Letter to my 14-year-old self: On conflicted fandom and Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen (publicity still)

Dear Daniel,

How you love your tunes! Raised in a musical family, you took your first steps to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” and got into many different sounds, from Tchaikovsky to Sinatra to Edith Piaf. But rock and roll is your passion and you are, after all, fourteen. So here you are at boarding school in 1978, and your house mate, S., a kid from Piedmont, California (part of Oakland, near San Francisco, you will learn), is a big fan of guitar rock. He plays it on the biggest, loudest, most expensive speakers in the dorm, everything from Aerosmith and Foreigner to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the soon-to-be-execrable Ted Nugent. S. is pretty cool: his eclectic tastes also include a live version of David Bowie’s “Cracked Actor,” and Todd Rundgren’s latest, “Can We Still be Friends.”

One day, S. pulls out an LP by this hot new band from L.A. he’s been telling you about. After placing the vinyl on the turntable, he lowers the needle onto “Runnin’ with the Devil,” exposing you for the first time to the screeching harmonics of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and the winking innuendo of David Lee Roth’s wailing lead vocals. That first track and the next three shake you up in a way no other heavy metal act will ever do: from the three-part vocal harmonies and clean, sharp riffs of “Runnin’” to Eddie’s stellar fretwork on the instrumental “Eruption,” followed by a kick-ass interpretation of an old Kinks number, “You Really Got Me,” and an original that will soon become anthemic, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” you are hooked.

Something else is going on, too, but you can’t quite put a finger on it. It’s that you kind of dig Eddie, who’s the same age as your second eldest brother Marc, for reasons other than music. As a foil to the more flamboyant Roth—a strutting peacock whose ugly spandex and over-the-top stage antics grow tiresome in a hurry—Eddie is more appealing because he lets his guitar do the talking. His cocky, bad-boy good looks suggest a B&E conviction or two, a sense that he knows more than he’s letting on. And such qualities, combined with Jimi Hendrix-stratosphere brilliance on the axe, endow him with limitless sex appeal. But you have no such insight, and why would you? At this age, you are completely oblivious to a troubling paradox in your fandom: that in Van Halen you have discovered a band whose cultural context—from lyrics to presentation to marketing and audience reach—embraces a form of hedonism that celebrates the conquest of women, and you have been drawn to their sound at the same moment you are reaching a late puberty, a time when a certain fact about you is becoming disturbingly apparent. Such a convergence of conflicting realities is bound to end badly, but you can’t see that yet. Instead, you will allow those killer riffs, those awesome power chords, those transcendently melodic solos, to help you hide from yourself.


The author with his parents in 1977. Nearly fourteen years of age, looking more like ten.

At some point a few months from now, during the spring of 1979, you will realize that you are gay. There will be sufficient evidence of this fact in your every fantasy to confirm it—as in your every nocturnal emission that you will furtively wipe from the sheets (as if, by your failure to do so, the sexual orientation of those stains will reveal itself to all). On realizing this truth, you will make the unfortunate but understandable decision to allow no outward expression of it whatsoever. How I wish I could alert you, dear Daniel, to what an unsustainable strategy for living this will turn out to be: desirable boys will not simply read your mind and magically materialize to love and to hold you. Courage and self-agency are what you will need to live happily in your own skin. But sadly, it will take an entire decade of confusion and misery before you figure this out. The first three or four of those years you will too often spend in a haze of marijuana and alcoholic oblivion, the soundtrack for your most self-abnegating moments more often than not provided by Van Halen.

Given the range of your musical influences (and those who know you will recall your obsession with Jim Morrison and the Doors far more than any interest in Van Halen), I mustn’t overstate your fandom of this group to a degree disproportionate to their influence. The problem, for you, is that no other band still on the tour circuit so seductively combines the good (solid musicianship, great melodies and harmony, lots of danceable tunes) with the bad (chest-thumping macho bravado, an almost cartoonishly Hugh Hefner-like view of women, and out-of-control substance use). For a white middle class suburban kid who hasn’t found his voice and wants to belong, an earnest Catholic boy desperate to push away unsettling thoughts of homo love, the rollicking good times offered by Van Halen, however shallow and heterocentric, seem a kind of escape, a convenient refuge for your late-teenaged self.

