TEEN MEMORIES OF EDDIE VAN HALEN
[Nyerges can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]
It was late Sunday night, and Eddie Van Halen had died 4 days earlier. My wife and I were on our way home and we were talking about my memories of Eddie. We felt inspired to go see the Van Halen landmark, the curb where Eddie carved his family name in wet cement many decades ago.
It was past 10 p.m. when we arrived at the curbside candle-lit landmark. “There it is,” I said. Fans had written messages on the sidewalk and left candles and paraphernalia all around the Van Halen inscription. Large letters spelling out VANHALEN decorated the lower walls of the line of stores.
As my wife and I took a few photos, fans continued to stop and take pictures, and talk about how they wish they had met Eddie. As I was telling stories to my wife of my high school youth, some people overheard and asked if I really knew Eddie.
“Yes, I knew Eddie,” I told them. “We hung out together in high school.”
People were impressed that someone who actually hob-knobbed with the Great Eddie could be there on that dark night. One man, a true devoted fan, drove over from Long Beach to honor the man’s shrine. A group of young people showed up, most dressed in hard rock-black – one with a guitar, and two with long hair just like Eddie -- to pay homage to The Man. These young men and women, were too young to know Eddie in the day, but old enough to have listened to and admired his music. During our short visit, maybe two dozen people came by and drove by to see the shrine.
I knew Eddie well enough. It began when I went to John Muir High School with David Roth, taking Spanish with Roth, and circulating in the same social circles. It was through David that I got to know Eddie Van Halen and the band. David Roth dated the sister of my best friend, and through Joe and Debbie Sierra, and John Linthurst, and the John Muir Conservation Club, I got to know David, and through David, I often went to the parties as the unpaid group photographer.
Eddie attended Pasadena High School on the other side of town, so we saw Eddie and the band on the weekends, or when the band was practicing in the sound-proofed back room of Homer Dollar’s home on Maiden Lane. My close friend John Linthurst rented the Dollar place, and so John would call me when the band was out back practicing, and I bicycled the short few blocks from my parents’ house to listen, and take pictures.
I liked Eddie. He was friendly, open, never conceited or preoccupied with himself as a star. I liked his smile and his enthusiasm. He very much reminded me of the humble nature of Jimi Hendrix. No, I never met Jimi, but I recall his quote saying that he never thought he was that good on guitar, and that he had so much more work to do. The true and deep artists are often that way, deep into the art, always looking for ways to improve and conquer the next challenge. So Eddie was like that – much more than an entertainer. He was the consummate artist.
I met Eddie, David, and the band in 1971 or ’72, during the time that they were evolving from “Mammoth” to “Van Halen.” We could not miss Eddie’s excellence. Of course, the fans focused on David too – he was the lead singer. In our little social group of friends and schoolmates, I don’t recall that anyone ever believed the group would hit the big time. Still, when we sat around talking about the things that high school people talked about, the talk would get around to Van Halen, and to Eddie.
I recall once when a friend was describing how Eddie was so good on guitar that he could exactly replicate Jimmy Page’s Led Zepplin songs, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton of Cream, and others. Eddie could replicate these masters so well that you could close your eyes and believe you were listening to them. Eddie was good, and everyone knew it.
I often felt a kinship with Eddie because our birthdays were so close. We were born in the same year, 1955, and he was born on January 26, about 2 weeks after my birth in Pasadena. Eddie was born in Amsterdam, and in 1967, his family settled into Pasadena. Born of musically talented parents, both Eddie and Alex were playing music from their early years. Eddie once shared that he’d never learned to read music, and that he just practiced all the time and learned to improvise.
My personal interactions with Eddie – mostly during the pre-fame days -- were brief and spotty, though he left a special mark on me.
I was their periodic photographer. When Van Halen was getting started, I was getting started with journalism at John Muir High School, and David always saw me with a camera – either super 8 video or 35 mm. He invited me to take their pictures, so I would drive with the band in their packed van to take photos at their gigs at the Cucamonga Connection. I also went to the Pasadena Civic, and various Pasadena backyards. One such backyard was within walking distance of my parents’ home on Los Robles Avenue.
David Roth always seemed to take the center stage and was the idol of all the teenage girls, which continued to bring in the crowds at their rented halls or backyards. Still, there would have been no Van Halen band without Eddie. And certainly, Alex the drummer kept the musical composition tightly woven with his technical mastery.
Though David seemed to do most of the talking and singing, Eddie did most of the smiling. Gregarious, positive, always friendly. I know that lots happened once they signed record deals and began touring, and I rarely saw any of them anymore. I would read about Eddie in the newspaper, or hear something on the radio, and always wondered how much was truth, and how much just part of the developing myth. I prefer to remember Eddie as the young and innocent teen who was my friend, and who never seemed puffed up with pride, and could genuinely smile at anyone in his circle, including me. I feel that Eddie played for the pure love of it, for the manifest expression of excellence, with no rival in recent memory except possibly Jimi Hendrix.
After we finished talking with the young fans at the street memorial, we went to the old Van Halen family home where a similar shrine had been set up. However, this felt different. It was quiet and dark. A couple quietly moved along as we walked up to the house. A few candles were lit on the sidewalk, barely making the shrine visible. There was a spiritual quality here, a solemn silence, and it felt as if Eddie was back at his old home, looking at friends and fans who came, pondering now whatever is next. I was there as a friend, not a “fan,” and I quietly let thoughts of Eddie fill my mind, in this place where the spirit of Eddie would be if it was anywhere.
After some moments of quiet reflection, we drove home.
Eddie, we’ll miss your smile and your musical genius. May your journey be filled with peace.