Eddie Van Halen: Lord of the six strings

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on October 08, 2020

Jump: Eddie’s eight-finger tap became his signature move, with both his hands tapping the fretboard of the guitar to produce magic for the ears   -  REUTERS

A tribute to Eddie Van Halen whose raw punch-in-the-gut guitar riffs stood gloriously up to the ravages of rock ’n’ roll

The year 2020 may be drawing to a close, but it is yet to cease claiming from the world those who have provided its inhabitants with unalloyed aural joy. On October 6, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle to throat cancer and the loss hurts more than words can capture.

To call Edward Lodewijk Van Halen a genius would be an oversimplification, a boxing in of talent that defied tradition with unabashed glee. Born January 26, 1955, to a multi-instrumentalist Dutch father and an Indonesian mother, Eddie moved to the US with his family in 1962. The piano was his first encounter with a musical instrument. Though he and his brother Alex were regular in their lessons, Eddie never really learnt to read music, and would joyfully improvise the classical pieces he was given to learn. Tickling the ivories did not provide much of a challenge to the young and the restless, and when Alex started learning the guitar, Eddie bought himself a drum kit. But the brothers soon switched instruments and roles after Alex performed a blistering drum solo at practice. The script for an enduring love affair was taking shape. Eddie would carry a six-string guitar everywhere, walking around with it strapped to his body, before sitting down to coax every note out of it over hours of solitary practice. Lunchtime at The Hamilton Elementary School in Pasadena, California, became the appointed hour for the boys to let loose as they, along with two others, formed The Broken Combs. This was where Eddie felt the first stirrings of a desire to become a professional musician.

In 1972, the brothers had formed another band which, two years later, they named Van Halen. Los Angeles was their playground, and Eddie’s sonic boom was resonating across the finest clubs on the scene. The echoes reached Warner Records with whom they signed a contract in 1977 for their first album.

February 10, 1978, saw the release of Van Halen. What the album lacked in imaginative naming, it made up in the searing set list. It peaked at number 19 on Billboard charts, and remains one of the most successful débuts of all time. Jump became a commercial hit, a rock radio staple, and a joyous ode to the spirit of rock. But it was the red-hot opener to the album that had the world sit up and drop their jaws in wonder. Eruption was precisely 102 seconds of sonic mayhem, a raw punch in the gut that displayed Eddie’s mastery of a technique employed by flamenco guitarists, but had not been used to such devastating effect in rock. He named it the eight-finger tap, and it became his signature move, both his hands tapping the fretboard of the guitar to produce magic for the ears. Never one to hold back, Eddie’s high-octane stage presence and explosive, often show-offy guitar solos, and white hot guitar runs on the iconic songs were elevating Van Halen to the pantheon of greatness. Each album name came with its own back story. While one was named after his home studio which borrowed from how the California law enforcement termed a mentally disturbed person — 5150 — another played with words and numbers — OU812. Yet another gave hormone-laden teenagers something to giggle about with the all too obvious acronym — For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Van Halenhad come a long way from their relatively unimaginative début nomenclature inspiring a whole generation of guitar players to embrace their sound.

As the stage was being set on fire by the incandescence of his talent, the flip side of the fame coin was becoming all too obvious. Having taken to smoking and drinking at age 12, Eddie’s adulthood had fallen prey to alcoholism. He had to enter rehab in 2007 when he was 52. He won that battle, claiming to have been sober ever since.

Yet, the physical toll of channelling that powerhouse talent was too high. All his acrobatics on stage led to a hip replacement surgery in 1999. The following year saw him battle tongue cancer, that he claimed, in a 2015 interview with NME magazine, was caused, in part, by his habit of keeping guitar picks in his mouth. “I used metal picks — they’re brass and copper — which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer... I mean, I was smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything. But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it’s possible,” he had said. It claimed a third of his tongue, but he recovered by 2002. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2019, and that battle proved too much for a body that had so gloriously stood up to the ravages of rock ’n’ roll. One could of course talk about the acrimony with the lead singers of Van Halen, the flashy playing and the theatrics. But all that gets drowned by the sounds of the legacy Eddie Van Halen has left behind. For all those moments of pure, unadulterated, teeth-clenching, fist-pumping, head-banging joy, thank you does not suffice. But, thank god for the rewind button.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi;

Twitter: @radiochaos

Published on October 08, 2020

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