With Van Halen returning to Nashville for the first time in over a decade this Friday, I got to thinking about some true tales of interaction with them in my past. The first time I encountered them was March 3, 1978 deep in the bowels of the infamous Aragon Ballroom when this unknown quartet was the opener of a three act bill that also featured Ronnie Montrose’s fusion rock quintet, and the newly revamped Journey with pretty boy lead singer Steve Perry.
Van Halen’s eponymous first album had just been released a few weeks before, and their cover of The Kink’s “You Really Got Me” was garnering strong airplay due to Eddie Van Halen’s scorching six string pyrotechnics and David Lee Roth’s reimagining of Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim “Dandy” Mangrum. The boys from Pasadena only had a twenty-five minute slot, but they cranked it. My visit with them was quite short after the show as they were leaving the hall just about the time that Journey was exiting from their final encore.
However, five months later Van Halen was on a long trek opening for Black Sabbath, and on one of their off days from Ozzy and company, they were booked into a small dive near Paddock Lake in southern Wisconsin that became the source of mythic legend: did they actually play a concert at a converted dairy barn while they were the number one band in America? The answer is yes. It was, quite literally, a three-story cattle stable that had been converted into a biker bar. The stage was a former second level hayloft with a huge weight-bearing timber column running vertically right down the center and bordered with rough-hewn pine slat railing to keep performers from falling fifteen feet to the main floor below. I had been at other gigs there in it’s first year of operation including shows by Eddie Money, Starcastle, and The Dictators (featuring Handsome Dick Manitoba), and I swear you could still smell remnants of manure and bovine piss when the place got heated up with wall-to-wall humanity.
By this time, Van Halen’s star had risen to the point where they were responsible for selling nearly half the tickets at the Sabbath gigs, and their debut record had already gone multi-platinum. It seemed odd that they were playing this gig in such an obscure rural outpost, but the word had gotten out, and there were already cars from four states represented in the parking field by 5:00 PM for this rare headlining set.
Due to my relationship with Warner Brothers as a Program Director at a local rock station, and my writing gig for area magazines, I was able to hang with the guys during their sound check and meal. Even as an opener for bigger bands, they were used to more space to work with than this cramped excuse for a stage. Despite the close quarters, Eddie still insisted on having his replica of the Little Boy Atomic Bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima next to his Marshall stacks. There was barely room for anyone to move more than five feet, and this was going to be especially challenging for front man Roth’s histrionics. You could see them looking at each other in bemused wonder as their crushing sound caused sawdust to filter down through the early evening sunbeams cutting through the planked walls.
After getting their levels, it was difficult getting a read on Diamond Dave as we chatted in an area that was once a horse stall. I could never tell if he was stoned, or just incredibly laid back in that Valley Boy kinda way. His eyes were bloodshot and bleary, and he did guffaw with that stoner stammer, but then he could also sound quite erudite and clever at times in a tone that belied an altered state. He was one of those guys that never, ever gave a straight answer to any question. Eddie, on the other hand, was shy but genuine in his interactions. Alex Van Halen was distracted and seemed a bit peeved about the cramped condition of his drums (I think they had to reduce his kit in order to accommodate everything that was necessary on the “stage”). Michael Anthony was quite outgoing, and the most forthcoming and relaxed of the lot.
Despite the less than ideal circumstances, the band gave a rousing performance to the thousand or so that were packed into quarters designed for perhaps half that. They played nearly every song from the debut album, plus at least four that would be featured on their soon-to-be-released Vol. II album. And then there were Eddie’s extended “Eruption” solo and spotlight moments for drums and bass, too. There was no doubting that this band had the goods, even under these less than ideal circumstances. And since I believe I was the only sober, non-buzzed observer or participant in attendance within that bizarre silo, I can attest that the concert did, indeed, take place.
