Winter 1984. I’m not yet ten years old. It’s dark as coal and cold. Not cold enough to be dangerous but certainly cold enough to make your nose run. The location is as Canadian as it gets. Small town, outdoor, skate rink. The rink is bathed in a tired yellow light. The boards have weathered their share of hits and been hit by their share of weather. My memory *thinks* there is a chilly chain link fence fattened with frost. In the north west corner of the rink there is a shack. In my mind it’s about ten by sixteen. Long, splintery benches run wall to wall. The lightbulb hums along with the stereo. I also have a strong memory of hot chocolate in this room. Even then I didn’t have the patience required to enjoy Hot Chocolate without first raising the tastebuds on the tip of my tongue from the scalding heat. Hot indeed. It’s still delicious and warms the body on a cold night. I lace up my bauers as tight as I can by myself, which is never tight enough. I wobble across that shack floor and bust out the rickety door to take those fumbling first steps onto the ice. I glide straight out and down, headed in that counter clockwise circle. The wind nips at my lashes and reddens my cheeks. Sharp and cold, but still refreshing. The ice isn’t perfect here. Even though I know someone has painstakingly flooded and re-flooded the rink over and over to try and achieve that smoothest surface possible to allow others to effortlessly sail the smooth surface, there are still a few bumps here and there. (Could probably write another post about the metaphor for life that is frozen in that last line). I’ve just completed my first lap and I round the corner where the door is. Above the door is some sort of speaker. This is ’84 so I can’t imagine what sort of speaker would be fixed to the outside of a skate shack but there it was In all it’s glory. And from it, suddenly, the weirdest sound. I thought, that is strange music? Is it music? Maybe? After one minute and eight seconds of counter clockwise continuance, the sound changes. Obvious keyboards and certainly musical to my 9 year old ear. Then a scream. Not like, in pain, or joy or anger exactly. But more like a “HEY, OVER HERE!” sorta scream. Then the band comes in. What is going on I thought. This is something. Mr. freezing outdoor speaker had my full attention now. I didn’t want to Jump, like the band was repeatedly insisting, but I DID want to hear more. The guitar was awesome. The keyboards were hypnotic. And then came the guitar solo. What. Was. THAT?!? For four full minutes I floated around the rink. No more could I hear the pain o the ice as I carved over it ruthlessly. Now I was only listening to the song. Then it was over. A couple seconds of silence gave me time to consider what I had just heard. But before I could figure it all out in my nine year old brain, the guitar and drums started again. And once again, it was AWESOME. I was skating in circles looking at this old speaker with these THINGS jumping out of it. The singer came in hard with attitude. Panama? Isn’t that a place? Where is it even? Weird name for a song I thought. But the GUITAR! I crashed into the little corral toward the shack door. I had to get a look at the cassette cover. I stagger into the warmth of the shack, which for some reason in my mind is empty. Just me. (I’m SURE this isn’t accurate but that’s the scene in my memory. In fact in my memory there isn’t anyone else there skating either. I KNOW that isn’t right. But that’s my image) I’m looking at the cover and it’s also captivating. Is that a CHILD smoking a cigarette? Do they have wings on?!Why would they? Who would allow that? And at the same time…VERY COOL! By this time the bridge of Panama has hit and I’ve tuned back in to what I’m hearing. I recall feeling awkward. Maybe even a little embarrassed for some reason. The adult word I would choose would be titillated. I was under the spell of rocknroll. In less than ten minutes Van Halen’s 1984 had checked all the boxes for me. I don’t have another single memory I can recall from that skating rink. Or that album. But I vividly recall, or have created, the memory of the first time I heard the first ten minutes of that record.
I would be a life long Van Halen fan yet, only owned a few albums. This very day I own NO Van Halen albums. I loved both eras of the band and view them as almost separate entities. Both line ups provided me with so much information about what Rock music could and should be. As a kid, I was always drawn to the shredder guitarists even though I couldn’t play that stuff. I didn’t have the mental fortitude for practice that the style required. Serious discipline. I still don’t. But that’s sort of how it’s always been for me. I’ve been chronically influenced by people I wanted to emulate yet simply did not have the tools in my bag to do so. Eddie. Steve Vai. Gregg Allman. Dr. John. Howlin’ Wolf. Yet somehow, all these artists live deeply in my psyche. I have listened to SO much of them that, even without being able to play their art note for note, I still managed to glean a glorious amount of influence from them all. If you asked me ten years ago if EVH was one of my big influences I’d say absolutely not. But listening now, as an adult and an unabashed music fanatic that does not believe in guilty pleasures, I can say without hesitation that yes, there is 100% a large EVH influence. There are a few tricks in my bag that I know grew out of listening to Eddie. Certainly not the tapping and shredding but there is LOTS of other things to learn from in the Ocean that is Eddie’s playing. Somehow my brain collected those tones, notes, licks and songs and fashioned them into useable influence. One of the biggest things I took home from Eddie was the melding of styles. Blues, Rock, Pop. It’s all in there and can mingle together into a pretty tasty musical cocktail.
It’s clear Eddie was absolutely astonishing on account of his guitar style. But he was so much more than a guitarist. He certainly revolutionized that instrument, but he was also a fantastic keyboardist, songwriter, singer, riff monster and groove master. He was a fantastic musician. As high end as any of the greats who have come and gone. He left an undeniable scratch on the earth and changed rock music forevr. I’ll forever be embarrassed about not having seen him live but I will be forever grateful that Whenever I hear Panama, I’ll always be that nine year old in that small town skate shack.For the record, I still think the bridge is titillating.