Get to Know… David Lee Roth
For a brief time following David Lee Roth‘s acrimonious departure from Van Halen in 1985, it seemed the flamboyant frontman would be able to match his former band mates step for step. But as the 1990s rolled on, Roth’s commercial fortunes declined and he became a punchline of sorts. Quicker than you could say “bozedy bozedy bop!” Diamond Dave went from headlining arena shows to rolling out a much-ridiculed Las Vegas lounge act and getting busted for buying pot in New York City. And the less said about the short-lived 1996 Van Halen reunion the better.
But defying all expectations, David Lee Roth officially came home to VH in 2007. The band — with Eddie’s son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony on bass — hit the road in September of that year and raked in an astounding $93 million by the time their North American jaunt ended in July 2008. After lengthy break, Van Halen Mark 4(?) has just released A Different Kind of Truth to overwhelmingly positive reviews. A lengthy tour is slated to kick off this weekend, and is scheduled to run through the end of June.
So all’s well that ends well for Diamond Dave, right? I suppose so. But lost in all the Van Halen hype is the fact that in the years between his time in the band, Roth managed to put out some pretty good music. So let’s get to know David Lee Roth, shall we?
Crazy from the Heat (1985)
While Dave was still officially in Van Halen when this four-song EP was released in January 1985, the 1984 tour had already finished and he was on his way out the door. Many have argued that Crazy from the Heat, and the success it brought Roth, helped to hasten his exit. Roth scored two Top 20 Billboard singles from this record, “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody,” both of which were also promoted a pair of the most memorable videos MTV ever aired.
They also happen to be the two best songs on the EP, although Dave’s take on “Easy Street” (originally released by the Edgar Winter Group in 1974) is even brassier and bolder than the original. I do also dig his appropriately languid cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Coconut Grove,” one of that band’s better songs.
More than anything else having to do with music, Crazy from the Heat was a statement record. Dave was clearly attempting to test the waters as a solo artist, and found them pretty inviting. And while Eddie wanted Van Halen to become a more mature, respectable rock band, Dave just wanted to party. It’s hard to blame him — it was the ’80s after all. Unfortunately, this EP and its accompanying videos also provided Dave’s detractors with further “evidence” that he was too much of a clown to be taken seriously.
But c’mon, listen to this record. Does Dave sound like he even wants to be taken seriously?
Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986)
Roth was smart enough to realize that a full album of lounge-ified covers would do little to keep the momentum of his new solo career going, so he did what any sensible person in his place would — he recruited the best musicians he could find to compete directly with his old band. I’ll leave it to others to continue the 5150 vs. Eat ‘Em and Smile debate, but will simply say that I can’t see how Dave could’ve released a better hard rock record.
First off, let’s talk about the band. Super groups are a risk proposition. All the talent in the world don’t mean shit if there’s no band chemistry. Fortunately for Dave, the mixture of Steve Vai (guitars), Billy Sheehan (bass), and Gregg Bissonette (drums) gelled quite nicely. In retrospect it was too good to last, but it appeared that Roth had struck lightning a second time.
Everything about this album is larger than life, and it all starts with one the truly great songs from the DLR catalog — “Yankee Rose.” You’d swear this quartet had been playing together for a decade.
There are fireworks to spare on Eat ‘Em and Smile. Vai, Sheehan, and Bissonette hold a virtuoso clinic on scorchers like “Shy Boy” and “Elephant Gun,” while slower tunes like “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?” and “Big Trouble” still pack plenty of punch. But of course this is a Dave album after all, so the presence of electrified lounge tunes like “I’m Easy” and “That’s Life” should come as no surprise.
If you believed the talk that Roth left Van Halen because he hated keyboards and more sophisticated production, Skyscraper must have been quite a shock. There is a noticeable layer of high-gloss sheen applied to the entire record, which is still tons of fun but trades some amount of raw, visceral thunder for pop-rock lightning.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Just Like Paradise,” a collaboration between Roth and keyboardist Brett Tuggle. I love the song, but the fact that it was reportedly considered as the theme song to Beverly Hills 90210 should tell you all you need to know about its sound. Elsewhere, high octane tracks like “The Bottom Line,” “Hot Dog and a Shake,” “Perfect Timing,” and “Two Fools a Minute” mimic the style of Eat ‘Em and Smile even though they are more poppish when run through the Skyscraper filter.
This album sounds very much like a Roth/Vai effort, with Sheehan pushed to the margins to an extent. The two did co-produce in place of Ted Templeman. I can hardly blame Sheehan for bolting the Roth camp for Mr. Big before the Skyscraper tour got underway.
But let’s not think for a minute that this album is simply a lesser version of Dave’s first album. Two of the album’s best songs show definite signs of growth. The title track is a propulsive, almost proggish number that hints at the kind of engrossing, substantial music Roth and Vai could have kept making together. It’s followed up by “Damn Good,” a shockingly sentimental and subdued acoustic number that sure sounds like a wistful look back at Dave’s time in Van Halen. That’s how I read it anyway.
A Little Ain’t Enough (1991)
Fans couldn’t have known at the time, but David Lee Roth’s brand of music — call it hair metal, cock rock, pop metal, or whatever you want — was about to became an endangered species as the 1990s dawned. But to his credit, he came out swinging on what was to be his last hurrah as a commercially viable artist.
He did so without Steve Vai, who left after the Skyscraper tour. Roth, with ever a keen eye for talent, hired 20-year-old guitar phenom Jason Becker to take his place. With Becker on board and producer Bob Rock manning the controls, Roth set about recording a less fussy, more blues-influenced collection of hard rock tunes.
