Dee Dee Keel Remembers Young, ‘Humble’ Eddie Van Halen: Interview
Dee Dee Keel had a front-row seat for Van Halen's rise to the top. She started working at the Whisky a Go Go in 1971 as secretary to Elmer Valentine, who not only owned the famous Sunset Strip club but had also co-founded the nearby Roxy and Rainbow Bar & Grill. Within a couple of years, she went from answering phones to helping plan the careers of some of the biggest artists in music history.
Keel is now in the middle of writing her memoir about the endless rock 'n' roll nights she spent on the Sunset Strip. But following the death of guitar god Eddie Van Halen, she stopped to reflect on what it was like to be there in Van Halen's early days. She knew them from the beginning, and, as she explains to UCR, as much as she loved them all, there was something special about Eddie.
It's hard to imagine working at the Whisky a Go-Go in the early '70s.
It was incredible, and Elmer Valentine was really an amazing guy to work for. Once I earned his trust, I became like his contact with the outside world. I started getting involved with booking bands and even helping to manage the careers of certain artists. That was all thanks to the faith and confidence that Elmer put in me. But that was just how he was. When he trusted you, he gave you lots of responsibility.
And you heard about a band playing on the Strip in a club called Gazzarri's.
I did. They were called Van Halen. Gazzarri's [was] the exact opposite of the Whisky. They wanted Top 40 cover bands, and that's how they did their business for the most part. It was a good club; it was just different. One day a guy named Marshall Berle came into the Whisky. He was really down on his luck. He was the nephew of the famous comedian Milton Berle, and he needed a break. To Elmer's credit, he sensed something in Marshall and he gave him a shot. He put the two of us together to go round up local bands that we felt would do well at the Whisky.
Marshall and I had both heard about Van Halen and knew we had to steal them away from Gazzarri's. They had been playing over there for a year or two, and there was a real buzz about them. The Whisky had a reputation for being able to get what it wanted. A few years before, Elmer got the Doors to stop playing at the London Fog and take up residency at the Whisky. Elmer had the money to do that. What I learned right away after meeting Eddie backstage after one of their shows at Gazzarri's was that it wasn't just about the money. Honestly, he didn't seem to care about the money at all. The one thing that was burning on Eddie's mind was [that] he wanted to stop playing covers and start playing originals. He looked me in the eye and said, "Would we be able to do that at the Whisky?" I told him he absolutely could. He flashed that big, soon-to-be-famous grin, and within a week or two Van Halen started playing at the Whisky.
What was it like when they first started? Did they bring a lot of fans over from Gazzarri's?
Not as many as you would think. I think Gazzarri's patrons really liked the Top 40 stuff. What Van Halen was doing at the Whisky, songs that wound up on the first album eventually, really didn't fit what a lot of their existing fans had been excited about. In fact, to make up for the initial small crowds, myself and other girls at the Whisky acted like fans, screaming up front, asking for autographs and basically being like cheerleaders to get other people excited. I think it helped. But obviously once the word got around town about what was happening at the Whisky in terms of this new music, the place was full pretty fast. Eddie would always say to me when I saw him backstage, "This is great! I don't want to go back to playing at 'The Pit.'" That's what he always called Gazzarri's.
How involved did you get in helping them get ready for success?
Very. Marshall and I basically acted like their de facto management team. Marshall was contacting record companies, because the Whisky had great relationships with everybody. We gave him a lot of credibility, and so when he reached out to Warner Bros., it wasn't hard to get Ted Templeman's attention. But that wouldn't happen for a little while. Initially, we were really just grooming the band. They used to use my office kind of like their clubhouse. They had no place else to hangout. So all the band members were constantly in there. I would help make all of their original posters for their performances at the Whisky along with other things. We were basically mapping out what they wanted to be when they grew up.
One thing we did a lot with Eddie was to coach him for all of the interviews we knew he was going to have to do. He was very simple and basic. He didn't like public speaking. But we knew he would soon be talking to record-company executives and rock journalists. So we would do mock interviews over and over and over, and then play back answers for him so he could understand the right way to respond. Eddie's personality never really changed. He was the same guy onstage as he was off. That smile was real. But Dave [Lee Roth] was different. Before a show at the Whisky, Dave would say to me as he headed into the dressing room, "Well, I'm going to go turn into a butterfly now." Like, he was aware that he was playing a character, but Eddie was always the same.
