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Remembering Eddie Van Halen, the Mythical Guitar God Who Made It Look Easy

The rock star died of throat cancer on Tuesday at age 65

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The song is called “Eruption,” which is not a joke, not a metaphor, not a double or even single entendre. It’s just a fact. Nor does “Eruption” feel the need to even be a song, really—it is, instead, a baffling and ecstatic 102-second guitar solo, a slow-motion thunderbolt of technical virtuosity (which can’t be faked) and feral joy (which can’t be taught) that marked young Edward Lodewijk Van Halen as the most thrilling electric guitarist of his generation and one of the most beloved and influential guitarists of all time, full stop. “Eruption,” which first appeared on titanic SoCal rock band Van Halen’s self-titled 1978 debut album, is to the dark and radiant art of finger-tapping as the Sistine Chapel is to painting. Midway through, Eddie takes a three-second break, a useful interval of awed silence in the event you need to change your shorts.

Of course they named the whole band after him (and his brother); here in 2020, we might sincerely consider renaming the electric guitar after him. Eddie Van Halen—whose death, at 65, after a lengthy battle with throat cancer, was announced via his son and bandmate Wolfgang on Tuesday afternoon—was born in mid-’50s Holland and reborn in mid-’70s Pasadena, California, as a guitar god nonpareil. “Eruption” was less his calling card than his stone tablets. It’s the first track on Van Halen’s first greatest-hits album, before you get to the Mount Olympian Keg-Stand party anthems, the butane-spraying power ballads, the various glorious and lascivious Top 40 hits.

Verily, “Eruption” is the big bang, the emphatically non-virgin birth, the proudly billowing American flag bursting even more proudly into flames because it’s just that awesome. This 13-minute live shredfest from 1986 gives you some idea of what herculean physical ardor his playing required and how cheerfully effortless he made it look. “That cigarette had a better life than me” is in the running for best YouTube comment of all time.

The first classic lineup of Van Halen—Eddie, his drummer brother Alex Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony, and demure frontman David Lee Roth—rose to power in the late ’70s and early ’80s with gargantuan jams ferocious enough to thrill hard-rock fanatics and melodically sensational enough to dominate pop charts and MTV playlists. As iconic opening flourishes go, Eddie’s shrieking intro riff to “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” is the “It was a pleasure to burn” of recorded sound; Eddie’s sugary keyboard jolt that kicks off “Jump” is pure unapologetic jubilation. My favorite part of his generously donated solo (and sneaky rearrangement) for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is the rad little door-knocking effect before that solo even starts, so polite, so emphatic, so unfadeable no matter how many generations of cretins insist that guitars are passé and rock is dead.

Internally, Van Halen the band was a soap opera that could never be canceled: Sammy Hagar somewhat controversially replaced Roth as frontman in the mid-’80s for a just-as-lucrative run, and chaos reigned via breakups and comebacks and bizarro reunion tours for decades to come. But Eddie, and more to the point Eddie’s guitar, was an unshakable constant, a bedrock of existence if you ever even sat in a Camaro or set foot in a Guitar Center. I once read an unauthorized Van Halen biography that dutifully chronicled all the drama, but I mostly walked away struck by how devoted young Eddie had been to his craft, how many thousands of lonely hours he spent alone with his guitar before he could first jump onstage and be the maximum-hedonist life of the party.

I also distinctly remember watching the MTV video premiere of “Finish What Ya Started,” a silly little countrified 1988 jam punctuated by a shockingly dexterous Eddie eruption that froze me physically in my tracks. This guy was not fucking around even when he was most definitely fucking around.

My very first issue of Rolling Stone, delivered in 1995, had Eddie Van Halen on the cover, his just-as-iconic flowing hair shorn, his personal demons common knowledge, his legendary status unassailable no matter how fortunes and cultural attitudes and popular musical styles (and lead singers!) changed. He was proud to be a rock dinosaur: “Hey, dinosaurs are great. Dinosaurs are huge, right?” One theory as to why he had so few worthy guitar-god disciples is that nobody was really worthy of standing within 500 yards of him.

“Eddie Van Halen solo” is the right YouTube wormhole for you, for your loved ones, for your enemies, for America, for Holland, for absolutely anybody. There is a disconnect, to put it mildly, between the way a person playing an electric guitar looks—all those lewdly gyrating fingers and even lewder goofy winces—and the way a virtuosically played electric guitar sounds and feels, the point at which the electricity becomes metaphorical and the ecstasy becomes startlingly literal. Eddie Van Halen was the horizon point where the sky and the earth met. He was the electric guitar personified. He was our rock. He was our volcano.