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The Gripes of Roth

David Lee Roth's fall from grace -- From 80s rock God to an unknown rocker of the 90s, Roth talks about past and his attempt to make music again

The hair is shorter and wispier, a shaggy bowl cut that hardly seems capable of billowing to its former Pacific heights. The face is more gaunt, and the body has the look of an aging jock who works out once a week, tops. And yet there is that voice, which has lost little of its partied-too-hard rasp. ''Excuse me,'' David Lee Roth ingenuously asks a waiter passing his table in an L.A. cafe, ''is it completely illegal to smoke in a restaurant?''

The employee, who seems to recognize the diner but not enough to be overly deferential, informs Roth that he is sitting in the cigarette-free section, but says there is a smoking area. ''What if I take a few hits and somebody complains?'' says Roth, glancing around the nearly empty bistro. The waiter says the manager would not be happy about a $2,000 fine. After a few more queries, Roth relents, taking a seat in the smaller smoking area near the bar. ''Holy mackerel-political correctness,'' he says, in head-shaking disbelief. ''It's a-mazing.''

At 38, David Lee Roth can still resemble Diamond Dave, the rock rogue who presided over the '80s, first as the lead singer for Van Halen, then as a solo act. He still lets loose with winding, witty, street-philosopher raps on anything from censorship to sex to his fondness for country music. And he still punctuates his sentences with a teeth-baring, Cheshire-salesman grin.

Yet Roth's career may as well be in a smoking section all its own. His bitter break from Van Halen in 1985 supposedly signaled the start of a career as a singer and actor, but his albums have sold less each time, and a movie career that was to have started with a never-made film, Crazy From the Heat, never happened. Two years ago, Roth personally called the New York branch of Planet Hollywood to attend its opening-night party. The owners hesitated because, in the words of a former employee, ''they didn't think he was a big enough star.'' The man who ruled MTV during the first half of the '80s now receives most of his airtime on the network during Beavis and Butt-head, who get their yuks mocking Roth's formerly hairsprayed mane and spandex-encased body.

''Sure, they're sitting there in 1994 reflectin' on the same things that make me giggle,'' Roth says. ''I was a reflection of the times. We had some expendable cash. Everything was big and powerful and largesse. And that's how I was, and what I created was a product of that. I was the one you expected to die from a heart attack or an overdose-'There's no way he could dance like that unless he's doin' something!'''

No, Roth didn't OD or suffer cardiac arrest. He simply kept being David Lee Roth-until, gradually, the name alone wasn't enough. In less than a decade, Roth's status has gone from being the pre-AIDS-era king of pop to someone whose very name provokes nostalgic queries of ''Whatever happened to him?'' What did happen? And who changed-Roth or us?

''The first night, it was just classic,'' Roth says, recalling his move from Pasadena, Calif., to New York City in 1991. ''Empty room, no furniture, hardwood floor. I sat there in my drawers in the corner going, 'What have you done this time?' Because''-he lowers his voice and adds a conspiratorial smile-''I've done some pretty good stuff to qualify for a 'this time.'''

Roth has never been a fan of understatement, but calling his early days ''pretty good stuff'' is one such instance. In 1974, he hooked up with two fellow Pasadena kids, the Dutch-born sibs Alex and Edward Van Halen; by the end of the decade, the band named for the brothers was rich and famous. Reviled by critics, Van Halen nonetheless became the party-hearty, genre- busting hard-rock band of its time, driven by the matchup of Roth's splits- and-leaps showmanship and Eddie Van Halen's dive-bombing guitar heroics. ''We lived the life of adventure,'' Roth recalls proudly. ''We inspired people by demonstration. It was debauched, and it was sportin'!''

But just as Van Halen reached a sweeping new level of mainstream acceptance, thanks to the 6-million-selling album 1984, a rift ripped the band apart. The Van Halens complained about Roth's egomania; he says the group was ''slowin' down. Our mutual chemistry had led to four parts celebration-and the occasional hard work.'' Whether Roth jumped or was pushed is still a question, but by the summer of 1985, he was gone, replaced by Sammy Hagar. Says Roth, ''It was one of the best decisions I could have made.''

At first it was hard to argue. Right before the split, Roth recorded a solo project, Crazy From the Heat, whose deliciously tacky, cast-of-thousands videos for ''California Girls'' and ''Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody'' captured the why-worry excesses of the decade. In 1986, he formed a band of his own, cut an album, Eat 'Em and Smile, and hit the road. Together he and his band lived the rock high life, down to numbered security barricades at shows that made it easier for the band to pinpoint women they wanted brought backstage.

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