The Day the Music Died was February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash. Or August 16, 1977, when the King of Rock ‘N Roll gyrated through the Pearly Gates. For Gen Xers like myself and Baby Boomers “The Day the Music Died-2.0” may well be yesterday October 6, 2020, when Eddie Van Halen passed into eternity. As readers may know, I write about the history of Buffalo and baseball history primarily, but music history has its own disciples and gurus. I do not profess to be one of them, but the passing of one of the greatest guitarists ever led me to think about and to reflect on my own life and what that music meant to me.
This is not a biography of Edward Van Halen but an obituary of sorts of a man I never met. We all have those moments of reflection when a celebrity or sports star passes away. You remember where you were or why they influenced you. For this me that was Eddie Van Halen.
I grew up and attended high school in South Buffalo and in time moved on to Canisius College. When you reach college, you believe that you have truly grown up and your world has expanded. Nothing in my life more signifies that than the music of Van Halen. Like most of the MTV generation, I remember the iconic songs from the band’s 1984 album. Who can forget Eddie flying above the stage on a high wire with teased out hair to the song “Jump” or the revving engine of the Lamborghini in “Panama?”
It was their 1991 album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, that I cannot forget. It was introduced to me by a group of friends that became like brothers to me. I recall wandering downstairs and hearing that guitar from an old radio in a clubroom—a sound we all know so well. Eddie could make the instrument do things that was not thought humanly possible. He was a creative wizard. The fingering, tapping sound rhythms and the iconic designs of his custom guitars may never be duplicated. His “Frankenstrat” (part Gibson, part Fender Stratocaster) created guitar was a design and a sound new to the electric guitar, complete with its signature red, black, and white paintjob. His guitar would make us gasp in wonder or break down in soulful remembrances as we listen to the song “316”, played to his unborn son Wolfgang. Later that year, I went to my first Van Halen show in Memorial Auditorium with my “brother” Dave and heard yet another newly conceptualized sound—a pneumatic drill being run over the chords of his guitar for the gritty ‘Poundcake.” Thinking of the sounds of the guitar and the Aud where it was being played, both now gone, gives me a sadness and a true sense of the phrase “growing old.” At 20 years old, listening to music being played as loudly as possible, the guitar solo reverberating off the concrete and into your eardrums, you are young and invincible. Now almost thirty years later, when the music has stopped, it all has a way of catching up with you.
So deep was our love for the album and its predecessors, we created Canisius College’s only radio show devoted to Van Halen—the “Flounder and Exidor Show.” We had one audience member, Eric, because the station came in loudest and clearest in the darkroom down the hall where The Griffin’s photographer often worked late. We often featured the “Rock ‘N Roll Dice” where the number rolled equaled the number of Van Halen songs we played. I still remember the phone call to my mother one evening, “Mom, I can’t come home now, we rolled an 11 for our Van Halen songs!”
As we grew up, Van Halen made two more albums in that iteration of Sammy, Eddie, Michael, and Alex. I was privileged enough to be at the “Right Here! Right Now!” tour in the Darien Lake Amphitheater when Michael Anthony lit his bass on fire with Jack Daniels. I swear you could feel the heat five rows back! If anyone thinks Eddie Van Halen was a one-trick pony, listen to his artistry with a piano on the title track to that live album. It is a great song, one that asks us to think on living for the moment and not to be afraid to make a change for the better.
It is kind of funny that their next album, Balance, came out and I personally embraced that philosophy. I saw the first leg of the tour in Buffalo (the last show or event I ever saw at the Aud incidentally) and the next leg of the tour I watched in Denver, Colorado during a snowstorm that dropped eight inches on us that night. I remember at the Denver show, Eddie spoke of soldiering on, that your audience depended on you as he cut off the tips of his socks to put over his fingers so he could play for us. I would spend the next 23 years living in Denver before returning home to Buffalo to care for my aging parents.
It is the end of an era and the sadness that surrounds it. Each step of my life Van Halen, especially Eddie Van Halen, has been there for me. The last time I saw them play was not as a 20-year-old with my college buddies, but as a 43-year-old adult in 2015 with my 15-year-old son standing next to me. They played for the first time at Red Rocks Amphitheater (a natural amphitheater) in Morrison, Colorado.
As I watched my son’s eyes light up in wonder and amazement as that same guitar, those same songs echoed across the beautiful Red Rocks, I realized a moment of completeness. I felt a passing in some ways of that 20-year-old to the next generation—from Gen X to Millennial. We teach and we guide our children as best we can, but sometimes they must experience, hear, or see for themselves. From “316” Eddie to Wolfgang, from Paul to Jake, the circle was complete.
If you are saddened by the passing of a musical genius, turn on the radio, grab a CD, or use your streaming service and listen to “Dreams.” It is Eddie telling us it will be okay, “To reach for the Golden Ring/Reach for the Sky/Baby Just Spread Your Wings.”