Reflecting on Van Halen

A couple of weeks ago on a work trip I spent time with a coworker friend I hadn’t seen since before COVID; he’s a guitarist, and in our catching up we talked about the sadness of losing Eddie Van Halen in 2020.

My first memory of listening to music of any kind is hearing Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption at the age of 4. I grew up worshiping the Van Halen brothers. You may have seen the Netflix series Unsolved, on the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls; one of the characters is played by actress Laurie Fortier, who was my neighbor as a kid. Her dad was the band doctor for Van Halen.

I started playing the drums in 2nd grade, and Alex Van Halen was one of my main inspirations.

When I was a scout, we went on an overnight hike in the mountains near L.A. and that night another scout tipped over a large coffee can of boiling water onto my leg. It melted part of my hiking boot and went through to my leg. I ripped off my boot and then ripped off my sock. But what I didn’t realize was that some of my burned skin was stuck to the inside of my sock, so when I ripped off the sock, I ended up ripping off a huge patch of skin from my leg. Our leaders put rags of cold water onto my leg, water from a stream nearby. We wrapped it up and a friend of mine offered to let me use his walkman to try to sleep. One of the tapes he had was Van Halen’s Diver Down, so I laid there shaking in pain, listening to Diver Down all night until we were able to get me to a doctor the next day.

After my mission I became more selective in the music I listened to, and I wondered if I would ever like Van Halen again. I do. To this day, I sometimes loudly serenade my wife on family road trips with Pretty Woman. Every time I get new speakers or new headphones, I put them to the test using the Alex Van Halen drum solo Doin’ Time from the album Balance. It never gets old. Alex’s playing is a combination of aggression and finesse, a little messy like Keith Moon was. Alex might be my all-time favorite drummer. Before Jan Van Halen (Eddie and Alex’s father) died in 1986, he expressed his desire to see his sons become sober. Alex did become sober, and in later years he became an ordained minister. Eddie’s sobriety was off and on over the years; he would struggle with addiction until the end of his life.

A very few of us Van Halen fans think Mine All Mine (from OU812) is one of the best Van Halen songs, and it might be the best from the Hagar era. Sammy Hagar wrote the lyrics, and they’re an interesting contrast with Runnin’ With The Devil, the first song on the first Van Halen album. Mine all Mine begins as follows:

Oh, forgive me father, for I have sinned
I’ve been through hell and back again
I shook hands with the devil
Looked him in the eye
Looked like a long lost friend
Oh, anything you want, any dirty deeds
He’s got everything except what I really need
Keepin’ me temporarily satisfied
But not one thing I’ve tried
Filled me up inside or felt like mine
Mine all mine

The rest of the song basically offers Sammy’s disillusionment with the idea of organized religion, and presents a simple kind of – I guess? – humanism as an alternative. After the Sammy Hagar era, Van Halen did one album and tour with lead singer Gary Cherone, who tried to take the band in a more reflective direction, and they ended up parting ways amicably.

When Van Halen ended up reuniting with David Lee Roth, I had a heavy heart. I didn’t see them on any of their tours. I thought Eddie needed better influences in his life. Alex, and Eddie’s ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli, were both great for Eddie. But Eddie needed to accept some kind of consistent spiritual guidance, and he needed to sever bad influences from his life. I don’t think he ever did those things on a consistent enough basis to free him from his demons.

When Eddie died, for me it felt like being stabbed with a dagger. I’m still a Van Halen fan, even though I’m more selective about my music choices as time goes on. And with my recent study of Christian and Buddhist conceptualizations of the demonic, I see in Eddie’s life and music a struggle against those influences. I wish he had surrounded himself with more friends who could have modeled for him how wholeness looks and feels.

On my list of souls I want to hug when I get to the other side, Eddie Van Halen is near the top.

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