30 years ago today, Van Halen headlined the 9th annual TEXXAS JAM at the Cotton Bowl in front of 72,000 rowdy fans. The bill included BTO, Keel, Krokus, Dio, and Loverboy.
VHND contributing writer Kevin Dodds, author of Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography was there, and we think you’ll enjoy his recollection…
‘5150’ Time at Texxas Jam!
By Kevin Dodds
Van Halen’s triumphant 1986 performance at the Texxas Jam is a core component of my youth. The show represented a major victory for the rechristened “Van Hagar,” and allowed my brother and our friends to have an unforgettable experience.
1986 was a bit of a drag for my family. My father had been at the forefront of the savings and loan industry in Houston since the late 1960s, and had made a nice living as an executive accountant until the mid-80s. By their nature, savings and loans were already high-risk ventures, but deregulation in 1982 loosened rules that were already not strict enough and fomented a total collapse. Because of that, my father had no choice but to take a job in Dallas for several months, occasionally coming home to Houston on weekends before eventually exiting the S&L industry altogether.
My parents were fully onboard the Van Halen train since “(Oh) Pretty Woman” was released, and they allowed me and my brother to see the 1984 concert at The Summit in Houston. We waited for Van Halen’s spring 1986 concert announcement only to see no Texas dates on the first leg. As summer neared, the word was coming down that Van Halen would headline the annual Texxas Jam concert at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The band had actually scheduled the tour around this particular date. At the time, we assumed that was our only chance to see them since it was the only Texas date on their itinerary at the time. Suddenly, my father’s situation struck us as a bit of a blessing. We were given the okay to attend the show and we stayed at the condo in Las Colinas that the bank had put my dad up in.
My friends Dave, Chris, and I were only 14, and my brother Brandon and his friend Gary were 18. Only Gary had ever attended a Texxas Jam before—the one in 1984 headlined by Rush and Ozzy at the Astrodome. Gary’s experience never quite made it to my parents. He told us about fights and drugs and concert t-shirts getting stolen. At least it had been air-conditioned. He gave us pointers about how to stay on our toes if necessary, all of which promptly went out the window.
When we arrived at the Cotton Bowl the morning of Saturday July 19, I was struck by how incredibly disorganized it seemed. This event had been going on for almost a decade at that point, yet initially felt like it was just barely scraped together in time for the gates to open. The point of entry that we used was chaotic. There were no clear queue lines, and instead, a mass of people pushing toward a weak barricade. We had to wait a good hour in heavy congestion for the gate to open. As we were waiting, I noticed a guy with a pair of binoculars around his neck. I thought to myself, “Oh, man. What a great idea! I’ll bet he’s really going to enjoy the show.” After a few minutes, I watched him unscrew one of the lenses and take a huge swig of whiskey. It was the first time I had ever seen a binocular flask.
Dozens of people waiting to make entry with us were already loaded before the first band even started, and some seemed to be hell bent on causing trouble. Two guys in front of us did not like the looks of each other and proceeded to have a fistfight just inside the gate. It was disturbing, and it wasn’t the only fight we saw that day. Hard rock and metal concerts of the 1980s were unfortunately often accompanied by what seemed to be alcohol-fueled violence. It is one part of the “good old days” no one really wants to remember clearly.
Although we had arrived at 11am and made entry around noon, the temperature had already crept into the mid-90s. At festival concerts before 1990, but there was no such thing as cold water being sold in individual plastic bottles. Vendors served soda and beer in wax Coca-Cola cups. Water was to be found in the few original water fountains near the undersized and outdated restrooms at the Cotton Bowl. Fans also opened up the few available faucets around the facility, and the water the came out tasted like dirt and was anything but cold. Mostly, people just drank Coke and beer without much regard to their hydration. There was essentially nothing at all to eat at the venue other than popcorn and hotdogs.
We entered the stadium on the northeast side. This was perfect because we had initially planned to stake out seats as close to Eddie Van Halen’s side of the stage as possible. We made our way down and took up five seats on the lower deck of the Cotton Bowl which put us directly near stage left (the bandstand was on the north end of the field facing south).
At about the time we took our seats, Bachman Turner Overdrive (B.T.O.) took the stage. The recently reunited band was well received and performed popular classic rock staples like “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” Better yet was the moment Leslie West of Mountain joined B.T.O. on stage for a killer rendition of the famous rocker “Mississippi Queen.”
The band Keel followed B.T.O. and was fun but largely forgettable, and their set marked a transitional moment in the day. The gates were now flowing freely and, in a short amount of time, the seats really began to fill up. The atmosphere went from being a little stressed to more of a relaxed summertime buzz as everyone settled in. The excitement level and party atmosphere started to take off, too. Several rows in front of us, we noticed that a group of people were sharing a joint right out of Up in Smoke — the largest example of its kind that anyone might ever hope to see. I was shocked that is was so out in the open. This was no baseball game.
We took the time to grab some concessions and then watched Loverboy. Although the band was not hard rock and was well out of fashion by 1986, their barrage of well-known skating rink hits went over well. We had been holding down our seats all day long, but with the anticipation of Van Halen taking the stage after Dio, my brother decided that we had to go down to the floor to get as close as we possibly could. When Loverboy ended their set, we abandoned our long-held seats.
