Sun Sept 2
at 9:15 pm, Real Mainstage
Just when his band was seemingly at the peak of its career, the singer issued a four-track solo EP (1985's Crazy from the Heat), and amid a maelstrom of behind-the-scenes bickering and jealousies, Roth left Van Halen. Such a move--leaving a band at the height of its creativity and success in pursuit of a solo career--is almost always accompanied by cold wishes and the reputation of being an asshole. But somehow, Roth managed to remain unsullied in his fans' eyes. By 1986, he was selling out arenas on his own, following the release of Eat 'Em and Smile.
But it wouldn't last. And less than a decade later, he'd be making the Vegas circuit. Van Halen had disgraced itself by replacing Roth with former Montrose singer Sammy Hagar, and despite a hit song (famously sold to a cola company), the band's new incarnation, with a style mired in soft rock, resembled little of its former self. Vegas, Easy Listening... you weigh the difference.
This is a time when "comeback tours" staged by aging rock stars are an often sad but ubiquitous occurrence. So much so that perturbed author John Strausbaugh has written an entire book on the subject ("colostomy rock," he calls it), entitled Rock Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia. Strausbaugh, an editor at New York Press who proudly claims to have killed his own rock career at the age of 30, surmises that "rock simply should not be played by fifty-five-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs... [they played] thirty-five years ago. Its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding jelly-bellied dads."
Strausbaugh has a point--which is why the thought of follicly-challenged Roth returning to the stage is one that is fraught with concern. However, Roth has one thing on his side, something that's received with equal amounts of derision: schtick.
Even when he fronted Van Halen, Roth was all about his schtick. The spandex jumpsuits, the shrill shouts, the lascivious-to-the-point-of-cartoony lyrics, the babes... everything was larger than life, and in a word, hilarious. Everyone who ever owned a Roth-era Van Halen album was fully in on the joke--everyone, that is, except for his bandmates, who were stoic to the point of transforming the band into an unintentional parody, thus making themselves a prime example of what Strasbaugh laments in his book. As mentioned earlier, Eddie and Alex Van Halen have tried to go on without Roth, to varying degrees of success and some Extreme lows (bad Gary Cherone pun, wholly intentional). Van Halen III, anyone?
At 46, Roth is under 50 but still a target for guns aimed to take down an idol. He's a buffoon, no doubt about it. But an intentional buffoon, and from day one. The epitome of rock and roll excess, but with a sense of humor about it. The only difference between David Lee Roth and Tommy Lee is the fact that Roth knows it's an act. Underneath that thatch of bleached-blond hair is the brain of a true entertainer. Lee's career will never age so gracefully, because he takes himself much too seriously.
Roth's current "David Lee Roth Saves the Day" tour, scheduled to roll into Bumbershoot on September 2, features one of his solo hits ("Tobacco Road"); the rest of the set consists entirely of Van Halen favorites. This time, the schtick is the original material, with no hammy Louis Prima or Beach Boys covers. And judging by the reviews, the schmaltz is ratcheted even higher, proving that Roth always knew that the success of Van Halen was in the comedy as well as its formidable musical talent (there--a bone to all those who worship Eddie's guitar-playing).
Reportedly, Roth struts onstage in black leather pants that he rolls farther and farther down on his hips with each song, swills Jack Daniel's from the bottle while pandering to the ladies, and still insults the men in the crowd by claiming that he's going to fuck their girlfriends. And of course, everyone eats it up, either because his fans are dumb heshers who don't know any better because they're too drunk, stoned, and stoked, or because they view it much like one would view a WWF spectacle: as pure, overblown entertainment. Fake as hell, but impressive nonetheless.
Most Van Halen fans hope in their heart of hearts that the original lineup will once again reunite for the airwaves and arenas. I, for one, do not. Long live David Lee Roth, I say. He's the one with all the "charasma."