A Savage Tale of Booze, Babes, Van Halen, and two unsuspecting men from Pennsylvania.
Written By Geoffrey Bell. Interview by Scott Smith.
Back in 1984, Van Halen’s monumental tour was terrorizing hockey rinks across the United States. Many fans of the band were just starting to appreciate their unique blend of musical genius and taste in celebratory excess. Few people (especially males) were ever afforded the opportunity to witness Van Halen’s off-stage activity from a first-hand perspective. Perhaps it’s for the best. From what we have heard, several minutes of VH’s rigorous party lifestyle could have easily sent the most sophisticated boozer to an early grave, or at the very least, a medical facility equipped with a stomach pump. For all intents and purposes, those days are gone. The band has matured into a more responsible touring lifestyle, which is fine by us. They will just be around that much longer. But what’s the harm in harking back to those glorious days of yesteryear? The Inside recently tracked down one of the only known survivors of Van Halen’s backstage experience and cornered him for some of the gritty, and occasionally X-rated details.
Everyone recalls MTV’s blowout contest to spend a Lost Weekend with Van Halen. Phoenixville, Pennsylvania’s Kurt Jeffries, then 20 years old, was the lucky winner. His name was somehow chosen from a pool of over a million entries. As Jeffries spoke of his two days with the band, he guzzled water and Tylenol as if he had just completed a harrowing trip through the sweaty jungles of the Yucatan. Recalling the weekend apparently brought back equal amounts of fright and elation as he detailed his adventure through the dark and crazy corridors of the Van Halen experience.
Blind luck is the attribute that most people associate with winning contests. But many people who have won lotteries or chili cook-offs swear by their vague sense of premonition. Kurt Jeffries felt that mysterious twitch in his spine as he walked past his local post office in February 1984. MTV was in the process of collecting thousands of postcard entries for their “Lost Weekend with Van Halen” contest. Several days earlier, Kurt mailed in eight postcards and left the rest to fate. But as he strolled past the post office, something told him that perhaps he needed a few extra entries to bolster his otherwise pathetic chances. Stamps were only 13 cents back then, what was the harm in investing some extra time? Close to a month later, the MTV contest staff chose one of Kurt’s postcards and declared him the big winner. He found out later that the winning card was from his second batch of entries. A shining example of voodoo at work, wouldn’t you say?
A woman from MTV named Barb Fleeman called Jeffries to inform him of the news. After some routine confirmation information, Kurt really began to sweat. The reality was setting in – he was going to go head to head with the craziest fuckers in rock. Friends were envious, as was each and every Van Halen fan across the country. His mother, however, said in an interview that she would have preferred him winning a Lost Weekend with Perry Como. The Phoenixville local paper did an article on Jeffries’ upcoming escapade. A particularly rugged photo of the band was included with the headline, “Would you let your son spend a weekend with these guys?” As the big weekend neared, Jeffries was faced with the difficult task of choosing a partner in crime, in that he was allowed to bring a lucky friend along for the ride. He received hundreds of offers, most of which would have been extremely difficult to turn down. Women offered him their bodies. Guys offered him money and motorcycles. There were trips around the world dangled in front of his nose. Did we mention that women offered him their bodies? One lunatic offered him $5,000, while another offered him new clothes and unlimited cash if she could go along for the ride. He solved the problem by giving the coveted slot to his best friend and closest Van Halen compatriot, Tom Winnick. The offers continued to pour in. Once people realized that Kurt was standing tall with his decision, they began begging for souvenirs. People wanted guitar picks, pieces of clothing, and autographs. One particularly troubled strumpet even wanted some of David Lee Roth’s pubic hair. Kurt couldn’t come through on that one.
Jeffries and Winnick would be spending two days, Thursday and Friday, with the entire band in Detroit, Michigan, home of gut-wrenching arena-rock excess. On Thursday morning, Kurt and Tom waited with family and friends for a limousine that would hustle them to a waiting Lear Jet in Philadelphia. It was the first time that they had been in a limo and Jeffries described it as an “awesome ride.” They began to drink heavily as soon as the limo tore out of the Jeffries’ driveway. Kurt dumped several shots of Jack Daniel’s into his body before his loving family was out of sight. It was only the second time Jeffries had been on an airplane. The flight was a mixture of anticipation, elation, and terror. When they hit the ground in Detroit, they were treated to more limousine excitement as they made their way to the Hotel Pontchartrain. There was an MTV crew at the ready from that moment on, taping footage to be used later in special “contest reports.”
By the time they reached the hotel, their blood-alcohol content was already twice Michigan’s legal limit – and the day had barely begun. Women who were waiting in the hotel lobby for the band instantly recognized the contest winners as potential “ins” with the band. Several of the groupie queens were actually snotty to them, assuming that they had little or no influence. There were offers made, but no deals were struck. Unfazed by the unlimited sexual distractions, they were led straight to the eighth floor where an ominous trail of VH guitar picks led them to their room. Free merchandise and collectibles were scattered everywhere. The band was toying with them, as they wouldn’t be formally introduced for several hours to come. They guzzled cases of beer in the interim and devoured what was initially a charming deli platter.
The ubiquitous limousine eventually shuttled Kurt and Tom across the street to Cobo Hall (Cap. 12,600) for the real fun. They were immediately wrapped in backstage passes and whisked through a brace of meaty security guards and sweaty midgets to the hallowed backstage area.
The band was there with bells on, eager to give a couple of VH fans the royal treatment. Kurt recalls he was “nervous as hell” as they were led into the band’s backstage warm-up room and lounge. There, to the boys’ delight, stood the most popular band in rock and roll, smiling as if they were greeting a couple of old high school buddies. “They treated us like one of the guys, and really paid attention to us,” said Jeffries. Kurt immediately shotgunned a couple of beers with David Lee Roth and exchanged introductions with the rest of the band. They hung out backstage for a little over an hour, posing for pictures with Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli. Kurt was amazed at how friendly the guys were. “Eddie was putting his arm around me and letting me hold his guitar,” he said. Dave appeared to be the only one drinking hard, making quick work of a bottle of whiskey before the show even started. “It was definitely the real stuff, not iced tea,” Jeffries told us later.
The show, which was the first of two sold-out nights, was fantastic. Kurt and Tom watched the first night’s blowout from the lighting and sound platform, giving them perfect vision and sound. The band filmed part of the show and eventually used a bit of the live footage for the party-intensive “Panama” video. As the show tore on, Winnick recalled that he was ready as ever to hit the bottle hard with the band after the show. Shortly before the end of the show, Jeffries was guided backstage for a special surprise. Van Halen media coordinator Steve Mandel draped Kurt with an oversized MTV Lost Weekend shirt and led him to the edge of the enormous stage. Diamond Dave then introduced him and he was suddenly on Van Halen’s stage in front of 12,000 insane fans. Blinded by the giant spotlights and deafened by the gorilla roar of the band’s monitors, Kurt was suddenly in the eye of the hurricane. The outstretched arms and faces of the crowd froze in time. This was his moment – his time to shine. He was one of the few lucky people fortunate enough to step foot on Van Halen’s stage. The band slammed a giant cake in his face and doused him with champagne and seltzer. After slapping hands with audience members, the band sang “Happy Trails” to an overwhelmed Jeffries.