PENTHOUSE INTERVIEW DAVID LEE ROTH by Gerard Van der Leun (1986)
“There are two rules to living well. The first is, don’t sweat the little shit. The second is, it’s all little shit. In other words, it’s all okay. We may be lost, but we’re way ahead of schedule. So… let’s dance!”
At the climax of the show, more than a hundred airport runway lights explode into the faces of over 5,000 rock fans already whipped into a frenzy by hours of the kind of rock music that liquefies the marrow of your bones. Rock ‘n’ roll’s randiest California boy, David Lee Roth, bounds onto the stage brandishing a 25-foot inflated microphone labeled DAVE. It’s the size of a small redwood and seems to be sprouting from his groin.
For the third time that evening, a fine selection of panties and bras arcs out of the audience and lands at his feet. The song is “Goin’ Crazy!” but the hysterical audience has long since gone. Dave tosses the mike up over his head, grabs a live one, kicks high, does a leap, lands, and segues into “Jump.” His new band is hot, tight, and loud, making a wall of sound drenched in a waterfall of light.
Dave’s into his umpteenth costume change and has already soaked through enough spandex to open a medium-size trampoline center. It’s late in the set, early in the tour, and about midway into one of the more colorful rock careers of recent history. The concert tonight is in Carbondale, Illinois. It’s the 15th city in a tour that will take the rock roadshow to more than a hundred in the coming year, with time off for making videos, recording albums, making a film, and good behavior. For the most part, though, the road is long, even for a veteran road rat like David Lee Roth–a man with a mission. And that mission is to have as good a time as possible, as often as possible, with as many people as possible, for as long as possible. He’s not doing badly at it tonight, and tonight is just an average show.
Onstage Roth looks as if he’d come home. It’s almost as if the show were something Dave and the guys just happened to put together on the spur of the moment and then invited 5,000 close friends over to abuse the substances of their choice, kick back, and get rowdy. Of course, everyone knows it’s all carefully contrived, but that’s just part of the fun. The persuasiveness of the band’s performance, the design of the show, the choice of Roth’s material, and the technical mastery of his band and his light and sound men rest on making the show include the audience instead of keeping them at arm’s length.
Like most pure products of California, Roth originated elsewhere. He was born in Bloomington, Indiana, on October 10, 1955, but his family soon moved briefly to Chicago and Massachusetts before settling in Pasadena, California. Roth is still close to his family both emotionally and geographically. His father is a prominent eye’ surgeon whose waiting room is decorated with some of David’s gold records, and when Roth bought a mansion last year, he bought it in Pasadena, “for my dad.”
Infatuated with show business from an early age, Roth was not exactly a star student at Pasadena’s Muir High School, but then they didn’t offer a major in “That’s Entertainment.” Roth formed his first band while cutting classes at the high school. It was called the Red Balled Jets, after the sneakers of the same name. The Jets soon became aware of the other Pasadena garage band, Mammoth, led by two Dutch brothers named Van Halen. Roth soon joined them to merge their talents and–more important at the time–their equipment.
Mammoth soon began to play beyond backyard parties in Pasadena. They were playing the Starwood in L.A. when they were discovered by the bassist for Kiss, Gene Simmons. Simmons changed the name of the band to Van Halen, flew them to New York, produced a demo tape of their songs, and got Mo Ostin, president of Warner Brothers, and Ted Templeman, one of the five best producers in rock, to catch their act when they returned to the Starwood. Immediately after the show, Ostin signed the band. Roth, Van Halen, and Templeman dove into the studio and emerged in only 18 days with their first album. It went gold with a bullet, and Van Halen went into orbit with’ Roth riding on the nose cone.
On the jacket of that first album, the groups’ personalities are revealed in the poses they strike. Eddie Van Halen proudly displays his customized guitar. Alex Van Halen hovers over a drum set that glows like an electric fire. Michael Anthony thrusts his bass at the viewer. And Dave… well, Dave seems to have a very large cordless microphone surgically implanted in his groin. It’s a feature that still survives in his concerts.
To find out more about this rock phenomenon, Penthouse asked writer and editor Gerard Van der Leun to interview him on the road.
