Michael Levin: Eddie Van Halen played soundtrack for my generation — his death shows even rock gods are mortal
The soundtrack to the lives of many of my fellow American baby boomers features song after song from the matchless guitar (the Frankenstrat) of Eddie Van Halen, who died of cancer Tuesday at age 65.
Van Halen’s hits included “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Unchained,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Panama,” and “Dance the Night Away.”
But for my friends and me, above all, there was “Jump.”
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the band Van Halen was at its peak, rock stars were gods who bestrode the Earth, unbound by the petty bourgeois rules of life. They shattered norms as well as hotel room furniture, living the dreams of pretty much every post-pubescent male.
And Eddie Van Halen and his vocalist David Lee Roth— and then after Roth left, Sammy Hagar — were rock gods incarnate. You look back today at the rock video for “Jump” and you see they were so young and having so much fun.
We were young, too, and we expressed our anti-authoritarian natures vicariously through bands like Van Halen. Our lives were placid by comparison as we took the SATs, went to college and sometimes grad school, and moved into the world of grownups.
We were the ego; Van Halen was the id.
The thing about rock stars is that they are supposed to never have any problems. They have managers, roadies, publicists, drug dealers, nasty lawyers and tax accountants whose job is to make problems go away, so they can do what they do best — live like rock stars and make great music.
So it’s not just jarring but it’s bewildering to learn that even rock gods are mortal. In his later years, Eddie Van Halen underwent the kind of health problems that aren’t supposed to bedevil rock stars — tongue cancer, a hip replacement, diverticulosis.
Rockers punish their bodies with alcohol, drugs, endless travel, and late nights that turn into early mornings that turn into five-day runs. It’s an always-on lifestyle. But somehow, if they can somehow make it out of their 20s, it’s never supposed to turn into illness or death.
Look at the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are still going strong. The two remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, appear to have suffered no ill effects from their well-documented Dionysian salad days.
So why couldn’t Eddie Van Halen live forever?
In his heyday, Eddie didn’t seem like grownup, a decade older than his audience, playing music for us kids. He was one of us. He seemed to be our age. He came from a musical family and worked at his craft from childhood, forming bands and learning from his guitar gods, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
Van Halen broke free of the responsibilities the rest of us faced — getting an education, going to work every morning, worrying about paying the mortgage, and getting to bed on time. Like the joke about workers in the city morgue, rock stars’ days begin when our day ends.
On their videos, members of the band Van Halen look like they’re having the time of their lives. The big hair. The crazy rock star clothing that you or I would have been too uptight to wear even on Halloween. The leering, androgynous glances at the camera. The joyous dashing around the stage, leaning against each other as they played and sang, secure in the knowledge that their lives were demonstrably better than ours.
Not all of the rockers made it out of their youth, of course. Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman all died before they got old. But they were from the previous generation, all a decade older than we were.
When Ric Ocasek of The Cars passed away last fall, we had the same reaction. Hard to believe, but the guy was 75; a decade older than the oldest of our older siblings
Not Eddie. He was one of us.
So Eddie’s death hits home in a way that the other losses do not, because despite everything that he put himself through, he’s still our peer, still the guitar god in the “Jump” video.
And now, he always will be.