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Interviews
David Lee Roth

::. Dave's Links




Interview With David Lee Roth

Rolling Stone (April 11, 1985)

David Lee Roth, spandex-clad lead singer for Van Halen, jungle explorer, karate enthusiast and, now, a solo artist with his first record, 'Crazy From the Heat', is not a man given to wasting time. Particularily when it comes to talking about his favorite topic: The Life and Times of David Lee Roth. For with Roth, an interview is not merely an interview but a therapy session best delivered when lying on his favorite couch: the media. So with tape recorder running and a couch to slouch on - in this case a dilapidated affair in the Los Angeles offices of a video-production company - the bad boy of rock and roll is more than happy to chat about himself.

What keeps Roth's self-absorption bearable, indeed even engaging, is that he happens to be a clever fellow, smart enough to lavish his story with the same self-mocking that has made both Van Halen's and his own videos such MTV favorites. Roth, 29, is a man who realized early on that life was not merely Life but an adventure, a mountain to be climbed and conquered, laughing all the way. Thanks to Van Halen's six platinum albums, Roth is a very rich man. And while he freely admits he loves the band's backstage entourage, he also claims to be something of a loner. When not on tour, he shares his recently purchased Pasadena mansion with Lisa, 25, one of his two sisters.

Rolling Stone: Why did you finally decide to do 'Crazy >From the Heat'? Did you simply have time on your hands, or were there four songs you liked so much you just had to record them?

DLR: That's the whole fantasy, although a lot of people are going to disclaim that approach because they can't conceive of coming up with a quality product without extreme amounts of stress and strain. I think this is a classy move. And most of that comes from the homework. I spent a month putting this together, though it only took four or five days to actually record. I didn't write the songs. I like to construct songs, but if I don't, I don't miss it. By virtue of my own pipes, whatever I sing is going to sound like David, for good or bad. It doesn't matter.[laughs] I'm rockin'. That's all I ever really wanted to do.

RS: 'Crazy From the Heat' has four cuts: "Coconut Grove", "California Girls", "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody", and "Easy Street". Why these?

DLR: You know how people buy dogs because they remind them of themselves? These songs are the same thing. They're just bits of mirror. I don't think it takes a shrink to figure out why I chose Louis Prima ["Just a Gigolo"].

RS: What was it about Louis' effervescent presence that appealed to you?

DLR: His personality. It comes out in the music. What I hear coming out in his music is a combination of maitre d', storyteller...the toastmaster general!

RS: Oh, now I get it. David Lee Roth, toastmaster of rock and roll.

DLR: Yeah, toastmaster for the Immoral Majority [laughs].

RS: Are you immoral?

DLR: I don't think so.

RS: Well, certainly Van Halen personifies the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" stereotype.

DLR: Look, we only supply the little lines, and the poet colors it in. That way you're forced to use your own filthy little imagination, and that's always going to be better than anything I can actually create or present to you.

RS: What does a song like "Just a Gigolo" say about you? Are you, in fact, such an animal?

DLR: Not in the literal sense of the word. But once again, within the context of my personality, you get a feeling that we're coasting through. We're not clawing and struggling our way through life here. We're on a yacht [laughs].

RS: That's a long way from the farm in Bloomington, Indiana, where you started out, isn't it?

DLR: Yeah, we stayed until I was about six or seven, while Pop worked and went to medical school. There was a big lake, livestock and horses.

RS: What was your father like?

DLR: We always went to the theater, ball games and the movies. I remember the first movie I saw, really watched from beginning to end. I was seven. I left home with my dad, and I remember my mom saying, "okay, you're going to see Robin Hood, right? Make sure you go and see Robin Hood." I sensed tension in her voice. So my dad and I got in the care, took off and drove right past the theater where Robin Hood was playing. I said, "Dad, there's Robin Hood." He said, "Don't worry, we're going to another movie." I said, "which one?" And he said, "Have you ever heard of Marilyn Monroe?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, the movie we're going to see is called Some Like It Hot." I said, "Wow, this is going to be something special. What's it about?" He said, "Never mind. But before we get there, let me tell you what Robin Hood is about."

RS: And when you got home, what did you tell your mother?

DLR: The whole story of Robin Hood, of course.

RS: Do you recall the exact cinematic jolt Marilyn Monroe elicited from you?

