Van Halen. A name and a band, and for me personally kind of a mantra.
I started playing guitar when I was twelve, but I can’t say I ever truly studied music formally. My mother was a music teacher, and she did for a short time demand that I learn to play piano but Van Halen made me bargain and whine for a guitar instead.
Piano just wasn’t cool enough. I told her many years later that I had made a mistake by not learning piano as well as I did guitar. But it was my choice, and as long as I was learning to play SOMETHING musical, she was happy.
I can remember a class I took in college where everyone was told to bring in something purely audio, not necessarily music, as part of an active listening exercise. I brought in “Cathedral” off the album Diver Down. I asked the class what instrument they thought it was and there were some who already knew but no one guessed it was a guitar. Look it up if you’ve never heard the song.
It’s really more of a solo than a song, but it got me thinking even when I was a kid that the guitar or anything was open for exploration. That formal learning only takes you so far. Eddie learned to play piano to a pretty high level, also encouraged to do so by his father (also a musician). I’d learned that just like Eddie didn’t play like anyone else, I didn’t want to create like anyone else.
That first song, Running with the Devil has a lyric that goes “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow, all I’ve got I had to steal. ‘Least I don’t need to beg or borrow. Yes, I’m living and I face that guilt.”
I think for me that lyric means something else – it’s not a call to hedonism that so many people misinterpret it to be. It’s kind of fatalistic – I HAVE to live like there’s no tomorrow because TODAY is so hard. It’s not all just a big party, it’s about the work that you have to do to get done.
Running with the Devil still gets a lot of radio airplay. Yeah, I still listen to the radio. It’s definitely a technology that’s lost it’s cool to the mobile earbud army of iTunes zombies. And any time that song plays, it still feels fresh to me.
I bought a Parker guitar a little over two years ago, even though the company kind of disappeared recently though many promise it will return eventually. It’s a guitar with a lot of really carefully crafted features to facilitate playing. Smooth surfaces, good components, lightweight construction.
I think plenty of people would accuse Parker guitars of being clinical. Too clean. But they don’t get it. The Player is the one who is supposed to add that “dirt” or “fire” – Eddie would famously tell people it’s pointless to tell you what gear he plays, because you will always sound like you when you play.
Kicking back into my favorite pet peeve of fan art, some often say that fan art is exactly that same outlet. That people are adding their own spin to established characters. Eddie would, I think, vehemently disagree and his argument would be one of his own albums – Diver Down.
As any Van Halen fan fan can tell you, Diver Down is a bone of contention – it is largely cover tunes. As a fan, I love the albums original songs – the aforementioned Cathedral is on that album. But Eddie hated it – too many covers, Van Halen had already slogged through the Los Angeles music scene playing covers because party goers demanded it.
And artists often view selling fan art as a means to get the bigger gig. And it’s true, I think it has happened – but Van Halen became a top rock icon because of it’s original work, not it’s cover songs. Gene Simmons didn’t hear their demo of cover songs, he heard their originals – Running with the Devil was one of those songs.
So who are you Running with? The Crowd? Or the Devil? Haha!