A must-read! Eddie and Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony, Bill Gazzarri, Rodney Bingenheimer, and childhood friends discuss Van Halen’s formative years playing Gazzarri’s on the infamous Sunset Strip (1974-1976).
Bill Gazzarri: Van Halen was the best band that ever played here at Gazzarri’s.
That’s my final statement on that one.
Alex Van Halen: Back then, nobody knew what a “Van Halen” was. They thought it
was a shirt.
Michael Anthony: After I joined Van Halen, I quit college. I was majoring in psychology for two years because my dad didn’t want me to major in music. Then my dad finally said okay, so I majored in music for two years. But Van Halen was starting to really take off, and it was just too much to stay in school and play every night. At this point, Ed and Al weren’t really going to school anymore… maybe a music class here or there… And Roth was out, so I quit. My old man kicked me out of the house so I was living with my sister for a couple weeks. Of course, after our first tour I bought a car. He’s my biggest fan now. [Laughs] I was even playing polka stuff with my dad’s band on weekends at the time.
Bill Gazzarri: Eddie was the most polite and kind rock-and-roller I ever met. He was so shy and was constantly thanking me. In all the years that we were together, and all the conversations I had with him, I could not get Eddie to stop calling me Mr. Gazzarri. It would be after hours and Eddie would say, “Mr. Gazzarri, Warner Bros. wants this, and what do you think of this?” And I’d say, “Could you call me Bill?” And then Ed would respond with, “Okay, Mr. Gazzarri.”
Alex Van Halen: The first time we auditioned at Gazzarri’s, they said, “Man, you guys look like you’re out of Hicksville!” Because I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. I was like, “So what?! You don’t like it? F you.” On top of that, they told us to turn down five times, and then they kicked us out! They had a cattle call for musicians. Five bands would be lined up, and you’d have five minutes to set up your equipment and then start playin’, pal! But eventually we landed a job there. Over the years, we practically became the house band.
Rodney Bingenheimer: I remember Van Halen. Even before I did my radio show at KROQ, they were the house band at Gazzarri’s. They played every night. I was there with a friend, Hernando Courtright, and we just knew they were gonna be the next big thing. We could tell just by the vibe of the club, always packed and filled with hot females. Girls are constantly setting the trend. Of course, David, with his sense of humor, always carried the band, especially before songs, with his stories.
David Lee Roth: I started heading out to Hollywood to go to dance clubs, the most important being Gazzarri’s on the Strip. There was a band there called Thirteenth Hour. And they did Rare Earth’s “Get Ready.”
I would say, “Man, this is even better than backyard parties. I wanna get in on this. This is great! This is where all the heat’s comin’ from, this is where all the light’s coming from.” And Bill Gazzarri had all these dancing girls, the Gazzarri dancers, go-go girls. I determined that hey, this was the next step, my entree to Hollywood.
I never even stopped to think that I might have the potential to get into the Rainbow Bar & Grill, which was a full block down the street. That was just like, whoa—Led Zeppelin hung out there, the Rolling Stones hung out there.
A couple years later, when Van Halen kicked in, first place we headed for was Gazzarri’s on the Strip. We auditioned once, didn’t make it; auditioned the second time, made it. Played “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple, “Hangin’ Around” and “Free Ride” by the Edgar Winter Band. You know, the song goes: “Drivin’ around with my stereo on, feelin’ good …” and even then, I was being left of center: “Drivin’ around with no underwear on….”
Eventually we were a fixture at Gazzarri’s, playing one week every four weeks for two, three years. We knew two hundred songs by other people.
