In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: Sammy Hagar’s career in hard rock goes back nearly 40 years. Starting out as the lead singer of Montrose, a California party band named after the lead guitarist, Hagar entered his most successful period when he joined another California party band named after the lead guitarist, Van Halen. In between, Hagar released intermittently popular solo records and engaged in a series of highly successful side businesses, including his Cabo Wabo nightclub franchise and tequila brand. In recent years, he’s toured and made albums with two bands: The Wabos, a Jimmy Buffett-for-headbangers outfit, and Chickenfoot, a “supergroup” that also includes Joe Satriani, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Van Halen’s Michael Anthony. Hagar also found time to write a new memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock, which details his rise from a poverty-stricken childhood to his tumultuous but ultimately triumphant time as a singer for hire.
“Rock Candy” (from 1973’s Montrose)
Sammy Hagar: That was my first record. I had never been in a studio, so I was in shock and I had no idea if it was great or if it stunk. I was just putting in my heart and soul, and closing my eyes and keeping my fingers crossed. I gave it everything. Ted Templeman, the producer, and Donn Landee, the engineer, are the same team that signed Van Halen, when they were called Mammoth. Donn convinced them to change it to the last name of the guitar player and drummer.
The A.V. Club: In the introduction to your book, Michael Anthony says Van Halen wanted Templeman to give its first record “that big ‘Rock Candy’ sound.” Do you think Montrose was an influence on the California hard-rock scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s?
SH: There’s no question about it, man. Van Halen was kind of a Montrose Jr., and the ironic thing is, I was told by Ed and Alex and Michael—and Templeman verified it—that Templeman tried to get me in the band. I had gotten thrown out of Montrose, I had a solo record that wasn’t doing so hot, and Van Halen got signed in ’77. I was ready to do my second album, and Ted said, “You know, why don’t we get Sammy Hagar in that band, and get rid of the other guy.” I guess the band said, “No, no, we’re cool. We like Dave.” For a while, they did. That is a real story.
AVC: After leaving Montrose in 1975, you received a royalty check for $5,100, then spent $5,000 on a Porsche. At that point, you had no money in the bank, no future prospects, and a wife and child to support. Was that a wise move?
SH: Because I got that royalty check, I knew there would be another one. Every three months, we got publishing checks, but while I was in Montrose, the publishing checks went into the band’s coffers. This was our management’s decision; we were just financing ourselves on the road. It was reckless, but at the same time, I was really wanting to be a rock star. I was saying, “I am going to have a fancy car, I got to have fancy clothes, and I have got to play the whole role.” Obviously, I meant business.
“Red” (from 1977’s Sammy Hagar)
AVC: “Red” is a signature song for you—it’s how you got the nickname “The Red Rocker.” In Red, you refer to red as “a magical color.” What’s magical about it?
SH: I was kind of always attracted to red. I used to wear red socks a lot for some crazy reason. So, after I had my dream, I got into numerology. Like my buddy’s name is Bill, and I would say, “B is a two, and each I is a nine, and the L’s are fours. And that’s eight.” I would figure out everybody’s numerological single-digit number. When I did red, it was nine, and that was it for me. I said, “Here I am—nine is my number and red is my color, and I’m in business now.” It took me a long time to put it to use in things, but the name of my publishing company is Nine Music, and “Red” became my theme song.
AVC: You write in your book about having a dream where “two intelligent creatures” made a wireless connection with your brain. Soon after that, you wandered into an abandoned chicken coop in your backyard and found a book on numerology in a “dirty, fucked-up trunk.” That’s pretty weird, man.
SH: When I woke up from that dream, brother, I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to know what that was, what happened.” That was not an average dream. I’ve had some dreams in my days, but not like that. It was way too vivid. Looking back, the reason that dream makes more sense today than it did then is, we are in a digital world. Back then, it was an analog world. Everything was digital in the dream. It was a download/upload situation, whatever it was. They had a code—it was like 9-11-7-14-3, and, boom, it was over. They had a combination, and it was a friggin’ digital combination that had no significance to, you know, the numbers we know even today. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but at the time I knew what it meant, which is weird. Having a dream like that is just not normal. Everybody has weird dreams, but a usual weird dream is, okay, so your mom’s driving a car and she’s a dog. And then you look in your backseat and your brother is, like, a mouse sitting up there, eating a piece of cheese.