Van der Leun found it a fascinating assignment: “Close up,” he told us, “Dave is a sturdy man with big amiable features exaggerated by years of mugging to the 90th row. His manner is friendly and sincere in a studied fashion; his conversation, by turns thoughtful and bizarre. His metaphors are drawn from rock, popular music, films, cartoons, television, and a number of books. But mostly it is vintage David Lee Roth, the conversation of a man constantly rewriting his story to see if he can make it a little more vivid, a little larger than life, and a little more fun every day.”
Roth has a wicked sense of humor and laughs a lot- a man who is comfortable with himself and who likes to play at playing, even when he’s working. It has not always been so. A little over a year ago, Roth’s immensely successful band, Van Halen, came to a very public and very ugly parting of the ways. Insults, recriminations, and accusations flew thick and fast with little regard for accuracy. Members of the band’s supporting staff were drawn in, and even the fans began to choose sides. Everybody reached for their lawyers.
Outnumbered three to one, Roth gave as good as he got. Then he got on with the business of working hard in the fast lane of rock ‘n’ roll. After all, he was the lead singer of the band that had parachuted into their first major stadium appearance, that held the world record for the most money ever paid a band for a single show ($1.5 million). He also enjoyed the reputation of being one of rock’s leading lotharios.
Roth was only a bit over 30 and hot. He’d conquered rock ‘n’ roll and, with his close friend and associate Pete Angelus, masterminded some of the funniest and most innovative rock videos to date, videos that more and more seemed to bring out his buffoonish persona -Dave- and push rock videos into manic rock comedy. So why shouldn’t he go on with it? Why shouldn’t he form a new band almost overnight, cut a new album With them, produce several more videos from deep within a costume that adds 100 pounds and 40 years to him, buy and move into a new mansion in Pasadena, launch a lawsuit, help promote a major MTV promotion, book a huge tour, load up 97 tons of equipment and at least three bus-loads of people, and just get on with it?
All three Roths–David, David Lee, and Dave– had been preparing to go solo and mobile all their life. Gotta dance.
Might as well jump.
Penthouse: When did you first know that you wanted to become a rock ‘n’ roll star?
Roth: I knew I wanted to travel and make music and sing and dance my way into the hearts and minds and bedrooms of people the world over when I was six or seven. I just knew. I got my first stack of records when I was seven. I got my first radio when I was seven. I got my first little record player when I was seven. I turned on to Marilyn Monroe when I was seven. Childhood, a magic time.
Penthouse: Did your family encourage you in your headlong pursuit of a life of fame, debauchery, and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice?
Roth: I didn’t list that. I felt it was a given that I’d make it big in show business, They didn’t take it seriously until the age of eight or nine, when I began actively preparing myself. I began learning commercials and acting out the plot lines of comic books, and there I went, off and running.
Penthouse: In the space of little more than a year, you’ve gone through the breakup of Van Halen, formed a new band, done numerous videos, recorded an EP and a full album, and launched a 110-city tour. What drives you?
Roth: I simply have to be creative all the time. I have to sit down with a group of people and create new things. I can be the quarterback. I can be the’ cheer- leader. I have to travel, to meet people. All different kinds of people. People are my enthusiasm and the source of my in-spirations. They’re where I get the nuts and bolts of what I do.
Penthouse: So you don’t buy into the crystal-castle syndrome of rich and famous stars?
Roth: Naw. Solitude is a pretty sweet drug, but if you try it for more than a couple of days, you’re an odds-on candidate for the Keith Richards Hall of Fame.
Penthouse: How do you prepare for tours and shows that are so nonstop?
Roth: Mostly roadwork, Get the wind up and the heartbeat down. But it’s not something I do just before we go out on the road, it’s a year-round thing. I do martial arts. Life is a kung-fu movie, and you have to prepare for it in that way.
Penthouse: Do you think your audiences have changed over the last ten years?
Roth: On this tour I’m seeing a much larger percentage of women in the au- dience, as much as 65 to 75 percent in some places. Conversely, we’re seeing a lot of heavy-metal headbangers–you know, the black T-shirt set. Then we’re getting everyone in between.
