Well, this is an odd one.
As you may have noticed if you have looked at the menu on the right, one of our forthcoming Reverb books is titled, Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll. That’s my book, as it happens. Now, it is not my intention to use this blog to go on about my own book at the expense of all other possible matters of interest in the world of music. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this story just seemed too bizarre to let slip.
And, you know, the whole point of a blog is to try and exist with the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday. That’s why we’re here.
So, here below is the elusive – near invisible and unusually silent – David Lee Roth, ‘Rabelasian man of antics and adventure’ (according to this guy), sometime lead singer of Van Halen (between 1973 and 1985, and intermittently since). That’s him with the goatee beard, in disguise no doubt, wearing a San Francisco Caledonian Club t-shirt, standing next to the fellow who just happened to bump into him … at the annual Scottish Highland Games in Pleasanton, California, last weekend.
Well, David Lee Roth is not Scottish, of course, so what’s this all about? He’s Russian-Jewish American, you say (or whatever way around that goes). Well, actually, he could be considered an honorary Scot … of sorts – seeing as he was a known player of the bagpipes (yes, it is true). This wasn’t just a matter of the pipes being good for ‘noising up’ degenerate Hollywood neighbours after running out of other interesting things to do of an evening. It seems that he did, at the time (around the early 1980s), feel some affinity for the instrument – which, in light of what is to be revealed below, were significantly often made of sheepskin.
But, that aside – and moving from the particular to the general – there is quite a long-standing Scottish influence in California, and particularly around the Pasadena area that Van Halen sprung from in the early 1970s. So, in that sense, it is no surprise that these Highland games were taking place – there are similar events in several locations in California every year – nor that any random Californian might be there just to while away the hours on a late summer weekend – y’know, hanging around, drinking fine malt whisky, or something like that.
But no, the weird thing is that Diamond Dave was actually in competition at this event. But not tossing the caber. Not playing the bagpipes. So what, then?
Well, he was always a man of many parts – and sometimes singing just seemed like one of the add-on bits. And that’s not forgetting that many say he couldn’t even do that very well. As the NME said back in 1984: ‘when not wrestling sharks, romancing women, and scattering wisdom, Dave likes to show off. Usually, Dave shows off with Van Halen …’ So just what was he up to at these Highland games? Singing tunes? Not with Van Halen. Er, country dancing? Doing that tippy-toe, lets reel around the swords on the floor thing?
Nah – that would be too unmanly (even though I am sure Dave is in touch with his feminine side).
He was, of course, in the sheepdog trials, where – as it says on the Games’ website – ‘highly trained Border Collies’ are ‘put through their paces herding sheep and other farm animals in the Amador Pavilion.’ Yeah, leave the caber-tossing to the men in skirts. As our witness, Doug, looked on he was amazed – ‘Wow, this guy knows his sheepdog stuff’, he reports.
Well, for those of you of a certain age who are reading this in the UK, the words ‘sheepdog trials’ will immediately engage involuntary memories of the old ‘One Man and His Dog’ routine, which ruled the broadcast waves in the days of 3 TV channels and boring wet Tuesdays, and still seems to be going. Now – think of that, and visualise David Lee Roth …
Yup. Man, animal, nature – what could be more David Lee Roth than that, I ask you. Is he not PAN, anyway – the mythical satyr-shepherd with goat-like features?! Ah, so that’s the purpose of the goatee beard . . . Okay, call me crazy, but I do believe that Roth had some input into this outline of an unused record cover design (below) that, in retrospect, seems quite revealing:
And, let’s not forget, Van Halen’s 1982-3 tour went under the banner HIDE YOUR SHEEP (see pic below).
As the sole baffled witness to Roth’s shepherding (unable to believe that no-one else figured out who this ‘Dave Roth’ skilfully herding sheep was), Doug Lyle was initially alerted by the unmistakeable sound of Roth’s voice. If you are familiar with it you will know that it has always been sort of down there in the heel of the boots – LOW, you know? Before long he decided he had to confirm that this ‘Dave Roth’ was, in fact, David Lee Roth, who by then was being told that it was time to ‘call his dog’. As Doug says in his rendering of events that day:
I wanted to respect his [Roth’s] privacy so I only talked to him for a short while. There were so many things I could have said and asked. What was his personal favorite song? How did he get in to Sheepdog herding? Later … as we drove home I could not think of anything but what had just happened … My wife tried talking to me in the car but I had to tell her that I just couldn’t focus on anything else as I was still in a blur from what had just happened.
That was also the kind of feeling some people had when they discovered that Roth – who in his heydey was one of the most famous faces in America – was (around 2005) working as a paramedic in New York, hauling tanks of oxygen up several flights, to come to their aid. So, although the whole sheepdog thing seems odd, then again, it seems very Dave Roth.
When he was at the height of his fame with Van Halen he was always doing things that seemed quite un-rock’n’roll – expeditions in the Amazon (see pic below) and the Himalayas. Ballet and bagpipe lessons, and so on.
Seeing as I have quite recently been in the archives, so to speak, I will leave you with this, from a 1984 interview:
What did the guys in the band think of your ballet lessons?
I’m always taking lessons. I’ve taken millions of kinds of lessons. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was 14. I took singing lessons for a couple of years. It obviously didn’t help me sing any better, but I didn’t lose what I had. This year I took Portugese three times a week. I finished 27 hours of helicopter ground school.
It’s just something new. Fill up the bucket, y’know.
Roth is apparently making an album with the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex. They toured together as Van Halen back in 2007-08, for the first time since 1984, and – as the pic below shows – were still making it look like it sounded. This was all despite the fact that they were by this time in their mid-fifties. Eddie Van Halen had by then survived cancer (and claimed to have found the cure for his own cancer in a research lab he set up and staffed out of his own pocket). Some years earlier he had undergone relacement surgery on a hip that had been worn out as a result of his onstage acrobatics.
Most curious of all, though, was that Eddie – and not David Lee Roth (shock!) – ended up seemingly flirting with the porn industry, scoring music for some movie that was shot on his property in the Hollywood Hills.
But, contrarian to the end, he maintained that this was ‘art’, not porn. As he said to infamous shock-jock, Howard Stern: ‘You may call it porn, but I call it sex. And if it wasn’t for sex there wouldn’t all these dweebs even asking me about it.’
Way to go, Ed. But, who would’ve thought it, really – Ed Van Halen in porn movies and Dave Roth herding sheep … seems the wrong way around, somehow.
The last album to appear under the the Van Halen name was 1998’s disastrous VHIII, on which Eddie even ended up singing – like a confused Tom Waits, in fact – on one gravelly-voiced piano tune. Their last album with Roth was 1984 (recorded summer ’83). It was their best-selling album, but also – due to the circumstances of its making and aftermath – the album that would kill them off.
The last music that was heard from Roth was in 2007, with Jeff Falkowski. He sang a Portuguese tune – in Portuguese, naturally – titled ‘Take Sarava’.