Eddie Van Halen: We did everything for him [Bill Gazzarri]. We’d play the dance contests. They had a Coca Cola telethon, and we MC’d that and played. The highest pay we ever got was $125 for a night. We started off at $75 a night for the band, then we moved up to $100. Then business went bad, so we dropped back down to $75. Then business was good, so we went back to $100. Then for awhile we were paid $125. Then he might slip us $20 extra on Sunday when we’re packing up. But that wasn’t enough to pay for equipment, strings, gasoline, oil, transportation…
Tom Broderick [VH roadie/friend in the ’70s]: They had a dance contest at Gazzarri’s. The best dancer would win 30 bucks or something. They would just wiggle. It was pretty stupid, but Van Halen was really good at that playing that kind of thing. They were the master MCs. Dave would talk to the chicks, embarrassing them and making them giggle and dance. He’d always act like they were going to win the whole thing. We’d pay a buck to get in, and we’re thinking, “God, what a great show!” It was like going to Vegas or something. But it was mainly just hanging out in that front booth and hearing the thunder from ten feet away. They just ripped through everything. They used to do Beatles tunes like “Drive My Car.”
Bill Gazzarri: We’d have meetings every night and I’d say, “You are gonna be the biggest rock and roll band to come out of Gazzarri’s.” And they would say, “Well, are you sure? How come there are five of us here and you’re the only one who knows that?”
Terry Kilgore [Member of Dave’s first band “Red Ball Jet” and also “DLR Band”]:
They were young. High school age and just after. Things really started happening for them after high school because they had the time to devote to it. But they played a lot when they were still in school, too. They played huge parties where the whole school would show up.
They played Gazzarri’s something like 95 times. I’m sure I was there for 70 of them. They played three or four times a week. At first, I think they had maybe five originals. They were playing all covers for a while. I’d watch and think about how I wanted to put a band together. I never found anyone who was quite as together as they were. They were inspirational.
Alex Van Halen: The first time we ever played there, there were only four people in the audience. And those four people were our friends. And we paid to get them in! Gazzarri wouldn’t even let us park in the parking lot.
It took years to build it up. And once it built up and we were packing the place, he took a different attitude. “Oh, of course you can park here! What are you drinkin’? Wanna see my photo studio downstairs?” That kind of thing. But in the beginning it was rough. I would be hoping and praying on the way to the gig that there would be people there that would be dancing. Because if there’s nobody dancing…
David Lee Roth: Every song had two solos in it. The first would be played just like the record, and the second solo would be a combination of all the other solos, of all the other songs, and I would also change the lyrics of that last verse. After a while I never even bothered to learn the real lyrics of any of the songs. So we would play something like “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” by Elton John, and somebody would come up and say, “Those aren’t the lyrics,” and I’d say, “I know.” I’d catch the gist of the chorus and do the rest of it phonetically: “And that na-na-seena-na-na-ianna motor machine, and that was-ana-na-na-na-na if if you know what I mean.” I was free-formin’. Brakes is gone— we’s freewheelin’!
Terry Kilgore: God, they played all night long. They would start at 9 or 10 and play until 1 or 2 every night. The headliners at Gazzarri’s would play three or four 50-minute sets. They played all kinds of stuff. They played old Queen songs and some Cactus stuff. I think, whether you know it or not, that they were extremely influenced in the beginning by Cactus. If you remember a band called Cactus, it was Carmen Appice. They had that sound. There was a band called Trapeze. Van Halen listened to a lot of trippy stuff. When they played on Maiden Lane, they were always working on something different. Dave even got them playing disco-style stuff. Dave really knew what was going on. Nobody liked it in the band, but they knew that Dave was right about doing that material. That’s what people wanted to hear back then. But they would play a little funkier and do these little disco breaks.
Bill Gazzarri: The girls would always say to me, “Godfather, could you introduce me to Eddie?” Eddie was the quiet one, but he was the most popular. Eddie would be on one side of the stage, and every week that we played ’em here, there would be at least fifty girls who would come and pay and sit on Eddie’s side all night long so that they could be near Eddie Van Halen.
Tom Broderick: They played somewhere almost every weekend. They’d play like four sets or whatever. Even at the clubs, they’d do typical 45 minute sets. They had a million songs back then so they never had to repeat anything, except maybe during a dance contest. They started doing originals pretty quick back then. There would be a lot of people—more and more people all the time. There were some hard core fans, of course.
