Kevin Dodds, author of Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography, has written this special Edward Van Halen tribute article exclusively for the Van Halen News Desk:
Edward Van Halen: My Hero
This is hard. Edward Van Halen’s passing was a body blow with full impact for me personally and for so many other fans of all ages for whom Eddie was in fact their hero. I chose my article title carefully. I wanted it to simply state what he was to me: my hero. I can overly relate to everyone else who can say the exact same thing.
I want to first and foremost express my condolences to Wolfgang. I lost my dad at the age of 65 as well, I sadly understand. Wolf was so incredibly kind to my son when we met in 2015, and my son in fact has a shadow box above his bed filled with a handful of Wolf’s picks that were dumped into his hand at a Houston concert in 2012 (captured on video). I am very sorry for Valerie who I know feels the loss in a unique way. I hope that his wife Janie is able to overcome her grief after loving and supporting Ed during the final years of his life. I feel terrible for Alex and his wonderful family. I have also lost a brother. It is likely the strongest bond we form in our lives. Alex was incredibly gracious when we met, even though it was brief, he cracked a joke that made us both laugh—a moment my son photographed.
Edward was a powerful force of nature. He was a unique creature endowed with an irresistible magnetism that came through in everything he did. You felt it if you were in the back row of the concert. You felt it in the pages of the rock magazines where he commanded significant real estate. You felt in the videos on MTV and the US Festival concert footage. You felt it in the posters on your wall. Whatever that thing is that so many influential figures in American cultural history had, Eddie had it, too. He made us kids want to look like him, dress like him, grow our hair like him, smile like him, walk down the library tables like him, wear bandanas around our necks like him—even jump like him! He even made some of us want to play like him. It’s a cliché, but he simply had that classic thing where women wanted him and men wanted to be him.
I want to point out that my previous statements there reflect a power he had that came before his litany of unbelievable accomplishments. Before we even get to that, I want to re-emphasize his possession of magnetism of that scope. I’ve heard that people that have spent any amount of time with him have described him as having a presence. They typically say he could make you immediately feel like a best friend. Some people have that quality, most people do not.
My decision to write Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography stemmed from one thing and one thing only: my absolute disbelief that, as of 2010, there was no singular book examining his life story. With training as a writer and editor, with experience in the publishing industry, and a tip from a friend who self-published his own book, that all led me to realize that writing his biography was a realistic thing to attempt. So I went for it. I did my very best to present Ed’s story in a balanced and fair way. As a consumer of rock biographies, I found that the sanitized ones were weak. Although my book covered both Ed’s highlights and his darkest hours, the full story illustrated a clear arc of redemption. That is a story that is meaningful and gives hope. As real as Edward was, I would hope he would not have wanted me to sugarcoat it. There was my life before I wrote the book, and then there is my life after the book. It has loomed large for sure.
Edward’s talent was something that is impossible to encapsulate in just a few sentences. He was a natural virtuoso and his playing was magical. He sounded unique regardless of the instrument he was playing. Aside from his unmatched lead and rhythm guitar work, his music spanned an incredible variety of styles that were all executed at the highest level: nylon string guitar, acoustic slide guitar, synthesizer solos, piano riffs, bluegrass-style finger picking—just to name a few. To those of us influenced by him in this regard, that made someone like me want to be diverse not just in music but in everything I did.
His influence as an innovator is also hard to wrap up in a paragraph, but without rehashing the entire history, the man reinvented the electric guitar. Beyond that, he went to unbelievable and experimental lengths to get that tone—electric modifications that were truly dangerous—but it was worth it! Just a few days ago, a coworker asked me, “How did he get that crazy sound on ‘Atomic Punk’?! I’ve always wondered that!” In 2020, someone still wants to know how he got that sound in 1978. With the establishment of his EVH brand Fender subsidiary, he was able to share his vision of the ideal tone with his personally designed guitars, amplifiers, and effects pedals. This kind of thing made people like me to resolve to innovate, to not accept what you’re given, fix things, change things, modify things—guitars, cars, or the course of your entire life.
Edward Van Halen possessed the qualities of a brilliant visual artist as well, which is a talent for which he is not given enough credit. There is an infinitesimally small number of human beings that ever lived who were able to somehow create something as visually unique and immediately identifiable is Eddie’s red, white, and black stripes design. As a resident of Austin, there is a building I passed downtown on a daily basis whose façade is designed to mimic Ed’s stripes. There are thousands of people who have painted their walls, barstools, mailboxes, cars, trucks, motorcycles, helmets, toilet seats, and everything else imaginable in that classic motif. Edward Van Halen the visual artist inspired us to be creative.
Whether he wanted to or not, Eddie represented excellence and mastery as a guitarist. He was not just good, he was great. He was not just great, he was incredible. He was not just incredible, he was the best. The thousands of arguments in high school cafeterias in the 1980s over who was the greatest guitarist inevitably ended in Eddie fans slamming the case closed in his favor. Actually, some people could and can get pretty aggressive in his defense. His fans are passionate about their assessment of his excellence. King Edward, the man at the top, inspired us to be excellent in everything we did no matter what that happened to be.
