When David Lee Roth Was Arrested on 1980 Van Halen Tour: Excerpt
Michael Christopher's upcoming book Van Halen: The Eruption and the Aftershock digs into the history of Van Halen and features exclusive interviews and never-before-published conversations with band alums like Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone. In the following excerpt, Christopher looks at how David Lee Roth drew the ire of law enforcement during a tour date in Cincinnati in the wake of a concert tragedy there a few months earlier. (The book will be published on Oct. 6 by Backbeat Books).
One week before Women and Children First landed in record stores, on March 19, 1980, Van Halen began the “1980 Invasion” tour – sometimes called the “World Invasion” tour and nicknamed by the band the “Party ’Til You Die” tour. It spanned eight months and crisscrossed North America, with a monthlong run in Europe, where the band were becoming frustrated in their inability to break the continent. They didn’t have the same drawing power there as they did elsewhere, so they decided it wasn’t worth it to keep going back, taking the region off the docket for a number of ensuing touring cycles.
The boasting and criticisms of the band for being “out of control” were good for business, but Van Halen entered a U.S. touring scene in 1980 that had become quite strict in the wake of a concert tragedy some months earlier. On Dec. 3, 1979, the Who were about to play the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati when a stampede to get into the venue saw 11 people killed and several others seriously injured. A confluence of misinformation, apathetic law enforcement, staffing issues, and festival seating had led to the deaths, and it left promoters and security on edge.
On April 24, 1980, less than five months after the catastrophe, Van Halen played the same venue. The city of Cincinnati had done away with general admission seating – a ban that would be held in place for nearly twenty-five years – and was keeping a close eye on all possible rowdiness in the wake of the Who incident, ready to clamp down on even the slightest perceived indiscretion.
Late in the set that night, ending the Van Halen II cut “Light Up the Sky” after Alex’s drum solo, Dave intoned (as he does on the studio version), “Light ’em up!” For added effect in the live setting, he repeated the phrase, which some in the audience took to mean, “Light up whatever you have to smoke, illicit or otherwise.” The problem was, everything fell under the umbrella of illegal, as the crackdown by officials included a ban on smoking and any open flame, like a lighter, in the arena. Some 100 concertgoers were thrown out by venue security for violating those restrictions, and 177 were arrested on drug or alcohol charges, according to police.
Listen to Van Halen's 'Light Up the Sky'
“It was the worst crowd since the Who concert,” Sgt. Richard Tessendorf told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The crowd Thursday night was incited more by the band than most.”
Roth was charged with encouraging the audience to violate the fire code, paid a $5,000 bond, and was let go that night, promising he’d return the following week for an arraignment. Thankfully, the tour would be back in the state for a show at the Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland, so it was a mere detour on the way back from two shows at the Cobo Arena in Detroit. The singer received a court date in the summer to fight the charge.
Later that day, Roth didn’t seem affected by the hoopla, joking on the radio station WMMS that the band were on the escape from Cincinnati after DJ Kid Leo informed listeners the boys had arrived just out of court. “Ah, the people got crazy, man – that’s what happens when Van Halen gets onstage,” Roth said.
“It was the end of ‘Light Up the Sky,’ everybody was having a good time and we finished the song, and I didn’t feel like finishing right then, so I just kept going, ‘Light ’em up! Light ’em up! Light ’em up!’”
“Light Up the Sky” stayed in the set and the tour rolled on. An unrepentant Roth would make the episode sound like it was just another adventure in the life of Van Halen – which, in truth, was on the mark. At the end of the day, though, it was about feeling like nothing could stop the band – or the audience.
“It’s excitement,” Roth told North Carolina DJ Allan Handelman that summer. “People are gonna walk out of a Van Halen show, they’re gonna feel like the building can fall on them … feel like a car can hit ’em. I like that feeling, dude, and I get it every time we play.”
That July, the charges against Roth were dismissed after a request by the Cincinnati DA, who wasn’t able to prosecute because of a lack of clarity in the law and how it was broken.