Dave Lee Roth: The Face Interview
by Fiona Russell Powell
Larger than life and twice as loud, David Lee Roth is the vocalist and ring-master of the Van Halen hard rock circus. Hard rock doesn't get any bigger than Van Halen, whose six albums in a ten year career have all gone platinum. Their guitarist and namesake, Eddie Van Halen, was the soloist on Michael Jackson's "Beat It", lending the group a grudging respect in some circles. For most of us, though, they remain beyond the pale, which is just how we like them. David Lee Roth wouldn't have it any other way either. A Number One Sex Symbol with his wild mane of blond hair, a muscular body clothed in self-designed Spandex outfits, and his jive-talking stage routine, Dave Lee is - on the surface - a living cartoon of the heavy metal rockstar. He is what Gore Vidal would call a 24-hour person: he runs 8 to 10 miles every morning, studies karate and does weight-training everyday. He speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese, has climbed K-2 and spent much of last year exploring the Amazon (and the rest of the year in hospital recovering from diseases collected on his travels). This year he intends to 'holiday' in New Guinea. He wishes he'd been born a Huckleberry Finn and describes himself as an "angel with a dirty face" who approaches the world of rock'n'roll "like Disneyland; there are a million different rides!" He owns an art gallery in LA, the Zero One Gallery, which doubles as an after-hours club at night. He is well-read, intelligent and witty, laughs very loudly, often at his own jokes, and is the most outrageous person I've interviewed to date. I met him the day before Van Halen played the `Monsters of Rock' festival at Castle Donnington, while they were rehearsing at the Brixton Academy. Wearing a pair of black 'Speedo' cycling trousers, a white T-shirt, trainers, Porsche sunglasses and with his hair tied back, Roth exudes supreme self-confidence and doesn't miss a trick. Those who complained that my Simon Le Bon interview read like a Kinsey report had better not read on ...
FRP: You're much smaller than I thought you'd be. You look enormous in the photos.
DAVID LEE ROTH: Smaller? Well, maybe it's because our sound is enormous.
What's your earliest childhood memory?
memory would be stealing my first thing in life, which was a pair of
scissors. I remember walking into some-one's apartment when I was three
years old - this was in Bloomington, Indiana - and I took the first
thing I saw, which was the scissors.
Do you come from a wealthy family?
started out when my father was in medical school so we lived in a very
small place until he'd established his practice. He's an eye surgeon.
In a recent interview in Interview you said that every woman that wanted you, got you. Is that really true?
Absolutely. Why?-Do you want me? You only have to ask ...
Um, er, what about the men that want you??
Generally, the only gay audience we supply come from the coastlines in LA and in New York and, well, come como, that's Spanish which means everyone's welcome backstage, no matter what race, creed, colour or sexual preference. I mean, hey, if you can't do it in rock-'n'roll, where are you going to do it?
You knocked around with Terri Toye, the sex change, for a while, didn't you?
There are rumours, yes! Terri is a member of a group in NY called the New Cognoscenti: it's all the fashion people, people who have cult status, like the photographers, the stylists, the dancers, the liberal arts people who haven't quite popped into Newsweek magazine just yet. And that's what everybody's watching and seeing and wear-ing in NY, and it's like doing research when I hang out with people like that.
It's a shame they're about six months behind. Which part of your body do you like the most?
And which part do you value the most?
You design your own clothes, don't you? Yet the clothes you're wearing now are very different to the ones you wear on stage.
Yes, I've been doing some high fashion shopping in the sports stores in London. It's become the big thing, it's 1984, it's the Olympic year. Van Halen's music is very Olympic. How do you feel about coming from a country that's won 75% of the gold medals? Well there's no telling about a home crowd, but I think if the Russians and the Red countries had been there, then the percen-tage of medals won would have been less because of the superior competition that comes from those countries, especially in track and swimming and gymnastics.
You're very sports-oriented - what's your favourite sport?
