Don’t care about Van Halen? You’re in luck.
Don’t even know who David Lee Roth is? That might be for the best.
Because in this episode of Design Matters,you meet someone famous for his vocals in one of the biggest 1980s bands—but who has always been more than a caricature of rock star excess (if not the original schematic for it).
Roth grew up not in the Hollywood Hills, but in Bloomington, IN, where he went about “chasing muskrats” and shoveling horse manure for a buck. Rather than idolizing rock stars, he loved Miles Davis. Jack London. Mark Twain.
He could sing across five-and-a-half octaves—not exactly the easiest thing to do. And after his family moved to Pasadena, CA, he met Eddia Van Halen. Their first record went gold in 1978. Dave Bhang’s Van Halen logobecame an icon of its era. Van Halen II followed. Women and Children First. Fair Warning. Diver Down. 1984. Roth left the band in 1985 and launched a solo career. All told, the antics were legendary, and legendarily reported, from the M&M tour riders to the annihilated hotel rooms. The line between fact and fiction, the line between character and character study a seemingly amorphous thing.
Roth rejoined Van Halen in 2007. The rest is … not exactly history, but perhaps a crime of omission. To focus on Roth through the lens of Van Halen alone belies the intense, oft-bizarre, kaleidoscopic truth of his person.
He’s a martial artist who has been practicing since the age of 12.
An obsessive traveler and adventurer who has traversed jungles and mountains.
An accomplished climber in said mountains.
A skilled artist who studied sumi-e painting in Japan.
An EMT in New York City, badge no. 327466.
The author of a bestselling autobiography.
An actor who banked roles on shows like “The Sopranos.”
An entrepreneur deeply involved with his company, Ink the Original (which protects his own Japanese body suit tattoo).
Though wildly disparate pursuits, one gets the sense that to Roth, it’s all variations on a theme.
“What is art?” he has asked. “Simple, I think: something that forces and compels you to think.”
In this episode of Design Matters, we learn more about the glue that holds Roth’s unique brand of creative insanity together—no Van Halen cover charge required.
David Lee Roth: We have a fellow who imitates me perfectly. He makes a living imitating me, plays in rock bands in Vegas and so forth. His name's Ralph. We call him David Lee Ralph.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters, with Debbie Millman from DesignObserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with David Lee Roth about his childhood, about his long career and his new cosmetics business, and about how he has avoided crash like so many other rock stars.
David Lee: To be perfectly fair, I've had my wild excesses but it usually involved corn alcohol and women.
Curtis: Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: When David Lee Roth was a boy, he liked to draw at the kitchen table. When he asked his mom to come over and look at what he created, before she did so she would ask, "Should I get a magnet?" In other words, either the drawing was worthy of being displayed on the kitchen refrigerator, or he was wasting her time. David Lee recalls looking down at his drawing and thinking, "I can do better." David Lee Roth is still pursuing mastery. The lead singer of Van Halen is just back from the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, where he performed an electronic dance remix of his classic 1980s song Jump. David Lee is a best-selling author, a multi-platinum rock and roll star, and a businessman. Today, I'm going to talk to him about his multi-faceted career and about some of his latest projects, one of which is a new line of skin care products for tattoos. David Lee Roth, welcome to Design Matters.
David Lee: Wow, that's a hell of an intro.
Debbie: Yeah, you're a pretty impressive dude.
David Lee: Humanitarian.
Debbie: Absolutely, philanthropist.
David Lee: When you look in the mirror in the morning, we always recreate ourselves, especially here in the United States. If you live here in New York City, this is like a Benetton ad gone crazy. Every nationality, every great accent, within two blocks you can smell the fragrances and aromas of 14 different kinds of meals, so creating yourself is great.
Debbie: Well, I want to start by talking about your family. So your uncle, Manny Roth, owned the jazz club Café Wha? in Greenwich Village in the early '60s, and booked some of the first shows for Dylan and Hendrix. He not only gave Richard Pryor his first shot, he also became his first manager.
David Lee: He got him his first job on the Johnny Carson show, which in terms of race was a monster epic, monster epic thing. Ooh, he pissed off everybody.
Debbie: You mentioned an interview that your uncle did when he was 96. I found this quote and I want to read it, because I thought it was so interesting, the parallels. So he said this about you going over to the café when you were a little boy. "I used to fix him up with ice cream, whatever he wanted. I didn't try to turn him on to anything, but maybe it was osmosis. I was in the center of the scene there. All you had to do was carry an empty guitar case and the girls would follow you."
David Lee: Let's discuss the girls, because Aunt Judy had legs up to her earlobes, I'm telling you, and everybody would circle around. And I remember asking Manny at one point in time, "That's one of the comics who's always here, and he's always looking at Aunt Judy. Who is that?" That was Bill Cosby. He had just gotten out of college. He was working his way. This was like early '60s, 1961, okay? I remember coming out and a little tiny men's room. I said, "There's somebody talking to himself in the mirror." He said, "Oh, that's Rich Little the impersonator, practicing his stuff. He's on Johnny Carson coming up," like this.
And because Judy had all these great-looking model girlfriends, all right? And this is when Cher and Streisand were on the covers of Vogue as models and stuff like this, all kinds of characters. You used to get Woody Allen used to come sniffing around, and they used to laugh and joke and say, "Now he's hanging around with all Judy's girlfriends."
Debbie: How did Manny Roth influence you?
David Lee: That there is such a wild diversity. The first thing I saw when I walked in, I was maybe seven, eight, somewhere in the years like 1961 like that. I was always told, "Remember everything. Memorize everything," from the time I could remember those words. So first thing I saw was a Virgin Islands steel drum band. That's in a basement downtown. It's still there, the Café Wha?. I came out of a center of a whole lot of foment and conflict, a lot of Shakespeare going on around me, and I loved it. I learned, you've got to try everything. You've got to eat every kind of food here. You've got to get to know every kind of person here. You'd better start learning some different languages. You better start, start, start like that, and I did. I just haven't stopped yet.
Debbie: You've said that the healing, happy side of your family came from your dad. While your mom was an art teacher, you learned to box from your mother. I'm assuming that you were speaking metaphorically?
David Lee: All the best boxing is technical. If you have the best super technical boxers, the most adept at it, it's kind of boring to watch because it's like watching people play chess.
Debbie: But you learned from your mom.
David Lee: Oh, you bet.
Debbie: In what way?
David Lee: Mom is unforgiving. Mom won't sugar coat it for you. She's been kicked out of three homes now because she's unforgiving when the food's wrong. We came from student housing. Pop had just started college, not even medical school when I happened.
Debbie: Well, you were supposedly an accident. Is that true?
David Lee: Yeah, I happened and so it was not a happy arrangement. Pop was never home. The only time he was in the family is when we went to visit him down at the hospital. He was an internet, a resident. In those days you had to live there, the white shoes and the whole thing. So mom was really in charge of arts and crafts and culture and so forth, and her determination started with reading. You had to learn to read, and you had to learn why we read and so forth all the way up until I was a teenager when I was finally able to, at the end of high school. She hired a teacher to teach four of my buddies and I how to read. We went through the usuals, Chekhov, Shakespeare, and then we did Once and Future King and so forth.
But going around didactic, academic, you know. What is it? What's the meaning of subtextual inference, and on and on and on. I learned early that you're going to have to cross-train your brain the same way a guitar player is going to spend his life in a corner practicing scales, the same way a Go master will dedicate his entire life. They call it training. You don't play Go. You train at Go, and then if you're good enough you teach Go.
Debbie: Let's talk about your first psychiatrist visit. Your parents thought you were super active at six years old. They even thought that you might have had autism. What was the psychiatrist's diagnosis?
