It’s rare these days for Saturday Night Live to book a musical guest with a taste for guitar heroics, but if there was ever a week to have someone strutting and windmilling around Studio 8H it was this one, which saw the death of guitar genius (and occasional inventor) Eddie Van Halen. Jack White fit the bill admirably, turning in a blistering three-song medley and a performance of “Lazaretto” that included a nod to Van Halen’s trademark tapping style. Naturally, both performances featured plenty of guitar solos.
White was a last-minute replacement for country singer Morgan Wallen, who was uninvited after photographs surfaced on social media showing him ignoring social distancing and partying without a mask. Wallen apologized on Instagram, but honestly, people should be thanking him: his biggest hit, “7 Summers,” doesn’t really have a solo, and Jack White’s repertoire, uh, does not have that problem. White opened with a three-song medley featuring “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” his collaboration with Beyoncé from Lemonade, as well as The White Stripes’ classic “Ball and Biscuit” from Elephant. The third song, though, was a surprise; it’s Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” a blues song about the 1918 flu pandemic from which White lifted the following topical couplets:
The nobles said to the people, “You better close your public schools,
And until death passes you by, you better close all your churches too.”
The great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere,
It was an epidemic, and it travelled through the air.
Here’s Blind Willie Johnson’s original recording, from December of 1928:
In his second song, White explicitly saluted Van Halen with his performance of “Lazaretto,” the title track from his 2014 album. (A lazaretto, incidentally, is not a diminutive form of “Lazarus,” it’s a building or ship used to quarantine poor people. It is etymologically related to Lazarus, however, by way of “lazar,” which means someone who is poor and contagious, usually a leper. That has nothing to do with Jack White or Eddie Van Halen, but I think it’s neat.) Here’s the performance—at 2:42, White does a little Van Halen tapping:
That’s an Eddie Van Halen guitar (some custom version of the Wolfgang USA), featuring his patented guitar peghead, and as White explained on Instagram, using a guitar Van Halen designed seemed like a better tribute than “insult[ing] the man’s talent by trying to play one of his songs.”
Saturday Night Live never booked Van Halen as a band, but Valerie Bertinelli hosted in 1987, while she was married to Eddie, who spent that week hanging out around the studio. SNL band leader and musical director S.E. Smith talked him into taking the stage to play lead guitar on an original composition they called “Stompin’ 8H.” This week’s episode featured a brief clip from that performance, but you can see the whole thing on NBC’s site. There’s no longer anyone on the planet who can play guitar like that—but Jack White did a great job saluting a man who can’t be imitated.