Penthouse: Seventy percent women in the audience? What do you suppose brings all these women out to see David Lee Roth?
Roth: Oh, well… my voice, I imagine.
Penthouse: Is your long-standing reputation as one of L.A.’s greatest party animals accurate?
Roth: I know that people think I’m a party king; but, face it, if I finished the bottle every time I took a drink, I wouldn’t be able to do the aerials I do onstage. On the other hand, you’re not going to get much of a poem out of a glass of iced tea. The same thing goes for all the parties backstage or for any other vices. These backstage happenings go on pretty constantly out here on the road. They’re the payoff for all the hassles and the physical drain of the shows. Money is not the payback out here on the road. My life is spent onstage, in studios, of- rices, editing bays, and the back of a limo going to one or the other of the above. So what am I going to get with my money? A bigger limo? A higher-tech editing bay? It really doesn’t make much difference to me. So this scene is my payoff and is probably the most archetypal ghetto garage party you’ve ever known. Dim the lights. Turn up the music.
Penthouse: Talking about music, what do you think of the songs on your album Eat ‘Em and Smile?
Roth: Songs are my fascination: verse, chorus, eight-bar B parts. I can name you a hundred Beatle songs and, Beatle fan or not, you can probably sing to me a little bit of each one. I can name you half of the Rolling Stones catalog, and you can probably hum me parts of each chorus. Very different than humming, say, one of the long jams from Cream. That’s a little tough. So songs that have a good structure to them are my fascination. That’s what we set out to do with the record, and we’ve accomplished it by jumping around stylistically. It is a big jump from “Yankee Rose” to “That’s Life.”
Penthouse: Besides your original numbers, how do you choose the songs that you cover? It’s one thing to cover a hardrock classic, it’s quite another to reinterpret something like “That’s Life” or the classic ‘Just a Gigolo.”
Roth: My heart and soul are rock ‘n’ roll, but I also like to reach back and bring old songs up to speed. Everything my new band does is done with torque under very high pressure. Tricks done by professionals under professional super- vision. We do not recommend them for home use. Any kind of music that has torque to it, any kind of music that has not speed, but thrust, appeals to me. A slow reggae song can have just as much thrust the way we do it as any of our speed-metal escapades like “Elephant Gun.” So anything from AI Jolson to Bob Marley that has a boom-boom-boom- boom to it will fascinate me.
Penthouse: It’s appropriate that you should mention AI Jolson, since your performing style is similar. Are you a closet Jolson fan?
Roth: Oh yes. He’s a classic show-biz model. The white gloves. Drop to one knee. The Knickerbocker break. The flatspin. Smile! No dead space. I can’t stand dead space onstage. You see, I’ve got a surgically implanted disco beat. My show has to be 130 beats a minute or better. Let’s hit it! Open up them pearly gates because I am the California earthquake!
Penthouse: Putting aside the modesty that’s been your trademark for many years, how would you compare your new band and your new album to Van Halen?
Roth: This music is much more precise. And the band is a real band, a band that competes with each other. Any time there’s a hole in the music, Billy Sheehan and Steve Vai both rush to fill it with the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll riff. So it takes a really precise team to be able to change the signal once the play has been called.
“Solitude is a pretty sweet drug, but if you try it for more than a couple of days, you’re an odds- on candidate for the Keith Richards Hall of Fame.”
This band is like a pro football team. Once the ball has been snapped, this team is in action. Tight. Sharp. Nonstop go! Most rockers rely totally on street smarts. I spent ten years dealing with Van Halen’s street smarts and didn’t know what I was missing. You can hear the tremendous difference onstage when we play old songs from Van Halen like “Panama” or “Jump.” Now they’re played with precision. When the dynamic is supposed to drop, it doesn’t fade away– it’s boom!! When that’s right, 10,000 people should turn to each other and say, “Did you feel that?” Not “Did you hear it?” but “Did you feel it?”
Penthouse: How did you find your new band?
Roth: I didn’t audition anyone, I just listened to bands and records. And what I listened for was not what they were doing then or what they had done before, but for pure potential. I figured that I knew what my contribution to a band could be. I listened for what they might be able to contribute. And when I found the musicians I wanted, I decided that if they weren’t walking around unattended, I would, in the great old American rock ‘n’ roll tradition, simply steal them from another band.