I like to watch gymnastics and horse events, equestrian and racing, you know. For participa-tion, I guess I prefer contact sports, even if it's just street-hockey on roller-skates.
Tell me about your sword-dancing.
Well, it's not dancing at all. I'vebeen doing martial arts for about 14 years now, and that's where most of my kicks and balancing routines come from. When you look at the pop videos now, you see a lot of pure jazz dancing or the Michael Jackson freeze approach and I thought that if I interjected something like my kicks and sword-play, most peo-ple will completely misinterpret it, but at least they'll know it's not jazz dancing. I've heard it referred to as Arabian sword -dancing. Actually, what it is is kung fu - Pek Kwar - a Northern Chinese style with a lot of very broad moves, a lot of big gestures. Each routine has a specific purpose to it, you can compete in tournaments all over the world ...
You were a hyperactive child. How did your parents deal with that?
I guess I still am, but I've learnt to maintain my attention span. When I was a kid, they labelled me as hyperactive because I had a very short attention span and they sent me to a psychoanalyst. I learnt to read when I was really young and I spent a lot of time in the library which they said was anti-social because I always pre-ferred to do things on my own. To this day, I'd rather be on my own, although I value the input of other people around me.
What conclusion did your psychoanalyst reach?
The final result of therapy, I think, was that we established communication best when we played handball in his office.
say you enjoy being alone most of the.time. Do you ever feel isolated?
What is your Achilles Heel?
I think it must be that I keep on testing myself and if I don't accomplish whatever it is I've set out to do, then I become very bitter.
In Britain, a lot of people regard heavy metal as synonymous with zero intelligence. It's not associated with the brightest of people. You're the only HM musician who peppers your in-terviews with literary references - is that because you are aware of the image HM has and want to change it?
It's just the way I talk. I think a lot of musicians perceive with their own hands and their own feet under stress. If the car breaks down or they get a little wet in the rain or they eat an orange and get a little sticky, it ruins their whole day - some-times, it can ruin their whole week! In the Amazon, we hunted and fished up every-thing we ate, we even charted and mapped our own course; in fact, I did that myself-And you got lost for a week-Yes, that's right, you have to follow a wide margin for error on trips like that. If you lose your way, there's no retracing your steps, because the currents won't allow it. I feel very proud against becoming a father? About five years ago everyone in Van Halen was receiving tons of letters, especially me, saying: 'Dear David, do you remember me, I'm from Tunafish, Wyoming, and I have a little daughter who is three years old and she needs a bicycle, please make the cheque payable to . . .'. So I said to my lawyer, is there any way of insuring against this and he said the only place that would do that would be Lloyds of London.
How do you insure against it - how does it work?
It's a lot like bingo - ha,ha - it's a lot like playing the horses! It's like that a lot with Van Halen; every third question is about that. I know I talk about it a lot, but, you see, I like being open about it and Van Halen's music makes me feel very sexy. I'm one of the architects, so when I hear it, it makes me feel sexy all over again, and when we play it, I get even sexier. I'm a total enthusiast. Everyone has to participate in what Dave's doing, it's been like that since I was a young kid and now I do it for a living.
I've noticed you have a tendency to refer to yourself in the third person, as if you're a minor deity or something.
Hey, what's with the minor? I'm a major! It's not so much deification; I feel that to communicate better, if I can separate Dave the rockstar from Dave the regular guy, then people won't have so many pre-conceptions about me.
Okay, what's my pre-conception of you?
