Johnny Nash and Van Halen: Losing Two Pop Giants on the Same Day

Yesterday, the music world lost two trailblazers, each of whom only hit the #1 spot once on the pop charts, but who both left much much greater legacies than that might imply.

Johnny Nash was 80 when he passed yesterday. We’ll get to his best known song subsequently, for it arrived a dozen years after his initial success, and we’d like to present it in the context of his larger career. Nash’s first hit single was “A Very Special Love” in 1957. Though it was minor (#23) his career got an unusual boost when he was cast in the lead of the 1959 Hollywood movie Take a Giant Step, produced by Burt Lancaster and featuring Ruby Dee. He also had a dramatic role on the tv series Key Witness. From the late ’50s he was seen regularly on the TV variety shows of Arthur Godfrey, Dick Clark, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas et al. In the mid ’60s he formed his own record company, which released the Cowsills’ first single “All I Want to Be Is Me”. Shortly after this, he moved to Jamaica and became deeply involved in reggae. Nash was, in fact, one of the first people to introduce reggae to the U.S. In 1968, his reggae influenced single “Hold Me Tight” went to #5 in the U.S., a really unusual sort of song to chart at that time. He also had a hit with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” in the UK in 1971.

Then in 1972 his blockbuster success, and the thing he will always be known for, and undoubtedly the lede in most of his obituaries. Nash’s song “I Can See Clearly Now” went to #1 in the U.S. Hundreds of songs have attained that status of course, but I think it can be stated with some confidence that this song attained something far higher — a primary place in people’s hearts. I think it is a work of perfection. There has been more than one occasion when I have been compelled to play it several times in a row, I love it so much. It’s a song of such wonderfully expressed optimism that it is practically devotional. And aside from the inspirational clarity of the lyrics, there is something about the measured, almost cautious rhythm of the verse, that feels like the first moment when you find yourself emerging from the funk of dark and confused times, wondering if you dare to be happy…and then you get to the middle eight, which cuts lose and soars toward the sun. So it is meaningful to people. One finds onself singing it when something breaks. It came along toward the end of the Vietnam War. No doubt people sang it when Nixon resigned. It’s been used in many movies, and has been covered by countless other artists. I know I’ll be singing it when Trump is out of our lives. At any rate, Nash himself pretty much faded after the mid ’70s, never matching the success of this tune. How could he have? It is perfection.

I was only 7 when Nash had his smash hit, whereas I was in high school and in young adulthood during the peak success of Eddie Van Halen (b. 1955). It might surprise you to learn that I have always been a huge admirer of his only #1 song, as well. It sounds dry to put it this way, but “Jump” (1983) is really well constructed. My favorite part is the mid-8, which has a kind of melancholy feel to it, with those little understated guitar notes following the vocal lines. And it’s one of the few synth driven songs that doesn’t feel gimmicky to me. We were drowning in synthesizers in the ’80s, to the extent that to hear it now is to instantly be launched back to that time. But on “Jump” it sounds kind of majestic. Van Halen had better chart success than Nash. They reached #36 in 1978 with a cover of the Kinks “You Really Got Me”. Their original, infectious “Dance The Night Away” went to #15 in 1979. They covered Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” in 1982, reaching #19. Somewhere around here they became huge stars of MTV, and while I like listening to all the songs I’ve mentioned, a big part of their appeal was visual. David Lee Roth, the front man, was very funny, and a big ham. But girls especially loved Van Halen, was was “cute” in the tradition of David and Shaun Cassidy and Peter Frampton. As a guitarist he claimed his biggest influences were Clapton and Jimmy Page (and the band’s structure mimics Zeppelin’s, which of course mimics The Who’s — three musicians plus a front man). In 1984 they reached #13 with the metal sounding anthem “Panama”. I am astounded this morning to see that “Hot for Teacher” only went to #56….they played the video for that one to DEATH on MTV. After this Roth became such a huge star, he went solo, and was replaced in the band with Sammy Hagar. I didn’t follow them much after that, though their success continued for decades. Cancer took Van Halen yesterday at age 65.