David Lee Roth is letting his art (mostly) do the talking
By Richard Bienstock
Typically, David Lee Roth spends his days, or at least his nights, “in tactical spandex, moving at 134 beats per minute,” he said. But now Roth, the 65-year-old Van Halen singer, is just like the rest of us: stuck at home and obsessing about pandemics.
However, the past few months in quarantine have led Roth to an old pursuit, with new focus. Since April, he has filled his days creating COVID-themed drawings — he calls them comics — and then sharing the finished works, one each week, on his social media channels. The art, like Roth’s music and disposition, is vibrant, whimsical and somewhat unconventional. In moments, it is confrontational. Several drawings feature his own face. Many are filled with images of frogs.
What sparked this surge of artistic expression?
“Well, I lost my job!” Roth cracked over the phone from his home in Los Angeles on an afternoon in late June. As recently as March, Roth was on tour as a solo act, supporting Kiss in arenas across the United States. Earlier in that run, Roth, who has also worked as an EMT in New York, had battled an unspecified illness. “I’m not so unconvinced I didn’t have the corona,” he said. “Man, they gave me enough prednisone to put boots on the moon! We left a trail of groupies, rubble and incandescent reviews. But I don’t want to go back through it.”
Even by rock frontman standards, Roth’s ability to command full attention from his audience is renowned, whether he’s launching himself off drum risers for midair splits or schooling fans on how Van Halen is “the rock ’n’ roll band who sold Ricky Ricardo rumba to the heavy metal nation.” But now his art is doing the talking. “Social commentary is what I do,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always done.”
In his recent artwork, that social commentary has elicited a strong response. In one piece, he declares a name change. “Diamond Dave following Lady Antebellum’s (now Lady A) example, will be dropping the ‘Lee,’” he wrote below a drawing of, naturally, a frog. “From now on he wants us all to call him ‘David L. Roth’ or simply ‘El Roth.’” To many, it diminished the steps white artists are taking to correct racism.
“Humor — not jokes — humor, the best stuff, isn’t funny at all,” Roth said, defending his work. “My version is the truth dipped in sugar. And maybe it’s a little sugar and spice. But the good stuff compels discussions.”
Art, he continued, “has been a constant in my life. My hand has always been in wardrobe, background sets, stage sets, album covers, video direction. This is part of it. And there’s craft involved, so there’s a little bit more heft to some of the statements.”
Roth laughed. “This is the adult table; as a fellow artist, I sense you understand that.”
Another laugh. “Next question!”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Why frogs?
A: I saw a story about Mark Twain — it was not his biography, it was a fictional piece with actors. And at the end of it ol’ Sam passes on, but he doesn’t go to heaven. He’s in the backyard where he grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. And a little girl walks up and he goes, “Who are you?” She says, “I’m Becky Thatcher, and I’ve got some friends who are waiting to meet you.” And all the characters that he created come on up to greet him. So, I started my guest list. And probably the only one of that retinue that I could even spell, much less draw, was the frog from Calaveras County [from the short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”].
Q: Many of your drawings include a reference to the “Soggy Bottom.” I took this, at least in this context, to be a play on the phrase “draining the swamp.”
A: If I explain it, it’s a bumper sticker. If I let you explain it, it’s art. But you’re very close to exactly accurate.
Q: Can you describe your artistic process?
A: My approach is the best of both worlds: vintage and hyperatomic digital. Sort of like watching “Dragnet” on your iPad. You know, I moved to Japan for two-plus years to study Sumi-e and calligraphy, and four nights a week I trained and then I did homework. Jesus, I’ve spent thousands of hours learning to operate a horsehair brush with a block of ink that I grind myself. Hasn’t changed its recipe in 700 years.
So everything in the comics is hand-drawn — all the typeface, all the colors, the line work, the lighting. And once I’m done, I work with Colin Smith, the Led Zeppelin of Adobe Photoshop. Together we scan everything, and then I’m able to move into areas that otherwise weren’t graphically available without decades of effort.
Q: How does using digital manipulation transform the original work?
A: Many of these colors can’t be found outside the cyberverse. It’s a world unto itself. Serves a well purpose, because almost all of our fine arts and graphic consumption these days is interactive with a screen, whether it’s on your PC or your wristwatch. We’re actually back to Maxwell Smart and his shoe phone. “Somebody is on my Nike!”
