Guitar Hero

Alex Abramovich

I hadn’t thought much about Eddie Van Halen since 1984, an album that was all over American radio the year I turned 12. But since his death earlier this month I’ve been thinking about him a lot, thanks to Greg Tate, the cultural critic and a co-founder, in the 1980s, of the Black Rock Coalition. ‘The Rolling Stone obit doesn’t even mention Eddie Van Halen’s Indonesian mother,’ Tate wrote on Facebook. ‘One very very baad baad man on the axe, no doubt, needless to say, but you know we couldn’t resist pointing out the de-bi-racialization of the Van Halen brothers by the white rock coalition media.’

This was news to me. Eddie Van Halen as bi-racial hero? ‘It’s all here,’ Kurt Loder had said, presenting an MTV rockumentary about the band in 1989. But MTV hadn’t mentioned Van Halen’s mother, Eugenia. Nor do any of the reference books I’ve flipped through. According to his Allmusic biography, ‘Edward Lodewijk Van Halen’ was born on 26 January 1955 in the Netherlands, and ‘moved with his family to the US’ in the 1960s – and that’s that.

And yet, here’s Van Halen in 2015, speaking as part of a Smithsonian project called What It Means to Be American:

Let me start off by saying, my father was a professional musician, classically trained on clarinet and saxophone, and he travelled the world making music, and he met my mother in Indonesia. Indonesia used to be a Dutch province, and after the war they had a choice to either remain under their rule or move back to Holland, and they opted to move back to Holland – where life became a little rough, because my mom became a second class citizen, because she was Indonesian.

In the Q&A at the end, a boy asks: ‘When you first came to America, what was your first day of school like?’

‘Oh, it was absolutely frightening,’ Van Halen says:

You’re in a whole country where you can’t speak the language, you know absolutely nothing about anything … The school that we went to was still segregated at the time, believe it or not. And since we couldn’t speak the language, we were considered a minority. My first friends in America were black. Their names were Steven and Russell and we became fast friends because I could outrun them. But, you know, it was actually the white people that were the bullies. They would tear up my homework papers, make me eat playground sand and all these things, and the black kids stuck up for me.

Eddie was seven when he came to America; his brother, Alex, was nine. The family settled in Pasadena, where Jan Van Halen swept floors and washed dishes and Eugenia worked as a maid. They shared a two-bedroom house with another family, living in one room and sleeping in one bed. It was not the American dream. But, gradually, Jan started to play, professionally, on the weekends – weddings, bar mitzvahs. Eddie and Alex were musically gifted; Eugenia hoped they would grow up to be pianists. They’d tag along with their dad and sit in, even though Ed was incredibly shy. When he was 12, Van Halen recalled, Jan gave him a shot of vodka and a Pall Mall to help him get over his stage fright – and that set him on a course that he followed for decades.

‘I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Malt tails,’ Van Halen said in 1996. ‘My brother would go out at 7 p.m. to party and get laid, and when he’d come back at 3 a.m., I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years – I still do that.’

‘I didn’t drink to party,’ he told Billboard in 2015, after eight years sober. ‘Alcohol and cocaine were private things to me. I would use them for work. The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions. I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state.’

The drinking and smoking and drugs took their toll: a busted marriage; the cancer that killed him. But you wouldn’t know it from Van Halen’s playing, which was as euphoric as it was virtuoso. Two things are ever-present in footage of him from the 1980s: the cigarette and the shit-eating grin. It’s as if Van Halen himself can’t quite believe what he’s hearing.

I was too young to understand what that sound represented in Ronald Reagan’s America. A sort of frictionless forward momentum – the sound of unfettered capitalism, perhaps. (In a review of Van Halen’s1981 album Fair Warning, Robert Christgau praised Eddie’s lyricism and expressiveness, only to conclude unkindly: ‘What he’s expressing is hard to say. Technocracy putting a patina on cynicism, a critic might say.’) On ‘Panama’, the third track on 1984, Van Halen hooked a microphone up to his Lamborghini Miura – even though the roar of the engine wasn’t anything he couldn’t replicate on his guitar. But the band needed David Lee Roth for a frontman: his sense of irony kept the whole enterprise from spiralling off into Spinal Tap levels of self-parody. When Roth quit, after 1984, Van Halen really did start to sound like technocrats.

