20 years ago today: David Lee Roth plays the Commodore, talks O.J., celebrating life, and leaving Van Halen

Twenty years ago today—on July 10, 1994—David Lee Roth played the Commodore Ballroom. I interviewed him on the phone before the show because—hey, who wouldn't want to interview Diamond Dave?

So here's the story that ran in the Straight's July 8-15 edition. First time ever on the Internet, far as I can tell. Tell your friends. Then read it and try to remember where you were when the O.J. verdict went down. 

With all the frenzied media attention and intense public speculation surrounding the O.J. Simpson case, it's hard to keep a fair handle on the whole sordid affair. Even such trusted news sources as A Current Affair and the National Enquirer have gotten caught up in the circus. So who do you have to turn to when you need a straight, unbiased view of the situation?

Why, none other than "Diamond" David Lee Roth himself. He's been around. He knows the score. And besides, he'll talk about anything!

"For all we know, O.J. Simpson may be a great Samaritan and this may be a frame-up," spouts Roth on the line from the scene of the crime, Los Angeles. "Or for all we know, O.J. Simpson may have been a hardcore character way beyond his friendly, easygoing public persona. All things are part of a circle, and there's very rarely a single unrrelated outburst like this. Indeed, he has a history of violence; indeed, he made his living full-contact! Deadly unfortunate, but what are we pretending to not know here? Are we that surprised!"

"Plus the media has taken on a certain P.T. Barnum aspect that, guilty or otherwise, will drive you bats. I fell into the machine a year ago. I got arrested for $10 worth of pot in New York City, which amounts to a $35 traffic citation, okay? Seriously—just pay the fine and that's it. I was on CNN International every 30 minutes for three days and three nights. They lumped in $10 worth of throwaway bunk reefer with crackheads, junkies, and speed freaks in an effort to lure the viewer and create more advertising income."

The unwanted flash of publicity Roth acquired for his wee stash was pretty well the only bit of news there's been on the singer in recent years. Indeed, the '90s have been unusually quiet for the motormouth rocker, who made headlines in the '80s both as the macho front man for rock legends Van Halen and as a solo artist whose satirical T&A videos became a staple for the then-burgeoning MTV generation. Over the years Roth has gone from playing packed stadiums to 1,000-seat clubs, although he says that's okay with him.

"I think everybody's tired of the big places," he says. "When you get to a certain size, it's more like a gathering of the tribes than it is about any kind of listening experience. When you go to a Grateful Dead show, it's not so much about sitting and listening to every note played as it is of comparing headbands and swimming naked and barbecuin'. And when it's Pink Floyd, it's more about smokin' pot and kickin' back and pretendin' that you're a member of the '70s. When you go to a Rolling Stones show, it's more of a confirmation that you still have some criminal element left in you—no matter what your spouse says or what the boss thinks."

And when you go to a David Lee Roth show in 1994?

"You are celebrating life! You are re-entering that circle that the Beat generation was cut from, when they made the distinction between hot and cool. Hot is enthusiasm, adventure, energy, like Jack Kerouac had. On the Road. Cool is something that a whole different faction of people came up with. Distant. Removed. Unconnected. That's not me.

"And there are people who want to take a real colourful ride here," he adds, referring to his current touring band, the members of which he chooses not to name. "It is more enthusiasm for the actual music itself than I've had since I can remember. It is in direct reaction to a lot of artists taking the seven-video-screen, digital-compu-pretaped, choreographed-dancer-with-costume-change vibe—like U2, perhaps. I'm takin' all of the pretence out of it, and it's going over like bonkers. Even soundchecks are takin' a special hue and tone."

Roth is no stranger to the Granville Mall neighbourhood he'll revisit on Sunday (July 10), when he plays the Commodore Ballroom. A few years back he holed up in the Nelson Place Hotel so he could feel the heat of Vancouver's streets while he recorded A Little Ain't Enough at Little Mountain Sound with Bob Rock. That CD failed to achieve the popularity of previous Roth releases such as Crazy from the Heat and Eat 'Em and Smile, and neither has his most recent, Nile Rodgers-produced outing, Your Filthy Little Mouth. Still, Roth claims he's satisfied with how his career is going now.

"It's ups and downs," he says. "My world isn't flat. Any time you try something adventurous and new, the initial response is shock and horror. I went through this with Van Halen in '81. I remember we put out Fair Warning and toured for 10 months and the album didn't even go gold. Ultimately, it's the number-one seller in all of that catalogue. Just what that single record sells alone each year now could sponsor a lot of emerging African nations, but at the time it was crucified and buried. Same thing happened when I came out with 'Just a Gigolo'. Everybody testified that it was career suicide.

"What's happening with me now is...as a human being I'm changing—have been for quite a while—and what was in the '80s is not 1994 by any stretch of the imagination. You can't expect it to be, not in terms of a haircut or lyrical content. People ask me, 'What do you mean? Aren't lyrics timeless?' No, they're not. 1984, for example. People had some expendable income in their pocket come Friday night, and you didn't need to use a condom. Now, that right there is gonna change my lyrical content in some way or another. And you tell me it wouldn't change yours. Everything's different, babe."

Well, not quite everything, Dave—and don't call me babe. Van Halen continues to hold its place in the upper echelon of today's most successful rock bands; you don't see Pepsi offering big bucks for a David Lee Roth tune to sell Crystal Light. The question is, does he ever regret leaving his old band?

"You know, on one hand you can't replace the chemistry of a bunch of rookies growin' up together in the business—just as the Oakland Raiders will never replace the team of the late '70s. We all have a nostalgia for the past like that. On the other hand, I've been allowed to travel and work with stellar talents and see parts of life and live 'em large like I never would have been able to do in the parameters of being in a quote-unquote band.

"So, no, I don't regret it."

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Bob
Fair Warning was Van Halen's lowest selling album. He's wrong in his quote.
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