Fast-forward several years for the second story that has remained a mystery until this moment. Van Halen had now earned two multi-platinum albums, and every radio programmer and promoter in the planet considered them amongst the rock elite. Anticipation for their third album, Women and Children First, was building with each passing month. By this time, I had left the radio industry, and was now Marketing Director for Dog Ear Records, a chain of eight stores in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I was still writing for several rock rags on the side. Part of my duties included making the rounds to the local distributorships of the major labels to pick up the latest merchandising materials for new releases, promo albums for in-store play, and commiserate with sales people on how to best position product in our stores. At the WEA (Warner/Electra/Atlantic) warehouse in Elk Grove Village, I had good relationships with various crew throughout the building, and sometimes they would give me stuff before other folks in town. As one of the guys was handing me some promotional copies of new discs by Blondie, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and The Eagles, I off-handedly asked if he might have a copy of the new “Big Boys’” disc (as they referred to Van Halen).
I was stunned when he said, “Well, if you keep it under your hat, sure…I’ll give you one so you can write up a good review for some of your publications for next month so the news will be fresh when the album hits the streets in these next few weeks.“ There was near top-secret security around this sort of thing, especially in a market as competitive as Chicago.
I matter-of-factly said, “Of course,” as he opened a thin box with just a few of the twelve-inch discs in it, and handed me one. With my heart pumping, I exited the building as quickly as I could before anyone realized what had just happened.
Earlier that morning I had heard DJ Sky Daniels on “The Loop” (WLUP, the number one rock station in the market) talking-up how they were going to have the exclusive premier of Women and Children First in four days. They were in fierce ratings wars with WMET and WKQX for the baby boomer rock demographic that dominated that era. I realized that I not only had a rarity on my hands from a journalistic perspective, but I also had potential gold in my hands from the broadcast realm to boot.
So, I took a detour back to my house and made a cassette and reel-to-reel copy of the album, and then went to my office at the back of our Northbrook store and called my boss. Even though we were one of the leading chains in the northern suburbs of Chicago, we were probably fourth in the entire market in sales, and had to scratch for much of what we could earn, and didn’t have nearly the marketing dollars that the larger chains had. We were the first to mass market used record sales, rent videos, and incorporate video gaming into our offerings. And our customer loyalty was good due to our intense desire to fulfill even the most obscure special orders. But still, media partners did not usually pick us first for many special promotions. I suggested to Rick, the president of our little enterprise, that we could probably parlay this Van Halen disc into some substantial on-air trade-out with one of the other two stations in order for them to get the jump on “The Loop” by airing it first. He agreed, but warned that we needed to be very careful so that the WEA folks could trace none of this back to me.
Then I called my friends at WMET first, figuring that they might be willing to play ball more readily since a major media conglomerate didn’t own them as WKQX was by NBC. I was quickly put through to the GM who was anxious to do anything to put a chink in “The Loop’s” armor. I was somewhat audacious in my proposal for substantial and specific trade-out in advertising and promotional tie-ins for the next year, but they were so desperate for this opportunity that they agreed. They wanted to hear a bit of it first, so I put it on our store turntable and played some through the phone so they felt assured that it was indeed Eddie, D-Roth, and the guys. Within 40 minutes a bonded deliveryman arrived to take the non-descript sealed brown bag with the stereo reel-to-reel dub and the photocopy of the album art to WMET downtown. They excitedly called me back when they received it, and they were nearly bouncing off the walls with excitement. Within an hour they announced to their listeners that they would be airing the new Van Halen in its entirety the next day.
“The Loop” was furious, because they didn’t actually have their copy yet, and they angrily confronted their representative at WEA. Within minutes major chaos reigned at their warehouse as they tried to figure out how a copy had gotten into WMET’s hands. It wasn’t that it was just going to be previewed ahead of their competitor across town…it was going to be ahead of every other station in the world…and they were pissed.
The lower level promotion guy who had given me the advance disc called and asked if I still had the album, and I told him I did. He never asked if I had made a dub and forwarded that along, and, of course, I never volunteered that info. No one ever figured it out as far as I am aware. WMET’s lips were sealed, and they were incredibly grateful for the scoop they got on their biggest competitor. As a result, Dog Ear Records shared in some great promotional partnerships with them over the next twelve months and beyond.
That was 32 years ago, and I am finally coming clean. Those wondering if the mighty Van Halen ever really played in an animal shed in the rolling Kettle Moraine hills of Wisconsin, or were curious about how the scandal surrounding the Chitown radio debut for Women and Children First came to pass, well those rock ‘n’ roll mysteries can now be moved into the verities column.