Rock Monsters

by Brian Clarey

In June 2006, David Lee Roth, former lead singer for one of the biggest bands of all time, made an appearance on “Late Night with Craig Kilborn” with a band of bluegrass musicians.

A line of fiddlers sawed out the opening sequence of “Jump,” made famous in 1984 by a leering Eddie Van Halen as he officially christened the keyboards as a legitimate rock tool.

And then Roth made his entrance. It’s jarring, even 15 months later watching it on YouTube.

He looked pretty good for a man his age – at 52, he was born the same year as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and he hadn’t drunk himself fat like Vince Neil or, remarkably, screwed himself silly like Gene Simmons. But he looked like hell for David Lee Roth.

Gone was the wild mane of stiff locks burned white at the ends by the California sunshine; in its place was a modified combover. Instead of tattered jeans or tights with a codpiece he wore a pair of high-end bluejeans and – gasp! – a green-and-white striped oxford shirt with the top three buttons undone, showing a thatch of chest hair and just the merest glimpse of the old Diamond Dave. He’s also still got the trademark shit-eating grin, though it has lost some of its endearment.

And the fiddles sawed away and the banjo laid down a lilting line, and he was all, “Yow!” and, “Whoo!” and he dropped into the tune, once the soundtrack for millions of teenage adventures and romances, with a shriek and a yelp. He snapped his fingers like a hepcat and emoted to the crowd; he used every trick in the book to mask the mediocrity of his voice.

He was never a great singer; that wasn’t David Lee Roth’s thing. He was a showman. And the song itself wallows in inanity. It’s about picking up a girl in a bar and having sex with her just for the hell of it.

Still, it was hard to believe that this aging peacock prancing around the late-night stage was once the world’s most eligible bachelor, master of the smoldering pout, proud wearer of chest hair and halter tops. It’s hard to believe that this guy was the living embodiment of early ’80s sexy-cool. Hard to believe that, in his prime, David Lee Roth saw more strange tail than the guy who artificially inseminates the animals for the circus.

It’s hard to believe, indeed. Unless you were there.

Oh, I was there, though perhaps not fully engaged.

I was just a kid when the Van Halen brothers offered a young David Lee Roth a gig as a frontman for their band, Mammoth, rather than pay him rent for his sound system. I was in second grade when Gene Simmons discovered the band on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and flew them to New York City to record “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

Van Halen formed in a period of transition between the ’70s and ’80s, when California surf culture began to shed sunlight on the heretofore dark and smoky province of hard rock. Sure, the Stones and Bruce Springsteen were still going at it – they still are – but the top 25 albums of 1977, the year Van Halen started getting real hot real fast, are a real amalgamation of the old and the new. You had the old stalwarts: Clapton, Skynyrd, Steve Miller, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan. But also Iggy Pop, the Talking Heads, Brian Eno, the Ramones and the Clash were making noise in 1977. It was the year that saw the release of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks – Here’s the Sex Pistols and David Bowie’s Low. Van Halen fell somewhere in between – a rock and roll band, to be sure, but also purveyors of a lifestyle. They were West Coast party boys: whimsical and hard-charged, not angry so much as wild; they were good-time guys who somehow finagled seats on the roller coaster of big-time rock.

And yet they were something unto themselves. Sure, Jimmy Page was a guitar hero, but Eddie Van Halen was doing things with his axe that are still discussed in music schools.

Ask the nearest guy in a sleeveless black T-shirt and he’ll tell you: Eddie was the king. He didn’t invent the finger-tapping technique – that distinction likely goes to Frank Zappa, and its most proficient employer was probably jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan – but Eddie brought it into the mainstream.

And the sounds he made – love ’em or hate ’em – were all his own.

Eddie, who was a child-prodigy piano player, actually made his own guitars until he was famous enough to have them built to his own specs. He created his Frankenstrat – that hideous red and white guitar that looks like a Jackson Pollock – to get a Gibson sound with a Fender feel. He would boil his guitar strings before playing them, take sandpaper to his fretboard, customize the body with a chainsaw. His fingers crawled like fighting spiders over the thing, quicksilver fast and with machine-like precision. In the early days he would turn his back to the audience so the wannabes in the front row couldn’t lift his licks.

After the band exploded, he didn’t care so much.

A funny thing happened in 1982. A few funny things, actually.

Music tastes were changing, for one. Michael Jackson put out Thriller, Prince had hit the scene and some freak calling himself “Billy Idol” was scaring the hell out of parents who happened to catch his videos on TV.

