Van Halen has been making music blog headlines in 2015 for mostly controversial reasons. Whether it’s the grumpy interview Eddie Van Halen gave to Billboard earlier this year or the reviews chastising David Lee Roth’s inconsistent performances at recent live shows, there have been plenty of reasons for diehard Van Halen fans to shake their heads in disapproval.
A new biography of the veteran rock act focuses on a time that long predates all of that drama. Van Halen Rising: How A Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, which hits bookshelves Oct. 13, is an exhaustively detailed account of Van Halen’s formative years (leading up to the moment when virgin ears first heard the car horns on “Running With The Devil,” from Van Halen’s self-titled 1978 debut album). Author Greg Renoff has a Ph.D. in American history, and his academic background shows in his deeply researched book.
Renoff steers the reader on a comprehensive voyage that starts with the Van Halen brothers’ Pasadena upbringing in a Dutch immigrant family. It moves through their teenage and early adult years, when they accepted David Lee Roth as their lead singer after rejecting him multiple times, and became the buzz of Pasadena backyard parties, Sunset Strip rock clubs and Inland Empire biker bars.
Below is an excerpt from the book — a detailed account of one of those early Pasadena backyard shows. The show marks the first time the Pasadena Police Department became aware of the young rockers, who would go on to release hits such as “Jump” and “Hot For Teacher.” Hopefully, Van Halen will resurrect the wild days of yesteryear when they perform at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 2 and Oct. 4. And if you want to geek out with the author and share some Van Halen stories of your own, Renoff will be signing copies of his book at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on Oct. 9 and at a Van Halen Rising launch party Oct. 10 at T-Boyle’s Tavern in Pasadena.
Jack Van Furche', the teenage son of a successful doctor, had just applied to become a member of a custom van club. “I was trying to get into the club at the time,” he remembers. “And they always gave everyone an initiation of some sort. And mine was, ‘Jack, you’ve got to throw a party for the club.’ They thought, Heh, his folks ain’t never gonna to let him throw a party at their place. I came to the next meeting a week later with my stepdad, and he said, ‘All right, let’s go! How many kegs are we ordering?’ . . . Two days later I was voted into the club.”
It’s no surprise that the club wanted Van Furche' to host a party. His parents’ residence was an English Tudor mansion nestled in the heart of San Marino, one of the most elite zip codes in the Golden State. “Jack’s house was huge. It was like a castle,” explains Debbie Hannaford Lorenz, who was dating Jack at the time. The backyard covered two-and-a-half acres, landscaped with terraces that sloped downward from the back of the house and bordered by mature trees. The lowest terrace levels featured tennis courts and a pool. In sum, it was a property tailor-made for a gigantic backyard party.
The next day, the phone rang at 1881 Las Lunas. Van Furche' says, “I called Eddie and said, ‘This gig’s for my van club. I’ve got to have a real good band. Can you be there?’” The two teens then met and came to an agreement. “We did everything on the back of a little business card that he signed and wrote everything down for me, and he goes, ‘Here it is. We’ll see you there!’” Years later, Edward explained to Rolling Stone, “We used to play backyard parties down in San Marino, the real rich part of Pasadena, where Roth lived. The parents were away for the weekend, the kids would have a party and hire us. We’d get a little Abbey Rents stage, cheap lights, and charge a buck.”
Meanwhile, Van Furche' and his club printed up hundreds of flyers and spread them everywhere.The handbill promised “Refreshments + Dancing,” along with music by Van Halen, all for two dollars.
By the day before the party, it was clear that the promotional campaign had worked well — perhaps too well. Van Furche' explains, “Back then there was KMET-FM radio, and on Fridays and Saturdays if anything was happening in town they’d always announce it over the radio. Somehow, one of my flyers had gotten over there, and over the air they said, ‘Hey, Van Halen’s playing this weekend on Arden and Oak Grove.’”
On the afternoon of March 9, preparations began at the Van Furche' residence. Down on the tennis courts, Van Halen tested its lighting rig and soundchecked on its rented stage. Back up at the house, a local liquor store delivered a dozen kegs. Van Furche' and his friends also worked up a plan to keep freeloaders from jumping the property’s walls. Reinforcements for this effort would come from members of the Vagos, an outlaw motorcycle club, who, after an invite from the van club, had added the party to their social calendar.