Penthouse: Once you had your band, how did you go about building your songs?
Roth: When you start, you don’t start by writing songs together because you’re going to be disappointed on a daily basis. Nobody delivers 100 percent pure great right from the start. So I figured we should learn all the oldies together. That way we experienced the elation of how bitching we sounded immediately. That’s the way to become a group, an identity, a team, a band. That way you play together, you’re not just individuals trying to contribute the great end of the world riff or The Famous Final Chorus. After we got the oldies down, we moved into blast-off boogie songs, then we moved into vocals like “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” or “Help!” Pretty soon we had a band that could perform a whole show together. Then we started to write songs.
Penthouse: It’s true that there are several different interpretations of “Yankee Rose.”
Roth: Exactly. You’re not sure what the song is about. Is it about the Statue of Liberty? Is it about a girl? Is it Dave talking about himself? You’re not sure.
Penthouse: When you go into the studio, how prepared are you?
Roth: The idea is for us to do all our “homework” in the basement studio at my new house, then just have a whompin’ good time in the recording studio.I want to commit a real “feel,” a real spirit, on to the plastic. Once you begin to perform surgery on that spirit, you risk killing it.
Penthouse: Do you feel that the rift between the very serious musician’s persona that Eddie Van Halen espouses and your showman’s personality is what ultimately blew up Van Halen?
Roth: What destroyed Van Halen was that the band wanted to remain purely unidimensional. You just can’t do that in rock ‘n’ roll, whether it’s heavy metal or soul. To make great rock ‘n’ roll, you always have to be expanding your musical horizons. You have to expand into it, just like all the great bands have. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones all these people expanded with the times. Van Halen didn’t want to do that. Van Halen had turned into Spinal Tap.
Penthouse: How bad was it at the end?
Roth: The band had disintegrated into a spiteful bunch of bleary-eyed, argumentative, procrastinating individuals. They wanted to fire their producer and produce themselves. They wanted to fire the manager and manage themselves. They didn’t want to go on the road except to play gigantic stadiums for 60 days. I did everything I could to keep the act together. But after months and months of wasting time–and let us keep in mind that rock ‘n’ roll is in the fast lane–I had to leave. I was driven out.
Penthouse: When did you decide to dispense with an overly serious approach to videos?
Roth: Early on, in MTV’s first season with “Pretty Woman,” Pete Angelus and I–the Fabulous Picasso Brothers, as we are known in the trade–decided that videos were a great way to merge the songs with the movies that were always going on. I just took it from there.
Penthouse: How do the Fabulous Picasso Brothers go about creating knockout video?
Roth: The process is about as simple as you and I sitting in front of the TV set for a couple of hours and having a few drinks. After a couple of beers you start to become a little derisive of the family in the living room inside the tube. And so you kind of leap to the challenge and help out. The television can’t hear you, but your friends can and it kind of livens up the experience. I just try to translate that onto video, that sense of humor, that sense of aggressiveness, of cynicism. That’s where the concepts come from.It’s as simple as remembering where you’ve been. For instance, have you ever been in the 7-Eleven at four in the morning with that vile surgical lighting, and everybody has that lovely banana-yogurt texture to their skin, and there’s some sort of Arabian-beat-box Chinese disco whining away in the background; and there .. there is the immigrant grocer with his hand outstretched, ready to take the money for your 12 Snickers bars!
Penthouse: Do you think that the fact that this year’s award for Video of the Year to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” signals the death of MTV as we have known it?
Roth: I think it hails a return to cartoons. And a grand one at that. I see that Pee-wee Herman is hosting a kid’s show on Saturday. Do you know what this gener- ation is ready for in a big way? Soupy Sales!
Penthouse: Rock runs on kinky sex, mas- sive substance abuse, and shaking one’s booty. How do you think that’s going to be maintained in the face of the country’s current antisex, antidrug hysteria?
