the lost files

Our ‘Lost’ Weekend With Van Halen

A couple college dudes won an MTV contest to tour with Van Halen. Then all hell broke loose.

Their destination: Detroit. More accurately: oblivion. Photo: Mark Weiss
Their destination: Detroit. More accurately: oblivion. Photo: Mark Weiss

On an overcast morning in the spring of 1984, Kurt Jefferis and Tom Winnick, a couple of college-age bros of no particular renown, departed the world of normalcy in a stretch limousine to embark on a rock-and-roll fantasy. Their destination: Detroit. More accurately: oblivion. Jefferis, a 20-year-old department-store stock clerk, had bested more than a million other competitors to win the MTV contest “Lost Weekend With Van Halen.” He and his plus-one, Winnick, a childhood buddy, would in a matter of hours find themselves backstage with the legendarily hard-partying Atomic Punks on a two-day bender that ticked every box of rock debauchery synonymous with the Big Hair era. “You’ll have no idea where you are,” Van Halen’s vainglorious front man, David Lee Roth, said in a promo for the contest. “You’ll have no idea where you’re going and probably no memory of it after you go.”

That turned out to be partially true. As Jefferis and Winnick tell it now, nearly 40 years later, in the weeks following Hall of Fame guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen’s death, certain elements from the Weekend remain fixed points in their lives — the private jets, the Champagne and lobster, the cocaine, the onstage chugs of Jack Daniel’s, a woman named Tammy — while other details have been lost to the fog of time. The contest became something of Van Halen folklore in the intervening years; it was the subject of a short film, Lost Weekend, which screened in competition at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, as well as a dedicated chapter (subtitled “MTV and Van Halen Team Up to Nearly Kill a Super-Fan”) in the 2011 book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. The events surrounding the contest unfolded just as Van Halen was first ascending the heights of multiplatinum superstardom but only months before Roth would quit the quartet for a solo career. What took place in front of MTV’s cameras served as a primitive precursor to reality television: loosely scripted situational intrigue that wound up far beyond anyone’s control.

The contest represented another high-water mark for MTV. At the time, the network was still committed to its original billing of “music television,” and as an unrivaled cultural influencer, it was known for splashy fan contests like 1983’s “Police Party Plane” (in which the winner and 25 pals boarded a private jet to see the multiplatinum-selling rock trio perform) and “Paint the Mutha Pink” (the prize: ownership of a “party house” in John Cougar Mellencamp’s hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, with a garage full of Hawaiian Punch), along with a party for 400 people held in a Michigan teenager’s backyard to herald the release of Huey Lewis and the News’ 1983 album, Sports. But for all its confluence of celebrity, excess, saturation hype, and wish fulfillment, “Lost Weekend With Van Halen” was emblematic of a less invasive, more insidious time, before Instagram and TMZ, when the queasy, sometimes criminal sexual commerce between fans and rock stars went on largely unchecked and was valued and admired for the shock of it all; when a corporate giveaway could result in two friends from small-town Pennsylvania making good on an intention to party to the point of amnesia; and when rock was still young but old enough to know better. Jefferis and Winnick proved more than game to push their senses to the limit, and the network suits were more than happy to let them have at it absent the reams of restrictive liability waivers and hold-harmless agreements that would necessarily accompany such a contest victory today. “That it’s a part of MTV and rock-and-roll history is really unbelievable,” says Winnick. “People don’t party like that anymore. Can you imagine the release you’d have to sign? No lawyer would ever allow that to happen.”

In 1984, Van Halen was arguably the biggest thing in American hard rock. The four members had blazed their way from Pasadena backyard keggers to Hollywood, where the band became the sensation of the Sunset Strip, with Roth’s carnal come-ons riding a Brobdingnagian rhythm section (provided by bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen) and all of it blasted into the ether by Eddie Van Halen’s muscular, electrifying fretwork. The band was past the original lineup’s decade run by that point, and its onstage flamboyance grew to be matched only by its decadent backstage reputation. Van Halen wrote the arena-rocking, dressing-room-destroying, no-brown-M&M’s-tolerating, whiskey-and-strippers playbook for rock-and-roll misbehavior that would be followed by generations to come (and that bled into other genres) — most immediately by Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Guns N’ Roses. “Van Halen is one big lost weekend when it’s out on the road,” said Roth, while casually brandishing a samurai sword in a March 1984 interview with the Baltimore Sun. “It’s hard on road rookies, people who are new to the ways of the road [for Van Halen] … which is wild, let’s-enjoy-all-that-life-has-to-offer abandon. It’s always amazing to watch how long people last on the road when they come out with us.”

