When I heard that Eddie Van Halen had died, I thought of Barry Manilow.
I feel safe in saying I am the only one who did.
I should quickly stress that I was not drawing a musical equivalency here. Eddie Van Halen was a masterful, creative guitarist. Barry Manilow, to my ears, is dull as dishwater.
I listened to Barry Manilow songs under two circumstances: 1) I couldn’t reach the radio dial to change the station, or 2) in the course of working as a pop music critic, I had to.
Given any choice, I did not listen to Barry Manilow, and therein lies the intersection with Eddie Van Halen. Given a choice, I rarely listened to him, either.
I saw Van Halen on stage. I wrote about his records. I talked to him. (Polite and cordial.) I admired his guitar skills. I didn’t hate his music.
But neither did I ever voluntarily drop the needle on a Van Halen album.
I can’t explain exactly why not, any more than I can explain why I don’t pull out Miles Davis or Chopin records. In the case of Van Halen, I think it’s related to something Keith Richards once said when asked why the Rolling Stones didn’t feature more guitar solos on their records.
“I’m not very interested in guitar solos,” Richards said. “Unless it’s Segovia.”
I love a good guitar. I love the Stones’s run-out guitar duet on “It’s All Over Now.” It’s hard to dislike “Layla.” To totally date myself, I’m a Duane Eddy fan.
But in general, I’m in the camp that thinks rock ’n’ roll guitar peaks when Chuck Berry or James Burton or George Harrison or Scotty Moore or whoever drops a clean 15- to 30-second interlude between the second and third verses of a song that runs two minutes and 30 seconds.
Sort of the same concept that Maybelle Carter was executing on Carter Family records in 1927.
Long rock guitar solos strike me the same way long drum solos struck a young Bruce Springsteen, whose famous Village Voice ad for a new drummer specified, “No Jr. Ginger Bakers.”
So Eddie Van Halen, for all his virtuosity, mostly left me indifferent. It’s not him. It’s me.
The Barry Manilow link stems from a correspondence I had over a number of years with a Manilow fan, Mara Friedman.
When I ripped one of his albums in print, she wrote me to say his music was great and why was I being so mean.
I wrote back saying I couldn’t help it if his music was terrible, but maybe the mean part was inappropriate.
Over several years we respectfully debated those points, along with others, and while neither of us changed our basic position, one of the things that impressed me over time was how much his music meant to her.
Music that didn’t speak to me spoke to her and in the end, that’s what matters. If it touches you, you don’t have to defend or justify yourself in front of a court of higher culture.
If that were the case, I’d be at the defense table myself, explaining why I listen to “Rama Lama Ding Dong,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Shake Rattle and Roll” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” and not Tchaikovsky.
Now of course some music is more intricate and sophisticated than other music. By any measure, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is higher culture than “The Chipmunk Song.”
Welcome to the minefield through which all critics — and almost all human beings, since we’re a judgmental species — must always walk.
Does “I don’t like it” mean “It’s bad”? If so, why?
The fact I don’t listen to Van Halen doesn’t mean I think his music was bad. In the case of Barry Manilow, I’d argue that much of it is.
Yet the fact Manilow has equaled or maybe exceeded the tens of millions of records that Van Halen sold means a whole lot of people, like Mara, have gotten a whole lot of pleasure from his music.
That’s why, when I saw the sad news about Eddie Van Halen, I thought of Barry Manilow. Whatever the discussion about musical merit — a discussion we need to have — there’s that whole other level on which it makes no difference.