I cannot personally account for the moment at which David Lee Roth, for me, went from ubiquitous figure on the radio to beloved spirit animal and enduring life motif. Maybe it’s better not to attempt to dissect the effects of simultaneously listening closely to “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love” and devouring the epileptic prose of DLR’s memoir Crazy From the Heat; just know that sometimes the thing you’ve been looking for in life was right behind you, racking up Billboard chart-toppers, the entire time.
DLR seems to exist as a constant tug-of-war between binaries. He’s a fierce man-woman who sings about promiscuity and dangerous love. Yet, as stated in Crazy From the Heat, he retained only the companionship of his bodyguard Ed for years, and he was recently surreptitiously photographed eating lunch alone. Bouncing between homes, schools, and psychological care facilities/therapists in his youth, then in and out of bands and projects (the doo-wop-hard-rock titans Van Halen; the Vegas showmanship vehicle Ice Cream Band), Diamond Dave always seemed to be right on the edge, never quite 100% satisfied, one foot perpetually on the threshold. Did he get kicked out of Van Halen? Did he kick himself out? Did he want to leave anyway? His musical oeuvre resembles the aftermath of a rock and roll tractor with no rearview mirrors slamming into a sock hop, or perhaps the remains of that accident after they were dumped into a big glass jar filled with glitter. His zigzagging career seems at once like a cry for help, a gigantic middle finger to the possible or the normative, and a testament to his selfless commitment to entertain at all costs.
As a fellow LibraDLR was born October 10, 1955it is easy for me to read this constant shifting, dodging, and moving as characteristic of the astrological scales, working toward a balance between all the things one human might feel it is possible to achieve in a short lifetime. Interviews with Dave in the 1980s make him appear to be under the influence of gigantic, pillowy piles of cocaine. But during interviews for Van Halen’s 2012 Different Kind of Truth tour, that rapid-fire speech and nervous energy remains. One wonders how drastically drugs transformed his personalitydid he need them at all? Was he simply under the influence of himself?
I own two pictures of David Lee Roth, gifts from a friend who found them in an antique store along with other pop culture artifacts. They are wallet-size prints on photo paper, both presumably from the apex of his first era in Van Halen. One, with the number 7 handwritten on the back, is a cropped version of the “David on the handlebars of a motorcycle wearing a red jumpsuit with the wind in his hair even though it’s not moving” image: It shows his head and shoulders, no motorocycle, no periphery, only a golden “D” necklace dangling over the depths of his plunging jumpsuit neckline and the do-me gaze that goes so well with assless chaps. This one, Number 7, shows what he was willing to do and what he wanted to doto make an object of himself, to entertain the mind, to become edible to his public, to look directly at them without having to do it in person. The second image, Number 72, is a live snapshot of DLR in a moment of repose. I think Michael Anthony’s elbow is visible; the microphone appears to be whispering secrets into Dave’s hair. Even though DLR is on stage, this image is somehow more private than Number 7. Dave is out of focus, shirtless, smoking a cigarette that he appears to be relishing. His spandex outfit blends into the blue-black background of the picture, making his legs disappear and giving him the appearance of a merman floating in mid-air. I have looked at hundreds, possibly thousands of images of DLR online, in books, and in magazines, and I have never seen Number 72 before.
But I digress. I have been listening to Skyscraper and Eat ‘Em and Smile all day, not Van Halen. These records came a few short years after his breakup with the prodigal and hypertalented Alex and Eddie; Skyscraper came out 25 years ago today. I can almost hear him hissing “THIS MUST ROCK UTTERLY, YOU UNDERSTAND,” into the collective hairspray of Billy Sheehan, Steve Vai, and Greg Bissonnette. Who doesn’t emerge from a breakup with something to prove, some weight to lose, some line to draw in the sand? Eat ‘Em and Smile was a critical and commercial success, so much so that the band re-recorded all the lyrics in Spanish in a failed but hilarious attempt to connect with the wallets of youth south of the border. Would any other star of DLR’s stature care enough to reach out to Mexican audiences to re-dub an entire record?
Again, digression. We are here to think upon David Lee Roth’s sophomore solo venture Skyscraper. I have been listening to the entire record on repeat for hours and I have a few things to say about it. When this album came out, it spawned three hits, and it really pissed everyone off, and I think that is hilarious. This piece of music actually infuriated people and, to some degree, alienated those people from their idols, from the people who invent musical tropes and are thus bound to them in the public mind.
Many musicians understandably want to work with the latest tools available; in the ’80s, this desire resulted in a lot of them trying out synthesizers and out-of-character balladry and making studio albums that sounded like they were recorded on Planet High School Comedy Soundtrack. Sometimes these experiments were successful, and at the very least they were entertaining failures. While the ’70s had perhaps the highest death toll for musicians of any era, the ’80s were a potentially confusing evolutionary step into a digital age for plenty of mid- to late-career pop stars. Some barely survived.
A good handful of tracks on Skyscraper suffer from debilitating papery production, excessive keyboard flourishes, and unrepentant Trying-For-That-Van-Halen-Thing-ism. There’s a reason the producers of Beverly Hills, 90210 wanted to make “Just Like Paradise” the show’s theme. The verses are bouncy and snide; the chorus is triumphant; the refrain’s “and I don’t wanna go home” is a progression worthy of any decently catchy pop tune. If you can get over the horror-movie synthesizer opening on “Skyscraper,” the song rewards with a peek into a more abstract and elegantly creative DLR. Nowhere is any lip service to what has come before, and the vocal special effectswhich at first seem frivolous and sillyactually make me wonder: What if DLR had taken his time and money and explored some of the truly weird aspects of digital production in the early ’90s? Would he have headed further and further out to the borderlands?
“Damn Good” is a really nice little ballad, with Dave relaxing into his notes, getting smooth, even gentle. Vai’s guitar sound echoes the picky melodic races of his contemporary Eric Johnson, and is uniquely suited to this fairly downbeat composition. As a child who obsessed over Johnson’s Ah Via Musicom and Joe Satriani’s Silver Surfer I remembered liking the sitar-y guitar effects and reflective crooning.
While “Hina” suffers from some of the VH revisiting that hampers the lesser tracks of Skyscraper, I’d like to bring the discussion into the present and note that DLR’s vocal refrain on this one is oddly reminiscent of Beach House’s “Gila.” Maybe it’s the two syllablesthe EEEE and the AHHHH, both pleasant to singthat create this possibly accidential similarity, but it is perhaps worth noting the ways pop music connects with itself over time. (Some strands of the latter half of Vai’s guitar solo on “Stand Up” can even be found to a degree in the music of Tortoise.)
Perhaps the point is that music cannot escape itself, especially when it’s in search of that thing that will be eternally enjoyable to the ear and the body. Why bother being mad at anyone for making the records they choose to make? Objectivity has no place here. My obsession with David Lee Roth has allowed me to reflect on the choices I’ve made in my life, and I admire the sacrifices I’m certain he has made. I am sad that photographs of him eating alone are circulating on the internet, mostly because they do not convey that I often feel as if I am eating with him. Probably salad of some type. He has his dogs nowvideos of his sheepherding obsession surfaced during the Different Kind of Truth tourbut I still wonder if he is alone at night, reflecting into a cigarette, a mermaid version of himself.