35 Years Ago: David Lee Roth Stakes His Claim With ‘Yankee Rose’
The ’80s were a weird time for patriotic pop, protest songs and nuanced commentary on America that fell somewhere between pop and protest. The decade was also a weird time for David Lee Roth.
He's never been described as normal, but from “Hot For Teacher” to “Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody” to re-recording his vocals on Eat 'Em and Smile in Spanish, Van Halen's former frontman was an oddball streak of epic proportions.
Then he turned the Statue of Liberty into a sex symbol: “Yankee Rose,” the first single from Roth's debut solo LP Eat 'Em and Smile, arrived on June 18, 1986 – around the time the monument underwent a major renovation for the 100th anniversary of its dedication. The song became Roth's third Top 20 hit, but his first original. In this way, “Yankee Rose” set the tone for Roth’s solo output with a joyous, silly, witty and gonzo fetishization of one of the country's most iconic symbols.
Long-time fans were well aware of Roth's proclivity for both sexual innuendo and direct, emphatic sexual material. During his run with Van Halen, Roth had proclaimed his love for beautiful girls, pretty women, educators, women in love, senoritas, legs, little dreamers, little guitars, good times, and a car named "Panama." When he decided to go solo, or maybe was forced to, Roth's tastes only became more unpredictable.
He began with the Crazy From the Heat EP, which channeled his old band at its most campy. Reminiscent of Van Halen’s takes on “Happy Trails” and “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)," the four-song set paid tribute to Louis Prima (“Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody”), the Edgar Winter Group (“Easy Street”) and the Lovin' Spoonful ("Coconut Grove").
These covers might have been a reset, or perhaps they announced Roth's abandonment of hard rock to become a modern lounge singer – a sound he’d flirted with since 1980's “Could This Be Magic?” Instead, Crazy From the Heat gave way to the Van Halen-esque feel of “Yankee Rose.”
For a guy who never seemed to rush or calculate, “Yankee Rose” carried a heavy load. It celebrated an American landmark while attempting to beat Van Halen at its own game with a driving, but still Top 40-friendly tune that introduced a backing band of virtuosos featuring bassist Billy Sheehan, drummer Gregg Bissonette, and Steve Vai and his how-the-hell-is-he-doing-that guitar.
Eat 'Em and Smile showed Roth could write lyrics with gravitas. Between pure good-time anthems such as “Goin’ Crazy!,” he explored dreamy meditations on songs like “Ladies’ Night in Buffalo?” and “Big Trouble,” which triangulated the aesthetics of beat poetry, postmodern literature and cheeky rock ‘n’ roll. Still, mapping out Roth's artistic intent in these stranger songs proved quite elusive.
With “Yankee Rose,” he split the difference between the strange and mainstream. Mostly, the lyrics were obvious – she looks beautiful and wild, wild, wild! – but Roth's real intent seems to be a celebration of American liberty. He references the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, which began the American Revolution (“the shot heard 'round the world”), “America the Beautiful” (“sea to shining sea”), and “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“So pretty when her rockets glare, still provin' any night that her flag's still there”) along with nods to July 4th, independence, firecrackers, and the statue’s torchlight.
Listen to David Lee Roth Perform 'Yankee Rose'
There's also a sly reference to his own newly acquired freedom from Van Halen: “Well, guess who's back in circulation?” and “are you ready for the new sensation?” Taken together, “Yankee Rose” amounts to a sophisticated lyrical turn from a guy often known for yelling and yawping stuff such as “Ah-ah-ha yeah, whoo-hoo-ooh” in “Running With the Devil” – to say nothing of the immortal “mumala bebuhla zeebuhla boobuhla humala bebuhla zeebuhla bop.” Of course, Roth balances things out with an apple pie reference that has little to do with pastry.
The result was a fun, catchy tune, completed by a crack band that could compete with Van Halen. Roth had found his replacement aces in Vai, Sheehan and Bissonette, a trio whose resume sported an impressive and unpredictable mix of acts from Frank Zappa to Maynard Ferguson. Each of them had plenty of room to let rip on the LP, but Vai delivered the set's most jaw-dropping moment on “Yankee Rose.”
Roth begins the song by having an animated “conversation” with Vai's guitar, a trick that he and Eddie Van Halen never attempted over six albums. Vai offers a broad, ringing chord amid heavy drums, then a six-string squeal made to sound like a human voice seeking attention. “Whaaaat?” Roth calls back to the guitar. Vai responds with an even higher human-like squeal, and Roth launches into full lothario-meets-carnival-barker mode: “Well, let me roll up onto the sidewalk and take a look.” They proceed to trade catcalls and laughter, and only later do we understand that Roth is actually hitting on a 151-foot statue meant to welcome “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to American shores.
“Dave and I really hit it off,” Vai subsequently mused. “There’s something in us that has a similar kind of bent, a bizarre sense of humor. A lot of rock stars at the time would never go for something like that – talking guitar, talking with the guitar. … But Dave was just like, ‘Yeah, man! This is crazy. Let’s do it!’”
Thirty seconds in, the band shifts into high gear and suddenly Roth has left behind the lounge act of Crazy from the Heat. “Yankee Rose” rumbles and punches. It shows off harmony vocals on a singalong chorus, a locked-in rhythm section, and guitar work that smolders, crackles, burns and spits fire.
Keyboards had, of course, kicked off 1984, the final LP with Van Halen's original lineup. So the bold guitar opening of “Yankee Rose” felt like a shot across the bow. The song absolutely channeled the classic sound of Roth’s old band, from its introductory call-and-response to the thumping bass line and driving drums, to the whole idea of writing a lustful paean to the Statue of Liberty.
All of it added up to a triumph that would fit nicely between “Drop Dead Legs” and “Hot for Teacher.” But instead, “Yankee Rose” reintroduced rock’s coolest, craziest and corniest king.
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