Our fellow Van Halen fan Debbie Pinkney has shared another heartfelt story with the Van Halen News Desk and this time she takes us back to the time Alex Van Halen took her on an elevator ride!
It’s been said that you should “never meet your heroes” since expectations may be so high, meeting them may lead to disappointment. Not so when it comes to Debbie’s meeting with Alex. In fact, it appears as if he exceeded her expectations. Here is her story…
Is He Holding My Hand?
The Day I Rode In An Elevator with Alex Van Halen
In the early 80s, Alex Van Halen made a very small and seemingly insignificant gesture toward a young, exuberant fan. I still remember almost every detail of the brief encounter. Most importantly, I remember exactly how he made me feel. To put it simply, one of my idols made me feel wonderful.
For those of you who are unaware of the devotion I have had for Van Halen over the years, you may need some context. I will share a bit of info here and how it led up to me being in the same small, confined location as the famous drummer of the Rock Band, Van Halen. In another story, there are details about why I love Van Halen so much and the significant and not always apparent roles these guys, and especially Eddie Van Halen, have played in my life.
I started listening to rock sometime in late ‘79. I discovered Van Halen in 1980 when they released their third album, Women and Children First, and my love of them was immediate, and skyrocketed to the level of what some might describe as ridiculousness. As soon as I knew who they were I really loved them. Like… a lot. I fell hard and fast! This was a significant shift for me, a 16-year-old girl who was also black and who had primarily listened to groups like P-Funk and Cameo.
Being able to see them live was something I would come to crave and wait anxiously for each year. Their live performances were the ultimate party, and I had to be there. Concert tickets sold out quickly, and I was willing to do whatever extra work it took to get them. Also, this was all before the ease of the Internet and you had to call a ticket center and wait on hold FOREVER or physically go to an actual ticket office to purchase anything. So I even camped overnight a few times…once in the snow, just so I could be near the front of the line. You might be tempted to say, “oh everyone does that, Debbie.” Well… not “everyone” camped out for tickets. White people did. So my parents (and the rest of my family) thought I had gone insane. Also discussed elsewhere. LOL! Anyway, I knew that the likelihood of being near the stage was low, but I didn’t care. I just needed to be in the arena, and I always got the coveted tickets. My first Van Halen concert was epic. For two other tours I scored floor seats in the front sections. As a bonus, both times were on Eddie’s side of the stage. It was glorious.
Yet, I kind of wanted more. I really wanted to see them up close and maybe even meet them so I could tell them how much I loved them. The ultimate scenario would have been to get backstage passes so I could actually talk to Eddie, Alex, Dave, and Michael. I never really thought through what I would say, but I just wanted to be in their presence. And yes, Eddie was my absolute favorite, and my love for him had also reached epic proportions. I was so infatuated with him that my family continued to tease me about it for…decades! However, my love for Eddie didn’t take away from the overall love and appreciation for talent that I felt for each of them. They were my idols. I loved all of Van Halen.
So, I started planning. From the time leading up to that first live Van Halen concert and for a few subsequent tours, I embarked upon mini quests to see them closer than a stage inside an arena filled with 16,999 other fans. Sometimes I would go on solo missions to find them and other times I would drag along a friend, regardless of whether or not that person was happy about it. LOL! ?. The mission was simple, and I did not deviate: find their hotel and go to the arena early to talk to people about how to get backstage passes. Easy…right?
And yes, I had a very naïve perception of what rock star life and the backstage atmosphere were like. I had imagined this magical wonderland of music and rainbows where you get to meet and talk with your idols, and then take a photo to save forever. I envisioned a vibrant, colorful, friendly place with super soft sofas, guitars, drumsticks, and M&Ms everywhere. If you know Van Halen, then you know the specifics about the M&Ms. Ha! Anyway, I would be in the mystical backstage fantasy world and get to say “I love you, Van Halen! I love your music! I love you, Eddie!” In return they would joyously respond and say, “We’re your favorite band?! Well, you’re our favorite fan, Debbie!” Then we would embrace as we took photos. I would stand next to Eddie and he would put his arm around me and kiss me on the cheek. It was a place where dreams would come true. LOL! Yes, yes, in reality there may have been M&Ms and other “treats,” but it was also a raucous, adult playground filled with alcohol, drugs and sex, that would have been a complete shock to my sheltered 17-year-old naïve system.
