I know I’m extremely late to the Wake. So late, in fact, that the decorative, white rose arrangements are fading to brown, and all the other mourners have gone home and are already at Step 4 in their Five Stages of Grief. But it has taken me a while to process the death of Eddie Van Halen, and by “process” I don’t mean I’ve been so saddened by this that I can’t form words but more like, this death struck me in a strange way that I couldn’t put words to.
So, if you’ll excuse the late eulogy – and if anyone’s still listening – I would like to mourn a death.
The death of the Guitar Hero.
With Eddie’s departure, they’re mostly gone now, the Guitar Heroes. Jimi, Stevie, the six-string gun slingers recognized by first name alone. Sure, we could geek out for hours about Founding Fathers like Beck and Clapton and their worthiness for the title, or even 80’s metal stalwarts like Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen. It doesn’t change the fact that few Guitar Heroes remain: when Jimmy Page passes on to his hard-earned Valhalla, for me, that’s it. But EVH was probably the last “face” of the Reign of the Guitar Hero. And now he’s gone.
There was a reason we called them heroes. Their power was heroic. They were more than just musical innovators, they were shaman, casting magic and testosterone over two generations of kids. And it wasn’t the craft of their playing – the complexity or speed of the notes – it was the heroism of unity. You stood on your chair in an arena with 30,000 kindred souls, basking in the sheer joy of the mighty power chord. It was a shared experience of such raw emotional intensity that you turned to the guy on the next chair over and gave him a high five for no other reason than he was there, he was there with you, feeling this, experiencing this, live and alive in the unmatched beauty of a single moment.
I remember, clearly and vividly, so many of those moments. I can’t tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can remember screaming my head off at Eddie’s guitar solo at the San Diego Sports Arena in October of 1981; the way my ears rang for a day afterward, not just from the bone-splintering volume of the guitar, but the even louder cries of joy.
They were moments so seminal that they steered my own life path for decades to come. I knew early on in my musical career that I’d never be anything close to a Guitar Hero, nor was it really what I wanted. But I did get to have a taste of it. I was blessed with the opportunity to stand on a stage, hit a power chord with ungodly decibels, and feel the feedback loop of love it launched. Nothing has ever matched that feeling. Nothing.
And now comes the part where I risk sounding like the Old Man Telling You To Get Off His Lawn. I mourn the end of the era of the Guitar Hero because I’m saddened by the idea that kids these days won’t get to experience what I experienced. Sure, maybe TikTok dances are the way Gen Z has evolved the concept, and like all pop culture, if it pisses-off adults, that’s what makes it valid. Like Rock n’ Roll.
Perhaps, like all art and the artists who create it, the Guitar Hero will go underground for a while, maybe to emerge someday, reborn and redefined.
But maybe not. And that’s why I mourn.