From a purely artistic standpoint, A Little Ain’t Enough doesn’t hit as many highs as Roth’s earlier albums but is more consistent and effective than Skyscraper. Partial credit goes to Rock, who was fresh off the success of Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood album and was in the process of producing Metallica’s self-titled juggernaut album. A Little Ain’t Enough packs a solid punch, even when the songs don’t click. And when you get a winner like the opener, “A Lil’ Ain’t Enough,” the results are great (even if the video is laughably cheesy even by Dave standards).
If you bailed on Dave around Skyscraper or never gave him a shot in the first place, I highly recommend this record. There are rock-solid burners like “Hammerhead Shark” and “Baby’s on Fire” to go with Halen-esque material like “It’s Showtime!”, one of Becker’s finest moments on the album.
Sadly, as good as A Little Ain’t Enough is it had two things working against it, neither of which were in Dave’s control. As mentioned earlier, the so-called Grunge scene (man how I hate that term) was poised to lay an extinction-level event on this type of music. While Van Halen made it through relatively unscathed, few other acts of the era did. While the album did barely miss Platinum certification in the U.S., it was the end of Dave as an arena act and a big seller.
Secondly and most tragically, Jason Becker was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) during the recording sessions. He was unable to join the band on the supporting tour and was replaced by Joe Holmes. Although Becker was given three to five years to live, he is still alive and composes music with the aid of a special computer.
Your Filthy Little Mouth (1994)
Exit Hammy Showman Dave, enter Complex Singer-Songwriter Dave? Well, not quite. But it’s safe to say that with the assistance of producer Nile Rodgers, Dave made an honest attempt to stretch his creative vision further than he ever had before. So while Your Filthy Little Mouth is by no means Roth’s best album or even his most consistent one, it is his most interesting album.
The album starts with a trio of solid but standard DLR rockers — “She’s My Machine,” Everybody’s Got the Monkey,” and “Big Train.” They’re all good and capably performed, but without a true guitar virtuoso like Vai or Becker to take them over the top, they lack a certain something. Perhaps feeling gun shy by this point, Roth called in old buddy Terry Kilgore (a cohort from his pre-Van Halen days) to handle guitar duties. He turns in a credible, workmanlike performance, but that’s about all I can say.
Had the rest of Your Filthy Little Mouth played out like the first three songs, it would have been a decent but ultimately forgettable record. But Dave mixes it up on the rest of the album with a batch of tunes that will either titillate or turn off, depending on your outlook. One song that does it for me is “Experience,” a slow-burning, bluesy tune where Kilgore does shine and that contains some of Dave’s best lyrics ever (“‘Till I finally made it, life was kind of hit or miss / and after I made it, life was ‘take a hit of this’ / and I’d love to talk philosophy, but I gotta take a piss / man, that philosophy runs right through ya.”)
From there, there’s a rather weak stretch of four songs. The brass-laden “A Little Luck” is peppy and fun enough, but I can see why longtime fans scoffed. Then there’s “Cheatin’ Heart Cafe,” an ill-conceived stab at contemporary country, right down to the shared lead vocals with Travis Tritt (who, by the way, sounds so much like Dave that it’s hard to tell the two apart). “Hey, You Never Know” is an improvement and has more killer Roth lyrics, but is almost toothless. And finally we have “No Big ‘Ting,” which attempts to merge pop and reggae but is better on paper than on record.
The album is redeemed on the last two new tracks — a strong cover of Willie Nelson’s subdued “Night Life” and “Sunburn,” a dusky, slinky tune that’s easily the best Roth/Kilgore composition on Your Filthy Little Mouth.
DLR Band (1998)
While it took four years for Dave to release the followup to YFLM, he kept himself pretty busy in the meantime. He recorded two new songs with Van Halen for their 1996 greatest hits compilation, seemed to have rejoined the band, and then found himself on the outs once again. He released an autobiography and a compilation record (with one new song) in 1997.
Having read Dave’s book, I know that he was pretty pissed over the whole reunion debacle. He took his anger out on Eddie in words, and on DLR Band he gunned for Van Halen musically. With his best backing band in years in tow (featuring guitarist John Lowery, aka John 5, and drummer Ray Luzier) Roth not only answered Van Halen III but outdid it in most respects. “Slam Dunk!” is an absolutely smoking track, as are “Counter-Blast,” “King of the Hill,” and “Relentless.”
There are shades of YFLM as well, especially on the tracks co-written by Terry Kilgore (“Going Places…,” “Right Tool for the Job,” and “Tight”), but they work better on this record as changes of pace. The fourth Roth/Kilgore song, “Black Sand,” is the best song I’ve heard from the pair and is a great album closer. Overall, DLR Band is a strong album and reinforced my belief that Van Halen blew it by not bringing Dave back on full-time.
Diamond Dave (2003)
And now we come full circle on Diamond Dave’s solo career – with a covers album. Well, mostly covers. Released the year after Roth’s stranger-than-fiction co-headlining tour with Sammy Hagar, Diamond Dave seems like a pointless vanity project at first. The thing is, it’s really good for what it is.
Boasting a lineup of Roth’s past collaborators (Nile Rodgers, Ray Luzier, Gregg Bissonette, and Brett Tuggle) and a few ringers (drummer Omar Hakim and Edgar Winter on sax), Diamond Dave is in turns bluesy, laid back, rocking, and just plain odd. Although Roth’s voice is clearly not what it used to be, he wisely sticks to songs that highlight his abilities rather than strain them. “Stay While the Night Is Young,” in particular, is a highlight.
There is no attempt at a career reinvention on Diamond Dave, nor is this a desperate stab for relevance — that’s kind of out of the question at this point anyway, Van Halen reunion notwithstanding. This album sounds and feels like a labor of love all the way. It makes for a really fun listen, which is pretty much what Dave has always been about.
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