How a Jewish kid from Indiana became a rock n' roll God, spawning millions of copycats, igniting billions of parties, and reminding every creative person out there to never give up.
“The world's a stage and I want the brightest spot."
- David Lee Roth
If you know me well, you’ve likely heard me extol the barbarian virtues of the mighty Van Halen and their frontman, David Lee Roth. Leaping off the drum riser into his airborne split, Dave brought eye-popping athleticism, blatant sexuality, and a circus-act persona to hard rock music from the late 1970s through the 1980s. His comedic one-liners in songs, swaggering moves on stage, and outlandish fashion choices all make Dave a true original in rock music.
If I forced you to watch some old David Lee Roth music videos (you’re welcome), you’d likely have a lot of questions. For example, within the first minute of watching Panama, you might ask, “Why is Dave wearing cowboy boots and a bath towel?" And in the next scene, "Why is he wearing a red jockstrap over his spandex pants?" In the Yankee Rose video you’d likely be perplexed at his decision to wear a women’s one-piece bathing suit over his ass-less chaps.
Why did he make these ridiculous fashion choices? I’ll tell you why. It’s because Dave does whatever the hell Dave wants and makes no apologies for it. He ignores people who laugh at him and aims to be a true original in how he lives and expresses himself. He's not afraid to be the fool.
How else can you explain why a bunch of blue-collar dudes and drunk frat boys go nuts for a bleached blond rooster of a man in ass-less chaps? It’s because they (and I and you) are drawn to swaggering personalities who break the rules and seek to dominate their chosen profession. No better compliment can ever be given from one man about another than “he just doesn’t give a fuck.”
Considered by many to be the greatest rock n' roll frontman of all time, “Diamond Dave” went on to spawn a million copycats. Saturated across 1980s MTV, you’d see Vince Neil, Brett Michaels, Jani Lane, Sebastian Bach and a zillion other blond-maned sex pots stuffed into their spandex, wanting to be the next David Lee Roth. But there can only be one Dave. Yet, despite his lasting influence on how rock stars look, dress, dance, and behave, Dave had one glaring weakness: he couldn’t really sing.
A lead singer who isn't a great singer is typically a problem, but not for Dave. That's because Dave knew the audience didn’t just listen, they watched. They came to be entertained. And Dave proved to be one of the greatest entertainers who has ever lived. So how did he do it? How did a Jewish kid from Indiana with no natural singing voice become the greatest rock star who ever lived? One word: Vigor.
Here’s his story and why it matters to me.
My favorite tale from the early days of Van Halen comes from Greg Renoff, a history professor and author of Van Halen Rising.
In the book, Van Halen is gathering some buzz around Los Angeles and catches the eye of KISS bassist, Gene Simmons, who at the time was a rock n’ roll god. Watching Roth strut, spin, and swing like Tarzan and Eddie dazzle the crowd with his guitar, Simmons was blown away and decided to fly the band to New York to meet his manager and hopefully sign a record contract.
After recording some demos in New York, KISS’ manager told the band, “I don’t see any commercial potential.” He hated Dave’s voice, called the lyrics “derivative,” and told the band they should find a new lead singer. At the end of the meeting, a pissed off Gene Simmons stood up and told his manager, “you’re going to eat those words.”
The next day, Dave, Eddie, and Alex stood by the curb outside of LAX’s arrival terminal waiting for Dave’s friend, Stanley, to pick them up. As the Van Halen brothers piled into the backseat and Dave took shotgun, Stanley pulled away, turning the car east on the highway towards Pasadena. What happened next, according to Stanley, was the most dramatic Van Halen moment he had ever witnessed.
As the defeated Van Halen brothers sulked in the back seat, one of them said, “we had our break and we lost it.” Upon hearing the negativity, Roth turned around in his seat, stared at the brothers and exclaimed, “No, no, no! That’s not what this is. Don’t think for a second that this is over… we are going to be a big name. You’ll see. Just keep at it!”
Watching it all unfold, Stanley’s brother (also in the car) said the incident proved Dave “was really the driving force” behind Van Halen. “Even though they [Alex and Eddie] had all the [musical] talent,” he said, Roth “kept them going.” Years later, the lead guitarist in Roth’s solo band, Steve Vai, summed up the singer’s approach to life: “He was intense, very intense. Did I mention he was intense?”
David Lee Roth’s intensity began in childhood. Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1954, Dave moved to Massachusetts when he was six, back to Indiana, and then eventually to Pasadena. Before he moved to California, Dave was an outsider. He was bullied for being Jewish. He was also diagnosed as hyperactive, and to make things even worse, had to wear leg braces as a young boy. Reflecting on his childhood in his memoir, Crazy from the Heat, Dave wrote, “I had my own personal self-esteem vibe coming into play… wear[ing] braces… being Jewish, being new in town… I didn’t get along with the other kids.” As a result, he said, “I signed everybody off.”