As a song writer, Edward wrote tunes on par with the best of the rock music era. The man wrote a #1 song. With “Jump”, Edward achieved something timeless—something you hear to this day on the radio, at the ballpark, or by your local tribute band. It is ubiquitous. I’m throwing this achievement in with all of the others as if it is simply something else to add in a long list. It is an incredible feat no matter how you look at it. For me personally, I would also like to point out the sheer songwriting genius of just a select few: “Dance the Night Away”, “Hear About it Later”, “Little Guitars”, and “Panama”. Eddie inspired us to be well-rounded and not be afraid of trying new things. And again, if you are going to do something, do it to the best of your ability.
My older brother Brandon and I idolized Eddie and the band in the 80s. My brother actually made a Frankenstein guitar in 1984 well before the modern do-it-yourself EVH replica guitar movement. My brother was lucky enough to meet Eddie in 1993 in Kansas City. I was so jealous. I used to ask my brother to recount every detail of the event every time we spoke on the phone. My brother became a pilot and passed away in a tragic accident in 1998. I always thought how amazing it was that he was able to squeeze meeting Eddie into his short 30 years on earth.
I published my book about Edward in 2011 and it led me to a lot of interesting places. One of my favorites has been writing articles for the Van Halen News Desk. Covering Eddie’s Smithsonian event and interviewing Dave Davies of The Kinks on his thoughts about Van Halen’s covers of their songs were highlights. Not long after the book came out, I fell into the replica creation obsession trap that many EVH devotees have. I made replicas of them all: Frankenstein, 5150, Unchained, Rude, Star, Bumblebee, Shark, and even a few others. I previously did not know anything about building my own guitars. Edward inspired me and so many others to do that—to learn and perfect an entirely new craft as an adult.
But the most interesting place the book led me was to what I consider to be the bookend crowning event of Edward’s life: his appearance at the “What It Means to Be an American” speaker series hosted by the Smithsonian Museum in February 2015. It was an incredibly beautiful event that I covered for VHND back at the time. I will not rehash the entire event, but I do want to mention two specific things.
First, at the event, all attendees wrote questions on index cards, and a handful was chosen to participate in an audience Q&A session near the end of the event. With all I have studied and written about Edward, my question was actually about one thing. I wanted to know what the inspiration was for the striped paint job. I had never gotten a good clear answer on that. My question was not picked, but about halfway through, Ed said that a question he gets sometimes is “what was the inspiration for the paint job”—almost exactly as I had phrased it on my card. My son looked at me and said, “He’s answering your question, Dad…!” I encourage you to watch the footage of the Smithsonian event to catch his answer. I was fortunate to visit the Play It Loud exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019 prior to the pandemic. It was amazing to see Frankenstein in person and Ed’s 1978 tour setup. There was a video of Ed playing and speaking on a monitor above his main exhibit. My son and I were watching it and saw that the interview footage was from the Smithsonian. After watching for a few moments, we saw the short video clip that included Ed reiterating and answering my question about the paint job. My son and I looked at each other and just shook our heads in disbelief.
The second thing is some people are apt to say, “Don’t meet your heroes.” I think we all understand that. It was not true in this case. At the Smithsonian, my son and I approached him and we made some brief small talk. I quickly mentioned that I wrote a book about him and he didn’t seem to want to talk about that too much which I thought was fair. We took a few photos with his arms around both of us. He gripped our shoulders tightly like a good friend would. But the best part was when he turned to my son Evan, who was 12 at the time, looked him in the eyes and smiled and said, “Hey, little man!” My son gulped, looked down, looked up, and said to the greatest guitarist that ever lived: “…I play guitar, too.” Ed laughed and said, “Keep on playin’, man!” We said thank you to him and as we walked away he told us, “Take care, guys.” I’m fortunate to have photos and video of the encounter.
What Eddie couldn’t have known was how significant it was for me to meet him because of the fact that he had met my brother who I miss dearly. What Eddie couldn’t have known was that the same arm he put around my brother in their photograph was the same arm he put around my son who I named after my brother. What Eddie couldn’t have known was that my son was wearing my VH necklace purchased at the 1984 concert just as my brother was wearing his VH necklace in their photograph. I wanted to say something about that, but thought that would have been too serious. Everyone was happy and in a good mood, so I chose not to share that, but it was heavy on my mind.
Lastly, I have spent until thousands of hours perfecting his guitar licks and riffs over the past 38 years. I first performed a Van Halen song in public in the fall of 1984—a parody of “Panama” for Texas History class. In 9th grade, in 1986, my band performed “Good Enough” at the talent show. But in my later years, with the advent of isolated tracks and audio software, I sought to continuously improve my ability to play his guitar parts, and I still do so to this day. In fact, the weekend before his passing, I was still working on playing “Panama” as best I possibly could, relearning a part shared with me by an old friend who is true master of the man’s techniques. I played the song over and over. My 5150 replica was on a chair nearby when I heard the news of Ed’s passing. He inspired me to treat his performances as academically as a musical scholar would study Mozart. There are quite a few self-styled musical scholars that take his work that seriously.
Eddie’s passing has affected so many people so greatly, myself included. The best we can do is to continue to emulate his approach to life. Be diverse, be innovative, be unique, be excellent, and do your very best at whatever you do. These are the ideals that Edward Van Halen embodied. His legacy will ultimately include much more than just his guitar playing. He will remain a beloved and vital force in the lives of those he inspired until our last days. I feel fortunate to have enjoyed a ride on planet Earth at the same as him…and that 1984 concert in Houston truly changed my life. He was an inspiration, and he is still…my hero.