In the 80’s, I was that girl in the jean jacket with the big VH logo patch on it. (Gen X’ers—you know, the one with the peroxide-bleached feathered mullet and the knee-high moccasin boots, smoking in the bathroom between classes.) I wish I knew whatever happened to that jacket! It went missing long ago, along with the spiral notebooks with the same logo etched into the covers by a teen fan’s ballpoint pen.
That feels like several lifetimes ago, and I haven’t really listened to Van Halen’s music in decades. When I heard the news of Eddie Van Halen’s death last week, I was of course saddened and mostly I felt for his son, whose heartbreak was palpable in his short announcement.
In the week and a half that has followed, more has come up for me personally than I ever would have expected. No doubt like many people who came of age during Van Halen’s heyday, revisiting and celebrating EVH’s music has meant revisiting those years in the visceral way that only music triggers. In perfect timing, last week there was a meme going around that says something like, “If visual art decorates space, music decorates time.” This has never felt more true.
How many fans have long love stories like this? I want to read them ALL. Here’s hoping mine finds a few die-hards who truly understand, and it makes them smile.
The “1984” album dropped during my 13th year. I had some vague knowledge of Van Halen before that—I think must have heard “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Pretty Woman” on the radio. I remember hearing about Valerie Bertinelli’s marriage to Eddie Van Halen and feeling happy about that, since I grew up watching “One Day at a Time” and I loved her. Other than that, they weren’t really on my radar until “1984” came out and the “Jump” and “Panama” videos went into heavy rotation on MTV.
Very quickly after that, I devoured that and all previous albums, and these posters went up on my wall:
(No, I do not still have them—I found these pics via google search!)
Their show at the LSU Assembly Center during the 1984 tour was my first ever concert. My mom surprised me with two tickets and let me and a friend go on our own. I wish I remembered more of it—mostly what I remember is being so beside myself I thought I might pass out!
It should go without saying that I was (and, come to find out, still am) a devotee strictly of Van Halen version 1.0.
I wasn’t necessarily done with Van Halen when David Lee Roth left—I was willing to keep an open mind (maybe). But then they hired that other guy who I’m not going to name, and from that point on, the band was DEAD to me. I would turn the dial in utter disgust when a song from that era came on. Seriously, it used to make me mad just thinking about it.
Meanwhile, DLR’s solo stuff didn’t much do it for me, and I started listening to more Led Zeppelin and other stuff. As I got even older, my musical taste got more eclectic. I guess due to a combination of all those things, I left Van Halen far behind in favor of more “mature” music. I don’t think I listened to them—other than the same few songs by chance on the car radio— for at least 25 years.
Now that I’m listening again, I do believe I was engaged in musical snobbery toward my own younger self. The day I heard the news, I listened to the debut album in its entirety, and it’s more than nostalgic—it sounds like perfection, song by song and as a whole. Example: I had completely forgotten about the part in “I’m the One” where they go from loud guitar and rock star screaming right into that barber shop quartet thing (and back again). I thought, “Holy shit, I wasn’t just a clueless kid with immature musical taste and a hormonally crazed DLR obsession. They really were that good, unique and talented.” As a band, not just a vehicle for EVH’s genius or a backdrop for DLR’s antics.
Over a week later, I’m still binge-listening to those first six albums. It’s a surprising and oddly life-affirming experience to hear songs you haven’t heard in decades (and in some cases had completely forgotten about) and discover that those songs actually live in your body, because you still know every riff, every lyric, every vocal inflection, and can still do a lot of the drum parts on the steering wheel.
OK, here’s my ranking of those first (ahem, only) six albums:
- Van Halen (debut album). Rolling Stone called it “one of the strongest debut albums in rock history” and I wholeheartedly agree.
- Women and Children First. My #2 spot was a toss-up between this one and “Fair Warning.” I love them equally now that I’m revisiting all the albums, so the tie breaker is the one I loved more back in the day, which is hands down this one. For starters, how I looooooooved that cover photo! Secondly, I have visceral memory of dropping the needle on the first track over and over. (Remember when having a song “on repeat” required staying actively, physically involved?)
