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GROB: The soul of America lived in Van Halen’s guitar

By James Grob,

Rock star Eddie Van Halen, who passed away last week at age 65, had a guitar that was known as the “Frankenstein Guitar” or the “Franken-Strat.”

You might have seen it in photos. It looks like a red piece of junk all taped together and rigged up by an amateur, and that’s because that’s essentially what it is.

In a nutshell, Eddie liked certain things about some guitar brands, and certain things about others, and decided to piece them all together to make one guitar that was more perfect for his style of playing.

A more perfect union. Out of many, one. That sounds a helluva lot like America to me.

And what’s more American than a story of some little guy walking into a place with a beat up electric guitar that looks like it’s about to fall apart, plugging it in, and blowing everyone else away with his music?

I was sad to hear that the guitar virtuoso passed away, of course, and I thought about the first time I became aware of him.

When I was 11 years old, music downloads wouldn’t be a thing for about 35 years. If you wanted to listen to a song, you had to wait for the guy on the radio to play it. You were at his mercy. You couldn’t store it on your phone or a pod. You could go to a record store and buy the album, but 11-year-old kids like me didn’t have much of a financial portfolio to make a major purchase like that.

What I did have was a tape recorder, so I could put it next to my radio and wait for that guy to play a song I liked and hit record. You hoped that the guy would keep his mouth shut and not blab all over the music. He usually didn’t. That was a music download in 1978, back when we had to put some work in if we wanted to listen to music.

The station had been playing this song almost every night, called “Eruption,” and it was so weird and fun and amazing. I had to have it, and one night, I finally got it. I still have the cheap cassette, with other songs on it like “My Sharona” and the awful yet wonderful “Pina Colada Song.” It’s one of my homemade “Franken-tapes.”

The song “Eruption” is basically Eddie Van Halen going crazy on his electric guitar, and up to that point in history, no one had ever heard anything like it. It’s under two minutes long, which is a good thing, because had it gone more than two minutes, everyone’s brain would have melted.

That was the first I knew about Eddie Van Halen, the guitar player for the classic rock band that bears the name of Eddie and his drummer-brother, Alex. They became huge stars, and Eddie is known as one of the best rock guitar players of all time.

I won’t go into all the innovative playing techniques and technological creations he brought to guitar playing, because I am not a guitar player and wouldn’t be able to properly explain them to you. I can tell you that you’d have to go back nearly a century and study the life of the legendary Les Paul to find someone who advanced the instrument as much as Van Halen did.

His style inspired an entire generation of musicians, literally millions of guitar players who wanted to play like him, and a million more air guitarists like me who actually wanted to be him — but didn’t want to put in the actual work it took. You can be born with a natural aptitude that helps you develop certain skills, but you don’t get that good at anything without hours and hours of tedious hard work, study and sacrifice.

There were, and are, a select few young rock guns who surpassed the master and were better players technically, arguably better guitar players overall, but none of them made it look as easy as Eddie made it look. The pained expressions on their faces as they played told the story.

Simply put, Eddie was just cooler than they were. He typically played with a smug smile on his face, strolling the stage and enjoying a drink and a smoke as he attacked his fretboard, casually tossing souvenir metal picks into the cheering audience, giving the girls in the crowd a wink and a shy wave, giving the guys a friendly nod and hard rock salute. The man was chill.

Plus, the man could write songs that stuck. Eddie had a thousand heavy metal guitar riffs in his head, most with a pop sensitivity that would appeal to the masses, actually infiltrate the masses. His music is almost everywhere. It’s in almost everything, and you’re probably not aware of all the times there’s been a Van Halen musical piece dancing through your head as you go about your business.

Genius is an overused word, but it applies here. In America, we love the idea of genius. I think of the movie Good Will Hunting — the troubled orphan boy with serious anger management issues, no education, no hope in his life — who can solve a complex mathematical equation in a matter of seconds.

The film was an exaggeration, but people like this do exist in the world. Genius comes in all shapes and sizes. It lurks, it hides, it’s hidden behind the 10th door which is hidden behind the 20th door. Sometimes, through happenstance, that hidden door gets opened and genius walks through, and we’re all the better for it.

The Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex, were not born in America. Their father was a Dutch jazz musician and their mother was from the Dutch East Indies, what we now know as Indonesia. Eddie was born in Amsterdam, and the family immigrated to America. There were lots of reasons they left their home for America, but racism was not the least of them. With mixed-raced parents, people were already calling Eddie and Alex “half-breeds,” among other bigoted terms. Yes, racism isn’t exclusive to the United States, it’s worldwide.

Of course, the Van Halen brothers experienced racism as children in their new home in California, too. They went to grade school and couldn’t speak a word of English, and were chastised by both their fellow students and their teachers.

Both Van Halen brothers pointed to that as a reason they turned to music. It was an escape, and it was encouraged in a family of musicians, and good old American rock ‘n’ roll gave them a place to fit in.

Our country did not turn the Van Halen family away, and from that family, a genius emerged. It may be hyperbole to say that a guitar player changed the world, but he impacted his world, and certainly made his little corner of it a little better — and his music has certainly made my world a more bearable place.

When we endeavor to commit the audaciously un-American and un-Christian act of turning families away at our borders, of taking their children and caging them, of denying access to refugees looking for a better life, I wonder how much genius we’re denying ourselves. How many Eddie Van Halens are we turning away? How many Madeleine Albrights? How many Elon Musks? How many Sergey Brins? How many Joseph Pulitzers?

Not to mention the fact that you don’t have to be a genius to deserve an opportunity for a better life. How many good future mechanics, electricians, teachers, cops and nurses are we turning away? Without them, our nation will continue to become substantially less nice, I’m afraid. Like Eddie’s guitar, we’re supposed to be a “Franken-country.”

We’re supposed to be the best place possible, pieced together out of many parts. It’s why I like living here.

It’s just a thought, and I’ll leave it at that.

I’m going to crank up some Van Halen now, and think about how much I love America, a place where I no longer have to wait for the loudmouth at the radio station to play my favorite song.

Goodbye Edward Van Halen, and thank you. I’ll always have your music, but I’ll miss the thought that you’re out there somewhere, creating, innovating and just plain shredding.

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