It’s true – Eddie Van Halen had a special studio set up in his bathroom. As Eddie said, “God gave him frequent inspiration” while sitting on the toilet. I had read that many years ago but could never find another reference to it until this book.
These are the types of details I’ve obsessed over since 1993 when I was first introduced to Van Halen. I was 13 years old and in middle school. A classmate did a music report about Van Halen despite not liking the band. In fact, no one really liked Van Halen that was in my peer group. They were our parent’s band in 1993. My classmate who did the report sold me the Van Halen Live album he had purchased for his report for $5. That was the best $5 I’ve ever spent.
Two weeks prior to my purchase of the used Van Halen Live CD, our school had a talent show. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but one guy got up on stage and played an Eddie Van Halen solo. When I got home and listened to the live CD, I heard that same solo. I was hooked.
I started playing violin at the age of 3 and played piano and trumpet as well. I learned that Eddie also played violin and piano as a kid, and like me, he doesn’t read music. He just plays. So, when I heard Eddie’s solo as a 13-year-old, I wanted to learn how to play it. My mom had an acoustic guitar from her days in college and I took it to my church youth pastor at the time (who played the guitar) and asked him to teach me to finger tap. While learning the basics of the guitar, I was also learning Eddie’s solo. Within 6 months, I had a cheap Peavey electric guitar and could put out a pretty good copy of Eddie’s main solos. I was determined and had the musical background to speed-learn the guitar.
After that, I purchased every Van Halen CD available and read all I could about the band. Again, this was not a popular thing to do. I only had a few friends that were even semi-interested in Van Halen. Everyone else thought they were their dad’s music. I’ve seen Van Halen 3 times in concert and continue to get goosebumps when listening to their music.
What is it about Van Halen that has captured me?
Kevin Dodds, author of Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography, starts the preface claiming that Edward Van Halen is up there with Mozart, Elvis, and Jimi Hendrix. That’s a bold statement, and mostly in the comparison with Mozart. As someone who basically switches between listening to Mozart and Van Halen, I wanted to dig in and know what sets Eddie apart. How can it be that 25 years after I first heard Van Halen, I can put on any number of their songs and still get chills. And not the quick 3 second chills on my arms, but the full-body chills that last the entire song. Why? Perhaps I was hoping that I would read about Eddie and find out he was superman.
But Eddie is not superman. Mr Dodds summed it up best in his afterword:
“A good deal of Edward’s story is sad and unfortunate, and even at times flat our disturbing…However, the balance inevitably falls on the side of the fabulous and wonderful things Eddie Van Halen has brought to the lives of his family, friends, fans, admirers, and the history of music on this planet.”
That’s a great summation of Eddie’s life. This is the third book I have read about Van Halen this year, and the first dedicated solely to Eddie. In many ways, I wish I hadn’t read all that I did about him because it’s not very flattering. My hero has come back to earth. Alcohol, drug abuse, destroyed relationships, lost potential contrasted with utter musical genius.
But I guess this is the case with people in general. There’s good. There’s bad. Perhaps it’s much more pronounced with people of genius, especially when drugs and alcohol are added to the mix. But it’s sad. It’s sad to read about the things Eddie said and what he did. Does his musical ability gloss over those bad things or is he just as culpable as everyone else? And would we have more of his musical genius to enjoy had these things not destroyed so much of his life?
One thing that stood out to me about this book was the author’s strong distaste of Sammy Hagar, Van Halen’s singer after David Lee Roth. When I listen to music, I don’t listen to lyrics. I know it sounds weird, but my wife and I will listen to the same song and she’ll go on and on about the lyrics and I’ll ask, what lyrics? Someone was singing? To me, the voice is an instrument, and I’ve never really been particularly interested in what people have to say. But I am listening to what they are saying through their instrument. And that’s why Eddie speaks to me.
So, it came as a shock to me to actually read some of Sammy’s lyrics in this book. They are overtly raunchy and without nuance. The author even claimed that Sammy ruined Eddie’s great music in many cases with his atrocious lyrics. As someone who was first introduced to Van Halen through hearing Sammy, I bristled at the strong dislike of the Red Rocker (Sammy’s book will be the 4th Van Halen-related book I read this year), but it was an interesting viewpoint I never considered.
And that was the power of this book for me. I have never had another die-hard Van Halen fan with which to discuss their music, and that’s been hard when the music is something I love so much. As a musician, I want to talk to other musicians about what Eddie did in a song, why it’s important, and what it means. I want to hear what recording they like, what their favorite Eddie solo is, who their favorite front man is. The author went through nearly every Van Halen song and talked about Eddie’s writing and solos. That was awesome. I loved that.
I also appreciated that he covered the good, the bad, and the ugly. I would love to be blissfully ignorant of the ugly side, but it’s part of Eddie. It’s part of a lot of artists. It’s part of Van Gogh. He painted some of his most vibrant paintings in a mental institute.
I have a deeper appreciation now of Eddie. I hope he continues to write and release new music. I know he doesn’t owe it to anyone, but God has given him an unbelievable gift. He gives me chills and the ability to listen to a song tens of thousands of times without getting sick of it.
This is book 17 of 52 of Erik’s 2018 Books of Titans reading list.