- Fair Warning. As noted, this one was almost #2. Fantastic album. I think I’ve actually listened to this one the most over the last week.
- 1984. The gateway drug. When I quickly started getting into the older stuff, I understood why many die-hard fans were not in favor “Jump” and the addition of synthesizers. But I loved “I’ll Wait” which is heavy on that. The guitar-driven “Panama” and “Drop Dead Legs” are two of my very favorites.
- Van Halen II. “Light Up the Sky” is one of my favorites of all VH songs, which is why this came out ahead of Diver Down—another toss-up. But the album as a whole is “meh” for me, especially after the perfection of the first album and how much I love the 3rd and 4th
- Diver Down. Some unexpected gems here for sure, (Secrets, Little Guitars intro, Big Bad Bill), but something had to be last on the list.
I’ve read and watched a ton of articles, interviews and videos during the google-fest component of my Van Halen binge. Here are just a few things I want to share:
This NPR Music article, The Astonishing Techniques That Made Eddie Van Halen a Guitar God, is a good, concise description of what was so special about his playing and invention of new techniques. It also has a short list of 5 representative songs for those who may want to check it out in a small dose.
I agree 100% with his song choices. In fact, before I saw this article, I chose three of the same ones to play for my kids by way of explaining what all the fuss was about—”Eruption” (obligatory), “I’m the One,” and “Mean Street.” My 10-year-old likes different types of music and was duly impressed, if not an instantly converted fan. My 14-year-old has a one-track mind for hip hop right now. He humored me, but also called it “your old head music.” LOL. Fellow Gen-Xers—would you ever have guessed future kids would call it that, back in the day?
I will say one thing strictly as a side note, since this is a whole other blog post, and if I were to maintain high standards in this regard, I would lose half the music I’ve loved my whole life. I’m trying to raise my boys to be anti-sexist (not easy in this world), and there is some incongruence between those values and some of the lyrics and behaviors displayed by many of my musical favorites. When choosing songs to share with my kids, I was aware of messaging about women that hasn’t aged as well as the music. I have very little objectivity here in sorting appreciation from objectification, since this music was in my DNA long before I was old enough to know better about such things. I had to think of it strictly as a parent and ask myself if I would feel the need to qualify anything for them and encourage a critical social eye as a preface to a particular song, in the same way I do with some of the current music they’re listening to. (I trust some of it gets through, despite the eye rolling and “I KNOW, Mom.”) I chose other songs, since the point was to have them appreciate Eddie Van Halen’s guitar chops!
Ok, back to the fun stuff.
Here’s some restored concert footage from 1978 (opening for Black Sabbath in Fresno):
And here’s an interview with Eddie Van Halen that shows what a down-to-earth, humble guy he was. My favorite part was when he said the best thing about his musical life was being blessed to make music with his brother and his son.
It’s been an interesting week and a fun ride. The other part of this story is that I became a fan during one of the worst periods of my difficult and tumultuous adolescence, and this music brought me some joy and positive energy during that time. Despite all the healing work I’ve done, I still compartmentalize and disown that time to some degree. This has been a catalyst for another layer of integration—an unexpected chance to get reacquainted with this girl:
In a very different way, this music is serving a healing purpose right now, in the present. Who doesn’t need a little pick-me-up during these horrifying times we’re in? This trip down memory lane is enabling me to spend fewer than 100% of my waking hours enraged by the Amy Coney Barrett hearings and terrified by the upcoming election. (And in fact, I’m feeling energized and ready to hit the phone banks—join me!)
The day after the news broke, I attended yet another Zoom meeting, and the participants were asked to do a quick check-in about how they were doing. I said I felt pretty amazing due to the dopamine flood from all the Van Halen I’d been listening to. When I noted it was a bit odd to feel that good since I should be mourning, someone said, “That’s how we mourn. We listen.”
I love that.
RIP Eddie Van Halen. Lots of love to his family, friends, and fans.
©Copyright Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2020 All rights reserved.