Not online anymore, published by the Onion AV Club in 2012. This is rough, unedited text.
Why loving Diamond Dave in Van Halen is not a crime.
Like so many things about the ‘80s, we didn’t know what we had until it was long gone. Van Halen’s classic lineup held court in American rock arenas from 1978 and reached artistic peak with 1984, an album which blew up the decade’s artificial and indulgent charms to totemic scale. In “Jump,” it expressed a footloose ife-loving exuberance with more bleached coiff swagger than most rockers muster in an entire career. Once at the top of the charts, frontman David Lee Roth dabbled in a cabaret-ready solo act and the rock circus tent collapsed under the weight of the massive egos it supported—regular joe rocker Sammy Hagar was called in to keep the machine rolling.
It was once fashionable to dismiss DLR as a buffoon—I once giggled dismissively when I found my unknown band playing a venue on the same Portland street as DLR’s in 1994—big hair wound around the block. But for my money, one of America’s greatest rock bands was never anything special once DLR had jettisoned. Certainly the most interesting character to emerge from the Sunset Strip scene, DLR can be seen as rock’s quintessential loudmouth asshole by some (http://www.avclub.com/articles/david-lee-roths-crazy-from-the-heat,37187/). You can’t find an interview with the man that’s not exploding with vitality, humor and almost superhuman ego. But in this day and age, DLR is a welcome change for us from the faux humility of self-important indie rockers. Love him or loathe him, David Lee Roth contains multitudes. Here are a few.
1. The showman. DLR has long seen himself as “a song and dance man,” and he has never settled for simply fulfilling the requirements of the rock aesthetic. Like KISS, the unbridled excess in his art/music is no accident, but the result of studying the greats in ‘60s rock (witness VH’s great Kinks and Roy Orbison covers), Broadway musicals, the American songbook even vaudeville. Roth is fond of telling tales of the likes of Yip Harburg, a millionaire industrialist who lost it all in the Depression only to find a rebirth as an American songwriter—that’s what inspires him. No wonder, Roth’s roots in American pop culture run deep. His uncle Manny ran Café Wha? where everyone from Lenny Bruce to Bob Dylan got their start and Roth caught the showbiz bug.
2. The dancer. Roth takes dancing (and other types of movement, such as martial arts) seriously. Sure, MJ gets all the credit for making the moonwalk a part of the pop R&B musician’s toolbox and the Madonna and a rash of 80s artists brought in choreography via their videos, but Roth—like David Bowie with his mime training—brought art elements to the rock stage without losing the audience and literally kicked our expectations to the ceiling. He cites tapdance legends the Nicholas Brothers as a prime influence—and he hasn’t been shy about copying their magnetic moves over. He’s unabashedly and unashamedly a fan of the art form—check out those Peter Allen dance pants in the “Tattoo” video.
3. The film director. DLR (with Van Halen advisor and
manager Peter Angelus) was the visionary behind VH’s visuals, its videos,
unique image. When he went solo, his videos (albeit for novelty standards like
“Just a Gigolo” and “California Girls”) had a seismic influence on MTV and a
kind of broad appeal that cemented Roth as a pop music figure. Those two videos
work almost like silent films—wherein the broad, easy-to-read action rolls
along like a Charlie Chaplin movie. “Gigolo” even mocks the band performance
video format via pots of burning flames and leather get-ups—both were standard
at the time. His weren’t the only
videos at the time to use a prelude and postscript around the song but easily
among the most popular. Every time
Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj release a “short film,” you can blame Diamond Dave.
4. The raconteur. Roth goes off the rails in every interview, but interestingly so—he may weave equal parts bullshit and brilliance in his stream of consciousness, but DLR’s outlook and zest for life usually operates with the tap open fully. At this point, we’ve all read hundreds of rock interviews—few interviewees are as far ahead of their interviewers as Roth.
5. The author. Crazy from the Heat (1997) is simply one of the most beloved, most over the top unfiltered rock bios ever. It begins with Diamond Dave waking up after a tryst with a dancer only to find he and his one-night-stand are covered in the legal tender she earned the night before. It’s stream-of-Dave for hundreds of pages. In one anecdote, he paddles a groupie with a hairbrush at her request. Is this book entirely factual? Dunno. Does Roth’s ever present need to impress make him the only star in his movie? You bet.
6. The big mouth. DLR’s mid-song ad libs (“Hot for Teacher,” “Panama”) don’t break the tunes, they make the tunes. And on stage Roth, sensing that the Clash were taking themselves a bit seriously, mocked Strummer and Co. from stage at the 1983 US Fest: "I wanna take this time to say that this is real whiskey here … the only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniel's bottles is the Clash, baby!". Van Halen was paid a cool 1.5 million for the gig. While the Clash’s music has certainly stood up, which band was it that soon fired their genius guitarist and let their manager in the band?
7. LA rock’s class clown. Van Halen in the Roth years, followed no leader and threw spitball at the paragons of good taste. Most of the LA hair metal blather that followed is woefully unsophisticated in comparison to the tongue-in-cheek of a Van Halen album. Clumsy double entendres, sleazy outfits, over-the-top testosterone were never handled as cleverly as they were in VH’s, or DLR’s hands.
8. The EMT. Once his career had cooled off, Roth showed the kind of chutzpah that few associate with pro rockers. He updated his certificates and licenses and got to work. Licensed as an EMT in the state of New York, Roth took hundreds of calls as a paramedic in New York City around 2004.
9. The adventurer. David Lee Roth, a student of Portuguese who claims to be fluent in Spanish as well, tells us that he’s canoed around the island of Moorea, scaled Himalayan peaks, fallen ill in the Amazon, trekked into Papua New Guinea and kayaked around Manhattan. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Roth may have enjoyed every flavor of rock star excess in production, but his wanderlust didn’t fade.
10. The Midwestern boy made good. Indiana-born Roth (who’s thespian mother was from Chicago) says he grew up “chasing muskrats” in Newcastle, IN. Raised in a Jewish household, he claims got into rock in part to overcome anti-Semitic stereotypes.
11. The rocker. Because Roth’s vision wasn’t exclusive to the Sunset Strip, VH soaked up everything from surf and biker gang culture to Latino music to the stoner scene at Ridgemont High (which counts the Van Halens alumni). From its debut album on up to 1984, it made bold, unsubtle records of lasting influence. In a commercial and artistic sense America’s answer to Led Zeppelin, Van Halen relied less on the blues and folk traditions, but expanded the production dynamics, guitar wizardry and built on the sexual bravado blazed by the Brit rockers. All would have been for naught without Roth’s vocal range and bigger-than-life—the leg kicks were a bonus. That this combination dominated radio for years and inspired a thousand dumb shitty rock bands the world over isn’t his fault.