Monday, January 16, 2006

Howard vs. Diamond Dave

Here's a New York Times "Critic's Notebook" comparing the radio debuts of Sirius's Howard Stern and 92.3 K-Rock's David Lee Roth. (Editor's note: I originally linked directly to this article, but as it's now a "Times Select" offering, I am reprinting the article in its entirety.)

January 12, 2006
Earnestly Pursuing the Gentle Art of Nastiness Behind a Radio Microphone

David Lee Roth's new morning radio show has made one thing clear: Howard Stern is one ingenious pervert.

It's not that Diamond Dave has been knocking Howard, whom he replaced on some several stations on Jan. 3 as Mr. Stern moved to satellite radio. In fact, Mr. Roth has been smarmy and collegial about the King of Difficult to Acquire New Media. But Mr. Roth makes the point about Mr. Stern's pervy ways by contrast with his own, since Mr. Roth's own efforts to come across as a dirty devil - boasting of girls girls girls and chugging Jack Daniel's - seem pitiful compared to even the slightest heavy-breathing utterance of Mr. Stern's.

Meanwhile, on Sirius Satellite Radio, where "The Howard Stern Show" started with some tech difficulties on Monday, Mr. Stern has turned in respectably true-to-form programs that display his maestro skills with his nasty-geek persona. So far, he hasn't departed much from the tone and structure of his old Infinity radio show; though on Sirius he's now free to say what he wants, he has resolved to curse sparingly. He's still panting after lesbians, pushing the subject of genital grooming and laughing at people like Pat O'Brien, the television host who was said to have left obscene voice-mail messages for an acquaintance. Mr. Stern also barrels into impolitic topics that the rest of us are afraid to broach: Yesterday he asked a gay radio personality whether his lisp was an affectation or a speech impediment.

Mr. Stern, as his fans know, is born for radio: his on-air character is an unwashed basement figure, best kept out of sight - a haggard masturbator and morbid misanthrope who must hang out with deformed and desperate men because he can hardly perform with women. The fact that the pinup girls who come on his show now seem to want to have sex with him is, in his telling, evidence only of the women's ambition and depravity.

The Stern character simply hates his guests and co-hosts as he hates himself; he's a mean little pornography-addicted freak whose self-loathing reverses itself only in fits of equally grotesque narcissism, as when he flashes his listeners with a dirty raincoat by disclosing disgusting secrets about himself. But his relentlessly loser style makes him seem honest, and wins him a privileged relationship with the truth; fans believe what he says - about everything from politics to back pain to etiquette. He has hewn his character brilliantly.

By contrast, Mr. Roth is a jaunty frontman - really, Mr. Stern's opposite. In his heyday singing with Van Halen, he was a red-blooded dude who bounced around, yelped the high notes and handily pulled the bikini chicks. There was nothing depressing about Diamond Dave's sexuality: it was happy, voracious, superficial. He postured with the best of the hard-rock studs, strutting around with his moussey hair and Spandex pants. Had Mr. Roth's big-dog persona met Mr. Stern's gamma-male one, they would not have partied together.

But on radio, the tables are turned. A doctor's son who worked recently as an emergency medical technician, Mr. Roth is far too square for the morning slot. His stories about his drunken antics of the late 1970's - or, worse, about the 50's in crazy Greenwich Village, where his uncle Manny owned the Café Wha? - ring obsolete. And he won't reveal much about his life now, refusing to answer even routine questions from fans about his love life. As a result, his sanctimony on subjects from drugs to plastic surgery to celebrity misdeeds, is unearned. If he won't say anything about himself but bland boasts about his glory days, why should he get to tell us what to do?

Finally, Mr. Roth's tenor, which is can be poignant and otherworldly on Van Halen songs like "Jamie's Crying," is surprisingly grating and banal when he's speaking. Listeners to regular radio will miss Mr. Stern's low, unerring, New York-inflected voice - and the depth of weirdness it unfailingly conveys.

I think the writer is pretty much on the money. I have tried listening to "Diamond" Dave a bit, and will try harder for the purposes of this blog (assuming I try to keep it going), but so far his show has been pretty bad, painful to listen to, a real slog. I wish Dave was doing what he was put on earth to do: fronting Van Halen.

I will say that Howard has taken pains not to attack Dave - he has said it takes at least a year for a new radio host to get into the swing of things. Of course, Howard being Howard, he also likes to say he "doesn't care" about what happens on FM radio anymore (although he mentioned on the first day on Sirius how much he misses "hitting the button" in his old K-Rock studio to being heard instantaneously by his many more millions of fans on the FM band).

Which is part of the fun of being a Stern fan: seeing through and psychoanalyzing the grotesque narcissism of a mean little pornography-addicted freak... our mean little pornography-addicted freak.

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