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To fans, he's the ultimate showman loud, funny, flamboyant and in-your-face in both his singing and his desire for your girlfriend. To the hatas, he's an annoying misogynist well past his sell-by date. Either way, David Lee Roth is co-headlining one of this summer's more interesting tours with Sammy Hagar, his replacement as Van Halen's lead singer. Roth and Hagar will alternate 90-minute sets, with Roth sticking pretty much to the Van Halen catalog while Hagar does material dating from his days with the band Montrose to the present.
So what inspired the two, who have traded potshots in the press for almost 20 years, to get all "kumbaya" for the tour dubbed by some wags as "Sans Halen"?
"Actually, Bono called me and said we had to do this for world peace," Roth quipped at the tour's kickoff press conference. True to form, the king of cock rock was accompanied by a set of Playboy triplets in yellow cat outfits and a shock-wigged dwarf.
Dave on fashion: "Nobody wants to dress like me. What I wear on stage, I wear through the airports of America, and people sizzle like wieners on a barbecue! And girls, you can tell what religion I am from 300 meters away!"
Calling from the "Disco Submarine," as he has christened his tour bus, on the eve of the first tour date, Roth is a manic interview subject. He sometimes answers questions in stream-of-consciousness bursts that make Robin Williams's talk-show appearances seem as lucid as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
"I practice self-promotion as an art form along with ridicule and sarcasm!" Roth blurts out between raspy laughs. "I'm more like Mark Twain wandering! The innocent abroad! This is what I try to reiterate in my lyrics and videos there's a sarcastic exuberance about all the classic Van Halen stuff that I think summarizes rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is not lament! Lament is folkmusic!"
From its formation in 1974, Van Halen was America's closest answer to Led Zeppelin. Tracks like "Runnin' With the Devil," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "Dance the Night Away," "Jamie's Cryin,'" and covers of Kinks, Roy Orbison, and even Martha and the Vandellas songs blasted from every suburban-basement bong party and high school parking lot.
But while Eddie Van Halen's revolutionary fret-hammering style, his brother Alex's hard-pounding drums and Michael Anthony's nimble bass shaped the band's musical side, it was often Roth's front-man antics that drove the band. With his hairy bare chest, tight rainbow spandex pants and high-flying karate kicks, Roth injected a bawdiness and campy humor best exemplified on the record 1984.
Taking a decidedly more fun approach to the year than George Orwell had, the record spawned numerous hits, including "Jump," "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher." It was a pop-metal classic, its endlessly repeating videos on MTV bringing the band to its commercial pinnacle.
Playing out a familiar scenario, Roth split the next year for a solo career, which at first seemed promising with the hit albums Crazy from the Heat and Eat 'Em and Smile. With Hagar,Van Halen continued to find success, but changing tastes and some lackluster records grounded Roth's career. Soon he was playing showrooms in Vegas.
After Hagar's bitter departure in 1996, Roth seemed primed to rejoin the boys, especially after he recorded two new songs with them for the ambitiously titled Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1. But at a much-ballyhooed appearance together at the MTV Awards, Diamond Dave being himself ad-libbed and took over, much to the obvious anger and embarrassment of Eddie Van Halen. After that, the split was for keeps with a none-too-convincing Van Halen claiming that the reunion was "never meant to be permanent." The brothers then recruited ex-Extreme warbler Gary Cherone as their new front man, but his tenure lasted for just one tour and one record, a commercial and critical bomb.
Dave on making the cover (in a thong, no less) of Spin's "100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock" issue, and on female companionship in 2002: "Who would you rather be, Hugh Hefner or Bill Gates? Who will history venerate more? It's all lies and rumors, designed to destroy my good name, Bob! Heh-heh. That's not an objection, your honor! In this information age, I get e-mails from [women] with pictures of the city, seat numbers and things like 'Dear Dave, I'll be in aisle 352 wearing such and such . . .' Now you can e-mail me from your seat, and I can e-mail you back! Heh-heh. Diamond Dave goes digital!"
But as the tour passes through certain cities, Roth may need to be wary of groupies concealing subpoenas in their thongs. In March he was on the receiving end of a suit filed by Houston concert promoter Louis Gavrel, who claims he is owed $51,200 in unpaid fees for Roth shows that he either booked or subcontracted to International Creative Management (also named in the suit), as well as $17,081 in attorney costs.
After an uncharacteristic silence, Roth mounts a defense. "Aahh . . . you know, I guess it's kind of a barometer [of] where you are. You can be judged by how many people are chasing you, and lots of people are chasing us for lots of reasons. This is as common as Jackie Chan spraining his ankle."