Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth and his dog Russell at their Pasadena home. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
It's an old joke, but when David Lee Roth delivers the punch line it sounds more like a mission statement: "How many lead singers does it take to put in a lightbulb? One. You hold the bulb and wait for the world to revolve around you."
Missing from the joke is how the singer is left standing there in the dark waiting for his proper wattage.
On Feb. 7, Interscope Records will release "A Different Kind of Truth" and, as the world turns, it will represent the first Van Halen studio album featuring Roth as lead singer since "1984" — which was released 28 years ago this month, right before Ronald Reagan announced plans to run for a second term.
PHOTOS: Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth
Time flies — or does it drag? Earlier this month, on a crisp, sunny morning in Pasadena, Roth, now 57, welcomed a visitor to his 20-room, Italianate mansion to talk about Van Halen past, present and future.
Roth actually rejoined the band "five summers and a million years ago" for the 2007-08 reunion tour, but it's taken this long for the still-volatile collective to finish an album that satisfies all of their agendas. The amazing thing is that they finished at all; like the Beach Boys, Eagles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N' Roses and Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen is part of the Southern California history of world-class soap operas disguised as platinum-selling bands.
Van Halen's brawny brand of music has sold more than 80 million albums, but offstage the group has been a fragile alliance that has fallen apart again and again because of creative clashes, drug torpor, grudges and, more recently, health issues.
"We accused each other of betrayal and thievery and lies and treachery," said the upbeat and chatty Roth. "And it was all true. We were all guilty. Dig up the past, and it's going to get all over everybody. And, man, do we have a past…"
Photos: Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth
The history traces back to 1972, when the Van Halen brothers, guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex — a pair of classically trained teen musicians born in the Netherlands but raised in Pasadena — auditioned singers for a planned band. Roth didn't make much of an impression at his tryout, but the brothers wanted to use his sound system and letting him in the band was better than renting the gear.
Fame and fortune would follow, but again and again it was the brothers Van Halen deciding who should hold the microphone. They could do that because of the stature of Eddie Van Halen, who is revered by rock fans as a sort of mad-genius guitar god, the heir of Jimi Hendrix. He might also be viewed as the Elizabeth Taylor of rock considering the way he divorces lead singers, including Sammy Hagar — and, if so, Roth is forever his Richard Burton. Roth, meanwhile, passed time touring with an Eddie Van Halen soundalike and at one point did a double bill with his rival Hagar to pique attention.
The reunited frenemies are a source of fascination, and fans are eager to see them share a spotlight when the reconstituted band (with Eddie's son, 20-year-old Wolfgang Van Halen, who replaced longtime member Michael Anthony on bass) starts a 46-date arena tour in Louisville, Ky., on Feb. 18. The music industry, meanwhile, is watching the whole enterprise and wondering if the wheels will fly off; more than squabbles, the worry is also about the state of Eddie Van Halen, a rehab veteran who has also lost a third of his tongue to cancer and undergone hip replacement. There were postponed shows on the last tour (2007-08), which were explained only by vague promoter statements about medical procedures.
"He's doing really well," Roth said. "He's lucid, he's sober, he's playing. You know, I don't know if Ed has ever felt good. There's a thin line between rage and great work. He really never enjoyed his fame or success, and that might be part of what compels him."
(All Van Halen family members, through their representatives, declined to be interviewed for this story.) Despite all the squealing guitar thunder, Eddie Van Halen seems like a man surrounded by his own silence.
A holistic talker
Roth, meanwhile, hides behind the sound of his own voice; the man never stops talking, but most of it is a jibber-jabber jive, a Cartoon Network version of classic-rock kung fu and spitball metaphysics.
In a relentless two-hour synaptic strobe display, Roth cited the deep meanings he sees in Motown, matzo, state fairs, Roy Lichtenstein, Airedale terriers, reggaeton, Neil Young, clambakes, Brazilian jiu jitsu, Plato, Johnny Mercer and the unchanging nature of the sea anemone.
The most consistent message amid the barrage was the magical legacy of Van Halen and the urgent need to live up to it with the new album and tour.