It’s Only Roth ‘N’ Roll: Our 1986 David Lee Roth Cover Story

It’s Only Roth ‘N’ Roll: Our 1986 David Lee Roth Cover Story

A version of this story was published in the April 1986 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 35th anniversary oEat ‘Em and Smile, we’re republishing this article here.

In another life, David Lee Roth was Attila the Hun. He led a bunch of barbarians—who looked curiously like Van Halen—around the world, sacking and pillaging as they went. In yet another life, David Lee Roth was Jesse James. His heroes include Muhammad Ali and Ray Kroc.

He got his first radio from his uncle Dave when he was 8, and from that time on, he knew what he wanted to do. He would lay in bed, the radio across the room, a stick taped to the dial so he wouldn’t have to get out of bed to change stations.

He met the other members of Van Halen about 10 years later. Their debut album went gold three months after it came out. David and Van Halen made six albums together; each went platinum. The combination was awesome but highly volatile. 

Last spring, following an ugly and much publicized fight, David and Van Halen split up. At press time, Dave was about to start filming the rock ‘n’ roll comedy Crazy From the Heat, which he coproduced, cowrote, codirects, and stars in. Van Halen replaced Dave with singer Sammy Hagar. Van Halen replaced Dave with Steve Vai (guitar), Billy Sheehan (bass), and Gregg Bissonette (drums), and their thrasher metal album is due in July. 

In Van Halen, it was Eddie Van Halen who provided the metal, but it was always Dave who provided the Technicolor, the entertainment, the spark, the rock ‘n’ roll. 

We followed Dave. 


David Lee Roth
Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images


Left Bank Dave 

I like talking. If you want to make conversation, that’s better, because I’m going to learn something from it. But if it’s monologue, that’s OK. I’ve got a lot on my mind. I’m a big sloganeer. People accuse me of boiling everything down to a one-liner. Where’s the drum and cymbal? But I lived up to that. It’s not the public image I’m living up to, it’s my own mental image of what I should be. I always visualize myself into things I think I should be. I visualize myself as a Vietnam pilot. “Roscoe Ajax Five, we have him on the screen, Bob. Over.” Click. Speak English or die. That character is strong. That character is fearless. That character is Sgt. Rock…. 

If I’m sitting writing lyrics, I visualize myself as a tubercular Left Bank artist, pouring out his soul, who sweats and bleeds every word, and I try to live up to him in spirit. I have a very certain idea of how rock music should be for me. It should be a Technicolor circus. 

Designer Dave 

Nothing just descends from the hand of God through the crack in the peeling ceiling of the Marriott Hotel. You got to bring it with you. So when you ask me, “Dave, What about the rock lifestyle?”, I’m glad you asked. Look at these pictures. This was my birthday, at Lake McQueeny, and in San Antonio, the bus broke down and 50 guys had to push it out of the swamp, and they’re all wearing funny tour jackets that we designed together, and the bus interior is all sharkskin and zebra and fake plastic this and that, and we designed that too. 

Dave’s Way 

In a dive up the street, I met some kid who just moved here from Colorado, has a band, and wanted to know what to do with his demo tape. I said, “Pass on the demo tape.” Some guy’s sitting in an office, with a satin jacket and an attitude, gets 700 tapes a day. He said, “What do I do?” I said, “Get the magazines, see what clubs are around, and play everywhere that you can, all the time, until they come and discover you.” That’s how we did it. And if you’re entertaining enough or good enough, or if the music is right enough, then the secretary over at Poly Brothers is going to go and check it out. She’s going to come back and tell the vice president in charge of Wheatena that, “Hey, I just saw this great band down at this club.” He’ll say, “Really?” He won’t go, but all the rest of the secretaries will. Then when he’s surrounded, he’s got to plug in sooner or later. 

