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Remembering the awesomeness of Eddie Van Halen

Lonn M. Friend, author of "Life on Planet Rock," remembers the awesomeness of guitarist Eddie Van Halen.
Eddie Van Halen performs onstage at Lewisham Odeon, London, May 27, 1978. Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns.

Eddie Van Halen performs onstage at Lewisham Odeon, London, May 27, 1978. Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns.

By Lonn M. Friend

I’m anxious, cruising around the massive campus trying to find a parking space so I can register for classes. It’s my junior year at UCLA, fall of ’78, still haven’t got the hang of this ominous institute. The radio is blasting KMET, a little bit o’ heaven 94.7. I spot a car exiting and proceed safely forward, the engine to my powder blue Pontiac LeMans revs and rolls. Just before I turn the ignition key to its off position. a hypnotizing sound fills the cabin. Synthetic, swirling, savage. The bass notes rattle like the Jurassic footsteps of an approaching T Rex. Then the riff. Brutal, monstrous. I’m lockjawed, speechless. Then the voice. “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow, all I have, I had to steal.” What the f**k?! Three minutes and 31 seconds later, I’m frozen in place by this strange new sonic spacecraft hovering above my post-teen crown like a UFO over Sedona. So it began. Over the decades, I owned every LP, from Dave through Sammy. In 1988, we met the band at the Sheraton Universal Hotel lobby for a RIP magazine cover shoot and I attended three Monsters of Rock shows that summer where VH headlined a bill that included Kingdom Come, Dokken, Metallica and Scorpions.

August 7, 2004, less than a year into my desert divorce exile, Van Halen performed at the Mandalay Bay Arts Center. According to local writer, Spencer Patterson, the show started slow but finished strong. All eyes were on King Edward for his triumphant return to the neon jungle. “Bare-chested with his curly hair well below his shoulders, the 49-year-old guitarist appeared in good health, roughly two years after announcing he was completely free of tongue cancer,” wrote Patterson in the Las Vegas Sun. “Fingers flying, the much-worshipped axeman worked through several varied movements, from a trippy opening passage to a breakneck middle section to a sinister-sounding duet with son Wolfgang to close. That set up the band’s big finale, as the quartet finally came through with the heavy hitters most of the crowd invariably came to hear. ‘Dreams’ and ‘When It’s Love’ got fans singing, but it was ’80s throwback ‘Panama’ that truly sent the arena into a frenzy, as Eddie’s guitar squealed and Hagar effectively handled Roth’s original vocals.”

A just turned 48-year-old divorcee was also in the house that night, gifted a pair of pit-passes that placed him (me) close enough to feel the sparks soaring off the wizard’s fretboard. Enjoying the stage front view with me were Eagles’ bassist, Timothy B. Schmit, Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart and music biz legend, Irving Azoff, who’d recently taken over the managerial reigns of the mighty VH. How do you think I got my pit passes? During one particular celestial shred, I pushed myself up against the barrier protecting the stage. Edward was maybe six feet away, on his knees, eyes rolled back into his sockets, blissfully present in the throes of a face-melting solo that rattled the craps tables in the casino so hard, dealers had to halt play. Okay, I’m embellishing, but if you ever had the intergalactic pleasure of beholding EVH do his thing live, you know what I’m talking about. He was simply the most insanely captivating and creative electric six string savant in the history of rock and roll.

The reunion tour in 2007, I drive alone to Phoenix. Arizona concert promoter, Danny Zelisko, has a ticket for me. “Can I go backstage after to say hi?” I ask the man writing the band a million-dollar check for the gig. “The brothers don’t see anybody. So that would be a no.” Ed was a private soul. He and my high school pal, Steve Lukather, were like brothers. I called Luke months ago to catch up on all things pandemic. I asked about Ed. “Not doing too well, it’s kinda bad,” he confessed. I could detect the despair in his voice and didn’t pry for details. After Ed’s passing, Luke posted the following comment in the Lefsetz Letter. “Edward Van Halen was one of the best friends I ever had. No one will ever be like Ed! I knew him as a close friend more than the guitar legend. I knew the man for 40+ years. The world has lost a game changer and someone I loved dearly.”

I witnessed the connection myself back in 1989 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, a double-barreled double bill for the ages. All the angel city-based axe masters were in attendance. I’m hanging with Slash, Dweezil Zappa and Lita Ford. Luke is roaming the backstage with Ed, doing his best to keep his pal’s cocktail glass full and out of protective wife, Valerie Bertinelli’s, line of sight. And though their marriage ended long ago, Ed and Val remained heart-connected, dedicated parents to their only child, Wolfie. As the legend drew his finale breaths, it was she who gently caressed the extraterrestrial digits that had dazzled fans across the Milky Way.

I’m having breakfast at the Valley’s storied pancake house, Du-par’s, on Ventura and Laurel Canyon in 2010. Ed walks in with his gal. He shakes my hand and we chat for five minutes, about Luke and life. That was the last time I saw him on or off stage. Christmas Day 2019, I visited the peacocks that roam free though the Arcadia neighborhood adjacent to Pasadena where the VH legend was born 45 years ago, cuing up Women and Children First for the drive. When Diamond Dave crooned, “Everybody wants some!” out the window, the peafowl puffed and spread their royal plumage, no doubt inspired by the track’s timeless energy. Age, entropy, the gravity of existence, disease and dystopia. Some departures ache more than others, like Lemmy, Glenn Frey, Bowie … and this one. The eruption you’re feeling is the throb and rattle of an avatar crossing over. King Edward is dead. Long live the King.

— Lonn M. Friend, RIP executive editor, author, Life on Planet Rock 

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