Roth: My view is cynical on both sides. I view people with drug problems as people with troubles. Big-time troubles. At the same time, I’m deeply suspicious of people who think the world’s ending because someone took a drink or two. As far as the excesses of the road such as “the girls backstage”–well, the age of professional groupies is over. What’s in the room next door now are college girls, working girls, secretaries, nurses, assistants. It’s not really like New York after-hours anymore. As much as I might like it to be.
Penthouse: Could you discuss how you and Angelus and the rest of your com- pany design the show that seems to make the whole stadium a part of it?
Roth: Do you remember those early Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies? In those films it was always “Hey, Mr. Ziegfeld is coming to town! I have a backyard. We can turn it into a stage!” I’ve spent the last ten years of my career taking a million-dollar stage and attempting to turn it into a backyard. The show designed around a personal philosopy of mine that an audience, the way I make rock “n” roll, is played with, not played at. Anything that’s going to seperate me from the audience on a viceral level is left out of this show.
Penthouse: What do you think the next big thing in rock ‘n’ roll is going to be?
Roth: I’ve said through the years, rock is all shoes and haircuts. There’s only about eight to 12 basic beats that you can use in popular music, and then you’re off into fusion.
I see a conglomeration of styles starting to happenn I see Anglo rock and girls doing a lot of bebop disco a la Madonna. And that’s not a put-down by any means. Face it, even Bruce has a click track.
Penthouse: What’s your next big step?
“When they make my gravestone,” says David Lee Roth, “it’s going to be a cement copy of Huckleberry Finn with a pair of cement handcuffs on top of it.”
Roth: I really don’t know. Things change so quickly around me. And things change so radically and quickly in the business of rock that a sane person knows they can’t predict it. Six years ago, if we said what about MTV, who woulda thunk it? Never would have thunk it. Then… whammo! Biggest thing in the world. Everyone’s making a video. Synthesizers. Who woulda thunk it at the start? Just the difference in terms of what was being played in 1978 and now, as dance music is so radically dif ferent in sound and format because of synthesizers. For a while there, I saw a lot of polariza- tion between different musical entities between a punk rocker and a heavy-metal guy. Now you’re seeing it seep under the door from one dressing room to the next.
Penthouse: This year you bought a large house in Pasadena. What made you settle down in your hometown when you could live anywhere in the world?
Roth: Ah, I bought the house for my pop. “Hey, I gotta mansion/A real high price/ They tell me it’s lovely/They say it’s nice.” What do I know about it all? The last three months before we went out on this monster tour, I slept all my time in Hollywood. I slept in a car. I slept in a studio. I slept at the office. I suppose I should spend more time at home and more time with my family, but it just hasn’t turned out that way. I like to go and I like extremes.
Penthouse: Now that you’re back on the scene in a big way, how do you manage to do all that you do and still maintain the life of a major, mellow superstar?
Roth: Stress is very un-rock ‘n’ roll. There are two rules to living well. The first is, don’t sweat the little shit. The second is, it’s all little shit. Now, if you can get yourself to really buy that, at least spiritually, then you’re gonna be a lot happier moving from base to base. In other words, it’s all okay. We may be lost, but we’re way ahead of schedule. So let’s dance!
Penthouse: So you never let petty things bother you?
Roth: I’ve seen bands go right into the pipe over just this small shit. These small, mundane, garbagey little problems have destroyed bands much bigger than Van Halen ever was, or I’ll ever be. That’s why I’m always going off into the jungles. Sure, I deride all these people who can’t get over the small shit. But I’m also going to put my money where my mouth is. I’m going to go into the jungle and test the theory I go and live by my wits and my hands for a month or two out of the reach of civilization and when, upon returning, someone tells me that the monitor has just blown up, I just have to respond with “It’s cool.”
Penthouse: When you come back from these adventures, you have to go back to work as a rock ‘n’ roll star. What’s the job of a rock star these days?
Roth: My first response to any situation is always “Let’s Go” I always have lots of pots on the boil. Dave–the Video, the Record, the Movie Deal, the Band, the Latest Catastrophe! So when I come back from the outback a lot of people look to me for, at least …spiritual guidance. Now, that’s not as stupid as it seems, because when they come to me, they often say things like, “My gawd, Dave, it’s an outdoor gig, and the power’s blown, and it’s starting to rain, and People magazine is showing up, and the audience is only half full.”