We decided to hit the bathrooms first and found ourselves in an absolute mess of congestion in the stadium hallway. People were pushing and everyone was packed in too tight. An older guy that I assumed was a concert veteran blurted out, “Now, that’s what I wanted, to come and get sardined at the Cotton Bowl!” That was one of only a few times we used the restroom during the 11-hour concert. Honestly, we had not stayed hydrated enough to warrant going more often.
The Astroturf field inside the Cotton Bowl had been covered with a black tarp. The moment you stepped onto the field, you felt the temperature rise 10-15 degrees. Giant fire hoses from the front of the stage helped cool off the crowd.
Before Dio went on, the stadium erupted into a classic Texxas Jam “cup war.” All of the wax soft drink and beer cups that had built up throughout the day made perfect small projectiles when crushed into a ball. The war started between two adjacent sections but soon devolved into a free-for-all. For about ten minutes, wadded up cups flew from the lower deck to the upper deck and from the upper deck to the field. At about that time, a stadium announcer declared that 72,000 fans had shown up that day.
Our excitement about seeing Dio was tempered by the push of the crowd. My brother and his friend quickly tired of watching out for us. We enjoyed Dio’s set, but it was like watching a concert while wrestling with a hundred people in 110-degree heat. At the end of Dio’s set, my brother told us that they were moving up to try and get in front of Edward. We wanted to, but we were not up to it at all. In fact, we’d had damn near all we could take already. The sun was near setting and we had a decision to make. We left my brother and his friend on the floor, and the three of us moved into an open bank of seats in the front row of the section we had been in all day. We ended up about 75 feet from Eddie’s side of the stage.
Before the band came on, two gigantic 5150 tapestries the size of small office buildings were unfurled on the stage scaffolding. The wait for Van Halen to take the stage was excruciating. We were exhausted from the day and we were dehydrated to an extent, but there was absolutely no opportunity for us to get anything to drink between Dio and Van Halen. My friends did not get to see the 1984 show like I had, and after two years of listening to me go on about that concert, they were more than ready for the show to start. The wait just seemed to go on and on. About fifteen minutes after sunset, the stage lights finally came up and the sound of Ed’s guitar came pouring out of the PA.
The moment that the band took the stage was broadcast live on Q102, a now defunct Dallas rock station. Legendary disc jockey Doug “Redbeard” Hill laughed up their fashion sense by teasing Eddie about his board shorts and calling Michael Anthony a “canary” for dressing in all yellow. As the band made their entrance, Redbeard exclaimed, “The place is in pandemonium! PANDEMONIUM!” The band hit the stage jamming away on one chord to set get their sound together and set the tone. After a minute or so, Hagar yelled out “HELLO, TEXAS!!!” and Van Halen broke into “You Really Got Me” for the set opener.
Listen to Redbeard describe Van Halen’s entrance here:
From the first second of the first song, it was obvious that the band was overly pumped, primed, and playing in perfect form. The crowd reception was amazing and the sound was excellent. Sammy Hagar was a veteran of the Texxas Jam concert series, so when the band went into Hagar’s “One Way to Rock” for the second song, it was well received by the crowd.
However, few other songs hit like the third tune, “Summer Nights.” Hearing that particular song dead in the middle of the summer of 1986 at a huge stadium with the sunset still barely trailing off was monumentally special. Van Halen had just begun to dip into the 5150 album, and “Get Up” followed. Alex took his drum solo and the band followed with five more songs from 5150 including an incredible rendition of the title track.
At the time, I did not lament the lack of Roth-era tunes, although they were mightily absent with only “Panama” and “Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love” representing everything that had come before Hagar. As the concert played out, we stood there wide-eyed and excited enjoying every single second of the show. My friend Dave scratched the set list into his tour book with his fingernail as the show went on.
Edward’s guitar solo that night may very well have been one of the finest he has ever performed. Ed was certainly at the peak of his powers from 1984 to 1986, but this solo was particularly special and a bit unique. When Edward began his guitar solo, he took a seat on the stage to play some quieter stuff. However, where he would normally begin with the piece known as “316,” Ed played a version of Beethoven’s piano masterpiece “Fur Elise” on guitar. At the time, it was one of the few pieces of classical music that I was familiar with, and I recall being astounded at the version that Edward tapped off. Later on, I read that the decision for Ed to add the piece to his solo resulted from an argument that Ed had with Alex over the key of the song. To prove Alex wrong, Edward purchased the sheet music from a local music store while on tour which piqued Edward’s fascination with the piece. (There are only two documented incidents in which Edward performed “Fur Elise” during his 1986 solos.)
The remaining five songs of the show featured three non-Van Halen tunes: “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Wild Thing,” and “Rock ‘N Roll.” “Why Can’t This Be Love?” was in retrospect an odd choice for the second to last song, but it was a hit single at the time. Closing with a Led Zeppelin tune was an excellent idea, however, and the crowd ate it up.
When the 11-hour concert was over, the chaos and disorganization that marked the early hours of the show returned, except now it was dark. Although we successfully met back up with my brother and his friend, we nearly became separated several times while simply trying to find the car. During that walk, the state of my dehydration was serious and all I could think of was finding a Coca-Cola somewhere. It was late and convenience stores were not as ubiquitous as they are now. Finally, we found a gas station where I was able to buy a Coke through a small service window. I still have the Coke bottle to this day. I wrote on it: “Texxas Jam 86. This Coke saved my life.”
To quote the late, great Ronnie James Dio: “It’s an event. It’s like a Woodstock situation. ‘I was there at Texxas Jam number nine . And I survived it!’”