Early on a Sunday morning back in 1985, I was working at Tower Records on Los Angeles's Sunset Strip when the air became heavy with the scent of pheromones and ego. David Lee Roth had arrived.
At that instant, Diamond Dave was at the zenith of his celebrity. By then, Van Halen, the 1978 self-titled debut by the mega-band he fronted, was firmly established as a bar-band-metal classic for the ages, and the group's most recent album, 1984, had reached an even more rarefied level of mass popularity thanks to "Jump," a single that was all about the man with the leonine mane and the bulging crotch. On top of that, "California Girls," a Beach Boys cover featured on Crazy From the Heat, Roth's just-issued solo EP, was a top-five smash. If he wasn't the biggest rock star on the planet, he was undeniably the most fun.
So why didn't I wail "I'm not worthy!" and drop to my knees in front of him? For one reason, our supervisors at Tower constantly warned underlings like yours truly not to gush over the oodles of luminaries who shopped at the store. For another, my peers would have been appalled by so brazen a display -- because acting cool was the golden rule.
David Lee Roth
Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, 6350 South Greenwood Plaza Boulevard
With Sammy Hagar
5 p.m. Wednesday, June 19
So when Roth ambled over to the news rack next to the counter where I was stationed and grabbed a magazine, I gave him the briefest of glances before returning to an article I'd been reading. But then I got the feeling that someone was staring at me, and it turned out to be Dave. He pivoted away, grinning, when my gaze met his, and I did, too. A moment later, however, I felt his eyes on me again, and when I looked up, he looked down, starting the cycle all over again. This went on for a couple of minutes -- long enough for me to realize that Roth didn't pine for privacy like many of his chart-topping contemporaries. No, he wanted to be noticed, needed to be noticed, had to be noticed immediately, if not sooner -- which may have been why he was clothed in Spandex. Either that, or the party that had started the night before wasn't over yet.
This encounter quickly became a test that I was determined to pass, and in the end, I did. But Dave's wish was granted anyhow: A trio of teenagers who arrived toward the end of our strange variation on a stare-down went apeshit at the sight of this golden god, and as the threesome clustered around him, he looked as happy as an overripe virgin at a nymphomaniac convention.
For years thereafter, the amount of attention lavished upon Roth steadily diminished. Amid accusations that he was spending too much time on his own material, among other sins, he deserted or was booted out of Van Halen shortly after his Tower visit -- different parties have different stories. But while millions of the group's enthusiasts (including me) lamented his departure, subsequent VH long-players, made with veteran screecher Sammy Hagar, sold in far greater numbers than the discs Dave put out on his own. He got another injection of the publicity he craves in the mid-'90s, when Hagar was canned and his former mates -- Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony -- invited Roth back into the fold. Unfortunately, the reunion fell apart before it really got started, prompting Van Halen's ill-fated teaming with Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone and David Lee's return to fame's fringes.
Not that Dave would ever allow himself to fade away quietly. The most quizzical of his recent comeback attempts is David Lee Roth's No Holds Bar-B-Que, a long-form video that's one of the most bizarre vanity projects of all time. The ingredients of Bar-B-Que include seemingly identical bimbo triplets alternately attired as mermaids, cowgirls, pregnant housewives, catwomen and rubber fetishists; an omnipresent midget; lots of faux club music; and Big Dave mugging for the camera, changing costumes (he looks excellent in a sailor outfit), and performing martial-arts maneuvers accompanied by an all-too-faithful cover of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." Roth's publicist says a release date for the video hasn't been set, and no wonder: The person most likely to enjoy it has his name in the title.
Don't worry about Diamond Dave, though, because his latest scheme -- a tour that pairs him with Hagar, his Van Halen replacement -- is utterly irresistible. Suddenly, he's back on the press's A-list: He's been quizzed by Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Howard Stern and more, more, more. As a result, some of his favorite one-liners -- like his claim that he's had more hits than Beethoven -- are getting a bit worn around the edges, and have been omitted. But Roth has plenty of other quips at his disposal, as the stream-of-consciousness rants below demonstrate. Obviously, he's rested and ready for anything.
Westword: Whose idea was the tour?
David Lee Roth: I thought of this on the Ides of March, March 15. I was trying to come up with something that would be a little unpredictable, because predictability is the cardinal sin of the music industry. How many more times are we going to listen to, "What are you going to do next, Lenny?" "I'm gonna make an album." "Oh, great. What's after that?" "Well, um, gonna go on tour." "Killer. What's after that, Lenny?" "Um, I'm gonna make a video." Come on. That's kind of like when a family member breaks down and tells you they're taking Prozac, and you have to pretend you don't know anything about it: "Really? What's that do?" But when you hear about Roth-Hagar, it's unexpected, yet it's patently obvious. And I think if you watch CNN at any point these days, what is more poignant than two warring superpowers finally showing a little unity? Jesus Christ, if Diamond Dave and Slap-happy Sam can make this happen -- anything's possible!
