rock of aging

David Lee Roth: The Conundrum of a Formerly Flamboyant Front Man in His Fifties

David Lee Roth of Van Halen performs during their
David Lee Roth of Van Halen performs during their “A Different Kind of Truth” tour Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

I was in high school when Van Halen was at its most powerful, and at 15, there was no cooler hard-rock front man than David Lee Roth. When your mind is malleable and adolescent hormones are distracting you from even the most mundane tasks, watching David Lee Roth strut, scissor kick, growl, and cavort with bikinied women in videos made you think that this man knew all the secrets to life. All modern-day logic would dictate that a man sporting a sparkled cape over multicolored spandex should be dismissed, but it was a different time, and this was clearly a wise man, as his free-associating (but often scripted) scat/talk seemed remarkably lucid and intelligent to a 15-year-old watching videos from 1984 over and over again. To a suburban teenager with a Yorx stereo (double cassette recorder: NOW ANYTHING CAN BE COPIED!), he was Allen Ginsberg.

He left the band, branching off into solo work, and as I branched off into college, his spell was lifted. It became embarrassing seeing pictures of him strutting in assless chaps and dying his hair like Edgar Winter. And looking back at his solo videos reaffirmed the theory that when a rock star thinks he’s funny, he likely isn’t. Listening to old Van Halen still gave me a nostalgic charge in the same way that listening to the opening notes of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” makes me taste high school in the back of my throat. But David was just silly. And as grunge supplanted hair metal, his insistence on clinging to flamboyance and bad-boy patter made many former fans like me look away and whisper tunelessly. He was like Wooderson from Dazed and Confused, the guy who can’t move on from high school and makes you increasingly uncomfortable with his talk of finger-banging teenagers.  

Over the years I didn’t think much about David Lee Roth, though looking back I recognize several stages of subconscious feelings toward him, moving from distaste to pity when he briefly got back together with the band on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards and then the other three recanted and backed away quickly: As Dave kept grandstanding on the MTV stage, swiveling his crotch, interrupting, and stealing the spotlight from winner Beck, you could actually pinpoint the moment when Eddie Van Halen abruptly remembered why he’d severed ties in the first place and decided a reunion was a terrible idea. Even though rebooting him out of the band was a perfectly understandable move (you imagine those five minutes of grandiosity stretched out over an entire tour), you still couldn’t help but feel bad for Roth, who was so excited about reclaiming his former stadium-strutting glory but couldn’t stop himself from sabotaging it. Later he would be hired (and fired) as Howard Stern’s replacement on terrestrial radio, his voice a daily wake-up reminder that his patter, listened to in the cold light of adulthood, didn’t make any sense. And the less said about his album of bluegrass remixes of Van Halen songs the better.

By 2007, I never thought about Roth, but the news of their reunion tour instantly struck me with a must see this show urge. When you’re in your late thirties, there is no more seductive an urge than recapturing your youth. I went with three equally nostalgic friends, and it was just as silly and entertaining as we thought it would be. They played all the hits that evoked car stereos, rock-block radio weekends, and parties at friends’ houses whose parents were away, and Dave was ridiculous, but we welcomed him like a crazy uncle whom it’s kind of good to see every ten years or so. He seemed determined to prove that he was the same hedonist and showman he was in the eighties, punctuating every song with random high kicks and twirls, grasping his crotch as he “eased the seat back” and straddling a giant inflatable phallic microphone. At one point, he ran out to the catwalk, and with a strangely menacing expression, put his water bottle by his crotch shook it, and H2Orgasmed onto the crowd. It was absolutely ridiculous, especially when one mentally juxtaposed the screaming blonde hotties who used to reach out to touch him from the audience in their live videos with the howling, paunchy, tired-looking wives and mothers doing it now. Everybody was playing “eighties” and there was an implicit agreement that we would not question it, would not step back into 2007 and see the whole silly spectacle for what it was. The music was good and the pounding speakers gave a shiatsu to the part of the brain that held all of our youthful energy and memories.

Now they’re back, and last night Van Halen returned to Madison Square Garden, and everything seemed like it had been toned down to accommodate for age. Musically it didn’t suffer too much: Roth’s voice was more ragged, and yet he still carried the old hits fine, even if he did forget the words to one of his new songs, “China Town.” And Eddie Van Halen seemed in fine form, doing his frantic intricate solos and looking healthy, showing no trace of his creepy homeless-witch phase. Alex Van Halen was a skilled, busy presence behind the drums, and even did a long spotlighted drum solo, which is like the knuckleball of rock shows: Even if it’s out of fashion, it’s still oddly refreshing to see that someone is keeping it alive. (He also had a never-used gong behind him, which was like some sort of hard-rock vestigial tail.)