DLR: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I remember distinct scenes: The upright bass with the bullet holes in it and the two guys...these guys dressed as women, escaping from the gangsters. They slide down the pole, and there's Marilyn, fucking M-A-R-I-L-Y-N. Oh, yeah, I remember.

RS: Might you say your life since then has simply been an ongoing search for Marilyn?

DLR: [Laughs] No, life has turned into an ongoing quest to be in that movie...somewhere in that movie.

RS: Obviously, you like it hot. Your father eventually became an ophthalmologist. Did your mother work?

DLR: She was a high-school teacher -music and language- for a while. Then I came along and ruined everything, I guess. I'll tell you a story that explains my mother. When they had the complete total solar eclipse, the only place in the world to get the absolute best Polaroid of it was in the middle of the Gobi Desert, 750 miles from the nearest drop of water. People had to be airlifted in by helicopter. A tent city was set up, and there was nothing there but guys from NASA with Arab beards and telescopes. Every day they had to fly water in and evacuate the medical problems. Well, that is where my mother went for a vacation. By herself. She had the time of her life.

RS: When did you first announce that you intended to go into show business?

DLR: I was seven. I said I wanted to be Al Jolson. Those were the only records I had - a collection of the old breakable 78's. I learned every song and then the moves, which I saw in the movies. I wanted to be the center attraction, but I also wanted to put the moves on you. I've got to do the hands. I've got to do the knickerbocker break and deliver the smile.

RS: You look at the world as one great audience?

DLR: No, I don't have any difficulty leaving behind the audience-performer sphere of thinking. I do that frequently. But today, right now, during this interview, I'm jazzed because I've got an audience. I have a vision, and you've just got to share that.

RS: Are you capable of seeing others' visions?

DLR: I'm an excellent listener. I'm the best audience. The biggest fan you could ever want. But as a kid I was always off on my own...on my quest. It's not that there isn't room for other people. My scenario demands other people participating.

RS: So you have to have an audience, don't you?

DLR: As well as my evil henchman to entertain even more. Two's better than one. It's always been that the party is at my place. Your place or mine is not written anywhere in this book.

RS: That sounds selfish enough.

DLR: Well...I'll buy the drinks! [laughs]

RS: After Indiana, your family lived in New England, and you spent many of your summers in New York, where your uncle Manny Roth owned the Cafe Wha?, a pivotal spot in Greenwich Village during the folk period.

DLR: New York is definitely part of my constitution. That was a big turning point in my life. I used to go there with my father during the summers and stay in Manny's loft up above Bleecker and MacDougal. He used to have out-of-work musicians, actresses, people sleeping all over his floor. He really wasn't outrageous, it was just that everything Manny did was in addition to, not instead of.

RS: How were you as a student?

DLR: I was always a great reader, an intuitive student. From my reading, I could use common sense to come up with the answers - hence, why do homework? I was a good faker.

RS: In other words, you were lazy?

DLR: No, I was distracted. I had my quest.

RS: Your parents had you going to a psychiatrist for about three years. Why did they think you needed one?

DLR: I've never been high on group affiliation. I was always off by myself, and I was happy doing it, which was the worst part. I wasn't depressed, despondent, I wasn't morose. My lines were good. Everything I came up with was usable [laughs], so I can see where that would be doubly distressing. My parents said, "Dave won't settle down." But I was just off into other things.

RS: When you were ten years old, your family moved to California. I assume that, at this point, you were even more determined to be a star.

DLR: Oh, yeah, because when I got here, it was just in time to meet the British Invasion. We were doing the Freddie, we were ferrying across the Mersey, we were glad all over. I realized I had to be in a band.

RS: You must have been a big concertgoer.

DLR: No, my folks wouldn't let me. I didn't see my first rock concert until I was nineteen. It was Humble Pie.

RS: And how did they strike you?

DLR: They sure looked small.

RS: Did you think you were a good enough singer to make it in the world of rock and roll? You didn't play an instrument.

DLR: I was making up songs, and I was singing along with the records. It never came into my mind whether I was good or not.

RS: Well, how did you expect to make it without any overwhelming talent besides confidence?

DLR: I just knew I was going to make it and that this was a starting place.

RS: Eventually you ended up at Pasadena City College, where you met Eddie and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony, the other members of Van Halen. What made you decide to give college a try?

DLR: That was treading water until a band got launched. I spent most of the time in junior college in music courses - theory and orchestration. I was not very good at it. Mathematically, I count to four and then start over. My whole career is based on that. The Van Halens were far superior to anything I could do in that area. So was Michael. They won all the awards.

