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The Red Menace - By - May 26, 1999 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The Red Menace

You pace the living room, talking on a cordless and looking out plate-glass windows at the grassy slopes of Mount Tamalpais, high above Mill Valley. Pastel-colored artwork adorns the hallways. Your beautiful wife and kids are upstairs. There's a Ferrari in the garage, a Lexus SUV in the driveway.

Houses, cars, a nightclub in Baja California: These are your rewards. For 30 years of rock 'n' roll. For the times you slept on floors, drove the van to play other people's songs for gas money, fed your family with food stamps.

The critics hated you. Younger musicians wrote songs mocking you. The two biggest bands you ever sang for both fired you, then trashed you behind your back.

Nobody handed it to you. You earned it all.
Now you're past 50, and people still make fun of your hair. In fickle, youth-driven America, you're utterly unfashionable, a footnote from 1980s arena rock shows. Mention the nickname “Red Rocker” to anyone who grew up in the Bay Area, and it triggers embarrassing memories of concerts and keggers.

Screw 'em. You've got enough money to do whatever you want. You have a new album, a new single, a new tour. You're Sammy Hagar. Add it all up at the end of the day, and you won. Even if nobody else sees it that way.

Up tree-lined roads and in rolling hills across the Bay Area are scattered the homes where rock 'n' roll's gentry fell to Earth. From the hippie-folk roots of Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead, to the blues of Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker, to the sappy likes of Journey and Night Ranger, the equivalent of a recording industry retirement community was born.

Contrary to what popular culture suggests, the percentage of late-20th-century musicians who burned out, overdosed, or otherwise succumbed to the age of excess is relatively small. For every Jim Morrison, there are dozens of Peter Torks and Maria Muldaurs.

If they once let their freak flags fly, or recorded the soundtrack for youth rebellion, now they're old enough to be part of the problem. They raise families, cash royalty checks, and some continue to release an occasional Grammy-winning album. Some still get gigs on the casino circuits doing dinosaur old-timer shows.

With its quiet streets, German car dealerships, and some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Marin County, in particular, has become such an elephants' graveyard. It's not uncommon to spot Robert Cray looking for a parking spot in downtown Mill Valley, or Journey's Neal Schon browsing through records at Maximum Music in San Rafael.

For years, a hilltop mansion on Corte Madera Avenue was home to the late concert promoter Bill Graham, the Bay Area's most powerful man in the business. Tucked away behind the trees, and surrounded by sculptures from the Grateful Dead, the so-called “Masada” home hosted parties for the area's rock elite.

Folks sitting on barstools at the only saloon in Lagunitas are accustomed to pointing out where Janis Joplin once lived, and where Jerry Garcia died.

The Bay Area easily absorbs these stars of varying brightness who pay their taxes, buy groceries, and stand alongside other parents to cheer on the kids at ballgames. The majority of them have little, if anything, left to prove.

Except, it seems, Sammy Hagar.
Because Hagar can't relax and enjoy his wealth. He has to keep stabbing a finger into the world's chest and asking if anyone's got a problem with him.

He seems a nice, personable guy. Loyal fans chat with him in airports, and he always shows up at benefit shows. But his blue-collar roots compel him to keep fighting his reputation as a rock 'n' roll punch line. He knows that his career has always rested on the shoulders of only one person — Sammy Hagar.

Someone this driven doesn't grow up with a wealthy banker father, like Grace Slick, or study at Cornell University, like Huey Lewis. Somebody this stubborn probably grew up as poor white trash, bloodying the noses of neighbor kids in his garage while his father cheered and guzzled beer. That is, in fact, exactly what Sammy Hagar did.

The Hagar family moved frequently around California during the 1950s and 1960s, before settling in the industrial valley town of Fontana, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Dad's drinking cost him a lot of jobs. He was sweet to Sam and Sam's brother, but he was a brawler who kept getting in fights — with guys in bars, cops, even some firemen once who were trying to extinguish the family's burning home.

Wherever they lived, Dad set up a ring in the garage, and made Sam box. When none of Sam's friends were around, he had to fight his older brother. “Stay in shape, boy,” Sammy remembers his dad saying. “You never know when you're gonna get in a fight.”

