From page 67 of Classic Rock Magazine March 2004
His life was full of girls and Jack Daniel’s, and he was the ringmaster of the Van Halen circus. As a solo artist he reached skyscraper heights... Then he all but disappeared. So what’s been going on with David Lee Roth? In an exclusive interview, Classic Rock gets it straight from the biggest mouth in rock. Crazy from the heat: James Halbert
HAT IS LIFE?” ASKED CROWFOOT, the 19th-century Native American warrior. “It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
For many it is also the six albums that Van Halen made with frontman David Lee Roth between 1978 and ’84. Exemplars of hard rock élan , these are records which still sound daisy-fresh, much of their magic stemming from Roth’s preening oomph and Edward Van Halen’s innovative, incendiary guitar work.
But like all acts, Van Halen were subject to what ‘Diamond’ Dave calls “the friction of time”. And the ego clashes that underpinned the band’s existence eventually led to the group’s implosion. After which guitarist Eddie Van Halen, his drumming brother Alex and bassist Michael Anthony soon brought in Sammy Hagar, formerly of Montrose, to succeed Roth. For many, that was a travesty of frontman pizazz, and Hagar’s initial attempts to ape Roth failed miserably.
Roth, meanwhile, went solo. Initially he wowed MTV with the cleverly choreographed videos that accompanied his takes on ‘California Girls’ and ‘Just A Gigolo’. Shortly after that he hooked up with Steve Vai – probably the only guitarist fit to try on, let alone fill, Eddie’s shoes – and paired him with Billy Sheehan, the bassist who thought he was Paganini. The recorded result was two fabulous Roth solo albums: 1986’s ‘Eat ’Em And Smile’ and 1988’s ‘Skyscraper’.
Both Roth’s story and that of Van Halen are still unfolding as we speak. These days, however, David and Edward (no longer Eddie, apparently) tend to cross swords in the law courts; more of which in due course. For now, though, let’s away
to the sunny climes of Los Angeles, California. More precisely, we’re headed for The Mondrian hotel on Sunset Boulevard, just a hop, skip and jump from where Van Halen’s story began at legendary Hollywood clubs such as The Whiskey AGo-Go...
January 2004. It’s early evening and your correspondent is in The Mondrian’s candle-lit and very chi-chi Sky Bar; at low tables outside, artfully strewn cushions evoke a posh harem. I’ve just noticed Human Traffic actor John Simm sitting opposite, when I hear a familiar sound. It’s David Lee Roth’s laugh: an infectious, booming thing that comes up from the belly to celebrate life.
Every head turns as he and his bodyguard breeze in. Though it’s hard to determine just how trim or otherwise Roth might be under the denim dungarees he’s wearing, he looks fitter and younger than in recent photos. For starters he’s tanned. Better yet, that lank, Jimmy Saville-like hairdo he recently sported has given way to a much shorter, infinitely more flattering one. “I’ll have a Jack please, honey,” he says to a ravishing waitress who has appeared as if by magic. All omens, it seems, are good.
Roth’s requested drink arrives, and glasses are clinked in mutual greeting. With preliminaries out of the way, I begin by asking him how his gig at The House Of Blues on New Year’s Eve went.
“James,” he says. “I am New Year’s Eve. What we sell here is big, fat, Technicolor smiles that go with just about any major holiday and some of the intermittent. People ask: ‘Dave, what’s the chemistry with the audience? Why so many girls?’ Well, I’m certainly old enough to think it’s because I’m so handsome... but I’m also old enough to know better.
“What it is”, he continues, “is this: after two or three of those songs – especially if it’s classic Van Halen or ‘California Girls’ – you feel like squeezin’ someone. Probably not me, but definitely somebody. And that’s what makes what I do permanent. We will be here ten summers on, because that feeling, that impulse, is forever!” This is the tone that ‘Diamond’ Dave Lee Roth
s classic Van begins with, and how our conversation will
continue for well over three hours, most of what
you he says being punctuated by that belly laugh. Frankly, the man is a conversational rocket, ‘liftoff seemingly off seemingly his constant mind-set. For Roth, you sense, a sentence without a gag, aphorism, or some linguistic fireworks is a sentence
wasted. And it probably has as much to do with his low boredom threshold as it does with the urge to entertain.
