In 1978, Van Halen was a four-man party looking for a place to happen. For the third stop of their first world tour, the band checked in to Madison, Wisconsin’s Sheraton Inn. The problem was, the seventh floor didn’t survive their visit.
Inside the liner notes for their second album, Van Halen II, the band thanks, among others, “The Sheraton Inn (seventh floor), Madison, Wisconsin, and all the hall managers who waded through the rubble of Van Halenized backstages around the world.”
This is the true story of what happened during Van Halen’s three-night stay at the Sheraton Inn.
It just so happens that a lucky, 22-year-old Midwestern journalist was there. Susan Masino was the associate editor for the Emerald City Chronicle in Madison, and had the unique opportunity to attend the third and fourth shows of Van Halen’s first world tour, and hang out and party with Van Halen during their infamous stay at the Sheraton Inn, which took place 40 years ago this week.
Exclusive: Susan Masino, in her own words, gives the Van Halen News Desk the complete story of the fun and chaos that defined life on the road with the fledgling rock band. This is a truly special article — a rare glimpse of what it was like during the first week of Van Halen’s inaugural world tour. Enjoy! (Note: this is a much more detailed account than our first interview with her, conducted for ‘The Inside’ Van Halen magazine).
A popular story around Madison, Wisconsin these past forty years is about the night that Van Halen played the Shuffle Inn. Few know the real tale of how they ended up performing there. It all started when a red vinyl four song record—a sample of their first album, Van Halen—was sent to the offices of the Emerald City Chronicle, where I was the associate editor. The editor-in-chief, Michael St. John, got a hold of that record and played it every day in our offices, at full volume, for anyone who would listen. It was early 1978, before MTV, before CDs, and before every guitarist in America was influenced by Eddie Van Halen.
Needless to say, while we were waiting for them to go on their first tour, we got everyone hyped for who we already were sure of was the the best American rock band since Aerosmith. Listening to those four songs, including the mind-bending “Eruption,” was like putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses; the world just wasn’t the same tint anymore!
While we were publicizing the hell out of Van Halen, we heard they were going out on tour as the opening band for Journey and Montrose. And they were set to come to Madison! We were ecstatic. But that soon turned to pure panic when we got the news that, because Madison’s Orpheum Theater didn’t have the room for three bands (or so the story goes), Van Halen was given the night off. What?!
We couldn’t believe our ears, Van Halen was coming through Madison, but they weren’t going to perform. How cruel can that be? As we were hanging around the office, moaning about our bad luck, our editor Michael was convinced they should play in town that night, no matter what. He looked at me and said, “Hey, what if we got them booked into another venue on the same night?” Now that to me, sounded like a plan. So I called my publicity contact at Warner Bros and gave her probably the biggest sob story she had ever heard. When I explained how excited Madison was about Van Halen, their record company was more than supportive. They claimed the band would rather play than have the night off anyway, and asked for some suggestions. I gave them the phone numbers of two local clubs—Headliners and the Shuffle Inn—and waited.
About three hours later, she called me back and said that they had booked them into the Shuffle Inn, and was that okay? Well I think she could have heard my rebel yell all the way to California without the benefit of a telephone! We jumped around yelling and screaming and acting like total idiots… I mean journalists. The date was set for Tuesday, March 7, 1978, which happened to be the same street date for our next issue. Since the capacity for the Shuffle Inn was maybe 500 at best, we decided to keep the date a secret until the paper came out. We figured more advance warning than that would cause total mayhem.
Thanks to our promotion, and Van Halen’s cover of “You Really Got Me” being played constantly on the radio, all of Madison was becoming “Van Halenized.” To top it off, we found out that the tour was booked at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee two days later, so they would be staying overnight in Madison. What a party that was going to be!
The night of their Shuffle Inn performance, Eric and I went out to dinner before we went over to the club. As always, trying to convey a professional image, I wore navy blue dress pants and a navy and white sweater. Very collegiate looking. Little did I know this wardrobe choice would figure prominently when it came time to take their pictures. Of course they were going to be on the cover of the next issue of The Chronicle.
When we got to the club, we had never seen it more crowded! For not being advertised until the day of the show, the club was so packed that night that you could barely make it through the front door, much less all the way to the bar for a drink.