RS: When you met them, did you like them as people, or did you simply realize this was your ticket to stardom?

DLR: A combination. I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for their musical ability - particularly Edward's. When I heard him on the guitar, it immediately brought me back to myself. I wanted to do the same thing with my voice and feet. Basically what I had to offer at that time was that I knew how to dance. I knew what was good dance music and, hence, could get us into clubs.

RS: Were you always sure that Van Halen would make it?

DLR: I was always sure. The audience was growing, the pay was going up, and the band was in demand from the beginning. We found the best way was to stay true to our own tastes, our own vision. The vision was that we would play whatever kind of music we wanted, regardless of trends, and that we would exhibit our true personalities. Then, if people like it, you're going to be a star.

RS: The Van Halen backstage scene has been widely chronicled as something akin to a bacchanalian feast. Is that still true?

DLR: It's excessive. In terms of the fringe benefits you're supposed to get from rock and roll, I'd say we're black belts. [Laughs] As far as I'm concerned, in that respect, what you're getting here is not that different from what happens on a lot of tours. It's just that we're the ones who will let you take a picture.

RS: Do you drink as much and take as many drugs as is alleged?

DLR: I go through my highs and lows, as far as partying. You can see me with a bottle of Jack Daniel's onstage. But I don't always finish the bottle every night. You've got to balance the strain.

RS: Have you ever done hard drugs? Have you ever done heroin, for instance?

DLR: No. Just the usual rock and roll stuff. Never did heroin, never took pills, downers or speed. You have to decide, Am I going to get high tonight and miss tomorrow? Sometimes, yeah. But not as much as people think. There's definitely a place for it. But I do things like karate, which I've been doing for fifteen years, and I'm getting a lot better at it. Can't balance that with being hung over. I don't swing all the way in either direction. People say, "oh, it's too bad that so and so from such and such band died of drugs." Well, he didn't die, man. He killed himself. There's a big difference. I have no sympathy for that. I've watched a lot of people fall by the wayside. Drink as well as cocaine - those are the two big ones. They kill your creativity and your spirit. But what's worse than drink and cocaine together is greed, man. Greed breeds egotism and sloth.

RS: Were you surprised when Eddie Van Halen married Valerie Bertinelli?

DLR: I was surprised at first. But we see a lot less of Valerie Bertinelli than people are led to believe. I'm sure some folks out there feel like she's moved into the studio with the band or that she takes an active participation in what the stage show it going to be like. I think I've seen Valerie once in the last five months. That whole situation, Valerie and Eddie, in terms of the effect on the band or my relationship with her, is a lot more nada than you are really led to believe or than you want to believe...We've never discussed any business with anybody outside of the band.

RS: Haven't the dynamics of the band changed since Eddie and Michael got married?

DLR: You think that's changed? Without addressing myself to any specifics, if what you see as Van Halen is sex, drugs and rock and roll, if that's what you are going to call it, then it's more that then ever before. The fellows may be limiting their sex [laughs], but a little preventative medicine in any strata qualifies these days.

RS: Romance doesn't seem to play a big part in your life. Are you at all romantic?

DLR: I can be very romantic. But I'm consumed at this time by the world I've created around me. I made it that way. I'm not a victim. I just don't want to miss anything. >From the minute I get up, until the day is finished, I like to go and go. I can't expect somebody to keep up my regime, whether that's athletics or biz. So it's hard for me to settle down with one woman.

RS: What do you look for in a woman?

DLR: What would you call that quality that says, "Sure. What is it?" Adventuresomeness? I like a very analytical mind. It's that ability to go to the Tutankhamen exhibit, stay for two hours, then cab it to Friday the Thirteenth on the same day...that kind of sense of humor. It's a suitcase full of the costumes that one needs to get through fifteen different situations.

RS: How much does your image hurt your ability to find a woman who might possess that genuinely eclectic personality?

DLR: Well, it's bound to set me back on a personal basis, because people are loaded with misconceptions. So initially it's difficult to get people to set that aside. We all judge our books by their covers, you know.

RS: Your reputation certainly isn't one that would attract a woman with brains and self-respect who took herself seriously - which is the kind of woman you say you want. For instance, weren't you the first rock and roll star to take out paternity insurance? Why?

