Penthouse Interview Photo
INTERVIEW DAVID LEE ROTH
are two rules to living well. The first is, don't
sweat the little shit. The second is, it's all
little shit. In other words, it's all okay. We may
be lost, but we're way ahead of schedule.
So... let's dance!"
At the climax of the show, more than a hundred airport
runway lights explode into the faces of over 5,000 rock
fans already whipped into a frenzy by hours of the kind of
rock music that liquefies the marrow of your bones. Rock
'n' roll's randiest California boy, David Lee Roth, bounds
onto the stage brandishing a 25-foot inflated microphone
labeled DAVE. It's the size of a small redwood and seems
to be sprouting from his groin. For the third time that
evening, a fine selection of panties and bras arcs
out of the audience and lands at his feet. The song is
"Goin' Crazy!" but the hysterical audience has
long since gone. Dave tosses the mike up over his head,
grabs a live one, kicks high, does a leap, lands, and
segues into "Jump." His new band is hot, tight,
and loud, making a wall of sound drenched in a waterfall
of light. Dave's into his umpteenth costume change and has
already soaked through enough spandex to open a
medium-size trampoline center. It's late in the set, early
in the tour, and about midway into one of the more
colorful rock careers of recent history. The concert
tonight is in Carbondale, Illinois. It's the 15th city in
a tour that will take the rock road show to more than a
hundred in the coming year, with time off for making
videos, recording albums, making a film, and good
behavior. For the most part though, the road is long, even
for a veteran road rat like David Lee Roth--a man with a
mission. And that mission is to have as good a time as
possible, as often as possible, with as many people as
possible, for as long as possible. He's not doing badly at
it tonight, and tonight is just an average show.
Onstage Roth looks as if
he'd come home. It's almost as if the show were something
Dave and the guys just happened to put together on the
spur of the moment and then invited 5,000 close friends
over to abuse the substances of their choice, kick back,
and get rowdy. Of course everyone knows it's all carefully
contrived, but that's just part of the fun. The
persuasiveness of the band's performance, the design of
the show, the choice of Roth's material, and the technical
mastery of his band and his light and sound men rest on
making the show include the audience instead of keeping
them at arm's length. Like most pure products of
California, Roth originated elsewhere. He was born in
Bloomington, Indiana, on October 10, 1955, but his family
soon moved briefly to Chicago and Massachusetts before
settling in Pasadena, California. Roth is still close to
his family both emotionally and geographically. His father
is a prominent eye' surgeon whose waiting room is
decorated with some of David's gold records, and when Roth
bought a mansion last year, he bought it in Pasadena,
"for my dad."
Infatuated with show business
from an early age, Roth was not exactly a star student at
Pasadena's Muir High School, but then they didn't offer a
major in "That's Entertainment." Roth formed his
first band while cutting classes at the high school. It
was called the Red Balled Jets, after the sneakers of the
same name. The Jets soon became aware of the other
Pasadena garage band, Mammoth, led by two Dutch brothers
named Van Halen. Roth soon joined them to merge their
talents and--more important at the time--their equipment.
Mammoth soon began to play beyond backyard parties in
Pasadena. They were playing the Starwood in L.A. when they
were discovered by the bassist for Kiss, Gene Simmons.
Simmons changed the name of the band to Van Halen, flew
them to New York, produced a demo tape of their songs, and
got Mo Ostin, president of Warner Brothers, and Ted
Templeman, one of the five best producers in rock, to
catch their act when they returned to the Starwood.
Immediately after the show, Ostin signed the band. Roth,
Van Halen, and Templeman dove into the studio and emerged
in only 18 days with their first album. It went gold with
a bullet, and Van Halen went into orbit with' Roth riding
on the nose cone. On the jacket of that first album, the
groups' personalities are revealed in the poses they
strike. Eddie Van Halen proudly displays his customized
Alex Van Halen hovers over a drum
set that glows like an electric fire. Michael Anthony
thrusts his bass at the viewer. And Dave... well, Dave
seems to have a very large cordless microphone surgically
implanted in his groin. It's a feature that still survives
in his concerts.