I was never successful in my quests to get backstage at a Van Halen concert, but I tried…a lot! I would approach a roadie or a bodyguard at the arena or their hotel and ask about it. The responses were consistently some variation of “you don’t want to go backstage” or “you’re too sweet to go backstage” or “you are way too young to go backstage” etc. A few even asked, “what are you 13…14?” and “how did you get here?” even though at the time I was 17, 18, 19… You get what I mean. Anyway, each time as I stood there apparently looking not even old enough to drive, I was convinced they were just being cruel and depriving me of access to my beloved Van Halen. Now that I look back, I realize they were likely keen to my naivety and were actually doing me a solid. Also, many years later when my friend and I were managing the fan club for Jimmie’s Chicken Shack (JCS), we saw plenty of back stages. Once we were backstage with Slash who offered us a puff on his doobie. We politely declined! This was all super cool, but not the rainbows and butterflies I had imagined. I mean, we were in this big room with him and a bunch of chairs and just sitting around. LOL! I remember thinking back to my VH quests and laughing because, unless things had drastically changed, backstage was often just a bunch of people sitting around, waiting, having beverages, and whatever.
Anyway, for a few years, whenever Van Halen was in the area, I stuck to the plan to try and achieve proximity. I also had a good excuse to give to my parents so they wouldn’t know what I was actually doing away from the house all day before a concert. I would tell them I was going to look for a job or that I actually had a job interview. LOL! It was something I should have been doing anyway, so it minimized questions and allowed me to be away from the house long enough to search for the guys. It would also score me gas money from Daddy. ? And, yes, eventually I did have a job!
I was thorough. I researched all of the hotels near the arena. That first year, I dragged a friend with me which is another story in itself, but for now we will just stick to the part that is relevant to this event. So, I started with those hotels closest to the arena and drove from place to place looking for tour buses and other signs of rock stars. Luckily, there were not nearly as many hotels then as there are now! Anyway, after visiting a few places I went to the second to the last on my list. I didn’t see obvious signs, but decided it would be best to just go inside and ask if Van Halen was staying there. The front desk associate said no, but nicely suggested that I check the hotel down the street. So I got back in my car and drove down the street to the last option. What I saw was pure gold… Van Halen tour buses!!! I was so happy and nervous and excited. I parked, walked around the lot for a bit, looked at the buses, then decided to go inside the hotel. I looked in the restaurant, pretended to search for my mother, and if my presence was further questioned, I even had a backup story ready about a non-existent brother who had wandered away from the family.
I eventually switched course and headed to the elevators where I started riding up and down, stopping on each floor, looking for any signs of Van Halen. When I got to the upper floors, I learned they had reserved an entire floor, but it was guarded by their security people and I was not permitted to search that floor for family members. Nonetheless, I had found them. Yay!
That first year, I didn’t spend much time exploring the hotel. My friend was nervous and eventually we headed back home. I didn’t really want to leave, but I had to go back to get my tickets and friends so we could all drive to the concert together. The arena was 45 minutes from where I lived, and we had to plan for traffic. And no, it never occurred to me to take my tickets with me. I actually went back the day after the concert, but the buses were gone. I also asked about Van Halen at the reception desk, and they said the band and crew had left around 4 am. I was sad, but had key info for planning the next time they were in town. And yes, I tried to see them up close at the hotel for a few years in a row. I may have even saved money and booked a reservation once… Whatever, go ahead laugh, mock, judge. People…friends have done it in the past. Did you ride in the elevator with one of your idols? Nope. And hey, it made it easier to be there, and I didn’t have to lie about a lost family member!
