Van Halen's David Lee Roth always did give great copy. This 1984 Mick Brown interview with the OTT frontman was conducted as the quintessential LA hard-rock virtuosos blossomed into the biggest band in America. It was published in the London Sunday Times——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
It is another perfect day in paradise, and David Lee Roth has decided to go for a drive down Hollywood Boulevard.
There is a certain style involved in this. Roth drives a pristine red and white 1951 Mercury, the size of the small bungalows one sees beside azure swimming pools in the more expensive Beverly Hills hotels. Every extrusion has been recessed into the body of the car, leaving its lines unbroken. Its chrome gleams in the warm midday sun. Its suspension has been lowered so that it hovers four inches above the ground, in the manner of the low riders to be found in the barrios of East Los Angeles. "Ethnic minorities love this car", he says.
Roth has dressed for the drive. He is wearing red satin bathing shorts, a muscle-beach T-shirt, thick woolly socks and hiking boots. His hair hangs in a thick unruly mane around his shoulders. He is smoking a joint and cackling demonically as he feeds the Temptations' Greatest Hits into the cassette player, as if there could be nothing finer than to be bumping gently along the boulevard at 20mph, stopping at every traffic light to bask in the admiration of the driver in the next car, in the curious stares and excited squeals from bystanders on street corners.
"Hey, how you doin' yourself, babe? It's a '51 Mercury, my friend — why thank you. You take care now. Howyadoin' sweetheart — an autograph? Sure. Gotta pen before the lights change? Hey darlin'..."
The two teenage girls frozen on the crossing are creasing over with excitement and embarrassment.
"You two girls lookin' for trouble? Well HERE I AM..."
David Lee Roth was in good humour. The previous week, Van Halen — the group which he leads — had won the award for 1984's Best Video on MTV (the rock video channel on US cable TV) for their song 'Jump'. The 1.5 million dollars they had lately received for performing at a Californian pop music festival — the single largest pay-out in pop music history — was in the bank accruing interest at a highly favourable rate. They had, in the past six months, toured the world, including an appearance in Britain in front of 65,000 people at the aptly-named Monsters of Rock festival where, it was popularly acknowledged, they had stolen the show from the putative headliners AC/DC. David Lee Roth was working on his first solo record (a single, 'California Girls', to be released this week), and was about to go exploring in New Guinea. The sun was beating down on his '51 Mercury; girls were waving at him from street corners. God was in His heaven; David Lee Roth was improving his tan; and all was right with the world.
"I've always been very self-motivated," he said, stating what was rapidly becoming obvious. "I never went looking for action. I always assumed it was in the glove compartment, so to speak, and all we need is a place to get it out and spread it around. It's always irritated me that people say, 'Where's the action? Oh wow, there's no action here; let's go somewhere else'. These people will never find the action. There's three kinds of folks on this planet. There's people who make things happen; there's people who watch things happen; and there's people who wonder, what happened?" Roth had burst into a gale of laughter and was banging his first delightedly on the dashboard. "Hey, babe — how you doin'..?"
If it is presently hard to ignore Roth and Van Halen in the pop music papers; on video; in the best-selling record charts; and it is particularly hard to ignore them on stage, because they are so loud. "Even our slow songs," says Roth, "have got a lot of torque."
This is heavy metal. The revenge of the electric guitar on the synthesizer; the revenge too of biceps and masculine virtue on the foppishness of British pop music.
Now is a propitious time for such music in America. MTV bristles with groups in stud-encrusted codpieces, animal furs, chains and body oil. They are brandishing whips, foaming at the mouth and beating their chest wigs. It is a fearsome sight. For every Boy George there is a Mötley Crüe or Ratt; for every Spandau Ballet, a Thor or Quiet Riot. But in the land of the mindless power chord, Van Halen are king.
"All these other guys, they're monster movies", says Roth. "They're closet impotents. Family men. They get up there and growl and make faces like an oboe player, but these are the same people who think an aneurysm is something to do with toilet training.
"Y' know, there's a guy in Quiet Riot who mimics what I do. He goes out with a bottle of Jack Daniels on stage, but he has to be careful he doesn't bang it too hard on the drum riser in case it foams up and the audience know it's filled with soda pop. I hear this from the groupies, okay? They don't lie."
In the battle of volume, braggadocio and excess which is now fought in the arena of American rock, Van Halen have two distinct assets. One is the guitar-playing of Edward Van Halen himself, which so defines the genre that Michael Jackson borrowed him to play the solo on the single 'Beat It', in order, it is said, to seduce white rock radio stations into playing the record. The other asset is David Lee Roth's ego. A '51 Mercury is barely large enough to contain it. To sit with David Lee Roth is to be confirmed with a gale force of self-congratulation, dismissive put-down of others, gimcrack philosophy. A lot of torque.
This, he says, with uncharacteristic gravitas, is a public service. His fans expect it. He has lately been impressing the American rock press with selective excerpts from 200 of the World's Greatest Speeches — a compendium of discourse from Caesar to Martin Luther King. "All that stuff about storming the stadiums and fighting them on the bleachers — none of those guys know where all that's coming from."