Dave still remembers building a little model boat, using pencils and paper to make the sails. At the top of the steps outside his house, he placed the boat on the edge and said, “This is me,” and kicked it off the steps and into the street. After that, he wrote, “I never affiliated with a group of steady friends again in my life.” When he made his declaration of independence, he recalls, “I fucking meant it.”
Books became Dave’s friends, and by 13, he claims to have read everything from the Koran to Lenny Bruce’s autobiography. He also read Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, and of course, Playboy. In the summers, Dave traveled to New York where his uncle owned a club for musicians, poets, and comedians. He watched Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce perform there. In 1963, Dave moved to Los Angeles for good. In Altadena, just east of LA, he attended a school with “Latino kids, black kids, and every other color and combination.” After that, he discovered Motown, American Bandstand, and the Rolling Stones.
“On May 14, 1968,” he declared, “I smoked pot for the first time.” Never mind that he recalls the exact date, what matters is that Dave was changing – and so was America. By the early 70s, Dave’s tastes turned to Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and ZZ Top; plus Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Sly and the Family Stone. During this time, puberty was very kind to Dave. By his senior year in high school, Dave had grown tall and was fronting a band. He was no longer an outsider. Looking back decades later, a freshman at John Muir High School in Pasadena said this about Dave at 17: “We were all in awe. He looked exactly like he does now, only with more hair… He’d walk around with a vest with no shirt underneath… and it seemed like he always had at least two women with him.”
By 1974, Dave was 19 and fronting a band in Pasadena called “Red Ball Jet.” Frustrated by his band’s lack of talent, Dave wanted to join another Pasadena band called “Mammoth,” led by two brothers who had immigrated to California from Holland a decade before. These brothers – Alex Van Halen on drums and Eddie Van Halen on guitar – were brilliant musicians.
In his book, Runnin’ With the Devil, author and former Van Halen manager Noel Monk wrote, “Dave understood that in order to make his dream come true [of rock stardom], he would need someone extraordinarily talented on his team.” In short, he would need the Van Halens, and especially Eddie, who is now widely regarded as the most innovative rock guitarist who has ever lived.
By combining forces with Mammoth, Roth saw a straight road to rock n’ roll stardom. But there was a catch: the Van Halen brothers hated David Lee Roth. “Eddie and I couldn’t stand the motherfucker,” Alex said later. They hated Dave’s brash persona, flashy clothes, and big mouth. Plus, Alex said, “he couldn’t sing for shit.”
I’ve read every book on Van Halen. I’ve watched nearly every documentary, music video, and YouTube interview. And in every single one of them, every single person interviewed said Dave was maniacal in pursuing his goal to become a rock star. Consequently, Alex and Ed’s disdain was simply another obstacle for Dave to overcome. Dave would become a rock star or die trying.
Although Eddie hated him and thought he was a shitty singer, Dave didn’t care. And he soon hatched a multi-faceted plan to join Ed's band, Mammoth. This plan included what Van Halen historian Greg Renoff calls “one of the great rock and roll power plays of all time.”
Dave knew his voice was weak. He knew people resented his flamboyant style and thought he was a joke – more court jester than real musician. As always, Dave ignored the haters, put his head down, and worked his ass off. He began taking voice lessons, pursued martial arts, exercised often, practiced his dancing, and developed, according to rock photographer Neil Zlozower, a “one-man porno-circus” persona that would inspire millions of wanna-be rock stars around the world.
“Dave was a rock star before he was a rock star,” recalled his friend Bobby Hatch. “I swear to God… you knew he was going to be a rock star.” According to his future manager Noel Monk, Dave truly believed he “was destined to be famous… and it didn’t embarrass him to admit it, either.” Dave told everybody who asked (and didn’t ask) that he would become a rock star. Dave sought constant self-affirmation through his words and actions. Every time he looked in the mirror, strengthened his voice, honed his moves, he was reminding himself of his rock n' roll destiny. As this self-belief grew inside him like a blazing light, Dave gained a supreme level of confidence that everyone around him felt.
Determined to join Mammoth and unite with the Van Halen brothers, Dave had a few things going for him. First, he had his own PA system and Mammoth didn’t. Second, he knew Eddie hated singing and just wanted to play guitar.
