Social media continues to erupt with comments about Eddie Van Halen, who passed away October 6, a victim of cancer. Most of the posts (including a few of my own) consist of very loud audio clips of Van Halen shredding the guitar with his famous finger tapping technique.
More than a few discuss his lifestyle of debauchery and excess (after all, he was a god who walked the earth, and being a rock god confers carnal privileges that mere mortals can only dream of). But my enduring Eddie Van Halen memory comes from hot, sweaty day in 1983 when a bearded dude named Bobby schooled me on Van Halen’s impact on popular tastes.
I was helping a family member move apartments – back-breaking work on any day much less a summer afternoon. I can’t remember exactly how Bobby fit into the picture. But he was a helping hand. And because I’m the last person you want to rely on to transport a fold-out a sofa without the thing opening up and pinning your volunteer moving crew against the wall, I greatly appreciated Bobby.
For most of the day, I stayed out of everyone’s way, which was the best move I could make for the safety and patience of all concerned. But I did strike up a few conversations with Bobby while he grunted and lifted and I looked busy doing nothing. Bobby, who wore cowboy boots and could have won a Kris Kristofferson lookalike contest, regaled me with his music passions, which were simple: country, rock and roll, and nothing else. Basically, if a song didn’t feature a hard driving guitar, a pedal steel guitar, and a testosterone-fueled lead singer, he had little use for it.
“But you know,” he said, in a laid back voice that predated the Dude by 15 years, “I gotta tell you something that really, really surprises me. I never thought I’d ever say this, but that new Michael Jackson stuff rocks hard! He’s got it down right.” And then he proceeded to play air guitar to Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo.
Michael Jackson didn’t need Eddie Van Halen to become a global superstar. By the time “Beat It” was released as a video and radio single in early 1983, the Thriller album was already taking off big thanks largely to “Billie Jean,” which exploded in January 1983. But it was “Beat It” that changed everything by fusing rock and R&B. “Beat It” not only made Thriller rocket to Number One, it also helped Michael Jackson become a crossover star, reaching a far wider audience, including cats like Bobby who would never have given Michael Jackson the time of day. At a time when music was becoming more programmed and segmented, “Beat It” defied expectations.
Eddie Van Halen’s song canon includes far more complex and intense guitar solos, but perhaps none more influential than “Beat It.” And that’s just what Michael Jackson and Producer Quincy Jones wanted. Jackson wanted to include a rock song on Thriller “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song”). Jones was happy to oblige. (In fact, depending on what source you read, the idea of recording a rock-oriented song was Jones’s idea.) Years later, Van Halen would remember joining Jones in the studio to record the famous solo:
Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes,
“Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”
I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.
I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”
Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”
The solo didn’t happen because Eddie Van Halen spontaneously walked into a recording studio. The solo happened because Jackson and Jones possessed the artistic vision and commercial instincts. And Eddie Van Halen brought the genius for improvisation. That’s why guys like Bobby discovered Thriller back in 1983. And why they do so today.