He has chosen this venue, he says, because “it’s skinny and young and the waitresses aren’t afraid to make eye contact”. By Jack Daniel’s number two he’s charming the pants off our pretty hostess. As he flirts, moreover, one feels moved to watch and learn. One feels the need to ask the hostess, Mrs Mertonstyle: “What exactly is it that attracts you to the multi-millionaire rock star David Lee Roth?” But that would be overlooking this almost-50-year-old’s charisma – and betraying a certain amount of jealousy regarding just how potent it still seems to be.
It’s seven years since you published your autobiography, Crazy From The Heat . Any plans for a sequel?
Everything you read in that book was reportage and for real. As regards a sequel, I’m currently trying to live page 80 [laughs]. I’m not a work of fiction; you have to participate. Consequently I feel that it will be another four or five summers before the next book has been lived; or until the allegations have been explained away sufficiently that I can do the promotion properly.
Do you still follow a strict fitness regime?
Oh yes [stubs out a cigarette]. But, as you can see, it’s a study in contrasts. I’m not an athlete, I’m a rock star. I’m interested in trying everything on the menu – let’s visit here; let’s take a plunge there. So in that sense I’ll do a few press-ups, watch what I eat or don’t eat. It’s all designed so that I can stay up way past my bedtime on a school night and so that I look good naked. Hey, even a dog gets a warm piece of the sidewalk after the show, Jim!
You’ll be 50 in October...
God willing and the creek don’t rise.
Any sense of diminishing time?
Well, there never seems to be enough time to share with one community. I’m lucky enough to belong to three or four completely different ones, and one or two generations other than my own. My home is in three different places: Miami, New York City and Los Angeles. But diminishing time? Not really, because I’m doing the things I want to do. I’m obsessed with being an artist, but I’m not a workaholic. I have no problem with cheeseburger and fries for breakfast. With Guinness. For weeks on end. And if there’s sunlight and bikinis involved it could turn into a fiscal year. My inner child has to be dealt with every morning, so in that respect I suppose I’m balanced. I’m lucky enough to still be playing football at my age, let’s look at it like that.
Your current album, ‘Diamond Dave’ – why are there so many covers on it?
Classic rock in the USA is a fixed playlist. They set them in stone maybe seven years ago. When I was doing my guest DJ here in Los Angeles I was sliding in Macy Gray, sliding in The Bangles, and it caused havoc in the front office. I got kicked out for playing ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ [laughs]. So I consciously did a new album that was classic [‘Diamond Dave’ includes songs by Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Doors etc], otherwise how would I get airplay?
“At any given time, I’m reflecting the music that’s around me and what’s popular. I mean, we’re not gonna reflect Beyonce’s new single...
Except maybe in the way you shake your ass...
[Laughing] Yes, but who’s the student and who’s the teacher here? Sit down, Beyonce! Sit down, Britney! Let me show you how it’s done.
Where do you think your sense of humour comes from?
Groucho Marx is in there. There’s an edge to it. There’s a belligerent enthusiasm to my humour that equates more with the New York dinner table than it does with the Los Angeles soiree.
That’s why I knew it was impossible for
the girls on TV in Sex And The City to be
depicting their real lives: when one of them left the room the others only said nice things about her. That’s neither real nor funny.
For me, humour is a way of summarising and enjoying life’s harsh realities; it’s a way of summarising the pain of having to wait. We wait for the plane. We wait for our drinks.
We’re professional waiters. How do you defeat the anxiety that’s gonna cause in a common lab rat, much less a human being?
I laugh to win. It keeps you young, and it’s a way of finding enthusiasm in the most miserable of circumstances.
