Graded on a Curve:
Van Halen,
Women and Children First

What to say about the passing of Eddie Van Halen? Sad? Tragic? Heartbreaking? If the words are trite ones, it’s because death is the mother of a vast brood of cliches. What I’ll carry with me forever is his impish grin in the video for “Jump.” Can a smile sum up a man’s life? It’s the smile of a show-off making it look easy when you know damn well it isn’t, but there’s nothing smug about it. He’s simply bequeathing us a gift, the giving of which makes him happy. As for the fireworks he produced with his guitar, they speak for themselves.

I fell in love with Van Halen as a result of that video, which many–including my lovely other half–view as a sell-out. But the song’s sheer exuberance won me over, and led me to do something I would never have done otherwise–go back and listen to, and fall in love with, the band’s earlier albums.

One of said albums is 1980’s Women and Children First, which I put in third place in the Van Halen discography behind their self-titled 1978 debut and 1984’s 1984. On Women and Children First Pasadena’s greatest ever metal band pulverize the competition–Eddie shows off his hair-raising chops while David Lee Roth does his patented Borscht Belt shtick, and drummer Alex Van Halen and bass player Michael Anthony make like a steamroller with swing. In short, it’s business as usual.

The LP’s two opening tracks are its best. “And the Cradle Will Rock” is one of the heaviest songs in the Van Halen catalogue–less blitzkrieg than juggernaut, it boasts (as do the other songs) a guitar solo I’m sure has led many a lesser guitarist to take up the tuba, and a message (“Well, they say it’s kinda frightnin’/How this younger generation swings”) that’s resounded the whole way back to the origins of rock ’n’ roll and beyond.

On the anthemic “Everybody Wants Some” Alex Van Halen welcomes us to the jungle, Eddie produces enough electricity to light up a small city while making noises that fall into the realm of the supernatural, and David Lee Roth lets on he’s a big fan of silk stockings.

Other favorites include the bone-crushing “Loss of Control,” which segues from the brief Black Sabbath tribute “Tora! Tora!” and comes complete with frantic Maydays!, funhouse laughter, and a guitar solo that NASA scientists contend only could have come from outer space; and the acoustic Mississippi front porch blues “Could This Be Magic?” I’m also a big fan of the Godzilla stomp of “Fools,” on which Eddie deconstructs the blues while Roth lets it be known he’s every bit as tired of pushing a broom as Roger Miller.

But let’s return for a moment to that impish grin. Very few human beings have taken mastering the guitar as seriously as Eddie Van Halen. But when I bring to mind the images of his fellow greats–Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Allman, Beck, Berry, etc.–none of them are smiling. I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect Eddie Van Halen brought more pure joy to playing the guitar than any of them.

Eddie Van Halen is gone, and I suspect even Death isn’t pleased about it. But I could be wrong. I can see Death letting drop his grim scythe in amazement while listening to “Runnin’ with the Devil” and asking Eddie, “How the hell do you do that?” In answer to which Eddie shrugs, puts down his Frankenstrat, and smiles.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Bulletholes

    Greastest line in Rock? “Have you seen Junior’s grades”?
    Delivered perfectly too.

    • Michael Little

      I couldn’t agree more. Second Place: “I don’t feel tardy.”

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