How Steve Vai Nearly Reunited With David Lee Roth for a Bowling Alley Gig

David Lee Roth's 1986 solo debut, Eat 'Em and Smile, and the band behind it have taken on legendary status as the years wear on.

Eat 'Em And Smile is not only a great album, but it features Roth at his Rothiest and backed by a virtuoso band that was at-worst musical equals of Van Halen, which Roth left a year earlier.

Roth and his band, consisting of Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan and Gregg Bissonette, provided a welcome alternative to VH fans angry at Roth's departure and suffering from a kind of step-parent syndrome at Sammy Hagar joining the band.  

While Roth hasn't performed with his eponymous band since 2006, Vai maintains that working on Eat 'Em and Smile was one of the highlights of his incredible career. The guitarist says he's maintained relationships with all his former Roth bandmates (Roth himself is still a friend but is harder to get in touch with).

"We were talking and it was mentioned that Eat 'Em and Smile was coming up on a 30th-year anniversary," Vai told Eddie Trunk in a recent interview. "And also they were telling me about this Lucky Strike Bowling Alley [in Los Angeles] that has these fan fairs going on on Wednesday nights ... it's like a jam and a lot of people go down there and play."

The musicians agreed to head to the bowling alley to play a few songs from the record as "a kind of 30th-year nod." But the night took a turn when Vai reached out to Roth, out of courtesy, to see if he wanted to join in. 

"I didn't think he'd be interested and he's like, 'Sure, man! I'll be there!'" Vai recalled his surprise. "We didn't tell anybody Dave was going to be there."

"They announced that it was gonna happen ... they didn't say Dave was going to be there [they advertised Steel Panther singer Ralph Michael Saenz] and it just got very packed," Vai continued.  

Vai says Dave then came over to his home studio go over the music together for the first time in decades, then they drove over to the venue.

"We pull up to the place and there was a line, like, probably five feet thick that went all the way down Highland, around Hollywood Boulevard..."

The venue wasn't just packed, Vai said; it was way, way over capacity. 

"We get up to the place and it's like slammed," Vai recalled. "And that's when people saw Dave was there. So we're in the back ... this place holds like 350 people and they stuffed 1,700 people ... it's a bowling alley.

"...And I'm really excited now; I love those songs, I loved playing that stuff, 'Yankee Rose' and 'Shyboy.' ...  I've got my guitar on, Dave's in the back, the band is out there. I've got the sound — the plan was I was gonna hit the first chord and then the curtains were gonna open up, right? My guitar is hot. I'm just about to hit the chord and one of the guys from the venue comes up and says, 'Steve, don't play!'" 

The fire marshal had gotten wind of the over-packed venue and had come to shut down the show before it started.

But Vai the show was about to start. Vai only had to hit those first notes, and the band could have gotten a song out before having the power cut. 

"I'm like, 'Get outta here! I'm playing; it's two songs and I'm just about to hit the —' and he's like, 'No, no, no, no, you'll get in trouble. We'll all get in trouble. You'll be fined.

"'I said, 'Fine, I'll pay the fine!' He goes, 'Really?' I say, 'Yeah, I'll pay the fine. What could it be worth to not do this?'"

The person from the venue tells Vai to hold on while he checks with the fire marshal. 

"Part of me just says, 'Well, hit the chord, Vai! Just hit it! What are they gonna do? Put you in jail?' The guy comes back and he says, 'If you play, they're gonna put you in jail.' [Laughs] So stupid me didn't play because that would have been cooler than anything!"

Fire trucks arrived and the city shut down the venue.

"It's funny because I go back and I say, 'Dave, this gig isn't gonna happen. It's too crowded; they're shutting the place down and the fire marshal is here. And Dave in his infinite press wisdom says, 'Perfect!' And sure enough, it was everywhere. Even the [TV] news stations picked it up."

Photos: Getty Images

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