By Ed Staskus
By 1984 many bands had strutted their stuff at the Palace on the Prairie in Richfield, Ohio. They included Led Zeppelin in 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in 1978, the Rolling Stones in 1981, and Queen in 1982. Frank Sinatra opened the Richfield Coliseum with a show in October 1974 and The Who’s Roger Daltrey gone solo closed the doors twenty years later.
“The crisscross of lights, mirroring the animation of 21,000 stylish people packed from floor to roof, transformed the gray amphitheater in the hills of Richfield Township into a huge first-night bouquet of green and blue,” is how The Cleveland Plain Dealer splashed ‘Ol Blue Eye’s show across its front page. I called him Slacksey because no matter what his slacks were always neatly pressed. In 1994 Roger Daltrey’s performance drew fewer than 5,000 fans. Nobody wrote a word about it or how he was dressed.
Over the years there were more than a hundred concerts at the Richfield Coliseum. Even Elvis and Bob Dylan got into the groove. The Bee Gees drove girls to screaming crying pleading in 1979.
Vann Halen opened for Black Sabbath in 1978 and came back as headliners in 1984. When they did, they had to sit on their hands waiting for ice to melt. Walt Disney’s “Magic Kingdom on Ice” had just left the building. When Van Halen came to town it was the one and only time I saw the band and the one and only time I went to a show at the Richfield Coliseum.
It wasn’t that I didn’t go to rock ‘n roll shows. It was that the few I went to were closer to home, like at the Allen Theatre, the Agora, and the Engineer’s Hall, where it was standing room only. Downtown was nearby but Richfield was a long drive for my long-suffering notoriously unreliable car. Besides, I was by necessity a Scrooge. First things came first, like food and shelter.
I saw The Doors at the Allen Theatre in 1970, The Clash at the Agora in 1979, and the Dead Kennedys at the Engineer’s Hall in 1983. The Dead Kennedys blew into town during a heat wave. The air conditioning at the Engineer’s Hall was non-existent and there were no windows. We all sweated up a storm and stayed through the encore. Six years later the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers sold their building. It was demolished and replaced by a posh hotel. The Kennedys never came back.
The Doors started their sold-out Friday night show in 1970 with ‘Roadhouse Blues’ ‘Break on Through’ and ‘Backdoor Man’. They did The Carter Family’s ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’. That was a surprise. They sounded better raw and live than on carefully managed vinyl. They were more than worth the five dollars for the orchestra seat ticket. Eli Radish, a local band, opened, and were fun funky, but all through their set everybody was antsy waiting for Jim Morrison.
“He worked the crowd with his staring sneers and sexy leather posing, witch doctor mumbling and general slouching about,” said Jim Brite, who was in the crowd. “The lighting and sound were dramatic. The band was great, with extended solos and workmanlike professionalism, delivering the music behind the Shaman. No one could take their eyes off Jim. It was one of the best concerts I saw, and I’ll never forget it.”
The Doors had been banned from performing in Cincinnati and Dayton the year before. They were kicked out of Miami for Jim Morrison’s obscene language and lewd behavior. None of it mattered to the 3,000 of us filling every seat.
“Jim Morrison swigged beer and smiled a lot between numbers,” Dick Wooten wrote in The Cleveland Press. “When he performs, he closes his eyes, cups his hand over his right ear, and clutches the mike. His voice is pleasant, but his style also involves shouts and screams that hammer your nervous system.”
When it was over, we whistled roared clapped until the house lights came on. We were disappointed there was no encore but what could we say. Everybody was getting to their feet when suddenly Jim Morrison came back on stage. “Somebody stole my leather jacket. Thanks a lot Cleveland!” He flipped us the finger. “Nobody leaves until I get it back!” The dirty look bikers at the front of the stage jogged to the back of the hall and blocked the doors. When I looked, Jim Morrison had left the stage, but then a minute later came back.
“Sorry, that was a mistake. I found it.”
He said the band wanted to play some more, but John Densmore’s hands were messed up. He was the group’s drummer. The beat couldn’t go on without the beat.
“The drummer was walking backstage and holding up his hands which seemed bloody in the creases of his fingers,” said Skip Heil, the drummer for Eli Radish. “I felt all warmed up since we played before them, so I said I’ll do it. I wasn’t sure of the songs, but I thought they were simple shuffles. Afterwards, Jim was accidentally locked in the old funky bathroom and one of the roadies came and said, ‘Stand back Jim.’ He proceeded to smash the door in to set him free.”
Jim Morrison died in Paris the next year and the doors shut forever on the band.
The Richfield Coliseum was an arena in Richfield Township in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Akron and Cleveland. It was built to be the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the local NBA team, although indoor soccer, indoor football, and hockey were played there, too. Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics said it was his favorite place to shoot hoops. He played his last pro game there. Muhammed Ali made ground beef out of Chuck Wepner there in 1975. Dave Jones, Ali’s nutritionist, was always trying to get the boxer to try soy burgers, but he had to have his red meat. There were rodeos and monster trucks. There were high wire acts and hallelujah choruses. The WWF Survivor Series came and went and came back.
I had a friend who had gotten tickets to see Van Halen. Two other friends of ours went with us but had to fork over $10.75 apiece for the privilege. My passage was on the house, since it was the night of my birthday. I didn’t know much about the band, except that they were no doubt about it flat out loud as all get out, but free is free and since I had free time I went.
