Why the Grammys’ Eddie Van Halen Tribute Got It Right

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Jem Aswad
·4 min read
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The 2021 Grammys were an awards show like none before them, in countless ways — and although opinions are mixed about what worked and what didn’t, the consensus seem to be largely positive, with inevitable caveats.

Perhaps most of all, the way the Grammys chose to handle the “In Memoriam” segment, which on most awards shows is fraught with omissions and misspellings and ensuing outrage, received some of the most positive reactions — especially considering the fact that, after the awful past year, nearly a thousand names were considered for the segment, according to host Trevor Noah.

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Yet the brief segment paying tribute to Eddie Van Halen, who died in October at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer, has gotten a fair amount of abuse, particularly from the band’s substantial fan base in the hard rock and metal world. The tribute featured a 20-ish-second video of a typically blazing Van Halen solo — a live version of “Eruption,” the instrumental from the band’s 1978 debut that changed rock guitar forever — while a spotlight shone on his guitar, on a stand, by itself, with a possible implied subtext that no one could fill those shoes. (Watch the official livestream here.)

As documented by Loudwire and others, many people felt that the tribute wasn’t enough — that Van Halen, his artistry and his band’s music weren’t receiving an homage that accurately reflected their influence and popularity. To take that a step further, it also may have tied into the hard rock world’s long-felt — and completely legitimate — sense of being a ghetto-ized, neglected and often disrespected area of music and the music industry. Indeed, hard rock and metal bands had sold hundreds of millions of records and CDs before a hard rock-specific Grammy award was finally introduced in 1990 — only to have the first one infamously and cluelessly awarded to wizening prog-rockers Jethro Tull instead of the then-young Metallica.

Some fans opined that one of Van Halen’s songs should have been covered by a fitting group of contemporaries, or younger musicians who were influenced by him. Or maybe some amazing 12-year-old prodigy that producers found on YouTube could have taken the stage and played “Eruption.”

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Sure, any of those things could have been cool. But more realistically, they probably would have been disasters that would have had the angry fans mentioned above almost literally spitting fire.

Consider what such a tribute would have looked like: The surviving members of Van Halen performing one of their songs with a substitute Eddie? Steve Vai or some other nimble-fingered, fearless and/or foolhardy contemporary playing something that was a lot like Eddie, but not? Or, worst of all, some horrific Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-style all-star jam on a medley of Van Halen classics like “Hot for Teacher” and “Panama”? And that’s only if they could have found any guitarist who dared to do it; there are few things in the entertainment world more damaging or humiliating than a tone-deaf tribute to a legend. (Shortly after this article published, Eddie’s son Wolfgang posted a note about the tribute on Twitter that criticizes the Grammys for not mentioning his dad by name and for the brevity of the homage, but also says that he declined an offer to play “Eruption” on the show because “I don’t think anyone could have lived up to what my father did for music but himself.”)

The odds of any of the above options being better than what the Grammys actually did — simply letting the man’s genius speak for itself for a couple dozen somber-but-exhilarating seconds that distill and prove why he was an indisputable legend — are very slim.

The challenge with Eddie Van Halen is that he was a once-in-a-generation virtuoso musician whose band usually played fairly straight-up party rock — his genius was in his guitar playing, which can be imitated and emulated but never truly equaled. And there’s no point in arguing whether he was “better” than Hendrix or Clapton or Beck because when you’re at that level, you’re already in a league of your own.

Which is why the Grammys got it right.

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