By Pablo Lacalle
It’s October 6th and I first hear the news from Rolling Stone magazine: Edward Lodewijk Van Halen has died age 65, having succumbed to a heroic, but ultimately futile battle with lung cancer. My initial reaction was one of disbelief: a musical legend, multi-instrumentalist, virtuoso, a man who drew on classical education to blend Bach and heavy metal. Artists like Van Halen inhabit a uniquely special status of celebrity that renders them near immortal in the public eye. Their passing, as always, serves as a shocking reminder of how fickle death can be. As obvious as it sounds, somehow, so many of us seem to forget momentarily that fame and fortune does not make one exempt from natural law. It is almost as if we believe that their image, their music, played again and again, streamed by millions, endlessly revisited in YouTube recordings and Spotify playlists, can keep the cycle in motion, recharging a lifespan as one would a car battery.
As I internalised the news, I played the first Van Halen album (a mammoth debut that still roars with thunder to this day) in its entirety. As I did so, I wondered why. There was something morbidly comforting in hearing a dead man’s work, preserved and incorruptible for ever in the digital world, secure in the knowledge that whilst the flesh and blood had departed, the legacy remained. It was one of those instances that make one truly aware of the staggering power music has to set the soundtrack of our lives - that I, someone born in 2002, felt such a connection, and such regret at the news of this tragedy.
I never saw Van Halen live, I did not grow up in their heyday. In fact, I only discovered the band in 2014. The 80s to me are a time as alien as shoulder pads, Tears For Fears and parachute pants. It's an era only known to most of my generation through the likes of Stranger Things. Yet even so, through his music, Eddie Van Halen continues to touch and shape the lives of thousands who grew up in the times of Maroon 5 and Lady Gaga. The purpose of this article isn’t to beat that insufferable dead horse of what constitutes “proper” music, it's a look back on how one man represented the most intoxicating and (dare I say) magical aspects of stardom, who managed to make the jump from regular man to icon, down a road not readily available anymore.
The concept of the “guitar hero” continues to endure, oddly enough, even in a musical landscape that has little use for it anymore. The two most commercially successful genres today, broadly speaking, are hip-hop and pop, which either use the guitar negligibly, or employ it sparingly. But ask anyone on the street to describe what a rock star looks like, or even draw you a picture, and one image endures above all (try typing it into Google images for yourself): a solitary figure, wielding a guitar. Its interesting to wonder why this is so alluring above all other representations, and any number of theories can be presented: it carries an undeniable sense of power, rebellion, one man against the world.
The instrument is wielded like a weapon, a symbol of authority, skill, and yes, cool. It makes us feel unique, talented, it's the quintessential idea that governs the central thesis of rock and roll: sticking it to The Man. Turning things up as loud as they can go, and letting it carry you away, because you can, no matter what people say.
Its an ideal that holds people automatically in their sway. One that drives hordes to pose in front of mirrors with broom-handles, or play the ever popular “air guitar.” Even as a young boy, my earliest memories were of two enormous posters in my living room: Pete Townshend from The Who, and Jimi Hendrix, two fellow maestros. Faces contorted, legs akimbo, backs curved or arched, hair flying in their faces...the guitar hero was the earliest indication of how joyously wild, raw, savage and human music could be, no matter how old, and its ability to course through us like a current through a live-wire, just like Van Halen would flood his amps to supercharge his much imitated, but never really replicated sound. For every shake of the head, pump of the fist, tap of the foot, those gestures that we do, no matter how silly we look when we do them because the music is everything in the moment, we thank men like Eddie Van Halen.
Nowadays, the guitar hero has an uncertain legacy. It's a role that has been filled by many in the past, and (despite the masculine connotation, and possible phallic connotation of the guitar itself) by many women as well (Lita Ford, Nita Strauss, Joan Jett and Lzzy Hale all spring to mind) but nowadays, where the most minuscule details of every celebrity’s personal life are plastered across social media to be combed through at will, the mystique has all but vanished. The guitar hero seems to many a concept as archaic as Clint Eastwood’s similarly lone gunslingers. The death of Eddie Van Halen is in many senses, the closing of a historical chapter.
One encapsulated by that quasi-mythical figure, genius, innovator, who combined a Gibson with a Fender Stratocaster to create the most famous custom instrument of all time. A musical prodigy who raised himself from poverty, in that “rags to riches” tale we have heard a hundred times, and never tire of. It is not Van Halen’s lyrical profundity or depth that keeps them alive - their songs tend to cover themes of fun, good times, partying, love, etc. - it is that sense of youthful exuberance, vivacity, encompassed in the image of a long-haired rebel, jumping in the air, legs kicking, frozen for ever with a power chord at his fingertips. It's the special touch of that something that spoke to a teenager in their room in 1978, and continued, decades later, through a set of Airpods, or an Ipod Nano. Not just a sound. An Eruption.