I think you picture me as someone who spends a lot of time in front of the mirror, who thinks very highly of himself and is truly a legend in his own mind. I think you have an image of me as being very, very preoccupied with myself even when I'm interacting with other people. I think you think our music is really stupid and the lyrics bear witness to all of that and no matter what I say at this point, you will interject that into the interview - but I'm having a good time, so let's swing! How much are you worth? Millions and millions and millions of dollars. I have no idea exactly. I remember a Sixties movie called A Thousand Clowns; this man takes a little kid into the streets of New York, he points to two buildings, the World Trade Centre towers, and he says to the kid: 'You see those two buildings, do you know what they do in there? They move paper. Someone starts at the bottom with a broom pushing the paper all the way up to the top floor and then one day they move it into the next building'. And that's where Van Halen is at, loads and loads of green paper and a lot of floors and a lot of buildings.
Do you have an accountant or do you handle your finances yourself?
I do. As I said, in toto, I don't know how much I'm worth, it's running into zillions ... What I invest it in mostly, is something that's gonna hold over into the future, barring any acts of God or Ferrari.
That's a witty line but I've read it three times before.
Well, I like saying it ... OK, barring any acts thereof, Van Halen will continue forever, but if we don't, which I suppose is possible, you know what they say in the music business: here today, gone later today ...
Tell me more about 'The Jungle Studs' and your trip up the Amazon last year.
It's just a travelling group that I formed; I'm the only musician in it, the other eleven members are computer programmers and doctors. The first book I ever read all the way through from cover to cover was Tarzan And The Apes and I've had a fix for the jungle ever since. The movies, the theatre, anywhere I can find it, that whole atmosphere really impressed me and I got to do it. In the entertainment area, so many people in our peer group have lost most of or all of their facilities to do anything of myself. That's the whole idea. You stop worrying when you come back from a trip like that, it changes your outlook on life. Like if a monitor blows up on stage and everybody's having heart-attacks over it, I just sit back and say 'It's OK, I've seen worse'. If someone's hostile at the hotel, I say 'It's alright, I've met hostile people'. Actually, the tribes were very hospitable, they hadn't had a visitor for two years, not since the Brazilian government had been there. It was like the Martians had landed for them and they were equally forbidding to us; although everyone was very friendly, there was an undercurrent of mistrust.
Pat Benatar is often described as America's First Lady of Rock-'n'Roll. In Britain, we think she's a bit naff. What do you think of her?
I can speak in specifics about her. I've talked about her before because she made a big impress-ion on me when she danced in her most recent video, "Love is a Battlefield". There's this horrible scene where she plays a bad girl with a pimp in an upstairs bar in New York. The pimp's got the gold tooth and the lurid, dripping smile and there's a confrontation which starts with a smack in the kisser or a drink in her face at least, and she's supposed to stand up for all the bad girls in the bar and what does she do? I tell you, she jumps back about four steps and shakes her tits at him, like in some Las Vegas routine. What a jack-ass! Let's face it, in about two seconds, she set Womens' Lib back by a year!
Is there any truth in a Daily Mirror article, which claimed you had insured yourself against paternity suits? Why don't you have a vasectomy? You could save your sperm in a sperm-bank and have kids when the right girl comes along.
Wait a minute! You've just convicted me without due process. I'm not guilty!
You could be without realising it - in an interview in Sounds last month you talked about your numbering system, where, if you see a girl you like in the audience, you say to the roadie, fifth row from the front, blonde in a red T-shirt, fourth from the left ...
I'm simply throwing up a defence against becoming so insulated and dying face down in the bathroom poisoned by a Banana Split like Elvis ... I'm just trying to interact with my audience on a socio-cultural level! Which would you prefer to do, go to bed with someone or go on stage?
Go on stage. In previous interviews, you have paralleled the experience.
By that, I mean, it's easy to say that it's like making love to go on stage. To most people, I hope that suggests a very sensual experience, mind and body, vim and vigour, that sort of thing. It's a very physical experience, at the same time though, it all starts upstairs. That took me, how many words? OK, to simplify it, yes, it's like making love.
I take it you like children?
I love 'em.
How many have you got?
How many people claim to have had your child?
Not so many anymore now we’ve got an answering machine
Do you believe in karma.
