Eddie Van Halen: guitar hero and mass superman on #neuguitars #blog
..pre-determined codes – off-kilter riffs, amelodic, chromatic strato-guitar solos, shomanic, look-at-me-vocals and faultline-punishing ur-bas – Van Halen could not fail.
Julian Cope, Copendium, Faber and Faber, 2012
Human Eddie Van Halen is gone, he left us. Commemorating him is a must. Regret it’s superfluous. It’s superfluous to remember that Eddie Van Halen was a guitar hero: he was the hero par excellence, the culmination of an evolutionary ladder in which talent, obsession, desire, shamanic abilities and such a natural and spontaneous smile were miraculously combined to impose Eddie in the collective imagination with the same power as one of the characters in Alexandre Dumas’ novels.
Let’s start with the hero. Eddie was able to impose himself with the power and qualities of a virtuoso, in a historical musical moment in which never had there been so much contempt for musical ability: in 1977 Virgin launched “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”, in 1978 Warner Bros released” Van Halen “. Never have two rock records been so polar opposite. Never did two creative hemispheres collide with such violence. On the one hand, the gray, gloomy, desperate and snarling nihilism of English punk. The No Future shouted with a satisfied grin. Three chords thrown with contempt.
On the other, the open and optimistic smile of a boy from Pasadena who drew on rock ‘n’ roll, reread it and shot it out with a power never heard before. Virtuosity flaunted with almost classic pride. Arena rock.
Impossible to imagine a more different contrast.
And then the style. Eddie wasn’t the first guitar hero, nor was the last one. He was, quite simply, THE guitar hero. He was it in terms of sound, technique, style and image. He was because he fit that role as if it were a second skin, because he was born for that. But he was because that role had already been played by others before him, even in other musical genres. Nicolo Paganini, violinist and guitarist among the most virtuous, whose technique was whispered to be the result of a demonic pact, was a guitar hero. Three guitar heroes were the sacred British trinity of rock: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Each one in his own way, each one in an almost embryonic way, each one based on his specific charismatic and shamanic qualities. Prototypes of a form of communication that pop culture and the energy of rock launched in a burning gravitational acceleration. An acceleration that another guitar hero, the Icarus Jimi Hendrix, couldn’t manage and from which he tore his wings.
And then Allan Holdsworth, the lord of the legate, the genius of chords, the hyperbole of a form of virtuosity on the border between technique and mental speculation that no one has yet come to equal and that guitar hero never really wanted to be. Object of a cult which, in turn, risked crushing his creativity and personality. Compared to all these examples Eddie was something very different. He was just perfect.
Let’s talk about Eric Clapton for example. Clapton was the perfect guitar hero for a long time and he was it in the blues sense of the word. The serious-looking loner standing on the street corner, under the light of a street lamp. The carefully studied expression, halfway between that of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s films and that of the protagonists of John Cassavetes’s movies. That confident, but non-violent expression, that macho being without the need to fire a single shot. Plus media adoration. That “Clapton is God” miraculously photographed and inserted in the legend, spread as a verb, as a tangible fact, certified by the media. And again the sorcerer Page, the shaman of the violin bow, the inventor of alchemical symbols that have marked the rock aesthetic in an unalterable way.
When we speak of Edward’s singular guitar genius, we ain’t even talking beyond the fretboard itself. Hell, this geek’s day-care ideas for instant, packaging-tape guitar decoration will run the bills up over close to a fiver if Van halen ever get to album number sixty.
Julian Cope, Copendium, Faber and Faber, 2012
Eddie went further. None of the heroes mentioned here has managed to mark pop and rock culture in a way that deserves academic attention, defining a new cultural territory. I explicitly refer to the essay “Into the Arena: Edward Van Halen and the Cultural Contradictions of the Guitar Hero” by Steve Waksman published in the book “Guitar Culture”, edited by Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe. In the forge of rock music and pop culture, everything has a law, nothing comes out by chance: the wishes of the public and the structure of the record market interact with the traditions of intertwining and a mythical narrative giving life to a mythological form that must be identified.
The techniques that Edward has displayed in his approach to the electric guitar since the release of Van Halen’s first album in 1978 have exerted an undeniable influence within different spheres: economic, stylistic, mass media and technical. The emergence of EVH as a guitar hero was the culmination of the process by which the electric guitar acquired the capabilities and potential of the main classical virtuosic instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries: the power and speed of the organ, the flexibility and nuances of the violin. In particular, the model of guitar heroism into which EVH has been inserted can be understood historically, not only as part of a century-long development regarding the prominence of virtuosic performance, but more strictly as a consequence of the possibilities at the within the cultural and economic position of rock music that took hold in the 60s and 70s. Those were the years when the rock music industry managed to forge a new economy of scale, expanding its economic reach dramatically. Although record sales were an important component of this development, perhaps the most charged symbol of rock’s cultural change and economic position was the growth of the live performance format. Driven by the success of the great music festivals of the late 1960s, rock concerts were increasingly hosted in large venues initially conceived not as concert halls but as sports facilities; and with this change in the way of presenting live, the phenomenon known as “arena rock” was born.