WW: Did you pitch Sammy about the tour personally?
DLR: No, I called his manager, Irving Azoff, and he knew it was perfect. I mean, between the two of us, how many tens of millions of album sales have we had? Sam's voice is as familiar as an air-raid siren, and I'm a part of Americana that's as familiar as the Nike swoosh or the McDonald's arches.
WW: Have you known or interacted with Sammy over the past several years?
DLR: Not at all.
WW: What was that first meeting like, then?
DLR: I just went through a quickie meeting to shake a hand and tell him my idea, which was to split everything fifty-fifty, make it a co-headline, and flip a coin to decide who goes first -- I don't really care either way. Azoff and his minions, they didn't say much, and Sam sat in the corner of the sofa and probably five or six times just kind of mumbled to himself, "Diamond fuckin' Dave." Really!
WW: Are there plans for the two of you to do any songs together?
DLR: No, because it's not written in any spiritual contract that if you're going to play rock and roll, you must jam. I think the purpose for jamming is to come up with something colorful and maybe slightly dangerous, and I don't think fourteen drunks playing "Long Tall Sally" for fourteen minutes is colorful and dangerous. Besides, we have a very different approach to stagecraft. Sam has a big production and loads of people on stage and a lot of things and stuff. And I take it from what I learned from watching The Ed Sullivan Show -- four amps, a drummer and an attitude.
WW: I interviewed Sammy five years ago ("It Was All Eddie's Fault," August 28, 1997), and he spent a lot of our conversation ripping on you. At one point, he said, "David Lee Roth quit the band because he thought he was the guy; he quit the band and tried to fuck them. He was a bad guy. He said shit about that band and about those guys that was bullshit -- and I know, because I was in the band then." I'm sure you've seen quotes like these over the years...
DLR: He's still doing it today! But it doesn't bother me. Sam has a passion for this, and I think it's a great opportunity for him to finally find some closure.
WW: Closure to what? To following you in Van Halen and having to listen to legions of fans saying they want him out and you back?
DLR: Sam has had to sing my songs and Sam has had to labor in the shadow of one of the great American bands in the history of the sport. But this is a chance to let people see that there's two halves to the Super Bowl. And you can make a comparison if you want, but I think it's greater than our list of songs. This is a confirmation of some sort, in the same way that going to a Rolling Stones gig used to be -- somewhere between Limp Bizkit and Jimmy Buffett. Because what I sell now better than anything is young and impulsive, and I can make you feel that from 300 meters even without a microphone.
WW: Have you said nasty things about Sammy over the years? I did a quick Internet search, and I didn't find much.
DLR: There hasn't been much, really, because I've been around for long enough not to care about that kind of thing. It's hard to say at what point that happens in your career, and it's different for everyone. I mean, by the time young Beoncé Knowles looks up at the clubhouse wall, the other two girls in the rhythm section have evaporated, proverbially speaking. But after, I don't know, five summers or so, I'd built up a reserve of confidence that defied competition with anybody else. I became Popeye: "I yam what I yam what I yam." And for me, it's never really been about a contest anyway. I'm at odds with the entire planet, much less little Sam Hagar. I'm a black man trapped in a Jewish body! Every time I step on that stage, I'm proving something, and just like James Brown, I have no fucking idea what! It doesn't matter to me or to you. It's just, "Prove it, baby!"
WW: A lot of people in your position would think they don't need to prove anything anymore.
DLR: I've always taken a very confrontational approach. I'm a trigger hippie. You give peace a chance. In fact, give it three chances -- and if it doesn't work, I've got you covered. Which makes sense, right? Because, after all, what animal in the forest makes the meanest, loudest noise? Answer: The one that's the most frightened. Another question: How many musicians have you been surprised to find out are smaller than Prince? Answer: Plenty. What do these musicians have in common? Fury. The world didn't deal them really good cards when it comes to physical stature or whatever. So why are the best artists always the most fucked-up? Why does the best music always come from heroin addicts, crackheads, wife-beating losers, neurotic party dads? Because it's a shout of fury or a cry for help. But I don't come from a high-arts bias. I come from a sports bias. Follow? The high-arts bias is, learn to live with it and let it be, let it be. And my approach is, let me find a weakness and ax what it is, and I'll meet you at the titty bar at eight.
