Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Runnin' with the Devil' hits the road with Van Halen

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Noel E. Monk's 'Runnin' with the Devil.'
Noel E. Monk's 'Runnin' with the Devil.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

This coming Saturday, Feb. 10, marks the 40th anniversary of Van Halen's self-titled debut album. As Noel Monk notes, it still stands as one of the all-time great debuts, and it made the foursome an overnight sensation.

"There wasn't a car radio in any part of the country that wasn't routinely blasting their cover of 'You Really Got Me,' a fresh-faced, upbeat version of the classic Kings song," writes Monk in his new book Runnin' with the Devil, named after that album's opening track. "Everyone loved David [Lee Roth]'s energy, and Edward [Van Halen]'s electric, out-of-the-box guitar work. They were a hit."

A couple of paragraphs later, Monk writes, "See, this is where I came in." The band needed a road manager, and Monk had perhaps the ideal résumé for the job: he'd just done a stint as road manager for the world's most notorious punk band, a gig that provided grist for his 1990 book 12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols and America. Could he handle "a quartet of long-haired kids in tattered jeans and worn boots, barely out of their teens"? Yeah, he could handle them.

That task, of course, became more difficult in ensuing years, as Van Halen became one of the biggest rock bands in the world — and their egos, particularly Roth's, grew to match. In the early years, though, things were fun. Really fun.

Runnin' with the Devil doesn't dig deep when it comes to the musical alchemy of the brothers Van Halen (Eddie and his brother, drummer Alex) or to the technical wizardry that allowed Edward Van Halen to execute guitar solos like the iconic break on "Eruption." Monk (who co-wrote the book with Joe Layden) takes credit for encouraging the band to slow down and really take the time they needed to create their masterpiece 1984, but worrying about how the musical sausage got made wasn't Monk's job — even after he was promoted from road manager to overall manager in 1979.

Essentially, the book is a more-or-less-chronological rundown of the things that were Monk's job, and those ultimately boiled down, collectively, to being the adult in the room. The duties of Van Halen's road manager in the late '70s and early '80s included, but were not limited to:

Physically intimidating Ronnie Montrose into getting off the stage so the opening act on a three-band bill headlined by Journey could actually have a soundcheck.

Paying hotel managers to compensate them for hotel rooms slathered in condiments by a pair of groupies aptly known as "the Ketchup Queens."

Paying $1,000 cash to a surly Black Sabbath fan struck in the head by a full bottle of Champagne chucked from the stage by a singer who was supposed to just spray it on the crowd. (Pro that Monk was, he even got the guy to sign a waiver before any money was exchanged. Van Halen still had bricks thrown at their bus as they pulled away.)

Cleaning guacamole off a brand new satin jacket worn by Steve Perry, who got caught in the crossfire during a Van Halen food fight. Monk doesn't share Van Halen's guac recipe, but he does claim credit for the band's infamous no-brown-M&Ms rider. "We figured that if a promoter took the time to remove all the brown M&Ms from the bowl before putting them in our dressing room, it was far less likely he'd screwed up any of the other, really important stuff."

Beating the crap out of bootleggers who tried to horn in on the band's officially licensed shirts. Monk talked the band into designing, manufacturing, and selling their own merch rather than licensing the job out — a decision that proved hugely lucrative.

Talking Eddie Van Halen out of flying back to L.A. when he was homesick and crying in Paris. "I guess you could say I sort of talked Edward into becoming a superstar. What the hell — somebody had to do it."

Introducing the same guitarist, years later, to a beautiful young soap opera star who came to pay her respects. "Into this vortex of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll walked Valerie Bertinelli." She and Eddie would become one of the oddest couples of the '80s, but their love was real and lasted for two decades: pretty legit, by rock star standards.

Calling former paramours to break the news that David Lee Roth had probably just given them the clap.

Ah, the sordid sex. "Van Halen was a band whose sexual output was unsurpassed in rock 'n' roll," writes Monk. Of course, every rock band in the '70s and '80s thought that was true of themselves, but suffice it to say the sexual activity was more or less constant, as were the drugs — though Monk notes that substance-wise, Van Halen paled in comparison to their sometime tourmates Black Sabbath. Van Halen once had to headline a show when Ozzy Osbourne disappeared: it turned out he'd stumbled into the wrong hotel room and fallen asleep for 20 hours.

You probably wouldn't expect Runnin' with the Devil to be a particularly constructive chronicle for the Me Too era, and it certainly isn't. Monk's frequently expressed attitude is that all involved were consenting adults (might be hard to fact-check that one), and that, well, it was a different decade.

Sexual harassment in one walk of life is merely harmless banter in the world of rock. Times have changed, of course, but thirty-five years ago? Well, you had to expect a little caveman from your rock star. These guys were conditioned to believe that just about every female who crossed their path was a potential — and potentially eager — playmate. That's rock 'n' roll, baby.

Is it? This side of the chronicle reaches its nadir when Monk describes a 1980 incident where two women fellated Van Halen's entire road crew: "a couple dozen blow jobs apiece, distributed quickly and dispassionately, in exchange for a chance to meet the band." Monk's view is that this was neither prostitution nor abuse: "It's just a deal," he writes, elaborating on how touring life was a system of "trickle-down sexonomics."

I'll just leave that there as the historical exhibit it is, but be warned that such passages may disgust you.

What else is there in Runnin' with the Devil? Lots more about the logistics of hard-rock touring in the '70s and '80s, and by this point you probably have a pretty good idea regarding how much more you really want to know.

Monk parted ways with the band just as Roth did, not out of solidarity but because the band's relationships had imploded. In Monk's account, the creative tension that made 1984 great was essentially the last straw for the long-strained working relationship between Roth and Eddie Van Halen. Roth went off to launch his solo career, and it made sense for Monk to get out of there too.

After saying "You know I love you," Edward Van Halen fired Roth, without even really explaining his reasoning beyond mentioning an endorsement deal they'd lost to Supertramp. I mean, I guess that would tick you off if you were the biggest rock band in the world...or if you at least thought you were.

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