Edward Van Halen: A Brand Study in Joy
What he - and his music - meant to me (and the world)
I knew him as if he were a member of my own family; however, he didn’t have a clue I existed.
I never met him or shook his hand, but he was as familiar to me as the roof of my own mouth.
I never shared a beer with him, though he was at just about every party I’ve ever attended.
I never stepped on a plane with him nor shared a hotel room, yet he has accompanied me on every trip I’ve taken.
He never put his arm around me to help me through a difficult time, although he was always there to lift me when I needed it.
When he passed away last week after a decades-long battle with cancer, I felt the loss deeply as anyone who losses a lifelong friend.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about Edward Van Halen – founder and guitar player of my favorite band, Van Halen. Since his passing, there have been many outpourings of love, sharing of memories, and expressions of sadness at losing a “guitar god.” It was surreal to see so much coverage for a man – and style of music – that has mostly been ignored or forgotten by the music business today. It’s also been incredible to see both Millennials and Gen Z be so open to experiencing Edward Van Halen and his guitar genius.
My purpose in writing this blog isn’t to explain how he revolutionized the guitar much in the same way that Jimi Hendrix did for the previous generation – you can read that all over the internet starting right here. Instead, I want to share why his death slammed into me like a freight train careening into a Mini Cooper at 70 mph even though I never met him. I suppose it goes back to my introduction to Eddie and the band.
I still recall the angry yet melodic tones of his signature guitar solo, “Eruption,” the first time I heard it in 1980 courtesy of a neighbor. At the time, my favorite bands were AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest. Clearly, I’ve always been drawn to loud, rude, and aggressive guitar-driven music. But Van Halen was just….well…different. At first, I noticed the energy that was both palpable and infectious. The sound and speed were equally ferocious as the music assailed the senses. However, more than anything, there was a joy in Eddie’s playing that simply exploded through my crappy Panasonic 8-track payer. At a time when hard rock music was dominated by brooding, dark, and angry overtines, his playfulness, fun, sense of humor, and happiness hooked me and still does today.
Then, I saw them live in Dallas, TX, at Reunion Arena in 1982 during the “Hide Your Sheep” tour. As I mentioned above, the band had a great sense of humor. It was a birthday present and my first concert where my parents didn’t go with me – big stuff for a 13-year-old. The opening act was After the Fire (or ATF) who’s only hit was “Der Kommissar.” With apologies to Danny Rosin, who correctly states, “always watch the opening act,” I couldn’t have cared less. I wanted – I NEEDED – to see Eddie and Van Halen.
From the opening aural assault of “Romeo Delight” to the closing strains of “Happy Trails,” my eyes never left Eddie. From my seats in the upper tank – and with the assistance of binoculars – I recall his energy as he effortlessly ran from one side of the stage to the other. I remember how he seemed to become one with that insanely cool red, white, and black striped guitar he called “Frankenstein.” More than anything, I remember his unabashed joy he exuded. It was an honest and pure joy that only comes from the deepest reaches of one’s soul. His smile just silently communicated it in a way words never could.
But, that guitar – that brand – just captivated me. The iconic red, black, and white striped instrument immediately became synonymous with the man and the band. In the early 1980s, the Van Halen brand defined hard rock music, the California vibe, mastery over an instrument, the promise of a great time, and, frankly, what it meant to be cool. To me, there isn’t another example of branding more identifiable with a band than those stripes. Just seeing that pattern instantly transports me to a joyful, happy pace – and always makes me smile.
And that is how I’ll always remember Ed – that smile. By my count, I was fortunate enough to see that smile live 19 times between 1982 and 2015. During all that time, that smile never failed to give me the same joy he clearly felt on stage. So, I won’t remember his well-chronicled battles with alcohol and drugs. I won’t think about how poorly he could treat band members nor how he feuded publicly with his lead singers. I won’t brood on how he couldn't be bothered to show up for his namesake band to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame leaving that duty to former members. I won't remember any of that as we all have our flaws - both documented and hidden. No, I’ll just embrace that joyous smile – and I will every time I see that red, black, and white pattern or hear the music.
This is my favorite picture of Eddie: I took it in 2015 in Dallas, where I had the good fortune of being gifted a front-row seat from a friend. At that point, Dave had lost his voice, and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, replaced the original bass player. While I was disappointed Michael Anthony and his fantastic bass playing and background vocals were absent, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it must have felt for Ed to be playing with his son. I took at least 5,419 pictures that night, but this particular one captured a moment I'll never forget: a father and son doing what they loved, with someone they loved.
We all deserve to do something we love with people we love. So, I suppose that’s my point of all of this: find your passion, do it with people you love, and share that joy with the world. You may not sell over 60 million albums, but I guarantee you will find success, and your smile will be contagious. And that smile, that is part of your brand.
Godspeed, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us and, rest assured, I’ll still take you everywhere I go and smile while I do it.