AVC: In a recent interview, you claimed you were abducted by aliens.
SH: I wasn’t abducted, for God’s sake. I’d love to be abducted. I’d sit on my deck at home waiting all night long to be abducted. But that’s never happened that I know of.
“I Can’t Drive 55” (from 1984’s VOA)
SH: I’d say it has probably been the most successful song I’ve ever been involved with, including any Van Halen songs. The downloads, the licensing, commercials, radio—it’s made me more money than any song I’ve ever written, and it only went to No. 26. It wasn’t a big hit at all. But it’s a career song. What makes it so special is, everyone thinks it was such a gimmick. People come up to me all the time and say, “Oh, you’re such a great businessman with that tequila stuff. Boy, that was really smart.” And I’m going, “Brother, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.” I just said, “I want to do this.”
AVC: “I Can’t Drive 55” is based on a true story, right?
SH: I had been in Africa for six weeks on a safari with my family. I said, “You know, I made a lot of money. I am getting kind of burned out. I really want to do something special.” So I went on this extended trip to Egypt, Kenya, Sardinia—I really did it, man. I was coming home, and while I was gone, they changed the speed limit from 65 to 55. I’ve always been kind of a speed demon. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, I’m in a rental car, I’m driving to Lake Placid, and I get pulled over doing 62, and I was pissed. I’m going, “What does this guy think he’s doing? I am only going 62.” He goes, “We give tickets for going 62 around here.” I’m going, “I can’t drive 55,” and I start laughing. No bullshit. I tell my wife, “Give me something to write on.” He’s writing the ticket, and I’m writing “I Can’t Drive 55.” Things like that, they just happen to me. I just have a vision of something, and it seems to go a long way. One thought goes a long way.
AVC: In Red, you claim you’ve been pulled over “at least 40 times” since “I Can’t Drive 55” and not been cited.
SH: I’d be paying, who knows, hundreds of thousands of dollars in car insurance. Maybe I wouldn’t even be able to get insurance, and I would have my license taken away 10 times by now, with how many times I’ve been pulled over and let go. It’s awesome. I mean, I’ve got to knock on wood, because I don’t want cops reading this and getting pissed at me.
AVC: The same year you released “I Can’t Drive 55,” California punk band Minutemen released the classic album Double Nickels On The Dime, which references your song. Are you familiar with that record?
SH: No, I’m not. I had no idea. I’ve had a couple guys try to talk about me a little bit in their songs, but it’s okay. I think it’s fun.
“Summer Nights” (from 1986’s 5150)
AVC: You joined Van Halen in 1985, and the first song you wrote together was “Summer Nights,” which you describe as coming together quickly during your first jam session. Was your musical connection with Van Halen instantaneous?
SH: That’s exactly what it was. I think the previous incarnation—if I may go there, I don’t even like to go there, but Ed and Al would write the music, Mikey would play along, and Ted Templeman would go and get with Dave and coach him through melodies and phrasings. When I came in, we didn’t need Ted Templeman or anybody. I had my scat together, and my melodic sense was good, because I could pick up a guitar and I’d work it out. We went on a rocketship then. The four of us were in the studio with Donn Landee, and we wrote songs like they were just pouring out of us. We got very prolific, and it wasn’t that way before, I guess.
AVC: You claim that a psychic predicted the date of your first concert with Van Halen—March 27, 1986—months before you even joined the band.
SH: Yeah. His name is Marshall Lever. I’ve got goosebumps on my arms now. Now you have fucked up, Steve. Last night, Marshall Lever called my house and left a message saying, “I woke up this morning and it was you in the newspaper, saying, ‘Sammy Abducted By Aliens.’ How are those aliens treating you, my friend?” And I haven’t heard from this guy for years. Now you are talking about Marshall. Yeah, he said that I was going to start a whole new thing that was going to be—well, not exactly, he used a different word—but it was going to be what I have done all along, but that it was going to be more intense. He was in his trance mode, and he would say, “You need to just go about your business and don’t try to make any changes. Everything has to happen in its own time. But on this date, you will start a new cycle of what you have been doing on a more intense level.” And, by God, he was dead on the fucking money.