David Lee: When I was born, one of my legs is about an inch and a half longer than the other one, the left is, so anytime you look at pictures of me doing the spinning back up, whirling whatever kick, it was with my left leg. My right leg is the strongest one. When I was born I had flat feet, rickets or whatever. It's not rickets, but you know, et cetera. I had to wear braces for I don't know, the first three, four years, whatever like that. It was very unforgiving treatment back then. You had to sleep with a metal bar between your feet, and I had to spend all day and all night like that, okay? First on my belly, and if I was on my belly, I read. Mom would just leave stacks of magazines and books. It didn't matter what. I read, because I couldn't flip over.
Debbie: I have two more questions I want to ask you about your childhood. I read that you shoveled dung behind a horse stable to make money for fun?
David Lee: We didn't call it dung back then.
Debbie: What did you call it, David Lee?
David Lee: [foreign language 00:08:21] I couldn't wait to work, to have a job. Wow, I had a job since I was 12.
Debbie: So you shoveled.
David Lee: Shit.
David Lee: And I had to go to the Social Security and tell them that I was older. I went by myself, and told them I was older by one year than I was so that I could have my card and go to work for Ernie Robinson, who's no longer with us, a horse trainer.
Debbie: You also worked at a hamburger stand, and you worked in a hospital as a clean-up boy. This was all in-
David Lee: Hold on. We didn't call ourselves clean-up boys. At the time, we were surgical porters and surgical techs.
Debbie: With all of these jobs that you had, working with horses, working in the hospital, you started to do this from a very young age. Where did that drive come from?
David Lee: Mark Twain. Even if you don't know his writing or don't care for it at all, he was never just a one job for a whole lifetime kind of fellow, but 110% application perhaps for whatever he was doing at the time. He started off as a reporter in the Gold Rush, and he described how he got off the train with four pounds of tobacco, about $35 American currency and a tweed jacket, all right? Henry Miller, the writer, okay? We all know him because of his sexual writings and so forth. I really don't know that I have a taste for his writings, but Henry, you've seen the movie Henry and June, got off the boat in Paris with $15 American currency, a Cross pen and one tweed jacket, okay, like that, and went and visited, tried many, many different things.
Ultimately, Twain was a lecturer. In between he wrote, and we all know about there was a little stint in there as a steamboat operator. I think as long as you really apply 110% and you're looking to somehow pitch in, let's just call it pitch in. Make contribution is the loftier way, but shit, that smells like homework to me. I'd rather just pitch in.
Debbie: But I read that when the Roth family gets together, you're expected to talk about what you did the previous year that contributed to making a better world. Is that true?
David Lee: Yeah, it's what have we done constructively lately? "What'd you do constructive today, children?" We were called that until dad passed away about seven years ago. Oh yeah, but it was mom who had ... She was the book reader, you follow? And pop was a healer, all the way up. He had blood cancer and was in the wheelchair and waited co-conspiratorially ... This was about 10 years ago ... Until my sisters left the room. He said, "I need you to help me with something." Well, we had a co-conspiratorial attitude because back when I was seven years old, we'd sneak off to see movies mom didn't want us to see, like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot.
Debbie: So what conversation did you have with your dad in the hospital?
David Lee: He said, "I just signed up for Doctors Without Frontiers. I'm going to get on a boat, and I want to go to West Africa and do eye exams." I said, "Okay, how's that work with a wheelchair?" He said, "I don't need to stand up to do eye exams. I'll make them sit down."
Debbie: I see where you get your industriousness. When did you first realize that you had a talent for singing?
David Lee: Well, we're making a wild assumption.
Debbie: No, David Lee, we're really not.
David Lee: Your Honor, that's an assumption.
Debbie: We're really not.
David Lee: There is no basis.
Debbie: Yeah, yeah. Sorry, I'm not falling for that one.
David Lee: That is entirely a subjective comment.
Debbie: No, no it isn't.
David Lee: This man has a voice that sounds like water on a sick cat.
Debbie: No, no it doesn't.
David Lee: He's mutiny on the high seas. He should have been a sailor, judge.
Debbie: I've heard you sing a cappella, sir. You have a voice. You've got the pipes.
David Lee: All of the people, all of the jobs, all of these experiences are in my voice, okay? You're never completely there. You're always a work in progress. You're either going up the mountain or down the mountain. The top is about as big as this little space here. It's usually fucking freezing. I've been up some high mountains. Okay, everybody's waiting while you get the fucking camera ready, and then I forgot the flag. A lot goes on up at those tiny little summits, and then it's down, down, down. All your time is ascending and then going back down the mountain, you follow?
Debbie: I do.
David Lee: Your time at the top is almost insignificant. You're freezing. You hold up the flag. "Fuck, hurry up, Ray." Stuff that shit back down there, get your glove back on as fast as you can and vacate. So it's all in the planning. It's all in the doing. I never assumed that I was great, but I have always assumed that I could make you feel great.
David Lee: I can make you feel young and skinny from 800 yards out.
David Lee: With two choruses. Give me a few moves, okay? We're going to engage. We're going to talk, because my instrument is exactly what we're using right now. Now, I haven't started to work yet. I'm legitimately answering questions, but I could reverse this very quickly, young lady.
Debbie: I'm sure you could.
David Lee: I'll make you feel so desirable and young, and fucking, we're going to have a drink. That one cigarette a year is right now time. I'll buy you that drink.
Debbie: So when did you first realize you had a talent for singing?
David Lee: I never decided I had a talent for singing.
Debbie: But you started taking singing lessons.
David Lee: But I loved it.
Debbie: You just loved it.
David Lee: I loved it from the time I was seven, okay? And it was my first school play. I was in third grade, and again scruff of the neck. It was-
Debbie: What play was it?
David Lee: Okay, this teacher's going to help you learn the libretto. This teacher's different for the dancing. Now you've got to go get measured for the costume. Now is dress rehearsal. It was codified in Massachusetts, Brookline, Massachusetts.
Debbie: Do you remember what play it was?
David Lee: Well, it was about ... I don't remember the title but there were different facings of books. Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, et cetera, and I was Mr. Bookworm. I still have the glasses mom made for me, mortarboard, et cetera. Shall I sing it to you soulfully?
Debbie: Yes, please.
David Lee: Because if I sing it like a little kid it's-
Debbie: No, sing it soulfully.
David Lee: I'll update it a little bit.
David Lee: (singing) And I would just go from book to book and open up, and Wizard of Oz characters come out and whatnot. Beyond that, I didn't learn to sing from happy and celebrative and whatnot. I don't sing to celebrate, never did.
Debbie: But I think-
David Lee: But give me two minutes, and I'll share with you where I really learned to sing and where the code comes from, because I rarely ever talk about it.
David Lee: A fellow named Salo Blumenthal; I was in fourth grade and we were studying for bar mitzvah, all right?
Debbie: Not a lot of people know you're Jewish.
David Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative), it's the middle name, because it's Indiana, you know? Blumenthal would walk in, and he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was as wide as he was tall, and he wasn't very tall. We would be sitting here. We were wiseacres. This is the '60s, the hippies. It's flower power and Grateful Dead and The Doors and (singing). That doesn't sound like a bar mitzvah to most ears. Salo Blumenthal would walk in and he'd always do the same walk. He would take his old sports coat, cheap jacket off. Take it off and he'd roll up his right sleeve first. There was nothing there, and then he'd roll up his left sleeve and he'd lock eyes with you. You'd see the number tattooed on the inside of his forearm, which was his camp number. And then he'd roll his other arm up like that and look up to see if you were still looking.
