We have an especially good interview with David Lee Roth, released today!
David likens his relationship with Edward Van Halen and Alex Van Halen to Nitroglycerin. He’s the Nitro, they’re the glycerin. Put them together and the results are always explosive.
Roth was a recent guest on the “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast and took Maron on a roller-coaster-like stream of consciousness ride through his childhood days, learning discipline through orchestral music, and working as an EMT. He also opened up extensively about Van Halen and his decades-long turbulent relationship with the Van Halen brothers that continues to this day.
“There’s gotta be the interaction, the combustibility,” Roth told Maron. “No Eddie, no Dave. No Dave, no Eddie. There’s gotta be sparks!”
Maron later asked Roth about the time he met the Van Halen brothers in Pasadena, California in the early to mid 70s. At the time the two sides were in competing bands before teaming up to eventually form Van Halen.
“We were cross-town adversaries and we hated each other with a vengeance,” said Roth. “My material was simpler like ‘Johnny B Goode’ or simpler Stones songs but really colorful, lots of interaction with the audience…The Van Halens had craft. Man, did they have artisanal super small batch scotch craft. You take a sip of that you go, ‘Woah somebody but a thousand hours into that one shot…Together was combustable but if you go ask Nitro, ‘Wadda ya really think of glycerin?’ ‘Little bland…transparent’ [laughs]. Put ‘em together? BOOM!”
Maron than followed by asking Roth “So you guys always were at each other’s throats?”
“All the way up to the last phone call, [laughs]” Roth quickly responded.
“Can you sit down with the fellas and have dinner and stuff?” Maron asked.
“Nope. Nope. Not even close,” Roth replied. “This is not a golf club. This is a little closer to The Wild Bunch, right? There is a fury and an antagonism and what comes out of that, when it’s good, oh man, that’s retina-bursting. That’ll change your fucking haircut.”
While Roth admits the brothers can be combative and, at times, difficult, he offered an empathic explanation as to why.
“Full disclosure is [that] the Van Halen’s mother (Eugenia) was Indonesian, their father (Jan) was Dutch. That’s miscegenation in the 1950s in the United States,” said Roth. “That’s the equivalent of a black man marrying a white sorority girl in Tennessee or Rutherford, Mississippi in 1958…It was a BIG…DEAL and those homeboys grew up in a horrifying racist environment to where they actually had to leave the count. Then they came to America and did not speak English as a first language in the early ’60s. WOW! So that kind of sparking, that kinda stuff runs deep.”
While Dave has always had friction with Edward and Alex, he always got along with their late father Jan who was a Dutch clarinetist and saxophonist who played in jazz bands, swing bands and orchestras in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s, before eventually moving his family to Pasadena from the Netherlands.
“I knew Jan Van Halen very, very well and I got along with him better than I did the brothers. Ever. Always,” said Roth. “We would sit up very late at night and he would tell me what it was like to play in the bands during World War II. Mrs. Van Halen grew up very rural in Indonesia like, literally barefoot by the streams, but man she was literate. She read her body weight in books per year and she was the tough face. Oooooh she was the face just like my mom.”
Roth talked about his own childhood challenges growing up in Indiana (Bloomington), Massachusetts (Swampscott) and Altadena, California as the son of an aspiring eye surgeon (Nathan) and art teacher (Sibyl) who instilled in Dave a strict work ethic.
“My mom was the disciplinarian,” said Roth. “Bad Dave came from Sybil Roth not Nate. Nate was a healer, he came to help you. My mom wouldn’t even turn. I’d show up with a painting and go, ‘Waddaya think? Ready for the fridge?’ She wouldn’t even turn and go, ‘Did you clean up the brushes?'[laughs].”
Eventually Dave’s journey would take him to New York for regular visits with his uncle Manny Roth who owned the New York club Café Wha? in the early 60s. It was there that a nine-year old Dave would sit in the back of the club watching artists perform. Among them was Robert Zimmerman who would eventually become Bob Dylan after Manny suggested he change his last name. Along the way Dave also gained valuable knowledge watching the wide variation of other artists who performed at the club.
“It’s an environment that was, quote, Bohemian,” said Roth. “It came on the heels of a really extreme formatted music. The other side of this is that my mentors, the people who really exemplified who were the bosses in terms of managed, real music. Reading, writing, transposing. If you wanna go into showbiz? That’s what you’re gonna learn to do.”
The mentors Roth was referring to were members of the LA Philharmonic who taught him to play the saxophone and the clarinet while also learning to read, write, transpose and play solos.
“[My mentors were] Peter and Pearl Zukovsky [who passed away not long ago],” said Roth. “[They were] first and second chair clarinet at the LA Philharmonic. It’s a form of training that I have that a lot of folks don’t get. First off, today if your six year old wins a race or does well at little league or ballet you nod up and down like, ‘That was great. That was amazing!’ If they don’t do well at something you’d shake your head and go, ‘No you didn’t do good.’ You might do that. I grew up with the opposite. If you do AMAZING my instructors would shake their head going, ‘No I don’t believe it. It’s gotta be a mistake.’ If you face planted they’d smile and say, “Did I not fucking tell you? Did I NOT FUCKING TELL YOU?! [laughs].”
The interviewer has this to say about DLR; “You only need to hear David Lee Roth talk for a few seconds to understand why he is the consummate rock and roll frontman.”
The entire interview can be heard below. (Also on Apple podcasts, here).
To hear more episodes of “WTF with Marc Maron” go here.