On a recent morning, as I was driving my beloved to work in Century City from North Hollywood, we stopped at a gas station on the corner of Coldwater and Ventura to load up on supplies (coffee, smokes, Bratz press-on tattoos, etc.) before heading up the canyon to parts better known and vastly overpriced.
Tapping my toe to the hottest of Hindi hits lilting softly through the burnt-coffee-scented air, I noticed a small commotion at the front of the line. What I saw was a frail, hunched man, with longish, stringy hair and gnarled, shaky, “hard work” hands, wearing a loose-fitting long-john shirt, faded jeans and expensive track shoes. While the cashier waited, the man muttered to himself as he arranged six packs of smokes into a stack on the countertop — three packs of American Spirit heavies, three packs of Marlboro Light 100s (the chica smoke of choice). He was too well dressed to be a bum, but also too unkempt and “lived in” to be anything other than a burned-out roadie or an out-of-work roofer. He’d obviously seen too many late nights, but he also seemed like a scrappy sort who could mix it up, work with his hands, create .?.?. Hmmm .?.?. What’s this Hessian dude’s deal? And what’s with the smoke stacking, you goddamn smoke stacker?
As I watched him futz around with the cigs and thought to myself, “This is one chain-smoking mother fucker,” he turned his head to the side, giving me a brief glimpse of his profile. All at once, I realized that he looked very familiar, like an old friend who didn’t look the way I remembered but was still very recognizable based on a strong memory deeply rooted in the lizard brain of my youth. Then it hit me, like the first strains of “Runnin’ With the Devil,” the midpoint of “Eruption,” the last note of “Ice Cream Man.”
This was Eddie Van Halen.
Muttering to himself. Stuffing change into his wallet with shaky, gnarled, hard-work hands. Stacking six packs of smokes on a countertop. Two brands. Three a piece.
This was Eddie Van Halen, my first guitar hero, the blistering virtuoso with the striped guitar, the fuel behind the first great American arena-rock supergroup.
Eddie Van Halen, the musical whiz who was described as “coming from a planet where everyone plays guitar.” The guy who taught us about the “hammer on” move and the tremolo, and who took fretwork to a whole new stratosphere — or maybe just back to the planet he came from. The icon who invented the tennis-racket air guitarist. The effortless genius who grinned that laconic, dopey grin while blowing the doors off of guitar convention when not blowing the embryonic matter off of MTV. The man who married childhood boner queen Valerie Bertinelli.
The guy we all once knew as just “Eddie.”
And now here he was, at 9 a.m. in the Valley, gathering up his smokes and shuffling past me, eyes down, smelling of three-day-old liquor, and out the door to the dirty Toyota Land Cruiser, and the young, moderately pretty woman (certainly no boner queen) who waited for him behind the wheel, smoking her long, chica Marlboro Light 100 and yammering into her cell phone. Didn’t she know who this was? He’s a Guitar God, you jabbering skank! Pay some respect and at least open the door for this faded titan.
But she didn’t pay respect, nor did she even notice as my boyhood hero walked to the front of the Land Cruiser, banged his head a few times on the thin metal hood, and then mock collapsed, before slogging wearily to the passenger door, as if it was all too much effort. Like he was exhausted from the smoke stacking, from the journey, from the memories of what he once was and what he will never get to be again.
By this time, I stopped looking, for maybe the same reason that Eddie’s female friend stopped looking, as we all want to remember our Gods and Monsters the way we did as children, when all seemed possible, and men could be made giants, and giants into the infinite.
I didn’t even look to see where he went, or in which direction, because I already knew, and didn’t need to know the truth. At least not this time.
Not with Eddie.