Music

The Ugly and Unlistenable Death Spiral of Eddie Van Halen

Has there been anything else remotely akin to the waste of potential, time, and opportunity that we’ve had the last two decades with Eddie Van Halen?

Sammy Hagar seldom disappoints. When I heard he was tapped to replace ass-clown extraordinaire David Lee Roth in 1985, I anticipated uninspiring results. I was correct (your mileage may vary). And when I saw there were "tell-all" excerpts from his new book in the latest Rolling Stone, I figured there would be some avert-your-eyes ugliness. I was correct.

Look: it's obvious that Hagar is a good businessman. The dude has made tens of millions from his own brand of tequila. Who knows how much coin he has pocketed from the Van Hagar albums and the recent tours? His book will sell plenty of copies and who can hassle that? The question could be begged: why would a very wealthy dude take the time to write a book detailing the degeneracy of his former bandmate? To make money, obviously. Of course, he also has a tale to tell, particularly as he may want to set the record straight regarding his involvement in the band (and the on-again/off-again status of the various redux reunions). It is a poorly-kept secret that Eddie Van Halen is difficult to get along with, and who could blame Hagar for wanting to put his imprint on the permanent record?

(Breaking news, real-time edit: he is now claiming he was abducted by aliens! And here I was, just praising his business acumen. Holy "let me learn from Charlie Sheen and up the ante to move more product", Batman!)

The parts of the book that focus on pre-and-post Van Halen life will probably appeal only to the most ardent Hagar fans (are there ardent Hagar fans? Anyone whose life has been missing the inside scoop of the Montrose years or an elaboration on why he can't drive 55?). And yet, whatever its literary merits, it may ultimately become a useful historical document. Since the semi-reclusive Eddie Van Halen is less than likely to ever write an autobiography, this may be the closest eye-witness account we'll ever get from someone who lived through it--not necessarily the good but definitely the bad and most definitely the ugly, of which more shortly. Not necessarily the studio antics that produced OU812 or F.U.C.K., but rather some explanation (or evidence) for why exactly Eddie Van Halen went from being one of the best guitarists of his generation to the punch-drunk burnout he's become.

What would we think of Eddie Van Halen if he had stopped making music in 1985? Imagine, instead of David Lee Roth's semi-forced departure, the band just ended?

Thanks to Roth's ego and ambition, we got Van Hagar, and it seems like most fans abruptly split into two camps: for it and against it. I did, and honestly still do, feel the naysayers' pain. I was never a die-hard Halen fan, though. I certainly appreciated 1984, like seemingly everyone else, but I definitely did not--and do not--consider it their masterpiece, like seemingly everyone else (for me, their high water mark remains Fair Warning which, despite some rough edges, still seems to represent the band at a creative peak and showcases EVH's most ambitious and impressive playing). For my money, it was a series of diminishing returns after this: splashes of brilliance and moments of unquestionable virtuosity, but due to alcohol, drugs, lack of inspiration, and laziness (likely some of all of these), Eddie Van Halen never really pushed himself like this again, so it didn't devastate me when Roth left. But I can imagine how I may have felt if Robert Plant had left Zeppelin, or, say, Corey Glover left Living Colour and I had to deal with the prospect of a replacement.

For all intents and purposes (at least as far as I'm concerned) the band did end in 1985. I was underwhelmed, then, to hear that the ever-uninspiring--if stand-up dude--Sammy Hager was stepping into Diamond Dave's stanky shoes. When I heard 5150 it did nothing to alter my expectations: it confirmed that this incarnation was softer, weaker, and ballad-y-er. Plenty of people dug it and it went straight to number one. Good for them.

Would anyone deny that the following 20 years have not been kind to EVH, or our ears? Lots of effort could be spent recapping the mistakes, false-starts, and artistic crimes, but as always, the tale of the tape is the unkindest--and most undeniable--cut of all. Van Halen (and/or Van Hagar) have toured the nation several times, and given young fans the chance to see the aged juggernaut in action (and old fans presumably a chance to practice some serious denial about the band and themselves), and made tens of millions in the process. Good for them.

Let's look at what the years have wrought, with a version of "Eruption" from the recent tour, followed by EVH in his prime.

1978, prime pickin':

Not fair to compare?

