2020 will be remembered for COVID-19, political/societal upheaval, and (I believe) an inflection point in our global society. For me, however, it will also be the year we lost THREE pivotal musicians that influenced me tremendously.
· Neil Peart
· Edward Van Halen
· Harold Budd
To be clear, I know that as I age, so do my heroes. And it seems in recent years, the losses are starting to mount. But in 2020, three persons that were huge in the formation of my own musical voice departed this world. As such, I’d like to pay tribute to them.
Like many of my generation, I became aware of Neil Peart by way of the album “2112” by Rush. It has been documented countless times…but let me say it….this album is a f$%king masterpiece!
One element that made it so was the lyrics. They read like the dystopian Sci-Fi stories I have so loved my entire life. Like many, I felt the study of record liner notes was just as necessary as listening to the record. What jumped out at me from the “2112” liner notes was that the drummer, Neil Peart, was also the lyricist. A drummer/writer, in and of itself, is a rarity. But the lyrics were like great prose poetry written by a formidable mind…..that belonged to a phenomenal drummer literally in league of his one.
If Mr. Peart were only the drummer, he would still have been of rarified talent. He was that good. He will certainly go down as one of the greatest drummers in the history of music. HOWEVER, if he were only the lyricist, he would be remembered as one of the most imaginative and creative writers in Rock history. Even taken from the musical context of the many songs he/Rush created, they stand on their own as well thought out, well-constructed poetry. This was validated to me in a small way during my sophomore year in high school when my English teacher tasked the class with bringing in examples of what we thought of as good poetry. All my classmates brought in examples from William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and other “traditional” poets. I brought the lyrics from “The Trees”, my favorite song off of Rush’s album “Hemispheres”. Of all the poems, my teacher chose to highlight in front of the class these lovely words from Neil Peart, being amazed that a “rock and roll drummer” could be capable of such beautiful words. That moment in high school, as much as anything, affirms that Neil Peart was a remarkable talent.
Edward Van Halen:
There are several guitarists that have influenced and informed me throughout my life. Three, more than any others, set the direction in my early life:
· Michael Schenker, who inspired me to pick up the instrument.
· Jimmy Page, for illustrating the emotional width and breath one can achieve with Rock guitar.
· Edward Van Halen, for making the creative process sound AND look blissful.
Given the recorded output of my music, it may surprise some that Eddie Van Halen would make this list but it is not hyperbolic to say that my life would be quite different had I not been exposed to Van Halen. For this reason, I’m mourning his death in a much deeper depth that I have any other celebrity because of the impact he had on me and my generation.
In 1978, a friend told me “YOU HAVE TO CHECK OUT THIS NEW BAND, VAN HALEN!!!”. Given that I was already smitten with all things Hard Rock that my place in suburban America exposed me to (i.e. KISS, Sabbath, Aerosmith), I was all in to check them out, sight unseen (or ears unheard as the case was). I bought their debut album and placed the needle on the record.
I still vividly remember the sensations and awe that followed upon hearing the famous descending car-horn, bass thump and the most glorious guitar ever recorded that was the beginning of “Runnin with the Devil”. Goosebumps were induced as I silently wondered “What the f%&k is this?!?!”….then I heard the iconic “Eruption” which was literally disorienting in how awesome it was. For anyone younger and grew up in a “post-VH” world, it may be hard to appreciate the paradigm shift that “Eruption” was. Before 1978, no one (and I mean NO ONE) played like that or sounded like that. Everything about that solo and, for that matter, the guitar playing on the whole album, was revolutionary. The guitar tone was as heavy as anything I’d ever heard, yet, with a beauty and lightness that defies my ability to accurately describe. The technique was beyond my comprehension. And the songwriting was 2nd to none. Riffs that were melodious, aggressive, fun. In a word: Gamechanger!
Van Halen’s rise seemed to sync perfectly with my own adolescent timeline, particularly in high school. My freshmen year = “Women and Children First”. Sophomore = “Fair Warning”; Junior year = “Diver Down”; and, for the class of ’84….”1984”. Even after high school, when I (supposedly) grew up, it seemed that so did VH in a way, moving on from David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar.
To this day, the most memorable concert experience of my life was seeing Van Halen in 1984. They were at the height of their popularity. The show was on such a huge scale that I just felt like I would never see anything so marvelous again (and I haven’t). The center of the event was, of course, Eddie Van Halen. His playing and sheer joy left such an indelible mark on me. I’ve seen many great performances in my life, but none had such a visceral affect on me as Edward Van Halen’s did that night.
While the band has always been a sum of its membership, the most key element of that band was Eddie Van Halen. His guitar playing was key. But, more importantly, his songwriting was what made the band so special. His musical palette from which he created music seemed so much brighter, broader, and colorful than anyone else in the Hard Rock genre of the era. Yes, there were a million copy-cats that followed. But Eddie was always miles above and beyond everyone else, not just because he was an obvious musical savant, but also because he did what he did with an unabashed joy. As much as most musicians will remember Eddie Van Halen for his guitar playing, most non-musicians will remember him for his smile.
My own guitar playing was never anything comparable, in style, to Eddie Van Halen. His level of ability seemed superhuman to me and, besides, that was not the thing I admired the most about him, as shockingly good as he was. It was his sheer joy he approached his craft that is his stylistic legacy on me.
I still find it hard to believe I live in a world devoid of the human that was Edward Van Halen. It saddens me tremendously. But his music remains, sounding as fresh as ever. Its almost trite to say it…but his music will live forever. When there is a conversation about the greatest musicians of the 20th century, his name will always be invoked. He was The King in my book. Long may he reign.
Like many, I discovered Harold Budd by way of the collaborations he did with Brian Eno, whom I discovered in the 1980’s by way of the soundtrack to the movie “Dune”. From there, I went down the “Eno rabbit hole” Later, I came upon a Brian Eno box set which contained 3 CD’s of his music from the mid-70’s through the mid-80’s. One track that really caught my attention was “A Stream with Bright Fish” which was taken from the Eno/Budd album “The Pearl”. Being relatively late to knowing Eno’s work, I was curious to know more about the many collaborators he worked with: Michael Brook, Daniel Lanois, Robert Fripp and, of course, Harold Budd.
As great as his collaborations with Eno was, it was his many projects with Robin Guthrie, guitarist of The Cocteau Twins that really touched me. The capture of ambience, space, and vibe were brilliant. That drove me to try to make “something beautiful” with my own music.
As much as his music, it was Mr. Budd’s approach to his music that inspired me more than most musicians. He originally came out of the Avant Garde/Minimalist world of the late 60’s that, while intellectually interesting, tended to place value on atonality and dissidence, making for “difficult” listening. He rebelled against that, stating that he wanted to “create beauty”, which he did. His music was, in a sense, minimalist, but sparse and deliberate phrases that allowed notes to “breathe’. And they were beautiful and…not difficult.
In my own music making, I have found being deliberate and minimal with my playing has been one of the more difficult things to do. As a guitarist with a Rock background, my tendency is to over-play. Trying to not over-play is deceptively difficult. Harold Budd was the key figure that inspired me to keep trying to say more with less, and to do so with beauty as an objective. I’m sad that he is gone but I’m grateful for his inspiration to be intentional with making beauty. The world can always use more of that.