The rock ‘n rollers were from Pasadena California. They were Eddie Van Halen on guitar, Eddie’s brother Alex Van Halen on drums, Michael Anthony on bass, and David Lee Roth belting it out up front. Michael Anthony sang back-up while keeping the low pitch going. “It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth Van Halen record that people would go, Wow! You’re singing backgrounds on those records. That’s not David Lee Roth,” he said. “And I go, Hell, no! That’s not David Lee Roth.”
Everybody said they were “restoring hard rock to the forefront of the music scene,” whatever that meant. I was listening to lots of Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker and the Balfa Brothers. The rock ‘n roll parade was largely passing me by.
Everybody also said Van Halen’s live shows were crazy energetic and Eddie Van Halen was a crazy virtuoso on the electric guitar. During the show he switched guitars right and left, but more-or-less stuck to a Stratocaster and a Kramer, except it wasn’t exactly a Stratocaster. Eddie Van Halen called it a Frankenstrat.
“I wanted a Fender vibrato and a Stratocaster body style with a humbucker in it, and it did not exist,” he said. “People looked at me like I was crazy when I said that’s what I want. Where could I go to have someone make me one? Well, no one would, so I built one myself.”
His homemade six-string was almost ten years old, made of odds and ends, a two-piece maple neck stuck onto a Stratocaster-style body. He used a chisel to gouge a hole in the body where he stuck a humbucking pickup out of a 1958 Gibson. He used black electrical tape to wrap up the loose ends and a can of red spray paint to get the look he wanted.
When he met Kramer Guitar boss Dennis Berardi in 1982 Eddie showed him his Frankenstrat. It was his prize possession. “We went up to his house and he got it out,” Dennis said. “It looked like something you’d throw in the garbage. But that was his famous guitar.”
Van Halen released their first LP in 1978. By 1982 they had released four more. When they came to Cleveland, they were one of the most successful rock acts of the day, if not the most successful. Their album “1984” sold 10 million copies and generated four hit singles. “Jump” jumped the charts to become a number one single.
When the lights went down and the stage lights went up, the band took their spots. Eddie Van Halen wore tiger striped camo pants and a matching open jacket over no shirt. He wore a white bandana, and his hair long. Michael Anthony wore a dark short-sleeved shirt and red pants. He wore his hair long, too. David Lee Roth wore a sleeveless vest, leather pants ripped and stitched in all ways, and hula hoop bracelets on his wrists. He wore his hair even longer. Alex Van Halen wore a headband, and it was all I could see of him behind his Wall of Drums. There were speakers galore stacked on top of each other on both sides of the drum set.
When they launched into “Running with the Devil” Michael Anthony ran across the stage and slid on his knees playing the opening notes. David Lee Roth was a wild man, swinging a sword around like Zorro and doing acrobatics like Kurt Thomas. He did kicks over Michael Anthony’s head and jumped over the drums while singing “Jump.”
In the middle of one song, he stopped singing. The band played on but slowly dropped out, one instrument at a time. “I say fuck the show, let’s all go across the street and get drunk,” David Lee Roth shouted into his handheld microphone. The crowd hooted hollered cheered, forgetting for a moment they were at the Palace on the Prairie and the closest bar was miles away. One of the best parts of the show was when Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony did a long bass and drum duet.
Eddie Van Halen did some good work on keyboards, doing the opener for “I’ll Wait” but did his best work on his guitars. He had a way of playing with two hands on the fretboard. He learned it from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. “I think I got the idea of tapping watching him do his “Heartbreaker” solo back in 1971. He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought wait a minute, open string and pull off? I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around? I just kind of took it and ran with it.”
He filed for and got a patent for a device that attaches to the back of an electric guitar. It allows the musician to employ the tapping technique by playing the guitar like a piano with the face upward instead of forward.
Most of us stayed in our seats during the show, only coming to our feet to applaud, but there was a crowd squished like sardines at the front of the stage, where they stayed from beginning to end. It was loud enough where we were up near the rafters. It had to be mind-blowing being at the jaw lip of the speakers.
By the time the show ended Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth had long since stripped off their shirts. It took a half hour to shuffle out of the arena, a half hour to find our car, and another half hour to inch the traffic jam the half mile to the highway. My hearing came back somewhere along I-271 on the way home.
After the show I went back to listening to the blues and zydeco accordion. I didn’t rush out to buy any records by Van Halen. My dog and neighbors would probably have complained about the noise.
Five years later, what seems to have happened after the excitement of being pushed into existence died down, one afternoon when her mom was in the kitchen and the cradle stopped rocking, Taylor Swift took a sneak peek at a film clip on MTV of the 1984 concert at the Richfield Coliseum. She almost flipped out of her manger. She made a vow then and there that she would do the sure thing. She wasn’t going to invite 20,000 fans to hit the bottle. There was barely enough for her.
The first thing she would do when she was ready and able to sing her way to stardom was head to Nashville. It would be a baby step, but she had her sights set. It was going to be the hillbilly highway all the way to my way. She was sure as shooting not going to strum a Frankenstrat or bust out any hard rock moves, with or without a sword, neither wearing a shirt nor shirtless.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”