Remembering Eddie Van Halen
The last time I saw Eddie Van Halen was on stage at the United Center in Chicago in February 2012. The band has just released their first album of new music with David Lee Roth in twenty-eight years and the world at large had their switchblades opened ready to tear them apart, however, when "A Different Kind of Truth" arrived it wasn't met with disdain but a collective whisper of "It's really good, isn't it?"
On that chilly winter night, the future of Van Halen burned brought because they had managed the unimaginable; they created an album that stands with their finest work. Capturing the same energy and chemistry from decades before is an impractical feat "A Different Kind of Truth" was a commendable successor to 1984' and to many die-Hard fans, they consider it a perfect addition to the six albums Roth had previously fronted. Those first six records are near perfect and are one of the greatest runs of recordings ever released. Led Zeppelin had arguably six masterpieces in a row and Bruce Springsteen did the same between 1975 and 1987. Whenever an act creates at such a high level of output and quality, any attempt at ever recreating the magic is viewed with a cynical eye.
With a new album in tow, the band hit the road to support it and this was the best I had seen them since the early nineties. This was the tour where Van Halen coalesced into an unyielding band of brothers ready to slay anyone in their path. The bare bones stage had a pair of microphones, some steps leading up to the drum kit and an A-Grade high definition screen behind them. The music was front and center with little distraction and for 110-minutes, Van Halen arrogantly and marvelously defied all expectations. During the evening's third song, "She's The Woman" the three Van Halen's (bassist Wolfgang, drummer Alex and guitarist Eddie) congealed into a glorious three-piece molten orchestra that made the 2007 tour feel like a warm-up for this one. Wolfgang was in the unenviable position of having replaced fan favorite Michael Anthony on bass but by 2012, he had grown into his role offering rock-solid backing vocals and four string cadences complimenting his uncle's unyielding drumming. Alex never missed a beat and as I sat back, I sat in awe of the one and only Eddie Van Halen as he offered up fearless and foreboding fret exercises worthy of his rock God status. I did not know it would be the last time I laid eyes upon him during a concert, but I soaked up every note, because he was masterful on every single note.
I had seen sixteen of the songs on that evening's setlist previously, but in 2012, Eddie brought a new exigency to many of them. "Hot for Teacher" featured the three musicians as a cohesive whole replicating every note to total exactness with Eddie's cutting blues riffs at the forefront. At one point during the song, Alex Van Halen was so in tune with his drumming that his sunglasses flew off. Instead of waiting until the song concluded, you could see him probing the floor for them while never missing a single spastic snare hit. "I'll Wait" is often dismissed by many for the overlaid keyboards, but in concert, you observe the enchantment of Eddie Van Halen's six-string splendor; most yearn for the fret board flash, but to see his strapping rhythm playing on "I'll Wait" was an exercise in restraint. His playing was locked-in with his brother and son creating a titanic musical wall David Lee Roth was able to wail over. While the monster hits "Unchained", "Dance the Night Away" and "Panama" received the loudest roars from the crowd, it was the four new songs and deep cuts that the band seemed to relish. "Mean Street" and "China Town" featured the band in a state of pure euphoria with Eddie flashing the crowd with a smile big enough to light the arena. No one ever brought as much fun to rock n' roll as Eddie Van Halen. The lead single from "Truth", "Tattoo" is often maligned by the fanbase but in concert it was lively while the back-to-back pairing of "Women In Love" and "Girl Gone Bad" found the band digging deep into the past. Neither song had been performed for nearly three decades before 2012 and yet the performances were faultless.
For the better part of my life, Eddie Van Halen was a part of it and whenever I found myself fortunate enough to be in his presence, he never disappointed. I remember watching him in 1998 on tour with Gary Cherone as the lead singer push himself and his band to the brink of exhaustion. He believed in his art and exemplified it onstage. The 2012 edition of Van Halen was a surprisingly vital and relevant entity and showcased the band at the top of their game. As I have watched my rock heroes age it has been with mixed results. You sometimes witness them past their sell-by date, and it taints your memories, the way you hear their music and the primal nature of it all but not when it came to Eddie Van Halen. The stage production on the 2012 was minimal but the truth was they didn't need it because every show was highlighted by Eddie Van Halen' piercing guitar which found him at the peak of his powers. Eddie's guitar playing was mesmerizing and as I watched him tease bit and pieces of "Eruption" and "Cathedral" I had an eye-opening realization that what I was watching was a master of their craft. I will see other shows and guitar players whiff and wail on their six-string, but none of them could ever touch Edward Van Halen. While I will never see those six-string fireworks in concert ever again, I take comfort in the music he left behind which will be studied, debated, and discussed for decades to come. In the coming months, we will see a re-appreciation of Van Halen' craft and importance on the world of music but make no mistake, Eddie was a talent on par with Prince and Miles Davis, an innovator who changed everything for those who followed in his footsteps.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter @thescreendoor
Share this article