If you were new in the class you'd look to see, because that was his orchestra number. He would tell his story. Inevitably, the newbies in class would ask, "What are those numbers?" He'd say, "Well, this was from Birkenau, and this is from so-and-so, and this is my orchestra number." They'd say, "What did you do?" He said, "I sang." Inevitably, somebody like a [Ricky Weiss 00:17:27] sitting behind me or one of the [Wiseman 00:17:30] brothers would go, "What happened if you didn't sing good?" And he was very serious. He would lean forward. He'd go, "You didn't sing good, you went up the chimneys."
And more than once in the next five years I would hear, "Mr. Roth, if you cannot find it in yourself to sing for those who did, sing so you don't go up the chimneys." And I think of that every time I sing, every time I write, every time I dance. It is so compelling. Let's take away all the, "Earn the money and support yourself, "my latest review from SomebodySomebody.com. That is the most deterministic, compelling thing that you could possibly tell a kid. I can't be more thankful. Wow, what a fucking slap, a fucking wake in the face for a kid who might have gone in the wrong direction. Keep in mind, I got sent to my first work-related environment when I was 13. My parents took me down to the police station in Pasadena and had them tell me, "You fuck up again, you're going to a foster home." That was exactly what happened to me. Mom was very unforgiving, okay?
Debbie: Now, your sisters have said that there was a bad Dave and a good Dave, and the bad Dave came from Sibyl Roth.
David Lee: That means assertive.
David Lee: It means compelling. It means determined, okay? When you say a bad person, are you talking about ethics and moral? I think you can determine that I have a fair share of that.
David Lee: Today, what qualifies as bad-
Debbie: Is very different.
David Lee: Is very different, okay?
David Lee: We're always compelled now, more than ever perhaps, to determine what is a good critic? Somebody who supports and enhances, or is it somebody who prefers the boo instead of the yay? I like that boo instead of the yay. I know plenty of heavy metal bands that I can get on that plane at JFK and I can go, "Boo" very creatively all the way to L.A. It's a five-hour trip. If it's, "Yay, oh wow, it's so great, really moving." Critique, observe the flaw, do you follow?
Debbie: Oh, yeah.
David Lee: I mean Diane Arbus, the photographer, she said, "My whole career was based on the flaw." We all think we have it together, and I'm paraphrasing, but we all have a flaw somewhere in the program. Those pants are just a little high water short. That belt buckle, white with polyester? And that's what's observed, and that's what's photographed, and therein lies the statement [foreign language 00:20:20]. It's the flaw. It's when the beautiful old buildings around here start to fall apart and decay. There's a beauty in that, and if it's not in the thing itself, it's in the feeling of impermanence that you get. It's quiet in there.
Debbie: Your singing coaches taught you early on to sing like the girls. What was that about?
David Lee: It means there's a range element. In your hinge is where all that power comes from, all right? If you're self-taught, well, already we have a little bit of a moment here because I think only a fool thinks that just experience can replace an education, all right? So if you want to cross-train yourself up so you can get your voice up into that stratospheric level of Aretha Franklin levels, or Chaka Khan levels, okay, as well as singing way down. You know, my business manager out there handles Taj Mahal, a blues man and everything. You hear that grind in my voice now.
In terms of how I would call what I do, I'm a soul growler. I'm not operatic. I'm far from country. It's wow, I'm closer to Wilson Pickett than a cleaner folk tone, all right, for example. When you start working with bands, somebody's always sick, whining, complaining, or just got divorced and doesn't want to sing. I'm that guy, "Okay, I'll take your part." Do you follow?
David Lee: As the drum major, I've got to know every instrument in the band.
Debbie: So you were the understudy.
David Lee: I've got to know every instrument in the band. Freaking, if you're going to be a band director, you've got to know every instrument and be able to hum it without the paper [crosstalk 00:22:12].
Debbie: And how many instruments do you play?
David Lee: Well, define play. I can sing the cover off the ball still to this day. I take lessons in jazz guitar regularly, and I started with my guitar teacher maybe 10, 12 years ago. I said to him, "I would like to be able to be at a beach bar somewhere, somewhere foreign, somewhere tropical. There's an acoustic guitar, all kinds of interesting folks sitting out. I want to be able to put a jar out front for tips and do an hour without singing," which I can do now.
Debbie: So let's talk about your musical career. By the '70s, you made your way to Pasadena City College where I believe you took some theater classes. This is also where you meet for the first time Edward and Alex Van Halen. Tell us about that first meeting?
David Lee: Oh, I didn't meet Eddie and Alex at music school, okay? That's close. It's hazy history, because we didn't have smart phones and nobody was keeping video.
Debbie: You weren't documenting everything you were doing on the internet?
David Lee: Hello? Oh, it was a big deal when you were able to document anything. All you had was a Kodak camera that you had to go stop at the place next to the 7-Eleven, right, and come back in a week. I knew the Van Halens when we were seniors in high school and we were cross-town rivals, all right? I was Diamond Dave, because I came from the busing program, all black and Spanish-speaking schools, and other. I was the other, that and the Japanese girl who was always good at math. "And [Cindy Yamizake 00:23:55] wins the math award again." It always happened out of 34 kids, all right?
Debbie: You sound like you're a little jealous.
David Lee: Oh, I do math as a way of life. I caught up, right? It had a re-informing impact on my life that is musical, social, spiritual, everything. I started off, I dip it in sugar so it's more digestible, but when I tell you about the cars I had it's not because I'm trying to bro you and, "Dude, what are you driving, bro?" I'm making a statement.
Debbie: What's the statement?
David Lee: It ain't a Tesla. It's not an off-road vehicle with knobby tires. I own a 1951 Mercury Lowrider and a '66 VW. I'm making comments. Those are answers to questions you may not have asked yet, all right? Same thing if I tell you the music that I listen to. It's a bit more predictive, all right? But in my case, whew, that's across the board because I was forced to listen to all kinds of music. The running joke being, I was abused as a kid, musically; Montovanni.
Debbie: Those eyebrows were working full-time there.
David Lee: We were forced to listen to everything, and we went to free everything. Student day, student matinee, free family day, free family dress rehearsal matinee student day. I saw every Broadway play and every art gallery opening and on and on, museums and battleships. It wasn't all just friends and whatever, because my family was all in the military, Air Force and so forth, so we went on the battleships and the submarines and the frigates and the schooners and the museum exhibits as well. I'm a combat hippie. Peace, love and heavy weapons, just in case they don't want to fall in love.
Debbie: So tell us about meeting the Van Halens.
David Lee: We were cross-town rivals. We played-
Debbie: What were you fighting about?
David Lee: Well, they played heavy, heavy metal, Black Sabbath kind of, note for note, spectacular, but there were no girls in their audience. And I came from Earth, Wind and Fire, Superfly, James Brown, Al Green, social music. So I approached the Van Halens and said, "I think I know why you're not getting club gigs." Personally, I just dance test everything. Something that's simple later that hip hop rediscovered, Aerosmith. It's a perennial (music). Well, it's about All Green beat, probably 110 beats a minute. That means you can dance without spilling your drink, if it's an open drink. Any faster than 110 BPM you're going to start spilling your drink, okay? Which is okay, but get ready like that. That's funky, and a power trio can play the hell out of that, and we did.
We ultimately had a set of some 200 songs that I personally would test. The combination was miraculous. We had a wonderful diversity to the sound. You'll hear Latino Hispanic sounds and influences in some of our most popular stuff. Even though you think of Van Halen as hit the weight stack and conquer the next mountain kind of stuff, which it is, you'll hear at the beginning of a song that a lot of folks don't know but they know the song is Jamie's Cryin. That's the beginning of Wild Thing, one of the most well-known, arguably well-known hip hop, rap songs (singing). Well, that's not heavy metal.
