Journalist Steven Rosen shares his tale of his wild weekend attending the ’85 NAMM show with Eddie Van Halen. This is the full, unedited version of that adventure (only right here!)—from issue #9 of The Inside magazine.
The weekend begins on a deceptively subdued note, but this would change. The alarm clock performs its mechanical duty, jolting me from my sleep at the unearlthy hour of 5:30 a.m. A shower washes the sleep from my eyes and, after downing two 16 ounce cups of coffee, I phone Edward to let him know I’m on the way. No answer. Mild panic sets in. Did he already leave? Had he changed his mind about taking me with him to the 1985 NAMM Show? Those were just a couple of the thoughts scurrying through my brain, accelerated and exaggerated by the caffeine intake.
A day earlier, Edward Van Halen had invited me to accompany him to the NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants) in New Orleans. This is an annual convention where retailers, manufacturers, et al, get together to preview their new lines of guitars, amplifiers, drums, and any other musically-related gadgets and gewgaws. More than anything, though, it’s a chance to drink yourself unconscious on someone else’s dime.
I call again five minutes later and a voice answers, “Yeah.” Ed rarely says “Hello.” “Where are ya? Well, hurry up!”
And I do. Grabbing my bag, I toss it into the Rx-& and, no allowing the vehicle to go through the essential warm-up, take off. At 6:30 a.m., the Hollywood Hills are still deserted. The fog drifts up from the valley below and covers the road in vapor. The Mazda whips around the corners, startling a jogger and raising choruses of protests from nesting fowl. Speed limit signs flash by my window and, since I’m doing twice the posted minimum, I can only assume the warning is meant for the joggers.
Nine minutes later (my best time so far) my tender blue (the factory designated color description) Mazda arrives outside of the Van Halen gates. I press the buzzer and ..no answer. He probably didn’t hear. I ring again and still … no answer. The caffeine is now bubbling in my veins and I’m thinking, “If I could just have made it here in eight minutes!” At that moment, the gate slides open and I cruise in. I audibly sigh. Edward emerges from the door, tells me he is just now jumping in the shower, and has me wait in the kitchen. I mull over what is in store for the next two days: The 1985 NAMM Shows; a special “All-Industry” dinner extravaganza to be held at the Louisiana Superdome; Bourbon Street; a riverboat ride down the ol’ Mississippi; Gumbo; Hurricanes (the alcoholic variety, not the atmospheric); and late nights (or more accurately, early mornings).
A taxi in the driveway returns me to present time. Edward climbs into the back seat, a can of Schlitz Malt Liquor in his hand, he gives me a hug, I hug him back, and we climb in the backseat of the cab. I can’t help but stare at the blue and gold can when I ask him, “Is that breakfast?”
“No, I had a tuna sandwich,” he says, that peculiar high-pitched nasal voice still laced with early morning residue.
Andy, the cab driver, is visibly enamored with his passenger. He discreetly steals glances in his rearview mirror, sizing up Van Halen, who is dressed in red high-top Converse sneakers, black and white golfer’s pants, and a black sports jacket. Edward, between sips of Schlitz, engages him in conversation, telling Andy about the guy in prison who wrote letters to him informing Edward of what a bad job he was doing “impersonating” Valerie’s husband while he was in prison. And he told Andy how people would steal letters fromj his mailbox and then finally stole the mailbox itself.
The taxi heads south on the San Diego Freeway and, after a near collission with a Mercedes Benz (their fault), it pulls outside the Delta gate at the Los Angeles Internatnional Airport. Amazingly enough, we’re early for Flight 54, so we head—where else?—to the bar. Edward, peering through dark, dark sunglasses, orders a Bloody Mary and, since my system is screaming for more caffeine, I order a cup of coffee. Van Halen removes from shades and rubs his early morning eyes, commenting, “I either look like shit or I can see for shit.”
A Sony FM Walkman is removed from his bag and Edward slips in a couple of cassettes. Titled “Le’s Pers” and “You Want It When — Ha! Ha! Ha!” they are examples of his research at 5150.
Flight 514 to New Orleans is ready for boarding and we take seats 3A and 3B in the first class section. Doc Severenson and Arlen Roth are on the same flight. Edward orders up another beer, me a gin and tonic. The guitarist falls fast asleep, his ability to doze on airplanes by now second nature. Two girls at the front of the cabin take Polaroids while he snoozes and the stewardesses huddle nervously to discuss their cargo. He wakes intermittently, passes on breakfast (cheese omelet), and opens his eyes upon touchdown.
