Music, My Stories

David Lee Roth

The headline reads, “My Whole Career Is Based Upon Disturbances And Uproar”.

Below is an interview conducted by Steffan Chirazi that appeared in the February 1991 issue of Hot Metal, which was an Australian monthly magazine on all things metal. All the text in italics is the interview. The text that isn’t in italics is my addition.

“I take everything I do very seriously – it’s other people’s perceptions of me I don’t take seriously!”

In 2016 and with social media so prevalent in our lives, other people’s perception of us is important. We all want to be liked. But the rock stars of the past, like David Lee Roth, he didn’t care in the opinion of others. But then again, fans of music didn’t really have a voice to express their opinion. Regardless, the presence of social media and cameras in phones has changed the way rock stars behave. Suddenly perception of others is important.

David Lee Roth is nobody’s fool. The man is in total control, a fact that is reflected in Roth’s most interesting and diverse album yet, “A Little Ain’t Enough”. It roars with a title track that needs to be blasted loud, a stomper that shows just where those old Van Halen roots actually lie, yet crawls with a bluesy feel so low and steaming that you’d almost think the man has no manners. It’s also diverse; Roth’s the focus now and he simply assembles musicians when and how he needs them. This time that happened to be in a cheap motel in Vancouver.

David Lee Roth is a character. According to the New Oxford American English Dictionary, character means “strength and originality in a person’s nature”.

And David Lee Roth is unique.

The “A Little Ain’t Enough” album is good. This is David Lee Roth telling the world who he is in 1991. He is checking his bases to see if his brand of over the top, feel good, tongue in cheek vibe is relevant. It’s typical of other rock albums from the era. Two to three singles and filler for the rest. It went Gold right off the bat and then it stalled. Because of MTV.

MTV was a powerful entity. If a song got rotation on the video channel, sales went into platinum figures. If MTV refused to play it, the album would sell based on the previous albums goodwill and then it would disappear.

To prove my point on how powerful MTV was for an artist back then, just check out David Lee Roth’s Spotify stats in 2016. You have “Just A Gigolo”, “Just Like Paradise”, “Yankee Rose” and “California Girls” in the top 4 of his most streamed songs. MTV staples, every single one of them. So almost 30 years later, the influence and power of music television is still large in our lives.

“The hotel choice was a way of getting as close to the blues as possible – to see what effect it had, to try and live it and breath it. What happened was that we walked into basement of a 4-star hotel and one of our eminent rock bands was up there finishing a record, and they were all wafting around the gym in their matching terry-cloth robes and mixed drinks, complaining of tendonitis – you know, “Where’s my masseuse?”. Well, jeez, maybe you should switch glass to the other hand, OK? It was a case of no, this is not how our album should sound.”

You could just imagine that David Lee Roth would be a difficult subject to interview because he speaks in riddles and double speak.

I get the part where they holed themselves up in a hotel to see what output their living circumstances create. The whole part of the “eminent rock band” is all over the shop. It just doesn’t make sense. As I was reading it, I thought he would mention what songs came out of these living circumstances. However, he went on a rant about a pampered rock band.

Why not bring Bob Rock to some sh!ttty dump in Manhattan for an even fuller effect?

“We’ll I think Bob wouldn’t fit in there (he laughs before briefly explaining the compromise factor, Rock liking Vancouver better than anywhere to work)… And this move to the lower band hotel is not as out of the ordinary for me as it might sound. We don’t broadcast all over the world where we stay when we’re on the road for obvious reasons, but 7 out of 10 times you’re gonna do a lot better to stay in the a 55-end of a city. At that kind of hotel you’re not gonna have any problems with the noise and unusual characters turning up at odd times of the night. My whole career is based upon disturbances and uproar, they don’t start at 10 after 9 and stop at exactly 11 on cue. The environment helped us to get back to what I know and love best – blues based rock n roll”

This is Bob Rock before Metallica and after Motley Crue.

For the producer, his career trajectory was on the up.

For the artist, it was the beginning of a downward spiral.

DLR had no idea of what would transpire in the years ahead and the backlash that would come to hard rock bands and over the top performers like him. Real artists are made when things just don’t go to plan and roadblocks suddenly present themselves. A lot of artists today are tackling adversity by complaining about the internet and how it led to massive copyright infringements. Character is built by adversity. It teaches you there’s more than one way to achieve what you want. But the main goal has always been to get into the game and stay there.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll is based on irreverence, it’s designed to break the rules and come up with something new. Rock ‘n’ Roll is about disregard for convention, it’s about taking the best elements of those things and confusing the issues entirely with a while vision of the future, of confusing business with pleasure to the maximum”

Irreverence means a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously. Like the techies since Napster.

