Sammy Hagar: "I don't see a new Van Halen record happening"

Sammy Hagar comes clean, very clean, in his autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock.
Sammy Hagar comes clean, very clean, in his autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock.

Sammy Hagar comes out swinging in his autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock. Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth, Ronnie Montrose, even himself - the ex-boxer and Red Rocker pulls no punches, landing glancing and knockout blows, all the while exposing truths that, he tells MusicRadar, "have been twisted over the years."

In the singer's view, "Writing about yourself is kind of easy. Well, not easy - some of the things weren't pleasant to recall, all the rough times I went through and the pitfalls. Writing about other people…different story. How much do you say? How much do you give up? Ultimately, I had to decide that my fans deserved to know the real deal. This was my one chance to set the record straight."

And he does just that, in a way that will have readers gripped from page one. Co-authored by noted Bay Area rock journalist Joel Selvin, Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock (in stores on 15 March) is a wild, unpredictable and riveting tale that chronicles Hagar's rough-and-tumble childhood and his hard climb to stardom. Local bands, the almost-huge Montrose, solo career success, the roller-coaster-like decade he spent in Van Halen and the happy ending that is named Chickenfoot - it's all here.

MusicRadar sat down for an extensive, no-holds-barred interview with Hagar to talk about the book, and he was as forthcoming during our conversation as he is on the printed page. "You know me," he says with a laugh. "Ask me a question and I'll go on and on, and you'll have to tell me to shut up. But I think that's what people want from me. You want fake? There's plenty of other people you can go to for that."

Win an autographed copy!

Before we get to our chat with Sammy Hagar, here's some exciting news: You can win one of five autographed copies of Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock (Grand Prize) or one of five unsigned copies (Runner-Up Prize) in a special competition/giveaway. All copies generously supplied by the publisher. Click here for details.

Why did you decide to write a memoir?

"I needed to give my fans something. I have amazing fans, and I wanted to give them an honest look at my life and where I'm coming from. They've been so loyal to me over the years and have given me so much, so they deserve to know everything I can possibly tell them about myself.

"Spreading around some of the trash of my life wasn't the reason for writing the book. I mean, yeah, those things did happen. [laughs] I can't lie and say they didn't. But sleaze wasn't the predominant idea. I wasn't going, 'Let's see how much I can shock people.'

"The book is for my non-fans, too. This is my manual for people who are going through rough times to tell them, 'It can be accomplished. If you can dream it, you can attain it.' I know that sounds trite, but I'm living proof that you can do anything if you just keep at it. So, in that way, it's an uplifting success story. I made sure to keep the tone inspirational while, at the same time, 100 percent factual."

The Van Halen years

Eddie Van Halen - you paint a pretty brutal picture of him in the book. Did you have second thoughts about exposing so much about him?

"Yeah, I did. But then I thought, How can I not? Eddie's always made me out to be the bad guy. He's always had the upper hand when it comes to the press and could tell the story and frame it the way he wanted.

"The [2004] reunion tour, for example: I just thought that story needed to be told so that fans know why everything's happened the way it has. I didn't like what was going on at the time and how everything went down. I didn't like the way Mikey [Michael Anthony] was treated and the way they tried to treat me. They - and I'm talking about Eddie and Alex here - really made the experience unpleasant. I tried to get out of that tour. After 40 shows, I tried to quit. That's how bad it was."

Hagar on stage with Eddie Van Halen in 2004. "After 40 shows, I tried to quit," says the singer. © Ethan Miller/Reuters/Corbis

"I didn't do that tour for money, I did it for the fans. I wanted the band to come back and be great again. We didn't get there, and I tried to bail. But they and their management - I can't accuse Eddie and Al of everything, 'cause they're not that smart [laughs] - they had me sewn in, and I was stuck. I had to go through with the rest of the tour. It was hell. So I had to paint the proper picture of what Eddie was like in order to justify my behavior at the time.

"To this day, people ask me if I would go back to Van Halen, and my answer is always the same: not interested. Then people think I'm an asshole or something. What I mean is, no, I would not go back to Van Halen unless things were way different. Way, way different. And I don't know if that could ever be the case.

"To be honest, I went a little easy on Eddie a couple of times. There you go, how's that? [laughs] There's some things I could have said, but I didn't want to open myself up to a lawsuit. But everything I did say in the book is 100 percent factual. I tried to avoid putting in my opinions about Eddie; I just stuck to the facts."

EVH - tortured genius?

Let's get to an opinion, though. Eddie certainly strikes me as tortured in some ways. But do you think he's the classic tortured genius, or do you think alcohol is at the root of it all?

"I think alcohol is at the root of it - and drugs. He's not tortured, because he's always had his brother there to protect him. When I met Eddie, he was like a sweet little kid who had this amazing talent. Over time, he turned into a monster. And I don't mean a monster genius musician, because I think he started losing a lot of that. Straight up he did. I saw the guy right in front of my eyes not be able to write and forgetting how to play songs.

"Eddie's problems are all from drugs and alcohol, and all of it self-inflicted - nobody was driving him to it. Valerie [Bertinelli] was a sweet lady, and I think she could have been a great wife - probably was. His dad had a drinking problem himself, but he was a sweet guy. Eddie's not tortured by anything but Eddie."

Alex eventually quit drinking, but he continued to stand by Eddie no matter what.

"And should. That's what I love about Al. He's loyal."

But do you see him as being an enabler? He's not drinking with Eddie anymore, but he's not stopping him from doing hurtful things to the people who are around him.

"I think that he tries to help Eddie in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. Without Al, I don't know if Eddie would be alive. Al's been a great supporter and has helped him out in so many ways. Without having Al to protect him, Eddie might… it might have been different. [laughs] Al's great. I wish I had him for a big brother. But he stabbed me in the back, too. Let me get that straight right now. He just did it different from the way Eddie did."

Do you think you'll ever speak with Eddie again? Do you want to?

Van Halen (Eddie's son, Wolfgang, at right) at their 'reunion' press conference in 2007. Hagar calls singer David Lee Roth the "weirdest fucker" he's ever met. © Mark Savage/Corbis

"I definitely want to. I don't want to take anything to my grave that's negative or puts weights on my shoulders. It wouldn't bother me if I never did - not if he continues to be the same kind of person that he is, and continues to have the same attitude towards me. If he never gets to that place, I'll be fine to never see him again. But I wish that he would come out of his fog and realize that I have nothing to do with his misery."

Apparently, Van Halen are recording a new record. Do you think we'll see it soon, or at all?

"I don't. No, I don't think... Look how long it's been. They've had every opportunity. Eddie owns his own studio. His brother's his drummer and lives about a mile away. They have Wolfie on bass - they had Michael Anthony for a while, and they had him sittin' on his ass for years and years. And they've had two singers - me and Dave. With all of that, they haven't made a record in… who knows when?

"If it takes that long to make a record… I just… I don't see a new Van Halen record happening. I don't see Dave and Eddie being able to work it out. I've heard stories about what's going on. And I don't see Wolfie and Dave working in the same studio together. I don't know…"

And now... a word about Dave

Let's talk about David Lee Roth. When the two of you toured together several years ago, you didn't hit it off. I would've thought that perhaps the two of you might've sat around trading war stories.

"I tried. When we did the Sam and Dave tour, that's how I envisioned the it - the two of us getting together after the shows, having some drinks and crackin' up and laughin' about shit. What I really hoped was that it would've forced the Sam and Dave Van Halen reunion, where we all do it together. That would've been a super fan tour. That ain't about me, it ain't about Dave, it ain't about Ed and Al, it ain't about Mikey - that's about the fans. But Van Halen are not friendly towards their fans. All Van Halen have ever done is drive a wedge between themselves and their fans. They've made great music, but they don't do anything for the fans. I'm very different in that respect, as you know. I owe it all to my fans and I never want to have the wall between us.

Did you even get to talk to Dave about doing a big reunion tour with everybody involved?

"I'll tell you, Dave's a strange guy. I don't like to talk about him because I don't know him. He is, without a doubt, the weirdest fucker I've ever met in my life! [laughs] You can't get close to him. He's all fake. It's like there's nobody there. You talk to him and it's like you're talking to a friggin' robot. The guy's got his raps down, and that's that. You do an interview with him and you'll get the 10 answers to every question that he's got prepared, but you'll never get anything else. He doesn't dig in.

You're saying that he's scripted.

"All scripted. Dave's the opposite of me. I have never had a script, and I couldn't follow one if you gave it to me. We're so different, and that's why the tour didn't work. I don't even care about that guy. I don't care about him being in the band. He's so off my radar, he's so not in my world, it's like he doesn't exist. He's talented, he's got his thing, he's cool for people who like that show-biz shit. He's fine. But as far as Van Halen making a record… I don't see how Dave and Eddie can spend 15 seconds in a room together. That goes for Al, too. And I heard they don't, so I don't see them making a record."

Sammy with Van Halen in 1992, before the downward spiral. © Bill Nation/Sygma/Corbis

Let's talk about rock autobiographies in general. Have any impressed you over the years? Were there any blueprints you wanted to follow?

"I loved Bob Dylan's book, which gave me a glimpse into his soul and his mystique. I read it and I was like, 'Wow, that's not in any way like the guy I was listening to all of these years.' I thought I knew Bob Dylan, but I really didn't. It was sort of the inspiration for my book. Everybody sees me as this fun-lovin' rich kid who just cruises through life asleep at the wheel. Not true. I earned everything I have. The book tells you where I came from, and the struggles I went through getting what I wanted."

You had a pretty rough childhood. Your father, who was a bantamweight boxing champ before you were born, was an alcoholic. He wasn't around a lot, and he even burned down your house at one point. Yet your credit him with instilling an indefatigable belief in yourself.

"He did do that, that's right. You know, you can beat kids down and tell them they're losers, or you can inspire them and lift them up. My dad certainly had his flaws, but he would give me affirmations every day. I'd walk in the door and he'd say, 'How ya doin', champ? Let me see your left.' I looked up to him. He was a badass. Hey man, you see your dad kick three cops' asses, that's bound to impress you. [laughs] 'Whoa! Don't mess with my dad.'"

Discovering music

Even though you give a lot of thanks to your father, it was your mother who bought you your first guitar and encouraged me to play.

"She did. My mom did buy me a guitar, and she was pretty cool about it. But at the same time, she told me, 'Now, don't go thinking about being a rock star. You have to have something to fall back on.' Of course, she was telling me that when I was in Van Halen, too. [laughs] I'm buying her cars and houses and sending her on vacations, and she's going, 'I hope you have a backup plan. I hope you're saving your money. You have to invest.'

"She encouraged me to play, but I think my dad would've done the same thing. He wasn't around by then - he was livin' on the streets at that point. He had it pretty rough."

Your father was an alcoholic, you've been surrounded by some notorious drinkers, and you yourself run a successful tequila business. How have you avoided becoming an alcoholic?

"I think it's a genetic thing: you either have it or you don't. I drink - pretty regularly, in fact. I didn't always drink, though. I don't think I got into drinking until I was in my 30s. When I was a teenager, I'd go out with my buddies, we'd buy a couple of six-packs, and I'd take a sip and be like, 'Ugh!' I just didn't like the way beer tasted. Same with whiskey and other things.