Dennis Berandi, president of Kramer guitars, is waiting at the terminal. His rent-a-car transports us to the New Orleans Hilton, a centrally located hotel just minutes away from the NAMM Show convention hall and the magical Bourbon Street.
We check into our rooms; Edward falls fast asleep and I saunter over to the convention hall. It is two o’clock Saturday afternoon and already there is a buzz around the Kramer booth that Van Halen may show up on Sunday. No announcements, no press releases. Just hushed anticipation that he may grace the booth.
I return to my room and, after managing one of those credit card like door keys (you push it in a slot and the door supposedly opens), enter. Shortly after, we’re ushered to a special fate dubbed the “1985 NAMM All-Industry Dinner Spectacular” featuring Pete Fountain’s Gumbo Ya Ya Show. Edward, amidst grumbles and rumbles, reluctantly attends. Berardi has told him that he’ll have to take a bow during the evening and he refuses. But when the MC addresses the more than 1,000 retailers and manufacturers seated here inside the Louisiana Superdome and expresses “a special thanks to Eddie Van Halen,” the guitarist standards, drink raised in hand, and acknowledges the applause. Edward eyes Dennis venomously and, muttering “I’ll get you for this” (more joking tan serious), makes way for the exit.
We return to the Hilton and, after a change of clothes, it’s off (at my bequest) to Bourbon Street. The street is a combination of Disneyland, Hollywood Boulevard, the red light district and middle America. Next to a store selling “I Love New Orleans” T-shirts is a bar featuring ladies in various stages of undress, a band blazing through Top 40 hits in the corner.
After a wonderful dinner of gumbo and Creole and Gumbo House (Edward ordered chicken gumbo and did not taste a bit), we wander the street which is packed with bodies. People passing by go through double-takes, pretty certain of who it is but not positive. Edward hands out some guitar picks and the recipients are ecstatic. He hugs one girl and she nearly faints. Another one walks up to him, asks him to smile and knows immediately who it is. Edward is goofing with people, joking around with the late night amblers. He pokes his head inside a bar and I hear the band (unaware of who is listening) break into “Jump.” Had they known, they would certainly have gone into hysterics. We make the obligatory stop at Carlos O’Brien’s (a famous bar) and, after downing yet another Hurricane (this time to go home with a tourist glass), return to the hotel.
Eddie Van Halen and guitarist Jeff Loven, NAMM 1985.
It is only 1:00 A.M, so I accompany Edward to the bar. The late-nighters are huddled around the circular liquor dispensing area. I order another gin and tonic and by this time I feel like some character out of “Alice in Wonderland.” One of the NAMM Show participants is walking around with a hat in the likeness of a pair of rather well-developed female mammary glands. Edward snatches the hat and lays claim to it.
At 4:00 A.M., the bar closes and we walk (Edward walks, I stumble) back to his room. He, too, had destroyed one of his paper keys and, after bumbling with the lock, we go in. It is still a sensible hour for the guitarist, who has spent the better part of the last seven years on the road. For me, 4:00 A.M. or 5:00 A.M., whatever it is, is the twilight hour, that no man’s land when it’s too late to try and sleep at all and too early to do anything of value. Though my body is asleep, my eyes remain open, riveted there by the caffeine intakes and whatever adrenaline reserves are no yet emptied. A knock at the door and Twisted Sister’s Eddie Ojeda gives greeting.
For Ojeda, it is a truly special moment. He must have been standing down the hall just waiting for Van Halen to return. Trying to remain nonchalant, he is too quick to respond and too reluctant to give up the floor. Edward lets Ojeda listen to the ‘research’ tapes and Ojeda is in total awe. Van Halen tries to explain the process of his writing: how his “favorite guitars are shitty guitars” (as opposed to expensive, custom models off the rack); his love of keyboards (must to the chagrin of Kramer”s Dennis Berardi); and his philosophy which he verbalized as “I don’t try to impress anybody.” The evening ends with a challenge arm wrestling match between the two guitar players; as official referee, I deem it a draw. Ojeda returns to his home, his feet barely touching the carpet. Without sympathy, the clock reads 8:00 A.M.