After years of renting a PA system to Mammoth, another local singer told Alex he was increasing the rental rate. Alex, who already had a short fuse, accused him of overcharging and characteristically told him “to fuck off.” Knowing Dave had his own PA system, Alex asked a friend for Dave’s number. When Alex called Dave asking about his PA, Dave finally had the leverage he needed. A few weeks later, Dave made his move.
At a backyard keg party where Mammoth was scheduled to play, Dave arrived with his PA. As he smoked cigarettes and drank beer with the band, trying to ingratiate himself with Mammoth, Dave sprung his trap. Just before showtime, he told Eddie and Alex they couldn’t use his PA unless he could join them on stage for a few songs. With no choice, the brothers reluctantly agreed.
After the party, Dave began showing up at Mammoth’s rehearsals. According to Renoff’s book, Dave continued lobbying the Van Halen brothers on all “he could bring to Mammoth, other than a working PA.” Worn down by Dave’s persistence, Alex and Ed began listening to Roth's “vision for the band’s future,” and how “the brothers needed to think and dream about bigger things than local key parties.” Dave said they needed to play music people could dance to, needed to ditch the jeans and dress more like rock stars, and needed to gig in Hollywood where they could play original music and get signed by a major record label.
Eventually, Dave’s persistence and vision won out. “The brothers,” according Renoff, “concluded that Roth’s swagger and charisma outweighed his shortcomings as a vocalist.” Plus, “he had long blond hair, and walked around with a certain confidence” that the shy and introverted Eddie lacked.
When Mammoth’s fans heard about the Roth acquisition, they went nuts – but not in a good way. “Everybody who heard that Eddie had hired Roth,” recalls a friend, “was like, ‘You did what?’ This guy sucks.” Eddie wouldn’t have any of it. He defended Dave to the naysayers and often replied, “we need this guy.” The fans disagreed.
As Roth roostered on stage in tight hip hugging pants, platform shoes, and bright shirts, Mammoth’s jeans and t-shirts fans tossed beer cans at him and yelled, “Go home Hollywood.” As always, Dave dismissed the negativity “and took his lumps like a man,” according to Renoff. In fact, Dave's attire and stage presence became even flashier, brighter, and more animated. Ultimately, Dave ignited the band with the positive energy and optimism they needed. He also transferred that energy to the audience. He made them feel good and included, welcoming them to one giant Van Halen party.
Unique and Ground Breaking
By 1975, people began to realize that Roth and Eddie were onto something entirely new. “Roth,” according to an observing guitarist, “was the first local guy to open the shirt, show the hairy chest, and say, ‘We’re here to par-tay.’” Eventually, Dave’s party-time persona, combined with Eddie’s finger-tapping virtuosity, won over fans and planted the cultural seeds for the next fifteen years of “Nothin’ but a Good Time” guitar-driven rock n’ roll.
It's also important to note that Van Halen was the first "happy" hard rock band. They weren't serious like Zeppelin, dark like Sabbath, druggy like Aerosmith, or nerdy like Rush. They were sunshine, keg parties, and hot chicks. Only Southern California in the 1970s could have produced a band like Van Halen. When I hear songs like "Unchained" or "Beautiful Girls," I want to leap off the couch, get outside, and drink a dozen Coronas. As my all time favorite music writer, Chuck Klosterman, puts it, Van Halen "is as heavy as music can be without being heavy at all."
And here's another way Van Halen changed the game for hard rock: Women loved Van Halen! And they especially loved, David Lee Roth. As Van Halen gained steam playing clubs and backyard parties, a friend remembers "you almost had to surgically remove girls from [Dave's] body. They'd just hang all over him."
Finally, Van Halen, particularly Dave, was funny. Until then, no one laughed in hard rock songs or hammed it up on stage like Roth. He'd wear giant foamy cowboy hats, strap horse tails to his ass, or swing across the stage from Tarzan vines. Watch the videos for "Pretty Woman," "Hot for Teacher," and "Yankee Rose" -- they're funny, ridiculous, and they kick ass. That had never been done before. Van Halen were always in on the joke and never seemed to take themselves too seriously. And there's no bigger buzz kill than a rock star who takes himself too seriously (Eddie Vedder).
As the band grinded forward, they hit another roadblock when they received a cease-and-desist notice from a band also named Mammoth. In the notice, the other Mammoth band demanded the guys from Pasadena change their name or face a lawsuit. When Alex and Eddie suggested changing their name to “Rat Salad,” Dave rolled his eyes and once again came to the rescue. He countered with “Van Halen” because it sounded powerful. Ed initially rejected Dave’s suggestion because it seemed conceited to name a band after his last name (right Bon Jovi?). But as usual, Dave got his way. In agreeing to “Van Halen,” the brothers concluded, no other band could steal their name.
