It’s been some time since I contributed here, and I do apologize. I’ve wanted to, I honestly have. Lacking inspiration, I bet I’ve started roughly a dozen drafts over the last two months. Each draft desperately attempting to not make mention – with apparent futility – of the unending hot mess this country is trying to navigate.
There will be no politics mentioned here. That’s caused me to extricate myself from most social media and all the 24-hour news networks.
I currently find myself with a rare day off from work and, aside from sharing my thoughts here, I’m doing my civic duty trying (forcing) myself to listen to Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
I will only say that, regardless of whatever your political ideation may be, you have to give Judge Barrett an “A+” for courage.
Anyone who would willingly subject themselves to this kind of open, public scrutiny is pretty impressive in my book.
If you don’t know me or don’t know me well, I’ve had a love affair with the guitar that began around age 12 that continues to this day. If you know me well, then you know that since that time that, for me, there is Van Halen and there is everyone else.
When thinking of something to soundtrack this article, surprisingly, I found myself humming along to a track which opens what many consider to be the least popular of the David Lee Roth-era albums, 1983’s Diver Down. The track is “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?”
All my life I've never stopped to worry 'bout a thing
Open up and shout it out, an' never try to sing
Wondering if I've done it wrong
Will this depression last for long?
Last Tuesday, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a bona fide superhero lost his battle with throat cancer. Since then, it felt as though part of my childhood died along with him.
If his passing has given me anything positive, it’s been a welcome respite from the hypocrisy and misinformation that has saturated the ongoing news cycle. With that, it has allowed me to remember just how that music made me feel when it was all brand new to me. Best of all, I’m not picking up the guitar to pass the time, it’s with excitement to see where it takes me next.
Some might argue, but I will continue to think of him as the greatest rock ‘n roll guitar player to have ever picked up the instrument. I will concede that there may have been faster, but none had his groove. There were faster players, but none played with his feeling.
And sure, there were more technical players, but none had his originality, innovation, or songwriting ability. And cool? Well, NO ONE was as cool as Eddie Van Halen.
I was first introduced to Van Halen by accident. It was right at that age when music for a young person starts to have meaning, or rather, that age when you can say you like something and articulate why.
A friend had a cassette of Van Halen I which we never got around to listening to while he was there. Later, after he’d gone home, I found that cassette. I popped it in my little Radio Shack tape recorder, and I haven’t recovered since. Later that week, I had to get my mother to take me to the only record store in Laurel where I spent all of my money replacing my friend’s cassette that I wore out and every album that Van Halen had released to that point (Van Halen I, II, and Women and Children First).
Once we had an easy ride and always felt the same
Time was on our side an' we had everything to gain
This could be like yesterday
Is that me, oh happy days!
Sure, there were other bands I admired, but none that I felt merited space on the walls of my bedroom. In a very short amount of time, I’d covered virtually all of the brand-new wallpaper my mother had painstakingly applied. No space was off-limits. To my parent’s credit, they let me. They knew it was that important to me.
Ma and pa look back on the things they used to do
Never had no money an' they always told the truth
Daddy didn't need no little toys
Mommy didn't need no little boys, ah!
Won't you tell me
Where have all the good times gone?
Where have all the good times gone?
After a couple of years of learning what I could on my Dad’s guitars, mowing yards, and saving birthday money, I took every disposable dollar I had to Mississippi Music in Laurel and walked out with a brand-new Eddie Van Halen-endorsed Kramer Focus 1000. (For you lay people, that’s a fancy electric guitar.)
Since then, I’ve chased the guitar tones that emanate from those first four Van Halen albums with great futility. Countless hours were spent in the bedroom turning knobs on the amp and various pedals attempting to recreate Eddie’s tone on Fair Warning’s “Mean Streets” and “Unchained.”
There aren’t too many things that are harder to listen to than someone attempting to learn an instrument. Now, take into account that for guitar players, part of the learning process is learning to tune the instrument. I didn’t have one of the electronic tuners that are commonplace today.
I had my dad’s pitch pipe. (I’ve seriously dated myself letting that out.) That’s all worth mentioning because even if you’re a decent player, if the guitar is out of tune, it is going to sound awful. Amplified, I’m sure the sounds that were reverberating through my bedroom walls had to be maddening. (Thank you for being patient, Mom, Dad, and Josh).
To me, it was bliss. If I couldn’t wail away in my bedroom, you could probably spot me in my tiny Toyota pickup, windows down, and Van Halen playing as loudly as the little Pioneer tape deck would push the 4-inch speakers in each door.
For the moment, I’ll enjoy allowing “King Edward” to overshadow partisan politics, Supreme Court appointment hearings, and presidential elections just like he did when Abscam, Iran-Contra, and the Cold War were the talk of the day.
Thanks for all you did for this slightly obsessive, attention-challenged kid, Eddie. There were a lot of different roads I could’ve chosen to go down – most of them bad. Thank you for your music and thank you for the guitar. I will forever be in your debt. Rest in peace.
As we approach what will most assuredly be a contentious and volatile few weeks, I will pass along advice documentary filmmaker Cassie Jaye shared during her TED Talk: “If I could give anyone advice in society at large, we have to stop expecting to be so offended, and we have to truly, openly, and sincerely start listening. That will lead to a greater understanding of ourselves and others … having compassion for one another, working together toward solutions because we all are in this together. Once we do that, we can finally heal from the inside out, but it has to start with listening.”
Wes Brooks plays in a local band, The 6550’s, and also works at the University of Southern Mississippi.