DLR: We get all kinds of letters, like, "I'm pregnant with your kid" - which is just physically impossible. What happened was that, about four or five years ago, a guy in the band had a suit from a woman claiming her kid was his. All the tests proved conclusively that that never was his kid. So I took out insurance in order to make someone think six times before she does anything.

RS: Have you ever really been in love?

DLR: I'm not even sure I've ever really come close. I've seen it on TV, I read it in books, but it's not a mechanical thing, love. Just about anything you name to me that's mechanical - "Dave, could you do it?" "Yup, what is it?" [Laughs] "Can you fly the space shuttle?" "Sure. Give me the books, and in two years I'll get us off the ground." "Dave, will you fall in love?" I don't know. That's not something you do with your hands! [Laughs] That's not something you plot out in your mind: Three hours a day, Monday through Wednesday, gonna work on falling in love. I can't do that, so how do I know?

RS: On your vacations, you go off a lot into the jungle - New Guinea, the Amazon - with a group you've called the Jungle Studs. What intrigues you so much about exploring?

DLR: Total, total commitment. You don't depend on anybody. Nobody can help you. And it's scary. Really scary. It's like a roller-coaster ride, and the effect is very therapeutic. I'm a lot more calm when I come back. I get through everyday life a lot easier coming out of something that dramatic. I don't do any writing in the jungle, I don't even take a pad of paper with me. I get some really dramatic and colorful emotional responses out of myself, and then, maybe, I can put that onto plastic when we make a record. I do it because it's exercising the brain muscles, paying attention to detail. How many millions of little tiny things can you remember, okay? And then let's throw something else in the pot: Your life depends on it. That, to me, sends chills up and down my spine.

RS: Let's say you want to explore the Amazon. How do you go about it?

DLR: I just pulled out the map and said, "What's here?" And I said to my bodyguard Eddie, "When we're done playing Argentina, we're going to spend a month in the Amazon." And he said, "Great, I've always wanted to go to Africa." [Laughs] The last time, in New Guinea, I hired a guy named Skip Horner, who's an outdoorsman. We used the services of about forty people in putting this together. Skip had never been hiking in New Guinea. In fact, many times during the trip he said, "Man, in the seventeen years I've been doing this, I've never done anything this difficult." [Laughs] I took my girlfriend, a medic, one other fellow, the Jungle Studs, the interpreter and several porters, and we worked our way up the mountain. There you get sixty-two degrees of vertical jungle. That's steeper than any master ski slope. All you can do is take four climbing steps, stop, breathe and try and work your energy back up. You take some potassium and four more steps. Again and again. All day. You stop at night and then do it all day again. When I came down and started shooting the video for "California Girls," they'd say, "The Midwest Farmer's daughter hasn't shown up." "That's okay," I'd say. "One step at a time." "Hey, man, the monitor just blew up." "That's all right. I remember the beat." I'm simplifying, but it has that kind of effect on me.

RS: You seem to have a need to keep proving yourself on all fronts.

DLR: No, there's a need to keep proving to myself that I can do, that I have an idea and can make it happen. Trips in the jungle are very introspective for me. All the struggle really happens in your head. And it's a daily thing that goes on for days. You have to get to the point where you're sick of it, tired and hungry, and you want out. That's when you start making improvements.

RS: Do you think you have an oversized ego?

DLR: I have an impenetrable spirit. And there's a difference. When you say ego, it suggests a lot of self-satisfaction. I'm never totally sure that what I'm doing is as right as it could be. But my spirit serves in lieu of that ego. I don't feel bad if you tell me I'm wrong. I don't feel anger for criticism. If I don't get the respect I deserve, I don't sulk and get despondent. My spirit is strong. But as far as ego? I don't see Errol Flynn in the mirror. I don't hear Caruso on the records.

RS: Who is your best friend?

DLR: I don't have a best friend...Probably my sister who lives with me. I don't think I have a whole lot in commom with my peer group. I have a very low opinion of musicians, people in the music business. I make a joke of it. Why do I love to go into the jungle? Because it's easy for me. I work in the music business - I'm totally used to animals and insectlike creatures. [Laughs] I have more in common with the mountain men in New Guinea than I do with music people. I don't hang out with musicians. I don't hang out with anybody. By and large, I'm either involved with the entourage on the road or in the studio, or I'm by myself.

RS: Do you have any heroes?

