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When David Lee Roth talks, it's 'A Different Kind of Truth'

The Van Halen frontman discusses the band's new tour, new album (his first with the group in 28 years), Eddie Van Halen and almost everything else.

January 29, 2012|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

"Are there second chances? I don't know, Mr. Faulkner, I'm tending to agree with you: No. We've managed to stretch our adolescence like a Chiclet to the moon and maintained the respectful dignities along the way that got us on that turnpike up in the first place. We love what we do for a living. Even in our wildest, most beer-soaked days we never missed rehearsal."

In their youth, Roth and the Van Halens were clearly bonded by their love of hard rock, but Roth says they were also connected by the "immigrant energy" of their families, who were "desperate people seeking desperate fortune — with a smile."

Roth was born in Bloomington, Ind., as the son, grandson and nephew of Jewish doctors, but the north-star figure in his youth turned out to be Manny Roth, the uncle who owned the Café Wha? in New York.

It's one of the more illustrious dives in Greenwich Village — Bob Dylan played there, so did the Velvet Underground and Lenny Bruce — and despite the peeling paint and low ceilings it was a palace of possibility for young Roth. "I was 7 years old when I decided very specifically what I was going to be, and it was there in that room," he said.

On Jan. 5, Roth was back in the club; the "secret show" by Van Halen was meant to stir press, rock radio and fan interest, and it did all of the above. The New York Times covered it enthusiastically, with Jon Pareles writing that Van Halen is "still one of the most limber bands in hard rock, with a higher center of gravity than most." Even better, there was old Manny Roth, now 92, beaming at his nephew from the audience.

During the show the band played a vamping, boogie-propelled song called "She's the Woman" that will be on the new album. The song has considerable history; a version of it was on the demo record (produced by Gene Simmons of KISS) that landed Van Halen a deal with Warner Bros. in the 1970s.

Throughout the album, the band has gone back and excavated pieces of unrecorded songs, lyrics from old notebooks and half-pursued concepts to build the 13-track collection.

"It's material that Eddie and I generated, literally, in 1975, 1976 and 1977," Roth said. "Usually fellas in our weight division will kind of gamely — or ironically, wink, wink — try to hail back to it [but] keep a safe, mature distance from it."

Instead, Roth said, he and the band have tried to do a sort of collaboration with their past. They can't be the same people — too much has changed — but Roth said there's interesting experimentation in the era-spanning synthesis of self.

The process started with Eddie Van Halen and producer John Shanks (Bon Jovi, Keith Urban) sifting through archival material, looking for the nuggets that could be mined.

"Some of it was recorded in Dave's basement when these guys were kids, and, sitting there next to Eddie, it was pretty cool just to go through that journey," Shanks said last week by phone from New York. "And then when the sessions started just seeing how Eddie and Alex play together — there's such a synchronicity in their feel and rhythm and their playing. There were times, honestly, I was just moved by it, not just as a musician but as a human being. The nuances of the way they communicate is staggering."

The fan reaction to the album's first single, "Tattoo," has been mixed, but Roth and company know that the tour (which includes shows in Los Angeles (June 1) and Anaheim (June 12) will be the true proving ground for them.

Roth, who has short hair now and a lean physique earned with decades of martial arts training, displayed a few of the dance moves he's been working on for the show. In his earth-tone overalls and cap he looked more like a Venice Beach mime than a rock star, but he still has a shark smile. What exactly drives him isn't easy to glean — does he have the same dark engines as Eddie Van Halen?

"You're asking for a lot of introspection here," Roth said. "Nobody well adjusted ever got my job, much less kept it this long. There's some grasping drive, and it precludes self-satisfaction.... You're always questioning."

As for his old friend and rival, Roth smiled and gave the world a bit of fair warning about the reclusive guitar hero. "There's an old Russian saying: 'There's no more lines in that guy's stomach.' It means somebody got fat and slow. There are still a lot of lines in Eddie's stomach."

Photos: Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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