David Lee Roth is many things to many people. A war-torn hero to card-carrying heshers; a lunatic to easily frazzled journalists. A gutter poet to the faithful; a burnout to skeptics. Fuck perceptions — he still rocks. Roth will prove this to you again via Diamond Dave (Magna Carta).
“The new album is Dave in junior high school,” offers Señor Roth during a brisk phone conversation. “It’s almost all cover tunes, the stuff that I grew up shoplifting as a kid,” which turns out to be numbers from Savoy Brown (“Made Up My Mind”), the Doors (“Soul Kitchen”), the Steve Miller Band (“Shoo Bop”) and so on, plus some originals. “It’s familiar bands, but it ain’t the familiar songs. Most of what you get on Top 40 is low on fat, high on sugar. I’m an American. I like high fat, high sugar.”
The album is designed to get yer ass shakin’, though not in the traditional monster-guitar rock manner Roth is mostly known for. The vibe is summertime party music, emphasizing bluesy dance grooves and funky beats, with the occasional guitar wallop thrown in for good measure. Have no fear, though, the live show is a nonstop two-hour fun fest that showcases Roth’s Van Halen classics alongside select hits from his solo career. Yes, folks, Big Rock is back courtesy of Super Dave, and it’s still wrapped in spandex, shod in cowboy boots, and surrounded by short people, whiskey and hot babes.
“The devout debauch-a-palooza Dave bunch are all over the world, baby. I represent several different genres of music that the attitude transcends. I can put on a cowboy hat or an aviator’s helmet, and I’m still the same guy.”
What is it that sent this kid from Pasadena down the path of rock & roll superstardom? Something in his genes, or something in his jeans? What made this Diamond shine so brightly? Commitment, that’s what. Roth’s dedication to a vocation in hedonism drives the frothy front man — and it’s not only a career choice, but a lifestyle. Even if it means junking 9-to-5 hours, a steady relationship and, er, sanity.
“When you start off, you think you’re going to conquer the world of whatever it is — drama, theater, film, rock & roll, or you have the great American novel and it’s just dying to come out. You are focused on that to the exclusion of everything else, frequently even your health. You will live in conditions that are unlivable, you’ll accept side work, you will tolerate love affairs that no man should have to endure, and it’s part of what makes you. It is what makes you.
“But then you buy a car, the car has to get gassed up and cleaned up every now and again. You get a dog, you gotta walk the dog twice a day, and so on. Superb, but you’re always going to be making that decision: Is it the work or the living? I ain’t sayin’ that doin’ this kinda work ain’t livin’, but it is to the exclusion of what most people consider traditional living. If you get married and have kids and go to the Christmas play, the idea of just picking up and leaving will impact that family. There are very few people who balance it. It’s irrational living. It is not sensible living. Most of these things are not suitable for older viewers. Everywhere here are signs of a spiritual struggle. Art and struggle, that could be the title of my next book!
“Yet if you leave it behind, once you get over 35 years old you will always look back and say, ‘Man, when I was starving, that was the best years of my life. When I had a television that didn’t have any sound on it, that was the best TV I ever had. Who was that girl? What was her name? I wonder if she still lives around here?’ When you have nothing to distract you, it’s part of what’s great about being 12 years old.”
Lest we forget, forever-young Roth is a product of his environment, Los Angeles. Little-known facts? He was a big supporter of the L.A. punk scene, was an investor in the Zero One art gallery, where many punkers and artists hung and performed, and was a big-time early booster of the East L.A. music scene, championing Los Lobos and the Plugz before they started making headway.
Roth didn’t just pick the Van Halen song title “Top Jimmy” out of a hat, ya know. While all the other hard rockers in the late ’70s were sucking down cocktails and snortin’ lines while hanging at the Starwood and scoffing at the punkers down the street piling into the Masque to see the Germs, he was sucking down cocktails and snortin’ lines while headlining the Starwood and then ducking out the back door to hang with the Runaways, see Black Flag in concert, or hear pal Top Jimmy sing the blues.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of bands like Van Halen around when we started. What we were playing was a hybrid. What existed in clubs at the time was heavy metal, Black Sabbath–y, Deep Purple–ish kinda stuff. What was happening was punk and new wave. I’ve routinely been involved in that, because that’s what I listen to. The L.A. underground was where all the best graphic artists congregated, where all the best trick musicians hung out, and where all the scratching and turntabling was happening — that’s where you heard it first. The Dust Brothers would only hang out at the Zero One. The fellas I work with now were all beginning artists back in those days. If you are looking for what’s happening right now, or what’s next, then it’s probably not what you’re finding on the left-hand side of the Billboard chart currently. It’s the old aerospace axiom that if it’s in the air it’s already obsolete. If it’s on MTV, that’s great, but something else is already happening somewhere else, somewhere around the Silver Lake district, somewhere below 14th Street, or in certain parts of Paris.
“My fascination has always been with what’s the most risk-taking stuff. What’s the most unpredictable? What’s the most left? What’s gonna make me smile the biggest? What’s the horniest? What’s the most violent? I wanna be mind-roasted, baby. I’m not interested in ‘They’re really gonna be great,’ I’m interested in ‘Mind-roast me instantly if not sooner.’ That’s how I was raised.”
So with a summer tour wrapping up in his hometown, and a world of experience to squeeze into even more songs, books and radio stints (he’s done some deejaying lately), what’s left to tackle for a man of Roth’s hunger? Nothing, really. His mission statement is still not to have a mission statement, to stay one step ahead of the game while staggering several steps behind, giggling as he looks up your girlfriend’s dress and slugs down a shot of whiskey. “As the quarterback for Van Halen, my job was the same then as it is now: to make sure that good old familiar cowboy boot arrives in a brand-new box every single time you buy it.”
David Lee Roth plays the Universal Amphitheater on Friday, August 22.