Debbie: Tell us more about some of the songs and where they came from, or what inspired you to write them.
David Lee: Broadway in terms of the formative thinking, okay, has always been based in terms of ... Let me isolate down to one fellow, Leonard Bernstein, okay? That's Porgy and Bess and West Side Story. Let's start right there. Whether or not you know or care of the play, it's the format of it. Things like [thredonic 00:28:25], which means we're going to keep playing the song but now we're going to start talking it (singing). You're kind of in key, and you're moving through and there's the narrative and its explanations, and you actually have a conversation and then you go (singing), and you break into that song.
Just having been trained to that, I put that in a song like, I don't know, Aint Talkin Bout Love, which I sold 10 million before MTV was even an idea. This is a time when people just were hating on our kind of music. When I came out, it was all about punk rock and mohawks on one side, and I'm going to strike that pose and Saturday Night Fever, baby. Have your records ready. Those were amazing moments, late '70s, easily an epoch on par with the culture like the Roaring '20s in terms of the arts, letters, gastronomy. If somebody says to you, "Let's go see Springsteen on Broadway," are you really there to hear the songs? Me, neither. You're here ... It's mostly the in between. In fact, got rid of most of those songs and it's all in between. And I'm in, because I go for in between the songs as much as the songs, the brains, the flavor, the stories, the talk. Want me to give you a little example?
David Lee: You having fun?
David Lee: You go first now. What's the best meal you ever had?
Debbie: I had a meal at the Hotel de Crillon in 1987. It was the first time I ever tasted foie gras.
David Lee: Foie gras.
Debbie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David Lee: Wow.
David Lee: And?
Debbie: Oh, it was unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my mouth. It was unbelievable.
David Lee: What did it taste like?
David Lee: Okay, you have a poetic license and you're using it on me. My hands are up. My story takes two minutes.
Debbie: Okay, let me hear it.
David Lee: Maybe three, and I'm going to title it, Why We Miss Anthony Bourdain So Much, and Why He Was So Important. For some reason, I get worked up when I do this story. That's one of the few times I get emotional, like choked up sometimes. We thought we were going to die. We had four days in New Guinea, and we hadn't eaten. I really have trouble with this story. I had put the trip together, trained for it for over a year. There were four of us, plus a couple of translators, and one of then named Toby, a fellow with a bone in his nose. We were in the highland jungles of New Guinea, and we had gotten up to 10,000 feet in the Star Mountains in an attempt to ... Ran out of food, got totally lost in the jungle where a lot of people have disappeared. Really thought we were going to die.
On the third night, we sat in a circle without a fire, in the rain, nothing to eat. We went around one by one, described the best meal we'd ever had. You took as long as you could, so you got your mind off of things. That was the thing, okay? I described going to Cantor's Delicatessen and getting corned beef and pastrami and chopped liver on Jewish rye. I described it all, right down to the mustard, okay? Right down to the drinks, everything. We described the table, the napkins, the waitresses, everything. And it got over to one of the translators, and he knew half a dozen different dialects. I don't know that he had ever been out of the country.
Toby started going off. He literally had a hole in his nose. He'd come out of the hill tribes. He started, he says, "It wasn't at a restaurant. It was at the beach." He described the way the light came out of the moon and hit the leaves and bounced off the water. You could follow that light out. He took it as far as that, like following one ripple all the way. He described the costumes of the waitresses and the smells of their perfume, described the table, described the plates, the sounds of the forks hitting the plates. I remember him telling that. We all just laid back in our packs and thought this was going to be the end. He went on for 40 minutes before he even got to the salad.
David Lee: And I was laying in my pack, and we were getting like the bony chest look and shit. When he finally finished, somebody without even sitting up said, "Toby, where did you have that meal?" And without even moving, he was laying on his back he said, "Oh, I didn't have it. My wife did, and she told me about it." I don't know why I get choked up on that one. That's why Anthony Bourdains, that's why guys like that are so important, and it's part of why I'm a storyteller today. That happened in 1985. Boy, I learned to tell a story.
Debbie: You're clearly a really sensitive, heavy-feeling person. When you were first touring and making the whole Van Halen thing, you came off as such a tough guy, as such a dude, a man about town, a playboy. How much of that was real and how much of that was something that you were, a story that you were creating?
David Lee: It's a plan on, where are you going to go in life? You're going to climb the treasure mountain, all right, and it was a different day and age, a different time and a place. Our values and who we were, what we looked like, how we demonstrated if we're tough guys or smart guys or whatever. I think that what I did was saturate living, and what people focused on was mostly the travel. I saturated with visiting other countries and actually doing things there as a means of, if I go rock climbing in Paris, okay, I'm going to run into the rock climbing community and I don't have to ask anything. It'll take me. I don't even have to ask, "Where's the apothecary? My stomach's upset. What are we having for dinner?"
They'll be going, "This is the apothecary. Do you need anything? Usually we get upset stomach from the water." And afterwards, "David, we are eating dinner. Come." You don't have to decide anything. It will all ... You become part of a community. Same thing kayaking; kayking here in Manhattan, there's a huge community of boaters and whatnot that happen here. Working from the inside out has kind of been my M.O. I don't want to visit, just watch it through a window.
Debbie: But were you doing that with Van Halen?
David Lee: Was I doing which with-
Debbie: Watching it through a window. It felt like you were. I mean, I've been spending the last week or so re-watching all the videos I grew up with and the sex appeal, the bravado, the ownership of the stage. I mean-
David Lee: Oh my God, you're young.
Debbie: In 1984, I was in college so I felt that. I lived through them.
David Lee: When I was young, I did as a young man does.
Debbie: But you and Van Halen, you toured for years and years before you made it. But when you made it, you made it. It was zero to 60, and all of a sudden you guys were a global phenomenon. How did you manage that? Did you always just feel like it was inevitable that this was going to happen, or was it a surprise?
David Lee: We were always confident that we were going to survive and make it in show business based on a paradigm that was still a bit unusual in our culture at that time and today, which was we were an album band. We were not singles-driven, and even through the '70s it's a singles culture, all right? I record at Henson Recording, and big shout out to everybody at Henson Recording in La Brea and Sunset, because today you're going to run into a McCartney, a Metallica and a Mariah Carey all in the same day in that studio, okay? They did We Are the World in there and whatnot, but it's the most famous because that's where The Mamas & the Papas did all their singles. (singing), you know, et cetera, that's The Mamas & the Papas. And what else? They're famous for all the Carpenters singles, all right?
Debbie: Sing us a Carpenters song.
David Lee: Well, I can sing it like (singing). But singles is what really was the '70s version, three-minute songs, three-and-a-half-minute songs. The idea of an album band really started to kick in then, that you could make a living with that. But again, when I was discussing in the late '70s, even the Sex Pistols, Jesus, whatever, Never Mind the Bollocks, Antichrist, that's a four-minute song that was produced by the guy who did Blue Oyster Cult. Didn't know that shit, did you?
Debbie: But you had Dark Side of the Moon, all of the Yes sort of double albums that they were doing, Relayer and Topographic Oceans, which were really high content.
David Lee: Yes, and you have a great memory, but for most of the world it was all about singles because pop music, rock music, was relegated to one hour a week. In Holland up through the '80s, I'm going to mispronounce it wildly, but I was talking with Armin van Buuren about, "I bet you grew up playing rock and roll one hour a week, I think it was on Wednesdays, in Dutch radio, okay? So the media got hold. They decided, "You do this. You're a category. You fit like this," you know?
Debbie: But you broke all of that.
