Although I was in the prime Van Halen demographic—“You Really Got Me” was a minor radio hit during my last semester in high school—I was never a fan. As somebody whose top two musical obsessions were A) Top 40 pop and B) English prog rock, I wasn’t wired for it. When I got to college in the fall of 1978, I quickly associated Van Halen’s debut album—and specifically, the siren-like fade-in of “Running With the Devil,” cut one on side one—with dormitory stereos cranked beyond the limits of human endurance. I cheered the music critic who wrote of Van Halen II that it was as imaginative as its title. When Women and Children First came out in 1980, I was writing for the campus newspaper, and I destroyed it.
I should go through my clips and find the actual column, but I’m not doing that today. If I’m recalling correctly, it was mostly a screed about what an asshole David Lee Roth was, a word that the paper actually printed. (And I remember that it led to a blizzard of aggrieved letters from Van Halen fans.) It occurs to me now, 40 years later, thinking about Eddie Van Halen, that 100 percent of what I hated about his band was Roth. He was the opposite of the kind of rock star I admired—a keyboard god like Keith Emerson, to name one. And he also represented the very kind of person I disliked in the real world—a strutting, bloviating pretty boy. It took a long time before I could get past him to the music of the band behind him. But by the end of 1980, after several months of hearing Women and Children First in radio rotations, I had come around a little. I was never going to be a fan, but I wasn’t going to savage them anymore, either.
One measure of genius is whether you can inspire legions of imitators without any one of them sounding exactly like you. Eddie Van Halen certainly had that. Just as guitar players who came up in the 50s wanted to be Chuck Berry and those who came up in the 60s wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, those who came up in the 80s wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. His sound owed plenty to Hendrix, but it went to its own places. Even when his band was making music that left me cold (the entirety of the Van Hagar years), Eddie’s one-of-a-kind virtuosity on both guitar and keyboards was clear.
Based on everything I’ve read about him before his death and after, Eddie was relatively normal, and largely unimpressed by who he was. (Maybe you have to be like that when you’re in a band with David Lee Roth.) A former radio colleague of mine tells how his station’s morning team somehow got the direct phone number to Eddie’s studio. They would call it every now and then, and sometimes Eddie himself picked up, and he’d talk to them when he wasn’t talking to anyone else. “Unfazed by fame,” one of the jocks said on Facebook this morning.
And the man was married to Valerie Bertinelli. I mean, really. That’s a life well-lived.
Also yesterday, we lost soul singer Johnny Nash. “I Can See Clearly Now” is Nash’s monument, having done a month at #1 in the fall of 1972 (not long after Mac Davis, who passed last week, did a month at #1 with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”). It’s as familiar as the weather now, and I’m not sure anybody needs to hear it again. Maybe give “Hold Me Tight” a few spins instead—it was a #5 hit in 1968 that somehow resisted becoming part of the good times/great oldies radio pantheon.
Nash, born in Houston, was an important figure in the rise of Jamaican music in the United States. On “Hold Me Tight,” he’s backed by the band of Jamaican impresario Byron Lee, and nothing that sounded quite like it had ever hit so big on American radio. According to music historian Charles Hughes, Nash got the first UK record deal for what became Bob Marley and the Wailers, and publishing deals for Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer.
If it’s true that they always go in threes, we need to hold our breaths today. But that’s a regular condition of life in America right now, and it’s got nothing to do with music.