Arena Rock has been a controversial phenomenon. For those who saw rock as virgin territory to fuel a spirit of opposition or resistance to traditional values, the broadening of the audience base generated by the “arena rock” seemed too similar to the homogenization of musical taste on which the critics of the cultural industry, in the middle of the twentieth century, had repeatedly thundered. According to these critics, the rock arena succeeded all too well in the task of creating a mass of musical consumers who, driven by the illusion of generational rebellion, ended up subordinating their individual individualities to the collective and undifferentiated pleasures of a massive hard rock show. It is in this changing context that the figure of the guitar hero takes full form and meaning. The artistic dedication and the drive for individualistic personal expression embodied in the figure of the guitar hero, and functioned as a kind of counterweight to the idea that the rock arena represented the end point of the commodification process that involved rock. The electric guitar virtuosos represented a new degree of hierarchy in the world of rock, a celebration of musical mastery also expressed as a separation between the masses of loyal fans and their favorite icons.
The excess of hard rock, the simplicity of punk: this is one of the “classic” aesthetic divisions in the recent history of popular music. When punk burst onto the rock scene in the mid-1970s, it was widely understood as a rejection of rock conventions. Many critics had perceived that rock had lost the critical edge it had carried on during the 1960s, sacrificing the intensity and commitment that made it a key form of counter-cultural expression in favor of expanding its base of consumers. The electric guitar and related amplification technologies had promoted a jarring commodification of the musical space within which any possibility of meaningful participation was overwhelmed by the imposing sound and spectacle of the rock arena. Punk may have assimilated hard rock’s fascination with “loud”, but rejected the idea that “loud” had to be enclosed in a presentation mode that matched the reach of sound with spatial, physical and economic grandeur. Equally important, punk rejected, at least in theory, the elevation of the performer on almost sacred ground. One of the characteristics of commercial hard rock, manifested in the figure of the guitar hero. In the arena setting, the guitar hero, as a divine virtuoso, played a crucial ideological function, offering the appearance of his self-realization and personal mastery in front of the growing crowd that occupied the spaces of rock performance.
Within this climate of opinions, Van Halen was widely perceived as a sort of throwback, a sort of inevitable progeny of yesterday’s rock era. Much of this sense of anachronism stemmed from EDV’s seemingly enthusiastic embrace of the clichés already embodied by previous idols such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. At the same time, Van Halen touched upon one of the main contradictions that cross the figure of the guitar hero: while presenting himself as a representative icon of individual creative expression, at the same time he also promoted a certain standardization of instrumental technique, since the models of influence are implemented through emulation or total imitation. The icon of the guitar hero therefore posed itself as an example par excellence of the more general phenomenon of capitalism and mass consumption based not only on the cultivation of models of homogeneous taste between fans and consumers, but also on the belief that the products of culture allow a free individual expression, while standardizing the taste and artistic practices. At the heart of Van Halen’s mystique, however, is the story of his experience in modifying guitars and his early reaction to the standard guitar models already available on the market. Against the growing veneration for vintage instruments that had meanwhile appeared in the guitar market, Edward prioritized the creation of his personal musical instruments, in the desire to carve out a shape and a sound that he could consider his own.
Many years after the appearance of Les Paul, Edward Van Halen managed to represent a similar combination of technical virtuosity and technological resourcefulness. Through his personal narrative, his individual experiments with guitar design intersected and reinforced the ideology of innovative virtuosity underpinning the image of the guitar hero. Edward rejected the idea of having to be satisfied with the standard choices available to the mass of consumers. From this point of view, Van Halen’s work in pursuit of the perfect sound could be understood as a form of resistance to the consumption conventions of the electric guitar, laying the foundations for a new aesthetic of electric guitar design that has had a considerable impact on the guitar industry for years to come.
Edward Van Halen’s long career as a guitar hero has embodied and has been shaped by the tensions that reside within rock. It is in this intricate web of individual conquests and mass adulation, personal desires and standardized charm, that Edward Van Halen’s career takes on its contradictory character and significance, indispensable for an understanding of recent developments in rock history.
Umberto Eco, Il superuomo di massa, Bompiani, 2015
Julian Cope, Copendium, Faber and Faber, 2012
Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe, Guitar Cultures, Berg, 2001