Dave’s Promise 

I really believe in postal instant press. Go to the magazine, rip off the format, use the print type, whatever, take a picture of yourself jumping off a building, and put it up everywhere. Even if you’re not playing, announce that you are. After a while, people will get used to seeing the name. We used to think, “What kind of audience would want to see us play?” While Aerosmith was happening, we’d go down to the stadium where they were playing, and I’d be out papering cars, running from the security police, jamming flyers into windshield wipers. Ultimately, we had 14 people running around in the rain. You take this high school, I’ll take this. I promised everyone if we’d make it, we’d all do blow together. 

Dave’s Cave 

I was reading about these guys who were going into the deepest cave in the world, something like four miles from the surface, and it wasn’t straight down. It also goes sideways, and there’s lakes in here. These cats are like two miles down and they have to blow up a little life raft, floating in this little cave, pitch black. Crawl up on the little raft and go to sleep for two hours, wake up in the pitch black, deflate the raft, turn up the regulator, go another mile, then down, then sideways. What motivates people to do that? They had to be airlifted, just to the hole. These guys were in isothermic tents freezing their ass off, just at the top of the hole. It’s inspiring as hell to me. Not to go into the hole, but in my own chosen endeavor. 

Dave’s Fave Van Halen Rumor 

My favorite item about Van Halen is that Eddie’s new singer has zoomed up out of oblivion and suddenly he’s got the microphone. Here’s a guy who’s bad-mouthing me, and I never even shook his hand. Never met this guy in my life. There was an incident though when I was recording the EP and I was in the studio with Ted Templeman, and Ted was doing Sammy Hagar at the same time. And the telephone call comes, and it’s the singer and he’s frantic. He just got his first big shot with some song, and he’s got the video, and evidently, he says the word “ass.” Standards and Practices are all over him. They’re not going to play his video. There goes the last 10 percent of the career down the toilet. “What am I gonna do?” he asked. Ted turns to me and says, “You’re into video. What should he do?” I get on the phone and ask him what’s happening on the screen, what’s the transition before it? So he tells me the transition. “Well, that’s cool. If the guy’s slamming the door when that word pops up, just pop in the sound of the door. You can go down to editing. They probably have 20 different doors for you. They’re in the Yellow Pages.” And that’s exactly what happened. 

The next thing I know, this guy’s all over the press, with mindless word-drool, and they are bad-mouthing me and talking about how they suffered and struggled through the last 12 years, put up with my shit. Poor little Eddie Van Halen. Struggled to survive a continuing onslaught of platinum records and Lamborghinis. Poor little Eddie. Forced to live a lie. 

Eddie’s Problem 

The biggest problem Eddie had with me was, in addition to making the records and going on tour, I wanted to make the video, make a movie, tour weird places, and get involved in designing the album covers. They just couldn’t get their asses out of bed. They usually just couldn’t make it through rehearsals for a two-week period without an argument. A year for an album? “That’s ridiculous.” Want to go on the road? “Sure, for how long?” They don’t want to do these four- five-month tours. So, what are we going to do? Play the stadiums, the big places. That way we only have to play the two hot months of the summer. I joke and say you can’t hear my jokes in a place like that. Fact of the matter is, you can’t hear anything in a place like that. From 20 feet you can’t hear. From 80 yards you can’t see a thing. Maybe other artists can communicate to 50,000 people. Maybe it’s Springsteen. It sure ain’t me. I think it’s a rip-off to play stadiums. Can’t hear, can’t see, I got no control over the show.

Rock ‘n’ roll is probably the best form of entertainment. That’s why it lasted so long. I want to do it. Why would they want to do it? Money. I have money. I want to play, tour, go everywhere. Last time I was in Japan was 1979. Why can’t we go to Japan? Because we don’t make enough money. It’s not “We don’t make money.” It’s “We don’t make enough.” I always figured I got this gig partly because I want to travel, and if I don’t make no scratch in Japan, fine. I don’t make my money in New York, and if it’s not New York, I’ll make it in South America. It’ll just go up and down, up and down, as my career goes on. You’re not going to be popular in all countries all the time unless you’re Julio Iglesias. 

