More than just a sex, drugs and rock'n'roll memoir, "VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave" traces the pop-culture phenomenon that is MTV back to its humble (and simultaneously hedonistic) roots, as told by its five, fledgling on-air personalities: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn. Here's an excerpt.
Got My Back Against the Record Machine: Close Encounters with David Lee Roth
David Lee Roth was convinced that he was the hottest rock star in creation. Dave was the funniest guy on the planet—to him. He laughed at all his own jokes. But his mind worked at three hundred miles an hour. These phrases would just fall out of his face—he’d be talking about people who were idiots, and he’d say, “You know, speed-limit IQ.” Or regarding other bands that weren’t as amazing as Van Halen: “Here today . . . gone later today.”
When Dave was doing publicity for Van Halen’s Diver Down album in 1982, MTV assigned me the interview. I was ecstatic—I couldn’t wait to be the one to cut through Dave’s razzle-dazzle façade of one-liners and reach the true person underneath. I was determined to stay strong, and not fall for his schtick. I didn’t get that his schtick is his genius. During the interview, he threw out his best Daveisms—“What you see onstage with Van Halen is what you’re gonna find underneath the stage”—and I remained stone-faced. I refused to jump into the hot tub of fun that was Dave.
At one point, he said, “If you take a Van Halen record and you stickit in your collection, it’ll melt all your other records.”
Cut to me, dead silent. Finally, I said, “I’m trying to think what my Van Halen records are next to.”
I thought if I didn’t fall for his trickery, he’d reveal his soul to me,and we’d live happily ever after.
Before MTV, Van Halen were already pretty big—they were playing arenas by then. But videos took them to another level. Pete Angelus had been Van Halen’s lighting director, but he started directing the band’s videos. And that let people see the band’s attitude: They were badass guys, they were cool, they were funny. The sense of humor was there in the songs, but you had to pay attention. The videos hit you over the head with it.
Five highlights from Van Halen’s “Panama” video:
1. David Lee Roth swinging over a stage, suspended by a cable,listening to a boom box.
2. Diamond Dave being dragged down a hallway by two cops,wearing only a towel, white athletic shoes, and handcuffs.
3. Eddie Van Halen sitting at a piano in a white tux, blowing smoke rings.
4. The lyric “Model citizen / Zero discipline.”
5. David Lee Roth wearing a T‑shirt decorated with a picture of David Lee Roth.
Dave’s lyrics had a Tom Waits vibe: a storyteller with this weird attitude. He was great at painting a picture with a sentence, like in “Panama,” when he did that monologue: “Reach down between my legs and ease the seat back . . .” It was rock ’n’ roll, it was about sex, but it was also poetic and had a noir feel. Sure, there was a ton of ego, and he had a teenage boy’s sense of humor and fantasy, but I always believed that he was deeper than he cared to let on.
He was one of my big crushes. I interviewed him a couple of times, and I always used to wonder, “Why doesn’t Dave ever ask me out? Doesn’t he see how much I get him?” I wanted to be Mrs. David Lee Roth, but I had no idea how to make that happen. Recently I saw a picture of one of our interviews: I was wearing a Boy Scout shirt, buttoned up to the top, and a tie! A Boy Scout shirt! What was I thinking? With that shirt, and my hair super-short, I looked like a boy. No wonder Dave never asked me on a date. A magazine—Circus, or maybe Creem—printed an item that Dave and I were romantically linked. I cut that out and pasted it in my scrapbook. A rumor to treasure.
I connected with Dave at the US Festival in ’83. Van Halen had a compound: They were paid around a million dollars to play, and they basically spent it on the compound. It was all kinds of trailers, and tons of booze. Dave was totally hammered: coked up and drunk. We did this interview where we just sparred back and forth. I asked him what he wore under his spandex pants, and he made an allusion to circumcision: “All Jewish boys have this. You know about that, don’t you, Goodman?” And I was like, “Yeah, Roth! ” The two Jews recognized each other and tacitly agreed that we were members of the same species. Still, he was being outlandish Dave, dancing with a drink on his head.
