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Viva Van Halen! A Second-by-Second Analysis of David Lee Roth’s Vocal Genius


After some false starts and misleading tweets, the Van Halen reunion becomes a reality on January 5, when the hard-rocking and legendarily harder-partying legends take the stage at Manhattan’s Café Wha. (Check back on January 6 for a report from the show!)

Presumably, the intimate set will be accompanied by a specific announcement about the band’s 2012 tour and studio album. I can’t wait! Eddie Van Halen’s fingertapping guitar genius! Alex Van Halen’s larger-than-average drum-set! Wolfgang Van Halen’s last name! And, of course, my favorite part of the band’s sound: Diamond David Lee Roth’s gloriously hammy vocals.

Hammy’s the wrong word. DLR’s not a ham. He’s pork shoulder, belly, ribs, and loins topped with a heaping hunk of smoked guanciale. And Van Halen is where Roth’s unctuous genius shines most brightly.

And below you can hear it in its most unadorned state. This clip of Roth’s naked vocal track for 1978’s “Runnin’ With the Devil” has been kicking around (and brightening my days) for a while now, but it’s a perfect pre-VH reunion primer. Below is my second-by-second analysis. Listen. Read. Learn.

00:00 to 0:19: No one sings “yeah” with more brio. Roth kicks things off with a guttural Satchmo-styled “aw, yes,” follows that with an “aw yais” (switching from “yeah” to “yes”mid-syllable), rolls into a spiky “yeah yeah” and then ratchets up into a falsetto “Ha, yeah!” Theme-and-variation, folks. That’s what Mozart did.

00:20 to 00:39>: The verse. Roth uses a guitar player’s trick here, punctuating the end of each line with some raspy, sassy vibrato, saving the widest vocal wobble for the final, “I’m living at a pace that KILLLLLS.” He’s easing into the song, building his performance line-by-line.

00:40 to 00:57: A series of exclamations that my description will fail to capture: he sounds like he’s just discovered the gift of his own voice. Or perhaps like he put his finger in an electrical socket while getting a beej. I don’t know. How do you describe the color blue? This is David Lee Roth at his David Lee Rothiest.

00:58 to 1:00: He drawls, “I’ll tell you all about it.”

1:01 to 1:20: He tells us all about it in the second verse.

1:21 to 1:33: Seemingly in a contest with himself to see how much swagger he can emit with one breath, Roth sings, “GoddamitbabyyouknowIain’tlyingtoyouI’monlygonnatellyouonetimeaaaaaaaahyeah!” It’s a lot of swagger.

1:34 to 1:58: This is an instrumental part of the song. So except for a couple tossed-off “yeahs,” Diamond Dave lays back. He’s got something up his sleeve, though.

1:59 to 2:02: David Lee Roth blows a penny whistle.

2:03 to 2:04: “Wooooo!” The pennywhistle is very charming.

2:05 to 2:37: Third verse. This Roth quote, I think, generally captures the vibe here: “I always wanted to be an outrage to public decency and a threat to women. And this is one of the few occupations where you’re not only allowed that, but you’re encouraged.”

2:38 to 3:00: Some subtle exhortatory grunts. He is just feeling the music now.

3:01 to 3:28: The Spanish call it duende. For the Irish, it’s yarragh. It means a particular quality of passion. Think of a basketball player screaming after throwing down a vicious dunk or a Muezzin’s call to prayer. Those sounds come from a special place deep inside one’s soul. David Lee Roth gets there in this passage. May he do so again on the road in 2012.