by Stevie Adamek
Van Halen’s first album had just come out in early 1978, and they had two huge hits, “Running with the Devil” and “You Really Got Me“. I was in a band called Bighorn, a five-man group based out of Seattle that sounded like a cross between Elton John and Queen. We had just been signed to CBS Canada and USA. I had been a producer for five years at Seattle West studios, which produced Heart, Foghat, Shyanne, and other bands. Based on some studio work I had done with a couple of the other band members, Bighorn’s management had asked me to join the band in August 1977 to write songs for the group as well as play drums. Then Bighorn was recruited to open for Van Halen.
This was our first big tour. We had toured the Pacific Northwest for about a year, but we were excited because this was our first national tour, and it was with one of the biggest rock bands in the world at the time.
The tour ended up being five dates, or two and a half weeks, with Van Halen. Then we switched over to opening for Boston and Journey after that. I was on the road with Bighorn for a total of about a year, on and off, as we would get signed on to the national tours and then come back for a while and play regional shows.
Looking back on those days, I can see there are a few very important lessons I learned early on from this experience that have served me well over my music career.
I was 27 years old at this time, and very excited about being on my first national tour. We were the only opening band for Van Halen. On the very first night, we opened the tour at the UPS Field House in Tacoma, which held 12,000 screaming fans. On the downbeat of the very first song, I hit the drums so hard that I broke the kick drum head. Some of the members of Van Halen were off to the side back stage snickering, and I felt doomed. I had blown it. This was a big rock sound, and the drums – especially the kick drum – were an important part of the Bighorn sound. At the time, I traveled with two kick drums on the road. Fortunately, the roadies were on top of things that night, and they quickly slid the broken kick drum out and the spare one in before the end of the song.
This experience taught me that I needed to conserve my energy more and not come out so hard at the very beginning. It was like the Marlon Brando quote: “If you’re feeling 100%, give 75%, if you’re feeling 75%, give 50%, and if you’re feeling 50%, stay home.” As a performing musician you should always hold back a little. You need to be energetic, but pace yourself, so you have some headroom and don’t get exhausted after the first song.
David Lee Roth’s Breakfast of Champions
After one of the shows, all of the guys in both bands were backstage talking about food. Van Halen always had great catering: big deli spreads, and plenty of soda pop and alcohol. All of them drank Jack Daniels on stage (Michael Anthony later had a famous bass shaped like a bottle of Jack Daniels made for him). David Lee Roth, being the experienced touring Rock God, was glad to drop some pearls of wisdom for us newbies. He mentioned he had a favorite breakfast, which he liked to call the Breakfast of Champions: Coke and a Snickers bar. This stuck with me, as it seemed like a great idea at the time. I tried that breakfast only once. I got a massive caffeine and sugar rush, which definitely woke me up, but it never felt like a solid enough breakfast for me.
The lesson there was that it worked for me one time to get jacked up on caffeine and sugar, but it wasn’t a good diet long term for sustaining the long term energy needed for being on tour and opening big stadiums. I needed to conserve my energy throughout the day and eat reasonably well, or I’d peak too early and be exhausted by evening and in no shape for the demands of playing that night.
Before this tour, I had played plenty of clubs while drinking alcohol. I had already realized by this time that alcohol had diminishing returns for me. It affected my ability to play well. I had discovered the limits of my own body, and have been fortunate to not become addicted to any of the many substances available to musicians at the time.
The Breakfast of Champions showed me the fallacy of believing that we could do anything we wanted. It seemed like a great idea, but it turned out that at least some of us had to be responsible with our nutrition and energy in order to perform consistently.
Van Halen’s Tour Manager
One night at the beginning of the tour, I came around the corner and was shocked and terrified to see a short, stocky black guy wearing a full facemask, as if he had been severely burned. It stopped me in my tracks. As he was barking out orders back stage, I thought, “How sad, but at least this guy has a great job.” He was very intimidating, and no one questioned his instructions.
As the equipment and stage manager for Van Halen, this gentleman oversaw the scheduling, load-ins, stage setup, the dressing rooms, and all the techs and roadies. It was an incredibly important job. David Lee Roth would jump around a lot, and everything had to be set up right so the stage was safe and all the choreography would come off successfully.
The Van Halen contract rider famously specified no brown M&Ms, a detail that Roth has since talked about as a ploy designed to make sure that the rider was read closely at every venue. If a venue didn’t pick out all the brown M&Ms, Roth wouldn’t perform, because it meant the venue had not paid close attention to every detail of the rider. By this time, Van Halen had learned the hard way that their tour manager had to be really good to make sure everything was set up safely.
A few days later, I saw this same manager backstage without his mask. I could see that his face looked fine. He didn’t have the horrible facial burns I was expecting! I was struck by how clever this was, since he got much better compliance from the venue staff and the road crew with his intimidating mask. People were afraid to question him, whether from fear or politeness. He got compliance from everyone, even venue folks who had never met him before.
I learned from this experience the psychology of using something unexpected, like the mask, to surprise and keep people off guard. This guy had a lot of responsibility for the show coming off just right, and he wasn’t big or physically intimidating. I’m sure being black, he also didn’t always get the respect he deserved. Yet he needed everyone, including the venue staff who didn’t know him, to work for him quickly and without question. I learned that in some situations, you can use the power of being a little strange and unpredictable to your advantage, although you can only use it once, because it loses its effectiveness.
Being on the road was all about relationships, because you depended on your bandmates management team, and roadies to get through all the challenges and responsibilities of playing big shows. It seems glamorous if you’ve never done it, but touring is hard work. As I’ve said before, you have 23 hours a day to stay out of trouble, and just one hour in the day to do your work and make the magic.