Eddie Van Halen died today of cancer at 65 years old. The sad news took me right back to that moment I first heard him shred.
I was at home after school and the short instrumental “Eruption,” going into a hard cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” came on the kitchen radio from DC-101, a rock FM station in D.C. And I remembered talking about the flight-of-the-bumblebee guitar licks the next day in the hallways with others who’d also just discovered the band through their debut record, and how me and my fellow suburban dirtballs bonded on its wondrousness and agreed that we’d never heard anything like it.
I don’t recall, however, how we described all the echo-soaked, harmonic-laden speed runs and whammy bar dives, because “shredding” wasn’t in our or anybody’s vocabulary yet. There was no need for such a word until Eddie Van Halen showed up.
My relationship with hard rock was on the rocks at the time. Rolling Stone’s review of the Van Halen debut predicted that the band would “follow Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet” and I guess I wouldn’t have argued too much, at least before hearing "Eruption." I'd actually seen Zeppelin live only months earlier, but I was definitely moving away from arena bands that had guitar heroes and getting into acts that didn’t get mainstream airplay but made me feel cooler, like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and Bob Marley.
Van Halen put that migration on pause.
After learning of Eddie's death, I went to Youtube and looked up the tracks, to see if the blizzard of notes that introduced me to him would be as revelatory and great to my geezer self as I found them as a teen all those years ago.