Don’t believe me? Just you wait: you will fall deeper into this closeted trap when you move back home for Grades Eleven and Twelve, back to co-ed public school where all the boys seem to be dating girls. These also happen to be the glory days of arena rock, when everyone takes the ferry to Vancouver on weekends, or crosses the border to Seattle, to see a big concert. You will attend many of these shows: Queen (twice), David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, the Doobie Brothers, the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, and the Who among them. In 1981 and 1982, the years Van Halen release their fourth and fifth LPs, Fair Warning and Diver Down, respectively, you will attend the concerts for both tours at the Pacific Coliseum. Unlike most of the other shows you see, you will recall almost nothing of Van Halen’s performances: at both shows, you will be staggeringly drunk and stoned out of your mind. You will recall that the band is in top form but not at which hotels you stay, nor what you do before or after the shows, nor how you get around the city and manage to get home safely despite the dreadful shape you will be in.

Many years later, a YouTube interview with Van Halen’s head of security, looking back on this period, will reveal what band members get up to after some of those concerts. Roadies are instructed to write their names on backstage passes, hand them out to the best-looking and youngest babes in the crowd, and await their reward in tips from “Diamond” Dave—from $100 to $250, depending on the degree of sexual satisfaction achieved by Van Halen’s pimping lead singer. The other band members will do this, too—according to legendary reports of repeated doctor’s visits for STD treatments. Decades later, you will be amazed by the unchecked privilege of such heteronormative, pre-#MeToo libidinous entitlement. If Eddie Van Halen were a bisexual chicken hawk, he could easily have his way with the 17- or 18-year-old you, offering celebrity liberation from the pathetic self-denial you’ve kept up since that unfortunate discovery at age fifteen. But alas, he is not that way inclined—the backstage passes are for girls only—so, unlike some of those underage females with bursting hormones in the front rows at the PNE Coliseum, you will survive your Van Halen fandom with virginity intact. (“Everybody Wants Some,” will go one of their hits from 1980’s Women and Children First. You will want some, too—but not the same kind, and you’ll never get it in this milieu.)

The virtuoso at work. (Ebet Roberts/Getty Images)

Only one of your buddies from those Van Halen concerts will survive in your memory, and that will be M. The two of you have little in common—M. has no intellectual interests, being almost completely focussed on sports and the stock market—but you feel sorry for him. M. is the oldest of three boys. His father is a businessman who, after losing a huge amount of investors’ money in a deal that went wrong, will one day abandon his wife and sons and leave the country for good. You can’t imagine your own father getting into that kind of trouble and then dumping you, your mom, and your six siblings rather than sticking around to face the music; M.’s dad will say goodbye to his eldest son by handing him a wad of cash before boarding a plane to Costa Rica. Instead of seeking help for his anger at having been abandoned, M. will anaesthetize himself with drugs, alcohol, and rock music—much like you will do to avoid dealing with your secret gayness. “Tunes,” including those of Van Halen, will become the safe place where the two of you can avoid confronting the truth about your lives. Before the concerts, while getting drunk to prepare for them, M. will shout “Van HA-len!” in his best baritone while pumping his fist in a straight-arm salute that looks a bit Nazi. It will be embarrassing, the soul-numbing mindlessness of it all, but you will say nothing.

M. won’t have a girlfriend either, but that will have nothing to do with sexuality. Rather, he will be that decade’s version of an incel: a guy who, transparently bitter, lacks the social skills to “get” the girls he wants. (At your high school graduation party, you will become each other’s dateless companions by default.) During your time as friends, M. will now and then tell homophobic jokes in front of you, or spout bigotry at random strangers. But calling out such homophobia would only expose you. Meanwhile, Diver Down with its five cover tunes will become your Van Halen swan song. You and M. will play it at parties in your family home’s basement or on the patio, where fair-weather friends from M.’s circle—all guys, with the occasional exception of a girlfriend—will join you in getting pissed and baked as you dance to raunchy Van Halen treatments of Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” and Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.”