By then, they had already inspired a generation of pop-metal ‘hair’ bands. ‘Don’t blame me,’ Van Halen would say whenever he was asked about it. But for a long time he was blamed, if only by proxy. Charles Cross tells a grim story in Heavier than Heaven, his 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain, about Van Halen drunk backstage at a Nirvana concert in 1993, ‘begging’ Krist Novolesic, Nirvana’s bassist, ‘to let him jam’:

Kurt arrived only to see his one-time hero collapsing toward him with his lips puckered, like a toasted Dean Martin in a bad Rat-Pack skit. ‘No, you can’t play with us,’ Kurt flatly announced. ‘We don’t have any extra guitars.’ Van Halen didn’t grasp this obvious lie and pointed to [Nirvana’s second guitarist] Pat Smear, shouting: ‘Well, then let me play the Mexican’s guitar. What is he, is he Mexican? Is he black?’

I wonder what Eddie’s friends Steven and Russell, wherever they may be, would make of that anecdote – whether or not they’d call bullshit. It reminded me of John Darnielle’s essay ‘The Persistence of Hair’:

'You can’t stop rock and roll,’ as Twisted Sister informed the world on its second album … [But] when, in the commercial aftermath of the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, it became clear that no one cared enough about Twisted Sister’s style of rock and roll to attack it, the genre lost much of its reason to go on.

It reminds me of Lester Bangs, too, and the way that the proto-punk Stooges made more sense to him as a foil for more popular, less ‘authentic’ bands. (‘Can you imagine Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant conning the audience,’ Bangs wrote, ‘or Jimmy Page’s arch scowl of supermusician ennui?’)

In the end, Darnielle, Cross and Bangs were all writing about power, and projections of power. But does the idea of Eddie Van Halen as a bi-racial hero turn those ideas on their head? Just as the notion of Eddie Van Halen drinking and snorting cocaine so that he can stay up and work through the night, after already playing for hours, fucks with the idea of ‘partying’?

Why does it have to be either/or, anyway? Why not the Stooges and Led Zeppelin? Van Halen, as well as Nirvana? What does the narcissism of small differences do for us, in the end, except keep us from enjoying one another’s music?

And yet, separation and segregation seem to be the working model – in the music industry, no less than in other American places. That’s the reason Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson enlisted Van Halen to play the guitar solo on ‘Beat It’, after all. MTV wasn’t playing too many black artists in the early 1980s, and it certainly wasn’t playing them in the prime time slots. Thriller was Jackson’s best effort at scaling the walls. Thanks, in part, to Van Halen, who didn’t even think to ask for a fee, he succeeded. And there’s an interesting sound that immediately precedes Van Halen’s contribution: a knocking sound. (Jackson made it by banging on a drum case.) It’s as if Jones and Jackson are saying: ‘Hello, here we are. We brought Eddie Van Halen. May we come in, this time through the front door?’

It’s hard to imagine, today, that MTV needed the prodding in 1982. (It did.) It’s equally hard to believe that schools in California were still segregated, sixteen years after Brown v. Board of Education. (They were.) But that’s the America Eddie Van Halen arrived in. In the ways he could, it’s the America he helped to remake.


  • 31 October 2020 at 1:02am
    Mike Smith says:
    Thanks for this. Fascinating details and a crucially important idea - that binary constructions trap us, reducing culture to Coke or Pepsi. Beatles or Stones (sub genre: John or Paul) Rollins or Coltrane - when clearly the answer is, yes, both. And more.

  • 31 October 2020 at 4:26pm
    william earley says:
    Having known EVH for over thirty years, I can testify that his genius over-came the very price of that gift----he worked hard, partied diligently, and
    never surrendered to any thing mediocre. in the end, that unwillingness to compromise and his relentless drive to please those near him cost him dearly.

  • 3 November 2020 at 5:49pm
    Matt Damsker says:
    (Not) hard to believe MTV was essentially segregated in 1982 -- which David Bowie confirmed famously in his interview with a clueless MTV-JAY, Mark Goodman, back then. Goodman answered Bowie's pointed query about black artists being un-represented on the channel with a deflatingly racist company line, and Bowie's wry, headmaster-ish acknowledgement said it all. Anyone paying attention stared blankly from their little TV set toward their collection of Motown singles. Knowing more about Eddie's origin would have been manna back then.

  • 7 November 2020 at 2:11am
    Myotonic Jerk says:
    You will be pleased to read that van Halen's passing was properly noted in the Jakarta Post...