Heavy metal, hard rock, heavy rock, glam rock, call it whatever you want, was doing exactly that. However, once it became a commercially viable product, rock and roll ceased to be about irreverence and it became all about conformity.

Which you’ve managed to do pretty well over the years, as opposed to some boring, miserable fat old bastards…

“Walking it like you talk it is simple, but it aint easy! There’s a risk involved if you’re truly gonna do what’s in your head, heart or pants, wherever the motivation’s coming from – and I’m not saying in that order either. But there will be a risk – what if the fans don’t like it, what if the manager doesn’t think this is right – and so on. Walking that line and taking that risk is frightening to a lot of artists.”

You see DLR assumed he would be a star forever. However, the shelf life of rock and roll heroes was always short. It was only during the 80’s and courtesy of MTV that artists started to have a very long shelf life. ALAE is a ballsy album to do, however if you look at any album that DLR has been involved in, there always was an element of the unexpected. But he did take risks and he did try different things out and that makes him special in my eyes.

There again, when you travel through the Amazon, climb huge mountains and go hammerhead shark watching in the South Pacific, risks in music must seem easy.

“Absolutely, I like to practice the challenge, the management of a challenge, the great unpredictable finish, constantly re-assessing from moment to moment. If I’ve become jaded at all, it’s because I’m an adrenalin junkie and that’s my drug. You get better and better under pressure, you get more creative under stress. I love working with other people under pressure; no matter how well you know the music or the guys in the rhythm section, when tape’s rollin’ that’s pressure.”

“That challenge in a studio is different to the challenge in the Amazon or on a mountainside, but it’s the same drive. It’s like a muscle, and you’re either working it or jerkin it. You develop inside yourself. Your creativity’s the same thing, your ability on stage is the same thing. I never perceived it as ‘put on your costume and perform’.”

Has he ever felt vulnerable?

“When I did “Just A Gigolo” and “California Girls” coming off the heels of the grand Van Halen fiesta – I said “fiesta” not “fiasco” because it was a grand celebration – the crowning glory rock ‘n’ roll as the press depicted it at the time. To go from there into a left hand turn – to wind up at big band brass, Beach Boy, New York City in the same fiscal year – would be considered suicidal by most people behind the desk.”

So let’s put into context where David Lee Roth was at in 1991. We need to go back to 1985, when he left Van Halen after its biggest album to release an EP of cover songs. MTV loved the clips and he became a star by using his own name instead of the Van Halen name.

Then came “Eat Em and Smile” in 1986 and no one expected that album to stick but it did. Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan are all over the album and they more or less cemented themselves as band leaders in their own right. “Skyscraper” came and it capitalised on the MTV shift to melodic pop rock in the style of Bon Jovi. This time, keyboardist Brett Tuggle is all over the album. After the “Skyscraper” world tour, Steve Vai left to do his solo album and then he got an offer he couldn’t refuse from the Whitesnake camp. Billy Sheehan already left after “Eat Em And Smile” and went on to form Mr Big. David kept Gregg Bissonette on drums, Matt Bissonette on bass, Brett Tuggle remained on keys and added guitarists Jason Becker and Steve Hunter to write and record this album.

As a guitarist, I couldn’t wait to hear what Becker would do with David Lee Roth. However, when he came into the band, most of the songs were written. However, two songs from Becker made it to the final album cut, the “Hot For Teacher” on steroids song “It’s Showtime!” and the blues on shred steroids “Drop in the Bucket”. Of course fate would intervene and while Becker played on the album and co-write a few songs, he never toured behind it because of his ALS diagnosis.

When did Dave Lee Roth realise that snorting his sinuses to shit wouldn’t help his character or longevity? When did he learn about the bigger picture?

“I would say… last Sunday morning! Hahaha. He laughs heartily.

“Life is balance. I talk about all of these things that I do and I certainly do them all. But I’m not expert at any of it, and the rock ‘n’ roll term is adventurer while the medical term is fun hog! I qualify for the high-accelerated class.”

