Johnny’s Records owner reflects on the death of Eddie Van Halen
We asked John Conrad of Johnny’s Records for his reflections on the passing of iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen at age 65 on Tuesday. Here are his thoughts.
One of the things I’ve learned being a music retailer is to trust the words and stories I’m hearing from my customers.
Sales representatives, trade publications — they are wonderful if you’re dealing in mainstream information. Small record shops, we make our money by being on the cutting edge of what’s new.
I have always relied on people coming in and telling me what they believe is important — the music they’ve just heard in a small club or at their school auditorium. Early after I opened in 1975, one of my employees, a guy named Jeff Simpson, mentioned that a high school friend of his, Pete Angelus, was out in California breaking into the music scene.
No, he didn’t want to be a musician. Pete wanted to manage rock groups. He had recently run into a band that he was absolutely crazy about. The band was Van Halen. They had a lead singer, David someone-or-other, who had incredible stage presence and performed the zaniest stunts during the show. In addition, the group’s lead guitarist, Eddie Van Halen.
“Holy mackerel,” he said, “that guy was something else.”
My friend said that Pete believed this Eddie guy was the best guitarist he’d ever seen.
“Better than Hendrix?” was my first question. Well, Pete never got to see Jimi Hendrix. But out in Los Angeles, Pete was catching all the new music acts. Eddie Van Halen was the best guitarist currently performing. It wasn’t just that he could play loud and fast. A lot of guys could do that. Eddie Van Halen had a technique that was unique — a style that was going to set the world on fire.
The first Van Halen album came out in February 1978. Though a few years had passed since my friend Jeff had first mentioned the group Van Halen, when I saw the album listed on the new release sheet, I remembered my employee’s words and ordered a few copies.
At the time I was good friends with the town’s local guitar teacher Chris Risola. I gave him a call and asked if he knew about this band.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “Eddie Van Halen is a monster. He’s the most incredible guitar player on the scene.”
Chris came right down to the store and bought the album. Within a week the word had gotten out among all the local musicians that their teacher was talking about this new album by this phenomenal guitar player Eddie Van Halen.
Every day one or two aspiring guitar players would come into my store, alone or with his mom, and ask if I knew anything about this new group Van Halen. They did this song called “You Really Got Me.”
Had I heard of it?
Yes. I didn’t bother to mention that the song had originally been done by the Kinks and that the solo Dave Davies did on that song is considered a touchstone of great guitar playing. I didn’t bother saying this because, well, every generation needs its heroes. Despite the mythic element to heroes, they don’t come out of nowhere. They stand on the shoulders of others before them. But that’s an old man’s reflection.
For the young boys coming into my store with visions of rock and roll guitar fame, it was Eddie who was their main man. He deserved to be honored. His guitar playing was superb. The style he created, it was incredible.
Though not a lot of people in the business would care to admit it, rock ‘n’ roll shares a great deal with the circus. Most people go to concerts to be entertained. David Lee Roth, the original lead singer of Van Halen, was a master at giving the people what they wanted.
But for the lovers of music, the people who want the sound, the vibration, the mastery of the guitar, it was Eddie Van Halen who filled their need. He was the dominant guitarist for the late 1970s and early ’80s. As the music moved on, other great guitarist came on the scene. While they were all good, some of them great, none of them had the innovative technique and the pure chops of Eddie Van Halen.
Like Hendrix, Eddie was one of the greats.