When David Lee Roth calls himself "a song-and-dance man," it's not so much false modesty as truth in advertising from a man who sees nothing wrong with the job. As the frontman for Van Halen, he brought James Brown-like showmanship to hard rock, and fans responded to the mixture of Eddie Van Halen's guitar heroics and Roth's joyous, acrobatic frontman work. Unlike many titans of '70s rock, Van Halen thrived in the early days of MTV, thanks to colorful videos (largely orchestrated by Roth) and the integration of keyboards into its sound. But after the mammoth success of 1984, Roth released a solo EP that made him an MTV star in his own right, and deepened his schism with the rest of the band. Replaced by Sammy Hagar, Roth launched a solo career. Initial success in the '80s gave way to commercial indifference in the '90s, but Roth has still kept busy. After a highly publicized aborted reunion with a post-Hagar Van Halen in 1996, Roth released an entertaining autobiography (Crazy From The Heat) and restarted his music career as head of DLR Band. Another frustrated reunion with Van Halen (following the group's split with its third lead singer, Gary Cherone) came to nothing. Roth's most recent work can be found on No Holds Bar-B-Que, a bizarre, self-directed video collection of musical performances, Osama bin Laden-hunting fantasy sequences, pirates, dwarves, and martial arts. Still awaiting commercial release, the video may be the most direct expression yet of Roth's odd inner world. Shortly before embarking on a tour with Hagar, in which he alternates sets with his old rival, Roth spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about staying energetic, rock 'n' roll rivalries, and his current reading list.
The Onion: If Behind The Music is to be believed, rock stars either mellow or die as they get older. You're not dead, so have you mellowed at all?
David Lee Roth: I'm full of more rage at the planet around me. I'm more exuberantly, enthusiastically pissed off. I'm more belligerently enthusiastic and enthusiastically belligerent than I've ever been. I was born in Indiana with a banjo on my knee, and I think you're pretty well formatted by the time you're 12 years old; consequently, I'm a book-reader, I revere contact sports and history, both classic and popular, and I participate in these things constantly. You know, in the Bible it doesn't say, "Waddle forth and calcify." That sounds like a legal firm! [Laughs.] What happens is, I think, most musicians complete their long journey to the middle because the forces that conspire against you—your agent, your manager, the rhythm section—whatever it is, it's weary, and you've got to constantly reinvest your enthusiasm for livin' large, Marge, so large you need a barge! And whether it's Dr. Seuss or Sartre, you've got to deal with both. You mix it all in the bucket, whatever you do as an artist—and I'm a song-and-dance man, I'm show-people—and you don't know how it's gonna come out, but you've just gotta continually reinvest. And I do. Not a moment of my day isn't accounted for in some way. Don't get me wrong: Doing nothing means a lot to me, you've gotta average that in, and all work and no play makes for alarmingly predictable lyrics.
O: How do you stay fresh, then?
DLR: My schedule changes according to the context. Obviously, when we're on the road, I own a Keith Richards Merit Badge and wear it proudly—you know, my hours reverse and it's a nocturnal existence. Great, bring it on, turn on the lights, action, camera. Here we go. A hard day's night. I'm talking to you here from the Mojo Dojo, which is my house in Pasadena, and I call it that because I started my first martial-arts lesson on my 12th birthday up here at the Buddhist temple on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena. To this day, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7 in the morning, I train in Brazilian jujitsu, and then at 8:15, my Portuguese teacher comes over. She just left, and it's my last lesson before we go out on the tour. Two nights a week, I have a kendo instructor come here, who's in his 60s, and I have a kendo hall that I built in my house here. I take Spanish lessons twice a week, I read a book a week, I subscribe to 40 or 50 magazines a month, and there's never a lack of… "Okay, what community are we interested in this week? What are we gonna have for dinner? Let me count the ways." And on and on. I think very frequently, musicians become a victim of the very song they sing. I like all kinds of recreation. It's aggressive. I want to be part of everything. I'm not Scarface, but I'll just narrow it down. I want everything in New York and L.A.
