Eddie Van Halen visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC for Zócalo Public Square’s “What It Means to Be American”… Eddie was being honored as part of the museum’s “What it means to be American” program, an initiative to explore the American experience.
The institution recognized Van Halen not only for his particular American journey as a Dutch immigrant, but also for his legacy as a inventor and innovator — someone who single-handedly (well, sometimes he used both hands) rewrote not only how guitars are played, but also how they are built. He spoke to the question: is rock & roll all about reinvention?
Van Halen was greeted as a conquering hero by an audience that was equal part suits and faded Van Halen concert T-shirts. With son Wolfgang and brother Alex in the front row — Van Halen’s bass player and drummer respectively — he recounted his unique American story for moderator Denise Quan.
Van Halen told the crowd how his Dutch father, Jan, was a classically trained clarinet and saxophone player whose musical travels led him to Indonesia where he met Eddie and Alex’s mother, Eugenia. Music paid for a nine-day family move from the Netherlands to the United States, as Jan played in the ship’s band and cajoled Eddie and Alex into playing piano during intermissions. These early shows, said Van Halen, gave the boys an early taste of “the perks of being a performer”: they sat at the captain’s table the next night.
During his impoverished early years, Van Halen told the crowd that he and brother Alex “always liked things loud,” constantly marching through the house banging pots and pans. When cacophony turned to melody — mom arranged piano lessons for both kids — Eddie and Alex won a series of piano competitions. Van Halen told the crowd that he hid the fact that he never learned to read music, having simply been “blessed with good ears.” When the Beatles replaced piano and Alex and Eddie switched instruments — Alex played Eddie’s drum kit; Eddie took Alex’s guitar — “It was destiny,” Van Halen said. The roots of Van Halen were born. “If that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is,” said the guitarist.
Van Halen said his inventions — in his playing style and with guitar electronics — were born from both necessity and from an insatiable urge to tinker. The constant refrain “What if I do this?” spun in his brain, and he always felt compelled to push “things past what they’re supposed to be.” Referring to the “Spinal Tap” amp that could go to “11,” Van Halen said, “I was already going 15!”…..
Watch the video above and check out the photo gallery of that great day with Eddie.