A Long Talk With David Lee Roth

Diamond Dave on tattoo skin care and the future of Van Halen.

Photo: Michael Avedon
Photo: Michael Avedon

“Do you ever do that thing where you take a pill, and then you forget that you took it, so you take another one?” asks David Lee Roth, lead singer of Van Halen and fledgling entrepreneur, immediately upon arriving in New York’s offices last Friday. “I did that with my pot gummy.” He’s here for a photo shoot, and then we’re supposed to take a car to the Four Seasons for an interview, but in between Roth makes a surprise visit to our copy-editing department to meet some fans and cryptically announce what sounds like another Van Halen reunion. (The band has been inactive since its 2015 tour, and until now, neither Roth nor Eddie Van Halen has said much about what comes next.) “When we come back through town in the summertime and do the original thing, maybe somewhere sportin’, maybe with somebody famous,” Roth says, “I’ll make sure we get you all tickets so you can see what we do for gainful employment. My mom still wonders.”

I was told our interview would be one-on-one, but since today’s agenda includes a discussion of Ink The Original, Roth’s just-launched line of skin-care products designed to keep tattoos from fading, he brought along his business partner, Ami James, tattoo artist, star of the reality show Miami Ink, and co-founder of the website Tattoodo. “I wanted you to meet the Coen brothers of the most exciting industry since sneakers,” Roth tells me.

Eventually we arrive in a hotel suite where Roth pours himself a drink, steers Ami and his publicists into the bedroom and shuts the door, and rearranges the furniture so we’re sitting at a desk across from each other. And then we talk for two hours.

Photo: Michael Avedon

David Lee Roth: Crack a window if you would. Will somebody get a hand towel? That’ll keep the window open. Everybody says these windows are to prevent suicide. No, no, no. People who want to commit suicide here, they don’t jump out of a window. The most popular way, and I learned this as an EMT … Yes, just open it a little bit, and then you slam it in, and then it’ll shut itself on the towel. It’s self-sealing. That’s perfect. Kinda like a prayer flag.

Lane Brown: You volunteered as an EMT in New York in the 2000s. Did you ever worry you might resuscitate somebody and then give them a heart attack by being David Lee Roth?
One of my earliest clients was a kid from Ozzfest. He was on a corner, a slight OD. This was 12 years ago. In my back pocket, I had, “No, I’m his cousin, Randy.” As I recollect, he didn’t say anything, but I could see in his face there was as much question as person could possibly have. But I was only recognized twice in maybe 200 or 250 visits.

I spent a New Year’s Eve on the receiving dock out in Bed-Stuy, and a Hatzolah rabbi from the ambulance service gave four [EMTs] one cupcake. We split it four ways in the diagonal snow, on the loading dock in the back of the hospital where we’d just walked three kids in. I made a contribution there. If I had to pick one word for myself, that would be it: contribution. Sometimes to my own detriment. It was me who said we should name the band Van Halen. They [Eddie and Alex Van Halen] wanted to name it after a Black Sabbath song.

That’s generous, but I also doubt you wanted to be the lead singer of Rat Salad. And now your latest contribution is this line of tattoo skin-care products. I hear you invested $7 million of your own money in it. That’s not nothing.
That’s quite a poker game, even if you don’t play cards. The money for this came from the last couple of Van Halen tours. We artists call that art-centric. There’s no management involved, there’s no agency, there’s nobody beyond [the people in this hotel room]. My forte is finding big minds and spirits and connecting them with even bigger ideas.

I’ll call Ami in in a few minutes to help explain this. He’ll illuminate a lot of things, plus he’ll contrast with my New York art-critic identity. I have my own drivers. I operate like an art director for your magazine or Vanity Fair. The Eddie Van Halens of my career are a marvelous contrast — they’re industrial strength. That’s Git ’Er Done, spelled G-I-T. Any Springsteen lyric will do. Hang on one second.

[To his publicist] I think I forgot my wristwatch in the photographer’s studio. Did somebody pick up my watch? It’s fine. I’ve lost entire automobiles before.

Let’s assume I don’t know anything about tattoos or skin care. Sell this stuff to me. It’s supposed to keep tattoos from fading?
You spend money and time [getting a tattoo], and you’re making multiple visits, and sometimes you say, “It doesn’t hurt, it’s like a cat scratch.” Yeah, if it’s a Bengal tiger. The experience is daunting. You don’t take it lightly. You would never think of buying a $1,000 pair of tennis shows, which exist now, and leaving them out in the sun for even an afternoon. You wouldn’t think of buying a painting in Central Park, having the fella paint your portrait, and then leaving it outside, much less in the rain or snow. And the guitar maker spent his whole life learning to make that guitar — what do you mean you left it out of the case?