By the end of 1982, the party will be over. Directionless at nineteen, you’ll be in a rut with no life plan apart from vague intentions of an arts degree. Early in the new year, your parents will kick you out of the house. Finally forced to think about the future, you and M. will inevitably drift apart. By the time Van Halen release their sixth album, 1984 (including the band’s only Number One single, “Jump”), you will have been off the bandwagon for more than a year. Five years after that, once you have moved to Vancouver’s West End and begun pursuing as prolific a gay life as possible toward the end of the first decade of AIDS, Van Halen will be a distant memory to be recalled only with self-loathing.

At some point during late summer in 1989, M. will phone you out of the blue. Without knowing about the changes in your life, he will ask to see you again. You will dread the prospect and try to avoid an encounter, finally relenting after he persists. During your visit, you will bring him to the most flamingly gay establishment possible—Doll & Penny’s? Hamburger Mary’s?—and tell him who you really are. Quite pleased to see that you are blowing his mind, you will tell him that your life when you were both teenagers had been a lie. He will say nothing. Your last memory of him will be of walking silently together down Davie Street toward English Bay, and saying goodbye at a bus stop. You will never see or hear from M., nor anyone else in his circle, again.


STILL SMILIN’ — EVH during the 2015 Van Halen reunion tour. (Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

Thirty-one years later, you will think of M. when you learn of Eddie Van Halen’s death from throat cancer at the age of sixty-five. Of all the music industry deaths in this plague year of 2020—a year that has also taken Neil Peart, Kenny Rogers, Little Richard, Spencer Davis, Charlie Daniels, John Prine, Bill Withers, Ellis Marsalis and Helen Reddy—Eddie’s will affect you the most. But when news first breaks of his passing on October 6, and the tributes begin pouring in on Facebook, you will read a few of the obits but say nothing. The very mention of Van Halen will call up memories of an awkward adolescence, a period best left in the dustbin of your past along with the many discarded albums and concert memories on which you will spend far too much of your meager youthful earnings. Refraining from comment as Eddie’s legions of fans debate his legacy as a gifted rock music innovator, you will be quite prepared to move on from the subject until two things in those tributes begin to linger in your mind.

The first is a frequent reference to Eddie as “the smiling guitarist.” How banal, you will think. Don’t all guitarists smile? Well no, actually, they don’t. As your brother Philipp, a fine guitarist himself, will remind you: most of EVH’s guitar god contemporaries seem to be in great pain, as if dying for their instrument, during a solo. But Eddie’s ear-to-ear grin, one of his trademarks, is noteworthy for its sincerity: talent brought him far in life, granting him unimaginable fame, wealth, and amorous attention, and he clearly loves every minute of it. To all who witness that smile, his joy in the moment is infectious.

The second, more surprising thing is a biographical detail that the predominantly white rock & roll media, led by Rolling Stone, somehow fail to mention back in the day while trumpeting the Van Halen brothers’ Dutch roots: their mother was Indonesian. This will be a revelation, for in your subconscious teenage attraction to EVH you will now see a rice queenly element, a recurring theme in your adulthood (you’ll write a book about it one day) but a factor of which, at this moment, you are blissfully unaware.

EVH in a still from Van Halen’s “Jump” video, 1984.

Forty years on, looking back at those concert images of a shirtless Eddie, smooth and lean with his big, heavy metal hair and that impish grin, you will see it in the eyes: your smiling guitar god was a biracial, Eurasian hottie. This fact, which apparently got in the way of brand and marketing priorities for Van Halen’s record label, was somehow suppressed during the band’s meteoric rise up the charts: rather than being seen as an asset that made them more interesting, the truth of Alex and Eddie’s ethnic diversity was hidden as an inconvenient fact.

It also emerges that Alex and Eddie, as recent immigrants who spoke no English, were teased and bullied as school kids because they were different. But things got better for them, just as they will for you.

And so, in these little things you have in common, you will now see Eddie in a different, more empathic light. And you will forgive yourself for all that hiding you’re about to do.


Your future self