Video Dave 

Half the talent in video looks like they’re somebody’s sister, or the production girl said, “Hey, Sally, get out there,” and everybody cops their role and goes vaudeville with it, right off the bat. The bad guys make mean faces and the girls wiggle, just like our videos, but here’s where the difference is: two-thirds of the way — exactly — everybody starts dancing. Smack. The kiss of death. See the Pat Benatar video where she’s a chick in a house of ill-repute and she sings, “I will never surrender,” and this pimp comes up to her, and she’s doing the lip sync, but she’s not giggling, and how does she teach this guy on behalf of womanhood everywhere that she ain’t gonna take this shit no more? She shakes her tits at him and starts dancing. Boom. She sets the movement back three years in the space of 30 seconds. Why is that? Is it because of “Bye Bye Birdie?” When they ran out of dialogue or acting, everybody just danced. You wind up with “A Chorus Line” every third video. It looks like a big Pepsi commercial because everybody’s using the same dancers, the same choreographer. The same cat who got the Jordache look is walking Billy Squier right in or out the door, depending on your perspective. 


David Lee Roth 1986
Credit: John Atashian/Getty Images


Tribal Dave 

Tears for Fears is a lot like Pat Benatar, just a jump to another kind of music or another kind of T-shirt. Tears for Fears sing, “You shouldn’t have to sell your soul.” How does he show us that? He starts dancing. Is that ridiculous or is that tribal? Is that a built-in ritual? Does it come with the package? Do human beings do that, or did he just run out of ideas for what to do with his mug or his hands? I’m beginning to think it’s built-in, but it makes for lousy theater. 

Artistic Dave 

Whoever it was who first took a Magic Marker to a photograph was a genius. He altered the face of art permanently and forever. 

Traveling With Dave 

All the best movies in the world are about people. Ever watch a movie about places? “Watch out for those claws, Bob. They’re sharp and they sure can scratch.” That’s what I should have, a travelogue. The closest I come to that is when I was leading a bunch of Japanese journalists through the house out in Pasadena, and they wanted to do it the way the First Lady does at the White House. There’s six of them walking in a line behind me, and I say, “Did you hear the birds?” Very enthusiastically, I say, “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” And they say, “Yes, yes, yes,” and I say, “I just put them in. They’re made by Sony,” and they go, “Ah, Sony,” and write it down. I figure I’ll shoot a little lower. 

Dave’s Formula for Success 

Urban-contempo. It used to be called disco. Janet Jackson’s single, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” is cool. She’s Michael Jackson’s sister. Now we know where all the hormones in that family went. Great song. Killer drum sound. It was like a whole generation was dependent upon John Bonham to supply that. Or Jimmy Page. Now there’s just no competition. Those guys, whoever they are, who are mixing and twittering the knobs, give or take the music, give or take the format, there’s no contesting who got the big bass sound. Who has the tribal sounds as far as BIG DRUM. A great deal of that music is just wallpaper for me. It’s motivating, 130 beats a minute. But, sooner or later, somebody’s going to combine those sounds with rock music, and they’ll be on top. If you got a good song, however, it doesn’t matter how you sound on the record. The Doors were recording on four-track how many years ago, and they still sound just as full, just as rich, just as entertaining—probably more so than half the product out there today. But if you’re going to sit down with the headset and the CD, all right, it’s not going to be quite as satisfying. I love to think I invented the heavy metal tattered and torn thing of tying the T-shirts together and the ripped-up spandex with the wrestler haircut. Now I’m beginning to think, “Did I, or was I just another in the long line? Was Aerosmith really better?” 


David Lee Roth 1986
Credit: Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images


Dave’s Light Show 

Everybody gets the same paint box. It’s only money. You can buy the lights, you can get all the colors you want. Some people paint Picassos and some people fingerpaint. Rock ‘n’ roll is a unique combination. Combination. Not one or the other. 

