Note: this article originally appeared in Copper Issue 74. In light of Eddie Van Halen’s passing, we felt it appropriate to run it again here in tribute, updated and with an added postscript. – Ed.
How would you react if you were suddenly face-to-face with one of your idols? I hope you’d be more prepared than I was on that day in 1984.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Van Halen’s debut album in 1978. The front cover introduced Eddie and his Frankenstein Fender Strat, David “Diamond Dave” Lee Roth with his phallic mic and insanely hairy chest, and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony, practically blurred out. I found the album in a stack of records at my friend Bill Jr.’s house.
Bill was still into the Bay City Rollers, and his sister possessed even worse taste in music – all weepy singer-songwriters, so I could not figure out who owned that heavy Van Halen record. No one wanted it, and so they let me have it. As soon as I heard their version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and its intro “Eruption,” Eddie’s solo shredding masterpiece, I was hooked.
For the next six years, Van Halen supplied my summer soundtracks. Back then, when other kids went to sleep-away camp, I joined a bicycling program that took me all through New England, parts of Canada, and California and Oregon. We rode all day, ate outdoors, and slept at campgrounds. On occasion, the group would have a layover at an RV park, and those places had luxuries like laundry machines, pay showers with hot water, a snack bar, and a rec hall complete with a jukebox! Electronic entertainment was rare on the road, so a bit of television, a movie, or some current music was a treat.
Depending on the region, there might be a lot more Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox than New York Dolls and Ramones, but Van Halen was universal. I played “Dance the Night Away” (Van Halen II, 1979) during my trip to Vermont, “And the Cradle Will Rock” (Women and Children First, 1980) in Quebec, “Unchained” (Fair Warning, 1981) in Oregon, and multiple cuts off Diver Down (1982) in New Hampshire. With so many kick-ass tracks, including “Where Have all the Good Times Gone,” “Cathedral,” “Little Guitars,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” Diver Down is one of my favorite Van Halen albums.
In 1984, Van Halen released 1984, and it turned out to be their last with Roth until 2012. “Jump,” “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher” were mainstream smash hits, as well as videos in heavy rotation on the then-nascent MTV channel.
One August day in 1984, I was walking my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a young couple appeared accompanied by a man in a suit walking slightly behind them. They had matching blow-out 80s hairdos. The woman noticed my dog and squatted down, “Awww, what’s your dog’s name?” People always wanted to pet my dog. She was beautiful, but it got a little annoying after a while – especially when they talked to the dog as if she were walking me, but this lady was so friendly and pretty. “Amy,” I answered, with a slight wince.
Then, I looked up and saw that big smile. “Hey,” he said nonchalantly through a puff of smoke. My brain was straining to place these faces. I had seen them a thousand times, but I could not process their features fast enough. And by the time I was done being flummoxed, it was all over. I stood paralyzed as Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli (aka Barbara Cooper, America’s sweetheart from TV’s One Day at a Time) walked away down 57th Street – likely towards one of the studios that were in that area. It was like starting the best dream of your life just to be robbed of it by the cruel alarm clock of reality.
“Was that really them?” I second-guessed myself. “It was. I can’t believe I was standing right next to Eddie Van Halen and Valerie and I didn’t say anything, not a single word except my dog’s name! I don’t think I even said “hi” back to Eddie. “What an idiot I am!” For the first time in my life, I was overwhelmed by celebrity.
I always regretted not being more engaging and quicker on my feet, but I was 18 and in a bad state. There was a fasting craze tearing through my school, and all I had ingested for a few days was black coffee and clove cigarettes. On top of that, my prom queen, also named Amy, broke up with me preemptively in preparation for college. I don’t know what I could have said to Eddie anyway. In my depressed mood, I might have begged him never to leave Diamond Dave because of personality clashes and silly arguments over the use of keyboards on the new album. Like I kept trying to explain to Amy, if each party is fully committed, a loving couple can work through anything, even a long distance relationship from SUNY New Paltz. But Eddie and Dave couldn’t make it work either and my youth came crashing to an end: the original Van Halen disbanded, high school was over, my girlfriend was moving away, and I was too old for bike camp.
When Van Halen reunited with Diamond Dave for a tour a five years ago, I was there. I never got a chance to see them in their prime, but despite the passage of thirty years, Eddie played seamlessly while smiling his way through the show. It’s unbelievable how distant summer days came flooding back on that humid night at Jones Beach Amphitheater on August 13, 2015. As the less nimble David Lee Roth sang, I was suddenly transported to 1978 and hanging out with Bill Jr., since deceased, awaiting each new Van Halen record, cycling around America carefree, and running into Eddie and Valerie. I told my concert mate the story, savoring the smallest details in retrospect. “You saw Valerie BER-TIN-ELLI up close; was she as hot in real life?!” I’m just glad Kent wasn’t there to make a complete drooling fool of himself. And, yes, Kent, Valerie was positively gorgeous and enchanting.
I always wonder how I would react if I had it to do over again. Anything I can think of is so trite. The memory now is almost better because so little happened, or I could have been telling the story quite differently:
“…and outta nowhere, the dude in the suit hauls off and punches me right in the throat and twists my arm behind my back. And, I’m just joking around with Ed and Val! Turns out…that guy was their bodyguard.”
Instead of regretting an embarrassing encounter for the last 36 years, I can simply appreciate how kind that Hollywood couple was to a random dog and star-struck teen on a New York City street. It was great to share one quick but unforgettable moment with them.
Postscript: October 7, 2020
For us metalheads, Eddie Van Halen was the king of shredders. Hard rock would have plodded along just fine with Iommi, Blackmore, and Page riffs, but when he brought his solos and string tapping technique to the masses, rock and roll turned to metal, and Eddie set the benchmark for future guitarists.
Yes, Eddie was adept at playing soft, slow, and sweet, but we couldn’t wait for him to go loud, fast, and crunchy. Guys tried to play faster with as much to flash as they could muster, but even the deftest picking and fretboard gymnastics fell short of Eddie’s virtuosity. Arena rock and the Los Angeles scene of the 1980s would have been a lot different without Van Halen. Not only did he heavily influence local musicians, but also Texas thrasher Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott of Pantera, San Francisco’s Metallica riff artist Kirk Hammett, and even Alice in Chain’s grunge rocker Jerry Cantrell up in Seattle, just to name a few.
Eddie Van Halen died on October 6, 2020, in Santa Monica, CA, at the age of 65, and it is truly the end of an era spanning thirteen albums and more than 40 years of touring. There will never be another Van Halen, and there certainly will never be another Eddie. Frankly, I’m not sure if there’s much left to be done with the guitar after Eddie put it down for the last time.