David Lee: It was word of mouth, and also the value of a live show. Performing live is arguably our forte, or at least mine. Interacting with somebody, engaging with somebody directly, somewhere between my carnival barker personality and my emcee and maitre d, I am the devil's son-in-law.
Debbie: Is it true that you wrote Runnin' With the Devil in 18 minutes?
David Lee: Let's qualify that for professional bearing, okay?
Debbie: 18 minutes, and then your entire life prior.
David Lee: Well, somebody asked me that at one point. I think it might have been Howard Stern asked me. He says, "How long did it take you to write Runnin' With the Devil?" And I thought for a second and the truest answer is, "Well, if you've watched 1,000 movies and tried to memorize the soundtracks, if you've read 1,000 books and tried to remember everything you've read, if you've met hundreds and hundreds of people and tried to memorize their stories, and you've had more than two or three different jobs in your life, and a millionaire miles, it takes about 18 minutes."
Debbie: You know the great designer Paula Scher, who designed the Citibank logo, drew it on a napkin but said that ... And it took her about 10 seconds, but it really took her 10 seconds and 31 years.
David Lee: Yeah, but I know Paula Scher's background that goes all the way back to almost every album cover she's done. The jazz ones with the airbrush were the best.
Debbie: Oh, I think the Boston album, although she hates when they say that.
David Lee: Come on, it is ... She learned from individuals that were surrounding, all the best arts and crafts comes from a group, a gang, a collective. Saltz, who writes for New York, says you've got to form gangs. You've got to form cliques. Alternately, support with each other, compete with each other, defend each other, harass each other. It doesn't matter if you're Picasso or Paul McCartney. You came from a group, a collective. For Picasso, what was it? Georges Braque. They would decide, "I am painting the Kleenex box." Picasso would go, "Your Kleenex box is shit," and try to out-paint the exact same Kleenex box. Today we think, "Oh no, auteur. He worked alone." Oh, the only one who ever did that was Prince.
Debbie: Yeah, some people that the best way to get your best work is to have a nemesis that you are really, really competing with.
David Lee: I'm going to enlarge upon that, is that your best teachers, your best coaches, the ones who are going to get the most dramatic, most combustion out of your engine, will be your most hated, your most feared and your most disastrous adversary.
David Lee: Because you know how to bullshit everybody else.
Debbie: Whenever I feel really, really, really bad about myself and my life I think about, what can I do to better the people that don't think enough of me?
David Lee: Well, good answer to anybody who criticizes you in any way. You can drop them with a simple throw by going, "You know what? You may be right." Sometimes, that leads you to some self-examination but it's even more academic than that. It's chemical. Figure out in advance something that you need to think through, whether that's a family issue. "Oh, shit. How do I tell mom about this? All right, there's a reunion coming up. I'll tell my sister first, then we'll show her the bill." That kind of thinking of, "Oh, no. I just got fired. What the fuck am I going to do?" That kind of thing, or blank canvas, blank canvas, blank canvas, blank canvas. Paint something, will you? Figure out something you need to get your brain working on, right?
Like this, and then we call it channeling your fury, okay, or your pain, or your self-pity. Very important, do not be embarrassed by it. You need time to feel sorry for yourself. Tell your spouse. All that's got to go into the work, and the time when you are most put upon, some soul-crushing nonsense that happens to you, it doesn't matter if they fucked up your hot dog at Papaya King or you just got sued and lost everything. An 80-piece move, oh, you just lost 80 pieces off the board? Can you tolerate swings like that? And your adrenaline and all that serotonin and all those great chemicals are going to kick in, like when you drop the plunger on a nitrous canister in one of those cars in Fast and Furious. Number six is best.
Whew, and now get to thinking about what you've got to fix. Have it in your back pocket. Because if you try to go, "Okay, I'm going to channel," no, no, no, no. Your sails are up late. You're going to ruin your boat. You're fucked up. Try it again next time. Go get drunk. Go to sleep. Smoke some pot. Slow down. If you have it ready, "Okay, shit. I've got to think of lyrics for this first verse and this chorus," or "I've got to unwind some family disaster again. Okay, I know I've got to think of that." As soon as you piss me off for any reason, all right, I'll literally pull my jacket over my head on the bus, the plane, the car, and get to thinking on that, and that's when that adrenaline goes to work for you. It's like napalm, very effective. Just be very careful where you place it and have it ready. There's advice. You had a better question than my answer, though.
Debbie: I've been very patiently sitting here. When have you felt sorry for yourself?
David Lee: Well, currently my running comedy line is fear and revenge are my main pivot.
Debbie: I don't know if that's an answer to the question.
David Lee: Fear and revenge; revenge on my wristwatch, because it's 10 years too fast, okay? I wasted a lot of fucking time waiting around for the guitar player, all right? So I'm not going to change him, and I sure ain't changing history in the rear view mirror, even if I turn it. So let's turn that rear view mirror, see how good we look while we're getting somewhere. Tell the wristwatch, "Fuck you," and get ahead of it, like grandma says, okay? Maybe that's as close as I get for feeling sorry for me, okay? Go beyond that, I'm kind of all over crybaby alcoholic millionaires bouncing on the end of the mattress, taking up folks like your time going, "Well, you know, I feel too ..." I feel sorry for a lot of my fellow man when I reflect that God is just. You watch the news?
Debbie: Oh, yes. You didn't fall into a lot of the traps that a lot of rock and rollers did. You've never been in rehab. You haven't been divorced 14 times.
David Lee: Well, if you read ... I'm going to generalize wildly here, okay? If you read, all right, then you'll experience the lessons of others in your generation. The Miles Davis biography is amazing, and there's a whole lot of traps. "Here's what happens when you do this, this and that, and here's who's liable to line up and hate on you."
Debbie: Yeah, but did you read Miles' autobiography back then?
David Lee: I started reading everything I could possibly shoplift in fourth grade. I had a special raincoat. It was four sizes too big.
Debbie: Did you ever get caught? Oh, you must have when you got to go down to the police precinct.
David Lee: I got caught more than a few times. If you had even a vaguely interesting cover of a paperback or a magazine, you went down the sleeve. I was reading paperbacks like The Carpetbaggers, the first real sexy one from Harold Robbins. I knew who Lenny Bruce was in fourth grade, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. The Dick Gregory book, The N Word, that was the actual title, was on the spindle up at the Rexall. That went down the sleeve, and all of that opened up my eyes to, Dick Gregory was the first black comedian to play in white clubs. He caused a big furor, and he was talking about civil rights. His next book was called The Back of the Bus. I was a fourth grader, but I was an avid reader. I could read way past my given chronological age.
Debbie: So that kept you from-
David Lee: Well, there's pitfalls. I knew what killed Marilyn Monroe, and I knew what killed Billie Holiday. I knew what killed Elvis, and I knew ultimately long before I even started listening to Elvis, lessons of history. And if it's history's mulched in with very colorful and interesting and tenuous lifestyles, then you remember it perhaps a little better.
Debbie: But you never succumbed to those excesses [crosstalk 00:48:30].
David Lee: Oh, certainly I did.
Debbie: In what way?
David Lee: Oh, I consumed my body weight in anything that showed up in early books. If any of the early authors, if any of the Apollinaires did it, if any of the, again Henry Millers or-
Debbie: But it didn't overtake you the way that it did-
David Lee: The jazz musicians-
Debbie: The way that it did Eddie. I mean, he ended up having to go to rehab, but you did not.
David Lee: Okay, all right, to be perfectly fair, okay, I've had my wild excesses, okay? But it usually involved corn alcohol and women, loud African-American music, the remixes. Beyond that though, I always balanced the physical, okay? I'll say it so you remember. Mind's working, butt's twerking. I don't-
Debbie: It took you two years to do some of those jumps you did in Jump.