To find out more about this rock
phenomenon, Penthouse asked writer and editor Gerard Van
der Leun to interview him on the road. Van der Leun found
it a fascinating assignment: "Close up," he told
us, "Dave is a sturdy man with big amiable features
exaggerated by years of mugging to the 90th row. His
manner is friendly and sincere in a studied fashion; his
conversation, by turns thoughtful and bizarre. His
metaphors are drawn from rock, popular music, films,
cartoons, television, and a number of books. But mostly it
is vintage David Lee Roth, the conversation of a man
constantly rewriting his story to see if he can make it a
little more vivid, a little larger than life, and a little
more fun every day. He has a wicked sense of humor and
laughs a lot- a man who is comfortable with himself and
who likes to play at playing, even when he's working. It
has not always been so. A little over a year ago, Roth's
immensely successful band, Van Halen, came to a very
public and very ugly parting of the ways. Insults,
recriminations, and accusations flew thick and fast with
little regard for accuracy. Members of the band's
supporting staff were drawn in, and even the fans began to
choose sides. Everybody reached for their lawyers.
Outnumbered three to one, Roth
gave as good as he got. Then he got on with the business
of working hard in the fast lane of rock 'n' roll. After
all, he was the lead singer of the band that had
parachuted into their first major stadium appearance, that
held the world record for the most money ever paid a band
for a single show ($1.5 million). He also enjoyed the
reputation of being one of rock's leading lotharios. He
was only a bit over 30 and hot. He'd conquered rock 'n'
roll and, with his close friend and associate Pete
Angelus, masterminded some of the funniest and most
innovative rock videos to date, videos that more and more
seemed to bring out his buffoonish persona -Dave- and push
rock videos into manic rock comedy. So why shouldn't he go
on with it? Why shouldn't he form a new band almost
overnight, cut a new album With them, produce several more
videos from deep within a costume that adds 100 pounds and
40 years to him, buy and move into a new mansion in
Pasadena, launch a lawsuit, help promote a major MTV
promotion, book a huge tour, load up 97 tons of equipment
and at least three bus-loads of people, and just get on
with it?All three Roths--David, David Lee, and Dave-- had
been preparing to go solo and mobile all their life. Gotta
dance. Might as well jump.
Penthouse: When did you first
know that you wanted to become a rock 'n' roll star?
Roth: I knew I wanted to
travel and make music and sing and dance my way into the
hearts and minds and bedrooms of people the world over
when I was six or seven. I just knew. I got my first stack
of records when I was seven. I got my first radio when I
was seven. I got my first little record player when I was
seven. I turned on to Marilyn Monroe when I was seven.
Childhood, a magic time.
Penthouse: Did your family
encourage you in your headlong pursuit of a life of fame,
debauchery, and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice?
Roth: I didn't list that. I
felt it was a given that I'd make it big in show business,
They didn't take it seriously until the age of eight or
nine, when I began actively preparing myself. I began
learning commercials and acting out the plot lines of
comic books, and there I went, off and running.
Penthouse: In the space of
little more than a year, you've gone through the breakup
of Van Halen, formed a new band, done numerous videos,
recorded an EP and a full album, and launched a 110-city
tour. What drives you?
Roth: I simply have to be
creative all the time. I have to sit down with a group of
people and create new things. I can be the quarterback. I
can be the' cheer- leader. I have to travel, to meet
people. All different kinds of people. People are my
enthusiasm and the source of my in-spirations. They're
where I get the nuts and bolts of what I do.
Penthouse: So you don't buy
into the crystal-castle syndrome of rich and famous stars?
Roth: Naw. Solitude is a
pretty sweet drug, but if you try it for more than a
couple of days, you're an odds-on candidate for the Keith
Richards Hall of Fame.
Penthouse: How do you prepare
for tours and shows that are so nonstop?
Roth: Mostly roadwork, Get
the wind up and the heartbeat down. But it's not something
I do just before we go out on the road, it's a year-round
thing. I do mar- tial arts. Life is a kung-fu movie, and
you have to prepare for it in that way.
Penthouse: Do you think your
audiences have changed over the last ten years?
Roth: On this tour I'm seeing
a much larger percentage of women in the au- dience, as
much as 65 to 75 percent in some places. Conversely, we're
seeing a lot of heavy-metal headbangers--you know, the
black T-shirt set. Then we're getting everyone in between.
