By J. Hogan
-Gains & Gleanings-
Eddie Van Halen? He can’t be dead, can he? The first time I saw Eddie and his band Van Halen was 1983. I was 14. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to a major concert before, and honestly, it probably skewed the curve for all the other bands I saw over the years.
It was staggering. Astounding. They ran onstage already playing their version of The Kinks’ “Where Have All The Good Times Gone,” and I was sold before the second chorus at the sound and spectacle.
In the days before big screens projected bands larger than life for the whole crowd to see, Van Halen played to the back row like no other band.
That worked for me. My friend Jimmy (Brennan then, Cunnane now) and I were in the cheap seats, Section E at the Civic Arena, about as far from the stage as you could get.
Eddie strutted, slid, jumped and posed across the whole stage, brilliantly striped red, white and black in a jumpsuit matching his iconic guitar, somehow avoiding his leaping, karate-kicking, backflipping frontman, David Lee Roth, as they ran about.
Eddie’s guitar was custom painted for impact. I’d later learn that he modified his own guitars for sound, too. He had the look, the energy, the pizzazz, and, most of all, the sound to make the rest of that stuff just icing on the sonic cake of otherworldly talent he brought to town.
Roth was entertaining. Eddie was unbelievable. My sister had a guitar at the house, but it didn’t sound like the symphony coming out of Van Halen’s amplifiers. One moment he would coax a whinnying mare from his strings, the next would bring an air raid, complete with sirens, whistling bombs, diving planes and staccato machine guns from his 12-foot high stack of speakers.
The songs were rich and dynamic, ranging from cosmic blues to gentle Spanish guitar. I’d been listening to Springsteen and Kiss for years, but I’d never heard a guitar sound this alive as Eddie wiggled, bent, pulled, tapped and hyperpicked different sounds from his set up. He didn’t seem to miss a note all night.
When he took his solo spot, he played a section of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, then made his six strings sound like a keyboardist from outer space in a piece called “Cathedral.” He laughed and interacted with the crowd as he effortlessly made his guitar do things that dropped the jaws of the guitarists who’d come to be awed. He ended the piece with his own epic “Eruption” tap fest (the most famous guitar piece ever).
I went looking for a guitar the next day, my ears still ringing from the night before, putting one on layaway at Urich Music and Sound.
Now Eddie’s guitar has fallen silent, the rock maestro stilled by the cancer he’s fought (mostly privately) for years.
Oddly, there was a small hole in the shield of privacy just a day before Eddie passed. I got a message from one of the guys I knew in the California music scene when I played there. “It was one of those I know somebody who knows somebody who works at…” type messages.
It simply finished “Eddie’s in bad shape.” I didn’t have to ask which Eddie his friend’s friend’s nurse friend was referring to.
Yet, I was still bulldozed when I got the news the next day. I never met Eddie Van Halen, but I sure enjoyed his amazing talent. Rest in peace, and thanks for sharing that amazing gift.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.