David Lee: It took me a lot of time, and I started off physical from the time I was able to really walk and run. Parents made damn sure of it. Let me think. I walked into the garage in seventh grade, and there was a pair of parallel bars which were-
Debbie: In your garage?
David Lee: Yeah.
David Lee: Pop bought them, Olympic parallel bars. He told me, "You're going to learn parallel bars."
Debbie: Why parallel bars?
David Lee: He just decided. Gymnastics are revered in the Midwest. You don't need a whole lot of equipment to do it, and then ultimately the martial arts started in the-
David Lee: Yeah, on my birthday, and still all the variety. When we say martial arts, it's not just a fist-to-face confrontation. It's not kickboxing and mixed martial arts. You'll go through that phase, all right, but what you're learning ultimately is something that's much more consequential than that. You're just not going to engage any adult males over 12 years old for long unless there's a move and groove and whatever. Now in kendo class, which I attended here in New York many times, most of the participants are female. We started our little girls when they were about nine years old. Okay, you've seen what a kendo helmet looks like with the shoulder pads and whatever. You teach your little nine-year-old girl what it means to have a 180 pound monster like me come screaming at her with a bamboo cane.
Now of course, you just lightly tap. We take care of the kids, but she learns that all that smoke and fury doesn't mean shit. Okay, all your micro-traumas go out the window when you learn that screaming and yelling and sweat and threat are, "Fuck you in 82 languages." That's what I assumed right off the bat, and she'll begin to develop her core, her core strength. Now, I come from show business where most of the folks in front office have all the spiritual core of a cannoli, okay, right? It can be somebody like Gaga or Pink, and there's a determination there that's kind of old school like from the '50s or something.
Debbie: They work hard.
David Lee: Gwen Verdon, and there's a new documentary coming out about Fosse and Verdon, who did Damn Yankees and all of that kind of a thing. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. Well, that isn't by genetics. You've got to teach little Lola how to swing a sword, and it doesn't have to be a sword. For me, my word is my hand. My voice is my sword. I'll get the job done long before anybody draws a pistol, Sarge.
Debbie: At the height of Van Halen's fame, you said that when the people screamed so hysterically for such a sustained period of time, they're screaming for themselves. Not for you or for Eddie, but because they seem themselves reflected in the band.
David Lee: You feel your own strength, your own power. You feel like you could march on trouble.
Debbie: How does that happen?
David Lee: Oh, it happens almost religiously. Get before me devil, all right? If I say it like that you go, "That's preacher's meeting. That's gospel. That's Foursquare Baptist. Yeah, it's the exact same mechanism. First you start off looking at the preacher, and then your eyes roll back in your head. You start reaching up, and it's about you at that point. You feel strength. You feel the confidence, and for those who don't know how to say a prayer, I'll say it and you dance to it.
Debbie: You released Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, and then came 1984. Jump was actually the first video I ever saw of the band, and I was mesmerized and kind of overwhelmed by the sexuality and power of the band. Why did you leave the band?
David Lee: All rock bands are always on the verge of breaking up at any given time, okay? There's a lot of fury, a lot of competing egos. There's always going to be something that is a determining, misdirected factor. Sometimes it's alcohol, and sometimes it's your wife, okay? And the wives started going, "You know what? You're the important one. You're the one the audience loves, not your brother," and they started listening.
Debbie: Why didn't you ever get married?
David Lee: Honestly?
David Lee: I'm not well-adjusted at all. I'll tell you the funny way, okay? How many rock stars does it take to put in a light bulb? One; the world revolves around me.
Debbie: Really? You think that that's why?
David Lee: Absolutely. Absolutely, and I'll level with you straight. I'm not really good for living with in terms of outside the budget, outside the team, outside the group. I don't have any employees. I've got an audience as of three days ago, I was standing up in front of an audience of people, average age probably 19, aircraft carrier. It was owned, run and operated by 19-year-olds. That's the average age of the crew, so don't make light of 19.
Debbie: So have you ever wanted to get married? Have you ever, or have you always just been like, "No, not me"?
David Lee: I probably had four or five girlfriends over my lifetime.
Debbie: Those are the lines in your head that you talk about, your forehead.
David Lee: That's right. The deepest and shortest is Stacy from Dallas.
David Lee: It wasn't very long, the relationship. I'm having to psychoanalyze myself, and I'm old enough to be perfectly honest. I'm a retro hetero, but in terms of the process and courtship and whatnot, at this point in time I'm just a target. I'm just an agenda.
Debbie: What do you mean?
David Lee: It means, I'm something to be appropriated.
Debbie: But what about your own feelings?
David Lee: My own feelings are, "Am I being appropriated? Am I being manipulated and maneuvered in here?" Because I'm a trophy now.
David Lee: All right? The idea that I'm just going to bump into somebody and then first thing I'm going to hear is, "I like the real Dave." Really? Because I haven't even showed him to you.
Debbie: So I'm assuming that we've gotten very little of the real Dave today.
David Lee: Oh, you got 100% of real Dave here.
David Lee: Absolutely.
Debbie: Okay, good. That's good to know.
David Lee: Absolutely.
Debbie: One of the things that I was really struck by, all of the interviews that I listened to you was how good a mimic you are. So you can do Leonard Cohen. You can do Aerosmith. You can do ZZ Top. You can do Ricky Ricardo. It's kind of amazing.
David Lee: Well okay, first off, I was taught very early on from my singing teachers, before I was a teenager, to learn to sing in other languages.
Debbie: I know.
David Lee: Because you're using, I don't know, maybe there's 17 different muscles that make your armature, the way you set your jaw and create your tones, for different languages. The way you set for Urdu is different than English, which is different than British. It starts to move like that. The purpose being is cross-training, trying to imitate people directly. You've also got to work that sound, and in fact let me try and put my headsets on, because what really got that going is when they fired me from doing what was supposed to be the ... Howard Stern had left. He'd gone on to SiriusXM, and I got the 103 whatever, the KROCK kind of thing, and they took away all my guests because they said I was playing too much ethnic music. We know what that means. That I was having late-night humor too early in the morning, and my guests were larcenists. So I started interviewing dead guys. Secret; I did both voices.
David Lee: I can tell that. Full disclosure.
Debbie: Yeah, yeah. They were dead.
David Lee: I interviewed Hendrix.
Debbie: Like I said-
David Lee: And so forth, and had to do the voices. That Diamond Dave, he's a good man. I'd do a little Springsteen, right? Because I looked out the window, and it's Clarence. To tell you the truth, we'd seen saxophone players before in Freehold, but none of us had ever seen anything like the snowmobile he was riding.
Debbie: That is good.
David Lee: Well obviously, I spend a lot of time by myself. Let me tell you, I spend a lot of time-
Debbie: It's worth it if you can figure out how to do that.
David Lee: I have a teleplay coming up I've been working on for three years, all right?
Debbie: What's a teleplay?
David Lee: Well, I don't know what you're calling it today. I call it The Martians are Landing, thank you, Orson Welles. You know, it's sound effects and so forth.
David Lee: Been working on this project for three years, and I play all the parts, all right? And they have varying different kinds of accents. You sit in airport for nothing. You may be entertained for self. All of these people, why bother? Well, I tell you why, because every fucking one of them is in your voice layer. It's a way of getting a little bit fucking closer, isn't it? Hello, I can tell this. You get that far into it, and don't forget, you see my inner child is like a little fucking Edward James Olmos, see? This was a good idea for an interview. What were you thinking, Loco? I wasn't. Clearly. It's not always for fun. You get that far into somebody's soul, and then that gets into your voice. Every time I sing, every one of them's in there. Now you're in it, too. So are you, yes.