We made our way backstage. The band was there, relaxing in the ever so comfortable Shuffle Inn dressing room. The dressing room was in the basement of the club, and was decorated like your best friend’s rec room. Paneling, low lighting, worn couches and plenty of room. It would be safe to say that at the time, the Shuffle Inn had one of the best dressing rooms out of any rock club in Wisconsin. Oh, if those walls could only talk!
We had been getting regular promo from Warner Brothers leading up to their appearance in Madison, and one of the items was a postcard of David Lee Roth in his black leather pants, on his knees with no shirt on, bent over backwards. Michael may have snagged the red vinyl disc, but I got the postcard. It hung on my bulletin board above my desk and I drooled, I mean looked at it every day.
When we walked into the dressing room, there he was, David Lee Roth in all his blonde glory.
He looked better in person, and definitely had an attitude. He looked good and he knew it. Eddie was sitting on the couch playing his guitar, wearing the shag haircut which he wore throughout most of the eighties. He was built very slight and had the cutest little ass. Michael Anthony looked much like he looks today, very casual and open. He was one of the friendliest in the band. Alex was taller than Eddie, a little overweight with frizzy hair and a bad complexion. He seemed to never be able to sit still.
He was always smiling and doing things to make you laugh.
As Eddie sat playing through his practice amp, he told us the story about the first song he had ever learned on the guitar. Then he played it for us, it was “Pipeline.” Eddie was very soft spoken and actually seemed shy. I guess with Alex and David around, there wasn’t much room left to be boisterous.
Michael sat down with them and did an official interview, while Tom, Eric and I listened in. Then Tom set up a backdrop and had the band pose for their cover shots. As always, when he got what he wanted,
Tom said, “Go ahead Sue, jump in for a shot.” Well, this band was a little overwhelming to say the least.
I was slightly afraid of them and figured somebody was going to get grabbed. So I turned him down.
That really set the band off, and they all started to whine and give me a hard time about it. After a couple minutes of that, I reluctantly agreed and walked over to the backdrop and stood in front of the band. Then I glared at them all and said, “If anybody touches me, you can forget about a picture!”
Which really set them off. They all started laughing and teasing me and declaring that nobody was going to touch me. Then they took their positions. David stood to my right and ever so lightly touched my elbow, Alex leaned into my left side and I could feel his hair on my neck. Eddie bent down on my left and I never felt a thing. I thought he was just trying to get into the frame of the picture. Everyone giggled and Tom snapped the picture.
When Tom showed me the prints a few days later, he really laughed when he handed one to me.
As soon as I saw the picture I immediately discovered what all the giggling was about. It looked as though Eddie had his hands around my left thigh, but because I had on wide leg dress pants, I never felt a thing! A couple of weeks later, when we took the paper with them on the cover down to their gig at B’Ginnings in Chicago, I had the whole band autograph a copy for me. Eddie wrote, “Sue, I love your thighs!” And I thought he was shy.
When it was time for them to get dressed for the show, there was a private bathroom downstairs which some of them used. Not David. He started to change into his black leather pants right in front of me. He didn’t ask me to turn around, and I didn’t offer. I may be blonde, but I’m not dumb!
By the time the band went on stage, you couldn’t have squeezed a toothpick into that club. There had to have been at least a thousand people in there. I worked my way up to the front of the stage and stayed there for their whole set. To try to make it back to the bar for a drink or to the bathroom was out of the question. Where you stood you stayed.
Van Halen came out and played most or all of their debut album, and just blew the crowd away. Their energy level was spectacular and their individual musicianship was beyond extraordinary. Eddie’s guitar playing seemed superhuman and I wasn’t at all surprised to see him become a legend over the years. He changed the way everyone looked at the guitar and influenced a generation of musicians. As he still does today.
Part of his gear was a hollowed out bombshell where he had an echoplex installed. Alex had double bass drums which were actually four bass drums welded together, “to get as close to the sound of a cannon as possible.” At the end of their blistering set, David shook up some bottles of champagne and sprayed the crowd with them.