“How long do they usually last, Ed?” the front man asked his head of security, Ed Anderson. “Last?” Anderson exclaimed. “They usually burn out after four or five days.”

In support of its sixth album, 1984 which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, contains the No. 1 single “Jump,” and has since been certified with RIAA “diamond” status for selling more than 10 million copies — the band entered into a promotional partnership with MTV that obliquely lampooned director Billy Wilder’s 1945 alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend. The concept: to bring the Van Halen sense of abandon to the widest possible audience. “The idea was we’re not going to promise anything,” says Barbara Fleeman, MTV’s promotions manager at the time. “We’re not going to say what’s going to happen. The only thing we’re going to promise is that they’re going to have a good time.”

For Jefferis, a card-carrying member of the Van Halen fan club, it all started with a postcard. Well, eight postcards, technically. His opening snail-mail salvo joined more than a million other postcards that the VH faithful sent to Music Television from across the country in hopes of being picked at random as the grand-prize winner. In the aftermath of a “fluke injury” suffered during his first month of college, the Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, native found himself at home convalescing and watching a ton of MTV. “I don’t think I would have been paying that much attention to TV if I was still in school,” Jefferis says. “I mailed in eight the first time. And then a week before the deadline, I bought five more postcards. Lucky 13. When Barb Fleeman from MTV called, she said, ‘Wow, you really waited until the last minute.’ One of the five [from the second batch] was the winner.”

Almost as soon as MTV VJ Martha Quinn read his name on the air, the offers started rolling in: women willing to trade sexual favors for his extra ticket, thousands of dollars in cash, a motorcycle, a new wardrobe, a trip around the world. Jefferis opted not to take his girlfriend (“She said, ‘Are you going to take me?’ And I just laughed or something”), instead enlisting his best friend, Winnick, then 19. A lifelong pal and the son of one of Jefferis’s father’s childhood friends, Winnick was working in a gas station while attending Montgomery County Community College. Phoenixville buzzed with the media attention shining down on one of its own. Winnick’s mother, however, was unimpressed: “I wish they were spending the weekend with Perry Como instead,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

On April 5, 1984, the limo picked the two up at Jefferis’s home and dropped them at the Philadelphia International Airport, where a seven-seat Lear jet idled on the runway; the trip to Detroit would be Jefferis’s second time on a plane and Winnick’s first. “They were just really, really green,” recalls Mark Weiss, Van Halen’s longtime tour photographer, whom MTV had hired to take behind-the-scenes photos of the Lost Weekend. “They seemed like the perfect winners. A couple of college kids from Anytown, U.S.A. Like, right out of Happy Days — Potsie and Richie Cunningham.”

Jefferis and Winnick. Photo: Mark Weiss

Fleeman, for her part, had personally overseen every MTV contest promotion since the summer of 1983, but she recused herself from traveling to Detroit for the Weekend, instead sending a junior exec with no boots-on-the-ground experience, partially out of fear of Van Halen’s legendary party prowess but more out of concern that her presence would spoil the fun. “Not only was I afraid to go, it would have dampened the experience for everybody for a woman to be Kurt’s quote-unquote chaperone,” she says. “If I would have went, I would have had to be with him at all times — especially with the band. It would not have been appropriate for it to have been me or any other woman, as far as I was concerned.”

Awaiting them on the eighth floor of the Hotel Pontchartrain, soon to become hangover central, was a trail of Eddie Van Halen guitar picks leading to a room covered in backstage passes, Van Halen merch — satin jackets, headbands, and necklaces — and issues of Playboy and Penthouse Forum. Several hours into the contest and nearly 600 miles from home, Jefferis and Winnick were still little more than tourists. They spent the first hours of the trip shooting staged B-roll footage for MTV: getting out of a limo, going through a revolving door, and riding an escalator accompanied by a pair of professional models (who otherwise had zero interest in the prize winners). But all that changed once the friends were led through an alley door to the backstage area of Detroit’s Cobo Arena, the 12,000-seat sports coliseum where Van Halen was preparing for a two-night engagement. Amid the unglamorous environs of a cinder-block dressing room, the two met Eddie Van Halen. His then-wife, Valerie Bertinelli — a co-star of the hit sitcom One Day at a Time and one of America’s reigning sweethearts — offered the underage winners some booze: vodka and orange juice for Winnick, malt liquor with shots of Jack Daniel’s for Jefferis. “That was the starting line for the debauchery for sure,” Winnick remembers. “We were not without a drink for the rest of the time. [It was] ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ pretty much when we walked through the door.”

