While Van Halen is considered one of the most influential and popular hard-rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s, they got their start in a particularly unglamorous and very Dazed and Confused manner: playing massive, raucous backyard parties in Southern California. This excerpt, from Greg Renoff’s fascinating (even for non-VH fans) Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, a book almost anthropological in its level of detail, finds the band gigging at one of the aforementioned parties. Until, that is, things start to get out of hand.
On Saturday, Van Halen moved their equipment outside and ran through their set. Jeff Touchie, who’d spent much of the week at the house, remembers, “We just hung out in the back and they played. Even though I had seen them a million times, it was always good. Back then, you never got tired of Van Halen, because Edward was amazing; he’d just sit down and do some riffs. And Alex could just go on the drums. They’d play a song, take a break, and joke around. They’d get ready to start something and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ And they’d do a little jam. It was always entertaining. We’d just drink beers and shoot the shit. It was laid back and kicked back.”
Meanwhile, all across Los Angeles, hundreds of young people got ready. They checked their stashes and chilled their beer. They called friends, passed the word, and made plans to caravan over to Pasadena. They’d be coming from San Gabriel Valley communities like Duarte, Flintridge, La Cañada, and West Covina. Even San Fernando Valley teens from Glendale and Calabasas would be making the long trip to the corner of Huntington and Madre. Leiren explained that for kids looking to get loose, a Van Halen gig would be the place to be that night. “Anytime you wanted to find anybody, you’d go to the Van Halen backyard parties.”
While it seemed that nearly every young person in Pasadena knew of the party, even those who’d not gotten the word knew how to find out about the evening’s action. Marcia Maxwell says, “There was a certain liquor store, Allen Villa Beverage, on Allen Street and Villa. That’s not too far away from where the Van Halens lived. People would tell the owner, Larry, ‘I’m having a party. Here’s my address,’ so everyone knew to go there to give and get information. We’d go there faithfully every weekend. All the gals would get all dressed up, we’d drive over there, and we’d come in and say, ‘Where’s the party?’ And off we’d go! There was usually a party every weekend. If it wasn’t Van Halen it was some other band. There was a lot of partying going on.”
Around seven, Van Halen hopped onstage and tuned up. Roth joked with his bandmates as he looked out upon the big backyard, which was already swarming with hundreds of kids. From the gate at the back corner of the property, young people stampeded into the yard and jockeyed for position in front of the stage. Despite Denis’s efforts to make everyone pay, some Chapman Woods locals, who knew their way through the brushy terrain behind the house, snuck into the backyard. Others attempted to vault Denis’s Huntington Drive fence or slip in through the front yard, only to be turned back by the host’s friends who guarded the property’s perimeter.
Onstage, Roth looked back at Alex one last time before grinning broadly at the crowd. He raised his arm, put the microphone to his lips, and screamed. Just then, Roth fired off the band’s pyrotechnic flash pots, sending black clouds ascending skyward. He noted in his autobiography, “Put a little gunpowder in the tins, and then when you hit the foot switch, it sparks it off and you get a great big colorful ‘fooomm!’ — a smoke bomb.” All the while, Edward played a blazing solo as an introduction to the band’s high-powered set opener. Van Halen’s senses-shattering assault had begun.
Around the stage, kids gathered and jammed to the music, but right up front, clutches of girls had their eyes glued to Roth. Debbie recalls, “Roth would wear low-cut tight bell-bottoms. He had this nice hairy chest. He liked flashy stuff. A lot of times he’d just wear no shirt and some flowing scarf. He had this gorgeous flowing long blond hair.” Roth’s appearance and persona had a particularly strong effect on her sister, Karen, who had a massive crush on Van Halen’s frontman. “He wore these hip hugger pants,” she recalls. “He was very sexy.”