The Spanish have a word for it: ajuantadora . It means ‘those who endure’. My being
Jewish has obviously been a part of that. Especially my generation, which was shown all the movies of World War II. Then there’s the creation of Israel. I don’t know if it was created or taken, and it’s not a good time to bring that up [laughs].
Why have you never married?
Who would you rather be, James: Bill Gates or Hugh Hefner?
What about children, though? Wouldn’t you like some of your own?
I don’t know that I want a traditional family. My whole family is like this. My uncle David didn’t have his sons until he was 56 years old. Uncle Manny was kinda the same. I don’t know if it’s the classic American dysfunctional family, or what. I’ve been in love maybe four times. I love romance in classic, cinematic style. I suppose I live in a fantasy world, but at least they know me there. I’m a bit of a crackpot. Most of what I do is because of girls. If girls didn’t exist I wouldn’t have this job, I wouldn’t bother with music. I wouldn’t even bother with breakfast.
DLR and EVH. The beginning of animosity between the acronyms.
There’s also the issue of closure, here. When I was 30 years old I left Van Halen. There’s never been closure on that, and that’s a huge issue for me. It’s not like leaving Warrant [laughs]. To this day, the classic Van Halen band could be a stadium act. And rather like all those folks who spent time at law or med school, it wasn’t something we got right away. It had to be whittled away and worked at. It’s a perishable skill, for Chrissakes. And I refuse to accept that, because of the whim of one of our four musketeers, we’re all gonna tear up the diploma.
We all went to the college of musical knowledge together. It’s why the pretty girl smiles at me. It’s why my voice is in that jukebox somewhere.
Back to the ladies, though. With regard to previous partners, rather than ‘acquaintances’, was there one that got away?
A couple of them, actually. A woman who wanted a more traditional life. A woman who wanted kids. I take kids seriously. I mean, how many tragic cases are there of: “Oh, dad was never home”? I’m not someone who could have kids and then just forget about them. Had there been more closure on the Van Halen issue, it’s possible that I might have followed a more traditional tack. But [brightening] I’m gonna level with you, James. I’m going to a titty bar after this and you’re more than welcome to join me [laughs]. In the blink of an eye we can solve this choice-fatigue!
➳ Speaking of flesh, at Van Halen’s peak and beyond were there any sexual fantasies you had that you didn’t get to live out?
My fantasies were always the girl next door. We started to see evidence of the professional groupie in the early 80s. Alarmingly, these girls bore a striking resemblance to Mötley Crüe. For me, the best groupies were the homecoming queens who were out on a lark; the preachers’ daughters out for a wild night.
But I’m here to tell you that I left no stone unturned. What’s curious is that I still remain in touch with half these women. A number of them are married, or have been married and are now divorced.
Having lived out your fantasies, didn’t normal life become boring?
Of course. You begin to pursue your own paradigm, to create your own world. And the only thing that compares is the world of the best comedians. Think of Laurel & Hardy or Monty Python. They lived in their own little world with their own language and their own customs [laughs]. And so long as you’re a fan first, that exists in rock’n’roll as long as you want it to. If you enjoy the travel and the interaction, you can keep going until they carry you off on your shield. Only when you lose your enthusiasm for the sport do you lose your cachet.
As far as how people party now compared to back when, no comparison. Today is way off the hook! Anybody who has been in the middle of the Pacha dance floor in Ibiza, anybody who’s wandered through Manumission [club in Ibiza] on a good night, can tell you that there’s just no comparison. Everybody’s partying like a rock star now. Like Sly & The Family Stone said: “ Everybody is a star ”. What were once the specialised habits of trained professionals are now commonplace. Frankly, I wish I had two dicks to keep up with it all.
Let’s talk about the records you did with Van Halen. The eponymous first album is an classic. Did you realise how good it was going to be while you were making it?
I knew it was great, but I also knew that we couldn’t look back. I realised that we had to make as many consecutive records as possible as quickly as we could. We were really living it together. And, as I tell young musicians now, when all those ingredients are present and correct, and everybody’s healthy and vertical, make hay and plenty of it; get after it.
