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He Really Got Me: How Eddie Van Halen Turned ‘80s Kids Into Rock Believers

A tribute to the greatest rock guitarist of my lifetime

Growing up in a house with musically obsessed parents ended up being a gift, but when I was 7, it was a nuisance. Car rides packed with blaring rock music (what’s now classic rock) were annoying, especially for a kid who was only interested in baseball. Dylan, Springsteen, the Dead, the Allmans and even U2 would cut away from Mets score updates.

Then summer 1988 happened. Riding back from Atlantic Beach on a mundane summer late afternoon, I heard something on the radio. ”WHAT IS THIS?!” I exclaimed. My parents, sporting bemused grins, turned to each other, then to me.

“It’s Van Halen,” my mother said.

“Who is Ben Heaven?!” I asked.

“NO, Van Halen!”

“What’s this song and what is this sound?”

“It’s ‘Jump’ and those are synthesizers.”

That innocuous encounter ended up introducing me to the first band I gave a shit about (even if I didn’t know it at the time).

It took four years for me to again connect that mesmerizing synth with the band. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit now that Eddie Van Halen’s keys that opened up “Right Now” reminded me of that discovery in the car.

Working my way backward, I was shocked to realize that Van Halen wasn’t the singer (we all know who was), but the guitarist. But, as my young ears learned, there was nobody like him. Starting with 1984, then Van Halen II and the almighty Van Halen, I couldn’t believe the sounds that permeated through my small Sony boombox. The 100 seconds of “Eruption,” the fire and fury of “You Really Got Me,” the smattering of shredding of “Everybody Wants Some!!!” and the mystical synths and wailing guitar on “I’ll Wait” were game-changing. Yet, it was Eddie Van Halen’s turn to the keys (unpopular opinion alert!) that showed how great of a musician he was.

I was endlessly mocked by my classmates and friends for liking “parent music.” (Like me, they were grunge and rap fans.) This was around the time of VH’s 1993 live Right Here, Right Now album. I evangelized EVH and yes, it was nerdy at that age to talk about the tone and sound of his guitar, but that didn’t matter. Eddie Van Halen was a rock God and I was sitting in church ready to testify on his behalf — in fact, Van Halen was the crown jewel of my music-themed Bar Mitzvah. I got made fun of for the fact that my table was Van Halen instead of Nirvana or Pearl Jam.

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CREDIT: Courtesy of the author

Even in the band’s maligned later years, Van Halen still brought the heat. Sure, songs like “Top of the World,” “Runaround,” “Humans Being” and “Cabo Wabo” aren’t quite lexicon songs like the Roth tunes. But Eddie still made them feel like Van Halen, even if Van Hagar wasn’t the same beast.

By the time I went to my first concert in 1995 at Jones Beach (Van Halen, of course, with my father and seats in the last row), seeing the ease and almost nonchalance he played with was mind-blowing and gave me an even greater appreciation for the guitar hero. Even as the band’s popularity waned, my interest did not. I was in attendance with 35 other people at the band’s show at Madison Square Garden in 1998 when they toured behind Van Halen III with Gary Cherone (fine, it was embarrassingly half-empty but who’s counting?) At a time when guitar players ruled the earth (and musical landscape), Eddie Van Halen remained the king of kings.

In 2015, I finally saw the almost completely reunited Van Halen at Irvine Meadows. There was no Michael Anthony, but it almost didn’t matter. Eddie Van Halen looked and sounded great. That show felt like the culmination in everything I wanted in a band, and seeing them in this setting on this tour felt like the culmination of what I was stoked about when I was a kid. Yet, I wanted that party to continue. On a whim, I bought a ticket to see the tour closer at the Hollywood Bowl a few months later. I was tired and had a one-year-old. I didn’t go. It is now one of my biggest musical regrets.

Then today happened. It sucked. It’s disheartening in a year full of devastating blow after devastating blow. Tom Morello put it best today: “Our generation’s Mozart.” I’m slightly younger than Morello, but his sentiment is correct.