By 1975, the backyard keg parties Van Halen played grew to thousands of kids, and the LAPD began sending helicopters to break them up. Soon after, Dave got Van Halen booked at clubs throughout Hollywood, including Gazzari’s and The Whiskey – all while the band rehearsed four hours a day, six days a week. Dave became a drill instructor, forging Van Halen into a disciplined machine, while gradually changing their image and music for more mainstream appeal.
Dave also worked with each member of the band, helping them build their identity (or brand), including the fourth, final, and most underrated member of the group, bassist Michael Anthony. With Anthony, the band not only got a great bass player, they got one of the best backup rock vocalists of all time. Anthony’s high tenor voice not only added a layer of harmony to Van Halen’s songs, but he also eased the vocal pressures on Dave.
With the name solidified, the lineup complete, and the musical direction set, David Lee Roth became the undisputed architect of Van Halen. According to their future tour manager, Noel Monk, “David was the true leader… He had a vision for Van Halen, and for himself, and he made that vision a reality.”
For the next three years, it was always two steps forward and one step back for Van Halen. Through it all, Dave stayed hyper focused and would not stop pushing himself and his band. Finally, on an evening in 1977, famed music producer Ted Templeman dropped into a gig unannounced and immediately noticed Eddie’s musical genius and Dave’s full-throttle commitment and charisma. “Dave was playing to an audience of ten thousand, when there were [actually] about eleven people in there,” Templeman recalls. “He was performing and sweating and jumping whether anybody was out there or not.”
The next day, Templeton walked into Warner Brothers executive chairman Mo Austin’s office and said, “we gotta get these guys.” Mo, who had signed Jimmy Hendrix, loved what he heard (and saw). And within a few weeks, Van Halen entered the studio with Ted Templeton. Rock n’ roll would never be the same again.
On February 10, 1978, their self-titled album was released. It was a masterpiece stacked with hit after hit. Van Halen I had the ground-breaking, finger-tapping “Eruption.” The thundering mayhem of “Running with the Devil.” The steel splitting electric buzzsaw of “Ain’t Talking ‘bout Love.” And the final three tracks which are centered on David Lee Roth – the sentimental “Little Dreamer,” the comedic “Ice Cream Man,” and the expend-all-ordinance atomic bomb of “On Fire” -- or as Dave sings it, “On Fiy-ahhh!”
As Van Halen grabbed rock n’ roll by the throat in the summer of 1978, they played a music festival at Oakland Coliseum. Attending the show was rock photographer Neil Zlozower who said, “Van Halen devastated every other band that played,” including ACDC. Following that show, some hipster reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle offered this insult: “Van Halen purveys rock at its lowest common denominator.”
You know what? He’s right. Van Halen is Neanderthal rock n’ roll. It’s for barbarians who want to lift weights, drink beer, and grab their girlfriend’s ass. It’s for people who want to be primal, feral, and free. If you’ve ever been drunk at a crowded bar or wedding, and went nuts when the DJ blared “Living on a Prayer” or “Pour Some Sugar on Me," then you owe Michael, Alex, Eddie, and especially Dave a debt of gratitude for changing rock music and making your night a lot more fun.
And if that makes you (and me) amongst the “lowest common denominator” then all I can say, in the words of Diamond Dave, is “Dance the Night Away.”
Epilogue: Never Give Up
David Lee Roth inspires me because he didn’t have “the gift” for his chosen craft -- unless you consider Vigor a gift. Through sheer effort and determination, this Jewish kid from Indiana became the greatest lead singer of the 1980s, and in my opinion, of all time.
Dave wasn’t born a rock star, he made himself one.
As a 29-year-old Marine stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I still recall spending all day writing a report for my Commanding Officer. After reading it, he walked into the conference room, tossed it on the table, and in front of two other officers said, “This is really bad. Where did you learn how to write anyway?”
A month later, I spent a week writing a piece on a battle from the Peloponnesian War I hoped to get published in the Marine Corps Gazette and shared it with another Captain. The following day, I asked, “Did you like it? ”He just laughed and said, “not really.” Bewildered, I asked, “Why not?” He said, “Sorry Ed, I just don’t think the writing is very good.”
Two years later in grad school at Cal State, I walked into my history professor’s office for the first time and said, “I want to be a great writer.” He said, “That’s nice. Now start writing and do it every day… and slowly, you’ll improve.”
Here I am 16 years later, typing away, hoping it’s good, and praying I’ll never stop.
I wasn’t born a writer, but I’m trying like hell to make myself one.
In the words of Diamond Dave, "Just keep at it."
Rock on, Barbarians.