The story of how David Lee Roth went from changing people’s lives with his music to saving them as an EMT is remarkable. For anyone familiar with Roth’s wild, energetic on-stage persona — and the even wilder off-stage stories of his partying excess — this career change might seem hard to fathom. But for Roth, doing the unexpected always came naturally. And so we dive into how the Van Halen bad boy became, David Lee Roth the EMT.
David Lee Roth’s Early Life
Born in 1954 in Indiana, he moved to Pasadena, California as a teenager. David Lee Roth was a hyperactive kid with a deep interest in art.
As he entered adulthood, he sang solo and with an R&B-inspired group, worked as a hospital orderly, and attended community college, where he met Eddie and Alex Van Halen. Roth joined their group in 1972, and they soon gained a local following playing upbeat covers and originals.
Van Halen Success
In 1978 they released their first album, “Van Halen,” and subsequently toured with Journey and Black Sabbath, reportedly stealing the show on both tours. They reached widespread national and international fame, shifting millions of albums. But it was their image as hard-partying wildmen that made them heroes of the thriving heavy metal scene.
The stories of Van Halen during these years are notorious. But to characterize them as mere party animals misses the mark. They were hard-drinking, hard-partying, but also hard-working. This work ethic, when combined with their excesses, worked to endear the group to fans everywhere. Their buoyant, indulgent stage shows married perfectly with this image.
The following seven years were a blur of excess and partying. They had four platinum records and a number one with their hit single Jump. Van Halen was on top of the world, and it looked like nothing could stop them.
Van Halen Separation
Despite the considerable success, creative differences surfaced between David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen. Roth’s image was at odds with Eddie’s vision of where the band could go. While Roth preferred hard rock and roll with loud guitars, Eddie believed the group should transition to a darker, more introspective path, partly inspired by synthesizers and U.K. New Wave groups.
But Roth just wanted to sing about partying, drinking, women, and good times. In 1985 he released a solo E.P. called Crazy From the Heat, a truly strange and unusual departure from the Van Halen sound. Some weeks later, Roth was fired from the band.
Dave Goes Solo
Life after Van Halen was marked by creative inconsistency. He formed a group with Steve Vai and released “Eat ‘Em and Smile” in 1986 and the more experimental “Skyscraper” a few years later. These and further albums were well received and sold well, but 1994’s Nile Rogers produced “Your Filthy Little Mouth” proved too much of a departure from his usual sound and was shunned by the heavy metal press and audiences.
From here, David Lee Roth swapped sold-out stadiums for smaller venues and even had a lounge act for some time. Struggling to find meaning and purpose outside of music, Roth took a path that few will have seen coming.
David Lee Roth the EMT
In some ways, David Lee Roth’s decision to become an emergency medical technician can be traced back to his youth. During college, he briefly worked as a hospital orderly. Also, medical care was in his blood as his father was a doctor, specifically an ophthalmologist.
That said, swapping the long hair and outlandish persona was still a surprise, but in 1997, he did just that. This new direction saw him working for the Brooklyn-based Emergency Care Programs Inc, where he trained and went on ride alongs.
While Roth was reticent about giving away too many details for fear they would diminish the work he was trying to do, in 2004, a New York Post reporter caught up with him. The article was partially motivated after Roth saved the life of a Bronx woman who had suffered a heart attack. Roth saved her by shocking her back to life with a defibrillator. And so was born the story of David Lee Roth the EMT.
“I have been on over 200 individual rides now,” Roth told The New York Post at the time, “Not once has anyone recognized me, which is perfect for me.” Linda Reissman, Roth’s EMS consultant and tutor, spoke glowingly about his passion and commitment for the job, saying, “You would never know you were dealing with a rock-‘n’-roll guy; his commitment really is touching. He wants to help people.”
For Roth, the change in direction was an eye-opening experience. While he hadn’t given up his day job yet — some days earlier, he’d played to an adoring Minnesota rock-‘n’-roll crowd — it seemed this departure was an attempt to return to his roots. To something more real than the wild antics of his solo and Van Halen days.
To this day, David Lee Roth is an eccentric and curious man. Back in Pasadena, he spends his time making art and drawing. Now more mature and content, he bears a scant resemblance to the hair-raising, energetic heavy metal frontman of his early days.
Of his time as an EMT, Roth says that answering those calls made him feel like “a rock star”. He went on to add that “I wasn’t somebody until I put on that 511-uniform and went on my first calls”.