By Daniel Sullivan
Special to the Outlook Valley Sun
The news this past week hit me like it did so many who grew up witnessing rock guitar greatness: Eddie Van Halen, one of the finest guitar players, had passed away.
For those of us living in La Cañada or Pasadena during the 1970s and ’80s, this was especially difficult to bear because Eddie was a local guy who went to public schools, then Pasadena City College where he and his band played back yard parties and small concerts before stepping into the world spotlight and the pantheon of rock gods.
This past week took me back to a time 45-50 years ago in my life, when roads would intersect and memories were made on tape as well as 35mm grainy black-and-white pictures.
I was born in Pasadena in 1956, and my family lived in La Cañada. Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex were born in Holland. His family came to the U.S. and settled into a working class neighborhood of Pasadena.
I attended Foothill Intermediate School (FIS) in La Cañada. I saw many talent shows and school assemblies in Lanterman Auditorium and would have my advancement ceremony in that same venue before moving on to La Cañada High School.
During these years, my neighbor Jeff Taylor and I would sit around in his room and listen to music. Jeff was always in a band with other guys from high school like Don Swanson, Byl Caruthers and older guys that I’d sit and watch practice in Jeff’s garage.
For the 8th grade talent show, my friend Jeff suggested he’d loan me a guitar and I could lip sync to Jimi Hemdrix’s “Purple Haze” on stage as a tribute. Being a 14-year-old kid, I was enthusiastic.
By the time I was in high school, Jeff’s band had evolved into a progressive rock band – in the vein of YES and ELP – named “Tales.” I was happy to hand out flyers for the parties and follow Jeff around, feeling important by associating with seniors while I was just a sophomore at LCHS.
After graduating in the class of 1975, I attended PCC. I soon came into contact with what appeared to be a rock-and-roll god wannabe, David Lee Roth, and we became friends. I met Alex and Eddie in the quad between classes, and soon after I was attending a show in Pasadena to take photos for my photography class.
I felt the need to promote these guys – they had such an intense talent, and Roth’s savvy showmanship was the precursor to what we all came to see on MTV and in concerts in the years that followed. These guys were the real deal and I believed I could put on better shows and help my friends, as well.
The first concert I planned would be in the only place I knew – La Cañada – which had a big, empty Lanterman Auditorium. I went to the school district office and asked how much it cost to rent the space for a concert, and was surprised they actually allowed me to have it. I was presented with a rental contract that asked that I not use the venue for a Communist takeover of the U.S. and I was surprised by the request but signed away. We were just a bunch of kids that loved rock and roll.
I was determined to help my friend’s band Tales break out to a wider audience, so I put them as top bill. But despite their great progressive rock, Van Halen stole the show and a piece of rock history had begun.
I put posters all over town, and had four or five businesses selling my tickets. The problem I figured was very few kids in La Cañada knew of Van Halen, so I organized a couple of free lunch time “teaser shows” to help sell tickets. The first was back at my alma mater and the school principal agreed Van Halen could play for 30 minutes of the lunch break.
I don’t believe there has ever been a lunchtime show quite like this. The band started playing only moments after the lunch bell rang. Most of the songs VH played back then were covers of Led Zeppelin, Black Oak Arkansas and so on. The area in front of the gym was packed. The kids were loving it.
As the last song was winding down, Van Halen drummer Alex pushed a series of buttons with his feet that set off flash pots of colored smoke and a series of old car horns, while David Lee Roth blew whistles to Eddie’s final guitar licks. It was a super effective and dirt cheap showmanship trick that added far more excitement to the last song that made it particularly memorable. The school had not been forewarned about the colorful smoke bomb polytechnics, and they weren’t thrilled about the fact most kids were begging for an encore and not eager to return to class.
A few days later, another free lunchtime promotional show took place at Glendale College, helping our tickets get sold out for Lanterman Auditorium at $2.50 each.
I can’t even remember hearing the first band (Wilbur Godsmile) play – kids were still taking their seats and I was super excited.
When Van Halen roared onto the stage, everyone instantly knew we were seeing something unique. They were true entertainers and incredible musicians that could play covers even better than the original artists.
The concert was a huge success. I feel it safe to say now – 45 years later – that Tales was paid a whopping $400. And Van Halen played this show for $250.
We went on to plan other shows in the months that followed, one at Glendale High School which got cancelled by the City [of Glendale] only days before the big night, presumably weary of rock bands messing up a high school auditorium. Another shortly after in March 1976 was set for the Montrose Theater but again there were complications and we couldn’t put the show on.
Eddie and Alex Van Halen with David Lee Roth as the front man would soon be signed to a record deal and embark on a career of multi-platinum albums, wonderfully creative music videos on a new network named MTV, and countless shows at sold-out arenas.
I was in London at the Rainbow Theater to see Eddie Van Halen and the boys from back home play on their first European tour and it was exciting to see how they made it, but still a sense remained of kids from ordinary backgrounds growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. These same kids were now playing for thousands of screaming fans that once played in La Cañada for a few hundred kids eating a brown bag lunch.
I remember how people would always say that nothing ever exciting happens in La Cañada. I’d say it’s a matter of perspective, interesting people are all around us, launching off into amazing life changing careers … and occasionally stardom.
So in this last week I’ve been fondly looking back. Fifty years ago I was an eighth grader lip syncing to Jimi Hendrix. And 45 years ago I helped launch a real rock guitar legend from the very same stage.
I can’t speak about his outstanding craft but I can say from meeting him what a humble and sweet, gentle soul Eddie Van Halen was. This is something you’ll hear over and over echoing amongst those that knew him best.
Rest in peace Eddie, and if heaven has a talent show, I’m sure you’ll put together one hell of a band.
Thank you for the good times.