David Lee Roth wrecks Van Halen's victory lap
Remember that time you got bombed on peach-flavoured wine coolers in the Dell Shopping Centre parking lot while your buddy Randy kept rewinding Side 1 of Van Halen’s 1984 so he could listen to “Panama” over and over again? Try to hang on to that memory, especially if you’re going to the Van Halen concert at Rogers Arena on Monday (May 7). Seeing the band live in 2012 might make you forget why you were a fan in the first place.
Or maybe it won’t. It depends on which aspects of the show you focus on and which you’re willing to overlook. Actually, according to a lot of the reviews so far, Van Halen is looking and playing better than ever on this tour. Eddie Van Halen, that is. The 57-year-old guitarist, who looked just a little too thin when VH last played Vancouver, back in ’07, is back up to fighting weight. He’s also reportedly cancer-free and, for the first time in decades, clean and sober.
In other words, he’s living right, which is a far cry from the Crazy Cat Lady doppelgänger that erstwhile Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar describes meeting up with prior to their 2004 reunion tour. As revealed in Hagar’s memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, that version of Eddie had the air of someone who spent his days punching other derelicts in the face for bottles of Night Train Express: “He looked like he hadn’t bathed in a week. He certainly hadn’t changed his clothes in at least that long. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had on a giant overcoat and army pants, tattered and ripped at the cuffs, held up with a piece of rope. I’d never seen him so skinny in my life. He was missing a number of teeth and the ones he had left were black. His boots were so worn out he had gaffer’s tape wrapped around them and his big toe still stuck out.”
Nonetheless, Eddie managed to hobble back on-stage every night, where he would trip over cables, accidentally unplug amplifiers, and, at one Chicago show, stop in the middle of a guitar solo to take a catnap, telling the audience, “I’m sorry folks, I done run outta gas.”
Now, though, Van Halen is no longer pickling his liver one sip at a time. In a feature on him in the May issue of Esquire, the guitarist is quoted as saying, “It’s like, God gave me one big bottle and I drank it all. I’m done.” He’s done smoking, too—he pretty much had to quit after having parts of his tongue removed thanks to a couple of brushes with cancer. Oh, and he got a new hip a few years back, so he’s now a cyborg. Call him the Terminator of rock! And his playing, by all accounts, is better than ever, reminding fans and critics alike why he is so often ranked in the upper echelons of rock music’s greatest guitar players. There’s a good reason why, in February, Billboard ran an item with the headline “Van Halen Tour Review: It’s the Eddie Show”.
And that reason is David Lee Roth. Don’t get me wrong: I love old Diamond Dave. He’s a brilliant raconteur (“Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it”), and even with his mouth duct-taped shut he’d still be twice as entertaining as anyone else who has ever been a Van Halen frontman. But have you heard the man sing lately? His vocal chops appear to have gone the way of his hairline. Reviews of concerts on Van Halen’s current A Different Kind of Truth Tour have been mixed with regard to Roth’s performances, but there have been enough negative notices to make even the most rabid fan have second thoughts about parting with that hard-earned $150 for a ticket.
The Miami Herald had nothing but praise for the members of the Van Halen family, including Ed’s brother Alex on drums and his son Wolfgang on bass (replacing some dude no one misses), when they played the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida, last month. “But Roth was embarrassing,” Howard Cohen wrote. “No one expects the 57-year-old to move like Jagger, but no one should have expected the once-flamboyant showman to move stiffly like a wax figure on a Lazy Susan. Clearly, for Roth, unlike his seemingly ageless colleagues, it’s not 1984 anymore.”
Roth has been lambasted for everything from lackadaisical singing and forgetting lyrics to chewing out road-crew members mid-song and testing the audience’s patience with home movies of his dogs. In short, he seems as if he’d rather be doing something else—herding sheep, say, or giving CPR to car-crash victims. But being in Van Halen has its perks, and Roth is no idiot (even if his wardrobe offers plenty of evidence to the contrary). As he told the Guardian in February, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better. Totally better.” And let’s face it, DLR hasn’t had a viable solo career since 1991, when rock fans heard A Little Ain’t Enough and collectively decided that a little was indeed quite enough, thank you.
So, if Roth is (with apologies to the Mothers of Invention) only in it for the money, who can begrudge him that? The man has mouths to feed, and good kibble doesn’t come cheap. What’s in it for you, the fan? The chance to worship at the feet of a newly reinvigorated guitar god, of course. And if putting up with a half-assed Diamond Dave is the trade-off, it could be worse. It could be Sammy Hagar. Or (shudder) Gary Cherone. And no one wants to see that.