You just got some new ink yourself, right?
Yes. I almost never show my gear, you follow? But if we’re at a sushi bar and you see a little bit of this [rolls up a sleeve to reveal half an inch of tattoo], you may get better service. It shows a respect for their art style. And if you go to a rugby game in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, or New Zealand, and you have a South Pacific tattoo, that kind of salute will get you free beer for the remainder of your stay, just out of respect, brah. There are a lot of neighborhood styles. Justin Bieber is building a mural of placas. That kind of positioning is the alternative to the Japanese style. Anyway, I waited until I was six decades old and got the whole tuxedo at once, because I didn’t want to make a mistake. It took about 300 hours over two-and-a-half years. All Japanese artists.

Speaking of your time in Japan — about five years ago, you starred in a mysterious short film called “Tokyo Story” in which you murder three poker players. What was the backstory on that?
It is the test run for a parallel project that I’ve been working on. Those characters from the short are in a script that has now been worked into a graphic novel. And it is by our accounting the world’s first graphic novel with a full soundtrack. I’ve been working on it for four years. I called Colin Smith, who’s written, I don’t know, 15 books on how to use Adobe Photoshop. He’s been over at my shop three times a week. Working with stellar talents is part of the luxury of being Diamond Dave. I’m smart enough to know these folks, so how much smarter do I need to be? And it’s art-centric. We don’t think about the price.  Because, you know, next time my rock band will be playing the same place that the Yankees play. Okay?

Are you telling me that Van Halen will play Yankee Stadium next summer? You promised four New York copy editors free tickets today.
Yeah, but I can’t … If I say something on tape here and everybody goes, “Oh, this leaked…” But, the band will be — I can’t say.

Come on.
Well, I don’t know how far this privacy actually goes. But the band is solvent. And I can say that I contacted colleagues about being part of the show — Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Jason Aldean, the Foo Fighters, Church, and Stapleton. And they all said that, if everything happens, they would certainly be involved.

So this would be a festival?
No, all I talked about was a phone call.

Photo: Michael Avedon

Your voice is still in good shape. Have you noticed any changes in it as you’ve gotten older?
It depends if you venerate the smoker’s baritone. It’s probably gotten more character, more personality. Every person that you’ve ever met is in your music, every experience … I promised no metaphysics before happy hour, but I lied to you. Anybody that’s had their heart broken a few times, they can play that for you. That also goes for the entire range of emotions. The big five: anger, denial, fear, bargaining, and acceptance. And, if you’re Jewish you have renegotiation, too.

But for some musicians, experience is a fatal funnel. You say to them, “So, you’re making a new record — but what’s new now?” And they say, “We’ve been on a tour.” And that always becomes the same story, and you’ll hear it in the music. Or not. It’s like the opposite of the 14th minute of The Wizard of Oz. Instead of the color coming in, the color goes away. How did that happen? Because the life of a rock star is a limiting existence. Actually, it closely resembles that of a federal witness: You’re inside a hotel room with handlers. You’re transported urgently to a waiting vehicle. Then you’re whisked somewhere public, but first you’re taken down into the cement basement where you wait in a room. And then you’re taken upstairs and judged. Harshly.

Van Halen’s former manager, Noel Monk, just wrote a book about the band’s early days in which he claims you had a “near-crippling” fear of flying. Is that true?
It was a general fear of heights.

You must have flown thousands of times. How did you get over that fear?
Well, there’s no such thing as “born tough.” Most of being tough is being able to stay cool under stress. You’re always gonna be scared. I took helicopter lessons, right over there [points out the window] when that heliport opened about 12 years ago. I called it Be Cool School. The stick and rudder of it, the actual technical parts, came not easily, but they came. It took me two years to stop sweating through my gloves. I already knew how to be cool in front of 50,000 people, so I wondered, How far can I take this? If there’s an earthquake, you’re better off with me in the room. Now I know how to do a lot of things. I know how to do a mixed-martial-arts triangle choke. And I know how to go camping in the rain. And I know how to deal with the snow and really enjoy it.

I had another question about the Monk book …
I’d really rather focus on some other stuff. When Van Halen happens, I’m willing to answer all of these questions. And that’s around the corner by a hundred days. But what I’m doing now behind the scenes, it’s kind of a Wizard of Oz approach, and I enjoy it more than the spotlight. The spotlight has been wildly entertaining for 50, 60 years. But, this is a whole different composite of talents that I can follow into a future beyond singing “Runnin’ With the Devil” over and over. There’s a time-capsule element that goes along with my kind of music. You can’t keep serving it every year. We’re on a James Bond schedule, every three-and-a-half summers, so you don’t go, “Weren’t you just here?” and then we’d start selling fewer tickets. That happened with the third Pirates movie. Johnny Depp was scarred, emotionally. But classic rock is great. It funded everything we’re doing today.

Sure. What was the hardest part of launching a tattoo skin-care line?
The hardest part is always getting folks my age to understand that, my, things do change.  I remember telling Mo Ostin and all the faces at Warner Bros. that someday there’s gonna be a Spanish-speaking MTV. Huh-ho! They all laughed. I said, “Give me the budget to record my music in Spanish.” Which, I did. It’s horrible Spanish, but I was the first, so to speak. It made an impression. They loved it down south.

