From Aerosmith to ZZ Top and just about every classic rock band in between, photographer Darren Balch has seen and shot them all. It’s a stellar career that all began forty years ago watching Van Halen at the Spokane Coliseum in Spokane, Washington – Section 19, three rows down the aisle to be exact.
Balch recalled his personal “eureka moment” Van Halen story in a post to his official website recently. It’s one every Van Halen fan is sure to enjoy. It’s also sure to spark your own personal favorite Van Halen concert memory and we urge you to share it with fans in the comments section below. But first, here’s Balch’s story of the time he saw Van Halen in concert during the band’s Fair Warning tour on May 31st, 1981. He graciously shared the story along with a few of his photos of the band in the 1990s with the Van Halen News Desk:
Fair Warning – 40 Years later...
It didn’t matter if the venue was 80 miles away and it was a school night. As a high school senior, if the MIGHTY Van Halen was playing – you go! The new album had been released a month earlier and we were captivated, listening to it over and over again. In preparation for the show, my friend Scott checked out his Volkswagen and my friend Earnie made a couple custom Van Halen T-shirts in graphics class. Everything for weeks prior was all about “the show!”
This was my first big rock concert in the big city of Spokane, Washington. A different world from the wheat fields of Pullman. Being a college town teenager yielded certain benefits, none of which would advance me academically. I was a camera geek, the guy that photographed the track team on a Saturday morning for the yearbook. Pullman High School was equipped with Nikon cameras you could check out and two darkrooms to develop and print photographs! The Washington State University dorms were equipped with huge stereos and free beer! I thought the two went together like a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
Just weeks before the show, I was assigned to view an Ansel Adams exhibit up on campus. Seeing those photographs in person completely changed my vocabulary. My eureka moment happened in one particular seat in the Spokane Coliseum – Section 19, three rows down on the aisle. I remember thinking, “This is it! This is what I am going to do.” Combine rock music and photography. It was their “Fair Warning” tour, seems kind of prophetic now. I had no idea I would actually photograph some of the world biggest rock bands over the decades.
Upon graduation in 1981, I ended up – or so it seemed at the time – as far away from my dream as one could possibly imagine: on board for eight years with an Air Force airborne weather unit where I built and maintained nuclear debris air sampling equipment to monitor the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.
In northern California it seemed there was a concert every night of the week and we attended every one. We also tried to show up to our squadron on time the next morning. Monitoring other nuclear nations was something we did in between concerts.
This was concert heaven for me and I brought my camera to every show. Always in the front of the line or camping in the parking lot, I never concealed my camera. I was told “no” more times than a child in the cereal aisle. I would return to the car, drop my camera off, drink another beer (or three), then go back and enjoy the concert.
Just being able to see Van Halen twice at The Cow Palace in San Francisco (Diver Down & 1984), the 1988 Monsters of Rock Cotton Bowl show and the opening show at the brand new Arco Arena in Sacramento, 1988 (ou812) reassured me it was worth it. Even with all the rejection, I was surprised by how many times I was allowed to photograph bands simply by asking. I was fortunate to photograph; Night Ranger, Ronnie Montrose, The Tubes, Romeo Void, David Gilmour on his 1984 “About Face” solo tour and City Kidd, who would later change their name to Tesla, to name a few. I developed the film in a makeshift darkroom set up in my McClellan Air Force Base dorm room and produced a portfolio to show my work.
After receiving an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1989, I moved back to Pullman, Washington, where my dorm room generated portfolio made it into the hands of Jason Olcott, publisher of the seminal zine, Blitzkrieg. One of the first shows I photographed was Alice in Chains playing at the WSU student union building. Alice would later warm up for Van Halen on the Carnal Knowledge tour. In 1991 I sold my Crate stack-amplifier to afford a trip to my old stomping grounds in Sacramento, CA. Photographing Van Halen for the first time, what better venue than The Cal-Expo Amphitheater. I had started my career in that venue.
In 1993 I became the first house photographer at The Gorge Amphitheatre here in Washington State. In 1995, out in the middle of nowhere – I would finally meet the band and got to thank them for the music that changed the trajectory of my life. I brought the chair I had sat in during my first Van Halen concert. I hacksawed it out of the old Spokane Coliseum before the building was torn down. The entire band signed my chair. Laughing hard, Sammy told me “You know, we’ve seen a lot of weird shit all these years, but this is really out there.”
You think you know, but we really don’t. The hardest thing you and I will ever do in our entire life is be a human being. This is not easy. Pain is a common denominator. I found comfort in music and it led me to love. We cannot dodge mortality. We get eighty years on this planet, if we are lucky. And that’s if we are lucky, (R.I.P Eddie, you changed the world of music). In the end all we have are memories, and that’s not even guaranteed anymore. Do you realize?… Safe at home.
Thank God for Van Halen! – “We’re in for a very long night!”
– Darren Balch
Darren Balch’s official website page: virtuallyonstage.net