“Why Can’t This Be Love” (from 5150)
AVC: Van Halen started doing more love songs once you joined. Were you trying to broaden the band’s audience?
SH: What happened was, when Eddie heard my vocal range, he got inspired and started busting out keyboards. Because he would try to do it before and it wouldn’t work, because you have to sing a certain way to be a little more melodic. Dave was great with screaming over the top of a good hard riff—that’s his forte, and where his limitations were. Whereas I had more of a vocal range. If you wanted to play a keyboard song, like “Love Walks In,” I can do it. And Eddie got all inspired, and started pulling ideas that he probably had sitting around for the last few years that he still dug that he never could present, or if he did present, went nowhere. You know, everybody’s like that. I’m a songwriter. I’ve got ideas in the closet that just didn’t work out with my band, that I think, “This is a great idea, it’s just the wrong guys.” Like if I were playing with Sting and Neil Peart, this song would be great, you know what I mean?
I’ve always been into writing love songs. I would rather sing about my love affair or about a woman or to a woman than some guys any day. I’ve had my fill of “One Way To Rock” or “I Can’t Drive 55.” Those are guy songs to me, and I’m cool with that. But when you write a great love song and you start seeing that 50 percent of your audience is beautiful women, that’s much more rewarding, my friend, than having a bunch of guys out there. Trust me. So, I always liked a good love song and, you know, I dig being in love. Love is the shit, man. When you fall in love, everything’s great. You can have all the money in the world, all the cars, and the houses—but with no love life, man, you are sitting there, you’re bummed, you’re pissed off. You go, “Man, this sucks.” You could be in the gutter and fall in love with someone, and you feel great. That’s my honest opinion. I’ve witnessed both sides of that fence and being in love is where it’s at.
“Right Now” (from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge)
SH: I had been reading this book about Zen Koan philosophy, and it was talking about the right here and the right now, and how important it is, and I was really trying to get there in my life. I was going through troubles with my marriage, and I was just trying to focus and center myself. I was already rich and famous. I’ve got to figure out where I want to go and just get this thing aimed. I wrote this song and I kept singing it every day to Eddie. It was my baby. And he goes, “Cool, cool.” He never wrote music to my lyrics. He wasn’t ignoring me; he just didn’t have anything that he thought fit. The whole time he was playing that piano part, and I’m going, “I just don’t hear it.” We were almost finished with the record, and I am playing pinball and he’s playing the piano, and all of a sudden I’m singing “Right Now” in my head, and it goes with the damn piano part. Those are the magical songwriting moments, when you have a partner that clicks like that. That’s a dream come true, man. It wasn’t even work. “Love Walks In,” it was the same thing. That song is about aliens, by the way.
AVC: Really? I thought the line about “some kind of alien” was supposed to be metaphorical.
SH: Ruth Montgomery had a book I was reading called Aliens Among Us. She was an automatic writer. She used to go into a trance, like Marshall, and she would just start typing information, and then she would come out of her trance and read it and go, “Wow,” and that was just the way she wrote her books. There are a lot of people going around where an alien took over their body, and their soul will actually leave and be, like, in a sleep or in a near-death situation. She called them “walk-ins.” That’s kind of what happens when you fall in love.
AVC: The Van Halen brothers were upset when John McCain used “Right Now” during a campaign stop in 2008. But in your view, the song was being used to “inspire” people, so you were for it.
SH: That’s what it was written for. And they were so wrong about that, to say that they didn’t want someone to use it for their campaign. Bullshit. This is pop music. You’ve got a candidate for president of the United States using it, that’s hitting the biggest audience you’re ever going to hit in your entire friggin’ life. And you don’t want that? Bullshit. That’s what you want. It’s not even for success or fortune, it’s because that’s the power of the song. I was honored by it. You know, those guys just went against it because I was for it, because I’m a co-writer, publisher of that song, so for it to get accepted, we had to sign off on it. I signed off in a second. “You bet that anyone can use this. I don’t care. You can use it for anything.” If it is to inspire people in the positive sense, I will okay it. They just didn’t like the fact that I okayed it. Believe me, man, once they turned on me, they turned on me in every respect.
“Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” (from 1995’s Balance)
AVC: This song was inspired, in part, by Kurt Cobain’s suicide. You didn’t know Cobain personally. What inspired you to write it?
