Florida, Eddie Van Halen and Me
I never met Eddie Van Halen, so it feels a little strange to write about him now in such a personal way. But a close friend of mine has encouraged me and I think it is the right thing to do. There has never been a greater musical influence in my life. And since my life has been mostly about music, it is appropriate and necessary to get some of these thoughts out of my head and onto the page.
I was born in California. My father was in the Air Force just finishing his twenty years of service to qualify for retirement at age 37. Some people believe that a soul chooses its parents. I think that might be true. California is the land of entertainment and dreams. And I can imagine myself up there or out there somewhere saying, “Yes that’s where I need to be. They’ll do.”
My soul should have looked more closely, though, because my father decided that California was too expensive and we moved to Plattsburg, New York for a brief time. Then finally ending up in Indiana of all places. Close to my mother’s family and their farm. The acres of land and giant farm equipment was impressive, but it’s hardly rock and roll. Not that my relatives weren’t good to me. I remember playing KISS albums and later a flying V guitar in the living room of my grandmother’s house while she looked on passively through the windows at the field where soybeans and corn grew.
The country farm livin’ way always felt wrong for me. I was small and not mechanically inclined. I was thinking about Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album rather than cows or combines.
My first guitar was a yellow plastic toy, which seemed large at the time. I begged to take it with me to nursery school one morning and the next thing I knew it had somehow disappeared. At age ten I pestered my mother for a fifty-dollar white bass guitar I saw in a pawn shop window so I could be Gene Simmons. She refused the bass but agreed to purchase a much more expensive trumpet, which I played in band and orchestra for four years. I guess that seemed more respectable somehow.
I got into a lot of trouble as a young teenager. I lived in a fantasy world wherein I was a ninja, despite never having enjoyed the benefit of a single formal martial arts lesson. I read a lot of Black Belt magazine and watched Chuck Norris movies, smoked weed and daydreamed of how I could make my living as a professional assassin with no identifying pictures or public records. I never had my photo taken for the yearbook in high school. Ninjas can’t have photos of themselves floating all over the place.
My delusions paved a very unrealistic and dangerous road that was leading to a pathetic dead end. My parents must have decided that I needed something else to focus on besides throwing stars and nunchaku. On Christmas day of my sixteenth year on Earth I received an acoustic guitar. I remember the looks on my parents’ faces as I vowed to have learned a scale and a song by morning. It must have been terribly disappointing for them. By morning the only song I could play was a single note version of the main riff from Iron Man.
I was determined to make it as a guitarist though. I knew I had to make for lost time having started so late in the game. I played constantly. Torturing the unfortunate souls who attempted to sleep in the bedroom next to mine. I learned a Hendrix song and all the leads from the Randy Rhoads Star Licks cassette and tab booklet.
My friends weren’t spared my constant blathering about fantasies of guitar mastery. Eventually one of them asked me if I could play any Van Halen perhaps to shut me up for a second. Money was tight. I didn’t have a giant record collection. I listened to the albums that I or my friends had. I owned the eight-track recording of Women and Children First, but it was missing the gemstone that most of my peers agreed was the pinnacle of modern guitar, Eruption.
I couldn’t understand what I was hearing when I listened to Eruption for the first time. I remember thinking that Eddie’s style was bluesier than Randy’s or Vivian’s. But since it was collectively agreed upon that being able to play Eruption signified a skilled guitarist, I started to work learning it.
The first time my family went to Florida might have seemed uninspiring to anyone looking from the outside in. My mother and I bugged my father that everyone we knew took a vacation every year. We should go to Florida. My father, in a fit of psychopathy, drove us day and night without stopping straight down the country to the land of sunshine and Mickey Mouse where we stayed for one night in a cheap hotel before driving again nonstop back to Indiana.
But something amazing happened to me during my first stay in Florida. I met my first girlfriend. Although our relationship was incredibly brief (about thirty minutes), it made quite an impression on me. I stared at her as she smiled and asked me if I wanted to swim in the hotel pool. She was pretty. I guessed she was about my age, which was around ten at the time. Then my father said, “Come on, Robert. We’re leaving now.”