So Sam trained, jumped rope, ran through the streets of Fontana. “I just knew I wanted to be somebody,” Hagar says. “I don't care how it was. I was tired of being a poor fuckin' kid.”

At 16, it was time to turn pro. Hagar and his dad drove to Los Angeles. Sam climbed into the ring to face a Hispanic kid with a fucked-up nose who punched so hard that Hagar's ears rang. They headed home, stopping so Dad could sell his blood for gas money. Sam tore up his professional license, and never fought again.

In the mid-'60s, radio stations were saturated with the Beatles, the Stones, Dick Dale. Kids picked up guitars and started rock 'n' roll bands. One group in Southern California was called Mobile Home, starring a cocky, frizzy-haired kid named Sam Hagar on guitar and vocals, with his pal Dave Lauser on drums. In 1967, the two met bass player Jeff Nicholson, changed the band's name to the Justice Brothers, and played San Bernardino biker bars. On the advice of their manager, they headed for the then-lucrative music scene evolving in San Francisco. [page]

By 1968, however, the Summer of Love was long gone, and the Haight-Ashbury had turned ugly. Hagar, his wife and baby, and the rest of the Justice Brothers slept on their manager's floor at 1565 Oak St., living on food stamps. To make a few bucks, Hagar says, he grew a marijuana plant on the fire escape. When someone stole it, Hagar followed the dirt trail to a neighboring apartment, puffed up his 120-pound frame, and banged on the door, ready for a fight.

He found himself, he says, staring down three large Black Panthers. One snarled, “Get the fuck out of here, you little motherfucker!” Hagar angrily stomped back to his room, on the verge of crying.

Eventually, the Justice Brothers started getting gigs in beer bars around the Bay Area, with Hagar jumping around in gold lame pants, singing cover tunes by the Who and the Sons of Champlin. They tried to market a demo tape of original songs, and got excited when Steve Miller was handed a copy, but he threw it away.

“Sam got really pissed,” laughs Nicholson, now living in Oregon. “He wanted to be America's answer to Led Zeppelin.”

At Winterland in the Fillmore District, the Justice Brothers saw a show by the Edgar Winter Group. Impressed by guitarist Ronnie Montrose, Hagar drove to Montrose's house in Sausalito the next day, asking for work. Montrose had just quit the band, and was in the market for a singer. Hagar showed him some lyrics, and they shook hands. The new band would be called Montrose, and Hagar would only sing, not play guitar.

Montrose's first album came out in 1973, and eventually went platinum. Songs like “Bad Motor Scooter” and “Rock Candy” were hard-driving riff rock, now considered '70s classics. Fronting a popular band, Hagar's ego grew, and he clashed with Montrose. After the second album, he was fired.

“People compare Sam's tenure with Montrose and Van Halen,” says Montrose today. “Most say it just took Eddie longer to fire him than me.”

From then on, Hagar decided, he'd never be in a “band” again. Just hire whoever he needed, like Louis Prima. He took musicians from Montrose, and started playing gigs around San Francisco.

In those days, bands that played Winterland were reviewed by Rolling Stone, then headquartered South of Market. A good review meant guaranteed crowds for the rest of a group's U.S. tour.

John Carter was based in the city, scouting new talent for Capitol Records. On the advice of a drug dealer, he says, Carter checked out Hagar, and quickly signed him to Capitol. During the next eight years, Hagar cranked out 14 solo albums, sometimes as many as three in a year. The records sold respectably — 300,000 or 350,000, figures Hagar still keeps in his head.

Most are long out of print, and best forgotten.
“It was crazy,” Hagar says. “I'd go out on tour, come home, make a record, throw as many songs together as quick as I could do it. Make a record in two, three months. That's why I made a live album, 'cause I didn't want to stop touring. 'Fuck it, let's just record live and I can keep going.' ”

Fans point to the 1977 Red album as classic early Hagar. Critics consider it a prime example of how stupid Hagar's music really was:

Red, red! I want red/ There's no substitute for red/ Red, red! Paint it red/ Green ain't mean compared to red.

