You Really Got Me

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.

4 thoughts on “You Really Got Me

  1. mackdaddyg

    As a kid I was indifferent to Van Halen, but nowadays it’s a fun listen when anything of theirs pops up on the radio. Van Hagar, not so much.

    I always had the impression that the guy was….difficult, shall we say, but based on what I’ve read today, he comes across as a regular guy. Lots of talk out there about his solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” which is an interesting story in itself.

  2. Wesley

    Eddie was a nice guy from what I’ve heard with my music contacts as well. Put me in the Eddie > Van Halen > hearing fingernails on a chalkboard > Van Hagar camp too. Hate that he spent so long fighting before succumbing to throat cancer, which just sounds really painful to me.

    Johnny Nash was one of those figures who once he left the music industry, he really left it. Only did some rare recordings after 1979 and hardly any interviews. It was known that he lived in his native Houston and still had contacts with some reggae musicians, but otherwise, not much else as I can tell. Actually, his biggest mystery to me is how and why he spent seven years as a regular with Arthur Godfrey’s morning show in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    Bill Withers, Johnny Nash, Mac Davis, Helen Reddy … if I was Melanie, Don McLean, Al Green, Neil Young, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Gilbert O’Sullivan or anyone else who hit #1 in 1972, I’d be knocking wood now just to be safe this year.

  3. John Gallagher

    Everything about EVH has been well said across the internet. As for Johnny Nash, I also liked his version of “Stir It Up” from 1973. If you’re looking for the hit 45 version, then track down a copy of Sound Of The Seventies – 1973: Take Two.

  4. Paul Scahill

    I cant argue with any of your comments about Roth. But I will admit I liked him. He was the epitome of the “front man”. and still held up when I saw VH around 2008ish with Wolfgang on bass. Again Roth is stealing the show, this is about EVH. He always looked like he was having a blast playing the guitar.His riffs were unique and you knew it was VH long before you heard the vocals.One of a kind.

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