Penthouse: Seventy percent
women in the audience? What do you suppose brings all
these women out to see David Lee Roth?
Oh, well... my voice, I imagine.
Penthouse: Is your
long-standing reputation as one of L.A.'s greatest party
Roth: I know that people
think I'm a party king; but, face it, if I finished the
bottle every time I took a drink, I wouldn't be able to do
the aerials I do onstage. On the other hand, you're not
going to get much of a poem out of a glass of iced tea.
The same thing goes for all the par- ties backstage or for
any other vices. These backstage happenings go on pretty
constantly out here on the road. They're the payoff for
all the hassles and the physical drain of the shows. Money
is not the payback out here on the road. My life is spent
onstage, in studios, of- rices, editing bays, and the back
of a limo going to one or the other of the above. So what
am I going to get with my money? A bigger limo? A
higher-tech editing bay? It really doesn't make much
difference to me. So this scene is my payoff and is
probably the most archetypal ghetto garage party you've
ever known. Dim the lights. Turn up the music.
Penthouse: Talking about
music, what do you think of the songs on your album Eat 'Em
Roth: Songs are my
fascination: verse, chorus, eight-bar B parts. I can name
you a hundred Beatle songs and, Beatle fan or not, you can
probably sing to me a little bit of each one. I can name
you half of the Rolling Stones catalog, and you can
probably hum me parts of each chorus. Very different than
humming, say, one of the long jams from Cream. That's a
little tough. So songs that have a good structure to them
are my fascination. That's what we set out to do with the
record, and we've accomplished it by jumping around
stylistically. It is a big jump from "Yankee
Rose" to "That's Life."
Penthouse: Besides your
original numbers, how do you choose the songs that you
cover? It's one thing to cover a hardrock classic, it's
quite another to reinterpret something like "That's
Life" or the classic 'Just a Gigolo."
Roth: My heart and soul are
rock 'n' roll, but I also like to reach back and bring old
songs up to speed. Everything my new band does is done
with torque under very high pressure. Tricks done by
professionals under professional super- vision. We do not
recommend them for home use. Any kind of music that has
torque to it, any kind of music that has not speed, but
thrust, appeals to me. A slow reggae song can have just as
much thrust the way we do it as any of our speed-metal
escapades like "Elephant Gun." So anything from
AI Jolson to Bob Marley that has a boom-boom-boom- boom to
it will fascinate me.
Penthouse: It's appropriate
that you should mention AI Jolson, since your performing
style is similar. Are you a closet Jolson fan?
Roth: Oh yes. He's a classic
show-biz model. The white gloves. Drop to one knee. The
Knickerbocker break. The flatspin. Smile! No dead space. I
can't stand dead space onstage. You see, I've got a
surgically implanted disco beat. My show has to be 130
beats a minute or better. Let's hit it! Open up them
pearly gates because I am the California earthquake!
Penthouse: Putting aside the
modesty that's been your trademark for many years, how
would you compare your new band and your new album to Van
Roth: This music is much more
precise. And the band is a real band, a band that competes
with each other. Any time there's a hole in the music,
Billy Sheehan and Steve Vai both rush to fill it with the
ultimate rock 'n' roll riff. So it takes a really precise
team to be able to change the signal once the play has
"Solitude is a
pretty sweet drug, but if you try it for more than a
couple of days, you're an odds- on candidate for the Keith
Richards Hall of Fame."
This band is like a pro
football team. Once the ball has been snapped, this team
is in action. Tight. Sharp. Nonstop go! Most rockers rely
totally on street smarts. I spent ten years dealing with
Van Halen's street smarts and didn't know what I was
missing. You can hear the tremendous difference onstage
when we play old songs from Van Halen like
"Panama" or "Jump." Now they're played
with precision. When the dynamic is supposed to drop, it
doesn't fade away-- it's boom!! When that's right, 10,000
people should turn to each other and say, "Did you
feel that?" Not "Did you hear it?" but
"Did you feel it?"
Penthouse: How did you find
your new band?