Excerpts from the US Festival interview, on May 29, 1983. Mark Goodman is in a yellow mesh shirt, while David Lee Roth sports tiger-print spandex pants and a torn fishnet top:
David Lee Roth, channeling Rod Serling: “Dave Roth, trapped in a desperate struggle against time. Will he be able to take the stage, armed with nothing but a microphone and the will to survive? Dave Roth, somewhere at the US Festival.” Mark Goodman: “Have you learned what software is?” David Lee Roth: “I have! I just learned that a floppy disc isn’t a record you left in the sun. . . . In about ten minutes, the tailor lady will come in and suck all the air out of my pants at the cuff. We’ll seal them off and be fully prepared for tonight’s presentation.”
Mark Goodman: “When you come to the US Festival, the whole theory is camaraderie . . . and here’s Van Halen in their own private compound. Why is that?”
David Lee Roth: “With the private compound, it’s not so much that we build walls to keep people out, but that when people get inside walls, they feel more comfortable. . . . You’re inside someplace, as opposed to merrily under the stars with your sleeping bag. Although there will be a few people under the stars after tonight.” (Roth laughs and leers at the camera.)
Van Halen picked up where Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult left off, but with sex appeal. Van Halen’s audience doubled because girls wanted to see them as much as guys. For one blond reason: David Lee Roth.
The classic Van Halen video would have to be “Jump.” It captured the dynamic of the band, and David Lee Roth’s performance could have been in the circus. Eddie looks adorable, with that little smile he gives while he’s playing his butt off, and you felt like you were in the audience watching them, only you got really good seats.
Eventually, I did get to see the real Dave—when I least expected it. At the very first Video Music Awards, in 1984, they had me stand on a hydraulic set, warming up the crowd. The plan was that I’d finish my speech, the stage would lower, and the show would start. I looked out into the crowd at Radio City Music Hall and saw luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Rod Stewart, and Quincy Jones. I gave a dramatic “Let the show begin!” and threw my hand up—but nothing happened. I stood frozen with my hand in the air, like the Statue of Liberty. Still nothing. Finally I walked offstage—and as I reached the edge of the proscenium, the hydraulics kicked in. Teetering on the edge of a dropping platform, I tried to leap to safety, but tripped and fell.
I was crushed. I had wiped out in front of the whole music industry! All night long, it was all I could talk about, to anyone who would listen. David Lee Roth was sitting in the front row; I was sent down to interview him for a bumper into commercials. Before the camera started rolling, I said, “Oh my God, did you see what happened?” With great compassion, Dave said, “Aw, darlin’, you know how many times I’ve done that? Welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” I’m eternally grateful to him—in the middle of a live broadcast, he pieced me back together. And he gave me a coping mantra I’ve called on many times since then: “Welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
From the broadcast of the Video Music Awards on September 14,1984:
Martha Quinn is wearing fingerless white opera gloves. David Lee Roth sports sunglasses, a bright red jacket, and a bleary smile.
Martha Quinn: “David, congratulations on your award. How do you feel?”
David Lee Roth: “Hey, Martha. Life, after all, is really a kung fu movie. . . . Like my daddy said when I was real little, he said,‘Dave, if you ever get in a contest, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how good you looked.’”
Off camera, Dave was a smart, interesting guy. He liked to cut his own path by doing all that crazy macho shit—on the cover of Skyscraper, that was really him climbing the rocks. He traveled to the Amazon and he was into martial arts—he was like a rock ’n’ roll Hemingway. Dave was in amazing shape. He could drink and smoke nonstop, but it didn’t ever affect his performance onstage.
I went to a rock festival in New Jersey; Van Halen and a bunch of other people were playing. Daryl Hall and John Oates were onstage, but I was hunting around for Mark. I walked around backstage, going from trailer to trailer. I knocked on a door, opened it up, and Mark was in there with David Lee Roth. “Hey, come on in, close the door.” I walked in and they were sitting at a little table—Dave had a big vial of coke. They invited me to join them.
I said, “I didn’t mean to horn in, but okay.”
