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Van Halen's Babysitter 

The band's record label assigned Ted Cohen to go on tour with them in their glory years. Here's what he saw

Thursday, May 31 2012
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Read outtakes from our interview: "The Time David Lee Roth Abandoned His Plymouth Valiant to Rot." 

On the first night of Van Halen's 1978 world tour, in Madison, Wis., the band burst into the hotel room of their artist development director, Ted Cohen, and threw all of the furniture out of the window.

This was madness, for sure, but a calculated madness. When Cohen — the man sent by the record label to keep them on time and on task — confronted them about the incident, they said they'd read about Led Zeppelin and The Who doing the same thing. Thus, for years to come they left a trail of broken tables, shattered mirrors and stained carpeting in their wake, not to mention fire alarms set off in the middle of the night. The strange thing was the group always took responsibility; in fact, they would budget cash to pay for their hijinks.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED COHEN - Van Halen at a Seattle radio station in 1982
  • PHOTO BY TED COHEN
  • Van Halen at a Seattle radio station in 1982

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That infamous night in Madison began Cohen's trial by fire with the Southern California hard-rock legends, who went on to pioneer a stadium sound that would help them sell tens of millions of records. Van Halen were equally known for their bad-boy personas, not to mention wardrobes that spawned a whole new generation of hair metalers in Spandex.

Of course, Cohen was no stranger to rock-star behavior. In his role at Warner Music, he'd shared private jets with Fleetwood Mac, received home visits from Prince and witnessed firsthand the Sex Pistols' breakup.

With Van Halen, he spent huge chunks of time with them during their late-'70s and early-'80s glory years, in tour buses, hotel rooms, radio station green rooms and backstage, where he was given the duty of distributing backstage passes to the cutest girls in the audience. "Sixty or 70 of them would show up backstage," Cohen says, "and then there was the usual casting call."

If this sounds sleazy, it was; the band members would determine a dozen or so of this group worthy of the "semi-finals" (Cohen's words), at which point about half would be invited back to the hotel to party. Next, "the portable bar was rolled in, and an all-nighter took place," he says.

It's fair to say Cohen was unprepared for this seemingly nonstop bacchanal. Originally from Cleveland, he preferred a casual uniform of jeans and T-shirts and, rather than feathered bangs, sported short hair and a mustache. These days Cohen lives in the Hollywood Hills, and on the occasion of the band's latest tour — which hits Staples Center on June 1 and June 9 — and comeback album, A Different Kind of Truth, he reminisced about his time with the act in the bad old days, at the height of their fame and decadence.

"I was there to keep the lightning in the bottle and make sure they kept their heads on straight," he explains. "Control was elusive, but staying on schedule and on target was mandatory." The band managed to stay focused due to their first-rate work ethic, he adds, but their disparate personalities would eventually rip them apart.

In 1972 brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen enlisted charismatic frontman David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony to round out their group. [Corrected June 1, 2012.] Cohen first saw them perform at a rehearsal for Warner Music executives at Whisky a Go Go in early 1978. He immediately predicted big things. "It was obvious just how hard they'd been working for the previous six years," he says. "Their craftsmanship was excellent: Eddie was a genius on his guitar, and they jelled incredibly well on stage."

The band's secret, he came to realize, was that even in stadiums they were able to re-create the feeling of an intimate club show.

In the beginning, the members viewed themselves as a foursome of equals, dividing up the songwriting credits and royalties equally, Cohen says. "It was done with the whole attitude of 'We're not going to let anything or anyone beak up this band.' "

Unfortunately, there was a wild card — Valerie Bertinelli, the stunning star of hit sitcom One Day at a Time. After she and Eddie Van Halen met backstage at a 1980 concert, their unlikely union generated an avalanche of tabloid columns. But Cohen maintains that as soon as the television star appeared on the scene, she began to drive a wedge between the members of the group, Yoko Ono–style. (Neither Van Halen's nor Bertinelli's management responded to repeated requests for comment.)

The actress believed Eddie Van Halen should receive the lion's share of the credit for the band's triumphs, whereas Roth was essentially expendable, Cohen says. Cohen believed differently, however: "David was an integral part of the band's success. He was brilliant."

As a result of Bertinelli's interference, Cohen adds, Eddie Van Halen began distancing himself from the band, staying in his hotel room and not spending as much off time with the others.

Cohen recalls the guitarist pouring his heart out to him at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, which had recently been purchased by Wayne Newton, shortly after Van Halen and Bertinelli wed in 1981. They spoke from 3 a.m. until dawn, watching workmen in a crane replacing the existing Aladdin sign with a neon one. "We kept hitting the minibar in the room and we got toasted," Cohen remembers, "and I just felt really bad because Eddie was so utterly depressed."

Had he erred in marrying Bertinelli? Cohen asked him. "I've made a terrible mistake," Van Halen affirmed with a glum look. (Why the couple stayed together for decades afterward remains a mystery to the record-company man.)

The band's 1982 album, Diver Down, sold more than 4 million copies, but the band began to unravel. Eddie Van Halen and Roth reportedly clashed over their musical direction, with the latter preferring a more pop-oriented path. Their next work, 1984, sold even better, but that tour brought the band's creative forces to the brink.

As for Cohen, he became disenchanted with the business, and during a 1984 screening of seminal mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, decided once and for all to wash his hands of touring. (His decision was based on disgust over the antics of other groups he was simultaneously working with, like Roxy Music and Asia.)

Two months later, he says, he saw Eddie Van Halen "trashed and miserable" at the Palladium, and before long Roth had been booted from the band and replaced by Sammy Hagar.

After quitting his job at Warner, Cohen immersed himself in tech culture. He now helms local digital consulting firm TAG Strategic, which works with multinational entertainment companies.

Meanwhile, after a tumultuous relationship reportedly tarnished by substance abuse and infidelity, Van Halen and Bertinelli divorced in 2005. Cohen was not surprised to see Roth reinstated with the band a year later. "If Valerie had never appeared on the scene," he opines, "David would probably have never been kicked out in the first place."

That's not to say everything is now rosy in Van Halen, as they've been plagued by reports of infighting, with dozens of tour dates recently wiped from their schedule.

Yet Cohen remains nostalgic for his time with the group. Their appeal remains, he concludes, in their joyful, childlike approach to music. "I'm absolutely certain they still know how to have a really good time," he says. "It's in their blood."

A previous version of this story stated that Michael Anthony was the band's drummer, but he actually played bass.

Read outtakes from our interview: "The Time David Lee Roth Abandoned His Plymouth Valiant to Rot." 

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