I didn't audition anyone, I just listened to bands
and records. And what I listened for was not what they
were doing then or what they had done before, but for pure
potential. I figured that I knew what my contribution to a
band could be. I listened for what they might be able to
contribute. And when I found the musicians I wanted, I
decided that if they weren't walking around unattended, I
would, in the great old American rock 'n' roll tradition,
simply steal them from another band.
Penthouse: Once you had your
band, how did you go about building your songs?
Roth: When you start, you
don't start by writing songs together because you're going
to be disappointed on a daily basis. Nobody delivers 100
percent pure great right from the start. So I figured we
should learn all the oldies together. That way we
experienced the elation of how bitching we sounded
immediately. That's the way to become a group, an
identity, a team, a band. That way you play together,
you're not just individuals trying to contribute the great
end of the world riff or The Famous Final Chorus. After we
got the oldies down, we moved into blast-off boogie songs,
then we moved into vocals like "Sugar Pie, Honey
Bunch" or "Help!" Pretty soon we had a band
that could perform a whole show together. Then we started
to write songs.
It's true that there are several different interpretations
of "Yankee Rose."
Roth: Exactly. You're not
sure what the song is about. Is it about the Statue of
Liberty? Is it about a girl? Is it Dave talking about
himself? You're not sure.
Penthouse: When you go
into the studio, how prepared are you?
Roth: The idea is for
us to do all our "homework" in the basement
studio at my new house, then just have a whompin' good
time in the recording studio.I want to commit a real
"feel," a real spirit, on to the plastic. Once
you begin to perform surgery on that spirit, you risk
Penthouse: Do you feel that
the rift between the very serious musician's persona that
Eddie Van Halen espouses and your showman's personality is
what ultimately blew up Van Halen?
Roth: What destroyed Van
Halen was that the band wanted to remain purely unidi-
mensional. You just can't do that in rock 'n' roll,
whether it's heavy metal or soul. To make great rock 'n'
roll, you always have to be expanding your musical
horizons. You have to expand into it, just like all the
great bands have. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling
Stones all these people expanded with the times. Van Halen
didn't want to do that. Van Halen had turned into Spinal
Penthouse: How bad was it at
Roth: The band had
disintegrated into a spiteful bunch of bleary-eyed,
argumentative, procrastinating individuals. They wanted to
fire their producer and produce themselves. They wanted to
fire the manager and manage themselves. They didn't want
to go on the road except to play gigantic stadiums for 60
days. I did everything I could to keep the act together.
But after months and months of wasting time--and let us
keep in mind that rock 'n' roll is in the fast lane--I had
to leave. I was driven out.
Penthouse: When did you
decide to dispense with an overly serious approach to
Roth: Early on, in MTV's
first season with "Pretty Woman," Pete Angelus
and I--the Fabulous Picasso Brothers, as we are
known in the trade--decided that videos were a great
way to merge the songs with the movies that were always
going on in
just took it from there.
Penthouse: How do the
Fabulous Picasso Brothers go about creating knockout
Roth: The process is about as
simple as you and I sitting in front of the TV set for a
couple of hours and having a few drinks. After a couple of
beers you start to become a little derisive of the family
in the living room inside the tube. And so you kind of
leap to the challenge and help out. The television can't
hear you, but your friends can and it kind of livens up
the experience. I just try to translate that onto video,
that sense of humor, that sense of aggressiveness, of
cynicism. That's where the concepts come from.It's as
simple as remembering where you've been. For instance,
have you ever been in the 7-Eleven at four in the morning
with that vile surgical lighting, and everybody has that
lovely banana-yogurt texture to their skin, and there's
some sort of Arabian-beat-box Chinese disco whining away
in the background; and there
.. there is the immigrant grocer with his hand
outstretched, ready to take the money for your 12 Snickers
Penthouse: Do you think that
the fact that this year's award for Video of the Year to
Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" signals the
death of MTV as we have known it?
Roth: I think it hails a
return to cartoons. And a grand one at that. I see that
Pee-wee Herman is hosting a kid's show on Saturday. Do you
know what this gener- ation is ready for in a big way?
Penthouse: Rock runs on kinky
sex, mas- sive substance abuse, and shaking one's booty.
How do you think that's going to be maintained in the face
of the country's current antisex, antidrug hysteria?
