Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sammy Hagar - Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock [book review]

* Released in March
Talk about truth in advertising. Sammy Hagar's new autobiography seems to hold little back while chronicling the well-preserved 63-year-old's life and 40+ years as a professional musician. It's the quintessential sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll story, co-written with San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin. Hagar's choice of scribe is a curious one, based on the pair's rocky history: a bad review from Selvin after the first show of a four night stand in San Francisco by Van Halen, on their first tour after Hagar joined the band in 1985 as their lead singer, angered the vocalist so much that he gave out Selvin's home phone number on stage the next well as the following two nights. Whatever differences the pair have had, they've managed to deliver a highly entertaining memoir that has clearly resonated with the public, debuting at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Ever since Hagar joined Van Halen, an overused edict has been that you had to be a fan of either the "Roth era" (in reference to the band's tenure with original singer David Lee Roth) or "Van Hagar", as the group was unofficially dubbed by fans. This narrow-minded viewpoint always carried as much weight to me as the silly, yet longstanding, "Beatles versus Stones" argument. I always fell pretty evenly in the middle in terms of my appreciation for both incarnations of Van Halen (I'll respectfully ignore their short-lived and disastrous Gary Cherone period), with somewhat of a sympathetic spot for Sammy and the lack of respect (in comparison to Roth) he's been given for his contributions to the band. But even Hagar haters will find plenty to chew on in Red, whether it's the colourful accounts involving the perils of rock 'n roll decadence, the touching recollections of a tough upbringing, or the stories detailing Hagar's admirable business acumen.
Hagar was born and raised in California, the youngest of four kids who grew up in poverty and lived a dysfunctional family life stemming from the verbal and physical abuse their mother endured from Hagar's dad, who was literally the town drunk and ended up dying in the back seat of a police car. Hagar married at 21 and some of the details surrounding his rocky 26 year marriage make for some of the more uncomfortable reading material in the book. His serial cheating, as a by-product of the hedonistic lifestyle surrounding a successful rock star, comes across as even more flagrant considering the numerous mental health issues that Becky, his wife, is afflicted with. Despite his failings as a faithful husband, not to mention his oftentimes crude outlook on women ("pussy" is a frequent descriptive term for them), Hagar still manages to win the reader over with his charm and highly positive attitude towards life. The man is a little on the "out there" side, though, as evidenced by his long-winded and bewildering explanation about his fascination with the colour red, as well as the claim that he was telepathically abducted by aliens.
An early entry into the music business finds Hagar struggling financially for several years before turning a corner and making a name for himself when he briefly joins the band Montrose as their lead singer, followed by a steady career ascent as a solo artist. This, of course, all leads up to the meat of the book: the Van Halen years. Incredibly, before joining Van Halen, Hagar had seriously been contemplating quitting the business, citing burnout from the record-tour-repeat treadmill of the industry. He had even cut his long rock star hair in anticipation of retirement, which partially explains that awful muffin top hairdo he sported during his first year or so with the band. The obligatory honeymoon period between Hagar, drummer Alex Van Halen, guitarist Eddie Van Halen (EVH), and bassist Michael Anthony lasts for a couple of albums (and massive success in terms of album sales and touring) before beginning to disintegrate amidst mounting friction between Hagar and EVH. Hagar airs out all the dirty laundry with the band, with the Van Halen brothers painted as being extremely disorganized in the studio and chronic boozers who are co-enablers. Hagar quits, eventually landing on a hilariously dysfunctional tour with Roth, who Hagar has always publicly disliked. Gee, what could go wrong? A clash of egos (mostly from Roth, if you believe Hagar's side) results in several cancelled tour dates, including one at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center in upstate New York that I drove nearly three hours to get to with my brother and friend. It's nine years later and I'm still pissed about that one. 2004 finds Hagar returning to Van Halen, which is where Red's juiciest details lie. An ill-fated reunion tour does great business, but further solidifies the personal and professional chasm between Hagar and EVH. Stories of the guitarist's increasingly eccentric behaviour, exacerbated by continuing alcohol abuse, are alarming and saddening, making the reader feel guilty for finding humour in some of the tales (I'll never be able to not smile when I hear the words "samurai hair" ever again). There's also a weirdly compelling, and contradictory, ingrained bond and love that Hagar still has for the brothers (moreso towards Alex), even while exhibiting a fairly naked hatred towards them for the perceived hell they put him through.