While meet and greets these days have come to function as fairly perfunctory backstage exercises — fans cycle through to pose for a snapshot with a superstar pop act, receive a quick handshake and then out they go — Jefferis and Winnick managed to log significant face time with one of rock’s most innovative six-string heroes. Eddie Van Halen loafed around backstage, casually plucking at his signature “Frankenstrat” guitar, cracking jokes, and sharing what would be the first of many drinks with the pair. As Winnick recalls the too-good-to-be-true scene, “Eddie Van Halen’s right in front of us, he’s got the cigarette stuck in the neck of the guitar, and he’s just messing around, playing a couple of riffs, hanging out.” Jefferis shares the disbelief: “It was just like seeing a friend of yours, like we were one of the guys.”

They didn’t meet the rest of the band until after the show, but they kept chugging beers and observed the sound check from a lighting platform inside the arena. Onstage that night, Van Halen barreled through a cavalcade of hits and deep cuts — “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Eruption,” the Roy Orbison cover “Pretty Woman,” “Hot for Teacher” — inducing the kind of controlled hysteria that had accompanied them from city to city for four months and nearly four dozen dates by that point in the tour. Toward the end of the performance (which was filmed to be included in the video for the hit single “Panama”), Jefferis was brought into the wings, dressed in a “Lost Weekend With Van Halen” T-shirt, and given a few chugs from a bottle of the band’s beloved Jack Daniel’s. After sharing a few tokes of a “fatty” with a roadie, he found himself shoved center stage, a deer in arena-size headlights.

“Detroit, you’re No. 1, and Kurt, you’re No. 1 too!” Roth exclaimed to a roar from the crowd. Roadies emerged with a boogie-board-shaped “Lost Weekend” sheet cake they presented to Jefferis by smashing it in his face before dousing him with a dozen bottles of Champagne. “It’s gonna be party city tonight,” the contest winner observed before the MTV cameras.

Jefferis. Photo: Mark Weiss

Backstage, escorted by two little people (identified as “Van Halen Security”) wearing sunglasses and white karate gis, the band serenaded Jefferis with the ’50s country ditty “Happy Trails” in what would be the last photo op of the night. As MTV’s cameras retreated, the rock-and-roll depravity began in earnest. “Can’t film the rest,” Eddie said, making a cutting motion across his throat. “Let’s go get drunk!” Roth shouted. In secure cloisters within the bowels of the coliseum, Jefferis and Winnick discovered a lavish spread that included lobster, filet mignon, and bowls of M&M’s from which all the brown candies had been removed per Van Halen’s notorious tour rider (any violation of which reliably resulted in trashed dressing rooms). There was also no shortage of young women — the “spandex queens,” as the group’s road crew called them. “The band wouldn’t normally do anything like this,” says Weiss, whose bestselling book The Decade That Rocked chronicles a Who’s Who of ‘80s rock royalty. “Usually, the only people let backstage were girls. It was rare that they would even let guys in. But it was a free-for-all that weekend. I think the band tried to make it seem more like a mainstream party with guys and girls for MTV.”

Roth regaled Jefferis and Winnick with stories about his love of flying and his recent mountain-climbing expedition. More fatties were passed around. At some point, a folded magazine page containing a pile of cocaine made its way onto the table. “[Roth] had a coke nail on his pinky finger and [took] a little scoop,” Winnick says. And did Roth’s pinkie make its way toward Jefferis’s nostril? “Yep.”

More bourbon. More beer. Vodka. Blue Nun. Schlitz Malt Liquor. More fatties. Over its years as a touring act, Van Halen had refined, down to a science, a system of recruiting potential sexual partners for the evening. Roadies were issued color-coded backstage passes that allowed band members to track which employees were responsible for a given night’s sexual conquest — or conquests — a kind of quality control that was rewarded with cash and/or gifts by Roth, Anthony, and the Van Halen brothers. As the backstage partying ground on, the singer made a fateful proclamation: “I think Kurt needs Tammy.” At the time, Tammy was one of the Motor City’s most infamous groupies and apparently had come to know Van Halen from previous visits. According to MTV executives and the contest winner, she performed a striptease to a few disco and funk songs before giving Jefferis a private audience. “She strips down for me. And then Dave tells her to take me in the shower for a while,” he remembers … but that’s about it.

What happened thereafter remains a matter of some uncertainty. In I Want My MTV, network executive Richard Schenkman remembers hiring an award-winning documentary crew to film the backstage proceedings, but they wound up getting kicked out of the inner sanctum as Tammy and Jefferis got to know each other. “I wasn’t allowed in, but I understand they rubbed egg salad all over her,” Schenkman says in the book. “I could hear him howling from where I was sitting.” Jefferis doesn’t remember the egg-salad incident, not to mention whether he actually cheated on his girlfriend. “I stood inches above the ground inhaling and imbibing mind- and mood-altering drugs and alcohol. That’s when I fought with the decision of whether I should go into the shower with her or not,” says Jefferis. So did he? That part he (conveniently) can’t remember either.