It’s been forty years since they played the Shuffle Inn, and every once in a while I’ll run into someone who was there that night. They always say it is something they will never forget seeing. I would have to say seeing Van Halen for the first time in a small club just months after discovering AC/DC, remains at the top of my list of all-time great happenings. If you were there for that infamous show, you saw a little piece of rock ’n’ roll history never to be repeated again.
Being a journalist in the midst of the late seventies with those two bands just emerging, must have been like living in England during the late sixties with the Beatles, the Stones and Eric Clapton running around. It was truly an amazing time in rock.
The fun really started afterwards when we all went over to the Sheraton Hotel to party with the band. The three nights that the band stayed in town at the Sheraton Hotel ended up being the real party! You didn’t think the dedication on the back of their second album to the Sheraton Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, was just because the rooms were nice, did you?
That night after the Shuffle Inn show, there were about twenty of us and we all ended up crowded into one of their hotel rooms.
Alex and I clicked right away, even though I had a major crush on Eddie. Michael St. John brought along his tape recorder and turned it on as Alex and I sprawled across one of the beds. We had fun making comments into it. Alex was telling everybody about the night before. They were already in town, and had partied so loudly that the police kept dropping in on them. One time when the cops showed up again, Alex shoved Eddie out into the hallway and locked the door. Then he and the group of girls they had with them hid silently inside while Alex pretended he was sleeping, leaving Eddie to pound on the door begging to be let back in. He left him out in the hallway to deal with the police on his own. Eddie was not amused.
While we were observing the party, Alex leaned over and told me to start watching David. David was in the corner of the room talking to this wild looking chick with very big boobs. She had on a low cut leotard and the guy she was with (I’m assuming), had put on her lipstick and left two big red kisses on each of her breasts. Interesting. She was drooling all over David and he was lapping it up, hook, line and sinker.
Then Alex warned me to pay attention to what David was going to say. As she was cooing and giggling all over him, David leaned into this girl and said very loudly, “You know, you remind me of someone I went to high school with.” She just squealed with delight and said, “Oh really?” And then he replied even louder, “Yeah, she was really obvious too.” With that comment, he abruptly walked away.
Ouch babe! David’s mouth was a human meat grinder if he sensed you couldn’t keep up with him. I never acted like I was attracted to him, so he was actually very nice to me. I also have a very smart mouth and wasn’t afraid to sass him back, which I think he kind of respected.
After a while Alex and I decided to cruise around looking for trouble, when we found Eddie in the next room alone, sitting on the bed eating an apple. When we walked in and asked him what he was doing, without saying a word, he thrust his apple into my face offering me a bite. I was so startled that I just shook my head no. Boy, do I regret not taking a good chomp out of that apple! Who knows where that would have led? Probably nowhere, because Alex wouldn’t let me out of his sight. I wasn’t attracted to him, but I got an enormous kick out of his craziness.
We were waiting for the roadies to show up with a cooler full of beer and Alex got impatient just sitting around. Finally he took my hand and said, “Let’s go look for the boys.” He dragged me down the hall into an elevator. After the doors closed and we were gliding downward, Alex started pushing the emergency button on every floor we passed. I started worrying about my decision to get into an elevator alone with him. After a few floors, he stopped the elevator and told me he had a great trick to show me.
I can just imagine… When the doors opened up, he told me to hold the button keeping the door open as he jumped out into the hallway. He immediately turned around and positioned his head between the doors. Then he told me to let go of the button. I refused and started having visions of his head squashing like a pumpkin and the newspaper headlines the next day reading, “Journalist Kills Van Halen Drummer In Freak Elevator Accident!” I kept refusing to let go of the button until Alex ordered me to let go or I wasn’t going anywhere until I did. So I let go of the button and the doors closed on his temples and immediately sprung back open. What looked very painful to me, was extremely hilarious to Alex.
Laughing wildly, he jumped back into the elevator, grabbed me and threw me out into the hallway demanding that I do the same thing. At this moment it looked as if Alex wasn’t going anywhere for awhile, and it was unlikely that I could outrun him. So being the adventurous journalist that I am, I too smashed my head between the elevator doors. Actually I think I mixed up adventurous with insane, but cooperating with this stunt sent Alex into such a fit of laughter, that he fell into the wall and slid down to the floor. He said no one in the band or on the road crew would do that trick with him and that they were never going to believe that I actually did. You see, Alex and I were soulmates.
