Mean Streets: A Van Halen Tour of the Sunset Strip
A few months ago, I, your intrepid reporter, camera in hand, delivered a tour of AC/DC-related locations in my adopted hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne is a beautiful city – it reminds many Americans of the best bits of San Francisco or Portland – and it’s utterly swelling with Oz rock history. It was a really fun article to write, and to reflect on a very, very famous band and its physical connection to a location that I find myself surrounded by every day.
But it’s not every day that I find myself in Los Angeles. That happens once a year for the NAMM Show. I recently took the opportunity to hang out in L.A. for a few days and check out a few Van Halen historical sites.
The first stop for any self-respecting Van Halenite is the Whisky A Go Go. This legendary nightclub literally gave birth to the go-go dancing craze, and it was here that the career of The Doors really took off – they were the Whisky’s house band for a while. The Whisky is one of several venues where Van Halen would play mostly covers, with the occasional original thrown in, and you can hear the influence of this period on the band’s later music in the form of tracks like “You Really Got Me” and “You’re No Good,” as well as about half of the Diver Down album. The Whisky was revisited by the band in its Sammy Hagar-led incarnation in March 1993, their first performance there in 15 years. This gig was immortalized in the form of a live video for the song “Dreams” to promote the band’s only official live album to date, Live: Right Here, Right Now, released a month earlier.
The most recent Sunset Strip venue to feature in Van Halen history is the Roxy Theater. Known as the location for much (but not all) of Frank Zappa’s Roxy & Elsewhere album, the Roxy was opened in 1973 and was the location where comedian Paul Reubens first introduced his Pee Wee Herman character. It’s also the site of live albums by Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, NOFX, Warren Zevon and more. Van Halen used the venue in late 2011 to film the video for their new single “Tattoo,” and, according to the Roxy’s blog, the band loved the venue so much that they stayed on to rehearse for their forthcoming tour.
Some of the more prominent Van Halen-related Sunset Strip landmarks aren’t there anymore. The Starwood was on the northwest corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Crescent Heights Avenue. It opened in 1972 and closed down in 1981. In the nine years in between, it hosted bands such as Black Flag, The Go-Go’s, The Knack, FEAR, Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, The Runaways, The Ramones, AC/DC, Dokken, The Jam and many more. It was here that Van Halen ultimately became stars, when producer Ted Templeman and Warner Bros. executive Mo Ostin caught a Van Halen set and promptly signed them to the label.
Another legendary VH venue that no longer exists is/was Gazzarri’s. As anyone who has seen The Decline of Western Civilization 2: The Metal Years will know, this club was famous for its glam metal nights in the ’80s, as well as Van Halen’s residencies there in the late ’70s. Van Halen first played here in the mid-’70s, and David Lee Roth recounts many colorful encounters with charismatic owner Bill Gazzarri in his autobiography Crazy From the Heat. Gazzarri passed away in 1991 and the club closed its doors in 1993. A year later, the building was damaged in the Northridge earthquake, and was rebuilt as Billboard Live, which became the Key Club in 1998.
Though not particularly a part of Van Halen folklore, any tour of the Sunset Strip must include the Rainbow Bar & Grill. Found right next door to the Roxy, the Rainbow is where Joe DiMaggio met Marilyn Monroe in 1952, it’s the regular haunt of Lemmy from Motörhead, and virtually every Behind the Music includes an anecdote that begins with, “So I was drinking at the Rainbow one night and…” One particularly interesting external feature is the array of band names carved into the bricks with a nail by a Sunset Strip native named Rich Legg. According to this AENONFIRE article, Legg has the Rainbow’s permission to carve the names and logos, and some of the bricks are particularly well executed, including the Alice in Chains and Judas Priest logos. And of course Van Halen is there, stretched across two bricks – most bands only get one.
So after my little Sunset Strip visit, I turned and headed back towards my hotel, bidding a temporary farewell (I’m sure I’ll be back before I return to Australia in a few weeks) to the Van Halenized patches of the Sunset Strip. But as I looked back up the hill towards Sunset, one last site caught my eye. Black, white and red color combination, stripes… could it be…?