Unbeknownst to MTV, the “fluke injury” Jefferis had suffered prior to winning the contest was more severe than he had let on. After leaving a fraternity party at Pennsylvania’s West Chester University two years earlier, the then-freshman toppled over a dormitory railing and fell from the seventh floor to the sixth, landing on his head and suffering a traumatic brain injury. Jefferis rehabilitated in the hospital for three months, undergoing speech, physical, and occupational therapy. He was also diagnosed with diabetes insipidus consequent to the fall and had been taking anti-seizure medication three times a day — but he made no mention of any of it to Music Television executives before embarking on the Lost Weekend. “I had a clot on the brain,” Jefferis says. He calls the fall a “wasn’t-supposed-to-live kind of accident.”

Alcohol and drugs, needless to say, did not help things. “I probably remember more of what happened than the guy who won the contest,” bassist Michael Anthony says in I Want My MTV. “Because, boy, I’ll tell you, he jumped in full on. I guarantee he had a great time. I think he almost ended up in the hospital from drinking too much. He got laid. He drank. He did everything. He hung out with the band, but I think he got in much more trouble hanging out with our crew.”

“They had to scrape him off the floor a couple of times,” Weiss says. “So I know at some point they had to put a stop to it.”

After a certain period, by both winners’ accounts, Jefferis didn’t know when to say “when” anymore. Band handlers and network executives encouraged Winnick to help rein in his friend. “The way that the booze and drugs would culminate was just in kind of crazy shit — screaming and stuff like that,” Winnick says. “He didn’t trash a hotel room. But he wanted to go in and drink more and be out of control. There was obviously more than enough being enjoyed that evening; he didn’t didn’t know where to draw the line. But who the hell did know that at that age?”

Day two of the contest proved fairly anti-climactic. Roth scuttled a planned “wild limo ride” due to an unspecified yet lingering malaise. “An actual nurse came into his dressing room, and he had to get some kind of treatment,” Winnick remembers. “I don’t know if it was a bag of saline or what. I don’t think the guy was ready for prime time because of the previous night.”

Meanwhile, Jefferis was nursing a Monsters of Rock–size hangover himself. His partying stamina was tested during an encounter with Alex Van Halen prior to the second Cobo Arena show. “He takes two Schlitz Malt Liquor cans out of the fridge and hands me one and says, ‘You’ve got to open it to drink it,’” says Jefferis. “I said, ‘Dude, I’m hurting, man.’ Then I open it and he opens his and says, ‘Okay, go!’ He chugs the can down. I just took a sip. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Kurt, you are not going to leave that spot until you drink that beer.’ A roadie was guarding me.”

Jefferis waited until Van Halen was out of sight and poured the rest of the 16-ounce beer into a garbage can. “Then I crushed the can with my hand. When Alex came back he said, ‘Ah, I’ll let you go at your own pace.’”

Throughout the concert, Eddie Van Halen made funny faces at Jefferis from the stage and flicked dozens of guitar picks toward him at his designated spot in “the pit.” Afterward, the band continued to make Jefferis and Winnick feel like one of their own even as the magnitude of backstage buffoonery briefly dulled. (“I remember talking to Michael Anthony about doing some kind of investments,” Winnick says. “He was talking about investing in land in the Snake River Canyon in Colorado, putting in some casinos.”)

Winnick can’t recall the precise food item that started the “Lost Weekend With Van Halen” backstage swan song. He says he threw a fistful of cake, or maybe it was mashed potatoes, at Jefferis, spoiling his friend’s limited-edition Van Halen varsity jacket; Jefferis responded with his own volley of hurled food. But the outcome remains beyond dispute. When things on the catering table began to fly, the bandmates, contest winners, security guards, and hangers-on — even Valerie Bertinelli — all participated in a gigantic food fight that left the dressing room area littered with broken china, bottles, various salads, and guacamole. Laden with Van Halen swag but feeling not just a little bit worse for wear, the two friends returned home via jet the following day. Life pretty much went back to normal. While working at the department store, just days after returning from Detroit, Jefferis watched MTV footage of himself taking part in the contest — an “out of body experience,” he remembers. Now a facilities manager at a school not far from Phoenixville, he has remained “clean and sober” for over three decades but retains the right to boast — and possibly cringe — about his past.

“I felt larger than life for a while,” Jefferis says. “I mean, dude. I smoked a fatty with David Lee Roth.”

Our ‘Lost’ Weekend With Van Halen