I’d always dreamed the first time I’d see David Lee Roth live he’d be the size of an ant, high-kicking and high-fiving his way through a set of Van Halen classics on the stage of some Californian enormo-dome. The reality, though, was somewhat different.
I loved Van Halen from the moment my elder brother shelled out £3.99 for VH I back in 1978 and I sat in dumbstruck 14-year-old awe at just how bendy the band’s singer was on the back of the album sleeve and exactly how many entire communities of dwarves you’d be able to hide up his voluminous trouser leg. Once the actual songs had been dissected I was no less open-mouthed at the sheer preposterous nature of David Lee Roth’s hard rock delivery. Roth didn’t so much ‘sing’ as ‘yelp’ his way through the album’s rapid-fire songs like a dog with an irresistible urge to rub itself vigorously against a particularly sturdy lamp-post. And I couldn’t help but love the vainglorious fool!
Van Halen was everything my life was not, living in northern industrial Manchester long before the Happy Mondays had raved the city out of its grim and grimy stupour. They were sunshine. I was rain. They were sex and drugs. I was school and books. They were flash and pizzazz. I was Fallowfields and Piccadilly Plaza. Eddie’s pyrotechnic guitar shit was a thing of wonder. Dave’s heavy metal showbusiness-ness was hilarious. Michael’s nut-wrecking hi-pitched backing vox were… well, certifiably insane. And Alex’s drum sticks were on fire, which of course needs no further justification!
VH bestrode the world of Kerrang! like perma-tanned Rock Gods when I was involved with the mag, but it was many years later that I actually met the band’s ring-master. My rock writer pal Paul ‘Gooner’ Elliott invited me to Wolverhampton in March of 2003 or 2004, I forget which due to short-term rock-induced memory deficit. The idea was to see David Lee Roth in all his solo glory and then meet backstage with the ultimate in California rock royalty after the show thanks to some spurious Gooner connection with the Roth empire.
Things started, it must be said, badly. That we’d booked ourselves into the shittest hotel in the entire West Midlands wasn’t the problem. It was the fact that when DLR ‘hit’ the stage I couldn’t help thinking that this thinning, ageing rock god of yore was now nothing more than Freddie Starr doing some kind of VH skit. Mind the high kicks Dave, you’ll do yourself a mischief! And yet from such an inauspicious beginning somehow Roth won me over through sheer force of will and dedication to that old dame they call ‘showbiz’. Within five minutes I’d forgotten all about bloody Freddie Starr and was headbanging dangerously over the balcony, believing in my heart of hearts that this was indeed the real rock deal. As gigs go, I fuggin’ loved it! The best, however, was yet to come…
After the show we ambled about with our ‘don’t really get you anywhere important’ backstage passes and loitered. Word was that Dave would send a minion down to pluck us from the throng and lead us to the inner sanctum. A really cool, really big, really black minion as it turned out. Dave does everything with style! So up we trot, Gooner and I, ready for our audience with The Great Man. And what an audience it turns out to be. First off, this is a private session. Just me, Gooner and the Roth mouth in perpetual motion. Secondly, Dave is funny, really funny. He’s cracking jokes nineteen to the dozen, talking absolute shite that has no discernable meaning, yet he still keeps us two totally enraptured during a 20 minute one-man show of hurricane proportions. I’d love to tell you what we talked about – or rather what he talked at us about. But I honestly have no idea. As those of you who ever heard his brilliant radio show will know, David Lee Roth’s speech is about cadences and rhythms, rat-a-tat-tatting out of his gob, bouncing of the walls and implanting itself deep in your ears. The meaning isn’t what matters, so much as the impact of the sounds. It’s music in itself, rather than a simple pattern of speech. What I do remember, though, is that he absolutely made us feel like the two most important people in the entire universe for those 20 minutes, which I suspect has been the real secret of Roth’s success.
Now I didn’t actually see or hear an alarm clock in the DLR dressing room, but I swear there must have been one there. Because on 20 minutes to the dot Dave suddenly went, “Anyway you guys, it’s been real and I’d like to thank you for coming,” while proffering his right hand for a firm rock and roll handshake. As hints go, it was a beauty. Time to go. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Dave had done his show, then he’d ‘met the press’ and turned in another immaculate performance like the true professional he is. And then in so many words he’d told us to piss right off! I couldn’t have been happier if I’d written the script myself. That is exactly how rock stars are supposed to behave – entertainingly and outrageously egocentrically.
On our way back to our no-star hotel the both of us were simply cock-a-hoop. David Lee Roth, like heavy metal music itself, never lets you down!
HoJo rocked as a top journalist on legendary UK metal magazine
Kerrang! and now runs a way-cool rock T-shirt site at www.saltyrockz.com.