By dusk, it was clear that a significant percentage of the San Gabriel Valley’s young people had decided to attend. Lorenz recalls that from early in the evening “people were coming into the backyard saying how long it took them just to walk to the house.” When they told her which streets they’d parked on, she’d say, “That far away? You couldn’t even get any closer than that?” But once she glanced back up at the house, she better understood what was transpiring. Under the archway that led to the backyard, she remembers that people stood shoulder to shoulder as they struggled to enter the yard.
When the big yard had nearly filled up, Van Halen started to play. Lorenz recollects, “They were in the very back of the backyard. You could see them through the tennis court fence, so from everywhere you could see, because the backyard went higher and higher. They actually got to play for quite a long time. It was amazing.” Down on the courts, kids boogied. Karen Imler says, “I remember dancing at that party while Van Halen did the blues and some Led Zeppelin.”
By 9:30 p.m., the party was raging. Scores of kids milled around inside the home. The backyard was a sea of humanity. “I remember standing facing the house,” Lorenz says. “It’s packed like sardines in this whole backyard. It was solid people. There were thousands of people there. There were people into the front yard.”
Just then, the rhythmic whump of helicopter blades sounded. As everyone looked up, a three-and-half-million candlepower spotlight illuminated the yard.214 Chris Holmes, who later went on to platinum success with 1980s shock-rockers W.A.S.P., remembers, “This was a huge party. It got outta hand so the cops showed up and of course they brought the helicopter, which was shining a light down that lit up all the kids in the yard.” After the spotlight did nothing to scatter the crowd, the pilot began ordering people to disperse over the chopper’s loudspeakers.
Van Halen and the partygoers were having none of it. Edward and [early Van Halen bassist Mark Stone] turned their amps to ten while Roth cracked one-liners. “When the helicopter came over, the band just thought it was funny,” Lorenz says. Van Furche' adds, “The helicopter was flying overhead for about forty-five minutes with the spotlight, and Dave was hamming it up. From the start, he saw that light and he just used it by singing in it, because the light was right there on the stage — right there on the guys. There were instant spotlights.”
Meanwhile, dozens of San Marino police officers fought their way onto the property. Lorenz remembers that as the copter hovered, she and her friends stood in the middle of the yard with their backs to the house, watching Van Halen. “Then all of a sudden, a policeman taps me on the shoulder and I turn around and everything behind me was completely empty of people. I never even noticed that everyone behind me was gone! I didn’t have a clue.” Van Furche' observes, “It took the police over an hour to get through the crowd back into the tennis courts where the band was. They finally got stopped when a cop removed Roth’s microphone from under the spotlight.”
Lorenz, who was living in the house at the time, made her way into the residence and found some friends in Jack’s bedroom. With the lights off, Lorenz and the others looked out the window at the chaos in the long circular driveway and up on the street. “Everyone was pissed off at the police for ending such a wonderful night,” she remembers. Out in the yard, partygoers hurled rocks and bottles at the police.215 Janice Pirre Francis, who later helped promoters put on Van Halen shows, saw kids on nearby streets “turning over trash cans, lighting them on fire, and destroying property.”
Closer to the house, a mob of kids had set upon a police cruiser. “You know how you can rock a car back and forth to get it to flip over?” Lorenz says. “I watched it happen. We were up in Jack’s room looking out the window and sure enough they’d flipped over a police car in front of the house.”
In the days that followed, partygoers spun tales about the night in high school hallways. An account of the event even hit the local paper. The San Marino Tribune reported this “van gathering” had backed up traffic for miles and “a disturbance,” punctuated by thrown projectiles, had broken out around eleven o’clock.
The Van Halen brothers still remembered this party twenty-five years later. In an interview, Alex recalled that “four cop cars got turned over” that night. Edward said, “I’ll never forget we played a backyard party once. It was written up in the paper. Nineteen people got busted and stuff. I’ll never forget a group of guys took one cop and they took his handcuffs and they handcuffed him around a tree with his own handcuffs!”
By the same token, San Gabriel Valley police forces weren’t going to forget either. Along with the tumultuous city hall concert, the Van Furche' party made clear that when it came to dealing with Van Halen and its fans, it was time to take the gloves off. Francis observes that the Van Furche' party was the one most responsible for giving “backyard parties and ‘keggers’ such a bad name” among authority figures. Still, the members of Van Halen saw it as business as usual, just on a larger scale. “Wild teenagers?” Edward remarked. “Yeah . . . that was our audience.”
Excerpted from Van Halen Rising: How A Southern California Backyard Party
Band Saved Heavy Metal by Greg Renoff.
© 2015 by Greg Renoff. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd.