Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth jumped into my childhood as if doing Russian splits off the top of a speaker wall. As a kid, I first heard Van Halen on Detroit rock radio, but by 1984 I couldn’t escape their music videos. Roth strutted and soft shoed while guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony rocked out with joy. MTV played Van Halen’s “Jump” on heavy rotation. Soon, Van Halen enjoyed their first #1 hit on the Hot 100 chart.
MTV’s hit-making role is no neutral fact: the channel pedestaled white rock and pop artists. “The reason for this bald-faced segregation was simple,” wrote music historian Dan Charnas in The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “The network was founded by men who came out of 1970s radio, when Black artists had been casually jettisoned from FM stations with the rationale that the broadcasters’ white male target audience didn’t like soul and funk music.” MTV executives had to be pushed internally and externally to play talents like Michael Jackson or Prince, talents who’d go supernova when videos from albums Thriller and 1999 respectively played in our homes. I wouldn’t see Janet Jackson in “Control” until 1986.
Given MTV priorities in 1984, one can dismiss Van Halen’s “Jump” video as no-brainer programming. But I’d argue that there’s more to “Jump” than a white rock band on a soundstage with Dave kicking air. In this video, Van Halen performs their song and no one says cross-cut that with shots of women taking off their clothes, as happened in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video. The big sexy show in “Jump” is David Lee Roth. Roth seduces, stares at us through the screen. He fills the frame with his face and his wild blond hair, vamping and pouting and always performing, his physicality a force. Roth never talks about love, but like the hungry dog of yore he will do tricks.
This is not to say I liked Van Halen much when I was a kid. I never bought their albums. As a teen I never claimed them because I rejected the white rock mainstream as much as it rejected me. Only as an adult do I feel empowered enough to enjoy Van Halen and David Lee Roth—especially Roth—as much I please without feeling vanished in the process. Only as an adult can I think more clearly about the impact pop culture had on my burgeoning sense of self.
David Lee Roth and his curated imagery seeped into us in unexpected ways. My fifth grade crush declared that I reminded him of a woman in Roth’s solo 1985 “California Girls” video. He dreamt I was bodybuilder Kay Baxter. A bikinied beauty, yes, but not the figure I would have wanted to represent me at age 10, especially as the new girl in school, Black and visibly other.
In 1984, I had just moved to Troy, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit. Within weeks I fell for a boy who lived ten houses away. His name was R. He looked like a young John Cougar Mellencamp. He smiled easily and his face shone. We weren’t friends but we weren’t enemies and that was enough.
On a school trip to Toronto, I took a picture of R. Most of my other photos from that trip feature two or three classmates happy to pose for the camera, thrilled to travel together to another country. But I snapped R alone. He smiled, like he surely smiled for others’ cameras. A normal thing. But what I did back home proved not so normal: I paid to have the picture enlarged. Not 5×7. Not 8×10. Poster-sized. As large as the Michael Jackson poster on my bedroom wall.
I told no one. Not my friends. Not my mother. I’m not even sure how 10 year-old me managed to make the purchase. Maybe I just mailed my saved allowance money. In 1985, cash stuffed into an envelope had a chance to make it to its destination.
I still remember that long, gray, carpeted walk towards the cul-de-sac of classrooms that held my fifth grade class. Before we sat for attendance I approached R and said I have something to show you. I opened the tube and unrolled the poster. I held up the enlarged picture of his face.
Silence. Then laughter from the periphery. All around laughter. Pointing. His friends. The class. Look! Bewilderment on R’s face, then smiling. Maybe I’m smiling, I don’t remember, I just recall that intense energy when all eyes are on you. The teacher told us to sit for attendance. I rolled up the poster and put it back in the tube.
R never mentioned the poster again. Jokes and laughs at recess sometimes, but those were from other boys, and not often. Girls never teased me. Perhaps my gesture had been so bold they held me in awe rather than ridicule. R remained ten houses away and I’d bike by and look, but I never saw him in the front yard. He never pulled back a curtain and waved hello.
One day in class R came over to me. You were in my dream last night he said. I perked up. Stacy, he said. You were the body builder from the “California Girls” video.
My turn for shock. Who of us didn’t know David Lee Roth’s video for his cover of the Beach Boys’ classic? Maybe a few parents succeeded in keeping their basic cable on lockdown but so many of us had access and in 1985, MTV played that mini-film in heavy rotation. We kids joined Roth’s coterie of tourists shot close-up, fisheye, as he showed off his collection of beautiful white women from across the United States, women bested only by the California-born, or those smart enough to take their talents west. The coolest of them all was not stars & bars blonde but dark-haired and smoldering next to Roth when we get to the second I wish they all could be California. She actually wore clothes, a white collared jacket. In that tight shot of their two heads, she is the model that might have something to say about Roth’s hand on her shoulder, the closest we’ll get to a beautiful woman presented as his equal. Only takes seconds until we’re back to the models bouncing and blowing kisses in their bikinis, or, if you’re the cool model’s doppelganger, standing stock still as he admires you from the waist down.
R didn’t mean that pretty woman. He meant Kay Baxter flexing her Atlas physique as Roth hammocked by a palm tree in the sand.