Terry Kilgore: Alex was always exciting to watch. He would stand up on the drums and spit down on the ground and just yell. I remember Al being the leader. He was a wild one, too. He didn’t take shit from anybody. He was always getting into boxing matches with his friends. Those guys hauled their gear all over Los Angeles and I remember
driving home with them at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, going up the 110 freeway, just thinking how they were each only making like 150 or 200 bucks a week doing it. But they just kept it up and, before you knew it, they were at the Starwood and the Whisky.
Alex Van Halen: I could ever figure out why Bill Gazzarri’s called Dave “Van.” He’d say, “Hey, Van, here’s a few extra dollars for ya.” He never knew that his name was Dave. He thought it was Van Halen, like Van Morrison. [Laughs] Dave was like, “Why the fuck does he keep calling me Van?”
David Lee Roth: Bill Gazarri, the old codger, dug my sense of humor. For the first two years we worked there, he called me Van. It’s a good thing I didn’t come from a band named Pink Floyd. He would come up to me and he’d say, “Hey, Van. Boys did good pull this week. Here’s the hundred and twenty-five dollars I owe you, for the last four nights, and here’s twenty-five bucks for you.”
I dutifully would go and split up that twenty-five bucks with the other guys in the band. Leaving Bill, of course, to think I was completely on the take. We bonded heavily. He was gonna school me. He’d say, “All right, I wanna teach ya a lesson about the music business. First off, gimme your watch. Gimme your watch. Come here. Put it here.”
I’d take my watch off, and he’d put it in his pocket, and he’d say, “You just learned a lesson.”
Bill Gazzarri: We had a Guitar War concert here where they gave away a $1,000 prize, and we were packed. There were 300 guitarists and they were looking to eliminate the number down to 30 finalists, and what they were looking for was a guitarist as good as Eddie Van Halen. Now he is known in the business as the best, and I could have told everyone this ten years ago if anyone had listened to me. But a lot of people didn’t listen, even Eddie didn’t listen to me.
Terry Kilgore: Ed used to call Gazzarri’s the “pits.” He’d say, ‘We’re going to play the ‘pit’ tonight. Gazzarri’s was the worst of all. You couldn’t use the toilet in there. And they were all wearing platform shoes, so they’d look almost 7 feet tall. Even their road crew was wearing them.
Eddie Van Halen: I guess the biggest chance that we took was deciding whether to stick with a sure gig, which was Gazzarri’s, or go totally original and move down the street to the Whisky. We said look, we got to take a chance sooner or later, so we said, ‘See you later Bill. We’re movin’ on. We’re never going to get anywhere playing “Get Down Tonight.”’
Michael Anthony: We played top 40 stuff. Ohio Players, KC And The Sunshine band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” We were eating musician’s soup – ketchup and a bowl of water [laughs]. We finally decided to go for it and play original stuff. Playing Gazzarri’s eventually led to playing other clubs like the Golden West Ballroom and the Whisky.
David Lee Roth: The one-two punch was: You play Gazzarri’s and then you explain to Bill Gazzarri why it is you have to move to the Starwood. And you would be threatened and banished to the seventh level of hell, but a relationship would be maintained.
Terry Kilgore: To this day, merchants and bank tellers, doctors and managers, husbands and wives all remember Van Halen because they grew up with them. If you drive through Pasadena, there’s a sign as you go down the 210 freeway—there’s a big VH logo, and under it it says “Van Halen Country.”
Tom Broderick’s & Terry Kilgore’s quotes are from our interviews with them, published in The Inside magazine.
Eddie’s, Alex’s And Michael’s quotes are from unpublished interviews from the mid ’80s that we own. (The full interviews will be featured on VHND.com in the future).
David Lee Roth’s quotes are from his out of print autobiography, Crazy From The Heat.
Bill Gazzarri’s quotes are from Eddie Van Halen, by Neil Zlozower..
Don’t miss Part 1 of our Gazzarri’s tribute—40 Years Ago Today – Van Halen Hits the Sunset Strip!
And Part 2 of our Gazzarri’s tribute – Exclusive: Roth on Van Halen’s “College of Musical Knowledge” (Audio)