David Lee Roth: ridiculously self-indulgent, shameless, vainglorious ham and colossal turn-on. Photo: Jon Iraundegi (aterpeirun)/flickr
BY JUSTINE HAMILTON
Let’s get this straight. I’ve always been an avid indie music listener (that is, independent music). Ever since high school when I discovered the irony of Morrissey, the curious sex appeal of Japan’s David Sylvian, and the moodiness of Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. They were the ’80s Romantics. I had the hots for them all and I loved their languid style and the sophisticated darkness of their work.
But there was one exclusion to this: a man, as a subversion, who infiltrated my life in the form of an American mainstream music entertainer. A brash singer from the ’80s hair metal genre, or the way I saw it, an extremity of conflict, who challenged my very notion of who I was attracted to. His sense of identity seemed wrapped up in his amplified hair that outperformed mine and could have had its own dressing room. This man weasled his way into my stylish inner world of popular culture and became a part of it; I could have cried with fear from the free-fall towards non-sense.
The stageshow antics, those spandex tights, that hair! It was simply David Lee Roth.
Why was I even paying attention to this cartoon caricature? I have to say it was disconcerting at the time because brooding and sulking lead singers were my type. Like Ian McCulloch singing “Lips like Sugar”. I often thought Nick Cave sexy. Even more recently the thought of Conrad Standish from The Devastations has at times been too much to bear. And Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev? I’d definitely go there.
But slapstick joker Diamond Dave? If anything, he was too conspicuous and ridiculously self-indulgent, a shameless, vainglorious ham with a brand of showmanship that bordered on vaudeville.
In the age of serious head banging he constructed his fame by employing typical tactics of hyper-masculinity and heterosexuality that were way too camp for my liking. I was embarrassed and confronted by him and he was not culturally shaped to fit into my world of pretentious cool. Yet I knew he suggested something else while I continually tried to look the other way.
You see I’ve paraded myself flawlessly on a platform of sub-cultured indie cool. I’ve hung out with the cognoscenti, seen all the underground bands and worn the polka dots, the mod sunglasses, had the bobbed haircut, the striped stockings. I understood these social markers rendered me appropriate for fringe, unconventional, inner-city living because that’s who I genuinely was. So any thought of an attraction to David Lee Roth was inconvenient and at odds with my image and associated cultural fundamentals.
But oh, damn it was there. I secretly had it bad for cock-rock’s hottentot. For me, an MTV airing of a Van Halen or David Lee Roth music clip meant no fist pumping, no manic dancing around the room to Jump – it was more about sitting on the edge of the couch with furrowed brow, biting my lower lip, quietly gazing at his every athletic move like a private investigator.
I’d watch him cavort on stage displaying his openness and his beauty, fluffing and sexing up his wild mane while staring from the TV screen, wanting me to desperately want him, and there I was feeling annoyed that every fibre of my being was simmering like a pack of sexual two minute noodles. It went against my norm.
Yes, I’m talking about pushing the envelope of body flexibility and strength with those creative splits and scissor kicks. As a man, he embodied sexual capital in a postmodern world with brazenness, cockiness and penetrative stares down the barrel of the camera.
His schtick of non-conformity against droll social conventions appealed to me even then, and all this with eyes that could melt even the most hard-boiled female prison warden.
Crucially, though, there seemed more to him than the egocentric stage buffoon. He was carefree, rebellious and childlike, with attitude. He seemed to poke fun at himself with excellent comic timing and appeared to be naturally happy. He got away with being the debauched bacchanalian.
Later in life I discovered that during his time out from Van Halen he cut his hair and became a New York paramedic with more than two hundred 9-11 calls under his belt. I read in various interviews he was so outdoorsy there was no furniture in the house. He enjoyed pushing his body to its physical limits with rock climbing and Japanese sword play, amongst other pursuits. Recently, at 58, he trekked through the highlands of New Guinea with a native tribe. His interviews showed he was savagely bright, philosophical, and possessed a deep interest in world cultures and societies. And despite embracing the excesses of rock ‘n roll, he understood the need to get away from its pressures to recharge his depleted soul.
Interestingly, these qualities added to the biological appeal that had me running hot. David Lee Roth was my first real seductive taste of female voyeurism of the male form. For once, it was the sight of a half-naked man gyrating in tight fitting pants that enhanced everything. He indulged my adolescent sexual gaze, a treat usually reserved for men gazing at women. He proudly offered himself as a male sexual object, and as a young female, I could stare back in pleasure. That was the intimacy he encouraged in his massive female audience.
In the end, I accepted the strangeness of my David-Lee-Roth-turn-on. He changed my mind and desires about my innermost secrets of attraction and I was moved by it, something which I now love him for. As time marches on, age has caught up with us all, but there would be no contest now between Cave and Roth. I know who would win hands down.