Caught on Tape: New Orleans, Van Halen Style

Written by Caught on Tape, Music

Steven Rosen’s series of journalistic remembrances continues with a look back at a wild weekend spent in the company of the one and only Edward Van Halen.

Eddie-Van-Halen[1]

The weekend began on a deceptively subdued note, but this would change.

My alarm clock performed its temporal duty, jolting me a deep slumber at the unearthly hour of 5:30 A.M. A shower washed the crunchy crystals of sleep from the corners of my eyes, and two 16-ounce mugs of coffee helped me keep them open. I phoned Edward to let him know I was on the way. No answer. Mild panic. Did he already leave? Had he changed his mind about taking me with him? Those were just a couple of the thoughts scurrying through my brain, accelerated and exacerbated by the caffeine coursing through my veins.

A day earlier, Edward Van Halen had invited me to accompany him to the NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants) in New Orleans. This is an annual convention where retailers, manufacturers, et al, get together to preview their new lines of guitars, amplifiers, drums, and any other musically-related gadgets and gewgaws. More than anything, though, it’s a chance to drink yourself unconscious on someone else’s dime.

I call again five minutes later and a voice answers, “Yeah.” Ed rarely says “Hello.” “Where are ya? Well, hurry up!”

And I do. Grabbing my bag, I toss it into the RX-7 and depart. No warm up, no idle time; just jump in and drive. At 6:30 A.M., the Hollywood Hills are still deserted. The fog drifts up from the valley below and covers the road in vapor. The Mazda whips around the corners, startling a jogger into curse mode and raising similar choruses of protest from nesting fowl. Speed limit signs flash by, and since I’m doing twice the posted maximum, I can only assume the warnings are meant for fleeing strangers and scuttled crows (I mean, I’m the one in the car).

Nine minutes later (my fastest drive time so far if you discount the 8 ½ minute run a week earlier when I accidentally squished a squirrel) and my tender blue Mazda screeches to a stop outside his gates. I press the buzzer and…no answer. He probably didn’t hear, probably grew tired waiting for me. I ring again and … silence. The caffeine now percolating in my veins makes me think I should have made it here in 8 minutes, roadkill or not. At that moment, the gates slide open and I cruise in. I audibly sigh. Edward emerges from the front door, tells me he is just now jumping in the shower, and has me wait in the kitchen.

eddievanhalen-guitars[1]I mull over what is in store for us the next two days: The NAMM show proper; a special “All-Industry” dinner extravaganza to be held at the Louisiana Superdome; Bourbon Street; a riverboat ride down the ol’ Mississippi; gumbo; and Hurricanes (alcoholic, not atmospheric).

A taxi in the driveway puts an end to the reverie. A can of Schlitz Malt Liquor in his hand, he gives me a hug, I hug him back, and we climb in the backseat of the cab. I can’t help but stare at the blue and gold can when I ask him, “Is that breakfast?”

“No, I had a tuna sandwich,” he says, that peculiar high-pitched nasal voice still laced with early morning residue.

Andy, the cab driver, is visibly enamored. He discretely steals glances in his rearview mirror, sizing up the passenger dressed in red, High Top Converse, black and white golfer’s pants, and a black sports jacket. Between sips of Schlitz, Eddie engages Andy in conversation. He tells him about the guy in prison who kept writing to him, informing Edward of what a “bad job he was doing impersonating” Valerie’s husband. And he told him how people stole letters from his mailbox and then finally stole the mailbox itself.

The taxi heads south on the San Diego Freeway and after a near collision with a Mercedes Benz, it pulls outside the Delta gate at the Los Angeles International Airport. After all of my agonizing, amazingly enough, we’re ahead of schedule. We make our way – where else? – to the bar. Ed peers through dark, dark sunglasses, and orders a Bloody Mary; I’m jacked on adrenaline but still fatigued and order coffee. He removes the shades and rubs bloodshot eyes, commenting, “I either look like shit or I can’t see for shit.”