Out in the streets, cars jockeyed for parking spaces and kids on foot moved with purpose towards the Imlers’ house, knowing that once Van Halen began playing, there was no saying how long the party would last. Debbie Hannaford Lorenz says that when she hears a Van Halen song today, she is transported back to those moments right after arriving at a backyard party. “I have that memory of walking down the street with all the cars and the music just echoing everywhere, and you know it’s a Van Halen party. It was such an exciting, electrical feeling. You were so excited to get to go. I loved it. I loved that sensation that you’d get through your whole body.”
Neighborhood residents felt sensations too — their windows rattled and cars cruised by their houses, honking their horns and burning rubber. Karen Imler says, “It was crazy. Huntington Drive turned into and sounded like a drag strip.”
By 7:30, frustrated residents began calling the police. Touchie explains that the Imlers “lived right on the border between Temple City and Pasadena. Chapman Woods was unincorporated, so sometimes the Pasadena police would show up and sometimes the sheriffs would show up.” For whatever reason, on this night the law enforcement response would come from the sheriff’s department station in Temple City.
In the meantime, the party was raging. Van Halen played everything from funky numbers by James Brown and the Rolling Stones to skull-crushers by Humble Pie and Montrose, with a few originals to boot. Roth and Edward fed off the crowd’s energy while standing under the spotlight, which shone down from the pool house roof courtesy of Edward and Alex’s old friend Ross Velasco. As Roth wrote in Crazy from the Heat, “We had rented a Trooperette spotlight . . . We’d put it on top of the work shed, which is on the other side of the swimming pool, and shine it down on us. You’d open it up wide enough that you’ve got the whole band until there was some singing or solo . . . then you would make the spot smaller so you could bring some focus to the proceedings.”
Under the beam of light, the packed crowd surged, with the most wasted kids held upright by the press of the crowd. Around the pool, partygoers pushed each other into the water and ran around on the patio, laughing uproariously. Wet T-shirts abounded, according to Touchie: “People were throwing each other in. Girls were running around half naked and drunk and jumping in the pool!”
Suddenly, people standing at stage right scattered as plate glass splintered. Dana Anderson explains, “I vividly remember the party on Madre and Huntington. I dropped PCP that night, so I was bouncing off the walls. I don’t remember a whole lot except walking through a plate-glass door that was right [alongside] where the band was playing in the backyard. I walked right through it barefoot. And not a scratch on me! I didn’t even remember. People had to tell me, ‘You broke the door, man!’”
Things were just as wild inside the house, which, despite Denis’s efforts, was full of people. Marcia Maxwell says that at Van Halen backyard parties there’d be “lots of drunkenness, a lot of fun, a lot of drugs in the house. There’d be lots of quaaludes, mescaline, mushrooms, and peyote. Cocaine — people would be wearing their spoons and their razor blades around their necks. It was so tacky. People would wear a coke spoon around their neck as a status symbol.”
At the gate, Denis and his friends crammed currency into their pockets as a huge crowd waited to get into the party. Denis would occasionally pause, pointing and gesturing at his friends to grab kids trying to sneak into the backyard. Also hanging around were kids who didn’t want to pay but couldn’t be bothered to jump the fence. They just stood along the fence line and listened to Van Halen.
Even though Denis was making money hand over fist, a serious problem was developing. Debbie observes, “Huntington Drive is a huge, wide boulevard, and the gate keepers couldn’t get the kids in the yard fast enough. The crowd spilled onto Huntington, which has a speed limit of forty-five miles per hour.” Before long, three lanes of traffic were blocked, and horns blared as drivers attempted to snake their way through the groups of kids on the blacktop.
With traffic backing up, Denis yelled to his friends to stop collecting money. “We just started shoving people into the yard without taking money just to get them off Huntington,” Debbie says. “The kids were coming by the hundreds, and we could not get them in fast enough.”
Sometime after 8:00, the Temple City sheriff’s deputies paid their first visit. Denis Imler recalls, “The party had only lasted an hour before the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department responded.” According to the Pasadena Star-News, the deputies located Denis at the gate and warned him to “tone things down” or the party would end. Denis promised that he’d do just that as he continued to herd people into the yard. As the crowd thinned on Huntington Drive, the deputies returned to their cars and drove off.