” 'Red' was unforgettable,” remembers Carter, who co-wrote the tune. “He took that song and built his show around it.”

Hagar says a journalist invented the resulting nickname Red Rocker, but the rest of the persona was all him. “I'm into the color red. How would you write a song called 'Red' if you didn't dig it? I think it's just fuckin' killer. It's very cool. So all that red stuff's real.”

And then John Kalodner told him that his songs were worthless.
Kalodner was legendary in recording circles. Then with Geffen Records, he would later engineer the comeback of Aerosmith. Kalodner sat Hagar down and told him the deal with Capitol was the stupidest in the business. Hagar had unknowingly signed away all his royalties forever. Further, Kalodner said, Hagar had talent, but he never finished his songs. Hagar just threw the records together. Anyone could tell.

Geffen bought Hagar out of Capitol's contracts, and gave him time to sit down and actually make a record. The result was hits like “There's Only One Way to Rock,” and “I Can't Drive 55.” Hagar also contributed songs to the soundtracks of Heavy Metal and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Touring behind the Geffen albums Standing Hampton, Three Lock Box, and VOA, Hagar became a headline act.

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. [page]

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.”

Selvin ended up changing his outgoing message to say, “Sammy Hagar Fan Club.”

Van Halen's next records — OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Balance — were all enormous hits, selling 5 million to 6 million each, their videos airing constantly on MTV. The band toured the world, and during each show, Hagar was given his own solo set, to appease his longtime fans. Members bought homes and cars, and invested in Hagar's cantina in Baja, which was named Cabo Wabo, after one of their songs.

It was around 1993, Hagar says, when things began to change. He went through a divorce. The band's manager passed away. The Mexican government put a ribbon around the cantina, demanding $300,000 in back taxes.

The creative process was drying up. Every time Hagar left the studio during writing sessions, he says, he would return the next day, and the Van Halen brothers would have beaten the songs to death, changed the tempo, the key, everything.

Alex Van Halen's brother-in-law became the band's manager, and brought in more commercial offers: a milk advertisement, a greatest hits package, a song for the film Twister. Hagar refuses to even mention his name.

“He destroyed one of the great bands of all time,” Hagar says.
Hagar balked at some of the offers, especially recording two new songs for a greatest hits collection. He thought Van Halen's fans deserved better, and also, he says, he wanted to be in Marin for the birth of his child.

Without consulting Hagar, the rest of the band rehired David Lee Roth to record the new songs. Hagar was effectively out. Eddie Van Halen maintains that Hagar quit. Hagar claims that Eddie urged him to go his own way. [page]

When Roth appeared with the band on the 1996 MTV awards program, the public reunion sparked a standing ovation. According to Roth's memoir Crazy From the Heat, when reporters asked Van Halen and Roth what happened with Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen replied, “Yeah, screw him, he quit, he bailed, man, fuck him.”

Van Halen's members gave Hagar back all the shares of the Cabo Wabo cantina. For 10 years these guys had been his friends, going on the road together, attending each other's weddings.

“I'm a really happy, up guy,” Hagar says today. “I don't get depressed. But I was goin' around pissed off for a couple of weeks. I was in a bad mood, bitchin' to my old lady, bein' grumpy with the kid.”

There was more reason to be grumpy. At the end of 1996, San Francisco's Live 105 radio station began playing a novelty song called “Van Halen,” by an obscure garage band named Nerf Herder. Nothing special, just three nerds in golf slacks from Santa Barbara, trying to get some laughs.

The song described a Van Halen fan's love of the early albums, and the traumatic and disappointing transition from Roth to Hagar:

Is this what you wanted, Sammy Hagar?/ Sammy Hagar, is this what you wanted, man?/ Dave lost his hairline/ But you lost your cool, buddy/ I can't drive 55/ I'll never buy your lousy records again/ Never again, never again ….

Bashing Sammy Hagar wasn't entirely a new concept. Back in the late 1980s, a band called Thelonious Monster received some college-radio airplay with a tongue-in-cheek ode to fans called “Sammy Hagar Weekend,” describing a white-trash world of guys with little mustaches, partying in Camaros.

