31 Totally Uncensored Minutes With David Lee Roth, From His New Tattoo Skin-Care Line to the Secret of Van Halen, an interview in Vogue Magazine, full article here
David Lee Roth strolls into the Turret Penthouse of the Beekman hotel at dusk, nattily dressed in a slim three-piece suit of his own design in plaid wool flannel anchored by sturdy black boots. “Today, I’m 1920s Peaky Blinders,” he says, and within seconds, he’s very credibly quoting Schopenhauer and Mark Twain, telling me about his weekly visits to his mother, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, and seating himself at the head of a large table while an assistant pours him a Scotch on the rocks.
From 1978 to 1985, Roth was more often dressed in zebra-striped leotards, his long locks bleached and teased, as he fronted Van Halen, the era-defining band that sold more than 80 million records. Lately, though, he’s been fronting Ink The Original, the just-launched skin-care line specifically made to preserve, protect, and highlight tattoos and keep them from fading. How did he get from there to here? It’s a vastly circuitous and wildly entertaining story—but let’s let him tell it.
Who were your heroes when you were growing up?
For starters, they all wore suits to work. They didn’t have much to do with the frontman in Led Zeppelin, much as you might expect—they had more to do with Miles Davis, [Akira] Kurosawa, and P.T. Barnum. Let’s start there—that’s a power trio!
My mom was the critical vote in my family, always was—not Dad. All of the tough, the feisty, the scrappy, and the moxie comes from Mom. My day started with standing at attention and waiting for her to spin her finger—she wanted to see the back, and she’s gonna look down—you literally had to pull up your pant legs to show her your socks and your boots, and if they didn’t match your shit, she was liable to throw her grilled cheese sandwich at you.
This crucial element was an undercurrent to Van Halen. There’s a discipline to it and a seriousness that’s squired away a lot at times, but we came from a fiery, competitive background that has nothing to do with Woodstock or a hippie kind of element. And I love hippie, believe me. But we come from big-band cutting contests; Benny Goodman versus Chick Webb, tonight at Roseland: We’re going to play the same five songs—you white boys are going to play your arrangements of ’em, and then we’re going to kick your white ass right in front of your audience.
Early on, having gone to music school and learned everything from theory to orchestration—the Van Halens [brothers Eddie Van Halen, guitarist, and Alex Van Halen, drummer] did that as well—there was always an undercurrent of doing your homework, even if it was freestyle rock ’n’ roll that was a colorful combination of many communities. Think of “Jamie’s Cryin’ ” [he beatboxes the song’s opening descending drum riff]: I sold a Ricky Ricardo rhumba to the heavy metal nation!
Van Halen’s first record came out in 1978. In 2007, you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How do you consider Van Halen’s legacy?
Our music is timeless and can be played by Filipino bar bands at Hasidic weddings flawlessly. As soon as you hear [he singsongs the opening riff of “Dance the Night Away”], every female wrist grabs every male wrist and goes, “Get up—you’re dancing.” Our music transcends genre. The hard rock guys think we’re pussies for playing pop, and the pop stars say we’re too rough.
Were you born with a five-and-a-half octave voice, or is that something you achieved through relentless training?
I was taught early on from my singing coaches when I was 15 or 16, “Sing with the girls.” To me, that’s Chaka Khan, Aretha [Franklin]. They also taught me to practice foreign accents and to sing in other languages—this works with the 17 or 18 different muscles that affect your armature.
And what’s the through-line that takes you from fronting one of the biggest bands in the history of the world to launching a business in the tattoo-maintenance space?
Simple: The product that we’re dealing with now goes hand in hand with what I think is the true Esperanto: It’s a language—ink—that everybody shares, especially if you don’t speak the same language. With ink, we read each other’s signs and icons. In that way, it’s much like music. I started this project with three of us sitting around an upended plastic bucket for a table at my house in L.A. Now, there’s 34 of us and we have offices in New York as well as L.A. It’s taken three years and close to $7 million, and I’m involved in every single element of every part of it. Surprisingly, there’s almost no competition. And what we have built is absolutely specialized to our community. My business partner, Ami James, is the curator and one of the three owners of Tattoodo, which has more than 500,000 artists curated on their site. They get 2 billion views a month and have 20 million social media followers.
When did you start becoming interested in tattoos?