O:. In between is optional, I take it?
DLR: Yes. There is a constancy of people and lifestyles and attitudes here. You can only be really flagrant and consistently colorful by disciplining the shit out of yourself. That make sense? New young artists say, "Why should I learn music? That's gonna be restricting. That's somebody else's rules." I tell them, "You gotta learn the alphabet, backwards and forwards. And then the choice is yours, 'cause last I looked, the Bible is written in the same words, the exact same alphabet, as my favorite pornography. Choice is yours."
O: How did this tour with Sammy Hagar come about?
DLR: Let's do something unpredictable and yet patently obvious, once you hear about it. Go flip on CNN: What's more poignant than the word "unity"? And if two warring super-guys—I'm an action figure—can actually make it happen for any length of time, then it's maybe some kind of action-figure metaphor. I don't think so. I think it's a lifestyle. I think there's an attitude and a point of view that transcends a list of songs, and I got more songs… I got more hits than Beethoven. And my music is familiar as Sears and Roebuck. It's as familiar as channel four on the TV set. Van Halen music when I was the quarterback, songs like "California Girls" and "Just A Gigolo" and so forth, are about young and impulsive. It goes way, way, way beyond just a cavalcade of tunes. And I think there are a handful of artists who have that specific lifestyle going well. You know, Jimmy Buffett, Grateful Dead, the Stones have it.
O: Where it's more than just music, but a way of life.
DLR: Yes. It's a confirmation of sorts.
O: You were never sparing in your criticism of Van Halen after you left the band. Did any of that come back to haunt you when you befriended Sammy Hagar?
DLR: Uh oh, did I hurt somebody's feelings?
O: I don't know, you tell me.
DLR: There's no more rivalry backstage here than you would see… I don't know where. You know, you talk about the brawling rivalries in rock bands. The most I've ever seen is some open-hand slapping followed by tears, and then an elaborate great feeling followed by a commemorative T-shirt. We're not fist fighters by nature. The point here is music. The point here is show. The point here is something other than sports. I've always attached elements of the sporting credo, but I am not a football player or a fist fighter, and my intention when I go after somebody is purely antagonistic. I'm not a bully. Like, in this interview, I'm not gonna make fun of the Van Halens. I understand they're not doing too well medically and spiritually, so I'm not gonna beat up on them. I only wanna beat up on somebody my size or bigger, for entertainment value. I think you see the difference.
O: Do you have an opinion of [Hagar's signature brand of alcohol] Cabo Wabo Tequila? Have you tried it?
DLR: I myself drink Jack Daniel's. I found it curious that Sam has had his club [in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico] for a decade and a half and he doesn't speak any Spanish at all.
O: So you have to translate for him?
DLR: I have to translate that maybe there's a better kind of tequila. [Laughs.]
O: There's that rivalry again.
DLR: Oh, of course there's a rivalry. Come on, if you got a hair on your ass, there's somebody across town that you're competing with. It might just be the jagoff in the computer terminal next to you, but you're competing! When vanity and rivalry disappear, all the lines go out of your stomach and you slow down and coast slowly to a stop in the middle.
O: How did your video, No Holds Bar-B-Que, come about?
DLR: A variety of ingredients, I think probably that you'd recognize instantly. Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Soupy Sales, Groucho, Kurosawa, Hugh Hefner, and on and on and on. But I've woven it together in a form that I think is much more appropriate for our national attention-deficit syndrome, or whatever it is we're having. As in, "Too hip, gotta go, golly, look at the time. Gotta go change the air in my tires, love to hang, bye."
O: Yeah, you don't really rest on one image for very long in that one.