But the stage was simplified from their last tour, when they had ramps going up each side of the stage behind the drum set, and the catwalk into the audience. Now it was a simple black rectangle, with four shallow steps up to the drum riser. The band members (including Eddie’s bass-playing son, Wolfgang) got their money’s worth out of the stairs, repeatedly running up and down them, but compared to the acrobatic old days, this was like a Boca Raton water aerobics class. In 2007, Dave came equipped with a bevy of rotating props, from giant chains to subtly enhance the song “Unchained” to many flags, batons, and of course the bouncing cockrophone. This time, a special prop roadie sat hunched in front of the stage with a meager collection to hand off to Dave: a pith helmet for the jungle-movie opening drumbeat of “Everybody Wants Some,” a pair of dark sunglasses, and a single baton. Seeing them laid out in front of her was like looking at a Diamond Dave going out of business sale.

And then there were the acrobatics. In 2007, Dave’s incessant high kicks made me grimace, because they seemed simultaneously impressive for a man of his age and foolhardy. In your twenties, you can do anything, so why shouldn’t Dave have acted like he was in Cirque du Soleil? We would all live forever! But a man in his fifties is tempting any number of pulled or torn muscles. This time he seemed to know his limits, meting out kicks very carefully, only about five through the show, with two of his roundhouse scissor kicks. Most of the time he spent busying himself with low-impact shimmying, sliding, and twirling on a giant rectangle of parquet that looked like the squares of cardboard breakdancers haul around. Near the end, he did a couple of kicks (two in “Jump,” because, come on, you gotta) that left him staggering a bit on the landing. It brought to mind The Wrestler, with everybody telling him he had to stop, this will kill you!, but Dave can only shrug, knowing that without his foot over his head, he has nothing.

Without the sexuality and the athleticism, Dave relied on the other side of his personality: the ringmaster. He’s always had that Vegas side — his “charasma” — and now it’s all he does. Gone is any danger; now he just struts around with that giant, open-mouthed grin that makes him look like the world’s happiest masochist anxiously waiting for his ball gag. The band played for nearly two hours, and he treated every moment like it was a curtain call, standing tall with that super-grin, arms extended and basking in the applause, from the first song to the very last. He ran around waving to the crowd, sometimes not in a rock-and-roll salute, but rather in the way that one would from the deck of a cruise ship. In the old days, “Panama” felt dangerous, with Dave’s low-pitched spoken-word break of “you reach down, between my legs, ease the seat back” seemed threateningly seductive. You pictured him delivering the line from a Mustang convertible. The way he winkingly delivered it last night, you pictured him driving Herbie the Love Bug. And then, during the last third of the show, the rest of the band left as Dave stood next to the drums, noodling with an acoustic guitar; he then made us all watch footage of his sheepdogs on the giant screen behind him as he discussed their various skills before finally segueing into “Ice Cream Man.” (One can imagine that backstage the band regularly heads to a soundproof room at this juncture, pretending that this section of the show does not exist.)

As I watched Dave, I was torn between my needs as a nostalgist and my views as a 42-year-old man. I wanted him to be his old self; only in that way could I relive my youth. And yet, if he did go back to humping inflatables and yelling to rowdy audience members that after the show he was going to “fuck your girlfriend” (as was his scripted ad lib from 1983 to at least 1999), it would have been impossible to watch. Last night he began “Hot for Teacher” by hurling candy from a giant bowl into the audience; it was his rare moment of perviness and it was weirdly predatory and creepy. David Lee Roth’s shtick was big in an age when nobody really scrutinized the subtext of his come-ons. “I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend” was not met with, “Hey, she’s not property!” but rather a universal Woooooooooooh!

So what is a flamboyant front man in his fifties to do? Mick Jagger soldiers on into his late sixties, but while in his heyday he secreted sexuality from every pore, it wasn’t acrobatic, nor was it about the overt salacious stage commentary. If you see the Rolling Stones at a stadium now and sit far enough back, where the pixellation of the giant screen obscures the many wrinkles, Jagger’s shimmy looks largely the same. While Van Halen’s pure, guitar-driven music arguably doesn’t feel dated in the way that other eighties pop music does, Dave’s vintage shtick is pure hair-metal hedonism of the most time-stamped order. Vintage Van Halen fans like me attend the show to feel era-specific, which is an impossible demand. Rod Stewart segued from singing his hits into plundering the Great American songbook, so the lack of crotch gyrating makes sense, but last night at Madison Square Garden, there was no way for Dave to sneer, “I like the way the line runs up the back of the stockings … ” in “Everybody Wants Some” without being torn between the competing urges of wanting to rub his dick and sit down and show pictures of his dog. And it’s unfair to expect Dave to reconcile this when his middle-aged fans watch him while struggling with the same dilemma.

David Lee Roth: The Conundrum of a Formerly Flamboyant Front Man in His Fifties