A Sony FM Walkman is removed from his bag and Edward slips in a couple of cassettes. Titled “Le’s Pers” and “You Want It When – Ha! Ha! Ha!” they are examples of his “research” at 5150 (the home studio). Flight 514 to New Orleans is ready for boarding and we take seats 3A and 3B in the first class section. Doc Severinsen and Arlen Roth are on the same flight. Edward orders up another beer, me a gin and tonic. The guitarist falls asleep immediately, a talent honed after spending thousands of hours in the sky. Two girls at the front huddle nervously to discuss the sleeping star. He wakes intermittently, passes on breakfast (cheese omelet), and opens his eyes upon touchdown.

Dennis Berardi, president of Kramer guitars, is waiting at the terminal. His rent-a-car transports us to the New Orleans Hilton, a centrally located hotel just minutes away from the NAMM Show convention hall and, more importantly, Bourbon Street. We check into our rooms; Edward is out before his head hits the pillow and I saunter over to the convention hall. It is two o’clock Saturday afternoon and already there is a buzz around the Kramer booth that Van Halen may show up on Sunday. No announcements, no press releases, just hushed anticipation that he may make an appearance.

I return to my room and after mangling one of those credit card-like door keys for ten minutes (you push it in a slot and the door supposedly opens), finally enter. An hour later, we’re ushered to a special fete dubbed the “NAMM All-Industry Dinner Spectacular” featuring Pete Fountain’s Gumbo Ya Ya Show. Edward, amidst rumbles and grumbles, reluctantly attends. Berardi has told him that he’ll have to take a bow during the evening and he refuses. But when the MC addresses the more than 1,000 retailers and manufacturers seated here inside the Louisiana Superdome and expresses “A special thanks to Eddie Van Halen,” the guitarist stands, drink raised in hand, and acknowledges the applause. Edward eyes Dennis venomously and mutters, sotto voce, “I’ll get you for this.” We make our way for the exit.

van-halen-140[1]A quick return to the Hilton for a change of clothes and it’s off (at my bequest) to Bourbon Street. The street Bourbon is a combination of Disneyland, Hollywood Boulevard, the red light district, and every tourist trap in America. Next to a store selling I Love New Orleans t-shirts is a bar featuring ladies in various stages of undress, and a band in the corner blazing through Top 40 hits. After a wonderful dinner of gumbo and Creole at the Gumbo House (Edward ordered chicken gumbo and did not take a single bite), we wander the street that is packed with bodies. People passing by go through double takes, pretty certain of who it is but not positive. Edward hands out some guitar picks and the recipients are ecstatic. He hugs one girl and she (nearly) faints. Another one walks up to him, asks him to smile, and he obliges. There is no mistaking that grin. Edward is goofing with people, joking around with the midnight ramblers. He pokes his head inside a bar and break into “Jump.” Had they known who was listening, the combo would certainly have gone into hysterics. We make the obligatory stop at Carlos O’Brien’s (a famous bar) and after downing yet another Hurricane (a lethal rum cocktail), head back to the hotel. I am clutching a tourist glass from O’Brien’s and I am happy.

It is 1:00 A.M. and I accompany Edward to the Hilton bar. The late-nighters are huddled around the circular liquor-dispensing area. I order another gin/tonic and as this drink climbs on top of every other one imbibed tonight, I begin to feel a little twisted. One of the NAMM show attendees is walking around with a hat in the likeness of a pair of rather well-developed female breasts. Mammary memory. Edward snatches it and calls it his. 4:00 A.M., the bar closes and we walk back to his room. Edward walks, I stumble. Somehow, the simple act of balance has become a calculation I cannot figure out.

He, too, had shredded one of the paper keys and after fumbling with his lock, we go in. It is still a sensible hour for the guitarist, who has spent the better part of the last seven years on the road. For me, 4:00 A.M. or 5:00 A.M., whatever it is, is the twilight hour, that no man’s land when it’s too late to try and sleep at all and too early to do anything of value. Though my body is asleep, my eyes remain open, stapled there by all the caffeine consumed that day and whatever adrenaline reserves still remain. A knock at the door and Twisted Sister’s Eddie Ojeda gives greeting.

For Ojeda, it is a truly special moment. He must have been standing down the hall just waiting for Van Halen to return. Trying to remain nonchalant, he is too quick to respond to Edward’s questions and too reluctant to give up the floor. Edward let Ojeda listen to the “research” tapes and Eddie is in total awe. Van Halen tried to explain the process of his writing: how his “favorite guitars are shitty guitars” (as opposed to expensive, custom models off the rack); how he loves to work with keyboards; and his philosophy, which he verbalized as “I don’t try to impress anybody.” The evening ends with an arm-wrestling challenge match between the two Eddies; as official referee, I call it a draw. Ojeda returns to his room, his feet barely touching the carpet. The clock reads 8 A.M. and I fall into a coma back in my own room.