“I love the back room at the Rainbow. What you have to remember is, you won’t have anything to talk about at the Rainbow Bar and Grill if that’s all you do, go there. I have friends who do nothing but adventure travelling all the time, from Australia to Korea to Singapore… and that gets awful thin too. So there has to be that balance there, a bit of both.”

Now is as good a time as any to scotch/confirm Rothian rumours over the last year about Van Halen. Will there be a re-union? Would Roth do it?

“Perhaps down the line. I don’t think you can hold a grudge and be truly happy, and I’m absolutely delighted with who I am right now. I’m sitting in the catbird seat and I’m surrounded by brilliant people in every category and department. The future’s so bright it needs shades, and I’ve got the world tour firing up. Any divorce is gonna have sharp edges. I haven’t talked to the guys in the band for 5 or 6 years, but down the line anything’s possible.”

But the future wasn’t as bright as DLR thought. The world tour didn’t set any box office records on fire, like the “Skyscraper” tour. As much as DLR doesn’t want to admit it, but Steve Vai was a big drawcard for him, and on the first album, so was Billy Sheehan. Then he had the Van Halen reunion discussions, new songs for the various Greatest Hit packages, the MTV appearance fiasco and what not.

When talking about his own music these days, specifically “A Little Ain’t Enough”, Dave’s as colourful as ever.

“My roots have always been blues-rock, something that chugs along – y’get on a train that’s going 60 miles an hour and let’s do it over the ultimate riff. Remember the first time you heard side two of Led Zeppelin II? OK, that’s the set-up, we’ll land and take-off from there. As for those harmonies, I went to schools that were all black in high school, black and Hispanic. The only thing I heard at the high school dances was old Motown. Henceforth, all those harmonies. When the choruses came up, they light up all the whoo-hoos. These were trademarks of Van Halen music, and they’re things I contributed.”

“My driving wheel is the killer riff with natural harmonies, not 18 stacked up wide. Minimal overdubbing and going with solos off the floor and off the floor vocals as often as we can, sound spilling over the edges. There is a time to hone it but usually not. I want it intact, as it is.”

These days, Roth employs various musicians and writers, choosing to no longer had “a band” as such and just got it alone with various players. What brought Dave to this decision?

“As music director here I have a definite vision of what it’s meant to sound like or be like at any given time. That’s going to take different musicians, different styles of music. The difference in style between “Just A Gigolo” and “A Little Aint Enough” is a long throw, and if you’re writing songs with the same people who you go on tour with over and over again, it starts to become the same sounding. You can only be a virgin once, when you group up with a band and you learn about life and music at about the same time, well then out of that will come all the inspiration you need.”

David Lee Roth leads a rich life; what’s left for the man to experience?

“I dunno. I haven’t felt absolute committed love yet and I wonder what the might feel like. But I’ve been married to the audience for so goddamn long and what a fickle bitch she is, too!”

The fact is that David Lee Roth hasn’t felt the normal domestic everyday-life situations that most people take for granted.

“Sometimes I think I’m getting close, but then I kinda just realize I’m far away. One of the reasons I broke up my girlfriend was because I said, “Honey, kissing you is my second favourite thing in the world” and she asked me what the first was and I said, “Cashing a cheque!”.

That “cashing a cheque” ideal became the problem for hard rock. It stopped being about writing songs and started to be about writing songs that MTV would play and hopefully would cross over and sell. Record labels started to employ scorched earth marketing tactics.

He laughs a hearty one, doused with truth.

“The guy who said ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ didn’t know where to go shopping!”

Which somehow brings us around to the typical end of interview questions”

Wot will da stage show be like Dave?

“Y’know, I told the band when we first came together for our first rehearsal not so long ago, ‘If you can’t do it under one light bulb in a pair of borrowed jeans with a rented guitar, y’can’t do it at all!’”

David Lee Roth and co. will be appearing at a venue near you under their Philips 100 watt later this year…

“Oh well, maybe somewhere between 1 and 1100!”

The lightning ball of fizzle-crackle life they call David Lee Roth is back to remind you that he never actually left…

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2 thoughts on “David Lee Roth

  1. Nice article! ALAE is a great record! Too see how far Daves career had declined back in 91 was that I had tickets to go see Roth/Cinderella/Extreme in Wisconsin (July 91 I believe was the date) and the whole,tour was scrapped due to lack of tix being sold!
    I was bummed out! Hahaha….

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