Things were louder than normal Thursday night at the Smithsonian’s usually staid National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
Not only was there a rowdier crowd on hand, but there was also an amplifier and three guitars — and they weren’t museum pieces. Yet.
Living guitar deity Eddie Van Halen was being honored as part of the museum’s “What it means to be American” program, an initiative to explore the American experience.
The institution recognized Van Halen not only for his particular American journey as a Dutch immigrant, but also for his legacy as a inventor and innovator — someone who single-handedly (well, sometimes he used both hands) rewrote not only how guitars are played, but also how they are built. He spoke to the question: is rock & roll all about reinvention?
Van Halen was greeted as a conquering hero by an audience that was equal part suits and faded Van Halen concert T-shirts. With son Wolfgang and brother Alex in the front row — Van Halen’s bass player and drummer respectively — he recounted his unique American story for moderator Denise Quan.
Van Halen told the crowd how his Dutch father, Jan, was a classically trained clarinet and saxophone player whose musical travels led him to Indonesia where he met Eddie and Alex’s mother, Eugenia. Music paid for a nine-day family move from the Netherlands to the United States, as Jan played in the ship’s band and cajoled Eddie and Alex into playing piano during intermissions. These early shows, said Van Halen, gave the boys an early taste of “the perks of being a performer”: they sat at the captain’s table the next night.
During his impoverished early years, Van Halen told the crowd that he and brother Alex “always liked things loud,” constantly marching through the house banging pots and pans. When cacophony turned to melody — mom arranged piano lessons for both kids — Eddie and Alex won a series of piano competitions. Van Halen told the crowd that he hid the fact that he never learned to read music, having simply been “blessed with good ears.” When the Beatles replaced piano and Alex and Eddie switched instruments — Alex played Eddie’s drum kit; Eddie took Alex’s guitar — “It was destiny,” Van Halen said. The roots of Van Halen were born. “If that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is,” said the guitarist.
Van Halen said his inventions — in his playing style and with guitar electronics — were born from both necessity and from an insatiable urge to tinker. The constant refrain “What if I do this?” spun in his brain, and he always felt compelled to push “things past what they’re supposed to be.” Referring to the “Spinal Tap” amp that could go to “11,” Van Halen said, “I was already going 15!”
As for his unparalleled playing technique, Van Halen acknowledged that he didn’t necessarily invent “tapping” and “hammering” — he remembered seeing Jimmy Page doing a rudimentary type of hammering at a L.A. Forum show. But there’s little doubt Van Halen took the technique to a new and previously unheard of level of virtuosity. Many of his “tricks” emerged from the fact that he “couldn’t afford pedals” and had to get sounds out his guitar with his fingers. Van Halen then wowed the Smithsonian crowd with a brief demonstration of his guitar prowess, including bits from “Eruption” and the harmonics-laden intro to “Mean Street.”
The explosion of copycat guitarists that “erupted” in his wake initially “kinda pissed me off,” Van Halen said. “God, what did I start?” But his father eventually prevailed upon him to see the imitation as the ultimate flattery.
Van Halen spoke of his close friendship with another guitar innovator and mentor — Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar and a hugely influential player in his own right. Paul would call Van Halen in the wee hours from the East Coast, invariably ending the conversation with, “You, me, Leo Fender — we’re the only ones who know how to build a guitar!”
When Rolling Stone asks Van Halen after the show about the band’s current plans, the guitarist is ambivalent, noting that the group has no immediate plans to record or tour. “I’d love to make a studio record,” he says. “Depends on everybody’s timing. I don’t know what Dave [Lee Roth] is up to now. I don’t know if he’s living in New York or Japan or wherever he is.”
Asked how Van Halen, the band, adjusted to three different lead vocalists through the years — original singer David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone— the guitarist says it was more a case of the singers adjusting to the group: “You sing this, or you’re out of the band,” Van Halen says, laughing.
Fans traveled far and wide to pay homage to their American hero. Jeff Hausman, proprietor of the popular Van Halen News Desk website, flew in from Arizona. Kevin Dodds, author of Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography, was on hand from Austin with his son, who sported his dad’s Van Halen necklace purchased at a 1984 Van Halen show. David Daum from Buffalo told Eddie he’d been waiting 35 years to say “thanks.”
Van Halen, in league with Fender, donated a replica of his famous striped Stratocaster to the Smithsonian, along with an EVH Brand Wolfgang guitar and amplifier.
The guitarist was the second in the “What it Means to be American” series. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez appeared at the inaugural event in Phoenix last month.