SH: Because I feel it’s such a tragic thing. Here is a guy, a young guy, that had everything in his hands. He could have had a great life. He had a wife, he had a child, he had a fantastic career. He was important to a generation. And for him to do that—I didn’t like that. I thought that was just wrong. It just sent a bad message to a troubled generation. I just thought that I could have done something about it, and I still feel like I could have. I wish I would have known the guy. I would have been the first guy there to get him help, doing anything I could have. I just felt like the people around him kind of let him down. I think love could have saved the guy, you know?
AVC: “Don’t Tell Me” actually sounds a bit like Nirvana. Did Van Halen make a mistake by trying to sound grungy instead of like Van Halen?
SH: I loved that song, but man, it was dark. That song did nothing for Van Halen. The record was big—we always sold 4 or 5 million records no matter what we did. But that song didn’t take us anywhere, and I know why now. It wasn’t what Van Halen fans wanted. It showed the darkness of Van Halen, and basically the end of the band.
AVC: You’ve said that you’d like to re-join Van Halen at some point. But after writing this book, is that realistic?
SH: I’ve really thought this over, because I know this book is going to crush any possibility real soon, but that’s okay. I don’t want to try to force anything, because I’m really happy with Chickenfoot; my new record with them is phenomenal. I think it’s better than the first one, and I think our first record was killing. When they read this book, they are going to be pissed because this happened and they don’t want me telling everybody, but I had to. I’m writing my biography. It’s my business. This is what happened in my life, and I’m writing about it. For me to leave that out wouldn’t have been fair to the fans, you know? So I put the dirt in. I talked about the good times. Even the good times are going to piss some of these guys off, because their old ladies are going to say, “You dirty punk. You were hanging around with them. I know you did it.” And that’s unfair, but, you know, I’m going to get under the bus right with you boys.
I really think that Van Halen has two choices if they want to continue. And maybe they don’t want to continue, because they don’t seem to do much. But they have two choices: Sam or Dave. If they tried to go out and get some young kid to sing my songs, it would be a disaster. The fans are not going to buy into that. Van Halen is too big to do that. As soon as this Dave thing blows over, you know, they obviously can’t make a record with him. He is dried up or not very prolific; something’s wrong there, obviously. So I’m the only choice to make a record. And that’s the only way I would do it. We’d have to make some new music. The fans deserve it. Van Halen’s got some of the best fans on the planet.
“Mas Tequila” (from 1999’s Red Voodoo)
AVC: Is “Mas Tequila” an accurate reflection of your life as it currently stands?
SH: It is. It is really rolled into that song. It reminds of the old Fillmore days with the Dead, when everybody was high on acid and smoking pot, and the band was too, and this event happened that had nothing to do with anything commercial or any premeditated shit. You just went up and started playing, the audience got into it, and it was just a great high experience. That’s what I kind of invented with “Mas Tequila” in Cabo. What happened was, we would sell the tequila at all the venues. My fans would drink it. My band would drink it. We would do two hits before we came out. The point is that everyone was in the same frame of mind. It wasn’t like one guy’s drinking whiskey, another guy is drinking beer, another guy is smoking pot, another guy is taking acid, and some guy is on PCP. These were just juicers with, you know, maybe a little pot. It was so much fun to see people with their hair down like that. And then I heard about Jimmy Buffett. My wife goes, “We got to go see Jimmy Buffett sometime. I used to see him back in Virginia Beach, and he throws a party like you.” And I’m going, “What? Jimmy Buffett? What the fuck? Are you crazy?” She takes me to the show, and I’m expecting to see about 200 people there or something, and there’s 18,000 people, just partying. And I’m going, “Yeah! This is it!” It just solidified it for me, that, yes, there is a way of a life out there, there is light.
When I did Chickenfoot, it was tough for me, because my manager and a few people around me were saying, “Man, c’mon, you’re going to lose the shorts for this band, right?” You mean I got to wear shoes in this band? What the fuck is with that? And I really struggled in a way with my image. But I can do either one. When I want to go be Chickenfoot, I go out and I’m the artist. It’s all musical. Then when I want to go back and throw a big-ass party, I get the Wabos and we play all the hits from my career. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have both of those things going on.