I got my first tattoo 40 years ago, a little seahorse on my ankle, at a place called Cliff Raven Studio on Sunset Boulevard in ’77, ’78. That was very outré then—the only people who got tattoos then were bikers, rock ’n’ rollers to a small degree; the gay community was into it. Eventually, though, I took a much more gentrified approach: I waited until I was 60 and got the whole Japanese tuxedo. It took me 300 hours of sitting over two years. But I planned it for the 30 years prior, and it’s my design: kabuki faces, the original showbiz, rendered Edo style—it looks like a woodblock print.
Here—I brought this for you. [Roth presents to me a gift of Japanese water-based dyestuff ink in an elegant glass bottle.] When you look at a tattoo, that’s a finished dream identified. But when you look at a bottle of ink, you think of all the possibilities. You think of all the things you can do with it. [Roth’s manager hands him a beautiful wooden box, which he opens up to reveal various incarnations of quills and nibs and fountain pens.]
Eddie Van Halen looks at me with the same non-understanding stare that a parrot has for a ringing telephone when I start talking about this, but I paint and draw routinely. Routinely. Most recently, I took lessons in Japan—I moved there to get the liberal arts education that I never had. After music school, we went on the road—ta-da!—and I never looked back, but now that I have the time and the wherewithal, I’m always taking lessons of various kinds. I mean, I always loved school; I always got along really well with my teachers. At any given time, I have at least one course of study that I’m involved in. Lately, it’s Go. I have a Go teacher.
You know, Go—the game [the Chinese strategy game that predates the Zhou dynasty]. I started that five, six years ago, and I’ve had three different instructors—professors. Oh, and it’s called Go training—it’s not lessons.
Are you some kind of grandmaster?
No. I’m just working toward my first thousand hours. That’s a lifetime thing. But when I moved to Japan, I rode my bicycle through the snow to lessons two and three nights a week with a sensei to practice sumi-e and shodo painting with ink. I spent the better part of two years with four shades of gray and two shades of black. I thrilled to it. But let me tell you what I got for the first six months [a long silence fills the room as Roth stands up and paces and stalks around the perimeter of the table]: “No.” After about six months of that [ibid]: “Better.” Not long after that—I was the only one in the room—he sat down, didn’t even look at the painting, and said, “Dave-san, I think you are my best student.” And I said, “Am I best painting?” And he said, “No. You are most serious. You enjoy the most. You really mean it the most. I wish to invite you to director’s meeting.” And I was thinking, Whoa—some national society of whatever the fuck? And he pulls out a bottle and two glasses and says, “Welcome to director’s meeting.” And we got drunk.
I’m not sure if everybody knows that you were also a licensed EMT in New York City a dozen or so years ago.
My badge number was 327466. So, yeah: You’re better off if I’m in the room. It’s part of my family: Be of value; have a job. If trouble strikes, what good are you? Things like this kind of inform and give the day shape. At family reunions in the Roth family, we usually go around in a circle, and everybody picks a word. My word is always the same: Contribution. What can you bring to the greater good?
And that all goes into what we’ve created with Laugh to Win—that's what I named my new company; it works for everybody. It’s about go anywhere. It’s about communication. My idea for a line of outdoor gear started eight or nine years ago, and at the moment, we’re working on some 60 products. I’m not going after just the tattoo world—we’re going after Procter & Gamble. I took most of what I made off the last couple of Van Halen tours—I didn’t actually touch the check, [and] I just watched it walk by—and that’s how I financed this.
But why focus on outdoor gear—why not just market hot sauce or something?
As soon as I made Van Halen money, in the late ’70s, I couldn’t wait to get to the great outdoors. Even before that—I remember watching John Bald, whose name is famous in Joshua Tree for doing the first rock climbs in the early ’70s. We’d never seen anything like this, and we headed up to Yosemite and out to Joshua Tree to climb. I slept in the back of a friend’s Chevy pickup truck with my girlfriend for six and a half weeks. When Van Halen would come off the road in the last airport, I’d head straight for the international terminal and somewhere that you could barely spell, or some place that seemed like a typo. And having experienced a lot of stuff that doesn’t work over the years, I decided that someday I was going to invent this stuff myself.
