Lessons from a Dutchman
Recently, on a road trip to Southern California I had the chance to visit a musical historical site that displays no signage indicating it’s importance. As a fan of Van Halen I well understood the significance of the childhood home of Edward and Alex Van Halen. The brothers lived in this 896 square foot home with their parents from April 27th, 1966 until a few years into their hugely successful career. Most of their musical development took place in this two bedroom house, the smallest one on the block, in this quiet neighborhood in Pasadena, California.
The Van Halen brothers took up the front room with Alex’s drums, Edward’s guitars and amplifier, and often other bandmates’ equipment. They were known to practice incessantly, building a reputation around town for doing the most complex virtuosic cover tunes note for note and usually even better than the originals. In the shed behind the house Edward would apply Schwinn bicycle tape to his guitars as he ingeniated his own personal aesthetic for his instruments, which he assembled from individually acquired and sometimes modified parts.
As I stood in front of the house I imagined the goings on when the young immigrant family lived there. The brothers walking up the steps to the front door after a long day of school with song segments by The Who or Cream on repeat in their minds, heading straight for their instruments to practice together taking breaks only to eat dinner or listen to Wheels of Fire by Cream or another record in order to clarify and polish up a nuanced guitar lick or drum fill. They had been practicing with that kind of dedication since learning classical piano as five and seven year old children. And they loved it.
Their love of music was initially inspired by their father, Jan Van Halen(Jan is pronounced Yahn), who was a professional musician from Holland. He brought his wife, Eugenia, and the boys over to the United States by steamship in 1962 with only a piano and fifteen dollars. In later years Edward would share in interviews that he used to hear his father play long tones on his clarinet, adjusting his instrument and his technique, to get just the right tone. He would listen to Jan do this for hours! The sonic beauty of musical instruments and the power of pure expression took root in his mind.
I’ve known these anecdotes since early adolescence, but it hasn’t hit me until writing this that Jan went to great lengths to get that family piano to Pasadena. He probably could have sold it for hundreds of dollars and it would have been very inconvenient to haul that thing across the ocean and the United States. Also, how many of even the most dedicated musicians spend hours at a time just listening to a single tone on their instrument? Jan and his sons had a profound love for music and that they were willing to do anything to be musicians and to express themselves completely through music.