We partook of the coke and had a grand time. And then people started knocking on the door: a producer or a friend or something. And one by one, they came in and sat in another part of the trailer while the three of us stayed seated, chatting, having a beer, doing another line. Before we knew it, the trailer was packed. No one was sitting with us, because they didn’t know David—we did. And they were all just watching us do blow. It was like we were royalty; we were completely nonchalant about fifty other people watching us do blow. People in the TV world, publicists, people we didn’t know. Any of them could have gone out and said, “Man, we’re watching two VJs sit there with David Lee Roth doing blow.” It was like people at orgies watching other people have sex.
At a certain point, we were getting low in Dave’s vial and he said,“Y’all have any?” When we told him we didn’t have anything to contribute, he became less charitable.
When things started to go really badly with my wife, I needed to get away. Dave was on his first solo tour, and I was friends with Pete Angelus, who had become Dave’s manager. They invited me out on the road—I flew out to meet them in Detroit and rode the bus with them for a week or so. Dave wanted to cheer me up. So in Buffalo or someplace, whatever hockey arena we were in, Pete sent me into the locker room. I thought Dave was going to be there and we were going to do some blow. I walked in and this girl came out of the showers. She was hot, in a slutty rock ’n’ roll kind of way, and she started chatting with me. After a short time, she got onto her knees and started to unzip my pants. And I felt weird about it—I had to tell her, “I can’t.” I think that may have negatively affected my friendship with Dave; he just wanted to make me feel better.
When Dave was touring, both with Van Halen and solo, he had the barriers in front of the stage painted different colors on the side that faced him: red, blue, and green, to denote the different areas of the audience. He’d look for hot girls in the crowd, and between songs, go to his assistant Eddie on the side of the stage, and say, “Green, right, fourteen rows back, three seats in.” The assistant would go out into the audience and stick a pass on her tits. So after the show, there’d be twenty-five girls in the dressing room who all thought they’d been singled out to be with Dave that night. In fact, a number of them would be. The others would end up with other band members—or, if necessary, the crew.
I would hear stories from these guys about the stuff they would do on the road. Pete told me about overhearing a band member with a girl on the back of the bus. She was saying, “I don’t want to b__w you.” His line to her became a catchphrase with the band and the crew for the rest of the tour: “Just f__ing do it.” They thought that was hysterical, and I couldn’t handle it. They would have girls do headstands in toilets—they thought it was the funniest thing ever, but it was just gross and sad. It wasn’t lost on me that these girls were there by choice and at any time could have said, “F___ off, I’m not doing that!” Still, I couldn’t treat another human being like that. I wish I could have gotten it together for that girl who came out of the showers, though.
Another time, I was in L.A., staying at L’Ermitage. Dave met me at the hotel, and decided we would go to this kickboxing competition—he was into mixed martial arts way before anyone. I followed him over the hill from Beverly Hills to Van Nuys, and he pulled into a strip mall. We walked past the 7-Eleven to the dojo; Dave told me that we had to bow as we walked in. All the fighters shouted hello at Dave—he was just as comfortable there as when he was onstage or backstage. We watched a bunch of matches, and while these guys kicked the s__t out of each other, Dave explained what was happening: who each fighter was, his history, and what he was doing right and wrong. He was doing color and play-by-play for each match as only fast-talking Dave could.
Afterward we went to a place called the 0-1 Gallery on Melrose. It was an art gallery, but it was really just an excuse for a club where you could drink after the bars closed. You paid to get in, but not for drinks—that was their workaround for the alcohol laws in L.A. Around four in the morning, Dave and I were in the bathroom doing a bump or two, when all of a sudden, we heard screaming. Somebody came running into the bathroom saying, “The cops are here! The cops are here!”
Dave immediately sprang into action. He tied his hair back and tucked in his shirt. He had a big vial that he dropped out the bathroom window. I threw my vial out and we casually strolled out into the club. The LAPD came in with their guns drawn. They were really over the top. There was a lot of shouting and pushing and gun waving as we tried to get out of the club without being noticed. That wasn’t happening: They had all of us go out on the street. They lined us upon Melrose and were looking at us, literally shining flashlights in our faces. This was a rare moment where I saw Dave not trying to be David Lee Roth; he just wanted to blend. But nobody recognized him—the cops didn’t, anyway. They made us disperse, meaning that they yelled,“Get the f___ out of here.” I looked the other way for a second, and Dave had already taken off.
Actually, I was more of a Sammy Hagar person.