In his more contemplative moments, Roth is apt to reflect that the rise of Van Halen in general, and himself in particular, resonates with the spirit of contemporary things American. It is escapist fantasy — "the eternal Saturday night"; it is capitalism in its purest and most unadulterated from. David Lee Roth closes his eyes and thinks of hamburgers.
"Y'know, I always admired Ray Kroc, the man who invented McDonald's. Ray had a vision of the most commonplace thing — a hamburger and fries to go — but to him it was just the greatest thing ever, and he was going to make it the greatest thing ever for everybody else, and he did. I admire that, and that's how I geared myself." Roth was lighting another joint, waving to a girl on the pavement and thinking seriously about a beer. "I mean, it's not like I geared myself exactly after Ray Kroc, you understand. It wasn't like I grew up wanting to be like Mr. McDonald. Ronald McDonald maybe..."
This was not, perhaps, an ambition shared by many of Roth's contemporaries as he grew up, the son of a surgeon, in a prosperous middle-class suburb in Illinois. When he was 10, the family moved to Pasadena, California, the first district in the state to introduce a programme of integrational bussing. Roth was, in his own words, "in the nose cone of the first bus into the ghetto". It was to be formative influence. He was already fluently profane in Spanish, Negro and white Anglo-Saxon protestant idioms when, at the age of 16, he discovered Alice Cooper. Cooper's souped-up heavy rock — a feverish celebration of consumption and decay, performed with the aid of a hangman's noose, a boa constrictor and baby dolls being mutilated on stage — impressed him deeply.
Alice's subsequent embrace in the arms of conventional show business, being put out to pasture on the golf-links with Bob Hope, only heightened Roth's conviction that here was a role model to emulate.
Van Halen won their first record contract in 1977, at a concert in Anaheim Stadium, when four hirsute figures — one with Roth's flowing blonde mane — floated gently into the stadium by parachute. Van Halen were hiding in a van, dressed in parachute suits, and took the stage moments later. As a professional gambit, it set a certain tone which they have followed assiduously ever since. The stipulation in their performance contract that the promoter remove all brown Smarties in the bowl in their dressing-room (to ensure he has read the contract properly); Roth's two black-belt midget bodyguards — such things, he suggests, are imperative for "overall ambience".
He says: "When you look out of your bedroom door and a midget goes by in a bath towel, you know you're not in life insurance. And it's important for me to keep reminding myself, to keep populating this little world and adding to it. I was always disappointed when I was a little kid when I found out that other people were faking me out — they didn't really dress like that, or look like that or behave like that off stage. And I believe in leaving the door open and letting everybody have a look. A fantasy is no fun unless everybody shares it."
What David Lee Roth is most anxious to impress is that he actually takes his life very seriously. "I take my personal upkeep real seriously; my sense of organization and attention to detail; my memory; my business — I love the business. It's mental chess, man; computer games without the grid. And I like the knocks I knew I was a star when I got my first piece of hate mail. I got no time for Michael Jackson getting upset over people saying he's had a sex change. Stick your head above the crowd and somebody's going to throw a rock at it. I think it says that in the Bible."
The expeditions which Roth and a small group of friends organise each year to remote parts of the world are something else he takes seriously. In 1983 he spent seven weeks trekking through the Amazonian jungle. Last summer he was planning a five-week exploratory trip through the Highlands of New Guinea.
"It's therapy beyond belief", he says. "You don't think about anything except the most basic primal instincts and necessities. Man is at his finest and develops the fastest and in the best possible way when he is at his most basic. The natives of New Guinea have 650 separate dialects, so for me it's all down to sign language. If you can relax, you can tell some pretty good stories. And if you develop that facility it's bound to serve you well in the music industry."
One could see what he meant. For Roth to mix with "the mental midgets with guitars" must be like a leviathan mingling with pygmies. The trouble with most musicians, he mused, was that, like athletes, they have trouble seeing the end until the end is near. Personally, he could see a career in writing, perhaps as a "participatory observer" in popular culture, "kind of like Will Rogers or Mark Twain. I believe in disposable culture, because it's significant of the time and place it occurs in. Van Halen — any rock band — is a historical paragraph. It's disposable not because it's bad — although these things often are — but because there are so many new things coming along and replacing it. I support that. I think it educates people, and it's an educational language. What's happening this week?"
True to this bent, he has already laid plans to follow the Alice Cooper model, playing the part of a grouchy cook in the new Sesame Street film. In the world of the high-torque guitar solo, the stud-encrusted cod-piece and the midget bodyguard, such a move should not be seen as out of context.
"I've always been a show-off," says Roth, "but I've also always had something to say. I will express myself through other avenues. Just so long as I'm famous. So long as the spotlight's on Dave..."
We walked back to the car, having drunk the beer that Roth had been seriously thinking about. Somebody had left a Polaroid snapshot lying on the front seat, with a message. "Next time you come, Karen gives the best service." Roth put it in the glove compartment, where he keeps all the action, switched on the Temptations and nosed the car into a stream of traffic.
A girl on the pavement was doing a double-take. "Hey, baby, if you're lookin' for trouble..."
Read classic articles on artists from Aaliyah to ZZ Top at Rock's Backpages. Close to 20,000 pieces by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 50 years.