Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #20A/B

David Lee Roth – California Girls and Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody

The first time I really noticed Van Halen was in 1983. What got my attention was that the band was paid $1.5 million dollars to perform at the Us Festival, and the press about this made it clear that getting one-quarter of a Steve Austin was a very significant payday. At this point, Van Halen had one decent-sized hit in Canada – a not very interesting cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” – and as a dedicated listener to Top 40 radio, this amount made no sense at all to me. Why would they be paid so much when they had so few hits?

That, of course, changed the following year, with “1984” the album and a little song called “Jump”. Now, “Jump” is an awesome song that I am always happy to hear. But what came next was a lot more fun.

Eddie Van Halen may have been the heart and soul of the band, but frontman David Lee Roth was its genitals, and in rock and roll, that’s really what matters most. Outside of the music, everything interesting about the band starts and ends with Roth. Eddie was an amazing guitar player, but other than the axe nerds, we were all watching Crazy Dave to see what would come next. Roth was a consummate showman who would have fit in any era of music, and he proved it in 1985.

You can’t separate the songs from the videos, and it was those visuals that made him, ever so briefly, a solo superstar. “California Girls” casts Dave as a wacky – Dave is always wacky – tour guide. The subject of the tour is a collection of beautiful women, who Dave displays to his charges. It’s horr­ibly sexist – most of the women are little more than props, although it is clear at the end that everyone knows that’s what’s happening. Between the faux Rod Serling intro and outro, and Roth suggestively peeling an ear of corn and generally bringing an energy that at one point reminded me of Heath Ledger as The Joker, the whole thing is completely nutbar. Meanwhile, “Just A Gigolo” pokes fun at his competition, with Dave electrocuting Billy Idol, getting put in a wrestling hold by Cyndi Lauper, dancing with Michael Jackson, and being pawed at by Boy George. Both videos break the fourth wall, showing what happens behind the scenes in a sort of heightened madness. Throughout, Dave is the campy ringleader.

And the songs are just crazy fun to listen to. As covers, they don’t reinvent the wheel – they just add a healthy dose of Daveness to a few classics. There are howls, yelps, falsettos. “Just A Gigolo” is a knowing wink at his persona, which, in case you missed it, is made clear with the line change to “people know the part Dave’s playing”. Roth is just out there having fun, but he also knows he’s a product, and there’s a psychic price to that. It’s all fun and games until no one cares anymore, and there’s a world weariness to his delivery that brings this home.

But let’s not get too serious. In the end, this is just a very rich man at the top of his game screwing around because he’s playing with house money. No one was saying “no” to David Lee Roth in 1985, and he cashed in with a pair of delightful camp classics.

“California Girls” is easily the better of the two songs, and is for my money superior to the Beach Boys’ original (blasphemy!). The Beach Boys’ version is sluggish when put up against Roth’s, and just not nearly as much fun to listen to. It’s also more rock and roll with Dave. While the Beach Boys looked so conservative in their short hair and collared shirts, the kind of boys who would give their letterman jacket and school pin to Barbara Ann, David had other ideas for what he could get up to with those midwest farmers’ daughters.

Roth and Eddie Van Halen had an often tempestuous relationship, but everything seemed to be okay between them when Eddie passed in October 2020. Roth is only 67, but he claims he is retired. I have a hard time believing that – he always seemed like a guy who would die in the saddle (an appropriate turn of phrase if you’ve ever listened to the band’s album “Diver Down”). Roth may prove to be the musical version of the answer to the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If David Lee Roth isn’t entertaining someone somewhere, does he still exist? I hope so, but I’d love it if he gave us another “California Girls” before he rode off into the sunset.

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