When Van Halen Almost Partied A Fan To Death

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Pelo #180, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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In a time before average citizens had access to the internet, cable television held dominion over the youth. Although quaint by today’s standards, MTV revolutionized the way people consumed music in the 1980s and changed society in the process. As the profile of the network grew, it became an all-powerful cultural juggernaut. Put simply, MTV ruled the world. 

The year was 1984, and Van Halen was the biggest rock and roll band in America. From their humble beginnings playing house parties, the band developed a feverish buzz that exploded into a full-blown phenomenon. Anchored by the muscular rhythms of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, frontman David Lee Roth dripped charisma on an adoring public. As firm as the backbone of the band was, the clear highlight was guitar god Eddie Van Halen, a man of such taste and talent that it could nearly eclipse Diamond Dave’s star power.

As stunning as Van Halen’s music is, their antics are things of legend. Whether it be their hatred of brown M&M’s, casual attitude towards groupies, or wanton drunken destruction, their backstage behavior created the template for terror that would be followed by Guns ‘N Roses and Motley Crue.

Supporting their hit sixth album, 1984, the band enlisted MTV to stage the promotional contest to end all promotional contests. With a title that served as a tongue-in-cheek play on the classic alcoholism drama film The Lost Weekend, a promo commercial for the contest shows David Lee Roth and two groupies, with the frontman saying: “You’ll have no idea where you are. You’ll have no idea where you’re going and probably no memory of it after you go.”

MTV received more than ten million postcards for the contest. The winner wound up being Kurt Jefferies, a college student who sent in a total of eight entries. As everyone would soon find out, Jefferies wasn’t just your ordinary kid. He’d recently suffered major head trauma after falling down a staircase, leaving the 20-year-old hospitalized for three months with a blood clot on his brain. The young man’s intensive rehabilitation program included speech, physical, and occupational therapy. When Jefferies left the hospital, it was with anti-seizure medication and a plate in his head.

The second Jeffries was announced as the winner of the contest, offers started coming in from people willing to pay thousands in cash, buy him a motorcycle and/or trade him sexual favors for his extra ticket. It was assumed that Jeffries would take his girlfriend but instead, he opted to bring along Tom Winnick, a lifelong friend who was working at a gas station while attending a nearby community college.

Jeffries and Winnick were ushered by limo to the Philadelphia International Airport, where a seven-seat Learjet waited to take the young men to Detroit. Upon arrival, they were led to a room on the eighth floor of the Hotel Pontchartrain that was decked out in backstage passes, promotional Van Halen merch, and various porno magazines. Although the weekend was off to a promising start, nobody could see what was coming next.

The friends were led through to the backstage area of Detroit’s 12,000 seat Cobo Arena, where they met Eddie Van Halen and his wife, television star Valerie Bertinelli. At this point, Jeffries and Winnick started drinking. As the hours progressed, Jeffries recalls that towards the end of the band’s set that evening, as quoted in the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution: “They brought me onstage and smashed a cake in my face, then about a dozen people poured champagne on me. After the show, we went backstage and they brought in a girl for me. She was a stripper in a short black leather skirt. David Lee Roth said, ‘Kurt needs to meet Tammy.’ They put on some music so she could dance and take her clothes off for me. David told her to take me into the shower.” Things get kinda hazy after that.

Although the spread in the backstage area featured opulent items such as lobster and filet mignon, the real party favor came in the form of a mountain of cocaine that someone in the crew began passing around. From that point on, the events of the evening spiraled. John Sykes, the Director of Promotions and Artist Relations at MTV, remembers: “Later, the kid [Jefferies] goes back to his hotel and loses it. I was in Detroit that night, taping a Pretenders concert, and Richard Schenkman [MTV network executive] called because the kid was freaking out. His friend said, ‘He’s got a metal plate in his head. He shouldn’t be drinking.’ At the hotel, it was just insane. The band’s having a huge party, they’re saying, ‘Get the kid out of here.’ We had to lock him in a room, and one of our producers stayed with him. Van Halen poisoned everybody that night. It turned out to be one of our greatest promotions ever.”

Jefferis recalls: “I blacked out the first night. I don’t remember going back to the hotel. Really, I don’t know what happened that night. I’d been on an anti-seizure medication, Dilantin, since I had my head trauma. The next morning, I had one of the worst hangovers of my life. On the second night, Alex Van Halen handed me a sixteen-ouncer and said, ‘You’re not leaving this spot until you drink that beer.’ I poured it out in a trash can.”

That second day was largely anticlimactic. Due to their monumental hangovers, Jefferis and Winnick were forced to take it easy, and a planned limo tour of the city with David Lee Roth was scrapped. Although the hedonism of their first night has become the thing of legend, the backstage party on night two was an altogether more innocent affair, culminating in a full-scale food fight. The two friends returned home the following day.

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