boss only permitted us to listen to WMGK, a radio station whose format was flaccid rock, the Carpenters, Air Supply, ABBA. Music even old timers liked.
But Saturdays the boss wasn’t around, and we tuned in WMMR, the Philadelphia rock station. It was 1979, “And the Cradle Will Rock” came on, and I was floored. So was a co-worker, a drummer, who said, “These guys (blanking) rock.”
VH may be old school or even mainstream rock today, but it wasn’t back then. Their sound was different, their attitude cocky, their rock lifestyles famously hedonistic. They became one of those bands deemed “dangerous” before that became a rock cliché.
Critics disliked them. They had anointed Springsteen, a brooding poet poseur, as rock’s future, not Eddie Van Halen (who, unlike Springsteen, actually worked blue-collar jobs before he was famous). Critics respected Bruce for respecting the conventions of his “craft,” his sound dutifully rooted in the bluesy riffs of rock’s elder statesmen, like the sonorous Eric Clapton. But not Van Halen. Eddie could make his guitar screech, growl and howl like no one had before. When it wouldn’t do what he wanted, he made his own guitars, reinventing the instrument. He may be the only rock god with three patents to his name. The music writers of the time were unimpressed.
VH’s lead singer, David Lee Roth, was asked why the critics praised the sound of New Wave performers like Elvis Costello, but panned Van Halen’s. Roth said, “Music critics like Elvis Costello because the look like him.” It’s a comic insult that tickled VH’s fans, but music writers have never really gotten over.
It would be years before Eddie and the band got its due, even as lead singers changed out, the bass player was canned, and Eddie took a 14-year hiatus between albums. The New York Times obit called him “virtuoso,” but he probably was satisfied with “hard working.” Because he was.
Back then, rockers like Eddie Van Halen did not have degrees from Columbia. They worked regular jobs and practiced in their off hours. Eddie once worked painting house numbers on curbs in the unforgiving heat of Southern California. Then he rocked all night. He was just like his fans, and he never forgot that.
“If you want to be a rock star or just be famous, then run down the street naked, you’ll make the news or something,” he told an interviewer. “But if you want music to be your livelihood, then play, play, play and play. And eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.”
Maybe that’s what appealed to so many of us about VH. There was a lot of hard work behind that sound. Eddie, son of a musician whose day job was working as a janitor, really was a regular guy from humble beginnings with a work ethic. He knew precisely the kind of music that kind of guy needed to blow off steam. Raucous, with a hook. It was, at its heart, joyful. And to those of us who punched out at 5 and headed out to blow off steam on Fridays, it was always a welcome sound.
In the early 1980s, a friend’s parents went away for the weekend, so there was a party at her house in Bensalem. It was summer, and the people there were having a good time, talking and laughing and smoking and drinking beer. The air was soft, and the hour was late, and “Dance the Night Away” came on. And that’s what we did, because the moment was so sweet, and the future so promising, and that music felt so good.
I still play that song on juke and the memory of that time comes back. Maybe that’s why Eddie Van Halen’s death sticks.
Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or at email@example.com.