My mother hated this shirt.
She almost cut it up with a pair of scissors and threw it away instead of letting me keep it. Yet I’ve still got it in 2020. Although in fairness, she died in 1994 and was therefore unable to continue that fight. But I digress (already!).
It wasn’t fair, of course. I don’t have a lot of memories of Mom that I’d call “fair.” I already had a “Damn Yankees” shirt in my collection, and I hadn’t even SEEN them! The Damn Yankees shirt was a gift from my brother. “Well it’s in the NAME of the band” she said, “so that’s different.” Although the back of THAT shirt included the phrase “Shit-Kicking Rock ‘N Roll” and she ruled that I just had to wear an over-shirt on top of it if I wore it outside the house. But “ass?” She wanted to take scissors to it.
The previous Van Halen tour was the “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” tour. The name of that abbreviates to “FUCK.” They called it the “FUCK N’ Live” tour and my brother had at least one, maybe more shirts that said exactly that (though in fairness he was 8 years older and had a job). When I bought the “Kicking Ass” shirt, one of my motivations was “I have a shirt that says “damn” and “shit” on it already, and Dave has a shirt that says “fuck” on it… “Ass” is the least offensive of all those words… But no… Mom was–as was her gimmick–irrationally furious about it.
Let’s just take a moment to examine those words… Fuck = Sex. Ass = A Butt. Shit = What comes out of a butt–and we don’t like the smell and try to get rid of it as quick as we can–we generally consider it to be the most worthless of all things. Damn = Eternity in Hell. If anyone can tell me why my mother thought a butt was worse than shit, sex, or eternity in Hell, I’m all ears. In fact, if anyone can tell me why eternity in Hell isn’t the worst of the profanities, I’ll fuck the shit out of your ass for the favor. (Seriously…think about it… Why are you so offended right now???) Mom… Mom was not a fan of exegesis.
Dad, for his part, expressed some dissatisfaction with it when I bought it, but let it happen nonetheless–I think mostly because I had a friend with me so he didn’t want to make a big thing of it at the show…and also, Dad is a rational person and probably thought, “Hell…he definitely says WORSE at school by now and he can just wear a shirt over it…” I think he KNEW there was a fight with Mom coming, but even if he wouldn’t have said it at the time, I think he thought it was winnable.
So that’s how I almost lost that shirt. The way I kept it was that I took it with me to bed that night and also Dad and Dave stuck up for me. I don’t know what most of that fight was like…I just went to bed confident it would solve itself. I think it was even DAD who told me what the verdict was instead of Mom… The rule was that I could wear it around the house (which I didn’t) but that I couldn’t wear it outside the house–not even to practice with my band (which I did).
And that’s how Eddie Van Halen drove a wedge between my mother and me, from which we never really recovered before she died.
Okay…maybe it wasn’t THAT serious…but it’s one of the first things that screamed to mind today. Because today, we lost Eddie Van Halen. He died. Cancer took another god from us. Cancer is a real son of a bitch.
My mother also once called my brother a son of a bitch. He replied, “I’m glad you’ve got the right opinion of yourself” and promptly locked the door to his bedroom and I listened to a solid half-hour of her pounding on his door, trying to get in…but again, I digress…
I guess Van Halen just takes me back to my teenage years. That band meant EVERYTHING to me then. I was evangelistic about Van Halen, deep into my teen years. I vaguely believe that the cheerleaders at my high school only performed to “Aftershock” because I got one of them into the band in my Sophomore/Junior year. I *know* that there are people who were sad today specifically because I forced them to listen to something from the Van Hagar era–my personal era of choice. I think of Van Halen and I think of a time in my life where everything was urgent, every girl was “the one,” every experience was new, and every moment was miserable, except for the ones where Eddie was playing. They were the band I grew up with. Their songs were some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
In more recent years, I haven’t talked about Van Halen that much. I don’t know when their most recent mention on this blog might be…and I doubt that it was positive… Let’s face it…in recent years, the band did a lot of stuff I didn’t like–some of which I downright opposed…
But that doesn’t diminish what they MEANT in my life. Even if “meant” is a past-tense word.
…and even then… As recently as March of 2020, I was listening to them, anticipating what was supposed to be a Summer Sammy Hagar concert in St. Louis. Of course, COVID-19 delayed that along with everything else anyone might’ve been looking forward to (please wear a goddamn mask)… But as recently as six months ago I was thinking about Van Halen, smiling to myself about old memories of shows and experiences gone by, remembering when my friend Paul and I lit candles to listen to the “Balance” album together for the first time, and feeling great about being a fan. Van Halen hasn’t always been my FAVORITE band (unlike The Who) but they’ve always been important. They’ve always mattered…
And today we lost their most important member.
I know people will want to argue that… I know people invest deeply in Roth or Hagar (or Cherone?) or argue for a chemistry between specific lineups or are just loyal to the two brothers…but if Eddie Van Halen hadn’t been one of the best in the world at the thing he did, there would be no need to talk about ANY of that. Van Halen without EDDIE Van Halen is just a bar-band, hoping a record exec is somehow in the bar and likes “their” version of a Seger song. The band was named for HIM. Not for Alex. Alex is a great drummer–don’t get me wrong–but you can throw a rock in any city and hit a bar with a great drummer in it. But the guy who redefined the electric guitar for the LAST time? There’s only one. He was special. And–THANK GOD–he started a band with his name in it and got the attention. And everything changed.
Eddie Van Halen was my generation’s Hendrix. No hyperbole. He changed the guitar forever. In 1978, everyone heard “Eruption” for the first time. Everyone thought, “I didn’t know the guitar could do THAT” for the first time since Hendrix died. And no one ever said it again.
Name the person after Eddie who redefined the electric guitar. Who’ve you got? Tom Morello? He just did shit Hendrix was doing with more pedals–and he did it very well–but it wasn’t NEW. Joe Bonamassa? Nope…he plays really well, but every 2nd year student knows the Pentatonic Scale–he’s just got better amps than most of us. Dan Auerbach? He’s trying to sound like guys in the 70s and that’s all he seems to know how to do. Jack White? Go fuck yourself–being able to build a Diddly-Bo doesn’t make him special. John Petrucci? Phenominal player…who has Alex Lifeson to thank for his chord structure, and who never would’ve thought to tap a single fret without Eddie laying the groundwork. John Mayer? I’m sleepy…wake me up after his solo so I can shit on his awful lyrics…
…am I missing any? Well fuck them too.
Eddie Van Halen was the LAST person who will ever redefine the electric guitar in its current form. The guys who are great who came after him stole every tapped-note from him, and they KNOW it. Whatever the electric guitar becomes next–if anything–will happen because someone completely stripped it down and rebuilt the whole fucking thing into something new. Eddie defined it in its final form. I will accept no argument–and if you look deep inside yourself, you KNOW there is none to be made. I’m right. I’m fucking RIGHT.
There are a dozen stories about what Van Halen meant/means to me that I could tell here. All of them have different impact. Some of them meant more to me than others. Some are happy. Some are sad.
Those are MY stories. And for now I’ll hold on to them…
What’s important is that you KNOW you’ve got your own story that revolves around their music. You KNOW what happened in your heart and your memory when you heard Eddie died today. Even if that thought was only, “He was a real asshole, I won’t miss him…” you knew the NAME and why it was important. (And you’re a dick, by the way.) Eddie Van Halen’s legacy is indelible. There isn’t a grown-up on this Earth who didn’t know his name. There isn’t a grown-up on this Earth who doesn’t know exactly WHY they know his name.
Some of us just have the shirt to go with the story.
***loud guitar noises***