How would you react if you were suddenly face-to-face with one of your idols? I hope you'd be more prepared than I was on that day in 1984.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Van Halen’s debut album in 1978. The front cover introduced Eddie and his Frankenstein Fender Strat, David "Diamond Dave" Lee Roth with his mic and hairy chest, and Alex Van Halen & Michael Anthony, practically blurred out. I found the album in a stack of promo records at my friend Bill Jr.'s house.
Bill Jr. was the child of a wealthy socialite family. He liked me because I was slightly older and knew all about hard rock bands – he was still into the Bay City Rollers. I was fond of Bill but loved his older sister Nicola who possessed even worse taste in music than her brother – all weepy singer-songwriters, so I could not figure out who owned that heavy Van Halen record. No one wanted it, and lovely Nicola let me take it home. As soon as I heard their version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and its intro "Eruption," Eddie's solo shredding masterpiece, I was hooked.
For the next six years, Van Halen provided my summer soundtracks. Back then, when other kids went to sleep-away camp, I participated in a bicycling program that took me all through New England, parts of Canada, as well as Northern California and Oregon. We rode all day, ate outdoors, and slept in campgrounds. On occasion, the group would have a layover at a facility that also accommodated RVs, and those places had luxuries like laundry machines, pay showers with hot water, a snack bar and rec hall complete with a jukebox! Electronic entertainment was rare on the road, so a bit of television, a movie, or some current music was a treat.
Depending on the region, there might be a lot more Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox than New York Dolls and Ramones, but Van Halen was universal. I played "Dance the Night Away" (Van Halen II, 1979) during my trip to Vermont, "And the Cradle Will Rock" (Women and Children First, 1980) in Quebec, "Unchained" (Fair Warning, 1981) in Oregon, and multiple cuts off Diver Down (1982) in New Hampshire. With so many kick-ass tracks including "Where Have all the Good Times Gone," "Cathedral," "Little Guitars," "Dancing in the Street," and "(Oh) Pretty Woman," I consider Diver Down as Van Halen’s finest record.
In 1984, Van Halen released 1984, and it turned out to be their last album with Roth. "Jump" and "Hot for Teacher" were mainstream smash hits, as well as popular videos on the nascent MTV channel. We didn't have MTV at my house, but I watched hours of it at my after-school job as a houseboy for a magazine publisher. In addition to walking dogs and running errands, I also worked his events which were attended by many famous people of the day. Manhattan society parties prided themselves on a variety of guests, so it was not unusual to see Andy Warhol, a porn star, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer all crowding around the sushi bar. It was no big deal. Bill Jr.'s parents had equally star-studded parties at their mansion and I followed his example by remaining calm, cool, and collected.
Due to circumstances beyond our control, my family moved from one of Manhattan’s ritziest zip codes to the edge of Hell's Kitchen, from my own suite on the 12th floor overlooking Park Avenue to living directly above an all-night diner and sleeping on the living room floor. I stuck out in the rough neighborhood with my private school uniform as I dodged sleeping drunks, assorted tough-guys, panhandlers, and the johns who skulked to the bordello over on 10th Avenue at all hours.
One August day in 1984, I was walking our fancy Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a young couple appeared accompanied by a man in a suit walking slightly behind them. They had matching blow-out 80's hairdos. The woman noticed my dog and squatted down, "Awww, what's your dog's name?" People always wanted to pet her, and it got a little annoying after a while – especially when they talked to the dog as if it were walking me, but this lady was so sweet, pretty, and familiar. "Amy," I answered nonchalantly. Then, I looked up and saw the smile. "Hi," he said through a puff of smoke. My brain was straining to place these faces. I had seen them a thousand times on TV, but I could not process their features fast enough. By the time I was done being flummoxed, it was over. I stood paralyzed as Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli (aka Barbara Cooper, America’s sweetheart from One Day at a Time) walked away down 57th street ̶ likely towards one of the studios that were in that area. It was like starting the best dream of your life just to be robbed of it by the cruel alarm clock of reality.
“Was that really them?” I second-guessed myself, “It was! I can’t believe I was standing right next to Eddie Van Halen and Valerie and I didn't say anything, not a single word except my dog's name! I don't think I even said "hi" back to Eddie. What an idiot!" For the first time in my life, I was overwhelmed by celebrity.
I always regretted not being more engaging and quicker on my feet, but I was 18 and in a bad state. There was a fasting craze going through my school, and all I ingested for a few days was black coffee and clove cigarettes. On top of that, my high school girlfriend broke up with me preemptively in preparation for SUNY New Paltz. And then there was our shitty new apartment in a dingy tenement building. I don’t know what I could have said to Eddie anyway. In my depressed mood, I might have begged him never to break up with my boy-crush Diamond Dave ̶ there were rumors of personality clashes and beefs over the use of keyboards. But they did break up soon after, and my childhood came crashing to an end: the original Van Halen disbanded, high school was over, my girlfriend was moving on, and I was getting too old for camp.
When Van Halen reunited with Roth for a tour a few years ago, I was there. I never got a chance to see them live, but despite the passage of thirty years, Eddie played seamlessly while smiling his way through the show. It's amazing how distant summer days came flooding back on that humid night at Jones Beach amphitheater. As an older Dave Lee sang each song, I was suddenly transported to 1978 and hanging out with Bill Jr., since deceased, awaiting each new Van Halen record, cycling around America carefree, and running into Eddie and Valerie. I told my concert mate the story, savoring it in retrospect. "You saw Valerie BER-TIN-ELLI up close, did you freak out?!" Clearly, my friend Ken would have made a complete idiot of himself as he drooled all over lovely Valerie.
I always wonder how I would react if I had it to do over again. Anything I can think of is so trite. The memory now is almost better because so little happened. Instead of regretting an embarrassing statement, question or action, I can just appreciate how nice that Hollywood couple was to a random dog and star-struck teen on the streets of New York City. It was great to share one quick unforgettable moment with them.