WHEN ROCKER DAVID LEE ROTH was busted for buying marijuana in Manhattan's Washington Square Park three years ago, fans of the former front man for heavy metal kings Van Halen weren't exactly shocked. Says Roth in his trademark cackle: "Nobody ever said, 'Aw, Ma, say it ain't so! David Lee Roth! Who'da thought?' "
No, his arrest didn't rattle the faithful, but what he's up to now might. At 40, Roth has chopped his blond mane, donned pinstripes and suspenders and hit the Las Vegas casino circuit with his very own lounge act, the Blues Bustin' Mambo Slammers. The show, which he describes as parts "vaudeville, Ziegfeld and burlesque," includes a 14-piece band, three backup singers, two dancing girls and a repertoire of standards. Roth insists that playing the lounges is no comedown. "Vegas is a really obvious choice for me," he says, apparently without irony—though with Roth one can never be certain. "The idea really got started 11 years ago with [his 1985 solo hit] 'Just a Gigolo.' Even in the great Van Halen days, there was always the humoresque. What you had was a combination of Led Zeppelin meets Saturday Night Live."
While guitar phenom Eddie Van Halen supplied the virtuosity that enthralled a generation of fans, Roth, during his 11-year tenure as Van Halen's lead singer, made up for a limited vocal range with abundant energy onstage and outrageous behavior off it. He and his bandmates once trashed a dressing room after a promoter ignored a mock contract rider that no brown M&Ms be served backstage. Van Halen has said it was Roth's ego that led them to part ways in 1985. ("An egomaniac?" asks Roth, feigning injury. "Moi?") Critic J.D. Considine once wrote that Roth left the band "to pursue a career in self-parody."
More fragile egos might be bruised by such assessments. Not Roth's, though; he basks in attention, even when it's derisive. Decked out in white bucks and a leisure suit for a Mambo Slammers rehearsal in Las Vegas, Roth says, "I dress this way now because it's a nice tacit form of aggression. People who are firmly rooted in the spandoid shag haircut mode see this, and they squeal like wieners on a barbecue. Under it all is my personal sense of humor. Ain't nothing changed."
The son of a well-to-do Indiana ophthalmologist and his wife, Roth caught his first buzz of showbiz as a teenager spending summers in New York City with his uncle Manny Roth, who ran Cafe Wha?, a Greenwich Village club that helped launch Jimi Hendrix and other stars. Inspired, Roth, who moved with his family to L.A. in 1965, began performing with Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex, émigrés from The Netherlands, in 1974. Six albums later, Roth left to go solo. But after an initial surge of success—including three platinum albums—his career sputtered and virtually expired two years ago when his most recent effort, Your Filthy Little Mouth, tanked on the charts. Now, Roth claims his attempt to reinvent himself as a lounge crooner is no joke. "I'm not making fun of the lounge tradition," he says. "This is not Bill Murray wearing a rented prom tuxedo and singing 'Feelings.' This is cutting edge. What we have here is somewhere between Cirque du Soleil and James Brown."
As writer, music director, designer and star of his 90-minute show, Roth, who is single and keeps homes in Pasadena, Calif., and New York City, inspires his supporting cast with his hyperactive work ethic. "I have had unparalleled amounts of money and adoration in my brief but colorful tenure," he says during a break in rehearsals. "I learned along the way that if you are not flavor of the week, you still do your very finest effort. Then you'll be flavor of the week again."
JOHN HANNAH in Las Vegas
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