Debbie: You've said that your favorite audience is disbelieving nonbelievers and non-smilers. Why is that?
David Lee: Oh, at the incept if you're already loved and accepted and it's a birthday party, yes, that's one experience. Everybody knows every word to every song that I sing. They know them better than I do. We have a fellow who imitates me perfectly. He makes a living imitating me. He plays in rock bands in Vegas and so forth. His name's Ralph. We call him David Lee Ralph.
David Lee: I watch videos with Ralph, because he has every key bullet point move, every archetypic thing that I do. Sometimes I forget to do the backbend. I forgot to do the backbend. He memorized everything, right down to my voice and my accent.
Debbie: Wow, so you said that you're funny but you're not happy.
David Lee: I'm never content. There's always some daily catastrophe, or the big projects require holding your mud and staying cool. What's the most important song in Damn Yankees? (singing) Okay, and then in West Side Story, (singing). And my answer to that many years later is, stay frosty.
Debbie: Are you not happy?
David Lee: Routinely not. I think I'm appreciative of even the smallest, and smaller and smaller things now. I get such a kick. I see my business manager. She was sitting out there. She knows what I mean when I say window time.
Debbie: What does that mean?
David Lee: It's when I get my job done. I sit in the window. I can tell the staff. I tell everybody, "I've got to do some window time on this." I literally go sit in the window just like that, and I might be there four or five hours. I do not have attention deficit anything. I can sit and just read a book and I'll be there six hours later. It's been a difficulty sometimes, because everything else goes away. I have no trouble with focus.
Debbie: It sounds to me though that if you're able to do that, that that could be a moment of being happy, no?
David Lee: Well, I'm always solving a catastrophe. I started a newsletter called The Daily Catastrophe. I just slide it under the door on the road to everybody, because the really good trips are full of destinations which the traveler cannot expect. But I can predict for you, you better bring a parka, some Band-Aids, some mosquito ... It's a long list, Deb.
Debbie: But what is-
David Lee: And it has nothing to do with your destination.
Debbie: But what is catastrophe and happy? How are they correlated, or how is catastrophe and unhappiness correlated for you?
David Lee: Happy for me is identifying the deception. Oh, that's so cool, whether that's on a chessboard or in a business negotiation or listening to a political speech. That's a popular one today, you follow?
David Lee: Or whether it's wandering into a catastrophic situation and getting everybody settled down and making directed sense of it, I like that. It's not adventure until the shit starts pouring out of the skies anyway. No mud, no Woodstock.
Debbie: So is it about control?
David Lee: Well certainly, and it's about the challenge of, okay, now use your tools. You called up for this. You didn't just wander into it. You got ready. You got your mind right. You got yourself right, whatever that meant, you follow? Whether it's a debate or whether you're going to try and walk across Borneo. I know some fellows who did that. I prefer debate. Either way, we banked our ideas and got ready, all right?
Debbie: Yeah, I mean I'm still trying to figure out the correlation between catastrophe and happiness, but I do think that it has something to do with control, forget the reality.
David Lee: Oh, it absolutely has to do with control. But then the crucible of human emotion doesn't happen up until 13,000 feet. That's when everything disintegrates and you can't sleep more than two hours. All of the fears and the paranoia and the demons kick in, and everybody starts arguing with each other and going, "You know what? I've always hated the way you chew your food." Really?
Debbie: Now you're talking about love.
David Lee: Things start to fall apart at those kinds of altitudes.
Debbie: Yeah, what made you decide to start INK the original?
David Lee: INK the original is a product of my complaining, whining, almost killing myself and almost killing the team dozens of times out climbing, kayaking, surfing, camping, camping, more camping, walking, bicycle. I use my bicycle every day to go to the 7-Eleven, instead of the car. I'm an expert at what not to do.
Debbie: Why is that?
David Lee: Oh, I've done everything wrong. I have nine really good scars all over me. I've got seven surgeries. I'm the bionic dude, the Watkins teen, Dr. Duffy. Those guy's, forget it, they saved me. Everything you've seen that Free Solo, the movie? Oh, I've almost killed myself on all those climbs.
Debbie: That really is unbelievable.
David Lee: A couple of Alex's climbs I almost killed the team.
Debbie: That movie-
David Lee: I make no bones.
Debbie: Is incredible.
David Lee: Of course.
Debbie: It's not about free soloing. It's about persistence. It's an incredible movie.
David Lee: Yes. If I'm an expert at anything, in outdoor craft, field craft and so forth, that's where it comes in. And over the years of swearing up and down, "Okay, I'm going to create this, this, this and that, and here are all the basic concepts." Well, I started with when I went and showed mom my tattoo. She says, "What do you do when you go to the beach?" Okay, there's special requirements here and beyond, okay, it's got to be scent-free, transparent, da, da, da, reapply.
Debbie: It’s safe.
David Lee: Wait a minute. Wait a second. What about if I go climbing in this shit? The last thing I want to do is get this on my hands again. You want to go into the salt water, let's not kill the reef. I did not realize, in my insular world, that there was a huge, huge market for this. I started creating stuff that was for folks who really do live in unforgiving environments. I call it backpack-friendly, all right? It's got to be identifiable in a foreign language. I can identify things in foreign languages, but in case I have to tell the cook, "Memorize this one." You see my INK logo. Can you handle it with gloves, et cetera? Because all of our stuff is tactical and practical.
Debbie: What made you decide to start the company? What made you decide to take your life in this direction?
David Lee: I've never been in business outside of art-centric song and dance. I saw it as an opportunity. Here we are expanding into "an unknown territory where I can use virtually all of my skills and talents, starting with connecting people with great big ideas and then motivating them all." What grandma used to call, getting them all north, getting everybody going north. Think like a Scoutmaster. And sometimes I'm in front going, "Follow me." Half of being a good Scoutmaster is looking over your shoulder 50% of the time going, "Count up," and then handing over the responsibility to somebody else and going, "All right. I'm going to go in back and make sure we didn't lose anybody." I get to do all of that in many, many different departments and divisions of what we do here that are far more expansive than simply making records or perhaps even touring, although it is supremely inclusive of everything in those departments that I've learned.
Debbie: You have I believe over 60 products now. What kind of products are you making? Can you talk about what they are and what they're used for and why?
David Lee: Yeah, it's for unforgiving environments, having lived out of a suitcase or a backpack, on a tour bus or on a boat or on an airplane. It's not just amphibious assault. Sure, we're military-friendly but it means family events, spring break, fixing that God damn tire right outside of Vegas again. I told you about that tire, Deb.
Debbie: So it's skin care products that protect skin that is both tattooed or not tattooed.
David Lee: Well, if I can protect your Rembrandt, that's an investment of emotion. It's an investment of money. It's a responsibility way more than, "I'm going to the beach for three days. What have you got?"
Debbie: What made you believe that this was a viable market?
David Lee: Tattoos today, ink today, is the only true Esperanto. I've visited tribes who don't have music, who don't dance. Usually people go, "Everybody has dance." No.
Debbie: It's telegraphic.
David Lee: Not everybody sings. There are religions that forbid singing or government. It's like, "No singing, no dancing." But everybody has a mark. Everybody will carry the mark, even if it's not ink. Somebody who is Islamic or Mohammadan, whatever, when you are bowing three times, four times a day, you'll have a mark. It's the same as a tattoo. It says who you are, where you've been, where you're going, all right? And it's how we communicate when we no longer speak each other's language. If you've got cupcakes on your farm, you're a baker. You got pinnacles on your shoulder blade, you were a prisoner somewhere. If you've got four little dots, where'd you do your time? You've got hearts and a musical note, I see you up in your Lincoln Center. "You Juilliard? I noticed the violin case. My name's Dave." Right? You see what I'm saying.