DLR: A list a mile long. Christopher Columbus. Everybody told him he was crazy. They didn't see it his way. And look where he got. At the same time, he didn't know where he'd gotton once he got there. This is endearing to me. [Laughs] You want a hero in the music world? James Brown. He brought a feeling to music without really using words. He's just famous for his sound. I also like Will Rogers and Mark Twain for their views. Teddy Roosevelt. He was an adventurer.

RS: Despite the seeming chaos of your life, not very much actually gets out of your control.

DLR: I've never had a problem being self-motivated. A lot of folks can't see the light at the end of the tunnel until the light's really close.

RS: How old were you when you began to see your light?

DLR: I'm not sure I've seen it! I'm working purely on blind faith. [Laughs] This whole career has a very careening, rolling quality to it - and that's by device. See, I don't have to see the light. I figure we have the good news and the bad news. The bad news is, we may be lost; but the good news is, we're way ahead of schedule. [Laughs] No light yet, however! My theory is, you put it all on the table. You bet everything. When you're back in school, saying, "I want to go onstage; I want to go on the road," all your friends, your family, keep telling you you're crazy: "You're sacrificing your education, your financial security, your social background. You're not going to be a family man in the Christian sense of the word. What if you don't make it? After all, only one in a zillion do. Man, you're crazy." Then, five years later, if you win, everybody comes back, half of them trying to make you feel bad. They say, "Don't you feel overpaid for what you do? There are people out there starving Dave. Doesn't this make you lose sleep at night?" Well, from the beginning I bet it all. Of course, even when you do win, this big voice comes out of the clouds and says, "The entry fee will be your family life. We'll take that right off the bat, because you want to go on the road."

RS: Do you think the band will last?

DLR: I'm not sure. I guess we'd have to wait and see where I'm going. Rock bands being the fragile units they are, I can't say.

RS: My sense is that you are a good bit more gentle than you'd like your public to know.

DLR: I'm very gentle. [Laughs] But I'm not as nice as I seem.

RS: I didn't assume that. But you seem to have a big stake in appearing to be macho.

DLR: My macho and my gentleness are confused in my business with the pleasure sphere of thinking. [Here he gets unusually quiet and, yes, America, reflective] Around the end of my junior year in high school, I was sent to a work ranch for bad boys.

RS: Why were you sent?

DLR: I was getting tossed around in schools. There was all that racial stuff going on in Pasadena, fights...That's when I started wearing denim jackets and shit. Anyway, at this ranch, everybody was given a horse to take care of, to teach you responsibility. They gave me a colt that had never been broken before. I could barely get the rope around his neck. So I spent five months, the better part of the whole time I was here, just going like this [he makes a gesture of patting the air as if patting a horse's nose] to the horse from ten feet away, because you couldn't even get that close to him. The main foreman told me that the only way you'd get close to the horse was to convince him you meant no harm. And I spent months. The closest I got to that horse was maybe ten feet. And I was furious, frustrated, pissed, the whole time, because when I left that ranch, I still hadn't managed to get to him. That's the only fucking thing I've ever really missed.

RS: Despite your feeling of being misunderstood from an early age, you've really led a rather painless existence. What has been the most painful moment of your life?

DLR: The most pain I've had in my life that endured consistently was that people around me didn't see it my way. Or they didn't explain that they didn't understand my way of doing things. I guess that's pretty common. You don't have to be a rock star to have that. That's my biggest pain. But I think I understand health pretty well. I spent two years as a cleanup boy in surgery at a hospital, during junior college. I worked nights out of the emergency room, did all the cleanups, saw all the surgeries, picked up and delivered the patients, prepped them - that kind of thing. I was with the guy before they put him to sleep, the last one he saw before he went out, and some of them never woke up again. It had a very striking effect on me. It's very difficult to disassociate yourself from it once you've left. So I'm not as affected by pain and death and misery as I was before I worked there. Also, I come from a family of doctoRS: my uncle Dave is a brain surgeon, my uncle Marty is an orthopedic surgeon, my grandfather was a surgeon.

RS: What do you want to be when you grow up, David?

DLR: In terms of accomplishment, I'm a full-blast adult right now - the boy grown up. There's no way I can accomplish more. I would hope that when I grow up, if I'm not accomplishing as much as I'd like, I'd still be happy.

RS: Are you happy?

DLR: Now I am, but I'm driving ninety miles an hour. But someday down the line, if I yell, "Flame on!" and there's no sparks, I'd hope, at that point, I could still be happy.

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Interview © 1985 Rolling Stone


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