As an avid reader of music magazines, I know that greatness seems to revolve around a sixto seven-year phase. Zeppelin: six to seven years. The Beatles: ditto. And the same with Van Halen. After that something else comes into play, namely what the Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz called “the friction of time”: Argggh! The guitarist’s got married and has other things on his mind! Arggh! The drummer’s being indicted! These are just allegations, you understand [laughs].
Ted Templeman [producer of every Van Halen record Roth appeared on] used to say that Van Halen was performance theatre. There is no one song or one album that accounts for its failure or success, it had to be taken as whole.
‘Van Halen’ went gold within three weeks and platinum within five.
I believe so. I was in Aberdeen at the time, and I discovered [Highland single-malt whisky] Glenmorangie [laughs]. We were supporting Black Sabbath. It was winter, and it was within the first six weeks of the album’s release. But we were trained to ignore the signposts. A gold record was only division finals. Because we weren’t on the singles charts, we had no real way to calibrate our success.
Presumably you had a much bigger budget for ‘Van Halen II’?
No. Smaller. Van Halen was always considered the bastard son of the Warner Brothers stable. We made a one-dollar-fifty royalty per record that we split four ways. And this was when everybody else was getting two-fifty to three dollars. We toured for ten-and-a-half months straight, and owed the company one million dollars. To this day I only make thirty cents per record. The Van Halens and the bass player make a dollar each per old record. That’s what the recent lawsuit was about. They got a royalty increase... I don’t know, maybe eight or nine years ago. I didn’t know about it until this summer.
But the first record was considered a fluke, an aberration. And when ‘Van Halen II’ was recorded and ready to go, everybody at Warners thought it was a failure. I love that record. Songs like ‘Dance The Night Away’, which are deceptively simple in their construction, are positively combustible on the live stage. Thanks to songs like that, Van Halen are remembered and Diamond Dave is still recognised as the quarterback. It transcended the genre; it wasn’t really hard rock.
You recorded part of the second Van Halen album while you were in plaster, after you’d broken your leg doing the jump that’s pictured on the back cover.
Yes. There was furious ambition in Van Halen. And when you have an obstacle it increases the drive. It’s not adventure ’til the shit pours from the sky. And it goes like this: ask me, “Dave how was your vacation?”
Dave, how was your vacation?
Oh, it was great, James. The natives were friendly, the food was amazing, and I got along beautifully with the little lady [makes snoring noise]. Now ask me again.
Dave, how was your vacation?
Oh my God! The plane almost crashed. Twice. I got hung up for four days in customs, and my old lady ran off with the tribal chief! You see, now you’re listening, and co-conspiring. You’re going: “Shit! What a bitch!” And boy do you want to see those holiday snaps.”
Each of the albums you made with Van Halen clocks in at just over 30 minutes in length. Was it deliberate decision to have them that short?
Yes. For two reasons. It’s a fine line between enough and too much, as anybody who knew the Cadbury’s chocolate family can attest. You cross that line. Also, with the earlier albums, when we were still working with vinyl, there was the question of bass response. The further apart the grooves, the more bass you could load in. And the further apart the grooves, the less music you can put on the plastic time-wise. It’s that simple.
The quality of tone was of paramount importance in Van Halen. If your ears can’t differentiate between noise and what I call ‘girl-friendly’ tone, then all is lost. But if you can turn it up blisteringly loud and nobody wearing high heels covers their ears, it’s a win-win situation. Zeppelin had it. The Stones got it. The list is long. But the list of those that don’t have it is longer.
For me, ‘Woman And Children First’ is the most underrated Van Halen record – everything’s looser, punkier, more spontaneous-sounding.
It was always a struggle, with Ed specifically, to not over-refine. And you hear the difference after I left the fold. The Japanese have a great term for the appreciation of something that’s imperfect: ‘wabi-sabi’.
Isn’t that the green horseradish stuff that comes with sushi?
Hell, no, James, its not wasabi, it’s wabi-sabi! Nurse! Over here!