I’ve also made every mistake possible: I’ve gone out with the wrong gear. I landed myself in the infirmary in the Amazon; I thought I killed myself in the Himalayas. I thought I killed everybody else but not myself in the South Pacific. I walked around for almost two years without my back molar and the one next to it because I cracked them in half when I had dengue fever. I’ve broken everything twice, just to make sure, and I’ve had seven surgeries, all of them structural. The first three times you go, there’s a whole pit crew in there: four generations including your grandparents, your mom, the wife, the kids, the boyfriend of the daughter, and everybody else. Fourth time you go in, you get dropped off. I was there for my seventh and there’s a little kid in there with cancer with no hair—and he’s the only one who’s not weeping. And I said to him, “How many for you?” And he says, “Three.” And I went [erupts into mock snickering] and held up seven fingers. I could see him doing the math. And I said, “C’mon—I’ll walk in with you.” I’ve learned that the only resort against adversity is your friends, and nobody does anything good alone—well, maybe Prince. Laugh to Win.
Do you have a country count?
I had 46 stamps in my passport before somebody stole it—places like Rangiroa in the Tuamotus and the outlands of Nepal. But it has nothing to do with athletics. I’m just a rock star who likes getting outdoors. The Arc de Triomphe? Can’t spell it, but let’s go. Kayaking—whoa! This looks like a blast!
The other day I asked my manager to call up the Manhattan Kayak Company to ask about maybe doing a photo shoot there. [To his manager:] What did they say to you? [The manager responds: “They attribute the club’s beginning to Mr. Roth. But for him, they wouldn’t exist.”]
Here’s the story: I came here in 1990. One of many times—I broke up with my girlfriend, Stacy from Dallas. That’s this line on my forehead [pointing]. All the lines in my forehead are named after girlfriends. [Roth, shall we say, laughs to win.] Moved to New York, didn’t know anybody, and got a place on Second and 17th. Came down to Union Square West and walked into [the recently shuttered bar/restaurant opened by a trio of Wilhelmina models] Coffee Shop, and right next door was the Klepper kayak place. And I walked into the store and asked Eric Stiller, the son of the owner, “Where do you go kayaking?” And he goes, “Well, we usually take ’em up to Bumfuck and turn left at Sticks.” (I’m paraphrasing.) And I said to Eric, “Can we go in the Hudson River?” He goes, “I don’t know how we’d get in there.” And I said, “I know.” And we would put our kayak—a big double Klepper that we would build right in front of Coffee Shop so all the models could watch us—and put trolley wheels on the back, pick the nose up, and drag it all the way down 14th Street to the West Side Highway, right next to the sanitation department. My girlfriend at the time, who was a model, would wait up by a corner in the Meatpacking District to watch for cops and we’d cut a hole in the chain-link fence and sneak our boats through the hole. The girls would then come down, pull the fence closed, and hop in the boats. At least four times, the cops pulled up and shined lights at us. We were like, “What are you going to do? We’re 10 feet away—in a sea of death!”
We did a trip all the way around Manhattan once that took us nine and a half hours. We’d seek out heavier weather like other people would seek out big waves. But there was this very magical, mystical, existential thing about it because after you’ve been rowing for eight or nine hours, you get into a kind of trance. There’s a transcendent, poetic quality to it.
If you can quantify fun—and maybe that’s not a good idea, but indulge me—you’ve got to be in the top 1 percent on the face of the earth in terms of how much of it you’ve had in your life, from Van Halen to climbing in Nepal and all the rest, yeah?
I don’t know if it’s fun. It’s challenge. It’s chasing. It’s trying out. Most of the things I’ve done, ounce for ounce, weren’t fun at the moment. They’re really fun in the retelling, and let’s face it: We do things sometimes just for the story. Fuck it—I’m going for the summit. I gotta have the story. As guys, we rarely admit that. So when we talk about “fun”—fun’s for kids.
And I’ll tell you something else. Up until 18 months ago, I was making pennies in royalty on a $20 Van Halen record.
What does that mean?
It means I got butchered 40 years ago. I made over a billion dollars for Warner Bros. I watched my whole fortune walk off into another man’s pocket. However far we get with [Laugh to Win] , I did it as a free man. I spent my own money. I built the team. This is my shot. This is the second half of the Super Bowl. And whatever happens? I’m a free motherfucker!
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