Sunday morning I return to the show and run into Brian May, Allan Holdsworth, Ted Nugent and John Entwistle. The Kramer booth is even more crowded today than it was yesterday afternoon. Whispers of “Do ya think he’ll show up?” are circulating. There is little doubt that Van Halen is the most important figure attending the festivities. He just had that kind of magnetism and charm.
Due to rise at 2 p.m., he finally falls out of bed two hours later. A taxi takes us to a side entrance and we’re escorted to a waiting room while final preparations are made at the booth. The entire area has been cordoned off. By this time, the Kramer stall is completely surrounded. A phone rings and, the OK given, we walk the distance. There are shouts, cries, hoots and hollers as Edward is recognized by the assembly. He standards idly, gazing about with a look that reads “What the hell am I doing here?” Ed edges close to the ropes, shakes a few hands, and signs several autographs. Someone hands him a note which says “Eddie: Shannon Lowe is your #2; Valerie is #1.” From a bird’s eye view, the rest of the hall is empty. Screams of “Play the guitar, Eddie” fall on deaf ears; he is no mood to pick up the instrument. Nonetheless, he hoists one of the Kramers, plays through two perfunctory runs, and returns it. He has been there less than 30 minutes and he is already growing agitated—caged in. Brian May’s head bobs up in the audience and he is quickly engulfed by the human tide. John Entwistle makes his way through the partition and Van Halen is pleased to see a recognizable face. Several minutes later, he is gone, returned via taxi to his hotel room for two much-needed hours of sleep.
Brian May, John Entwhistle, Eddie Van Halen, Brian May, Pete Alenov on the Mississippi Queen
Sunday evening finds us on a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi. May and Entwistle are on board and there is talk of a late night jam back at the hotel. And it happens. Back at the Hilton Ballroom, Bugs Henderson and the Stratoblasters (in reality Seymour Duncan and friends) are performing, and when word is passed that Van Halen, Entwistle, Ted Nugent and Julian Lennon’s guitarist want to play, the stage is cleared. Backstage, the makeshift band (dubbed The Unrehearsed Scumbags) tries to choose a number they all know and finally decide on “Wild Thing.”
The Unrehearsed Scumbags (Eddie Van Halen, John Entwistle, Ted Nugent, and Julian Lennon’s guitarist) perform at the Hilton Ballroom
The event is more memorable than musical, each guitarist attempting to out-volume and out-solo the other. Edward, a grin on his face, enjoys himself and thrills the lucky ones in attendance. After the show, he goes up to Entwistle and, in a humility-laden voice, says, “Sorry.”
Someone hands Edward an instrument that resembles more a fish skeleton than it does a guitar and, commenting “Looks like it would hurt,” Van Halen returns to his room, arm in arm with Brian May. They play around for several hours, May’s eyes absolutely transfixed while Edward plays his homemade guitar. Van Halen mentions that he would like to do something with Brian sometime (May played with Edward on the Starfleet project). Edward says he could play keyboards and Brian would play guitar. Brian, with an exaggerated “Oh, sure,” can’t believe what he’s hearing. And what is even more amazing is that Van Halen is dead serious.
It is 5 A.M. and Brian exits. Edward comes next door to my room and we talk for a while longer. Of the jam, he says, “That was a perfect example of the Over the Hill Gang,” and laughs. Shutting the door, he goes back to his room. Five seconds later, he is pounding on my door. He has lost his second room card key and wants to phone down to the desk for another. “Nah, I’ll just walk down,” he decides. Forty-give minutes later he is beating on my door again (I knew there would be no sleep on his voyage). They did not believe who he was at the front desk and for the past forty-five minutes he had been doing his best to convince them. He finally did.
We return home early Monday evening. It is obvious Edward enjoyed the late nights in the hotel rooms more than he did being put on display at the dinners and show. Valerie picks us up at LAX (she drives right past us once), Bryan Adams blaring out of the speakers. We enter the gates and my tender blue is parked right where I left it. Valerie asked if I had a good time. I numbly nod “Yes,” staring blankly out of my sunglasses (it is dark outside, mind you). Between the lack of sleep, Hurricanes, running around and general high level of excitement, I’m sure I had a good time. I must have had a goo time. I guess I’ll just have to call Edward tomorrow and find out.
By Steven Rosen. We originally published this article for issue #9 of The Inside, the all-Van Halen magazine, published from 1995-2000.