DLR: No, not at all. You're not interested. In this, you're entertained right along with your current state of biorhythms, which is frenzied. If you watch television and listen to radio regularly, if you spend any time at the local shopping mall, then your inner tempo is frenzied. At least in the United States. And I tried to create a different type of television—it's not really a show and it's not really a biography. There's a lot of show-and-tell in there. I'm not really sure what it is. Perhaps that makes it pure. Like Picasso said, it's bound to go over some people's heads, so I created a version with a director's commentary. That'll come out on the DVD. You know, we're gonna sell it on the nation's highways and byways and at the shows and so forth, and the director's commentary certainly explains the impetus, the inspiration for each of the scenes. You know, I wrote and directed it, designed the costumes, and on and on and on. I don't know if it's gonna clarify for you what it is you're seeing, but it's even more entertaining with the commentary.
O: There's a lot of dance and electronic influences in some of the music. Is that a new direction for you?
DLR: No. I was on the floor of Studio 54 probably a hundred times. I went to schools just up the street here, to the first high school in the United States to receive integrational busing. I went to junior high and high schools that were 95 percent black and Spanish-speaking. I can gang-sign the whole alphabet, I speak fluent Spanish and Portuguese, and as far as electronica and whatever, you hear in the background here what we're listening to. That's Timo Maas, the German kid who's doing the wheels of steel. Do I know how to dance? Oye! Miro! [Laughs.] And so, from there, I have a fascination for south of the border, anything rhythmic. Disco was solidly sent for me. I am a dancer by trade. So, you know, old-school Evelyn "Champagne" King and Candi Staton—tell me about that. I love imitating James Brown. [Yells.] I'm a black man trapped in a Jewish body, Keith, help me, baby! [Laughs.] So the logical leap is to electronica and the ProTools world, with big great computers and the bad boys who drive them. I listen to the stuff by weight. But I'm particularly good for hip-hop, trance, goth, electronica, Chemical Brothers, whatever you call that. Lots and lots of soundtracks, things like Swordfish and so forth. As well as south of the border, now that Brazil has caught up with digital sampling and the whole digital world.
O: In the '90s, your type of fun music seemed to be eclipsed by something a little more dour. Do you feel that's swinging back the other way now?
DLR: Well, self-tragedy is always a great way to dramatize yourself—ask any teenager. There's a better way to accomplish things than despondent oh-woe-is-me, but oh-woe-is-me gets you a seat on the cross-town bus faster than humor will, even good humor. If you want a cross-town bus seat, all you have to do is walk up to anybody and go, "Hey, man, kids are fuckin' dying!" They'll give you the seat. Try getting that same seat with five minutes of comedy. Try getting that same seat with general conversancy. Consequently, drama will probably take the precedent eye of the tribe. What has the most pathos? What is the most sincere and severe? That's what we generally give our prizes to. But it was Charlie Chaplin who built Hollywood.
O: When you left Van Halen, you planned to direct a movie, and that didn't happen. But did you ever consider acting in other people's movies?
DLR: Not to any noticeable degree. You know, I entertain the same vision of, if Jack Nicholson calls me, desperate—"Dave, you gotta come down"—of course I would. Just like you would.
O: You're a natural for the camera.
DLR: I'm a natural behind the camera. Perhaps you're beginning to discern that my attentions are more toward behind the scenes, more toward creating, producing, and directing what's going on here. It was a large part of what I did in Van Halen, and it's a large part of the resentment that they feel toward me. It's what I do here. When you look at the David Lee Roth No Holds Bar-B-Que, I'm not in a lot of that stuff. I'm not in a lot of the scenes. And if you saw the outtake footage, I'm probably not in two-thirds of it, because I was directing. I was working on the lighting, I was working on the recording, and so on. Which surprises people frequently, because we have the archetypic vision of a singer desperate to be in front of the camera at all times, as Madonna is perhaps accused of being. I spent so much of my time wearing the different hats and sunglasses: "Hey! Now we're a record producer. Hey! Now we're a video director. Hey! Now we're in the online bag. Hey! Now I'm a colorist." When I finally do pop in front of the lens, I'm genuinely glad and relieved to be there. In front of the camera and in front of the lens, there's no lawsuits, there's no agent, and there's most frequently no time limits. Do you follow my reasoning? And there's a longevity that's kind of built into it. I spend most of my time behind the scenes, and when it is time to perform, I'm genuinely delighted to do it.