You see, my job in Van Halen was director. The whole time I was in the band I was the boss. They hate me for it now, but I’m gonna say it upfront. I was domineering. I was demanding. I was exacting. And if things went wrong I took the fall. One of my biggest obligations as director was to ensure all the best mistakes stayed in the movie. ‘Don’t sew that up, leave it bleeding! Leave it lying there and we’ll act around it.’ A lot of the time, I hadn’t written my lyrics, but I couldn’t admit that to a superstar talent like Ted Templeman. He’d be like: “Are you ready, Dave?” “Well,
yes” [laughs]. Useful little word, that. So on ‘Everybody Wants Some’ [from ‘Woman And Children First’], when you hear me say: ‘I like the way the line runs up the back of those stockings’ , I’m just reporting what I can see of the girl through the glass in the control room.
Same with ‘Hot For Teacher’ [from ‘1984’]. I was just improvising. Ted goes: “So what do you have planned, Dave? You singing, or what?” I say: “No, no. In this one we’re all pretending to be in the classroom”. Same thing again on ‘Loss Of Control’ [‘Woman And Children First’]; all that stuff where we’re supposedly talking on helicopter radio is because I didn’t have any lyrics. I call it ‘cold fusion.’ Under-dress and you soon come up with a place to hang your hat.
The ‘Fair Warning’ album: was its darker lyrical content a reflection of increased tension within the band?
No, it came from somewhere else. I had bought a parrot, a big, red Amazonian thing named Ricky.
Man, that bird was bad clear through! It made more fuckin’ noise than a preacher in a strippers’ club on a Sunday morning. At the time I was living in a small apartment in North Hollywood. I would walk past Ricky’s cage at two metres distance, and he would start up a holy shriek to raise the Devil and his henchman – talk about anxiety overload!
So when I sat down to write the lyrics for that album, that was what I was dealing with. ‘Fair Warning’, the album title, was a call-out to Ricky. I mean, the neighbours would routinely complain because they thought it was a woman shrieking in the throws of passion. Not altogether unexpected, I’m sure, but in this instance... And my neighbours’ complaining led to ‘Mean Street’, and on and on.
Everything was clenched-fist and stiff-upper-lip, until in the end I gave Ricky away, and things smoothed out. It was a bit like that Woody Allen movie Celebrity , where he points to this short, Russian-looking guy who’s a film critic and says: “That’s Joe such-and-such. What a bastard he was. Lived by himself and hated every movie he ever saw and saw everybody’s movie. Then he found himself a bigbreasted blonde shiksa, and now he loves everything!” That exactly how it was for me after I got rid of that damn parrot.
Away from Van Halen for a minute. You’ve mountaineered in the Himalayas and explored the jungles of Papua New Guinea. When and where were you happiest? Probably travelling around the Tahitian islands in an outboard canoe that I borrowed from a friend. I was with a stripper from Dallas. Once I’d got her to rinse all the hairspray out of her hair and we could smell the local frangipani it was great; for the first eight days Tahiti smelled like a gentlemen’s club.
And when and where were you most challenged?
Not all of my outdoorsmanship is do or die, but I suspect you’re questioning the high end of the sport. I was probably most exhilarated and challenged in the Himalayas. I fell several times, all through my own mistakes. I had three buddies of mine climbing with me, and we did maybe six weeks, two of which were vertical. I prepared for that for a year-and-a-half, and consequently the fear factor was a year-and-a-half long. But that’s what makes you pop out of the toaster first thing in the morning.
Is there anywhere you can go and remain unrecognised?
Since the advent of the internet, not really, no. It even happened in the Himalayas. I did escape celebrity in New Guinea. Those guys with a bone through their nose and a gourd on their dick aren’t too interested in the finer points of the ‘Jump’ video.
Five out of the 12 songs on 1982’s ‘Diver Down’ were cover versions. Why?