THE GLORIOUS ELEVATOR ENCOUNTER
Ok, so let’s get to the elevator. This happened either during the Diver Down or the 1984 album tour. I can’t remember which one, and I can’t access my Van Halen scrapbook and other treasures at the moment to confirm. Nonetheless, the same plan was in place: go to hotel, have a lie prepared about looking for mom or a sibling at the ready, ride elevator seven million times, walk through lobby three million times, go outside and walk around another million times, and hope to eventually see one or all of them. Like I said, I met and talked with several of their road and technical crew. Although they were always very nice, none of them were willing to take me backstage, but one year they did let me walk onto one of Van Halen’s tour buses and look around. I thought it was amazing and I think they found me amusing and a bit endearing, particularly, the year I passed around the letter I wrote to Van Halen using all of their song titles. Roadies loved it and told me they were passing it around backstage. I was like, “did you give it to Van Halen?!” They promised that they did. I hope so, but I have no way of knowing.
Anyway, I was riding up and down the elevator like a dumb ass. I probably looked ridiculous, and as time wore on, I began to feel ridiculous. Nonetheless, I persisted (haha!) and did this for a long while that day. I remember feeling more and more discouraged and even more ridiculous. After a bit of self-deprecation and convincing myself that this plan was absolutely dumb, I was feeling sufficiently terrible and decided to give up. However, I did one last pass because, let’s face it, I don’t like to quit things and they were so very close. I mean, we were in the same damn building! Yet, I told myself that I might have to accept that I would never get to see them up close and tell them that I loved them.
So, there I was, beating myself up and trying not to cry while riding in this stupid elevator as it journeyed in whatever direction it was traveling. It stopped. A woman entered. I stood there holding back tears and feeling super annoyed because she wasn’t Eddie. I then leaned against the back wall of the compartment to allow space for whatever more annoying and unimportant hotel guests would eventually enter.
It stopped again. The doors opened and Alex Van Halen WALKED INTO THE FUCKING ELEVATOR holding his girlfriend’s/fiance’s/wife’s hand and with a bodyguard, I assume, by his side! Yes, Alex Van Halen. Eddie’s brother! Drummer extraordinaire! My ridiculous plan had actually worked.
The guy with him seemed to do a quick scan of the area for fans and clearly didn’t perceive any threats to his privacy and downtime. Afterall, the other passenger didn’t seem to care and I’m black. How many black people were Van Halen fans in the 80s? Four? Seven? And how many of those actually went to the hotel and made attempts to see them up close?! LOL! Right?! Ok, back to the story. Anyway, there we all were in the elevator. As I stood there in stunned silence with my mouth agape, I could hear the voice in my head screaming “It’s Alex, it’s Alex, it’s Alex!” I couldn’t believe what was happening, but there he was, standing right in front of me. Mere inches away. Alex Van Halen! One of my idols was actually right there.
Before I continue, let’s put the magnitude of this proximity into context. Van Halen was selling out arenas and concert halls across the globe. They’ve continued to do so for decades. Those of us who got tickets knew that we were sharing the space with 16,000 or 18,000 or even 20,000 other people, depending on the venue. Anyway, even when we were lucky enough to be in that same room, there were at least 5,000 or 10,000 other people who were standing between us and the guys on the stage. This was a fucking elevator, and no one was standing between him and me.
So, as I am standing there and staring at the back of his head, I seem to recall small details. Like the fact that he was wearing burgundy or red or brown and it may have been a jacket, perhaps kind of Members Only style or something. And his hair. That damn Van Halen hair. Whew. Anyway, he was close enough for me to touch.
I barely realized what I was doing, but my hand took over and I reached up and tapped him on the shoulder! I know, right?! His response? He whipped his head around in surprise as if he were wondering “who the fuck just touched me?!” It caught me a bit off guard. I mean, come on, Alex Van Halen was looking directly at me. So, anyway…SHIT! I needed to say something, so I asked the most ridiculous of questions. One to which I already knew the answer. I asked, “are you Alex Van Halen?” and without hesitation he smiled, turned to face me more directly, reached out his hand to shake mine, and said “hey, how you doing?“ OH MY GOD!!!