“Hey Dad, I’m hungry. Can we stop for a hamburger?”
“No, it’s too expensive. You can have one when we get home.”
It didn’t matter. I was in love. Not with the girl I had met necessarily, but with the feel of Florida. The way the water smelled, the Sun and the possibility of all great things eventually coming to pass.
I took my second trip to Florida when I was around 18. I must have been 18 because I remember buying cigarettes and the age restriction was higher than in Indiana. I was still living mostly in a fantasy world. I had quit the band in which I was playing, advising them that I was going to move to the Sunshine State. I’m grateful to be somewhat mentally stabler now.
Once again, my father drove us straight through to avoid costly motels. We freeloaded at my uncle’s house in Lakeland and didn’t do much otherwise. Although I do remember going to Busch Gardens where my parents both gave me their three free beers to drink. The 72 ounces of Busch in the opaque white plastic cups were fresh and tasty. Some of the best beer I’ve ever had.
But the car ride to and from Florida left an indelible influence on me as well. There wasn’t much to do in the back seat of the tan Caprice Classic for the twenty-two-hour drive in each direction. I brought my cheap EVH knock-off strat, a Walkman with a tape of AC/DC’s live album If You Want Blood and something called a Rockman. Older distinguished guitarists will remember this outstanding piece of electronic engineering as the thing that made hours of practice with a decent tone possible without the inconvenience of being strangled by those within listening distance.
I also had a tablature version of Eruption. I intended to learn this piece of music finally. Securing my reputation as a sponge-worthy guitarist in the minds of my peers. As we drove angrily along the highway I practiced the tapping and speed picking salvos as close to the notation as I could manage along with the giant A power chord and the slide along the bass string that leads into it.
Imagine the surprise and disgust of my bandmates when I returned about a week later. Weren’t you moving to Florida? In my mind I was, but I had failed to find any work while I was there. I was not encouraged by my parents or especially my uncle to stay rent and job free. So, it was back to the land of corn and broken dreams.
But I brought something back with me. I had worked so hard on Eruption that I memorized a lot of the passages, though somewhat incorrectly and it must be said that I never let details stand in the way of a good fantasy. I couldn’t wait to show my friend and former fellow bandmate what I had learned.
Alex listened patiently as I showed him my hackneyed version of the virtuosic piece and smiled kindly when I had finished. He was twice the guitarist I will ever be but for some reason, he liked me enough to mentor me in the art.
“That’s not quite how it’s played.”
I must have looked crestfallen. He laughed a little and explained that there was more movement with the left-hand position on the tapping parts and the tremolo picking was accomplished with wrist motion, not with the entire arm. Too bad for me since I had such an investment in the arm from masturbating endlessly since I was ten. Probably starting soon after our first trip south.
Nevertheless, I was determined to play Eruption. I failed to enjoy the rational understanding that it was far beyond my ability to play. Not to mention the fact that it was such a personal statement from the high wizard of rock guitar. I worked on my picking for hours and days and eventually I beheld the startled look on my mentor’s face as I trotted out my newly acquired technique for him to see. I could do it. And I seemed to be the only one around who could at that time. A kind of gypsy jazz wrist strum that occupies a substantial part of my playing style to this day.
The wrist tremolo picking wasn’t all that Eddie showed me. By listening to his groundbreaking and inspiring technique I learned about things like pick scrapes, dive bombs, split harmonics, palm muting and three-note triad inversions on the D G and B strings. I still use them all minus the pick scraping which is better in exceedingly small doses.
When I was 27, I realized that for a guy who was going to make a living as a musician I hadn’t played a single live show. Thanks to the streetwise guidance from my girlfriend I landed a gig with a local band called Waste MGMT as their bassist. This was owing to my exceptionally long red hair more than the questionable notes coming from a borrowed bass guitar, amp and cabinet. My now-deceased brother in metal arms insisted that I was the man for the job. After all, I could certainly turn down the volume on my amps and suffice to look cool. I miss you, Denny. Thank you.