Q: What appeals to you about using brush and ink as a means of artistic expression?
A: Hold on. This isn’t expressing myself. This is performance therapy. I’m venting. I’m angry. And I am not asking for forgiveness. And this is how I do it.
Q: People don’t usually think of David Lee Roth as angry.
A: That’s because I have transcended it. It is that secret magic when you take something that is essentially sad and find humor, eloquence and sometimes illumination in it.
Q: What is your view of this country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: I sure wish our country had taken a Marine Corps approach to COVID. Instead of [creating] a divide, good or bad, right or reasonable, wrong or otherwise.
Q: One of your pieces features the phrase “No politics during happy hour,” which feels to me like it could be an encapsulation of the Van Halen ethos.
A:Well, visually and graphically, the frogs underneath that caption are fighting — identical to what happened in my brief and colorful tenure with the Van Halens. [Laughs.] But when you see Technicolor frogs doing it, it’s a bit more digestible. But what I’m reflecting on in that comic is the unstated. That which we don’t talk about. What does happen when we drink at happy hour and talk politics? What does it mean when we say, “Alcohol sales skyrocket again”? It’s all a bit of a diversion.
Q: Can you say more about the piece that seems to be a response to Lady Antebellum’s name change?
A: It had connotations of personal politic. I sought to have a little fun at the expense of others, whose vision I will respect. And in lieu of the inevitable false-footed copycats I pretended to be one. But the supposed name change really drew some ire in terms of some folks posting from an arch right-wing stance: “Another left-winger takes a fall.” Hey, I’m a combat hippie — peace, love and enough guys and gears to defend the [expletive] out of it. You need one to support the other.
Q: Would it be correct to identify David Lee Roth as left-leaning?
A: I love civil rights. Equal rights. Women’s rights. Kids’ rights. The rights of the rights. OK? The entire list. But conversely, I’m prepared to shave my head, join the Marines and go defend those rights. That in itself isn’t really a left-wing statement. Or it didn’t used to be when I was growing up. But I grew up in a really great time and a really great space during integrational busing in the ’60s. I went to schools that were 90% Black and Spanish, and I was in the color guard with a crew cut. Every morning at 7 we’d march to put up the flag. And then at night we’d go to Kenny Brower’s brother’s house, smoke pot and listen to that new Doors record. Combat hippie!
Q: You were on tour when the lockdown began. As a lifelong performer, was it difficult being forced to leave the road so hastily?
A: Every jiujitsu magazine has a 28-year-old who’s going to tell you about the two years that got taken away by his elbow. Every kickboxing magazine has a 32-year-old instructor who goes, “Well, I lost those three years to my left knee.” So I’ve just been isolating away. Because I myself am high risk.
Q: Why do you consider yourself high risk?
A: The road will deteriorate you from the beginning or it will keep you alive forever. When we go out, we wear ourselves to a nubbin. I just had a lower back surgery. It was a spinal fusion where they take a chip from somebody else. I’m actually taller now. Do I seem taller? I mean, over the phone?
Q: You last toured with Van Halen in 2015. Do you think it’ll ever happen again?
A: I don’t know that Eddie [Van Halen] is ever really going to rally for the rigors of the road again. [The guitarist first announced he had cancer in 2001, and it has recurred since.] I don’t even want to say I’ve waited — I’ve supported for five years. Because what I do is physical as well as musical and spiritual — you can’t take five years off from the ring. But I did. And I do not regret a second of it. He’s a bandmate. We had a colleague down. And he’s down now for enough time that I don’t know that he’s going to be coming back out on the road. You want to hear the classics? You’re talking to him.
Q: For how long will we continue to see new artwork from David Lee Roth?
A: Like the tattoo artist said, ’til I don’t have any friends left! Until my Instagram’s empty! I can do this endlessly. I hadn’t considered this as something other than after dinner at the campfire. But lo and behold, people have taken a real fascination.
Q: Given that fascination, will these drawings eventually be offered for sale?
A: In terms of what I really do for a living, as soon as the B-list — that’s Beyoncé, Bono and Bruce [Springsteen] — say it’s OK, I’ll be back singing and dancing and selling you T-shirts. But in the interim, I am drawing and painting every night. And the fact that there’s an audience for it is quite a tickle. So of course I’ll make it available. You bet. I just didn’t see it coming.
[Laughs.] But like my sister says, I seem to miss the big stuff.