Thursday, November 5, 2020

Something to Look At

Photographer Fin Costello, Eddie Van Halen. Some venue. Any venue. It doesn't matter.

Van Halen played, hmm, let us say a notable role in my teenaged years. I pretty much stopped paying attention when Roth left the band, was mildly pleased when he returned but not enough to listen to the new music. When Eddie died, though, I felt that. It probably hit me almost exactly as if a high school friend I'd never heard from after graduation died.

I'm no expert on guitars or guitar playing. I'm no expert on later Van Halen, although I can probably sing virtually everything from the pre-Van Hagar days and can deffo jam the hell out of some air guitar to most of it.

That said, Eddie seems by all accounts to have been a very nice boy, albeit rather troubled, and his guitar chops were, again by all accounts, very very legit. I can't tell the difference between "very fast" and "actually good" so I take the advice of the experts here.

But let's think about this photo.

It's ridiculously structured, this pyramid shape, the single light, blah blah blah. It's got a lot of a painting in it.

But feel the energy. Despite that solid, grounded, pyramid, everything's wound up tight, in tension. Eddie's grimacing, he's got that one leg cocked way out, his sexy-ass boot cranked over at a ludicrous angle, the guitar's cocked up. You can damn near hear the wall of ridiculous coils of high-pitched notes and growls winding out of the thing. This picture returns me to the audience at any of the concerts I attended in my misspent youth: high, screaming, waving my lighter in the air like an idiot. My pulse quickens when I really look at this thing.

The reflection grounds the thing to the stage, so Eddie's not quite floating in space. Almost, though.

My parents would undoubtedly see it somewhat differently.

I speculate here, but I think they would see a meathead engaged in absurdly over the top drama to rile up a mass of slightly less well appointed meatheads armed with lighters (i.e. me.) I don't think they'd be wrong. Eddie probably was a meathead, in addition to being a very nice fellow, a talented guitar player, and a drunk. The stage performance of Van Halen and their peers was utterly camp, absurdly over the top, and yet at the same time I think keenly felt and genuine. There were no shackles, they could get drunk, stoned, whacked out on speed and let their energy and emotion flow freely. The result was campy as hell, and at the same time completely honest.

Human emotions are ridiculous when they're fully exposed. It's like sex. Get the clothes off, get completely open and honest, and the result is ridiculous. The key is to not look too closely, don't judge, just roll with it and feel it.

Van Halen, like many of their peers, was campy as hell but never cynical.

My parents definitely never did get their heads around the idea of talent or skill in rock guitar playing. No more sophisticated than I, musically, they were unwilling to take it on faith that these bizarre shrieks, pings, bongs, and snarls were in fact difficult to produce and control. What I felt as raw power, they felt as incoherent noise. Noise it is, but coherent, ever so coherent. Coherent, alas, in ways beyond my ability to explain.

I think it's all there in the photo. The energy, the sex, the camp. I feel like the photographer was completely dialed in to Eddie's crazy energy, and found the right way to frame it.

Anyways, Eddie was just 65 and I suppose he gave himself cancer by smoking for 50+ years. He looked like a dad. Short grey hair, neatly trimmed greay beard, but still thin, still fit, and still with a smile that could break your heart.

We should all have a moment like this one, at least once. Completely free, completely involved in our favorite thing in the whole world, completely oblivious to everything except the passion of that. Eddie did it over and over for hours at a time, night after night, for 45 years. Not bad.


  1. Yep, I feel that exact same way about certain Jethro Tull photos: I *was* Ian Anderson when I was 17 in 71. Mum and Dad thought it was hilarious, though, this prat standing on one leg and pulling faces..

    Of course, Eddie might have just slipped -- those stupid leather soles -- and torn a ligament in his groin. Still the same photo... [sorry]. But, yes, it makes every point you've ever made about the subjectivity of response, and the importance of subject matter. A pepper framed the same way simply wouldn't do it.

    "He took it all too far, but, boy, could he play guitar..."



  2. Whatever else you may say about David Alan Harvey, in a recent picture he strongly resembles almost to the point of being a double: Fred Krueger.


    People, are you even listening? Do you WANT him to come RIPPING through your bedroom wall at MIDNIGHT with his BIG-ASS CLAWS?

    I used to hear Van Halen on the radio, never bought the records though.

  3. Apropos of nothing in particular, I have read your post while having a cinammon bun and a coffee. It's a sunny morning in the northern African island where I live, and though I have never been interested in Van Halen's music, reading your post has been a very pleasurable part of my breakfast. Thank you.