But Nerf Herder's song was more pointed, and listeners responded. Commercial radio stations put “Van Halen” in rotation, and it made some of the charts. Arista Records signed Nerf Herder to a deal. A video played on MTV. The whole country was laughing at Hagar.

Entertainment Weekly quoted Nerf Herder vocalist/guitarist Parry Gripp as saying, “Everyone hates Sammy Hagar — who doesn't?” After seeing the article, Hagar responded in Rolling Stone with some choice words of his own.

“He actually referred to us as 'fuckers,' ” says Gripp, who still lives in Santa Barbara, and who attended Van Halen shows while in high school. “That's a pretty cool thing. But I remember feeling really bad about it. I don't think Sammy Hagar sucks. It was some sort of lame-ass thing that I said. Flippant.”

Hagar says he was flattered by the attention, but he's not the type to let such talk slide without punching back. He sits up in his chair, chewing his gum more furiously. Three years later, it still gets him worked up.

“What dumb-ass fuckers would come up from nowhere and make fun of one of the biggest bands in the world? And to sit there and fuckin' make fun of them, or make fun of Sammy Hagar, 'I Can't Drive 55,' Number 1 records and stuff — uh uh. That ain't the way to make a livin'. Especially, here you are, tryin' to be in the same business. These fuckers! What'd they expect me to do? How in the fuck do they expect to make it by makin' fun of somebody that everyone loves? It's silly to me.”

Nerf Herder enjoyed a flavor-of-the-moment success, including contributing the theme song to the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But another record on a small label has been delayed.

Hagar flew to his home in Hawaii to sort things out. On the plane, he got an inspirational pep talk from the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, and immediately started on a new solo album. Marching to Mars included old friends like Hart, Huey Lewis, Bootsy Collins, and a reunited Montrose, but the record was full of anger, and more than one track carried specific digs at Van Halen.

By comparison, his Red Voodoo record, released this spring, sounds light and silly, its songs designed to waft out of car windows at Spring Break. One critic refers to it as a “dumbed-down Aerosmith.”

His reputation as Sammy Hagar, the simplistic Red Rocker and the man who turned Van Halen into hit-makers, is impossible to shake. At a recent environmental benefit in Santa Rosa, MC Mickey Hart introduced Hagar to a skeptical crowd of Deadheads with the oddly cautious: “He's not who you think he is.”

Sammy Hagar greets visitors in his Mill Valley driveway, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Cabo Wabo monogrammed shorts. He's just off a Jay Leno appearance two weeks earlier. His new tour starts at the end of the month.

He's friendly, chewing gum, and bouncing with energy. It's easy to see why people find him likable. Granting such access to his home, opening up his world to others, seems out of place within the pantheon of Marin's rock stars.

He shows off his home recording studio, a basement room built of concrete, on the edge of a cliff, its walls filled with Red Rocker posters, platinum album awards, and clumps of foam, a feeble attempt at soundproofing. Red Voodoo was recorded in this room, an average of one track per day. During breaks in recording, the entire band climbed on mountain bikes and tore up the side of Mount Tam.

Like an enthusiastic child, Hagar gives a mile-a-minute tour, pointing out the mixing board, the Balinese gong, the air conditioner. He kneels down and points to the knobs of a red Crate guitar amp. “These are all set to Sammy's tone!” he exclaims.

But his latest business plan is anything but childlike, obviously calculated, shameless in its overt cross-promotion. The Red Voodoo release, including the “Mas Tequila” single, was recorded with a band he named the Waboritas, and timed to coincide with the U.S. launch of his Cabo Wabo brand of designer tequila. [page]

After three hours of reminiscing about the past, plugging the new tequila, and speculating about a possible acoustic album, it's time for photos. He fluffs up his blond locks, grabs a guitar, and puts one tennis shoe up on a monitor.

“I hate this shit,” says Sammy Hagar, and then he expertly flashes a smile of perfectly capped teeth, as the camera clicks. “Always have.