Well, I certainly would concur that it's not reasonable to expect most mortal musicians to duplicate (much less improve upon) work they did in their youth (this is one difference between jazz and rock, both in terms of the music and the musicians). However, EVH is not a mortal, right? There are some (many, in fact) who make a case for him being the best guitarist ever.

No one is going to deny that Van Halen's debut album signified the most important guitar-playing of the decade in terms of its influence and the shadow it cast, not only on every other band going forward, but Van Halen itself. The next two albums were, depending on one's preferences and perspective, half-pint masterpieces or hit-and-miss affairs with wonderful statements crammed alongside a great deal of filler, half-baked locker room braggadocio, and the ever-juvenile histrionics of David Lee Roth. It was a tad bit more topical and several degrees of proficiency removed from, say, Kiss, but not many people with a great deal of credibility are going to claim Van Halen II or Women and Children First are top-shelf rock (or even Van Halen) albums.

After Fair Warning, which in this writer's opinion --and as already stated-- contained EVH's best playing and far and away the band's most consistent--and consistently rewarding--cycle of songs, the band took a victory lap with the at-times impressive and much more carefree Diver Down. Then came 1984, and Halen had fully arrived: the biggest band in the world. In typical rock fashion, it all fell apart. In fairness, this had almost everything to do with Roth's megalomania (Dave TV, anyone?), and as soon as the split was official, the band made it clear how brutal working/living with Roth really was. However, It seemed clear the, and is painfully obvious now that the marriage could--and should--have lasted a lot longer than it did for all involved.

After that? We have witnessed one of the longest, ugliest, and most difficult to watch death spirals in rock history. Certainly there have been waste-of-life flameouts like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, as well as abrupt, self-inflicted departures of which Kurt Cobain will likely remain the damaged, dark-angel prototype, and the garden variety excess-driven down-shifts (think Keith Richards and, to a lesser extent, Pete Townshend). But has there been anything else remotely akin to the waste of potential, time, and opportunity that we've had with EVH? To me it's not even debatable: whether he is the second-best or 22nd-best guitarist; even if he is the 92nd-best we are talking about an artist everyone would agree was--through the typical combination of hard work, good fortune and inexplicable gifts--a once-in-a-generation type of talent.

Which brings us back to Sammy "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" Hagar. What happened to Eddie Van Halen? To read Hagar telling it, it was a lot of drinking, drugging, and the obliterated gray area those activities, when pursued without restraint, can result in (if an image can convey a thousand mini tragedies, the documented sight of EVH, circa 2004, missing several teeth and the rest blackened from red wine and cigarettes, lisping because of the third of his tongue being removed to treat mouth cancer, could do the trick). Hagar should know, he was there, and if even a third of what he describes in the Rolling Stone sampler is true, it's equal parts pathetic and unforgivable.

You may ask: Why bring the notion of forgiveness in? Who does EVH have to apologize to, and what for? Well, himself, for starters. Whether you believe in divine forces or the luck of the draw--not that the two are mutually exclusive--EVH was endowed with uncanny skills that a million monkeys with a million wah-wah pedals could never begin to imitate. That he has not treated his good fortune with the respect and humility it requires is a given; that he has made a mockery of his possible greatness is also a given, and a travesty.

To add insult to injury, he is by most accounts (Hagar's being only the most recent, and obvious) more than slightly mean-spirited and petty. Consider his treatment of former bassist Michael Anthony, the man some might insist has always been the heart and soul of the band. But that speaks for itself, and does not necessarily have anything to do with the music. To be certain, plenty of effulgent artists have been less than admirable for their people skills. Some of the best artists, across all genres, have been downright antisocial. It does not excuse the behavior or exonerate them from culpability for the lives they left in their wake, but if the art was glorious we tend to overlook the eccentricity. In EVH's case, it seems that the artistic and personal have long co-existed in a sort of poisonous, self-abasing cyclone that leaves damaged relationships and mediocre music in an extended, ugly trail.

So what? Well, Norman Mailer once made the harsh if largely accurate declaration that J.D. Salinger was the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school. Unless we are about to see the most miraculous and unanticipated resurrection since Lazarus, it seems safe to sadly suggest Eddie Van Halen is the greatest guitarist never to leave the frat house.

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