But after their departure, urgent calls kept coming into the department’s switchboard. There were so many cars in the neighborhood that for the first time in history, there was L.A.-style bumper-to-bumper traffic right on Madre Street. Kids wandered everywhere in Chapman Woods. They pissed in bushes. They parked on people’s lawns. Broken glass and trash littered the street. And the noise! It sounded like an air raid was underway. Unworldly screams and piercing squeals echoed throughout the neighborhood, and the stadium-style cheering hadn’t ceased. One resident even swore she’d heard explosions. Deputies’ radios crackled to life with orders for all available units to converge on the corner of Huntington and Madre.
Once again, deputies rolled up. One quick look at the scene made it clear to the unit commander that Denis Imler had done little to “tone down” the party; in fact, the number of people on the property had about doubled in the last hour. Denis remembers, “They found me and said, ‘The neighbors won’t tolerate this. We’re shutting this down.’ The party was so big it was stopping traffic on Huntington Drive. They told me I was hosting an ‘unlawful assembly.’” As the conversation continued between Denis and the ranking officer, other deputies ordered everyone in earshot to go home. Now.
Denis, who was the son of a Los Angeles sheriff’s department commander, knew that the deputies now meant business and that the party had to end. He made his way through the crowd and went to the stage. This was a feat in and of itself. “It was like Woodstock,” Touchie says. “You’d look over and just see this mass of people in front of the stage. To maneuver through and get up there to the stage was next to impossible. It was just a wall of people.”
After yelling and waving, Denis caught Roth’s eye. Van Halen played on as Roth pranced over to the party’s host. Roth leaned down as Denis yelled, “They’re going to shut it down! You guys need to stop playing!” Denis waited for Roth to stop the song, but the Van Halen frontman just kept singing and dancing. “He ignored me, and they kept playing. Roth had control of the whole thing; he egged the crowd on.” A frustrated Denis decided to take matters into his own hands. As he headed through the broken sliding glass door, he glanced up at the sky. A police helicopter was approaching.
Denis found Debbie and told her the party was over. She recalls, “So Denis came running in the house and disconnected the electricity to the stage.” Denis then headed into the yard to assure the deputies that the party was ending.
In through the back door bounded a sweaty, wide-eyed Alex Van Halen. He yelled to Debbie and everyone within earshot, “Who keeps pulling the electricity?”
“Denis did,” Debbie informed him.
He plugged the band back in, returned to his kit, and Van Halen resumed playing. Debbie says then “this happened again, back and forth between Denis and Alex.”
Around this time, an instigator out on Huntington Drive killed any chance for a peaceful end to the party. Denis says, “Eventually, when the police ordered people to disperse, someone threw a beer bottle that hit a patrol car.” Debbie adds, “There were bottles thrown at the police cars parked on Huntington Drive. I can’t remember who did it, but I remember he was just a real troublemaker. He broke windows and a windshield.”
The Star-News reported that this first flurry of projectiles triggered a number of copycats. Deputies “were met with a barrage of rocks and bottles” as they congregated around the property. Touchie saw kids hurling projectiles from the backyard over the fence and onto Huntington Drive. “There were fifteen to twenty cop cars on the Huntington Drive side of the property,” he says. These rowdies “jacked up about six cop cars.” What had begun as a Van Halen backyard party had now become a full-scale riot with a Van Halen soundtrack.
As deputies on the scene retreated, backup units saddled up in Temple City. Tense calls came over the radio about the “unlawful assembly” in Chapman Woods. Deputies gathered up their riot gear, angered that their comrades were under attack. But perhaps all this was inevitable. Van Halen backyard parties had been getting bigger and more disorderly over the past months; it was only a matter of time before one of them turned into a riot. No matter. The officers were well trained, and had a whole range of crowd control methods they could employ. Truth be told, the whole department had run out of patience when it came to Van Halen backyard parties.