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Book Review: 'Crazy from the Heat'

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Let’s say you strolled into a bar one night, and there, nursing a whiskey all by himself in the corner, was the-one-and-only-wham-bam-thank-you-Sam! David Lee Roth. What would you do? Briskly head the other way? Break out in snorts? Or would you sidle up next to the notorious singer, who might well immerse you for hours in trippy tales of fame, fortune-cookie wisdoms, and non sequiturs?

Perhaps if you were an adventurous sort, you’d give the guy an audience, just for the story you could tell your friends the next day. And it is only in this aw-what-the-freak frame of mind that you should attempt Roth’s autobiography, Crazy From the Heat. Don’t come to this table expecting polite discourse — ”If I should ever do a book of my lyrics,” he once said, it ”should come with a bong, a thesaurus, and a driver-side airbag” — rather, just sit back and suck down outlandish anecdotes from a semi-charmed life. Some’ll make you laugh, some’ll make you scoff, and the rest may leave you with something of a hangover.

Indeed, Dave’s saga (mercifully whittled to 359 pages from 1,200) makes for perfect set-’em-up-Joe material: The Pasadena punk catapulted Van Halen to mega-success with his blond mane and winking charm, but after ego clashes drove him from the band in 1985, he began a long day’s journey into irrelevance (save for last year’s ill-fated VH reunion). But now the pinup boy for ’80s excess is back for more, seeking reflection and redemption through a greatest-hits CD and this tell-all.

Dave recounts his rollercoaster ride in Crazy with prose so disarmingly chatty, you’d swear you were listening to a book on tape. The 800-pound guerrilla style of the narrative (the F-word appears twice in the first paragraph) spares no detail from his straight-outta-Hollywood beginnings: He saw his first psychiatrist for being ”superactive” when he was 6 years old; had read the Koran and Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by the time he was 13; and had oral sex in 10th grade (while watching Buddy Hackett on The Tonight Show!).

Though Crazy‘s chapters often provide nothing more than throwaway chuckles — ”My personal record is five chicks at once” — a few effectively cut through the sparkle of Diamond Dave. Did you know that Roth always saved a front-row seat at his concerts for his grandmother? And that he washes the stage himself the night before the first show of every tour? ”If you’re willing to get on your hands and knees, like a washwoman, and scrub every square centimeter of that deck … ” he writes, ”there’s no further commitment that you can make.”

Actually, Roth is cleaning more than the floor here; he’s trying to wipe clear his entire slate. He spews bitterness about Eddie and Alex Van Halen (”This kind of morbid, wounded animal anger aimed my way has caused me to look deep into [my] bathroom mirror and come back to you with, ‘My s— was legit”’). He also reveals a struggle against anti-Semitism (references to the Balfour Declaration, the Maccabees, and the Hezbollah? Whoa). ”Every step I took on that stage,” he writes with an almost palpable sneer, ”was smacking some Jew-hating, lousy punk ever deeper into the deck.” No, this book isn’t just a confessional: It’s a free-wheelin’ vehicle to justify his existence.

Like many people with the gift of gab, though, Roth doesn’t know when to cool it. The book is bogged down by meandering chapters that have all the depth of a Bazooka comic, including one about life on the road (it’s hard to sleep on a bus) and another on hiking in the Himalayas (spiritual awakening at 22,000 feet in a guy who wore buttless spandex). There are moments when he does show a sort of Tourette’s intellectualism: rant, rant, rant — and suddenly a stroke of genuine insight. Riffing on the increasingly meaningless cult of fame, he notes: ”You crack a PEOPLE magazine … you don’t even recognize the names until you read in the parentheses the name of the television show.”

It’s a poignant observation for someone searching to stave off the parentheses that are creeping into his own celebrity. C+

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