My job is to say, “No, no, no. It’s going to sell out, the power will come back on, the rain will stop, and everybody’s gonna love it.” It’s easy for me. I don’t believe in the politics of despair. And if it does continue raining, well, then it damn well isn’t my fault.
Penthouse: What do you think are the major disadvantages of a rock star’s life?
Roth: Isolation. Being on the outside of normal experiences a lot of the time. If you walk into a room and the room freezes, this is not a normal peer-group situation. If it turns into E. F. Hutton every time you open a window shade, you are not in a normal frame of reference from which one develops a normal personality. It’s like any business. When you achieve a certain level of success and popularity, people don’t really want you to be regular, don’t want you to be normal. I have to take care to circumnavigate being in that kind of situation.
Penthouse: How do you manage that?
Roth: I don’t spend much time at all with people in the music business. I mean, I’ve shaken everybody’s hand. I’ve had a drink with every guy or gal. But I spend most of my off-time by myself. I’m very much of a loner like that.
Penthouse: What do you like in a woman?
Roth: I like strength. Physical and spiritual strength. Just like in my music, I like a woman with street smarts and book learning. I like a lethal tongue. I like a gal with a sense of humor and a gal who’s furious. That pretty much excludes most of the modeling community and the entertainment field.
If you’re asking me what I look for in a girlfriend, to me that means a woman I’m going to wake up next to, somebody I’m going to have dinner with more often than not; that means a soul mate, a pal, someone to cover my back as well as make out with. I’m hyper demanding about that. Those special gals are few and far between. I suspect that if I had a formal education or was in some other industry, maybe there’d be more opportunity to find women like that. But I’m just guessing.
Penthouse: What’s the most exotic place you’ve been to?
Roth: Los Angeles: We’ve got all the art and culture that New York has. We’ve got all the sun and bikini lines that Tahiti has. Most successful musicians conceive of the outdoors as, in Fran Lebowitz’s phrase, “the distance you have to walk from the hotel door to the limousine.” L.A. has the limousines, the hotels, the mountains, the beach, the drag strip, the tractor pull, the art museum, the Getty Museum, the tar pits, the Schubert Theater, off Broadway. And you’ve got cable.
Penthouse: To what do you attribute your incredible sense of fashion?
Roth: My costumes are strictly fantasy land. When I dream them up, I work in concert with a gal named Melissa Daniel. It all comes from all my personal fascinations. It combines comic books with kung-fu movies. The clothes I wear are heavily influenced by the movies. To night, for instance, was sort of suggestive of Buck-Rogers-goes-to-the-beach and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Penthouse: Yes, you can get some stunning accessories at J. C. Penny’s.
Roth: Right. Over-the-counter fashion is the hippest fashion. If you can take something and make it yours, shazam! In rock ‘n’ roll you can get away with crazy combinations. Today, we’re a cowboy. Tomorrow, we’re Buck Rogers.
Penthouse: What’s next after the tour?
Roth: Well, the Fabulous Picasso Brothers should really make a movie. I think the Fabulous Picasso Brothers would be just as cutting, just as relevant as Monty Python when they were at the crest of their wave, as Firesign Theater when they really had the groove. At the same time, I think we have all the rock ‘n’ roll credibility in the world here, music wise and show-wise. The combination is unique.
There are people who have done the same kinds of things, but they didn’t come from this kind of rock theater. Such a move seems like a very logical step from the road show we do. I’m very much in favor of blowing my image up out of all proportion to itself. Twenty-six inches or 40 feet, what’s the difference? Where are we going? is the question I like to ask.
Penthouse: So are you saying that we’re going to continue to see the two major Roth images–David Lee Roth, super- stud-superstar, and Dave, rocker and mocker–continue to get larger?
Roth: I don’t know, but rest assured we’re going to be doing something as fast and as furiously as possible. I’m going to pursue what I’m doing and see where it leads.
Penthouse: If there comes a day when youth will pass away, what will they say about you, Dave?
Roth: When they make my gravestone, it’s going to be a cement copy of Huckle berry Finn with a pair of cement handcuffs on top of it.