Being preternaturally gifted at something seems so exhausting. Mastering an objectively difficult skill and then flaunting it at will in the name of justifying the hours and decades of lonely, diligent work and commitment—it’s indulgent and, frankly, rude to the rest of us. And then to impose that indulgence on a medium designed to deliver the basest, most escapist thrills shouldn’t make sense. The point of Eddie Van Halen was not merely that he was a generational musical genius who invented an entire way of playing and presenting the electric guitar in pop music, it was that he made this feel simultaneously effortless and alien. He was not the first person to bring classically trained chops to hockey arenas, but he may have been the first to do it wearing overalls.
Between the formidable spectacle of his own lead singer and the how-did-he-do-that gawping at his skill, it was easy to overlook Eddie’s pure style. Hearing his name, you’re as likely to picture his face as his guitar’s trademark criss-cross design, red with white and black stripes, a distinct color scheme that certainly no other guitar-wielding artists have used to create an identity since. He did physically impossible things with a musical instrument in mid-air during loud and dumb rock songs and somehow came off as understated, managing to carve out a lane between artful DIY punk—he built and painted that guitar himself—and total bombast. Even as his band was redefining what excess looked like at their early-’80s peak, he seemed like the grounded one (even if the coke dealers of the greater Los Angeles area might beg to differ). What he did transcended genre, and even music itself, turning guitar playing into sport. Even if you didn’t care for that development, you still understood that he was Jordan.
Edward Van Halen’s destiny as a maestro was never in question: His middle name was Lodewijk, in honor of Ludwig van Beethoven, a cute family dare he later bestowed on his own son, who shares a first name with Wolfgang Mozart. His father Jan was a professional saxophone and clarinet player in Holland before the family emigrated to California in the early 1960s, so Eddie and his older brother Alex were omnivorous, omni-talented musical prodigies at a young age. Yet when the brothers started playing in bands in the early ’70s they never seemed particularly tempted by the extravagances of heavy metal or prog rock, ostensibly natural destinations for their outsized abilities and vocabularies. Instead they were drawn into the burgeoning backyard kegger circuit in the San Gabriel Valley, honing their craft for as long as it took before a neighbor called the cops.
Over the course of six albums between 1978 and 1984, Van Halen—the brothers along with bassist Michael Anthony and singer/jester David Lee Roth—became a larger-than-life global juggernaut without ever abandoning their pool-party roots and values. (It’s no accident that Jeff Spicoli blew the reward money he got for rescuing Brooke Shields on hiring Van Halen to play his birthday.) Each record clocked in at a lean half-hour, with vaguely kitschy covers sprinkled among songs about fucking, cars, and fucking in cars, as well as instrumentals designed to showcase Eddie’s inimitable and yet endlessly imitated hyperkinetic finger-tapping technique. This formula found its perfect form on 1981’s Fair Warning and its most commercially successful—and final—form on 1984’s 1984. After Roth was replaced by Sammy Hagar in 1986 at the dawn of the CD era, the albums grew longer and more ponderous, if no less a showcase for Eddie.
The band’s dynamic revolved around the tension between two dueling focal points with differing but equally acrobatic energies (even if the secret weapon was actually Anthony’s ecstatic background vocals). But if Eddie’s playing had to rise to the level of Roth’s showmanship (or, more likely, vice versa), so did his own aesthetics. He wouldn’t dare compete with Diamond Dave’s logorrhea, instead talking softly and carrying a big and uniquely ornamented axe. He started cobbling together his own guitars in the early years of the band, modifying them to his particular standards, before he painted the original “Frankenstrat” guitar in early 1979; his choice of red was to throw off the copycat guitarists who’d already emerged.
The most recognizable trappings of what would eventually become known as hair metal—a subgenre that Van Halen was barely grandfathered out of—all felt like garish exaggerations of what Eddie perfected, if not invented: the flashy paint jobs, the idea of lead guitarist as co-star rather than sideman, the notion of guitar solo as athletic feat. While a lot of the band’s contemporaries came to embrace the ’80s kitsch that defined them, Van Halen felt charmingly understated compared to Mötley Crüe and what followed. The post-DLR iteration, coinciding with hair metal’s commercial peak, made a conscious decision to dress down and flee from the entire idea altogether, content to occupy the louche psychic space of world’s biggest Señor Frog’s headliner. The only Van Halen albums to hit No. 1 were the four they made with Hagar, but swapping in an amiable bro in jorts just changed the chemistry and the urgency.
As a result, for all Van Halen’s success and broad appeal, their subsequent cultural footprint has been weirdly invisible. As hard rock settled into its grunge phase and arch indie kids were elevated to glossy-magazine status, Van Hagar were right there with goatees and gas-station shirts, but they were the exact kinds of relics these newer bands were designed to make feel irrelevant. Roth’s schtick, tongue-in-cheek though he may have thought it had been, probably wasn’t too compelling to scrappier indie bands who thought themselves above that kind of cartoonish excess, and Eddie’s unimpeachable musicianship felt like an admirable skill no one quite coveted, or at least talked about coveting. Van Halen never went away for too long as a commercial concern—disastrously with Extreme’s Gary Cherone in the late ’90s, then anticlimactically and acrimoniously reunited with Hagar a few years later—so they never had the chance to have their absence turn into fond nostalgia. Eddie’s public image eventually morphed from the above-it-all mastermind grinning from the side of the stage to a hard-to-please patriarch with a long memory for grudges.
When Roth finally returned to the fold in 2007 (with Eddie’s son Wolfgang taking over on bass for the exiled Michael Anthony), the band made no attempt to court a younger generation of rock fans who may have only known Eddie’s name from mentions in blog posts about Marnie Stern. Opening acts on subsequent tours were almost brazenly incongruous or square (Kool & the Gang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, respectively) while Roth name-checked EDM artists and J-pop bands. For someone rightly credited with being one of the most innovative musicians in modern history, Eddie was famously incurious, openly mocking Roth for his interest in dance music and seemingly proud of his refusal to listen to pretty much anything. When I interviewed David Lee Roth in 2013, he seemed wounded by Eddie’s dismissal of his tastes and refusal to entertain the idea of experimenting with different sounds but resigned to their mutual, and mutually beneficial, ambivalence.
Eddie seemed more than content with whatever that may have cost him. “It’s an odd thing, but I’ve been this way my whole life,” he told Billboard in 2015. “I couldn’t make a contemporary record if I wanted to, because I don’t know what contemporary music sounds like.” It’s of course easy to read that as stubborn or narrow-minded, depriving himself, or his fans, of the inspiration that comes with even a little inquisitiveness. But that’s also why he feels both timeless and trapped in amber, impervious to what we mortals understand about ambition: He was born with more than anyone could dream to chase.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork