Sammy Hagar was once the frontman of one of the biggest and greatest bands in history, the mighty Van Halen. But while Hagar sang about standing on “Top Of The World,” as he surely was at times, making millions of dollars, living a life of luxury with fast cars and plenty of women, the musician didn’t always have it easy. Matter of fact, Hagar spent years learning that money, fame, and hit records couldn’t solve every problem, like his wife’s mental state or his bandmate’s addictions and jealousies.
In his autobiography, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, we learn that Hagar began life modestly in Fontana, CA. The youngest of four children, he was raised in a low-income household with an alcoholic father who abused his mother. He later went on have his own family with little means of supporting them, but Hagar makes it clear that he was always a hard worker. It always seemed that the entertainer got his big break in music when he was asked by the Van Halen brothers, guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex, to replace their departing singer David Lee Roth just as the band had come off a winning strike with their best-selling album up until that time, 1984. But while Van Halen was one of the biggest rock bands at the time, thanks to hits like “Jump” and “Panana,” Hagar was already a successful solo artist who had actually made enough money and did enough tours on his own to retire from music altogether. And retire to a life of solitude with his wife and kids was his plan until Eddie Van Halen persuaded him to join the band, and while Hagar was reluctant to accept, his chemistry musically with Van Halen proved too strong a force to deny — the singer/guitarist was ready for the “Best Of Both Worlds.”
If you’re familiar with the Roth material, you know that there was a lot of cover songs on each of those early Van Halen albums. Hagar, on the other hand, was a songwriter who was more into doing originals, and it was his collaborations like “Poundcake” and “Runaround,” as well as the ballads “When It’s Love” and “Love Walks In” that put the band right into the hair metal scene in the mid-1980s, launching Van Halen to new heights not only on the charts but in the concert arena. You might not know it from looking at him, but Hagar is an amazing showman and it was his fronting of the band that led fans to unofficially dub the group “Van Hagar.”
As you’d expect from a band of Van Halen’s caliber, there was lots of on-the-road debauchery going on. Red reveals a lot of those antics, though through Hagar’s perspective, the on-goings were a lot less fun than you’d imagine. It’s not the kind of tour stories you get from a tell-all like Motley Crue’s The Dirt. Though there was plenty of drugs, booze, and women, there was also Hagar’s struggles to care for his wife, who for many years suffered from depression and anxiety, and to divide his time between his family and Van Halen, as both sides were constantly pulling him in either direction up until the last day he ever dealt with the Van Halen brothers.
I’ve read actress Valerie Bertinelli’s autobiography Losing It, where she talks in length about her decades’-long marriage to Eddie Van Halen and how his drug and alcohol addictions and his obsessive compulsiveness put a strain not only on their relationship, but his business and creative partnerships as well. A lot of what Hagar writes here is similar to Bertinelli’s experiences with Van Halen.
I breezed through Red in two days and found it a fascinating read. Co-author Joel Selvin helps keep the text simple and straightforward. Hagar reveals a lot about his upbringing, his relationships, fun stories about fellow famous musicians, and even details about his business ventures — after Red I think Hagar needs to write a book on how to make money and make the right investments, because he obviously knew what he was doing, although he had no formal education. Oh yeah, there’s also the whole alien encounter story in there, too, though it’s not as sensationalized as it appeared to be in recent news stories.
I’ve been a Sammy Hagar fan since the early 1980s when as a little kid I saw the TV commercial for the movie Heavy Metal and heard the title track by Sammy Hagar. From there, I grabbed a copy of his solo record Standing Hampton and have been with him every since. In the book, the musician stresses the fact that he was successful all on his own long before Van Halen and backs up his statements with facts and figures. As I read the book, I was thinking of how he didn’t have to prove this to me — I remember! When he joined Van Halen, I was thrilled, but when I heard the light sounds of “Dreams” from his first album with the band, 5150, I worried that the Red Rocker who preached “There’s Only One Way To Rock” was on hiatus.
But the Van Halen years were really only a small part of the 63-year-old Hagar’s life. Red brings us from his humbling beginnings to his initial taste of fame with the band Montrose, then through his solo career which includes his most popular tune “I Can’t Drive 55.” After the Van Halen years, Hagar finally found peace emotionally, and has continued in music as a solo artist, as well as with the supergroup Chickenfoot. He’s also a successful entrepreneur with his famous Cabo Wabo Tequila and restaurant franchise, along with other business ventures, and seems now to finally truly be on top of the world.