Roth: My view is cynical on
both sides. I view people with drug problems as people
with troubles. Big-time troubles. At the same time, I'm
deeply suspicious of people who think the world's ending
because someone took a drink or two. As far as the
excesses of the road such as "the girls
backstage"--well, the age of professional groupies is
over. What's in the room next door now are college girls,
working girls, secretaries, nurses, assistants. It's not
really like New York after-hours anymore. As much as I
might like it to be.
Penthouse: Could you discuss
how you and Angelus and the rest of your com- pany design
the show that seems to make the whole stadium a part of
Roth: Do you remember those
early Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies? In those films it
was always "Hey, Mr. Ziegfeld is coming to town! I
have a backyard. We can turn it into a stage!" I've
spent the last ten years of my career taking a
million-dollar stage and attempting to turn it into a
backyard. The show designed around a personal philosopy of
mine that an audience, the way I make rock "n"
roll, is played with, not played at. Anything that's going
to seperate me from the audience on a viceral level is
left out of this show.
Penthouse: What do you think
the next big thing in rock 'n' roll is going to be?
Roth: I've said through the
years, rock is all shoes and haircuts. There's only about
eight to 12 basic beats that you can use in popular music,
and then you're off into fusion.
I see a conglomeration of styles starting to happenn I see
Anglo rock and girls doing a lot of bebop disco a la
Madonna. And that's not a put-down by any means. Face it,
even Bruce has a click track.
Penthouse: What's your next
they make my gravestone," says David Lee Roth,
"it's going to be a cement copy of Huckleberry Finn
with a pair of cement handcuffs on top of it."
I really don't know. Things change so quickly around me.
And things change so radically and quickly in the business
of rock that a sane person knows they can't predict it.
Six years ago, if we said what about MTV, who woulda thunk
it? Never would have thunk it. Then... whammo! Biggest
thing in the world. Everyone's making a video.
Synthesizers. Who woulda thunk it at the start? Just the
difference in terms of what was being played in 1978 and
now, as dance music is so radically dif ferent in sound
and format because of
synthesizers. For a while there, I saw a lot of polariza-
tion between different musical entities between a punk
rocker and a heavy-metal guy. Now you're seeing it seep
under the door from one dressing room to the next.
Penthouse: This year you
bought a large house in Pasadena. What made you settle
down in your hometown when you could live anywhere in the
Roth: Ah, I bought the house
for my pop. "Hey, I gotta mansion/A real high price/
They tell me it's lovely/They say it's nice." What do
I know about it all? The last three months before we went
out on this monster tour, I slept all my time in
Hollywood. I slept in a car. I slept in a studio. I slept
at the office. I suppose I should spend more time at home
and more time with my family, but it just hasn't turned
out that way. I like to go and I like extremes.
Now that you're back on the scene in a big way, how do you
manage to do all that you do and still maintain the life
of a major, mellow superstar?
Stress is very un-rock 'n' roll. There are two
rules to living well. The first is, don't sweat the little
shit. The second is, it's all little shit. Now, if you can
get yourself to really buy that, at least spiritually,
then you're gonna be a lot happier moving from base to
base. In other words, it's all okay. We may be lost, but
we're way ahead of schedule. So let's dance!
Penthouse: So you never let
petty things bother you?
Roth: I've seen bands go
right into the pipe over just this small shit. These
small, mundane, garbagey little problems have destroyed
bands much bigger than Van
Halen ever was, or I'll ever be. That's why I'm always
going off into the jungles. Sure, I deride all these
people who can't get over the small shit. But I'm also
going to put my money where my mouth is. I'm going to go
into the jungle and test the theory I go and live by my
wits and my hands for a month or two out of the reach of
civilization and when, upon returning, someone tells me
that the monitor has just blown up, I just have to respond
with "It's cool."
Penthouse: When you come back from these
adventures, you have to go back to work as a rock 'n' roll
star. What's the job of a rock star these days?