I think we're masters of our own degree. If you an psychology you're a victim of g or your en-aps you're lock-ociety that may with the econo-mics that you want. I've always been the master of my own fate.
You're a student of Zen?
No, all I said was that I'm the official representative of Zen. It was a joke really.
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
This (leans forward and snaps his fingers) ha, ha! Sure, I've thought about it. I think it's an unanswerable question, but I feel it's something that's de-signed to make you meditate and make you turn inward for a period of time.
Have you ever had your heart broken?
(singing) "They say that breaking up is hard to do ...". I've had several romances; of course your heart gets broken. I think most people perceive broken hearts as a very lingering thing but it never has been for me, not yet. I don't know if I'm incapable of it or just haven't had a great catalyst.
Do you keep a diary?
No, only when I go on holiday. I perceive my jungle adventures as something right out of a novel, and in novels, they keep diaries in case you get lost and they never find you, but they do find the diary! Your life is like an adventure out of a book anyway. Reality is what you make it. If I live it, create it, breathe it, then that's reality, right? That's rock stardom, it's world travel and that encompasses everything right there.
What have you got on your car number plate?
ZAR, which is supposed to be CZAR. I got the name from a comic book. When I drive the red car, the Mercury, it looks like a big cartoon. It's great, it's like driving a yacht down the street, you have to go very very slowly, you can't be in a hurry.
A friend of mine called you Captain America. Do you think that sums you up?
Up your ass with a backstage pass! I am and obnoxiously proud of it.
Are you a monster of rock?
D'you know what a drag race is? Well, in the United States, whenever they have, advertise-ments on the radio for a drag race, they scream and yell and make it as snarling and as dangerous sounding as possible and they seem to do the same thing whenever they make an ad for a rock concert. The drag race ads go exactly like this (at this point, David Lee Roth switches into his stage act): "THAT'S RIGHT, TWENTY GALLON, TWENTY NITRO FUEL SCREAMING TOP FUEL NITRO BURNING DRAGSTERS ABOUT TO EAT YOU ALIVE! THURSDAY THURSDAY NIGHT, THURS-DAY THURSDAY NIGHT! BE THERE!" And it's the same thing for the rock concerts but with different words: "THAT'S RIGHT, THEY'RE YOUNG, THEY'RE HOT, THEY'RE GOOD LOOKING, THEY'RE GONNA FUCK YOUR BRAINS OUT! FRIDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT O'CLOCK, BE THERE!" That's so American though-Horseshit. You get it all over the world: THE MONSTERS OF ROCK WILL TEAR YOUR LUNGS OUT! Yeah, here's my bread, can I have a T-shirt? ARE YOU STILL LIVING??? Ha ha, sorry, I got carried away there.
How do you feel about being second on the bill, below AC/ DC?
Uh, I think we're probably a lot more entertaining than AC/DC.
How many bodyguards do you have and is it true that they're midgets?
Yes, I have two personal body-guards - you see, I need them because in the States I'm in danger frequently, you know, being attacked by 14-year-old schoolgirls. They're called Jimmy and Danny, they used to be with a circus.
Do they leap on people's backs?
No, they leap at your knees with their teeth!
Why do you think that heavy metal, in Britain certainly, is mainly male-oriented. For instance, at a Motorhead gig, the boys outnumber the girls by about 100 to 1.
Sure, it's male-oriented everywhere. It's monster music for monster fans! It's very sexist, very victimisation oriented.
So now you admit that you're sexist?
Why do you wear such tight trousers?
Because they make me feel good. I don't need all the flash colours and the fancy belts but I don’t use them all the time because it's icing on the cake, it makes it taste so much better. But, at the bottom line, I don't need allthose clothes; you want me to goon like this at Donnington?
OK, I dare you. I know you won't, you can't disappoint 65,000 fans.
the bet. You watch the other guys, they're loaded down with rhinestones
and sequins and fancy shoes. I don't need all that shit. I'll show
you at Donnington.