A while back, my editor Keith had the dubious honor of interviewing the sentient ball of self-regard that is David Lee Roth, though “interview” implies a conversation between two people, whereas any chitchat with the excitable Van Halen frontman is destined to feel like an endless, one-sided rant. At one point Roth prodded, “Are ya smiling, Keith? Are ya smiling?”
That might just be the quintessential David Lee Roth moment. Roth is less a singer than an entertainer in the classic sense, the kind of secretly sad clown who weeps uncontrollably if he doesn’t get a standing ovation after every gig. He’s show people, a manic ham who transported the shameless showmanship and anything-for-a-laugh aesthetic of vaudeville to the realm of arena rock.
Roth clearly intended for fans to read his mind-bogglingly self-indulgent 1997 memoir Crazy From The Heat with a shit-eating grin on their ecstatic mugs the entire time, pausingoccasionally to pump their fists in excitement during particularly awesome sections where the author totally touched a girl’s boobs or shocked some squares with his in-your-face rock ’n’ roll antics.
At first, this desperate need to be seen as the coolest dude since Steve McQueen is merely annoying. Then it becomes borderline unbearable, and ultimately deeply sad. It’s as if Roth cannot imagine a more glorious fate than being the oldest guy at the club, the ponytail-sporting swinging senior regaling the kids with the fake IDs about the one time he did it with three of the skanks in the “California Girls” video, then smoked a joint the size of a baby’s arm.
Ah, the “California Girls” video. I bet you had no idea that it represented the apex of the medium and is the only video from the ’80s that anyone remembers. Roth says so himself. Of a youthful fixation with film, Roth writes:
I also decided that I was going to make movies, because I knew who Cecil B. DeMille was and I had a real good idea of how movies were made. Which I have come to do, in video form. They’re little movies. I wrote and directed, edited, cast and color-corrected. California Girls, Just A Gigolo, Hot for Teacher and Jump, among others. California Girls and Just a Gigolo are the Wizard Of Oz of pop video. And a dozen years later, they’re still very, very popular. There are hardly any videos by other artists that you can name; made, say, from ten years ago, that are still popular today. Go ahead, try to name some. You can’t.
Roth’s assertion is irrefutable. Nobody other than Roth has made a video that resonated with the public, or withstood the test of time. When Michael Jackson died recently, for example, people had a vague sense that he might have made some videos in the ’80s, maybe with, like, a horror theme or dancing or something like that? But nobody can be sure, since his videos were all deleted after being played the first time, on account of their being so inferior to the videos of David Lee Roth. The same goes for Madonna. Can you name even a single video she made? I didn’t think so. Maybe if she’d gotten Roth to color-correct her videos, they wouldn’t be lost forever in the dustbin of time.
How did Roth become so ridiculously entertaining? Here he is discussing his formative influences:
So when it came time—not terribly much later—to starting getting on stage and doing what I do for a living, I took elements of comic and soul. I took Superfly and introduced him to Spider-man. I took Sly and the Family Stone, welded them together with the Human Torch. And I flamed on a whole fuckin’ generation. Dolemite, motherfucker!
“Dolemite, motherfucker,” indeed. Many know Roth as the frontman for Van Halen, or a braying, habitually Spandex-clad jackass. I will remember him as the man who introduced Superfly to Spider-Man. You know what? They got along famously. The web-spinner and the coke dealer became best friends. Even vacationed together in Spain together for a few summers with their respective wives.
As the above excerpt illustrates, Roth’s literary style suggests a cross between a hipster beatnik hepcat riffing away and the unedited transcript of a rock ’n’ roll lifer waxing rhapsodic about his genius after ingesting a shoebox full of Columbian marching powder. Are ya smiling? Are ya smiling?
Roth occasionally comes off like a speed-addled David Halberstam. There’s a lengthy passage about how in the ’60s, they had this thing where people would congregate at someone’s house and drink alcohol and listen to music. I guess people at the time referred to it as a “party.” If there was pizza involved, it was called a “pizza party.” Roth discusses this curious phenomenon as if this whole concept of having a “party” was unique to the place and era in which he came of age. He also began experimenting with drugs at these “parties.” Here’s Roth on why drugs are awesome:
What’s curious now, after wandering around inside and outside of the “drug culture” since I was basically twelve or thirteen, is: Look at me. I’m a multimillionaire, my name is as known as the guy on the dollar bill. I’m Mr. Fortunate—I wrote a couple of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphonies, and they’ll pay my way, they’ll pay for my dance lessons and my Mexican cigarettes for probably the rest of my life. It’s already done that.
After explaining the concept of a “party” (“So it would be a gal, one with the wherewithal to put a bowl of chips next to the bowl of dip…”) Roth announces that his work is done. He writes, “We could end the book right here and I would feel spiritually validated and fulfilled as a man, as a philosopher and a competitor in the rat race.”
