Van Halen and Definition of an Era

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As tail-end Gen X, I missed the moment of raw excitement over Van Halen. “Jump” was just part of the soundtrack of my single-digits day camp experience (when some counselors got in trouble for putting Risky Business on the TV on a rainy day when we were stuck inside, although this scene is all I remember seeing). By the time I was old enough to pay attention, Eddie Van Halen was the soloist on a Michael Jackson song, his guitar playing was presented as the emblem of 1985 in Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox, “Everybody Wants Some” was the soundtrack to a bizarre claymation scene in Better Off Dead, with John Cusack… oh, and Sammy Hagar was the lead singer of the band.

In 1991, a local radio station came to my New Jersey high school after the final bell and gave out tickets to a concert that night at what was then known as Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands. They made it seem like a contest or competition, but it was obvious that anybody who wanted to would get in.

From the perspective of 2020, it’s kind of crazy to think that Van Halen and upstart opening act Alice in Chains couldn’t sell out the arena, but there it was… free tickets and all, the big, open space felt empty nonetheless.  It was a strange moment in music history.

Grunge was only about to kick off.  Alice in Chains was the first out of the gate, with “Man in the Box,” and I remember being engrossed in the video on MTV at my grandparents’ house and thinking, “What is this?”  Contrasted with Van Halen in 1991, Alice in Chains was so much cooler, and as an early fan, I noticed the kids around me not quite getting it as the band thrashed around on the stage.  They had rock bands’ usual air of contempt for convention, but at long last, rock itself had become the convention.  Alice in Chains’ antics on stage emanated this ambiguous vibe of sincere imitation and mockery, as if to say, “Yeah, we get the game, and we don’t even care how this comes off.”  (This may be a recording of that show.)  A few months later, Nirvana would bring this attitude truly mainstream with the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Then Van Halen came on the stage. To be honest, what I remember most was that every. member. of. the. band. did an interminable solo. Guitar. Bass. Drums. Then Sammy Hagar with an acoustic set that had me (at least) wanting to chant, “Bring back David Lee. Bring back David Lee.”

Looking back, I think that misstep was a sort of tribute to their bandmate, Eddie.  In the ’80s, in the ’90s… even now… a 10-20 minute solo by Eddie Van Halen is riveting, but in 1991, everybody in the band wanted to be that guy, and they weren’t.  They were great enough to be in one of the greatest rock bands, but only Eddie was Van Halen in that respect.

Culturally, grunge music captured a feeling in my generation that we were generally safe, an awareness that we were more physically comfortable than any generation in history, but a gnawing sensation that we were missing something.  In contrast, Eddie Van Halen’s style of guitar playing (incorporating his incredible talent and skill) was perhaps the clearest expression of the leading-edge Gen X feeling of “We ain’t missing nothing at all.  Life is fun.  Youth is wild.  Let’s play.”

Now the news comes that he has passed away after a decade-long battle with throat cancer, at 65.  I’m not sure that his band is timeless in the way that the Beatles or even Led Zeppelin are, but that only amplifies his own role in defining an era, and we’re fortunate that his era was one with audio and video recording so we can be reminded that it is possible to have moments of sheer enjoyment of our talents and others’.