Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Oh, Oh, Oh, JAM Is Cry-in'

Either You Have "It" Or You Don't

I have always been interested in creative and artistic people. Couple that with a pretty seriously conservative outlook on life, and the mixture results in a real love-hate relationship with musicians and artists whose work I admire. I can love the output of a seriously gifted musician or artist, yet despise the complete lack of moral compass that many of them suffer from. (Yeah, I know, I shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition.)

Eddie Van Halen recently celebrated his 50th birthday.

Now, I can remember the very first time I heard Van Halen.

My Big Brother's first car was a 1972 Plymouth Barracuda. Brown with the wide white stripe down the upper portion of each side. 340 cubes. Positive traction, which for Big Brother meant that he wore out BOTH back tires in dramatic fashion when showing off at school. The car had automatic transmission, it's only downfall in his mind, but he got around that by shifting it as if it were a standard transmission anyway. All in all, a seriously cool first car.

I felt so awesome to ride around with my Big Brother in that thing. Much of the music from the late 70's that I love reminds me of cruising with him in the Barracuda.

Back to Van Halen.

One day Big Brother and I were headed somewhere, or maybe nowhere, when he holds up a new 8-track tape and says, "You HAVE to hear these guys. They have the best guitar player I've ever heard."

That caught my interest because I have always been drawn to guitar music like moths to a porch light. (You might still say, moths to a flame, but down here in Flurrida, we have these newfangled contraptions called 'lectricity and light bulbs.)

He pokes the 8-track tape into the factory, in-dash tape player and out of the speakers comes the massively low, distorted, opening bass line of Van Halens first album's opener, "Runnin' With The Devil." Hey, I was pretty much a heathen back then, and the song rocked, despite the title and subject matter of the lyrics.

Then shortly, some of the most killer guitar chords/playing I'd ever heard commences to add to the song, and I got chill bumps.

The second song on the tape, the instrumental guitar of "Eruption," sounds as good and awe inspiring today as it did in 1978. And Mr. Van Halen was only about 20 when that album and "Eruption" was recorded.

It still amazes me today.

I have since learned to play the guitar myself, but I can't play leads. And since I hurt my back a few years ago, I have practiced very little. I'm a decent strummer though. Mostly I play sitting on the side of my bed, like tens of thousands of 14 year olds have over the years.

But I love it.

Mind you, I have no illusions that I have great talent. But, I've become convinced that anyone can learn to play a musical instrument to some degree, with dedication and persistence.

The folks that have always intrigued me greatly, like Mr. Van Halen, are the ones who have "IT."

Eddie and his brother, Van Halen's drummer Alex, were born and spent their childhoods in Holland. Eddie, excuse me, I think he prefers Edward these days, Edward, played piano as a child.

He was so good that his father made him join in some big yearly national piano competition in Holland. Eddie was made to take lessons, but later as an adult, revealed that he never actually learned to read the music he would play on the piano. If he heard the piece he was supposed to practice all year for that competition, just once, then he could sit down and play it.

Kind of makes me sick to think about being born with that much innate musical talent. I remember reading an interview in a guitar magazine where he stated he won one of these national competitions too. Couldn't read a note of music, just perfect pitch and recall for music.

When they moved to America, California I think, the brothers bought themselves instruments; the older brother Alex a guitar, and the younger Edward a set of drums.

Each ended up hating their instrument, and coveted the other's instead. So they traded, and the rest is musical history.

But I want to say a couple of things about what it takes to go from naturally talented to becoming insanely famous and rich and influential in the music world.


In another interview of Mr. Van Halen, interviewed by Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame in an old Guitar World Magazine, Billy Corgan asked Edward, "So, how does one go from learning to make and play their first open G chord on guitar, to playing "Eruption?"

Edward's reply, "Practice."

Mr. Van Halen said that in his early teens, when the older Alex would head out at 6 or 7pm to party and hang with his friends, he, Edward, would be sitting on the side of his bed, practicing his guitar.

Later, when Alex came home, and we're talking on the order of 2am here, Edward would still be sitting in the same place on his bed, practicing. Seven hours later! How good would any of us get at playing an instrument if we loved it enough to practice that much, each and every day?

Edward also said that by the time he was 15, he could play ANYTHING on the guitar that he wanted to play.

Over the years, I've attended guitar shows and heard and watched some of the most amazing players play. Not just guitar either, bass and drums too.

But I've never lost that sense of awe when I hear someone who has "it." It's easily recognizable to me, and never fails to stop me in my tracks to listen or watch.

I don't really have a clever point to this post. It's just one of those things that I was thinking about, how people have gifts that seem almost miraculous.

I rarely read guitar magazines any more. Today's music has pretty much passed me by. While I love the style of certain types of music, most of what is out there is stuff that, as a Christian, I seem to be incapable of listening to on a regular basis. As profound as that first hearing of Van Halen's "Running With The Devil" was to me, and I still love the music of the song, I don't listen to it because the subject matter of the lyrics brings me down.

I know that may sound hokey to many, but that's just the way I am. I've found bands over the years, like Disciple, Stavesacre, Living Sacrifice, Tourniquet, Kutless, 12 Stones and many more, who play a hard style of music that I'm drawn to. Yet their lyrics more closely reflect the pain and hope I have as a Christian living in this goofy world, and this mixed up country.

Most of these bands will probably never hit the big time, there are few Christian bands that do, the music companies dislike the blatant Christianity in their lyrics too much music to be willing to put serious money behind promoting them, but I'm glad I live in the day I do, where I can find plenty of music, thanks mostly to the internet and indie companies that put out CDs by great Christian bands.

Again, there's not much point to all of this, it's mostly a ramble, but the other night, when the Superbowl went to half-time, with me being a life long hater of all forms of half-time entertainment, I picked up a book beside me and started reading.

Prince came on, and before long, I stopped reading to watch the rest of his show.

Because, you know what? Prince can play the snot out of a guitar, and though I've never bought a prince album, 45, CD, or CD single, I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to him totally rock out on that telecaster, that stratocaster, and finally that "symbol" shaped guitar.

However I may feel about Prince as a person, or not really like his music that much, the guy proved that he is one of those rare musicians blessed with "IT." That little something extra that separates those of us who can play guitar, from those who are truly gifted.

Prince rocked. (At least he did up until near the end when he did the shadow cast on the billowing cloth thing, which made it look like he was... playing with himself. Then I muted the TV and went back to reading. How did he get away with that after the Janet Jackson "costume malfunction" of a couple of years ago?)

That, Edward's recent birthday, and also that I heard on the news that Van Halen is gearing up for a tour this summer with none other than David Lee Roth singing on stage with them for the first time since 1985...

...those things just got me thinking.

The opinions expressed in this blog post are the opinions of the writer of this blog post and not necessarily those of his loyal readers; either one of them.

I also know how to practice proper grammar, but choose to write more like I speak.


Hammer said...

I agree. Van Halen was the greatest when I was growing up. When Roth left though the music seemed to get mamby pamby.

I bought a guitar when I was 19 to try to duplicate some of the great music I heard, I've got a good ear but my dexterity is crappy.

I know what you mean, a great guitar lead or chord progression sends shivers up my spine. There aren't too many bands that can do that.

JAM said...

I also think that Van Halen almost single handedly put end to the disco craze; something for which I'll be eternally grateful.

They hit so big so fast that the record companies scrambled to try to find more rock bands.