Dave’s Heroes 

Traditionally, there’s always one smoke-bomb band that’s popular, just like there’s always the female vocalist who’s not the greatest looking, but who because of her creativity and personality, blows life into what would be ordinary clay, à la Cyndi Lauper, before that Bette Midler. Blind Black people, reformed junkies. These are our heroes. 

Wrestling Dave

Professional wrestling is one of the most popular shows on television, therefore professional wrestling is one of America’s favorite sports, if we want to call it that. I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s the one sport where you can really blast on the guy when he’s down. You can even coldcock the ref if you don’t like the call. Now, I’m all for that. That probably tells us more about ourselves than about wrestling. It seems very rock ‘n’ roll. 

Wrestlers are like comedians. Back and forth, from Eddie Murphy and the red leather jumpsuit, work the audience, hit them up. It’s almost as if they’re trying to hit a rhythm, trying to play drums with their body; air drums. The timing for the jokes is like songs. Three minutes, breathe. Wipe the brow. Sweat. All of a sudden, a glut of new comedians. When we saw the Dave Clark Five we all said, “I got to get a guitar.” Now all you got to get is a microphone. It’s easier, so I suspect more people will try it. I mean, it’s the same wit and wisdom as expressed in the lyrics. Same subject matter. Same attitude, sarcasm, angst. 

Synthesizing Dave 

Something happened to the synthesizer along the way. It’s supposed to be an instrument that had no innate sound of its own. When somebody says synthesizer, you’re not supposed to have any idea what that’s supposed to sound like. Every time you heard it it would be different. But it’s not. They sell stacks and stacks of this million dollar hi-tech audio equipment that alters and regenerates and emulates sound. People go up and buy it and they wind up in a studio. Somebody says, “Listen to this. I can play the Ninth Symphony in dogs barking,” and it’s great. But when it comes time to make the record, it never winds up on vinyl. When it comes time for the dogs barking, they break into a guitar solo. Another guitar solo. 

Fashionable Dave 

It was very fashionable, when that band Angst was around, to put down California and L.A. Now I’m seeing books like How to California. Pants with names have gone from Calvin Klein, which is decidedly New York, to Jimmy’s, which is West Coast sounding to me. Elbow thrashing, skateboard culture. Bicycle motor-cross freestyle championships tomorrow at Venice Beach. Be there! It’s all over the airwaves. It’s all over the fashion. Life is one big barbeque. 

Dave in Mexico 

I performed down in Mexico for the Miss Mexico Beauty Pageant. It was real prestigious. Forty girls from the states of Mexico, all the governors, and L.A.’s Mayor Tom Bradley were all there. Some really gorgeous girls, and it was wild, attended by 5,000 people and broadcast via satellite all over the world, 30-40 million people watching. I was the halftime entertainment. 

There’s a segment when there’s a song that’s recognizable, and each one of the girls comes running up and does a few steps Madonna-style and I’m thinking, “What’s that song? It’s so familiar.” It’s “Wango Tango” by Ted Nugent. Mayor Tom Bradley’s sitting there and this song’s being blared all over the stadium, and they looped it, so that it goes 20 minutes. “It’s a Maserati, it’s a big salami.” Then I noticed something real special. These girls are on a five and a half foot deck, which would put their asses at right about hand height when it’s fully extended. Of course, all the crew is gathered in the best place, in the wings of the stage, down in the dirt where the monitors are. These girls are literally in grasping distance, within shark distance, and everybody, even though five and a half feet away from the real living, breathing thing, is glued to the TV monitor. Every time one of these girls does a little shake, these guys go “oh” like they’re in pain, and they’re not even paying attention to the real thing. 

The screen is better than the real thing! 


