By Christopher Nyerges
I was at the Lincoln Heights Farmers Market on October 7 when I heard that Eddie Van Halen, a friend of mine in my youth, had died.
A few days later, my wife and I were inspired to go see the Van Halen landmark in nearby Pasadena, the curb where Eddie carved his family name in wet cement many decades ago.
“There it is,” I said, when we arrived at the curbside landmark. Fans had written messages on the sidewalk and left candles and paraphernalia all around the Van Halen inscription. Large letters spelling out VAN HALEN decorated the lower walls of the line of stores.
As my wife and I took a few photos, fans continued to stop and take pictures and talk about how they wish they had met Eddie. As I was telling stories to my wife of my high school days, some people overheard and asked if I really knew Eddie.
“Yes, I knew Eddie,” I told them. “We hung out together in high school.”
People were impressed that someone who actually hob-knobbed with the Great Eddie could be there on that dark night. These young men and women were too young to know Eddie in the day, but old enough to have listened to and admired his music. During our short visit, some two dozen people walked or drove by to see the shrine.
I met Eddie through David Roth, a buddy of mine at John Muir High School in Pasadena. Eddie attended Pasadena High School on the other side of town, so we saw him and the band on weekends or when the band practiced in a friend’s sound-proofed back room.
I liked Eddie. He was friendly, open, never conceited or preoccupied with himself. I liked his smile and his enthusiasm. In our little social group of friends and schoolmates, I don’t recall that anyone ever believed the group would hit the big time. Still, when we sat around talking about the things that high school people talked about, the talk would get around to Van Halen and to Eddie’s mastery of the guitar.
Eddie was good and everyone knew it. Eddie once shared that he’d never learned to read music and that he just practiced all the time and learned to improvise.
In our high school days – Van Halen’s pre-fame days – I was never without a camera in my hand and Roth invited me to be their periodic photographer. I would drive with the band in their packed van to take photos at their gigs at the Cucamonga Connection. I also went to the Pasadena Civic and various Pasadena backyards.
Though David seemed to do most of the talking and singing, Eddie did most of the smiling. Gregarious, positive, always friendly.
Later, after Eddie was famous, I would read about him in the newspaper or hear something on the radio and always wondered how much was truth and how much just part of the developing myth.
I prefer to remember Eddie as the young and innocent teen who was my friend, who never seemed puffed up with pride, and could genuinely smile at anyone in his circle, including me. I feel that Eddie played for the pure love of it, for the manifest expression of excellence, with no rival in recent memory except possibly Jimi Hendrix.
After my wife and I finished talking with the young fans at the street memorial, we went to the old Van Halen family home where a similar shrine had been set up. This shrine felt different. It was quiet and dark. A couple quietly moved along as we walked up to the house. A few candles were lit on the sidewalk, barely making the shrine visible. There was a spiritual quality here, a solemn silence, and it felt as if Eddie was back at his old home, looking at friends and fans who came, pondering now whatever is next.
I was there as a friend, not a “fan,” and I quietly let thoughts of Eddie fill my mind, in this place where the spirit of Eddie would be if it was anywhere.
After some moments of quiet reflection, we drove home.
Eddie, we’ll miss your smile and your musical genius. May your journey be filled with peace.
[UPDATE: As of this writing, the City of Pasadena is considering the establishment of a permanent landmark in honor of Pasadenan Eddie Van Halen.]
Christopher Nyerges can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.
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