We spent two hours with David Lee Roth and no one got pregnant

DAVID SWAN gets a whole lot more than he bargained for when he encounters one of rock’s great personalities, Van Halen’s David Lee Roth.

There are interviews, and there are interviews. The standard format is fairly known and accepted among journalists, and artists themselves. Chat for 15 minutes or so about the new album, the upcoming tour, a bit of band history and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get something controversial or news breaking. This wasn’t one of those.

It’s 9am Melbourne time, which is 9pm New York time, and I get a call direct from “Diamond” David Lee Roth’s mobile ahead of Van Halen’s visit for Stone Festival, which takes place in Sydney this weekend. Five minutes in I throw away my question sheet. This wasn’t an “interview”, but a conversation, as unadulterated as they come, littered with stories, ramblings, life advice, Japanese and a bit of Van Halen, too. All up it was a two-hour chat, both exhaustive and exhausting, and even the still-virile 57-year-old frontman was well and truly spent by the end.

One day it might make a great book or screenplay, but for now here are the best bits of FL’s two-hour chat with David Lee Roth, one of rock and roll’s last great showmen and unequivocally one of its most genuine characters.

David Lee this is David Swan on the line. How are you going?

Going very well thanks, pleasure to meet you. What is FasterLouder? Please share with me. Is this high-performance automotives? Is it for porno? Which in my country is the same thing. Is this musically informed? What is the nature of our program today?

We don’t go into porn very much, that’s our adult sister website. It’s rock music mostly.

And in reference to which rock music? Is it era-specific, or is this all the way up to this phone call and including from the very beginning of a genre? Like I said, I’m learning here, teach me.

It covers a wide range of stuff.

Sounds superb. I’ve been spending the last year living in Tokyo. And something with a name like FasterLouder would be very specific to Japanese style. Japanese style, well it’s wonderful, but it has virtually no connection to the rest of the world. I’m not sure what movies and TV shows they’re watching over there, and even the names of their acts are different, for example, Pay Money To My Pain. [Laughs] That’s a pretty great title for a band. And the singer just died. How do you compete with that? Dave, you can’t compete with that! I don’t care how good of a writer you are. That’s just sterling. Pay Money to My Pain … that’s not even the name of the song, that’s the name of the whole band [laughs].

Were they any good?

They were excellent. They were heavy metal with a disc jockey. And what’s curious also is Japan accesses everything without the actual social connotation. For example, there’s a tremendous number of lowrider tattoos walking around out there. They have no idea what they mean. The two catholic hands praying, with the rosary draped around them. We see this on the shoulder of every third hip-hop video in the United States. If you have an even faintly Hispanic nickname, or a name like Pitbull, or anything in between, then you have that tattoo. They have no idea what that is in Japan. There is no religious connotation to it.

I got kicked out of an onsen [Japanese hotspring] for having a tattoo when I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago. I was holding my hand over it but didn’t get away with it. Apparently tattoos are still linked to the yakuza and organized crime?

It’s a curious connection, and right now it’s being defeated. Right now if you look at the back of one of the tattoo magazines, and they’re gorgeous, they’re not just cheapy newsprint, they’re the full eggshell bond varnished paper. They look like National Geographic year-end annuals. If you look in the back, there’s over 400 tattoo shops, within the three main cities, Tokyo Osaka and Kyoto. There’s hundreds of them. But those are folks who are 35 years old and under. From that point up, it’s a lot like the baby boomer connection, in that it’s connected with bikers, it’s connected with disenfranchised people [puts voice on] “What does that mean Mr Roth? Well I’m not sure, I think it means merchant marines in Bohemian. What’s a bohemian Mr Roth? Knock it off kid.” [Laughs]

Do you feel like a local yet?

Yeah I think so, it’s immersion. I’ve been going to Japan since a million years ago. But you don’t really see anything going through the window if you’re touring. Particularly if you approach it what I consider appropriately. If you go to the Olympics and you were going to compete in a specific event, would you be out at night sampling the local cuisine the night before your event? Of course not. You might be sampling one the local natives, but then she’s still gotta go kind of early because you’ve got an event tomorrow.

And when we’re on the road, this was always of interest to us, people thought they were always strolling and whatnot. No, we were like racehorses. Sleep race win. Sleep race win. Just repeat that 100 times, and that’s how you deliver just a stellar performance, every night, or damn close to close to it. You won’t be able to discern the difference without the binoculars. A solid 10, 10, 9.8, 10, 9.9, again and again, just pulling that trigger. Steady and steady and steady. And then, if you wanna live like a pirate, and we doooo [laughs]. What about pirates Mr Roth? That’s correct, we’re getting to that. That’s my conscious speaking. Then we go back. For how long sir? Very long. And we set up camp. And I have done that. In a variety of cities, I have yet to do it in Australia. I would do it in Sydney. And I know my way around Melbourne is fairly well.

When was the last time you came to Australia?

Oh, years and years ago. A million years ago. My godfather was Australian. He was Australian government, Roger Shipton, he was the boss of the Olympic committee in the mid-’80s. He was my uncle Dave’s roommate when they were in college and he was my godfather. So I was around that accent and that family, and that whole connection to things, from before I was a teenager. That being said, I picked up and went to Tokyo about a year ago, and I had no idea where I was going, I just Stevie Wondered it. There’s an adverb that I just made up for you … I’ve travelled so much now, I’ve seen I guess 22 or 23 different countries, from the inside out. And I get lost intentionally. You do it like an Apollo moon shot, you know, where we’re not sure where we’re gonna land.

“Yes, there was accomplishment early on in the career. You want to rule the world, you want to sleep with every great looking chick who has two legs, and I’m even flexible there.”

