It has been a week since Michael Jackson's passing, and I can't say that I was driven to tears at the news. I certainly felt a twinge of sadness, but none of the sort that would compare to my reaction to George Harrison's passing.
The music that came on the radio in the immediate hours following Michael's death started flooding my brain; it had been years since I had heard his earlier work, and when "Beat It" came on the radio, I was back in time as a twelve year old, totally amazed at the sound of this particular song. Of course, like any other kid, I was enamored by the music video, especially when it came to the fight scene between the two rival gangs. But the background music during this scene, and the spectacular guitar solo, also inspired me to pick up the guitar as my instrument of choice a few years later.
I came to know of Eddie Van Halen's guitar work on "Beat It" a couple of years after Thriller came out. I was reading an interview with him in Guitar Player magazine, and I was totally surprised when he mentioned this fact. The story goes that producer Quincy Jones had called Eddie one day; Eddie had thought it was a prank call, and promptly hung up on Jones. After a second call, Eddie realized that it wasn't a prank, that it was really Jones calling. Legend has it that Eddie came into the studio, listened to the backing tracks (which were supposedly laid down by Steve Lukather, Eddie's good friend), and did his solo in one take… pro bono. This was 1982, and according to Eddie, Van Halen wasn't really doing anything after the release of Diver Down, so he figured it was worth the effort.
The solo, in my opinion, remains one of Eddie's masterpieces, perhaps one of his best after "Eruption." It starts out with a long, deep whine and segues into his patented hammer-ons and tapping, almost jazz-like, and ends with amazing sweep picking. This solo is not in 4/4 time, although the backing track is, and this is the most astounding part of the solo. It sticks to Van Halen's credo of falling down the stairs but landing on your feet. It is definitive, it is on fire, and it is what gives the song its kick. It opened up the doors to collaborations between black and white artists (Run DMC and Aerosmith is an example). More importantly, and on a personal level, it is part of what inspired me to pick up the guitar. I had always wanted to play the guitar but felt limited by the hard rock/heavy metal genre, and "Beat It" proved that it was possible for a rock guitarist to play in a dance band.
I have by no means ever attempted to duplicate or cop the solo. It just gives me the shivers whenever I hear it, and these past few days, it has been the only significant piece of music I have been listening to.
Guitarist Jennifer Batten successfully duplicated Eddie's solo on Michael Jackson's subsequent tours, and Michael eventually collaborated with more rock guitarists such as Steve Stevens and Slash. Fall Out Boy covered "Beat it" recently, with John Mayer playing the solo, but I will always listen to the original version to get my musical kick. Listen to it on Youtube and tell me that you don't shivers down your spine.
Most kids today may not realize it, and many rock and rollers may be too cool to admit it, but "Beat It" is a pretty rocking song. As a musician, I will always be indebted to Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones for collaborating with Eddie Van Halen. I guess this is the best gift that Michael Jackson, recording artist, ever gave me.