Van Halen's spirited frontman talks about… pretty much everything in the world, actually
David Lee Roth – and I say this in the most affectionate way – is mad.
That probably comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with the man known as Diamond Dave, but it’s worth making explicit from the outset. Barely has the call connected before there’s a bellowed “Call me David Lee, that’s my family name. If you have to yell my name across a crowded concourse yell ‘D-Ro!’ – that usually gets the job done!”
Well, since we’re finally getting you down here there will be a lot of necessity to be yelling your name out across concourses.
Hopefully! I’m coming a week in advance. And of course I have an agenda but tell me, Andrew: what should I be looking forward to doing if I’m there a week before the show?
So, you make an effort to get out and about when you’re in town then, it's not just turn up, sit in the hotel, do the gig and turn back?
Well, a good writer writes, a good musician listens to a lot more than he actually composes, and if you’re going to do lyrics – well, there’s a Freudian slip. That’s not even a slip, that’s a Freudian move: I said going to do lyrics. If you really want it to ring true, you’ll live it first. Go really get your heart broken! Go really find something that will happen to you, something that you celebrate! Go, you know, find the tragedy of something, the thrill of something. And I’m a fan of testing the deep end with both big toes. I think that’s the ambulance description of what I just did. I can’t really write that, but everybody on the floor knows what you mean! [laughs madly]
You’ve not slowed down at all, then?
No I enjoy people, even the people I hate. Do you speak to your television set, Andrew? I do, I speak to my television. “Are you kind and supportive? I’m not either.” [laughs] And I’m a book reader, you know: printed word, reins supreme for me still, whether it’s in courier font on the Internet, or whether it’s emblazoned on the Daily Tribune. It’s still the printed word for me, I even speak to books![laughs more] I do enjoy people watching. and I don’t mean just from a distance. I mean let’s break some bread, or whatever it is that you guys are eating. “Are you eating this or is this the tablecloth?”. Have the translator ask him if I just ate the tablecloth, I think I just did. I mean I’ve been places like that. You know, “I think I just drank the finger bowl. Well, they make a good finger!” [laughs uproariously]. I’ve been places like that, and you just have to keep your sense of humour and use your smile like a ray gun. I’ve been living in Tokyo for the last year, in fact, and even going shopping for dental floss is an adventure in the Tokyo back streets.
So you’re actually getting some Australia-time in ahead of the tour?
Oh yeah. See, travelling through when you’re actually performing, I prefer to do it racehorse style. I really don’t pay attention to my surroundings at all. It’s eat, sleep, race, win. And uh, that’s generally the pace that you pay for. Because you know, nobody really cares about the BBQ day before yesterday Dave. It’s more “uh hey, I just paid $100 American to watch you do your thing, now do it.” And although a lot of musicians travel extensively, they see the world through the window, and when they try to describe it, it usually ends up being a one adjective trip: everything was great. “How do you like Australia?” “Ahh it’s great.” “How do you like Australian people?” “Ahh they’re just great.” “Have you done anything since you were here?” “Oh we had some Australian food, it was great.” “How are you guys getting along?” “Great.” [laughs]
Well there’s a question for you, how are you guys getting along?
I see a split of great/great. [laughs] I see a split screen, right, and you’re falling asleep, feeding the cat. Studying a recipe book. [laughs] Totally dressed, standing up, “Ohh it’s just great mate, just great.” You’ve taken shorthand!
Dave, what the hell are you talking about?
You know, the travels before and after the tour are what add up to what you’re doing. You are really called into service – and it’s the service industry man, it’s blue collar man, I’m sweating by the second song. It’s construction work from that second song on. And Alex [Van Halen, drummer] and I we you know laugh routinely, we laugh like pirates, and the first half of the show, we give you that for free. That’s like the first seven minutes of any Broadway show, or pornography: no matter what, it’s just great!
Oh, that’s beautiful.
You’re paying for the second half. [laughs] It’s like getting married: the first half is always great. You’re paying for the second half, that’s the heavy lifting. [laughs]
So you and Alex laugh, but how are things in the band beside that? And you can’t use “great” as a response, by the way.
Your honor, can we please define great? [laughs] OK, here we go, your honor…because if we can define the word [laughs]… Van Halen is constantly in some sort of fraternal conflict. It’s like a great rugby team. I played that sport for a short period of time as a kid. And it was a great combination of team, spirit and individuals competing with each other, just as I imagine the best rock bands are. When everyone gets along just fine, that’s a vacation, that’s decoration. It’s when there’s sparks, and questions and innuendo and doubt… now that sounds like a career. [laughs] It sounds like a real football movie. How do you wanna live? Do you want your life to be like a real epic football movie or do you want it to be a fake one? Because fake is: we got together, we all got along, everything was wonderful. We won, we won again then we won, then we all got married and had kids who turned out to be Presidents and Senators…
[interrupts] Boring, boring! No: you want your football movie to be more like “four guys are recruited from four different places who’ve never played football in their life by an alcoholic coach whose on his last legs and can only work in a small rural school…” oh, this is great so far, you writing this down?
Absolutely, I’m going to pitch this film the second the interview’s done.
OK: and the main guy can’t throw with his left arm because nobody knows it but he needs glasses – oh this is good, this is good! – and the only doctor who can give him the glasses hates him because he slept with his daughter. Perfect! Just get it down, we’ll write the rest later. [laughs delightedly]
Man, I want to see this film.
Exactly, and we haven’t even gotten to the first game yet! And in the end, in the end of the end, this is the type of movie you want your life to be. You want your kids to remember it as a celebration. It might be painful to live through at times, but the most valuable medals are the most deadly, the heaviest. And uh, with that in mind, the conflicts in Van Halen are both myriad and legendary.
This is true.
Look, Van Halen doesn’t really get along. Alex and I do, like I said, we laugh like pirates every other morning. When I wake up in Tokyo, I wake up at 3AM, I have permanent jetlag and uh we start the day together, I call him in Los Angeles and the day is just kickin’ in for him. And we go through the whole bit at least every other day. So there is a mutual celebration, but like on all big teams, there is a, uh, a chemical reaction, certainly between Edward [guitarist Eddie Van Halen] and myself. We love our team, and we still compete with each other individually, as well as, as a team. I think you need that. And unfortunately a lot of folks grow out of it, or they have a therapist beat it out of them for $200 an hour. It’s kind of like somebody comes back after you haven’t seen them for a while, have you gone to any high school reunions? You know, you come back and somebody goes, wow, “yeah man I’m a doctor now”. Another one goes, “yeah, I’m a girl now.” What? [laughs] Really? Well we always knew, you were always too good at softball.
So is that what happened with Michael [Anthony, original bassist sacked under mysterious circumstances and replaced with Eddie’s 20 year old son Wolfgang]?
[laughs, dodges question] See, sometimes you get your colleagues or friends to come back and say “yeah man, I just finished seven years of therapy,” and it turns out you like the rage better. [laughs] “I like the damaged goods better – you were more popular, more fun, when you were ruined!” And you know, you can run into that. So that has not happened with Van Halen: you hear it in the music, you see it in the stage show.
So there’s not gonna be a Metallica-in-Some Kind of Monster-style Van Halen therapy session any time soon?
No, but at least we have the channel, that music and the stage show, which is wildly therapeutic. And all of our carefully, self-generated bad publicity is an art form, and most of our bad publicity is self-generated, that’s why it’s always accompanied with a great photo, if you were wondering. [laughs]. I’m kinda like the Wizard of Oz, but with a little reefer, you see? [howls with mad laughter]