WW: Is it satisfying to you that there are still people out there who treat the day you left Van Halen like some kind of tragic anniversary?
DLR: It's not even an anniversary. It's a steadfast refusal to let that band or the memory of it fade, just like we treat Hendrix or the guy in the Doors. It transcends simple melody, and it transcends lyric writing. It becomes part of your history -- and that never ages, does it? Think of your first girlfriend. Think of your first car crash. Think of the first time you drank too much beer and barfed. It's all like it just happened yesterday, isn't it? And as soon as you hear the soundtrack that happened along with all of those colorful and important events, you're right back there. As soon as you hear the beginning of any of the twenty songs I play back to back, during every single one of them you're going to be kneeing and elbowing strangers next to you and saying, "Oh, my God, I graduated to this!" or "Oh, my God, I flunked out to this!" I get cards and letters constantly: "Dear Dave, I got sent to jail because of this." "Dear Dave, your music got me through jail." "Dear Dave, I'm still in jail." And on and on. People have pinned the most singularly important events of their lives to music like mine and Sam's. Well, I'm not familiar with Sam's catalogue, but I'm familiar with mine, and it's definitely true about me.
WW: Is that the legacy of your career that means the most to you?
DLR: No, my favorite legacy is the last three weeks, when I've been receiving cards and letters from my home base at the Mojo Dojo from all kinds of ex-girlfriends: "Dear Dave, I'll be attending St. Louis. By the way, I'm married now -- but don't worry." I kid you not!
WW: Do you have them lined up all along the tour?
DLR: They're lining themselves up! It's all over but the winning, coach!
WW: It's been a few years since you've seen a lot of these women. Do you think you can handle that much action?
DLR: That may be the single stupidest question I've ever heard.
WW: Sorry about that.
DLR: You should be.
WW: I think a lot of critics are sorry, too -- sorry they didn't give Van Halen its due, way back when. Does it please you when you hear them admit that, or does it just prove they're as out of touch now as they were then?
DLR: I think we attach popular music to who we are or who we think we are. For most folks, it's the soundtrack that goes with their community that's the most important. Like, if you wear a cowboy hat and drive a pickup truck, then country-Western is your vibe -- but if you have a tongue bolt and pink hair and your pant cuffs trail a block and a half behind you and you live below 14th Street, chances are you aren't going to want your friends to find you listening to country unless you pass it off as kitsch. But even though I've always lived next door, I've never been the boy next door -- and I've never paid attention to boundaries. I was one of the first to publicly proclaim, in Metal Edge magazine, that I listen to dance music constantly. That's blasphemy! That sends you to the seventh level of hell in many people's minds. So it's no surprise that the critics didn't understand what I was doing. But I didn't change then, and I'm not changing now. Who am I today? Same guy I've always been -- somewhere between Groucho and Kurosawa. Call me Grouchy Tiger.
WW: Was one of the reasons you left Van Halen because it became too limiting for you?
DLR: Van Halen music was changing. Van Halen music when I was the quarterback was belligerently enthusiastic and enthusiastically belligerent. And in the mid-'80s you heard the music swing in a very different direction. I was "Hot for Teacher" and when they took on another singer, it was "Why Can't This Be Love?" You see the difference, right? But I'm an antagonist, not a bully. I love to mix it up but not with anybody smaller than me, and certainly not with somebody who can't give a little back -- because I know people are watching, and it's all for entertainment value anyway. The Van Halens are not doing well medically and spiritually, so I'm going to leave off of them. I hope they do great, and I look forward to a reunion tour. I'm a no-notice lead vocalist, babe. You don't have to call me -- just send a car.
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WW: That should be good news to the folks behind the "Fan Halen" Web site (www.globalagora.com/VanHalen.htm). They're trying to whip up a reunion petition campaign, and they say, "Your fans don't care who's getting along with who. We just want to rock." Is that the bottom line with you, too?
DLR: No, it's not, because I think there's an incredibly high mark of excellence here, and if you can't reach it, fuck off. I'm tired of paying top dollar to watch fat bodies waddle around on the stage giving me representations of something that was way mo' better way mo' long ago. Half-assed? Then I want half my ticket price back, thanks. How many times have you thought that? How many times have we seen our colleagues in so many different rackets of music complete their long journey to the middle. The Bible says "Go forth and multiply," not "Waddle forth and calcify!"
WW: I guess that means you don't want people who come to your show to think they're going to see a David Lee Roth who's twice the man he used to be.
DLR: I want them to know that if you come to see Diamond Dave -- in any sense of the words -- you'd best wear tight shoes, because you're going to flip right out of them. If the Van Halens are ready to go for that, spectacular. Otherwise, remain with the dream.