Bear in mind, dear reader, that this is on page 57. If only Roth were true to his word. Alas, the book goes on for 302 more interminable pages. Are you interested in reading about how Van Halen went from playing backyard parties to being one of the biggest bands of all time? Are you fiending for insider info about the recording of its multi-platinum albums? Then you’ve come to the wrong place, because Roth doesn’t really want to talk about Van Halen, except within the context of all the groupies he gave the old Hong Kong handshake, all the pranks he played, all the booze he drank, and all the awesome stage moves he executed while in the band.
Roth is thoughtful enough to share the source of his greatness: a desire to combat anti-Semitism.
Every step I took on that stage was smashing some Jew-hating, lousy punk ever deeper into the deck. Every step. I jumped higher ’cause I knew there was going to be more impact when I hit those boards. And if you were even vaguely anti-Semitic, you were under my wheels, motherfucker. That’s where the lyrics came from, that’s where the body language came from, that’s where the humor came from, and where the fuck you came from.
Without that Hebraic rage, that explosive Semitic anger, Van Halen is nothing but what Roth describes as “a bunch of buffoons waddling around at the family barbecue, and their wives admonishing the children saying, ‘Don’t worry, Daddy’s just had a few too many Coors Lights and he’s imitating what he used to do for a living when he played music, honey.’”
Our intrepid hero couldn’t stomach the company of such family barbecue-attending buffoons, so he struck out on his own and decided to make a movie. Not just any movie, mind you: the greatest movie of all time. Roth wanted to make the “California Girls” of film. So he concocted a screenplay about a rock star named Dave who travels to a third-world backwater named Dongo Islands and becomes the prey of evil scientists who want to kidnap Dave so they can steal his brain serum and replicate it, so they’ll be able to sell rhythm to white people, since Dave is the only white man with rhythm in the known universe. The actual plot of the script makes much less sense and is infinitely more puerile and self-indulgent, so I’m just giving you the Cliffs Notes version. Roth was given a $10 million budget to transform his cinematic dreams into reality, but shockingly and regrettably, the film never came to fruition.
After that, Roth recorded some killer albums, traveled the world, banged some more hot chicks, got fucking wasted, then headed for the only city tacky enough for him: Las Vegas. Ah, but the Diamond Dave Smile Time Variety Hour wouldn’t just feature the finest music known to man and sophisticado downtown funk. It would also contain trenchant satire. Roth writes, “Let’s contain humor but we’re sexy motherfuckers. Let’s have the humor be competitive with the Dennis Millers and Lenny Bruces, whoever is incisive, whoever is right on target. Let’s be there.”
As right-on as Dennis Miller? That’s setting the bar awfully high. But Roth was up to the task, doling out zingers and one-liners like “Look at my girls dance. Turn your shorts into grilled cheese. More moves than O.J.’s defense team. Hot enough to convince Michael Jackson to quit the Boy Scouts and shakin’ harder than Ted Kennedy reaching for his breakfast beer.”
Alas, Vegas wasn’t ready for such delicious insouciance, and Roth’s stint of revolutionizing and reinventing Vegas ended after a few months. But it was far from over for our hero. In 1996, Roth briefly reunited with Van Halen to record some new songs for a greatest-hits album. The reunion was short-lived, however, as Diamond Dave was all rocking and rolling and charming everyone with his irrepressible personality, and Eddie Van Halen was all, “I feel that it is of the utmost importance that we focus upon maximizing awareness of this new consumer product and not on deplorable endeavors such as drinking alcohol, having fun, or—God forbid—rocking out and entertaining the nice people.”
Who can blame him? I can only imagine how hellish it must be to spend years and years with Roth and his Texas-sized ego and bottomless narcissism. Can you imagine what it’s like to have to perform every night with a guy who’s always on, who greedily hogs the spotlight, yet demands more, more, more?
Roth ends Crazy From The Heat on a philosophical note: “This book is not for simple spectators. If you can get from front to back, you have learned, felt and experienced much of what I did. Maybe you’ll laugh, or feel some wistfulness. Some of it might get you horny, and some of it might just piss you off. Now that’s a story.”
Having gotten from front to back, I can attest that reading Crazy From The Heat is like having its author drunkenly yell incoherent, factually suspect anecdotes into your ear for a 10-hour stretch. It was exhausting and a little dispiriting, though, to be fair, I did feel some wistfulness, and it did get me super-horny. Here’s the horrifying part: Roth begins the book by thanking editor Paul Scanlon, “who whittled this monster manuscript from 1200 pages to the gem you now hold in your hands.” My fragile mind cannot begin to comprehend the unimaginable horror of a 1,200-page version of this book.
So, are ya smiling yet? Huh? Are ya smiling?