On the day of his death, an irregular cortege rolled in pieces across America, a scattered celebratory motorcade: maybe a pickup truck at a traffic light in Louisville, Kentucky, with the puffy, moon-landing chords of “Jump” coming out of the window; maybe an electrician’s van changing lanes in Long Beach, California, while quaking to the shocks of “Unchained”; maybe a Lexus in Boston, spewing the preposterous fluency of “Eruption” in its wake. It happens like this with the greats: The current of life fails, and the artistic essence is globally dispersed, as if by an explosion. We’d lost Eddie Van Halen, and suddenly his sound—phased and flanged and volleyed into the ether with oodles of whammy bar—was everywhere.
How to salute him? As a musical seeker, a restless innovator perpetually at the boundaries of the possible? As a writer of gorgeous, gas-guzzling hits? As the grinning incarnation of American party time? His truest eulogy has already been written by the thousand YouTubers who lovingly deconstruct his solos, note by note and effect by effect, simply to understand how they work.
His style was easily debased. In its more sensational aspects—the finger-tapping, the pick slides—it became the template for ’80s hard-rock lead guitar. But if a huge discharge of “frictionless whiffery,” as the critic Joe Carducci called it, is part of his legacy, the purer part is beyond emulation, beyond parody. Empty virtuosity: That’s a bad thing, right? Not with Eddie Van Halen. With Eddie, the emptiness that preceded his genius was part of the point. His noises, his phrases, came rainbowing out of an electric abyss: something out of nothing, creativity at its origin. Not that he lacked a tradition—Clapton, Page, Beck, blues licks, funk scratchings, he loved them all, and was a monastically disciplined apprentice. He could “do” Hendrix. But his most idiosyncratic zoomings arose, blissfully, playfully, from the void. That’s how it feels to listen to Eddie Van Halen.