"So I wasn't a juicer. I was more of a smoker. It wasn't until I got older that I was introduced to fine wines, and that's when I started drinking all the time. Not all the time, but you know what I mean. Put it this way: I don't wake up with the shakes and I'll be needing a drink. I know guys like that. Eddie is a good example. I'd be up all night drinking with him, and he'd wake up with the shakes and he'd need a drink to start off his day. He and his brother Al - Al was the same way. They'd wake up and they'd be crackin' beers and drinking vodka straight from the bottle at eight o'clock in the morning. I'd be like, 'Wow, what's wrong with you guys?'

"For some reason, I don't have that thing in my genetics that makes me need to drink. Wanting a drinking and enjoying it is one thing; needing it to the point where you can't function without it is another. My dad had it. The Van Halen brothers have it. I don't. The people who have it, they can't drink. Or rather, they shouldn't, because they can't handle it. Al would tell me, 'I can't have one drink and stop. I have to drink until I pass out.' That's an alcoholic. I'm not doggin' on alcoholics. They have a disease."

Happy days: Hagar on stage with fellow Chickenfoot members Joe Satriani (left) and Michael Anthony (right). © Jared Milgrim/Corbis

Let's talk about your early days as a musician, which you recount in the book. After playing in some Bay Area bands, you basically invited yourself into Ronnie Montrose's life and formed a new band with him.

"Yeah. Lucky him, right?" [laughs]

For a while, all was cool until Ronnie didn't like you exerting your own opinions, and then he kicked you out. This has happened in other bands you've been in. Why do you think this has been the case?

"I'm not really sure, but you're right, it has happened a few times in my career. Ever since I was a kid, in fact, it's been something of a pattern. It's always coming from an innocent place, though. It's not coming from an ego-driven place whatsoever. I think what's always gone on with me has been, whenever I do run into a people who have big egos, my personality will fuckin' rub 'em wrong. It's destroyed bands, relationships and so on.

Leadership - not always easy

"See, I'm naturally a leader. I walk into a room, and I'm that guy. I don't take over - I just go about my business, and the next thing you know, I'm in charge. It's just my personality. When I started Montrose with Ronnie, he looked at me as a star, and that was cool. When I started having my own opinions, though, and made it clear that I wasn't going to be under his thumb, that's when the trouble started. I wasn't trying to better him or take the spotlight from him - I was just trying to do what was good for the band. Ronnie didn't like it. He got insecure and had to get away from me.

"The same thing happened with Eddie. I walked into Van Halen at a time when they needed a fearless leader. I was that guy. Everything was great until Eddie started getting insecure. Then we started butting heads, and Eddie started trying to have everything his way - he wanted 'his band' back.

"We're not going to have those problems in Chickenfoot, because everybody in the band has established themselves as individuals. We got together as grown-ups. In Van Halen, we were almost grown-ups [laughs], and that's why it lasted 10 years. In Montrose, it only lasted three - we were really young!"

Do you now see the fact that Ronnie kicked you out of Montrose as a blessing? Otherwise, you never would've gone solo.

"I guess it's one of those 'all things for a reason' scenarios. I loved being in Montrose. I wanted us to be Led Zeppelin. We could've been the American Led Zeppelin if we had stayed together. I was all excited about the songs we were writing for the second album, and instead of feeding off of that excitement, Ronnie got scared: 'Sammy's taking over the band.' A blessing? I don't know. I just try to make every situation I'm in work.

"Van Halen - same thing. I wanted us to be the biggest band in the world, and for a while there, we were. I would've gladly stayed in Van Halen for the rest of my life. I loved being in Van Halen."

In the book, you also hold nothing back about your infidelities on the road before you met your current wife, Kari. Were you concerned with being so honest, particularly knowing that your children would read these sections?

[coughs] "Yes, yes, I was. I still cringe thinking that my little girls will read these things eventually, but what are you gonna do? You only get one chance in life to write an autobiography. You don't get two. So you either do it and go for it, or you don't do it all. Yeah, that stuff, the partying and the life on the road… that's a rough one, for sure. But like I said, the fans deserve the real deal, and that's all I've every tried to give them. And they know that, too. I can always feel good about that."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.