O: The first draft of your autobiography was reportedly something like 1,200 or 1,500 pages long. Is that true?
DLR: It is. The other half of it is sitting in my kitchen as we speak.
O: Will you publish that someday?
DLR: Absolutely. A large part of going away is coming back, as Mark Twain said. It's no good unless you can show them a picture and tell them about it.
O: Any choice stories that you regretted having to cut from the first draft?
DLR: Nothing off the top of my head. I think it's a continuum. It's not so much a series of accomplishments—good, bad, or in the middle—as it is the attitude maintained throughout. And I think that's what tickles people's fancy more than anything. Not a day goes by when somebody doesn't say to me, "You're that white guy," and then tries to imitate me right where they stand. I am the king of crosswalks around the world. I am the boss of public parks and mini-malls around the world. People will stop, literally, between the two white lines, and the first thing they're gonna do is that smile. The wraparound smile, babe… Are you smiling now?
O: Do you still enjoy touring?
DLR: I love it. For many different reasons than why I ultimately signed up for this gig, obviously. What's the old expression, "Hell is in the eyes of others"? We look for ourselves for the first half of the game, by virtue of applause or selling tickets, or achievement through the support of others. But I do believe that if you make it past a certain point in time, you'll develop an inner resource of confidence, and by the time you get to the end of the daily race, if somebody stole the time clock in your race to the finish line, you don't need it. You know you ran good.
O: And you're at that point now?
DLR: Yes. And I am enthusiastic for the road for other reasons. You know, I obviously have an intense fascination with music and performance. I'm dealing from a myriad of sources and inspirations and resources for my stagecraft. It's everything from Seven Samurai to Charlie Chaplin. It's everything from the Scarecrow from Wizard Of Oz to Led Zeppelin. [Laughs.] And it always has been, but why build it unless you're gonna fly it? Let's get airborne!
O: If there was a reality show based on your life, how would it differ from The Osbournes?
DLR: Other side of the coin. You know, Ozzy is… That's The Honeymooners. That's Ricky and Lucy. It's Jackie Gleason. More power to him. I'm an action figure. I carefully and consciously base my life… I've mastered my life and traced it along the pages of Mark Twain and Jack London and all of the cynics and existentialists, the Kants, the Sartres. I've tried to pick out the best explorers and the best musicians, everybody from Miles Davis to Sarah Vaughan, from Led Zeppelin to The Beatles, and I want to be Ed Sullivan! [Laughs.] I wanna be him, too. Somewhere between Billy Wilder and Soupy Sales. I've consciously aimed to sail neatly between the peaks, and it would be a completely alternate universe to Ozzy's.
O: What are you reading these days?
DLR: Right now, first thing in the morning, The Art Of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracián, and that's just short little paragraphs—too-hip, gotta-go philosophy—but really, really practical. In the afternoon, I read Shadow Warriors. It's the new Tom Clancy book about the Special Forces. And in the evening, I'm working my way through an Andrew Vachss book called Safe House. You know, sex and violence. [Laughs.] I've always maintained, why do you have to read one book at a time? What is this, grade school? I read like I watch television.
O: Going back a bit, when you say you're pissed off, what are you pissed off at?
DLR: I don't know. [Laughs.] I have rage. I'm probably the last person who should be pissed off at anything, if you could see where I'm standing and what I'm looking at right now. Palatial Wayne Manor, are you kidding? There's a brand-new Benz sitting up in the garage, and probably half a million screaming fans between now and Labor Day. I don't know, maybe I didn't get enough attention from Mommy.