“You’re the very first to hear this. You’re gonna hit send and go viral. Are you ready for it?”
One of rock’s greatest frontmen in his heyday, David Lee Roth is still the consummate showman, even in interviews. He didn’t allow any time for an opening question before launching into that highly anticipatory spiel to start our chat last month.
Was he going to announce the long-awaited Van Halen reunion tour? Was he going to put to bed rumors about his bandmate Eddie Van Halen? Was it finally time for him to admit to the legend of the brown M&M’s?
Turns out, all the 65-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had for us was the name of his first real tour in eight years, a pairing with Kiss that brings him to Xcel Energy Center on Monday.
“I’m calling it ‘The Last Tour,’ ” he said with a grin you could hear through the phone from Florida, “and then underneath it in parentheses: ‘Unless It Isn’t.’ ”
Gimme a break, Dave.
That opening monologue, however, was the first of many conversational leaps that led to a more serious discussion with the man who brought lyrical innuendo and flying leg kicks to new heights with Van Halen from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s.
Our interview fell a few days after Roth kicked off a residency at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, and response to the opening gig was decidedly mixed. His new band is anchored by guitarist Al Estrada, from the Van Halen tribute band Eruption, with some Los Angeles area session musicians.
Many fans loved the heavily Van Halen-ized Vegas set list (“Unchained,” “Mean Street” and “Everybody Wants Some” in addition to the must-plays “Panama” and “Jump”), but unflattering clips of ol’ Diamond Dave sounding less than golden on vocals went viral. He also caught flak for forgetting the words to his MTV-era solo cover of “California Girls.”
Considering the members of Kiss have already announced this as their farewell tour, is Roth also thinking of packing it in soon?
“At my age, everything is a possible farewell tour,” he deadpanned, then shrugged off the critiques with a rather lovable rant:
“I’ve never had any delusions about my voice. It sounds like four miles of flat road with knobby tires. Mom used to say that; in fact she said it last week.
“However, some people’s definition of perfect vocals might be pristine and pretty like Adam Lambert. My definition of absolutely the best vocal in the last 20 years is [sung off-key like Biz Markie]: “Girl, you got what I need! And you say he’s just a friend … ”
Roping his tourmates Kiss into the age discussion — and perhaps alluding to Eddie Van Halen’s health issues — Roth said he’s happy to be able to tour at all. He also brought up a pediatric surgeon he worked for before his rock career took off, calling the veteran doctor a “40,000-hour man.”
“I’m a 40,000-hour man now, and I’m guessing the fellas in Kiss are 50,000-hour men now,” he said.
“With all those hours [of work experience] comes confidence, but also a good, healthy fear of what reality can really bring for you, consequently an intense appreciation of being able to do what we do for a living. I know a lot of people who hate what they do for a living.”
Roth was last seen in town plying his trade at Xcel Center in 2012 on his second of two Van Halen reunion tours without original bassist Michael Anthony. Rumors of another outing persisted until last summer, but the singer made it clear — as clear as he gets, anyway — that the band is likely finished.
“We waited five years, and now it’s time [for me] to shine.”
Asked directly about Eddie — who has battled cancer off and on since the early 2000s and has been largely out of the public eye in recent years — Roth simply said of the guitar hero, “You know what I know.”
“Ed, God bless him, may have a fair amount of time ahead of him,” Roth said, “but going out on the road is an unforgiving task. It kills people.”
And with that came a surprisingly unvarnished, sentimental nod to his old bandmates and their days as struggling rock-stars-in-waiting:
“It’s been a long great trip, a long great run. But this kind of music requires the kind of energy that people in their 20s bring. You know what NFL stands for: Not For Long. It’s similar in rock.
“I remember the days when we would stand around and say, ‘Let’s go have a cigarette.’ And that’s what we did: Four guys having one cigarette. I remember those days. They go by fast, so enjoy them while you’re in them.”
Here’s more of what Roth had to say in our interview. Follow along if you can; it’s usually worth it.
On tourmate Gene Simmons producing early Van Halen demos in the mid-1970s: “Van Halen was like a sea anemone. It’s born looking exactly the same way it does as it passes into the hereafter. If you listen to tracks from our club days in 1973, Van Halen, once I joined the band, sounded exactly like we did the first day together at Ed’s mom’s house as we did on the first record as we did on ‘Jump.’
“It took us 5½ years before Warner Bros. finally showed up. About two years before that, Gene came to the Starwood and said: ‘Let’s try to do some demos.’ We flew to Electric Ladyland and made some tapes, but nothing really came out of them. So that was that.”
Why he’s proud to become a Las Vegas act: “All things lead back to Vegas. ... I’m a great spirit for Vegas because I’m universal. If you have a genuine familiarity with the way Garth Brooks tells a story, if you know who I mean when I say Armin Van Buuren, if you can fully sing along to more than two [Lady] Gaga songs, if I ask you to name all three period of Aerosmith, and sing me three songs from the first and arguably best period, then you’re eligible to become one of the patron saints of Las Vegas.
“It’s a distinction. It’s the kind of diversity that the millennials speak of. I have that distinction. My songs and my musicians that I play with are on 12 different stations of XM Satellite, at least before they start talking about me.”
Why the Twin Cities is one of his favorite tour stops: “I’ve been all over Minneapolis and St. Paul on my bicycle for 40 years. First time we piled into a van with Van Halen, I put a 10-speed in there. Now, I got me a 17-speed bike, and it’s great. I’ve been all up and down the river and all around the great outdoors around there on my cycle, including in the winter, or in the rain. I’m an all-season rider. I love heavy weather, and you certainly have that there.”
On his original breakup with Van Halen in 1985: “That’s passe. I’m past that. It’s like antique battles ringing off my ears. Van Halen reformed since then, and we had ourselves a glorious time, and I wish Ed the best now. As far as old feuds, is Trump still fighting with Rosie [O’Donnell]? That was a colorful one. I dug that one.”
What he considers his lasting legacy: “There was a 20-year phase where one in five males went dressed as me on Halloween. All their girlfriends went dressed as Stevie Nicks. It’s a songbook that’s more famous and more memorized than ‘My Country Tis the Purple Mountains.’ ”