So this time, [with Ink The Original], I said, “You know what, guys, the normal thing where we try to advertise in Rolling Stone and on displays at Cross-Fit and in tattoo and biker shops, that’s not going to work. That’s not the future of ink. It’s all going to be on the internet.” Luckily I had some people with brains who said I should meet Ami. I’m going to bring him into this for a minute, because most people don’t know what Tattoodo is. Wait until you hear these numbers.

Ami James: Tattoodo is the biggest online community for tattoo content. So if you’re looking for an artist anywhere in the world that does the specific work you’re searching for, we are your booking app. And we reach 1.5 billion people a month.

Roth: Say that number again. I think your tape recorder skipped. I used to interview people, too. I was Howard Stern’s replacement for four months until they fired me. 1.5 billion people a month. We’re the only ones giving Pornhub a run for its money. You didn’t think that was possible, did you? Anyway, Ami didn’t even realize it was me when I first got in touch.

James: It was somebody else working with David who contacted me first. I opened the email and thought, well, maybe this is a company that would make sense to advertise on our platform. But then I read the email and was like, sunblock for tattoos? Finally. I work in Miami, which is the worst part of America to work in tattoos, because we tattoo [people with skin like] leather couches — everybody there is a redneck. Artists from Canada will visit us and they’re like, “This is the worst place I’ve ever tattooed.” And it’s all due to the fact that we don’t use sunblock. I surf, too, and your skin cracks from the saltwater. So I tried the product out and by the end of a week, I was like, “Man, this is really good.”

Roth: I have great outdoor experience. These products are the kind of gear you’re gonna use at 23,000 feet, when you only want to take your glove off once. You know what else I used to do? I cut a hole in the 14th Street fence next to the Sanitation Department so we could put our kayaks in the Hudson River. This was in 1991. My girlfriend Karen would sit in front, and we’d go kayaking during snowstorms, in January and February, under the Verrazano Bridge. All of my ex-girlfriends are married now, by the way. Nobody wants me in the family sleeping bag anymore.

James: Especially not the husbands.

But when was the last time Karen’s husband took her kayaking through Hudson River sewage during a blizzard?
Roth: Exactly. Hey, are we good with the product stuff now? Ami, give us a minute.

In 2016, you almost played a show in L.A. with the band from your first solo album, Eat ’Em and Smile — Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, and Gregg Bissonette. But the venue overcrowded and the fire marshal shut it down. Is that reunion still a possibility?
The fellas put together a show and contacted me afterwards. It would have been a fast jam, but it didn’t take place. At some point we might put something together.

You quit Van Halen in 1985 to make a quasi-autobiographical movie you’d written, Crazy From the Heat. The screenplay surfaced on the internet this summer. When was the last time you thought about that script?
Crazy From the Heat was not my life story. It was about two managers named the Picasso brothers who managed somebody named Dave. After they’re duped out of their position by another evil manager named Bernie Kolan, they become destitute, and to pay the rent, they’re forced to involve themselves in sleep experiments, whereupon they discover a plot by a Japanese business cartel to isolate brain serum which would enable a corporation to sell rhythm to white people. The value? Inestimable.

For some baffling reason, the movie never got made. What was Hollywood thinking?
Oh, they weren’t. CBS Films went out of business, everything got put on hold, and that was the end of the picture. But my day job will always be singing and dancing. The Frank Sinatra paradigm. How many movies did he make? Forty? Sixty? Some of them won great awards. But he always knew it adds up to the concert ticket at the end of the day. That was his driving wheel and that is mine, all right?

What have you been reading lately?
I just reread The Godfather for the first time since it came out in 1969. I read it before the movie, too. I bought it at the airport. Suddenly they’ve reissued The Godfather in the airports. Why? Why would a character like that be so popular again right now?

I can think of a good reason. Which Trump associate is Fredo?
This is reminiscent of five different time periods politically in seven different countries in terms of the conduct and the progression, and it goes back to … I’ll say it, good or bad, okay? Because quite honestly, I have fans on both sides of the Punta Gorda delta. Are you familiar with the Redneck Mud Park? Van Halen music is as revered in tractor-pulling magazines — Puller, it’s called — as it is in “Page Six,” where I got written up not terribly long ago. So, in terms of politics, I use my time in the spotlight for the rights: civil rights, equal rights, speech rights, women, and animals.

But guys, you elected a billionaire. You’re never going to be able to convince him of anything. He’s a billionaire. What I make is tiny compared to that, and you’re never gonna convince me of anything either, which is why I’m not in a position of public responsibility. I just want to go from philandering to philanthropy.

Will there be a David Lee Roth wing at Mt. Sinai?
This is my time. Van Halen earned over a billion dollars for Warner Bros. in the last 40 summers, and that’s before we count those counterfeits we don’t know about. Up until about 18 months ago, I was making eight cents a royalty on a $20 Van Halen record. Okay? So, whatever happens from this interview on, you’re looking at a free man. Oh yeah!

A Long Talk With David Lee Roth