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During the '80s, Bay Area bands churned out plenty of sappy hits to infect the nation's airwaves, from Journey and Huey Lewis & the News to Night Ranger, Starship, and Hagar. The revolution was long gone. No more songs about Vietnam or civil rights. These tunes were perfectly crafted pop. They sounded like hard rock, yet dripped with sugary lyrics about partying, the power of love, and building this city on rock 'n' roll.
Others wrote better songs, but few could match Hagar live. He was high-energy, running the length of the stage, singing into a headset mike, climbing scaffolding, pumping the crowd into a frenzy.
A Sammy Hagar show was a chance to cut loose and party. But behind the mane of hair, Hagar wasn't a party-animal hippie at all.
He was just a conservative white-trash kid from Fontana. And he was stone sober. He gave up smoking pot early on because it ruined his voice. And what was the point of alcohol, when his dad was found dead from booze at 56, lying under a bench in San Bernardino? Hagar peppered his band with clean-living Christians, and would fire anybody for drinking or getting stoned on the job.
The Red Rocker would later claim that he headlined the world, but John Carter recalls few venues other than the old Day on the Green shows in Oakland that featured Hagar at the top of the bill.
"He was never the headliner outside of San Francisco and a few other places," says Carter, now a talent manager based in Connecticut. "He was the perfect special guest. He was a big bonus for someone else's tour. But it's always been spotty. In St. Louis, for some reason, he always sells 20,000 tickets. There was never an explanation."
After finishing a 1985 tour, Hagar went back home to Mill Valley, shaved his head, and tried to relax. He was 38, his last four albums had sold platinum, but he was still the Red Rocker, a critically despised act with a cult following. He thought about taking a year off, figuring out what was next.
Three days later, the phone rang.
Van Halen sat atop the 1980s heap of big-haired heavy metal bands. Led by guitarist Eddie Van Halen, with his brother Alex on drums, the Pasadena group churned out stadium-sized hard rock. Van Halen's live shows were bombastic, with singer David Lee Roth karate-kicking the air. But in 1985, after several albums, Roth had left the band to go solo.
One afternoon, Eddie Van Halen dropped by a Los Angeles sports car shop to have his Lamborghini serviced. He noticed a black Ferrari 512 Boxer on display in the showroom. Shop owner Claudio Zampolli said it belonged to Sammy Hagar. Van Halen borrowed a phone, and called Hagar.
The two knew each other slightly. About 10 years younger than Hagar, Eddie had been a huge fan of Montrose as a kid. Not the type to waste time with small talk, Eddie asked Hagar if he wanted to be in Van Halen, and do a record with them.
Hagar had never liked the group, really. He liked Eddie's guitar playing, but thought Roth's raunchy, larger-than-life persona was phony and repetitive. Hagar didn't want to be in someone else's band again. Especially with guys like Van Halen, who got roaring drunk and trashed hotel rooms.
But -- how often did anybody get to play with someone the caliber of Eddie Van Halen? Hagar flew to L.A. for a meeting with the Van Halen brothers, and remembers it was bizarre. Alex Van Halen appeared to be under the influence. He told Hagar to sign a blank piece of paper, that they could write up an agreement later. Hagar thought this was crazy, and refused. They started arguing.
The three went into another room and started jamming, the brothers playing a riff on guitar and drums while Hagar made up lyrics over the top. They wrote two songs there on the spot. The next morning, Hagar called and said, "I'm in." Eddie Van Halen said great, but Hagar would sing only.
Van Halen fans were skeptical of the new "Van Hagar" lineup. Kids called radio stations, arguing about who was better, Roth or Hagar. The band's new album, 5150 (police code for the criminally insane), was highly anticipated, and was an instant commercial success. Some Van Halen fans thought Hagar's influence was too pop-oriented, and missed the early days with Roth, but the numbers were undeniable. The single "Why Can't This Be Love" was a smash hit, and so was the album.
Despite platinum sales, critics were gunning for Hagar. After the release of 5150, Van Halen swung through San Francisco to play four nights at the Cow Palace. Music writer Joel Selvin caught the first show, and in the next morning's Chronicle, he trashed Hagar in his own hometown.
"My review was, 'He kinda fucked up the band, now this is mundane as hell' -- that's how I saw it at the time," says Selvin. "Sammy lived to inhabit Van Halen, and I peed all over him."
The very next show, Hagar announced Selvin's home phone number from the stage, urging fans to call the critic. "For weeks afterwards, I got these obscene, profane messages," laughs Selvin. " 'Fuck you, you cocksucker,' beep. 'You slimy shit,' beep."