MTV, that is. In less than six months, the video music station had become a line of cultural demarcation. The new telegenic medium rocketed many new bands to stardom – Duran Duran, Culture Club, the Police – while some established bands – ahem, Motörhead – just didn’t make the cut. It was equivalent to the shift from silent movies to talkies, when box-office sensations Lina Lamont and John Gilbert became marginalized due to their high-pitched voices. Or, if you’re more politically inclined, the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates of 1960, when the sweaty, bewhiskered vice president didn’t come off so well on TV.

The guys in Van Halen were not exactly pretty boys. Eddie always made silly faces. His brother Alex Van Halen could generously be described as “creepy looking.” And bassist Michael Anthony had the posture, physique and grooming habits of a bum.

But Diamond Dave had enough sex appeal to carry the whole show. His onstage persona was frenetic, with inspired leaps off platforms and scissor kicks perpendicular to the floor. And it was well known among the roadies that under Dave’s “incentive plan,” you could make a C-note if you gave a backstage pass to the right girl in the crowd.

He maintained his character offstage as well. In a 1982 interview with Martha Quinn, the pixieish Veejay from the early days of MTV, he quipped, “The sound of Van Halen is designed to spill all over your turntable and ruin the rest of your records.”

He also likened his experience with the suddenly ubiquitous band as “one big wet T-shirt contest.”

If that’s true, it was the longest wet T-shirt contest in history. 1982 saw Diver Down, with five numbers hitting the Top-40 and a Roth-directed video for “(Oh) Pretty Woman” banned from MTV. In 1983 they were paid $1 million to headline the US Festival, the highest amount ever paid to a band for a single performance, during which Roth made a disparaging comment about the Clash involving iced tea and whiskey bottles.

The band’s sixth album, 1984, dropped Jan. 9 in the year for which it was named and it cemented their place in the pantheon of rock legend. It was the No. 2 album of the year, eclipsed only by Thriller. It went platinum within two months, and made multi-platinum inside of a year. It has to date sold more than 10 million copies, giving it the Recording Industry Association of America certification of diamond. It was the band’s crowning achievement. It would also be the beginning of the end.

Things broke down even more quickly than they rose. By the time 1984 realized its potential, Roth and Eddie Van Halen were engaged in a battle of egos – Roth was allegedly incensed over the guitarist’s work on the Michael Jackson track “Beat It” and the guitarist, at this point, thought Roth to be a jackass.

So Roth left the band, to be replaced with Sammy Hagar and then Gary Cherone. Three-fourths of the original lineup stayed intact until 2006, when the Van Halen brothers confirmed the departure of bassist Michael Anthony, who was known for playing an instrument that looked like a giant bottle of Jack Daniels.

In recent years Eddie Van Halen has had hip replacement surgery and overcome tongue and mouth cancer. He and his wife of 21 years, ’70s television star Valerie Bertinelli, divorced and he’s done a stint or two in rehab. For booze.

The rest is the stuff of “Behind the Music” gold. In 1985 Dave started his own project with guitar wizard Steve Vai, which faltered after a couple of efforts. He tried, and failed, to make a feature film. When grunge knocked hair bands from center stage, Diamond Dave moved to New York City, where he was arrested scoring weed in Washington Square Park and eventually became an emergency medical technician. He wrote a memoir and made a cameo on an episode of “The Sopranos.” And somewhere between then and now he made this ill-advised bluegrass performance on late-night TV.

It’s not that it’s so bad. Okay, it’s pretty bad. But it’s not Van Halen. Not by a long shot. The sexy fire is gone, the manic and booze-fueled stage presence. Instead we saw this middle-aged man enacting a crazed karaoke routine. With strings.

So that leaves the question: What kind of show are we in for at the coliseum on Saturday night?

The core band members will still be there – brothers Eddie and Alex – and on bass will be Eddie’s 16-year-old son Wolfgang. I’m fine with that, though I don’t expect to see Eddie sprinting across the stage or bubbling a bottle of whiskey.

And Dave, well there’s just no way he’ll be able to replicate those scissor kicks and splits, is there? It is just not possible that he can still pull hotties from the crowd, right? Can he still climb into the rafters or soar over the crowd on wires? Will he still throw a fit if there are brown M&Ms? I just don’t know.

And I don’t care. I’m going because of “Little Guitars” and the video for “Hot for Teacher.” I’m going because I can still remember lying in my bed before school, listening to “Jump” on my alarm-clock radio and getting totally psyched. I’m going because in my mind’s eye I can still see clearly the Van Halen logo sketched in blue ballpoint on a burlap three-ring binder.

And, I’ll be honest, I’m going because when I was 14 years old I really, really wanted to be David Lee Roth – the crazy outfits, the sultry whores, the party-guy attitude, that cool thing he did with his hat before he put it on his head. All of my friends did, too.

Hard to believe, I know. Unless you were there.

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