Diamond in the rough
- Paul Duchene
- Portland Tribune - Features
David Lee Roth is still a star of the metal and mullet set
At 48, David Lee Roth remains larger than life, a frontman who can hold 50,000 people in the palm of his hand Ñ even if they've been drinking since the Carter administration and are screaming their heads off.
Eddie and Alex may not like it, but in most people's minds David Lee Roth is still synonymous with Van Halen.
You remember Van Halen, the raucous rock band with a string of hits like 'Jump,' 'Panama' and 'Unchained'? Die-hard fans still think Sammy Hagar Ñ who replaced him when he left in 1985 Ñ couldn't fill Roth's spandex trousers.
Roth's wild antics onstage (and off) translated into successful solo outings. Ask who sang 'Just a Gigolo' and most people will remember Diamond Dave's version in 1985, not Louis Prima's from 30 years earlier. Roth followed 1985's 'Crazy From the Heat' with 'Eat 'Em and Smile' in 1986, 'Skyscraper' in 1988, and 'A Little Ain't Enough' in 1991.
He was supposed to rejoin Van Halen to record two new songs for a greatest hits package in 1996, but a fight between Roth and Eddie Van Halen was covered by MTV and the reunion never happened.
Roth knows rock 'n' roll is a game; he remains the joker in a pack of pompous players. Roth's quotes are legion. In his Van Halen days, he was witty and articulate and didn't give a damn. And guess what? He still doesn't.
His new album is 'Diamond Dave,' a 14-song CD of classic Roth yowling and crooning, mixing smart originals with snappy covers.
Speaking by phone from Little Creek, Va., the gravel-voiced Roth sounds as though his life remains a party. 'I play so many shows I'm in my own time zone,' he says.
This latest tour proves his point. Roth has 36 gigs in under 90 days, from Charlotte, N.C., to Los Angeles and as far north as Prince George, British Columbia, to Houston in the south. He also plays Las Vegas, a perfect personality match if ever there was one.
'I've known what I wanted to be since I was 7,' says Roth, who hooked up with the Van Halen brothers in 1974 when the band was called Mammoth. 'We'll play every casino and whorehouse that will have us. I'm completely mercenary, it's just 'Where's the action?' '
Roth explains that people don't even have to speak English as a first language to enjoy his act.
'As Stravinsky said, my music is best understood by animals and small children and most of us fall in between,' he says. 'I asked my Spanish teacher three weeks ago if she knew who I was and what I did for a living. She pretended to have a beer bottle, make a popeyed face and roll her hips around. I was impressed! I've become an action figure. I've transcended music.'
Roth's new album has some ambitious covers on it; the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows,' Jimi Hendrix's 'If 6 Was 9,' Steve Miller's 'Shoo Bop' and the Doors' 'Soul Kitchen.' There's also a Roth-penned tune, 'Thug Pop,' which has a distinctly Van Halen riff from guitarist Brian Young.
'This is music I grew up shoplifting when it came out on vinyl,' Roth says. 'Even before stereo! This is what I learned to sing.'
There are two ways to cover tunes, Roth says.
'One is simply to get it right. I did that with 'Just a Gigolo.' The alternative is to find material that has a great premise but isn't done well,' he says. 'I think the Beatles song ('Tomorrow Never Knows') has a great premise, but I think my version's better and it's what they were attempting. Hendrix had great vision but 'If 6 Was 9' is two floors short of the top.'
The idea of doing covers is quintessentially '60s anyway, Roth says.
'All the first Beatles, Stones and Elvis tunes were covers. We never cared who wrote those Motown songs, those one-hit wonders. To this day I couldn't tell you,' he says. 'Writing your own songs only became important when flower power came along in 1967 and generating your own music was cool.'
Roth prefers playing clubs rather than arenas because his heroes started out in such intimate places and he can make a connection with the audience.
'What personalizes the music for me, makes it somewhere between Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, Groucho Marx and Wolfman Jack, is if you can hear every word,' he says. 'If you can see my face, it works 110 percent mo' better.'
Some of Roth's musical inspiration these days comes from a surprising source.
'I get my best ideas from a little girl on Santa Monica pier with a blue haircut and a tongue bolt,' he says. 'She tells me what's happening, what's left of center and most eccentric.'
And Roth says going to the movies and paying attention to the soundtrack is a good way to stay current.
'Instrumental soundtracks from current movies are where you find the most risk-taking and adventure,' he says. 'If you get your hands on 'The Fast and the Furious,' it's different than the tune stack from a normal show. The musicians are well-educated in a formal sense but given all kinds of latitude Ñ'here's a 14-minute chase scene Ñ go nuts.' '
Roth says movies also offer the saddest and most romantic music. He has a source in New York that can find him anything he wants 'every Doris Day movie, the background music to every 'Star Trek' episode translated into Spanish.'
If that sounds eccentric, well, he is David Lee Roth.
'I knew I was going to be something between the Scarecrow and the Wizard of Oz,' he says of his persona.