The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: David Lee Roth and the Secret of Van Halen’s Excess
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'..?"