Almost one year to the day before Edward Van Halen died, I texted a friend whom I was pretty sure would know the answer to a question that had been troubling me for some time.
The answer: “Yes.” Just how badly, my friend wasn’t sure, but the general sense was that things were not good.
“Please keep this between us,” he added.
Over the past year, I’ve tried to brace myself for what I feared was coming. I don’t deal well with sadness and pain and grief and reminders of my own mortality and generally just being, you know, human … and so, in the hopes of softening the impact of the inevitable gut punch I knew most likely was coming, I did what I could to mentally prepare for the terrible news that finally arrived last Tuesday. I thought I was ready for it.
I was wrong.
Edward had battled cancer before and bounced back … and, as much as I’d tried to prepare myself for the worst, it turns out I couldn’t help but to hold out hope that he’d bounce back again. Turns out I wasn’t ready to live in a world in which the man whose music has played such a central role in my life is gone. Turns out I wasn’t ready to live in a world where Al’s brother is gone … where Wolf’s Dad is gone … where the possibility that Michael and Sammy might once again share the stage with The Brothers is gone … where the chance, however slim, of hearing a new Van Halen album and attending another Van Halen concert … is gone.
Turns out I was not the least bit ready to live in a world in which The Mighty Van Halen no longer exists.
I’ve already written at length about what a significant role Van Halen’s music, and the band itself, has played in my life. I am not a casual Van Halen fan. I am not even simply a hardcore Van Halen fan. I am a guy whose love for the band led me to a place where, for a couple of years, my life and career literally revolved around Van Halen.
When the news of Eddie’s death broke the other day, my phone started blowing up. Texts poured in from my parents, siblings, and friends from across the miles and throughout the years, all of whom know how important to me are Edward, his music, and his eponymous band. In the days since, some of those friends and I have continued to exchange memories and pictures … like this one:
That’s me on the left, standing with my two brothers-in-law and a friend who, thankfully for the three of us, does a more than serviceable job of covering Eddie Van Halen on guitar. It was taken four years ago, during an all-Van Halen jam session we had in my brother-in-law’s basement, which was a total fucking blast, because how could drinking some cold beers and covering Van Halen for several hours be anything but a total fucking blast?
You see, to those of us who fell in love with them in our youth, Van Halen has always been more than just a band, their songs have always been more than just music, and Eddie has always been more than just a guitar player; Van Halen was a mood, a lifestyle, a rallying cry, the musical accompaniment to which lifelong friendships were forged, and the soundtrack to some of the best times we’ve ever had.
There is something about the music Eddie makes that causes certain people’s internal tuning forks to vibrate at a frequency that nothing else can trigger. It is more than just a collection of musical notes that make up some catchy songs; it is a goosebump-inducing, fur-raising, otherworldly, euphoric sensation. Not everyone feels it, but, for those of us who do, I truly believe to the depths of my soul that we do so because part of Edward’s gift was his ability to channel through himself and into all of us whatever magic was being sent to him by the higher power he often said he believed channeled the music into him.
In December of 1997, I had the unbelievable privilege of spending the day at Edward’s home studio, and if you had told the teenage version of me that the 27-year-old version of me would one day spend almost two hours sitting on a couch in the lounge at Van Halen’s legendary 5150 recording studio interviewing Edward Van Halen, you’d probably have had to resuscitate me with a defibrillator. If you had further told me that, at one point, Edward would run out of the room and return with a guitar that he would then start playing after instructing me to keep time for him by stomping out a beat and slapping my thighs, I’d have … well, I’d have practiced the drums a lot more during the intervening years, is what I would have done, because, to be honest, I could barely get my limbs to cooperate, but still: the entire experience went well beyond my wildest dreams.
In addition to interviewing Edward, I, and the two friends with whom I visited the studio that day, took advantage of the rare opportunity we were given with our musical hero to tell him point blank just how much he and his music meant to us. It was a corny and cliche thing to do, and I distinctly remember thinking as the words of praise left my mouth that, by that point, a good two decades into being the most famous guitar player on earth, Edward was probably tired of being on the receiving end of such flattery … so you can imagine my surprise when his eyes filled with tears, just as mine are doing right now at the memory of it. I wish I could recall the words he then said, but, honestly, I was so overwhelmed by his reaction that I think it bordered on shock. Suffice it to say that he was genuinely moved by the knowledge that his music had touched us so deeply and profoundly, and I will be forever grateful for the gift he gave me in that moment. It is one thing to meet your musical hero and tell him how much he and his music mean to you; it is an entirely other thing to know for certain that hearing you say it really meant something to him.
It’s been four days since Eddie died, and today is the first day on which I’ve been able to listen to his music without becoming so overwhelmed by the sadness of his passing that I’ve had to turn it off; the entire catalog is on shuffle as I type this. It breaks my heart that this music that has always been synonymous with having the time of my life is now a memorial instead of an open-ended, magical journey that maybe, just maybe, will continue. God, how I’d hoped it would.
The tune that Edward was playing on his guitar in that trio of prized photographs that I’ve posted and tweeted and retweeted ad nauseam in recent days (and can you blame me?) was a never-released song titled “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” so named because, as he demonstrated to me in that moment, he’d conceived of having it seemingly end, only to then resume multiple times, each time accompanied by the lyric after which he’d titled it. He said that he planned to punctuate the actual ending with the lyric: “It’s over.”
It’s been almost 23 years since that day, and, during that time, there have been multiple occasions on which I believed Van Halen’s days of making music were over, only to be both surprised and elated when they again started playing.
I am heartbroken to know that, this time, it really, truly is over.
Rest in peace, Edward. Thank you for all the music & memories. I will forever cherish both.
Powerful. Wonderfully spoken ?
Jon Zal says
Kelly P says
Strangely, you’re the first person I thought of when I heard the sad news. A stranger on the internet whose writing I’ve enjoyed reading for the better part of a decade (can it really be that long?). I’m so sorry that you lost your musical hero. Rest in peace, EVH.
Jon Zal says
Thanks, Kelly. I appreciate it.
Patti Aliventi says
I’ve been fortunate to be friends with one of my music heroes as well, so I know what you mean. I’m scared of living in a world without those people who have been important in my life in ways they don’t realize.
Erika T says
This had me in tears.. I’ve been a fan for years & have been surprised at how much his death has upset & saddened me.. The music of my teenage years. So heartbreaking that he suffered so, he was a beautiful, incredibly gifted soul…. Thank you for sharing this..