Sunday morning, I return to the show and run into Brian May, Allan Holdsworth, Ted Nugent, and John Entwistle. I hang out for a while and then go back for a little more rest. The Kramer booth is even more crowded today than it was yesterday afternoon. There is little doubt that Van Halen is the most important figure attending the festivities. Due to rise at 2:00 P.M., he finally falls out of bed two hours later. A taxi takes us to a side entrance and we’re escorted to a waiting room while final preparations are made at the booth. The entire area has been cordoned off. By this time, the Kramer stall is completely surrounded. A phone rings, the OK is given, and we walk the distance. There are shouts, cries, hoots, and hollers as Edward is recognized by the assembly. He stands idly, gazing about with a look, which reads, “What the hell am I doing here?” He edges closely to the ropes, shakes a few hands, signs several autographs. Someone hands him a note which says, “Eddie: Shannon Lowe is your #2 fan; Valerie is #1.” From a bird’s eye view, the rest of the hall is empty. Screams of “Play the guitar, Eddie” fall on deaf ears; he is in no mood to pick up an instrument. Nonetheless, he hoists one of the Kramers, plays through two perfunctory runs, and returns it. He has been there less than 30 minutes and he is already growing agitated, caged in. Brian May’s head bobs up in the audience and he is quickly engulfed by the human tide. John Entwistle makes his way through the partition and Van Halen is pleased to see a recognizable face. Several minutes later he is gone, returned via taxi to his hotel room for two needed hours of sleep.

Sunday evening found us on a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi. May and Entwistle were on board and there was talk of a late night jam back at the hotel. And it happened. Back at the Hilton Ballroom, Bugs Henderson and the Stratoblasters (in reality Seymour Duncan and friends) were performing, and when word passed around that Van Halen, Entwistle, Nugent, and Julian Lennon’s guitarist were going to play, the stage was cleared. Backstage the make-shift band (dubbed The Unrehearsed Scumbags) tried to choose a number they all knew and finally decided on “Wild Thing.”

The event was more memorable than it was musical, each guitarist attempting to out-volume and out-solo the other. Edward, grin on his face, enjoyed himself and thrilled the lucky ones in attendance. After the show he went up to Entwistle and in a humility-laden voice said, “Sorry.” Someone handed Edward an instrument that resembled more a fish skeleton than it did a guitar and commenting, “Looks like it would hurt,” returned arm-in-arm with Brian May to his room. They played around for several hours, May’s eyes absolutely transfixed while Edward played his homemade guitar. Van Halen mentioned he would like to do something with Brian sometime (May played with Edward on the Starfleet Project). Edward said he could play keyboards and Brian would play guitar. Brian, with an exaggerated “Oh, sure” look on his face, couldn’t believe what he’d heard. And what is even more amazing is that Van Halen was dead serious.

It was 5 A.M. and Brian exited. Edward came next door to my room and we talked for a while longer. Of the jam he said, “That was a perfect example of the Over The Hill Gang” and laughed. Shutting the door, he went back to his room. Five seconds later he was pounding on my door. He had lost his second room card key and wanted to phone down to the next for another. “Nah, I’ll just walk down,” he decided. Forty-five minutes later he was beating my door again (I knew there would be no sleep on this voyage). They did not believe who he was at the front desk and for the past forty-five minutes he had been doing his best to convince them. He finally did.

We returned early Monday evening. It was obvious Edward had enjoyed the late nights in the hotel rooms more than he did being put on display at the dinners and show. Valerie picked us up at LAX (she drove right past us one time), Bryan Adams blaring out of the speakers. We enter the gates back at their home and my tender blue chariot is parked right where I left it. Valerie asks if I had a good time. I numbly nod yes, staring blankly out of my sunglasses (it is dark outside, mind you). Between the lack of sleep, Hurricanes, running around, and general high levels of excitement, I’m sure I had a good time. I must have had a good time. I’ll call Edward tomorrow and find out.

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