You’d get some good stories, travelling like that.

You crash into all kinds of interesting people. You will arrive in the most ordinary of skins, so to speak. You don’t arrive with an entourage, you don’t arrive with the tour bus, it’s not like somebody wakes up and gets out of bed drowsy, rubs their eyes, opens the window shades and there’s an aircraft carrier parked in the backyard. It’s not that. That’s fun, and I’ll teach you how to do that in about a couple minutes [laughs]. No, you’re supposed to show up like the postman. Just knock at the door and say, “Excuse me, are you still open?” and I’ve learned how to do that in 20 different languages. I know how to wake-up first thing in the morning, and call a taxi in 26 different languages. That’s a whole different adventure, to the aircraft carrier thing.

I was watching your YouTube show [The Roth Show] and on the latest episode you talked about how your one responsibility as a artist is to be 100 percent honest, through the music. And I’ve always wondered if you’re an artist that is chauffeured around, and being constantly managed and minded, when you then make music it would be surely challenging to make real honest music, compared to if you’re just out there living, and being more a part of the world.

I think that’s astute, and accurate at that. If you are a lyricist, and you are doing words, well there’s a Freudian slip right there, I didn’t say writing them, I said doing them … If you do lyrics, it means you’re living them first. And you have to have a story, as a writer, whether you’re writing novels, whether you’re a journalist perhaps, whether you are fiction or non-fiction, lyrics are marvellous combination of all the above … That’s why there are no child savants in authorship. There will always be child savants who can play music instrumentally with great genius at a very very early age, before they’re even teenagers, and that’s because you don’t need a story. You don’t need the emotional content that only comes from having being hammered and beaten and polished and hammered and beaten and polished. It’s hard to tell which of those three elements, that are hammered and beaten and polished, are the most supportive and positive and which ones are negative and abusive sounding, do you follow? They all add up to the final moment of perfection, hopefully.

And you have to go out and get some living. It’s like when you buy one of those cool leather jackets now at the designer place, it’s got the tag which says, “All imperfections and damage to the hide are the result of the animal’s natural environment, the indication of its real conditions.” You’ve gotta get the scars and the stars. You’ve gotta get the scars on your heart and your face and you’ve gotta get the stars on your collar. I’m four stars now. [Laughs]

Do you feel like you’re a better writer now than when you started out?

Oh clearly, is a process of distance, and enthusiasm for the art form. Most people who write lyrics for a living approach it with disdain or they approach it with an apprehension, the kind that comes with having to do homework. And homework is the antithesis of what I’m supposed to doing for a living, nevertheless you have to sit down with a pad of paper. You will have to sit down, even at most of the high end of the sport, you will have to sit down with some machine, and transcribe what we just discussed, then you’ll have to edit it, then you’ll have to structure it, then someone like yourself may have to deal with an editor, or a video editor, and the list gets longer. The higher up the mountain, the more people live up there as it turns out. And it all just screams of homework and I understand why some people trouble with it. School and academia and blergh. There’s a lot of folks down here at Club Dave, where the debris meets the sea, where they don’t want to deal with the implications of time involved, “You mean I’ll have to put my beer down and actually write something?” Yes. You can write it on the same napkin, and there’s a certain poetry to that. And you’ve still gotta pick up the pen, kid. If you want to write carpe diem, seize the day, carpe diem. Yeah great, but in order to do that though, you have to carpe rutilla. Which means pick up the spade… [Laughs]

Anyway, so circling all the way back to your original question, what is required is a discipline to simply continue. And if you do continue to show up you will improve. Whatever improve means. It will get easier for you, that’s an improvement. Or it will get easier on your audience. They will give up trying to understand, and they’ll go, “OK, Bob Dylan, we’ve got it, we think.” The audience will acquiesce, whatever that means, they’ll do it. It’s like your family, finally they’ll just give up and go, “Oh, it’s Dave. Leave him alone.”

“As soon as there’s a bag full of cash and five different guys who are not blood related, people turn into all kinds of Spielberg-ian creatures.”

You’ll become more fluent in what you do, your language skills will improve. It’s like the first time I showed up for a kung fu lesson. I asked the teacher, innocently enough as a pre-teen, how hard is it to learn kung fu? He said it’s easy. Showing up every single day that you’re supposed to on time – that’s very hard. He said if you can do that, if you can show up at this door with your uniform, every day that you promised, he said, “You’ll learn kung fu in no time. I’ll handle that. You’re in charge of showing up.” And boy was he accurate. And I’ll sometimes ask people, I’ll usually throw this one under someone’s feet just to have some fun with them, I’ll say, “Can you describe art to me in three sentences?” Go for it!

That’s putting me on the spot … Well I’d say it’s self-expression, in the purest form. And whatever comes out of that, that’s art.

Of course it is. Of course it is. I’ll have a crack too … Keeping nice tight columns and keeping your writing in the margins, that’s an artform. Sewing drapers perfectly is an artform – you can make art out of that. But art – the really good stuff – is something that was created that compels us to think and argue and question. Like Andy Warhol’s soup can. Is that art, or is it hype? Is it dazzling concept, or dazzling bullshit? It’s like the phrase, “Pick up the shovel.” I have forced you to question, seize the day is where most people stop. If you want to seize the day then one must pick up a shovel. Seize the shovel. Now you’re being compelled to question: “Is Mr Roth just being a jerk? Is he being a joke for a good reason though? What if he’s being a jerk for a bad reason?” But now you’re thinking and you’re thinking, and that is art. Everything else is decoration.

Next page: David Lee Roth on regrets, new Van Halen material and that Soundwave cancellation.

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