Although Van Halen and Journey stayed in Madison the next night (and had one helluva party according to Michael), I had to go to a showcase in Chicago that CBS Records was throwing for the Hounds. They were the same band that opened for AC/DC at the Stone Hearth. I wasn’t all that impressed with them, but a trip to Chicago with a free night at the Playboy Club was too good to pass up. And I accepted the invitation without realizing Van Halen and Journey would stay in town, I figured they would stay in Milwaukee and get ready for their gig Thursday night at the Riverside Theatre. I love field trips, and this was going to be better than sitting on the phone setting up interviews and photo shoots. When I heard what fun Michael St. John had at the Sheraton Hotel with the guys that night, I wished I would have stayed in town! Alex got so wild, he almost pushed a table out the window of their seventh floor room. Luckily, Steve Perry from Journey talked him out of it. Supposedly the mention of the damages coming out of his pay-check was the only thing that stopped him.
Some of the other pranks they pulled during their three night stay, was stealing sheets for the tour bus and duct taping frozen fish to the ceiling of the hallway (to later thaw, and stink up the hallway, of course). Apparently the dedication to the seventh floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Madison, WI on the back of their second album was very much deserved.
The next day I arrived at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee in the late afternoon, so I ended up sitting around talking with Van Halen’s manager, Noel Monk. We talked about the next single being picked from the album, and I suggested “Running With The Devil.” He said everyone was voting for that one. Then I told him the Van Halen logo would look great as a hood ornament, or even a necklace. Years later I smiled when I saw Valerie Bertinelli wearing a necklace on her television show, One Day At A Time. Their logo did look good as jewelry!
Once again we were riveted by Van Halen’s performance. They were really hot and I knew they were going to set the world ablaze. Montrose and Journey were good, too. Earlier that day I had also met Dan, one of Journey’s roadies who ended up letting me sit with him next to the spotlight and watch Journey’s set. This was just after they had hired Steve Perry, and his vocals and their new songs were really good. Their show was extremely tight and Steve’s voice was a perfect addition for them.
After the concert, we stood around watching them tear down the equipment when I met Leslie West, the legendary guitarist from Mountain, who had come out to see “this Van Halen kid who everyone has been talking about.”
About a week and a half later, we finished the new issue of The Chronicle, which had Van Halen on the cover. This was published just in time for us to drive down to Schaumburg, Illinois to see Van Halen play at the club B’Ginnings on March 20th. So Michael St. John, his girlfriend Melody, Katy, John (Punch guitarist and my future husband), and I threw a couple of bundles of that issue into the trunk and drove down there. It was the Loop’s, (a Chicago radio station’s) birthday party. Once again Van Halen put on a terrific performance, and helped set a fire in the hearts of many Chicago area fans.
After the show, we tried to get by the gigantic security dudes standing at the dressing room door. Not until St. John shoved a stack of Chronicles in one of their faces did they agree to let us in. The band was involved in a full scale celebration of their Chicago appearance. Alex immediately ran up to me, and after discovering that I had the audacity to bring a date, he grabbed me and threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Not only was he still very sweaty from the show, but he wouldn’t put me down for the longest time. Alex really wanted to piss John off. Luckily John struck up a conversation with Eddie and persuaded him to show him his guitars. Eddie let him look them over, but wouldn’t let him play one.
We had a great time partying with them. The record company executives were really happy with us, saying that we were the first newspaper to put Van Halen on their cover. We were on the A-list with Warner Brothers after that. I even got offered a job with their company once, but it was only at a regional office somewhere in the Midwest.
When it was time to go, we each got a Chronicle signed by the band. As I mentioned before, Eddie wrote “Sue, Love your thighsssss,” David wrote, “Sue, I need you badly!,” Michael wrote, “Sue, I sure like your stuff!,” and Alex wrote his name down his right arm, put an anchor on his left arm, wrote “Suk Me” on Michael’s left arm and never signed his full name… drummers. You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them.
