"I'm like P.T. Barnum in some senses -- somewhere between Groucho Marx and Kurosawa is what I do for a living," he laughs, phoning from the "Mojo Dojo," Rothspeak for his home in Pasadena, California. "They asked me to go on that show: How I Destroyed My Life Behind the Scenes, or whatever it is. I offered them my story; they said, 'You have no front scene. Your entire life, everything that has ever been interesting, has been behind the scenes.'"
How utterly untrue. In reality, it would be tough to find better fodder for VH-1's rise-fall-return storyline than Roth. Born the suburban son of a Jewish doctor, Roth was already in treatment for "superactivity" at age six. Barely out of his teens, the aspiring singer transformed himself into a cartoon character for the rock of ages, morphing into a world-class star before being dumped by his Van Halen bandmates. The ensuing years have been filled with outlandish videos, dubious songwriting, monster trucks, high-profile drug busts, lounge shows in Vegas, soured movie deals, press feuds, near-miss reunions and every other imaginable rock cliché. Because it's unlikely that either Roth or his successor, Sammy Hagar, will ever be asked to re-enter Van Halen, the two have joined forces for a summer tour that offers a middle-finger salute to their former employer. Given the numerous potshots Roth and Hagar have taken at each other over the years ("Sam is not my peer, and he's a mediocre talent at best," Roth said in 1997), few could imagine such an out-of-left-field pairing.
"There's a certain uneasiness," Roth admits. "There's a lot of great subtext, like all the great movies. Holy mackerel! Two warring nations like Roth and Hagar finally make some kind of peaceful amend? What's next, Palestine? There's been a river of bad blood and fire between us for years. So in that sense, it's perhaps a bit like a NASCAR racer. Are you here to see the winner, or are you here to cut to the crash? But when you do cut to the crash, anytime you read about these supposed brawls and mixups in rock and roll, at worst it's a lot of open-hand slapping and jeers followed by elaborate apologies, a reunion tour and a mediocre commemorative live album."
Roth might as well be talking about Van Halen, whose once-bold histrionics have diminished with each new lineup. Not that Roth's own music has fared much better. His first post-Van Halen project, Eat 'Em and Smile, found him fronting a crack unit that featured bass god Billy Sheehan and fretboard-tapping wunderkind Steve Vai. That outfit long since disbanded, Roth has struggled to find an identity that fuses unchained rock with unbridled showmanship. Which is a big part of the problem: Roth's Hanna-Barbara aura and nonsensical lyrics are decidedly at odds with the angsty puddlegum that passes for modern metal.
"Complaining is an art form, and it's certainly intrinsic to rock and roll," Roth explains. "Most of my favorite singers were complainers. I don't care if it was the guy in the Doors or Janis Joplin. The blues is complaining; country/western wouldn't exist without complaining. Trent Reznor is a world-class complainer. Bono? Own the T-shirt. Say it loud, I'm pissed and I'm proud! I do hear you, my man. OK, great. That's a look! If that is you, that is you. But things run in trends. I'm sure if you wander into Juilliard during any given epoch, one day, certifiably, Tchaikovsky sucks and it's all about Varez and freeform and Phil Glass and abstractionism. Let the generation flip over six and a half summers later -- Tchaikovsky, we realize now, was always the way. Each succeeding generation thinks we hold the mortgage on popular culture."
Roth's latest contribution to popular culture is something he calls Diamond Dave's No Holds Barbecue, a video that purports to go deep into the animated life of its central character, complete with midgets, strippers and assorted sideshow characters. But there's more to Roth than fun and games. Counterbalancing the camcorded revelry was a recent round of acoustic shows, a warmup for the Roth/Hagar shredfest. Initially, Roth was skeptical about stepping unplugged into the arena, but he delighted in adding his own puckish stamp to the folksy setting.
"Up until recently, unplugged meant postcoital to me," he says with a laugh. "The only time I'd allow the term unplugged is when it had to do with life support. And then we kind of got after it, as they say in Indiana. Usually, you're not familiar with this kind of a confrontational approach with an acoustic guitar. When you see three stools and a microphone, it's time to go get a beer. Two of the worst words in the English lexicon are acoustic set. The only ones worse than that are band meeting."
His sensitive side nurtured, Roth is now ready to let the paint-peeling begin.
"You know the expression: 'We want to go onstage and have a good time, we want the audience to have a great time, and we just want to have ourselves some fun.' What is that, for sissies? What is this, a Dr Pepper ad? I intend to prove the shit out of something! I have no idea what, and it doesn't matter. I'm like James Brown. I'm gonna fuckin' prove it! I am a black man trapped in a California body. I'm laughing, but we laugh to win. This is the Mojo Dojo, yo-yo."
Huh? When Roth goes into one of his patented stream-of-unconscious tangents, it's hard to know if it's really him talking or the layers of accumulated personas. One wonders whether the shy kid from Indiana even exists anymore, or if his onstage character has consumed every trace of his former self. Not so, according to Roth, who can rattle off a laundry list of similar misperceptions.
"I know that everybody has at least three," he smiles. "And I don't think we have enough space on this page to get right after it like the men we is. Or the intellectuals we is.... The most common misperception is that there's one dimension here. And everybody thinks they've got ahold of the single dimension. I think there's a lot going on here. Ah, people know that, it's not a misconception. Strike that! I don't think there are any misconceptions -- [the] result of twenty summers of carefully self-generated bad publicity."
Roth's winking self-deprecation hints at hidden depths, as if he knows full well that it's all just a put-on. Perhaps his shtick offers a defense mechanism, a buffer against the trials and tribulations of an industry that has shown him little mercy in recent years.
"[This is] a sport where the requisite career is three and a half summers long," Roth muses. "Look out, Beyonce! It's them last three-tenths of a second where that shit is won or lost, baby! If you survive the seven-year itch, chances are you've accomplished what it is you set out to achieve, in the eyes or the Speedos of others. Well, like Shackleton said, once you've said, 'This is it! We're here.' OK, cool; have a smoke, have a drink. Hey, take my picture! I'll take yours. Hold the flag, higher, there you go. OK, I'm freezing. Let's make like a leaf and lettuce get the fuck outta here!" Roth laughs and goes on.
"And from there on, you find other reasons to be out on the polar ice cap or the Great Treasure Mountain or out on the briny green, or wherever it is you chose to draw your square and perform in. Follow?" Roth says. "We all start off, to some degree, trying to find ourselves in the applause of others. It's a natural thing, starts off with mommy and daddy. Or maybe mommy and daddy didn't give you enough applause. That's a whole 'nother interview!"
Amazingly, Roth doesn't seem embittered by his many music-biz battles, enjoying wealth and health at age 46. The same can't be said for Eddie Van Halen, whose recently ended battle with tongue cancer has been as well-documented as his longstanding feud with Roth. Asked to comment, Roth takes the high ground, stepping out of character for the first time.
"I just want to say that I hope everything is fine medically and spiritually up there at 5150. And I'm hesitating now, because usually I like to mix it up and antagonize, but I'm not a bully," Roth says. "I don't want to antagonize anybody who's smaller than me! It's no good unless I can potentially take a shot!" He laughs again. "I understand that they're not doing too well medically and not doing too well spiritually up there, so I'm gonna leave 'em alone and wish 'em the best and go."