October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

David Coverdale may be the most happening has-been in rock ‘n’ roll. Long-haired and pushing 40, the former Deep Purple lead singer looks like a throwback to the days when such heavy-metal dinosaurs as Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult first roamed the arenas and pop charts. But Cover-dale, who now fronts his own band, Whitesnake, has simply refused to become extinct. “Hard rock may have faded from the media for a time, but I’ve always been able to make a living, if not in America, then in the rest of the world,” he says. “The critics love to get out their knives and dine on Coverdale. But the worse the criticism gets, the more successful I become.”

If so, critics beware obesity. White-snake, the band’s double-platinum 10th LP, has been sharing the Billboard Top 10 with pop phenomenon Whitney Houston and critical darlings U2. Skinned by the New York Times for its heavy-metal “histrionics” and skewered by Rolling Stone for serving “warmed-over Led Zeppelin,” White-snake does have its defenders—like the interviewer in the fanzine Metal Hammer who gave thanks for “heavy rock like it used to be.”

Well, not exactly. The good old days, Coverdale says, were “pretty close to Spinal Tap,” the Rob Reiner film that lampooned brontosauruses like Deep Purple, which employed Coverdale as its lead singer from 1973 to 1976. “I never met the people I was supposed to be touching,” he says. “I was ushered from limo to private jet to concert hall. It was quite a circus. The so-called dinosaurs were putting out fat product,” and, he notes, moving to suburbs “settled by retired industrialists. It wasn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll to be living next door to [actor] Curt Jurgens.”

But Coverdale is scornful too of what he labels the style-conscious “mousse abuse” bands that replaced the macho metalists of yore. “I like the overt sexuality in hard rock,” he says. “It’s the only music that gives kids a kind of physical and emotional therapy. It’s larger—and louder—than life.”

His own life began in Saltburn-by-the-Sea in Yorkshire, “a stunning place just 30 minutes from Newcastle, the heaviest, ugliest industrial area in England. It had two sunsets: one natural, one industrial. It was like living on Krypton.” His father was a factory worker turned barkeep, and Coverdale “grew up in a pub. I was pulling pints of draught when I was 9.” A few years later he began singing part-time, and in 1972 he auditioned for Deep Purple after the band placed an ad in a trade paper. “I had no idea how big they were,” he says. “I got the job and suddenly I’m doing press conferences, and I’m living in a castle. I used to sing to 150-200 people. The first show I did with Purple, there were 20,000 people going bananas.”

Four years and five albums later, Coverdale quit. “It was five egomaniacs fighting for the spotlight,” he says. “The audience will make you feel like a demigod. But when you leave the stage, get back to being human.”

With Whitesnake, formed in 1976, Coverdale gained a following in Europe that eluded him in the U.S. until Slide It In—the band’s “romantically titled concept album”—was released in 1984. Soon after, surgery to fix a “non-drug-related” deviated septum nearly ended Coverdale’s career. “Last year was the worst time of my life. If I’d had a dog, it would have died. This [current] album should have been out last year, but I couldn’t sing a note. I would have been ruined if Whitesnake had not been a hit.”

Now on tour as the opening act for Mötley Crue and accompanied by fiancée Tawny Kitaen, 26, an actress (Bachelor Party) who appears in two Whitesnake videos, the singer says he is enjoying “a fabulous time of my life.” But doesn’t Coverdale, a middle-age gourmand who prefers Beethoven to Bon Jovi, mind playing dinosaur rock to crowds of postpubescent Crüe fans?

“Not at all,” he says. “It’s great. And we’re in bed by 11.”

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