No Longer (for Now) Wailin' with Van Halen, David Lee Roth Jumps Out with a Sunny Solo Hit
Then there are the clothes. Have the patrons of a local laundromat brought baskets of blue jeans, shirts and socks and dumped them in stacks around the dwelling? Roth seems unperturbed by his garment heaps. He points to one and says, "That's the remains of my last trip."
And quite a trip it's been. Last year Van Halen sold 8.5 million records, performed for one million people and was ubiquitous on MTV. Van Halen also leaped to No. 1 on the charts with their tune Jump, which was co-written and exuberantly belted out by Roth. It was the first hit from their album 1984.
The group declines to credit George Orwell with inspiring the title, prompting one critic to suggest that it might be a sequential listing of the quartet's IQs. Such slurs have shadowed Van Halen since 1973, when the group began kicking around California's hard-rock circuit, playing for fans who revel in music loud enough to drown out jet planes. Van Halen made money, but as for respect, they were in Dangerfield territory.
Roth, now 29, helped gild the group's head-banger image, of course, with mock-macho stage posturing and costumes that looked like they were ripped off the backs of passing lions. There are no caveman tatters today, though. Here in the library, Roth sports threads that might have been plucked from one of the nearby laundry piles: baggy camouflage trousers over electric lime socks and scuffed Nikes. His muscular chest and shoulders strain the seams of a T-shirt emblazoned with a palm tree. His hair is frowsy and bronze-tinted—hard living is tough on the tresses—as he peers out through green fashion shades. He is here to beat the drums for his new solo project.
With his Van Halen duties at a temporary ebb, Roth has struck a series of independent notes with a mini-LP titled Crazy From the Heat. The disc features four swaggering, waggish send-ups of pop standards: Easy Street, Just a Gigolo, Coconut Grove and California Girls. The last has been released as a single, slathered in the same sunny sound as the Beach Boys' 1965 original. To go with it, Roth has fleshed out a video starring globs of shapely epidermis barely tucked into itsy-bitsy swimwear. "I had a free weekend, and this is what I did," he says nonchalantly. "It was like a high-budget home movie. These were songs I grew up listening to, and now, hey, now I get to pretend I am a Beach Boy or Louis Prima."
With Girls busting into the Billboard charts at No. 43, Roth's venture is solidifying his crazy-like-a-fox reputation. It has also fueled speculation that centrifugal force might be pulling Van Halen's members into separate directions just as they've managed to escape the heavy-metal sonic slums for the more melodious neighborhood of "mainstream" power rock. Their record label, Warner Bros., has no scheduled Van Halen releases at the moment, and future tour plans together are nebulous. "In fact, we're going into the studio tonight to begin work on a new Van Halen," says Roth, anxious to deep-six breakup rumors.
Yet Roth is independent despite his professional link to Van Halen. "I like to spend time alone," he says. "I like to observe people." He tools around L.A. in a 1951 vermilion "low-rider" Mercury or dons a disguising hat and hangs out in bars. "They ask me what I do and I tell them," he says. "They never believe me."
Roth was born in Indiana in 1955. His father, an opthamologist, and mother, a housewife, were divorced about 10 years ago. He has two younger sisters, one of whom lives with him and "kind of runs the place." He grew up mostly in Pasadena, attending public schools, and was so physically active and solitary as a child that his parents sent him to a shrink. "About all I got out of that is that me and the doc played handball in his office," he explains patiently.
Roth's first exposure to bohemian culture came from visiting his uncle, Manny Roth, who owned the famed Cafe Wha? in New York's Greenwich Village. For two years David Lee attended Pasadena City College, where he met up with the musical Van Halen brothers (Eddie, lead guitar, and Alex, drums) and bass player Michael Anthony. Says the singer: "I always wanted to be exactly what I am now—Al Jolson for the '80s."
As such, he also now has the leisure and resources to indulge in far-flung adventures. After Van Halen's performance in Brazil in 1983, Roth ventured off with a troupe of nonmusician friends called the Jungle Studs, and for several weeks explored the Amazon region. There he "gained great personal knowledge of most varieties of intestinal parasites and the effects of amoebic dysentery." Undaunted, last October he traveled to New Guinea, and in Indonesia scaled the face of a 5,000-foot mountain in the Hindenberg range. "Doing that sort of thing replenishes my soul and brain for what rock takes out of me." For his next travel tonic, he is threatening to explore the legendary Karakoram mountain K2 in Pakistan.
Two years ago Roth's wad of cash had grown to the point where he could invest in a place of his own. His choice was the estate set on three prime acres of Pasadena. ("The Huntington library was not available," quips the Roth-child.) On the grounds are a 30-meter swimming pool, a tiled hot tub with a see-through front, carefully tended shrubs and lawns ornamented with carved marble benches. The whole shebang—originally developed by an oil executive—is surrounded by imposing walls, wrought iron gates and a greeting sign bearing the legend, "There is nothing here worth dying for. No trespassing." Another menacing sign indoors, near a video surveillance monitor, proclaims in bold red letters, "If you are found here after dark, you will be found here in the morning." His defense of such measures? "I like to feel safe when I am at home." The house is adorned with stained glass windows, fine wood cabinetry and expensive furnishings. Roth characterizes the decor as "Mediterranean-Mexican," but the overall effect is something like a modest San Simeon, and the house looks as if it's worth the reported price.
The surroundings haven't changed his style, however, and David is still renowned for his bacchanalian excesses. He claims to swig Jack Daniels straight from the bottle onstage ("only punks fill it with tea," he scoffs), announces to crowds that he has ingested drugs to get up for a show and has trashed enough hotel rooms to make Leona Helmsley cringe.
Romance? He won't enumerate his conquests, but claims he just broke up with a fashion-model girlfriend he'd gone with for a year. "We discovered that love was having to say you're sorry every five minutes." Finding such lasting relationships isn't easy, he says, but there are plenty that develop about as fast as a Polaroid. Yes, he wants to get married and settle down and raise kids. Sooner or later, probably later.
Roth cultivates the image of a renaissance rocker. "When you talk to most rockers about Voltaire," he says, "they think you're talking about an air conditioning unit." But when actually pressed for a reading list, he stammers a bit and pulls open a kitchen drawer filled with issues of the Village Voice, BAM, Playboy, a "French" journal and a stack of car-nut mags. The gleaming white marble statue in his entryway (Michelangelo's David, naturally) turns out to be a fiberglass reproduction, a birthday gift from two Detroit fans.
Still, Roth is less a fraud than most good actors or successful politicians. Waving his codpiece onstage is not necessarily a breach of the Shakespearean imperative drilled into him by his father: To thine own self be true. David Lee has played the good-time rowdy for so long now that his concert persona and offstage personality are closer than those of most of his peers.
He is also a professional, albeit with "weird and unconventional ways," testifies Pete Angelus, co-director, with Roth, of several Van Halen videos (and of Roth's California Girls). "His working style is something like all of the cartoon characters ever invented with a couple of professional wrestlers thrown in. I mean, he wrote most of the lyrics to the 1984 album riding around in the back seat of a car."
Ultimately, Roth is a cultural omnivore who sucks up influences like an impressionable teenager and spits out his own humble contributions to the heap. "I don't claim to be a great musician or even a great entertainer," he says. "Like the song says, 'I'm just a gigolo.' " Perhaps. Certainly the real-life David will have trouble achieving the immortality of his namesake, the Mediterranean hunk in the hallway. But as Roth pads off through the library clutter, that sudden burst of mock humility almost seems enough to make the David statue crack a smile.