Debbie: I dod. I read that when you were at a sushi bar, you might consider folding back a little of your shirtsleeve to get better service.
David Lee: That works until they figure out I'm Jewish.
Debbie: How on earth do they figure that out? Are you wearing a yarmulke?
David Lee: The sense of humor.
Debbie: Oh, okay. Fair enough, yeah.
David Lee: There is no Jewish chapter of the Akuza. I doubt there ever will be, and if they have a sense of humor it's certainly not larcenist, co-conspiratorial and laugh to win.
Debbie: You're not just going after the tattoo world with this new product line with your company. You're actually going after companies like Procter and Gamble.
David Lee: If I can protect what I perceive to be the most difficult thing to protect. You've got a Picasso on your arm there. If you want to wait around until you're my age to hit the weight stack, you'll look like a 60-something who goes to the gym three times a week. Outstanding work, let's try again. Start now, you'll be able to fool them for years, says me, all right?
Debbie: Well, if you start early, supposedly it's-
David Lee: Keep that tattoo looking good. It'll last a whole lot longer, et cetera, et cetera, okay? Using that accelerated technology, the rest of it now is at our hands, okay? Because we can do packaging. We can do printing. We can do marketing. There's probably 17 different labs that we deal with now for our products, because if you want the best beeswax, you're going to the Carolinas. My directors of affairs do that specifically, all right? Most of the products that we deal with on the Duane Reed shelf are made in New Jersey at a single factory with a French name. You're all thinking of it, right? Because there's about four of them that have French names.
Debbie: Yeah, I was going to say [crosstalk 01:12:19]?
David Lee: And they're all made in New Jersey at one factory. That factory makes all of the stuff, and I took a small batch artisanal approach. I've used the example of ice cream. Everybody likes ice cream. Everybody generally likes coconut vanilla. Well, if you want to make some really, really superb vanilla coconut ice cream, you're going to have to learn some French because the vanilla lady lives in Tahiti, and the cow lives up in Wisconsin. You don't have to learn French.
Debbie: Thank you.
David Lee: Although the cow appreciates it. Really, it's way more work. It is way more labor intensive, adds a few cents more to the price, but what you're getting is the equivalent of super fine small batch Scotch, super. You're getting a case of the best premium Dom Perignon, okay? The best stuff.
Debbie: How's the business doing so far?
David Lee: Superb. We just had a fellow offer, no shit, 25 large to get involved in investment, 25 million.
David Lee: Straight up, and we're in our very first season, but take a look around. When you think of ink, you won't be able to see anything but. Virtually everybody is walking around with some version of who I am, where I've been and who I plan on being.
Debbie: Why do you think that that change has shifted? I mean 50 years ago, 40 years ago, maybe even 30 years ago, people that were wearing tattoos were subversive. They were prisoners. They were-
David Lee: Which is exactly why we started wearing it, because it works to the anti-hero. The anti-hero doesn't mean the bad guy, okay? Think of all those Clint Eastwood movies. You think of any detective movie, the hero is always arguing with the police boss. God damn it, Callahan, you break up any more cars I'm never going ..." Every police thriller has the irate police chief, right?
Debbie: It's a trope, yeah.
David Lee: And the hero is anti that guy. He's going to break the rules to get it done. Okay, that's what the anti is, and the antihero is probably going to have sideburns. He might smoke cigarettes. He might actually be a Tony Soprano kind of guy. He may wear blue jeans instead of a business suit, and he probably has a tattoo. Rock and roll has made our living in the rebel sell. This is, we are antiheroes. We're against, supposedly, the codified, the format, the expected, the overly conservative, you follow?
Debbie: Yeah, but that's not really rock and roll anymore.
David Lee: Oh, yes it is, very much.
Debbie: Well, I mean yes. No, it's still rock and roll. There just aren't that many people doing it in that way.
David Lee: Well, rock and roll has transmogrified, and now they're wearing businessman haircuts-
David Lee: And anti-gun lobby. Okay, it's the same. The anti-gun lobby is the same as, we're not going to take it because of civil rights, or we want the vote. Also, we're always confronted. I've been really aware of this since living in Japan, with are we, and I'll say to myself, am I going to be an original or an archetype?
Debbie: And what is your answer?
David Lee: Both, out of the arch-
Debbie: How do you tell the difference?
David Lee: Well, I think the original is a combination of many different types. If you really follow note for note, okay, I'm going to be an archetype. This haircut, that kind of cigarette, I say, "Let's build one." Fresh archetype, late '70s, the American uniform was a bomber jacket, Levis straight-legged, okay? Cowboy boots, you follow? Three-day face, Marlboro cigarettes. That's archetype. All right, I'll take the cigarette and the boots. But over here, I dig those Viet Cong pajama pants. I'll take a pair of those, and I like over here. You know what? I'm just going to wear that trench coat. It comes from different places. Original? You're going to borrow and access. You're going to extrapolate. You're going to extract and you're going to use it. You're going to make it your own.
Debbie: And you do. David Lee, I have one last question for you. You said that you simply have to be creative all the time. You have to create new things, and you never have writers' block. What advice would you have for somebody that does have writer's block? What would you tell them?
David Lee: Banking; don't sit in the middle of the room waiting for Jesus to talk to you. He's busy. You bank your ideas long before you sit down in front of a microphone or before you sit down at the empty page with a pen in hand, and I do both, before you approach the canvas. As you go through your day, anything that inspires you, and for me it is language. That's a big pivot to me, so the taxi driver may have an expression. The taxi driver turns. I say, "How's it going?" He says, "Eh, there are some days." Wow, what a title. Add two dots to it. There are some days, that's a song title.
Debbie: It's a book title.
David Lee: It's the title of a lot of my history, and don't be foolish enough like I do to think you're going to remember it. Bank it. Put it on the page, you follow?
Debbie: I do.
David Lee: That's the simplest expression of it. You're banking your thoughts, your ideas, and no useless days, no wasted days. Wasting time is important to me. There's time that you just want to do nothing.
Debbie: Look out the window, yeah.
David Lee: It means a lot to me, but even that is kind of slotted in. It's not infinite, and it's not that I feel that I have to be productive. It's, I realize now that I am surrounded by input, stimuli, and banking it.
Debbie: You seem to squeeze every single moment out of life.
David Lee: I've seen folks who've wasted a lot of time, and I've heard the expressions, "Wasting talent is a sin." If you have a talent for something, then it usually means other folks can go along on the trip with you, all right? So I'll take it out of the super-personal first person, and in terms of wasting time, if you have the talent, for example, to put together an idea and then guess what? Now we're going to take our idea. We're going to go to Europe with it. And you waste time and you're, "Oh, I don't want to do this. I don't want to go." Well, what about everybody else who threw in with you? Not everybody's going to be a group leader in life. Somebody like yourself, you're a team leader. It is incumbent upon you for everybody else who throws in with you to do field trips, to illuminate, to entertain. Now dang it, if you can't find it within yourself, you do it for them. You follow my reasoning?
David Lee: So-
Debbie: David Lee Roth, thank you for being such an incredible force in the world, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
David Lee: Deborah, great questions. Great ideas.
Debbie: Thank you.
David Lee: Thank you so much.
Debbie: Thank you. For more information-
David Lee: Let me answer that this way.
Debbie: Well done. For more information about David Lee Roth, you can go to his website at DavidLeeRoth.com, or you can see his new skin care line at InkTheOriginal.com. This is the 15th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
David Lee: We can go get a beer in a second. What's the difference?
Debbie: Yes, we can.
David Lee: Yes.