It has been no surprise to me that forty years later, Van Halen is still one of the biggest rock bands in the world. I was disappointed when David left in the eighties, I think he added the Hollywood glamour that was fun to watch on stage. But it’s good to see him back.
All in all, it was a time that shall live in infamy. We had all been Van Halenized, and would never be the same again! Whether they are at the Shuffle Inn, the Sheraton, or playing in sold out stadiums around the world, Van Halen is the definitive rock ‘n’ roll party band. In the first press kit that I received on them, there was a description that still holds up today; “We celebrate the sex and rebellion on television, all of the rockin’ on the radio, the movies, the cars and everything about being young at heart. Thats Van Halen.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
About Susan Masino: If you enjoyed this article, check out Susan’s book, Rock N Roll Fantasy: My Life and Times with Van Halen, AC/DC, Kiss… Susan met, interviewed and partied with AC/DC, Van Halen, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick and many more. Forging a friendship with AC/DC over the past 40 years, Masino went on to write the biography, The Story of AC/DC—Let There Be Rock. She also appears in the Van Halen DVD, The Early Years, and the AC/DC movie, Let There Be Rock.
Photos: All Van Halen photos by Thomas W. Giles, and taken March 7th and 9th, 1978.
But wait, there’s more!
We also talked to early VH Roadie, Tom Broderick, who recalled, “Well, the famous Madison incident, I was there when they apologized to the Madison, Wisconsin hotel mentioned in the second album’s liner notes. I was on the scene. They were chasing each other around with fire extinguishers. It was pure madness. At some point, Gregg Rolie, the keyboard player from Journey, came by and told me to stay in my room. There was fire extinguisher shit everywhere. I went into Dave’s room and the window is open and I look down and there’s like a table in the snow three stories down and that’s when I figured, “Shit, this is getting out of control.” Gregg Rolie was trying to calm everybody down, you know, and being a very nice guy about it. He was the key peacemaker, separating the law from the hotel manager from Van Halen. He kind of calmed everything down, saying, “Forget these guys, man, it’s their first tour. They’re a little crazy.” I don’t know what else went on. That wasn’t the end of it, though. They went on to greater destruction. In fact, Dave did the Life magazine thing where he demonstrates how to destroy a hotel room or whatever. They were destroying buffets and all of that, when they were still an opening act! Nobody knew who the hell they were. They didn’t have groupies trotting down the hall or anything. Mostly, they spent their time destroying hotels. Alex quickly became an expert.”
The band members were real practical jokers. Alex and David removed the screen from Edward’s hotel room window and threw his table and chairs outside to the ground below. Edward retaliated by going to the front desk and telling the clerk he was David Lee Roth and had lost his room keys. He then slipped into Roth’s room and took Roth’s table and chairs and put them in his own room. The police were confused, as Edward’s window screen was missing but he had a table and chairs, while Roth’s room had a screen but was missing his furniture.
Excerpts from The Emerald Chronicle’s Van Halen cover story:
“Vocals for this powerhouse are brazenly belted out by David Roth, a Jim Dandyesque stuff-strutter of high-intensity and low (actually, nonexistent) restraint. On and off stage, David is a one man party, true to the rockstar mold, who could live in his black leathers and platforms, guzzles beer for breakfast, and never buttons his shirt.”
“Wisconsin’s first glimpse of Van Halen came at Madison’s Shuffle Inn and the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee — a nightclub and a small hall with seats. At the Shuffle, the band seemed slightly inhibited by the small stage, but fully confident in their ability to arouse a fever in a somewhat chilly Tuesday night bar crowd. Roth, Anthony, and the brothers VH mounted the stage and launched a full-tilt assault equal to the Coliseum, changing many expectant countenances to looks resembling awe. A rough-edged, rowdy and raw set, Van Halen made no pretense of being the “hot new national act that doesn’t play clubs anymore.” Quite to the contrary, this group grew up in bars and feeds off the energy exchange best found in a close-up crowd. (And when you climax of the show by spraying champagne, as David did, SRO attendance in a club makes for easier targets). Having filled the Shuffle with wall-to-wall LOUD, two encores declared Van Halen’s first visit to the Mad City a rousing success.”