Roth: My first response to
any situation is always "Let's Go" I always have
lots of pots on the boil. Dave--the Video, the Record, the
Movie Deal, the Band, the Latest Catastrophe! So when I
come back from the outback a lot of people look to me for,
at least ...spiritual guidance. Now, that's not as stupid
as it seems, because when they come to me, they often say
things like, "My gawd, Dave, it's an outdoor gig, and
the power's blown, and it's starting to rain, and People
magazine is showing up, and the audience is only half
My job is to say, "No, no, no. It's going to sell
out, the power will come back on, the rain will stop, and
everybody's gonna love it." It's easy for me. I don't
believe in the politics of despair. And if it does
continue raining, well, then it damn well isn't
Penthouse: What do you think
are the major disadvantages of a rock star's life?
Roth: Isolation. Being on the
outside of normal experiences a lot of the time. If you
walk into a room and the room freezes, this is not a
normal peer-group situation. If it turns into E. F. Hutton
every time you open a window shade, you are not in a
normal frame of reference from which one develops a normal
personality. It's like any business. When you achieve a
certain level of success and popularity, people don't
really want you to be regular, don't want you to be
normal. I have to take care to circumnavigate being in
that kind of situation.
Penthouse: How do you manage
Roth: I don't spend much time
at all with people in the music business. I mean, I've
shaken everybody's hand. I've had a drink with every guy
or gal. But I spend most of my off-time by myself. I'm
very much of a loner like that.
Penthouse: What do you like
in a woman?
Roth: I like strength.
Physical and spiritual strength. Just like in my music, I
like a woman with street smarts and book learning. I like
a lethal tongue. I like a gal with a sense of humor and a
gal who's furious. That pretty much excludes most of the
modeling community and the entertainment field.
If you're asking me what I look
for in a girlfriend, to me that means a woman I'm going to
wake up next to, somebody I'm going to have dinner with
more often than not; that means a soul mate, a pal,
someone to cover my back as well as make out with. I'm
hyper demanding about that. Those special gals are few and
far between. I suspect that if I had a formal education or
was in some other industry, maybe there'd be more
opportunity to find women like that. But I'm just
What's the most exotic place you've been to?
Roth: Los Angeles: We've got
all the art and culture that New York has. We've got all
the sun and bikini lines that Tahiti has. Most successful
musicians conceive of the outdoors as, in Fran Lebowitz's
phrase, "the distance you have to walk from the hotel
door to the limousine." L.A. has the limousines, the
hotels, the mountains, the beach, the drag strip, the
tractor pull, the art museum, the Getty Museum, the tar
pits, the Schubert Theater, off Broadway. And you've got
Penthouse: To what do you
attribute your incredible sense of fashion?
Roth: My costumes are
strictly fantasy land. When I dream them up, I work in
concert with a gal named Melissa Daniel. It all comes from
all my personal fascinations. It combines comic books with
kung-fu movies. The clothes I wear are heavily influenced
by the movies. To night, for instance, was sort of
suggestive of Buck-Rogers-goes-to-the-beach and Raiders of
the Lost Ark.
Penthouse: Yes, you can get
some stunning accessories at J. C. Penny's.
Roth: Right. Over-the-counter
fashion is the hippest fashion. If you can take something
and make it yours, shazam! In rock 'n' roll you can get
away with crazy combinations. Today, we're a cowboy.
Tomorrow, we're Buck Rogers.
Penthouse: What's next after
Well, the Fabulous Picasso Brothers should really
make a movie. I think the Fabulous Picasso Brothers would
be just as cutting, just as relevant as Monty Python when
they were at the crest of their wave, as Firesign Theater
when they really had the groove. At the same time, I think
we have all the rock 'n' roll credibility in the world
here, music wise and show-wise. The combination is unique.
There are people who have done the same kinds of things,
but they didn't come from this kind of rock theater. Such
a move seems like a very logical step from the road show
we do. I'm very much in favor of blowing my image up out
of all proportion to itself. Twenty-six inches or 40 feet,
what's the difference? Where are we going? is the question
I like to ask.
Penthouse: So are you saying
that we're going to continue to see the two .major Roth
images--David Lee Roth, super- stud-superstar, and Dave,
rocker and mocker--continue to get larger?
Roth: I don't know, but rest
assured we're going to be doing something as fast and as
furiously as possible. I'm going to pursue what I'm doing
and see where it leads.
Penthouse: If there comes a
day when youth will pass away, what will they say about
Roth: When they make my
gravestone, it's going to be a cement copy of Huckle berry
Finn with a pair of cement handcuffs on top of it.