David Lee Roth
Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images


Casting Dave 

I read an interview with someone who was involved with inventing the show 60 Minutes or something. It was a long, involved interview about his accomplishments, his background, etcetera, etcetera. Very serious in tone. He was very goal-oriented, a very goal-oriented individual. It seemed he accomplished a lot in a relatively short time, and when asked what his next goal was, his last line was: “I want to be the casting director of one of David Lee Roth’s videos.” I knew we were onto something. 

Dave’s Make-Believe Girls 

Eighty percent of the girls you see in videos, in movies, and on TV don’t even exist. By the time they go through the final casting procedure, makeup is finished, wardrobe gets there, hair does their business, the DP puts the filter on the lens, and you put the Sterno can underneath the lens to get the heatwaves going, and the fan is put on the side to get a little lift in the hair—these girls don’t exist. They’re art projects. 

Dave’s Protection 

When I went on the road last time, we took these two little people with us, Jimmy and Danny, as my bodyguards. They’re probably three and a half, four and a half feet tall. We had them in S.W.A.T. team uniforms. We designed them together. Yeah, S.W.A.T. team. Twelve-battery flashlights. “I don’t know if I can carry a 12-battery flashlight.” Why not? “Well, it will drag.” OK then, handcuffs. “Yeah, we’ll wear those.” Let’s buy some shades. Where’s the 7-11? What about karate uniforms? If nothing else, I can wake up in Tuna Fish, Wyoming, nine in the morning, hung over, even if I’m miserable, I can look out the door in the hallway and there goes a midget in a bath towel holding the hand of the girl I was with last night. And I know I’m in rock ‘n’ roll. 

Bali Hai Dave 

A lead guitarist is married to a television star. I came back from one of my trips about two years ago. It was a camping trip in Tahiti. Spent two weeks camped on Mt. Bali Hai, where the cloud cover is so rich it’s like a ceiling. You could literally put your hand up into it and it disappears up to the elbow. We went into those clouds and stayed there, waiting for the ghosts. When we came back, all sunburnt and everything, we were at the airport, the band’s getting ready to go back out on tour. There’s the guitar player and there’s the television-star wife, the TV star. She says to me, “So where did you go on vacation this time, Dave?” Well, we just got back from Bali Hai Mountain in the South Pacific. Did you ever hear of it? She says no. I say OK and go into overdrive. Television star. I say, “Uh, you ever see the play South Pacific?” No. “Ever hear of the movie?” No. “Come on, you don’t remember her beckoning to the French guy and singing, ‘Bali Hai is calling’?” No. I go into hyper drive. “You know the band Led Zeppelin?” Yeah. “Remember the tune, ‘Immigrant Song’?” She said, “Yeah.” I says, “He probably stole that melody from ‘Bali Hai’.” To this day I’m sure she thinks Page wrote South Pacific

Respecting Dave 

Now we see a lot of people in pop music and on TV who are famous for being famous. I guess I skipped a groove when I was 16. Another visualization: the man who came from nowhere and goes home to no one. I always felt that. I always had a real good time with it. Usually those characters are very severe, very Clint Eastwood, Peter Townshend, serious, and I always laughed about it. I know it’s just visualization. I’m living it. I’m breathing it, but I know where it came from. Consider the source. You got to laugh. Henceforth, I don’t get no respect. 

The word respect is thrown around the world of rock ‘n’ roll as often and as erroneously as in boxing. “Um, why is he hitting him with the right in the face, Bob?” Well, he’s teaching him some respect. “How come they’re not hitting each other, Bob?” They respect each other too much. Well, I’d like to thank my corner man and my trainer and my next fight will be a unification of the title and I will get the respect that I deserve. All of us in rock do it. 

Three things all of us in rock bands say: (1) This album is much better than the last one. It’s much more rock; (2) We haven’t changed. We don’t ever want to change; and (3) This is just a rough mix. 

The post It’s Only Roth ‘N’ Roll: Our 1986 David Lee Roth Cover Story appeared first on SPIN.

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