Aside from his musical and personal life, Red also features a significant portion devoted to Hagar's entrepreneurial side, which makes for additional fascinating reading. Instilled with a strong worth ethic, Hagar dips his foot into numerous business endeavours, including property investment and development, a clothing line, a mountain bike shop way before mountain bikes were even a "thing", a travel agency, a fire sprinkler business (!), bars and restaurants (including his legendary Cabo Wabo Cantina in Mexico), and his most well-known business success, his Cabo Wabo tequila company. Regarded as one of the finest premium tequilas in the world, Hagar sold an 80% interest in the company to spirits giant Gruppo Campari for approximately $80 million in 2007.
A smart addition to Red is a brief foreword by Anthony, who is now the bassist in Hagar's latest band, Chickenfoot. Anthony, by all accounts one of the nicest guys in rock, got mightily screwed over by the Van Halen brothers over the last several years, getting a smaller and smaller cut of the band's profits that eventually saw him acting as essentially just a hired hand, not to mention being replaced by EVH's son for the group's reunion in 2007. Sure, Anthony and Hagar are buddies, and the bassist is certainly justified in having an axe to grind, but it's still nice to get a slightly different perspective on things from someone who was actually present when all the drama unfolded. It's an effective device that nicely sets up the book and reinforces in the reader's head that what they're about to read is the God's honest truth. Anthony says of Hagar: "He's no bullshitter. If Sammy says it happened, it did".
At 238 pages and a 7½ hour running time for the audio book, Red feels near-perfect in its length and pacing. Some Van Halen fans may feel that Hagar throws the Van Halen brothers under the bus (and then rolls back and forth over them a few times), but the author's screw-the-consequences candour makes for a helluva read.
Rating: ★★★★★
Memorable excerpts from Red:
• From Hagar's first meeting with the band in 1985 at their 5150 studio, located at EVH's house: "Eddie walked in, wearing a pair of those shades with louvers in them. He'd been up all night, drinking, trying to write some music. He was wearing wrinkled pants. When I went into their house later that day, I saw why. He and Valerie (EVH's then wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli) were living out of suitcases. They had been off the road for months, but they didn't have their stuff hanging in their closets. Eddie never bothered to unpack."
On Gary Cherone, who told Hagar he had auditioned for the group while Hagar was still the lead singer: "Gary's a talented guy, a cool guy...wrong for the band? A hundred times over."
On David Lee Roth, from an interview given while the pair were on tour together: "He's a fucking bald headed asshole. A swaggering, middle-aged prima donna who's out there pretending to be something he no longer was. He's a nostalgia act who has to wear a wig and even spray paints that."
• On EVH during the 2004 reunion: "He finally invited me over to this giant, extravagant house that he and Valerie had built before she split. It looked like vampires lived there. There were bottles and cans all over the floor...there were spider webs everywhere. He had big blankets thrown over the windows. The mattresses were stripped off the beds and leaned against the wall for soundproofing."
• Also on EVH during the 2004 reunion: "He walked around all day drinking cheap shiraz straight out of the bottle. That's why his teeth were all black. 'Ed, why don't you get a glass for that?', I said. He held up the bottle. 'It's in a glass', he said."
• On a coked-out receptionist at The Record Plant recording studio in California during his pre-Van Halen solo years, who spontaneously orally serviced the then-married Hagar in the studio lobby after he emerged from the recording booth at 2 a.m. and complained of having a "singing headache": "She wanted to take me in the Jacuzzi, but I didn't go for that. I wasn't that promiscuous then, but when a chick unzips your pants and starts going down on you it's really hard to say no".


  1. LMAO @ the Roth dis!! This one looks like a worthwhile read.

  2. Can he drive 55 yet?


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