I hacked along as the bassist for the heavy metal outfit. We had the slight handicap of a drummer who despite his cool style was in and out of metal service depending on what football team was being broadcast on the TV. So, we were looking for a new drummer and luckily landed the monster of all local talents, Brian Foster. I remembered his name from our attempt to recruit him into Blunt Distortion. Another group that had graciously allowed me to pollute their music with my “style” of lead guitar playing.
Waste MGMT continued as a four-piece with me on bass and hair until one night in Broad Ripple when the drummer, vocalist and “bassist” (me) of said group chanced to run into an actual real bassist, John DeCosta, from Blunt Distortion.
“Hey man what’s going on?”
“Hey! Great to see you! Not much man. I’m playing with these guys now on bass.”
“Bass?” John was understandably confused. “No no. You have to have this dude on guitar. His wrist is the fire.”
And that was it. It was proposed and adopted that I switch from bass to guitar. Why? Because of Eddie Van Halen. Because of his brilliance and the shameless copping of said brilliance for my own nefarious, dubious efforts.
It was great being a lead guitarist in a real-life performing and recording band. But I started late. I didn’t realize it was too late. But I knew that I needed a serious change of locale if I were to make it into the big leagues. Haha!
It was time for my third and final vacation to the good old 727 area code (Florida). My mother, my friend Jeff, my beautiful girlfriend and I flew to Lakeland, Florida, enjoying the warmth and tall-boy Busch beer cans that weren’t available in Indianapolis. We asked around and were advised to seek out a hub of local metal, a Clearwater bar called Gasoline Alley. I later worked there briefly as a doorman. We drove an hour to the bar and witnessed three heavy metal acts while drinking beer. Later we sweated through being pulled over by the Clearwater police in front of a boat dealership just across the street.
I was convinced and decided once again to quit my band and move to Florida. But this time for reals. My mom spotted me some money. Maybe as an attempt to acknowledge my dreams of something beyond cold winters and self-induced mediocrity. I traded my Toyota 4X4 for a blue minivan with over 100k miles on it and we journeyed intrepidly south with every piece of musical gear we possessed including four giant speaker cabinets jammed in the place of the van’s now missing family seat, which we conveniently left at my parents’ house.
Back in the Magic Kingdom to stay. The water smelled the same. The Sun was bright and warm. Every day at 3 PM lightning would shoot across the Lakeland sky from black clouds and then disappear within the space of a half-hour. It was sexy with possibilities.
People in Florida love metal. It was the first place I heard King Diamond referred to simply as The King. No it isn’t Elvis. And so the first order of business was to form a metal band. I continued to study guitar and concentrated mostly on Yngwie styled tonalities. Though now I realize that it doesn’t matter if one studies George, Vivian, Steve, Randy, Yngwie or even Alan West or Chuck Schuldiner. One is still studying Eddie. The master innovator of almost every modern guitar technique currently known.
We pressed on. Equipped with Jackson guitars that boasted locking Floyd bridges and beefy hum-canceling pickups. Superstrats. That’s what we played because Eddie had shown the potential for radical sounds and in-tune playability so many years earlier.
Eventually Black Metal reared its blasphemous seven heads and ten horns from the depths of the Internet. With vocals that came straight from Linda Blaire’s wind spirit possessed and tortured throat. And tremolo picking. Glorious tremolo picking on every song. Dear reader, can you guess the next part? Correct. It was time for the EVH fly picking technique to insinuate its way into the dark crevices of the Norwegian anti-everything style. To their credit, the Tampa Bay evil metal pundits recognized, “Hey you’re doing that Eddie thing! Haha! That’s crazy.”
I have tried with every step to move closer to better music and a better life. And through that journey by my side has consistently been the magic of Eddie Van Halen. He will never know that. But I know.
So as I write this I will cry without shame. The spirit of the greatest rock guitarist ever has left this Earth. Irreplaceable. The world and its political and viral troubles will have to piss off for a few days. Because I need to drink many, many toasts and somehow process the loss of the greatest man I never met but knew intimately through the power of his music.
RIP Meister Edward Lodewijk Van Halen