How long did it take them to grow out of the club scene?
Not really that long. They started at the Whisky in late 1976, and on New Year's Eve that year, we got them a gig at the Santa Monica Civic opening for Flo and Eddie. That proved to the band that we could make things happen for them. I think Ted Templeman went to see them play at the Starwood just a few months after that, and within a day or two, I believe Mo Ostin signed them to a contract with Warner Bros. Everything blew up for them quickly, but we still stayed involved as part of their team. Something else that happened around that time was a young guy came to the Whisky one day looking for a job. He told me he's gone to school for lighting, and we didn't have any jobs like that but I liked him a lot. He was very professional and ambitious. So I hired him as a doorman. One night my lighting guy didn't show up for a show. I forget who was playing, but I said to the kid at the door, Can you come out and do lights tonight? Well, he did, and he was terrific. His name is Pete Angeles, and soon Van Halen would tap him to go on the road as their lighting director. He came to me sheepishly and said, "Dee, is it okay if I go on the road with these guys?" I told him of course it was.
Pete went on to become one of the most famous lighting and production guys in the business and also directed some of the most famous music videos of all time. The band would eventually refer to him as the fifth member of Van Halen after he influenced not just the show but the albums covers, merchandise and everything else. And it all started because I saw something in him and brought him in as a doorman. I'm still very proud of that.
Did the band change once they got signed?
Not as far as I was concerned. I'll never forget the day they brought in the first promo pressing of the record. It was on red vinyl and featured Elmer Fudd on the label. They absolutely hated it. In fact, they threw in the garbage after showing it to me. They hated the logo, they hated the packaging, they hated everything. I fished it out and had them sign it, and I still treasure it today. I knew they would figure that part of it out quickly. That was just a packaging issue. The album sounded great. But you could feel things changing. In the summer of 1978, Aerosmith was playing at the Starwood under the alias Dr. J. Jones and the Interns. The guys really wanted to go to the show, and so I brought them. We were in the parking lot getting ready to go inside and they got mobbed. We literally couldn't move from the crush of fans going crazy. You could just feel what was happening with these guys. They were blowing up right before our eyes.
A month or so later Van Halen played Anaheim Stadium, and we arranged for an airplane to drop four skydivers to parachute into the venue to make the crowd think that it was actually the band. They were always up for fun ideas like that. The last time I saw them all together was at the US festival in 1983. I spent the day with them backstage, and it was wonderful. We reminisced about how far they had come in just a few years. They were always very thoughtful. My name appears on the first album, first tour program; they were always very careful to acknowledge everybody who was there at the beginning like me, Marsha - the bookkeeper at the Whisky - and others.
You're writing your memoir right now. What are your most special memories of Eddie that you plan on including?
There are lots of stories, and I'm going through them all now. Two things really stand out when I think about that wonderful young man. The first thing was just how serious he took his band. David Lee Roth was the front guy and the mouthpiece and made all of the noise. He was the showman. But behind the scenes, I could tell right at the beginning that Ed was the guy that really ran the show and kept an eye on things. One time in the office, he brought in one of the band's first roadies. Something was wrong. I could tell that Eddie was upset. He sat the guy down in front of me and told him he was being fired. The kid got nervous and would not look Ed in the eye. Eddie had discovered that the roadie could not account for $20 on one of the truck rentals for moving the gear. Obviously, the kid had pocketed it. Eddie would not have that. He explained to the kid there was no place for that in their band, that people were working too hard for every penny they were making.
The other thing that really comes to mind was that once we put them on the road and they started making good money, we could not convince Ed and Alex [Van Halen] to get separate hotel rooms. They were so used to sharing a bunk back home that they insisted on sharing a hotel room on the road. I thought that was the sweetest thing. All of the guys were genuine and down-to-earth, but there was something different about Ed. He was humble, modest and totally focused on his craft. It wasn't about being a rock star. It was about being a musician.