Ah, Kay. What were the children of 1985 to make of her given how little we’d ever seen of women bodybuilders? I found her scene confusing. All of the other “California Girls” had nearly the same-shaped white bodies tanned by the sun or makeup and it was not knowable yet to me that a man may want to put up his legs and watch as a woman like Kay displayed herself. I was too young to get the scene’s subversion of the rest of the imagery, to imagine a world where Kay could be desired as much as, or more than, the others. I couldn’t know yet how much a man, or a woman, would love looking at all kinds of bodies, touching all kinds of bodies. Back then, all I could think was that she looked too manly. I’m her?
I knew that R must have been a little scared of me. Repulsed even. I don’t know. To be strangely fascinating was no place to be at ten years old.
I admire David Lee Roth from the distance of time and place. If I had been a girl to turn his head in the 1980s, I pray I would have kept walking. Mess around with people who ain’t talkin’ about love and you get hurt.
If you review Van Halen’s Hot 100 chart history, you’ll see what’s anathema to many: two of the highest chart toppers were songs from the Sammy Hagar years, Van Halen having replaced David Lee Roth with Hagar after Roth quit or was fired. Hagar-fronted Van Halen hits rocked about thwarted love, then more love. “Why Can’t This Be Love” reached #3 in 1986, while “When It’s Love” reached #5 in 1988.
Roth sang you gotta bleed for it baby.
If I switched stations, I heard Prince caution the woman in “Little Red Corvette” to slow down. That she better find a love that’s gonna last. But when I was growing up the fastest people I knew were guys, and no one in songs cautioned them to stop. Like the dream guy who kept me up all night at his friend’s house in Grosse Pointe and didn’t bring me home until 7:00 a.m. when I had the PSAT that Saturday morning. A terrible night for a sleepover even if we’d stayed at my Troy friend’s house but I didn’t calculate the stakes. What was lost when I nodded off during the test. How I didn’t score high enough to become a National Merit Scholar though I was still named an Outstanding Negro Student. What was lost once when my friend, who had crushed on that boy for years, knew we slipped away into a bedroom by ourselves.
If only she had stayed with us the whole time at the State Theater, downtown, before we headed to Grosse Pointe. If only I had called to her as the dark-haired dream guy turned to me, and smiled, and said he liked how I walked down the center of the red-carpeted staircase, how he wanted that in a girl, or a woman, or however he referred to me, for I was only fifteen at the time. How for that moment, I had been the center of his attention, the only girl in the frame.
I poisoned three friendships accepting, pursuing the attentions of white boys my white friends already liked. White boys like versions of the white alternative musicians I now kept, poster-sized, on my bedroom wall.
Yet, I can’t forget guys like smiling Eddie Van Halen. Guys like Eddie never seemed angry, or malicious, and I went to school with them. They didn’t push you into lockers. They joked with you between classes. They may even be hurt when you share memories of school decades later. They proved that school was never all predation. They helped you see a future of friendship, of equal footing.
Let’s cut to the culminating sequence of Roth’s “California Girls” video: the lineup. Swimsuit models stood as mannequins on both sides of a path on the beach in what should have been a gauntlet for any man, but Roth walked and stopped and admired and got so close to each woman on display, so gorgeously un-photoshopped-looking, the video sold and look what it did to him and to us as he made his way through his museum of live girls.
I dig a French bikini on Hawaiian island dolls. I read that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Mike Love dispute who wrote the lyrics for “California Girls” with Love claiming he wrote them all and Wilson saying they went back and forth. So I ask both men: regarding the “Hawaiian island dolls,” the ones you’re imagining wearing French bikinis: are you imagining pretty brown girls, or just the pretty white girls who “get so tanned”? Were you seeing beauty beyond blonde versus brunette versus redhead or no? And if so, were you doing it openly or with plausible deniability?
Maybe I don’t need these answers. Maybe women of color had nothing to gain from getting cast in that video. Yet, R dreamed of Kay Baxter. I sit here today impacted because David Lee Roth cameoed Kay, who I’ll later read was Dave’s personal trainer and lover.
Look again at the lineup sequence when the bikini girls sit on what look like overturned garbage cans. Beach towels disguise the props, protect their bottoms. Roth dollies past their cheesecake routine as they hip, hip, kick, cross the leg, shimmy shoulder, frame the face, blow a kiss. The last model is Kay Baxter, still every bit the “Lady Adonis.”
I later learned she had a whole business making videos where she starred as an avenging superwoman. If you loved strong women, you could watch Baxter scissor terrible men with her legs, lift them off the ground by their necks. She kissed the lucky ones.
“I came through the whole era and time when [you were asked], ‘Do you lose your femininity when you lift weight?’” said Baxter in a tribute video created by filmmaker and friend Samuel Oldham. “To me, it was never a question of what do I want to look like…I knew I wanted to look muscular.” In a music video full of models serving up their bodies for men’s rewards Kay stopped the show, serving us all on terms of her own.
Baxter died in 1988 on LA’s Mulholland Drive at age 42. I read that she overturned her gold Camaro when she was in the wrong lane and swerved hard to avoid oncoming traffic. I read that the young man in the car with her survived with only minor injuries. I think about how her LA Times obituary included this quote from Joe Weider, of Weider Health and Fitness: “Whenever her picture was in one of our magazines, she got many, many letters.”
Only now do I begin to see her as more than a muscled lady, as more than just the signifier of a bad experience I once had.
I see her. I finally see her, too.