Bring on the word vomit! I just started talking. “Oh my God! I love you! I love Van Halen! I have all your records!” You know, the usual. I’m also pretty sure there was a “where is Eddie?!” in there somewhere. I know, so rude! I’m not sure exactly what else I said, but the excitement and obvious devotion continued as he stood there watching me with what seemed to be amusement. Like all the crew, he probably also thought I was 14!
Suddenly, something told me to look down at my right hand. It was then that I realized that Alex had indeed shaken my hand, because I was still holding on to his damn hand! He was still holding onto my hand! I couldn’t believe it. He actually shook my hand! What did I do? Well, I still am a bit embarrassed about what I did next…What Debbie? What did you do? While my right hand was still holding onto his, I lifted my left hand and started stroking his arm. LOL! Then almost in a whisper, I slowly looked up at him and said “oh my God…I’m touching you.” Because, well, I was FUCKING TOUCHING HIM. Alex Van Halen. ALEX VAN HALEN. And he was being nice about it! He was letting me touch him. His bodyguard, or whoever he was, was letting me touch him!
Who knows what he was thinking about this encounter. To me it seemed to be a bit of puzzled amusement and perhaps a bit of “I’m going to fire my bodyguard.” Regardless, his expression remained kind, but I didn’t want him to think I was super crazy, so I immediately let go. I also didn’t want his bodyguard to decide it was too much and then tackle me! So, I just stood there feeling incredibly happy as I continued to take in the close image of the real Alex Van Halen. At one point I glanced over at his girlfriend/fiancé/wife, who may have been the other Valeri with no “e”, maybe? I’m not sure, but I could tell by her expression and big smile that she thought my display of devotion was endearing. That made me feel even happier!
And just like that the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and he started to exit along with his companions. I remember feeling slightly sad because this incredible moment was way too brief and was about to end. But he extended one last gesture of kindness. Rather than just walk away and forget about the crazy, excited fan in the elevator, he stopped at the door, turned around, smiled and gave me a cheerful “Bye!” with a quick wave. I waved back and said, ”Bye,” as he disappeared and the doors closed. I then sort of stumbled back against the elevator wall, slid to the floor, and sputtered “Oh my God…Oh my God!” I had totally forgotten about the other woman! She startled me when she asked if I was ok, and when I said, “that was Alex Van Halen!” this fool responded with “Who?” So, I proceeded to ignore her and continued to relish in the fantastic thing I had just experienced. I also realized that I should have asked him to tell Eddie that I love him too! Damn!
This encounter with one of my idols is quite vivid and has remained one of the most cherished memories of my youth. Some have asked how I can so clearly remember something that happened so long ago. To me, it is simple, and it is significant in three ways. First, what an incredible and rare opportunity to actually get to speak to one of those guys, express my love of Van Halen, and even touch him. With his permission! Not only did he willingly allow me to touch him, he initiated the gesture and was genuinely kind to me. And from what I have learned about the solitary nature of Alex Van Halen, this encounter and his response to me truly was a gift.
Second, as an adult, I have an even greater appreciation for the importance of downtime. For me it always seemed like an eternity between the concert cycles. But for those guys, Warner Brothers was working them like crazy and had them touring every year. They were either on the road for months on end or in the studio to get ready to be back on the road again. And there I was, an interruption to one of those rare moments he had to relax and likely get food or do whatever and be out of the spotlight. Yet he extended kindness to me. He didn’t just walk away and leave, or treat me with disrespect or make me feel like I was bothering him or intruding in his personal time. He made sure to acknowledge me, a very excited fan who adored Van Halen.
Most importantly, I place a lot of value on telling people how I feel and I got to tell one of my idols that I loved him. Even though I didn’t get to say it to all of them, maybe he passed along the message. Even if he didn’t, I got to say it, and that is priceless.
Alex Van Halen made me feel seen and appreciated. And because of that, whenever I revisit this encounter, the same feelings resurface. I have cherished this memory over the years and will hold onto it forever. Like I said, one of my idols made me feel wonderful. What an incredible and rare gift. And come on, it is a great story in which I can laugh at myself.