Because nobody did covers better than Van Halen. And to take something like [Roy Orbison’s] ‘Pretty Woman’ and revitalise it as we did was similar to what they’re doing now with sampling. For many people, ‘You Really Got Me’ [from ‘Van Halen’; originally by The Kinks] only exists thanks to Van Halen. ‘Diver Down’ was also testimony to how much we enjoyed playing great music, whether we wrote the songs or not. If it was a great song, we played the hell out of it. And there’s nowhere to go from there but home base.
Which brings us to ‘1984’. At the time, did anybody have any misgivings about it being more keyboard-oriented than previous Van Halen albums?
We had intentionally stayed away from keyboards, because up ’til then, what instruments you used indicated which neighbourhood you were part of; Queen would write things like: ‘No synthesisers were used on this album’. That’s just affectation. But at the time it seemed important. When we moved on to work on ‘1984’, though, it was a case of inching up slowly, having previously exhausted other possibilities. I personally had always been a fan of keyboards and brass and female back-up singers and everything else that isn’t supposed to be hard rock. The band was at each other’s throats more than ever, but I say it with a smile. The best accomplishments are not achieved when everybody is sitting around going, “You’re great! Do you think I’m great too? You do? Great!”
For all the tensions in Van Halen, presumably there were times when the excitement of what you were achieving together enabled you to forget your differences?
We were always disagreeing, we were always at each other’s throats about what was the appropriate thing to do, but it was that belligerent, confrontational chemistry that created the music you grew up to. When the guys became relaxed and comfortable with Sam Hagar it was lost. But it doesn’t need to be lost forever. I actually consider that chemistry a positive force, one that could bode well for the future. We could pick up the gauntlet tomorrow. I’m completely up for that; always have been.
But during the period when Van Halen were at their peak, surely there were times when you at least felt like blood brothers?
Not really. Not much. I lived in my own little world, which was informed by a thousand books and ten-thousand magazines, and the Van Halens occupied another world entirely. To this day I don’t think Eddie Van Halen has enjoyed more than ten minutes of his success. He’s chased, he’s not chasing. He’s chased by something. But I never lamented it, because it’s precisely that contrast that makes the best art. And when all are comfortable, then you’re stuck with songs like ‘Why Can’t This Be Sam?’.
Don’t you mean ‘Why Can’t This Be Dave?’
No, because Dave would never pose a question like: ‘Why Can’t This Be Love?’. Dave would assume his love bases were covered.
But didn’t ‘5150’ [the first VH record to feature Hagar] out-sell previous Van Halen albums? It was certainly very successful.
I think our sales out-sold Sammy’s three to one. We had several twelve-millionsellers, and everything else went doubleor triple-platinum. None of it was as popular at any given time as Finding Nemo is today. And Jane Fonda’s work-out tape outsold everybody – including you, Mr Plant!
So what are we digging for here, professor? I think we’re digging for content [laughs]. Sam comes from a whole other background, so consequently, both lyrically and musically, it’s going to be a whole different tone and tenor. Still, even if the quality isn’t there I listen for the ambition. And I think that changed when I left. When I was boss we were adults acting like kids, but when Sam got in the band it became kids trying to act like adults.
Sammy Hagar also seemed to try and co-opt your sense of humour here and there. Which, incidentally, didn’t work.
It’s like writing the book: you have to live it first. And that doesn’t mean you have to go to Algiers and become a heroin addict – although there’s a book or two in that, too, of course. Sam is... a singer. I’m David Lee Roth, the singer. As a wrangler of words, sire, you see the vast yawning difference before us. Are you a writer or the writer? I rest my case.
Does it sadden you that what many would cite as the key creative partnership
of your career – ie that with Edward Van Halen – is in such a sad state of repair? The strata that we achieved is to be relished. If you can write one great song that will be remembered, far less 20, that’s amazing. It’s a pride of mine. I consider it miraculous.
Yes, but does the mutual estrangement of you and Edward sadden you?
It’s a catastrophic waste. We haven’t done enough. If somebody passed away, well, alright. If somebody lost an arm, alright. But we’re all still here and healthy. And that makes it a serious mis-step.
