At the end of the day, rock music is about feeling cool. Not moron cool, not fleeting high school dickhead popularity cool, but that inner cool that puts you at ease with yourself. Rock and roll is about knowing where you stand, not sweating the minuscule, and enjoying life as much as possible. For countless generations of rockers, that spiritual concept can be summed up in almost two words: Van Halen. Van Halen were here to have the coolest time, to remind you that life can be a party if you practice your ass off at something you love. So much of that was Eddie Van Halen’s riffs, chrome-plated portals to the rager you wish you were having. And given the past year, Eddie Van Halen’s work and legacy is more important now than ever.
Eddie Van Halen started the sweatiest band on earth with his older brother. He was a technical genius, but he didn’t let that make him a snob. He could do splits in mid-air while playing an electric guitar. His signature design was a color with a bunch of drunken stripes slashed across it. He played the solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” His riff was used in Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” He was complicated because he wasn’t, interesting because he used his magical powers in the name of good times. He was the classical master of fun, equal parts Bach and Bacchus. He was the real fucking deal.
He had peers, though not quite. The other guitar gods are awesome, but they’re just not the same. Jimi Hendrix was a tortured poet dressed like a colorblind pirate. Yngwie Malmsteen stanned Mozart and wrote songs that were hosts for his parasitic solos. Keith Richards was made of melting heroin, and Jimmy Page wanted to have tea with Tolkien’s ghost. But Eddie Van Halen was an acrobatic axe wizard with lightning in his veins who existed to make you smile back at him. His every riff was cold beer on a blazing summer afternoon. His songs inspired loose cannons the world over to look confident in outfits they’d normally find embarrassing. When “Panama” kicks in, something’s got to get thrown in the pool.
Our dads loved Van Halen. They wore shorts that were too short, rocked ill-advised mustaches, and cranked “Jamie’s Crying” at backyard barbecues where sodas and beers floated in trash cans full of ice. This was better, they knew, better than Nam and folk rock troubadours and all the dour shit that had come before Van Halen. They pumped their fists, and pounded their domestic tall boys, and yelled approval when Eddie’s first sonic key-bumps shrieked onto their speakers. And in their ‘Party Naked’ ringer tees, they tipsily took us from our moms and danced with us to “Everybody Wants Some” while we swayed on their hips and cooed along to the chorus. Eddie Van Halen taught even us younger rockers to be rad by osmosis.
The ‘90s took some of the wind out of Van Halen’s sails, and maybe that’s for the best. The party was going late, and most of the original guests were headed home while their crazier Plus Ones demanded another beer run. Thrash, grunge, alternative rock and extreme metal were the weirdo friends who let you know you could just throw everyone out and go to bed. Besides, Eddie Van Halen’s impact had been made — and made again, with the ‘80s-tastic Van Hagar hits of “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Dreams,” not to mention his timeless influence of game-changers like Dimebag Darrell. He deserved a break while we bought huge sweaters, got industrial piercings, and went for long drives through Arizona and Maine.
But once we’d examined our vulnerable sides, we were back. The last ten years showed the world that Van Halen were eternal, that Eddie and Diamond Dave could get along enough to share the stage once more. Ellen had the band on her show, and gushed over them (think about that for a second: the lesbian voice of Dori who is a figurehead for moms all over America fuckin’ loves Van Halen). South Park got in on it. Bit by bit, the music-loving masses got over their hangovers, changed their outfits, and showed back up, and lo and behold, Van Halen were still there. “Runnin’ With The Devil” was still awesome. Eddie Van Halen was still a king amongst dudes being wire-stunted across a stage.
It’s easy in these sorts of tribute pieces to make anyone sound like an important fixture of the scene, but it’s rare to write one about a genuine legend. That’s what Eddie Van Halen was: the GOAT, no matter when you were born or where you’re from, whether you like it cheesy or grim. If you’ve ever loved a heavy metal guitar solo, you owe Van Halen. If you’re ever impressed someone with a drinking trick, or worn neon-colored sunglasses because it felt right, you owe Van Halen. They showed us just how explosive and engaging and technical and tasty and cool music could be. And if you love rock and roll, cool is what it’s all about.
Words by Chris Krovatin