Despite everything – the lawsuits, the insults the two of you have periodically exchanged – you were presumably still worried when Edward had cancer?
Well, do it like a professional sportsperson, for Chrissake. Self-medicate, and I’ll see you tomorrow. I frankly don’t care about your health or the family or any of it. Play ball. You’re lucky enough to be able to bend it like Beckham. Get out there! Get behind the mule and go! Eddie himself did not take those illnesses so seriously. He partied all the way through them. So my sympathies are limited. At best. But beyond that, what better time to make music than at a time of severe strife? Use it!
In 2000 Van Halen’s record company reissued the six Van Halen albums you sang on. Conspicuously, there were no bonus tracks or out-takes added. Are there any unreleased tracks in the vaults?
You haven’t heard or seen anything but one half of an ill-conceived greatest hits. In the 18 years or so since I left, there should have been box-sets, videos... all kinds of stuff. Just the radio interviews alone are up there with Absolutely Fabulous ! Believe me, there is a tremendous wealth of unreleased Van Halen material.
But the Van Halens have lost their way. Eddie is... how should I put this... I think the Van Halens forgot why they originally wanted to do this. At this point, to have that missing stuff released is almost a responsibility. But the fellas got caught up with a couple of managers in the last few years who have other agendas. One of them was attempting to foist Sam [Hagar] upon us.
So their agenda is not at all what Van Halen’s audience – or myself – has. It all reminds me of that scene at the end of the movie Chicago : one girl turns to the other and says: “So let’s continue”. The other says: “But I hate you”. The first replies: “So what? This is showbiz!”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards don’t seem close nowadays but they can still get it together for business. Why can’t you and Edward?
There’s an emotional rift [he says with absolute candour] that I think is mainly caused by drugs and alcohol. It’s been there for many years. Ed’s adrift right now. He’s not really accomplishing anything. And for one who professes so much love for ‘the music’... well, how do you go five years without doing any? So, alright, we’ve all got 30 great songs stored away in our private attic studio in Malibu, Axl, and we’re all gonna change the face of popular music permanently and forever. But if the public doesn’t get to hear it what does it mean?
It’s sad, because, like I said, we hit that strata. Let me illustrate thus: if Beethoven came back tomorrow, it would go something like this...
“Ludwig, dude, it’s great to see you!” “James! Likewise!” “I hear you’ve been working in your attic and it’s your best symphony ever.” “Jim, my best symphony ever would be under-playing it. What I just wrote is mind-roasting.” “Gee, Ludwig, that’s great. But tell me, do you still play: duh, duh, duh, derrr?” [Hums opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.] You see?! That’s the kind of strata one hopes to attain. And Van Halen did. We created something that people desperately wanted to hear, and still do. In my mind that’s something you are duty-bound to answer to. But there’s been no closure in Van Halen for years and years.
I think it’s Ed’s struggle with who’s the boss. If you want to be leader you have to be accountable and all those other Boy Scout words. I don’t think Ed is ready to deal with that.
What about your work with guitarist Steve Vai [for Roth’s ‘Eat ’Em And Smile’ and ‘Skyscraper’ albums] – did you approach those projects knowing that your writing partnership with him might be difficult to sustain?
No, I approached it like a dog does: everything is forever; you take me back home, I’m gonna look at you at the back gate and go: “But I thought we were going to walk forever?”
So what happened? At the time, working with Vai and bassist Billy Sheehan seemed like such a masterstroke. You trumped everyone.
It ran into the dead end that is rock-fusion jazz-blues something or other, aka ‘widdley widdley’. When the guitarist starts going ‘widdley widdley’ it’s a symptom. When I made those records with Steve it was an effort to get him to go under the bar; consolidate; give your guitar solo a beginning, middle and end. What is the development of the character here? Is this guitar solo the same guy we met in the last three songs? Perhaps one is never so much oneself as when wearing the mask. And Steve’s mask is that there is something greater than writing songs and simple emotional content.
Which there isn’t, of course.
Well if there is I ain’t seen it, Sarge.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
Yes. I know there’s a place for me in what is happening right now, but I’m still working out what it is. Okay, if the Van Halens wake up and Eddie Van Winkle sees the daylight and we do a reunion, great. Mission accomplished. If it’s not that, Las Vegas has been offering me millions of dollars to reprise ‘California Girls’ and ‘Just A Gigolo’ for the stage. I wrote and directed those videos. Those are Burlesque. Those are Vaudeville. I learned it from watching shows back in the 60s, and from going to the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris in the 70s.
If not that, then maybe it’ll be spoken word. I love radio. The idea of being a DJ, whether playing tunes on the wheels of steel in the midnight hour or freethinking on talk radio, appeals to me. I use all of that as a compelling factor in my life to keep on learning, to continue reading more than I write.
A bit premature, this, but what would your epitaph be? Well, one of my favourite Japanese poems is: ‘Go!/Climb the treasure mountain and do not return emptyhanded/Where are you now?’. I also have a haiku of my own – a haiku being a poem that has five syllables, then seven, then five more. I call my haiku Tiny Moth . It goes like this: [counting syllables on his fingers] ‘Tiny little moth/Seeking warmth in candle’s flame/ [pauses a beat] Fucking idiot!’ .
There’s an old Jerry Herman song from the musical Hello Dolly which goes: ‘Before the parade passes by/I’ve gotta go and taste Saturday’s high life’ . It’s not a song one could imagine David Lee Roth singing. Largely because he’d be the guy leading the parade – to the top of the Treasure Mountain, with three Playboy Bunnies for sherpas.
TALKING TO DAVID LEE ROTH – CLIMBING MOUNT CHATMANDU WITH him, if you will – is a blast. Yes, his ego is all-consuming, but his wit and intellect – and waitress-charming skills – make him a near-perfect drinking buddy: Waitress: “Neither of you guys ordered a JD and coke, right?” Roth: “That’s correct, honey. But if you’ve got one bouncing around we can take care of it right here.” Waitress: “I do have one bouncing around. Let me bounce it to you and get you intoxicated!” Roth: [Grinning and cutting to the chase] “You know, you really are a doll!” [The waitress widens her eyes and giggles...] I’m surprised that Roth has been so candid about wanting to reunite with the Van Halen brothers. And even more surprised that he cites lack of ‘closure’ regarding Van Halen as a factor in his ongoing bachelorhood. Clearly, Van Halen meant – and means – everything to Roth. Songs such as ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love’ and ‘Jump’ are what he brought back from Treasure Mountain. Which is why he’s fully entitled to air them on his upcoming UK shows.
“I’m at the top of my game,” he says. “I don’t know I’ll ever be better. What I can do on stage now, no amount of production can transcend. And it is these very elements that bands like The Darkness are feeding upon. The fact that I’m still here, 25 summers later, making seven figures American, is testament to just how much this whole tribal ritual still has value.” Indeed it is. And as Dave Lee Roth prepares to take his ‘tribal ritual’ on the road again, the Van Halen rumour-mill keeps on churning. Just weeks ago, word was that Sammy Hagar was due to be reinstated as Van Halen’s frontman, while Michael Anthony, the band’s bass player from day one, had been given the boot.
“I don’t know,” Edward Van Halen told Iowa radio station KCQQ on January 9, regarding what was going on – or indeed not – with Van Halen and Anthony. “I haven’t talked to that cat [Anthony] in two years. I think he’s off with Hagar.” And as my interview with David Lee Roth winds down, it strikes me just how sparky it might be if he and Edward could reconcile their differences, or at least ignore them long enough to make another album. I’m just about to switch my recorder off when my host intervenes, his raised arm signalling the imminent delivery of one last quote.
“To keep up with me,” he says, “you must be fast. To sing like me, you must be great. To beat me? You must be kidding!”
With that, Roth’s big, booming laugh explodes yet again, and I begin to wonder what the rest of the evening has in store. Didn’t someone around here mention something about a titty bar? ■