Red Rocker Rocks OnBy Tony Hicks
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
SAMMY HAGAR stands in the middle of his hotel lobby, giving instructions on how to properly drink the tequila that bears his label. The student is a TV cameraman, still lingering from an earlier interview, who's just received a bottle of Hagar's Cabo Wabo mixture, plucked from a cardboard case near the sliding glass door.
Hagar's tone may be light, but he's dead serious when it comes to tequila. Properly approaching the good life matters. He wants the cameraman to savor the taste the way he does. Hagar is firm about this, and the student listens up. After all, it is Hagar's hotel lobby and his tequila company. Sammy Hagar, Red Rocker, party animal, entrepreneur ... innkeeper?
"I know it sounds crazy," he says, plopping down on a couch in the living room-like lobby, which leads outside to a windy inlet of sparkling blue bay water. "When I built the Cabo Wabo, it's because I was in Cabo (San Lucas) a lot and needed a place to play, so I built one. A few years ago I was flying my band and crew guys up when I was auditioning people, and I couldn't get them a hotel in Marin County. So I built one.
"It's been open for four years. Now my band all moved up here, and I don't need the damn hotel."
There's a blurry line between what Hagar needs and what Hagar wants. When he laughs -- and he does so frequently -- it's what you'd expect to hear from a man who builds large buildings just because he wants to. The Acqua hotel, just off Interstate 101 in Mill Valley, probably won't be his last. Hagar is 55 but barely notices. He has too many plans, none of which involve cashing in the 401(k) and buying a motor home.
To Hagar, age 55 is no different from his old nemesis of the same number, Mr. Speed Limit (as in he just can't drive that slow). Both numbers should be ignored for what they are: meaningless barriers to be blazed through in a flashy red Ferrari, and left behind as roadside dust. Besides, there's no reason to step on the brakes now. He just did a week on the Hollywood Squares. He's featured in the first episode of the new VH1 show Oct. 28 called "Rock the House," for which he got to redecorate a fan's home.
He also wants to write a book and make a movie. He wants to form a superband and make a concept record rivaling Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." He wants to play free concerts for his fans and he wants them to know the proper way to drink his tequila. He wants to save the world. Hagar even wants to rejoin Van Halen ... someday.
At least, he thinks it'll happen.
"Oh definitely, it's inevitable," he says, tapping his foot and moving around like a kid who had one too many Snickers bars at lunch. "Unless they're completely shot. They have some serious issues."
Hagar doesn't. In many ways, he's still the same fiery rocker who burst onto the scene with Montrose nearly 30 years ago. Red is still the theme, from his bright bloom of hair to his red soccer shirt and shoes.
But he has changed. He's well into middle age, with kids and grandkids. Competition no longer consumes him. He has freedom that comes with lots of money. But some other things simply can't change, not if he lives another 55 years.
"It's a lifestyle; I'm for real," he says. These days he idolizes the Grateful Dead.
"The way they did it was awesome. They just broke all the rules. I love that. Guys like Jimmy Buffett and Neil Young. That's me. I'm a rocker. I love playing, and I'm gonna do it on my terms. Bathing suits and thongs; that's the way we do it in Cabo."
Though he doesn't sell records the way he once did, he's happier than ever, judging from all the knee-slapping and laughter. He has a new record out, "Not 4 Sale," with his band, the Waboritas, with whom he'll do a free concert today at San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza.
He just finished a blockbuster tour with fellow Van Halen alum David Lee Roth, a man about whom Hagar manages to smile even while calling him every unrepeatable name in the book. Even the conflicts aren't worth getting upset about anymore.
Well, not totally.
"He's a complete, unreasonable (jerk)," Hagar says, hitting the topic head on. "He called me because he was pretty down and out. I wanted to do an Elton (John) and Billy (Joel) type of thing, him and I go out together and play some old hits. This guy got out there and all of a sudden (he's) God. He actually went out onstage in Boston after I came out with (Van Halen bassist) Michael Anthony, all the guys in Boston and (former Van Halen singer) Gary Cherone. He walks out on stage during his second song and says, 'Don't forget Sammy Hagar works for me.' And the place booed him off the stage. That's how stupid this guy is. I will go out on a limb and say David Lee Roth is a bad human being. I just felt like punching the guy in the face."
Roth stopped talking to reporters during the tour, so it's difficult to get his take on what happened. Hagar admits he's never liked Roth, but he wanted to put it aside for bigger things.
If everything had gone well, Hagar says, he would like to have taken Roth in the car to "drive down and get (Van Halen brothers) Ed and Alex and say, 'Hey listen, we do the Sam and Dave tour with all of us together.' Now how cool would that be for the Van Halen fans?"
Hagar isn't courting Van Halen, but doesn't avoid the subject either. It was one of the world's biggest bands when he joined in 1985, after more than a decade as a successful solo artist. Hagar says "it's all good" with Van Halen, but doesn't hesitate to point fingers at what led to his 1996 departure.
"I said, 'We need a break.' We were arguing and it was just one big unhappy family the last year. And they wanted to do a greatest hits record. I said, 'You're nuts.' We just came off 138 shows. We had a ... manager, which they finally fired and who they're in a lawsuit with now. That's half the reason they can't do anything. He put us on the road until we almost dropped. My wife was pregnant and I said, 'I gotta get home and have this baby.' They said, 'Well, in two weeks we want to go in and record these two new songs. If you ain't here next week, we assume you quit.'"
He showed up briefly, left again, and they haven't spoken since. Van Halen made one subsequent record with Cherone that sold poorly and was savaged by critics, then disappeared from the map. Eddy Van Halen has since fought cancer and is going through a divorce with his wife of 20 years, Valerie Bertinelli. The band recorded a few songs with Roth last year, but any sort of reunion has been shelved, with no information coming from the Van Halen camp concerning the future.
"I never quit that band, but the band, as you can see, has done nothing since," Hagar says. "It's over for Van Halen unless they get their heads together and just have fun making music."
It's a concept Hagar seems to have mastered. Since he left the band he's had another child and two grandchildren. He splits time between homes in Marin, Maui and Cabo San Lucas. He started a tequila company and his own record label. He built the hotel.
"I'm just happy doing what I'm doing," he says. "I've had so much fame and fortune, and I don't mean that in a bragging sense. After a while you just get a little bit jaded and a little bit used to it. And you just go, 'It's no big deal to me now.' I don't care. Like my new record, 'Not 4 Sale.' If it bombs, I'm not going to be crying.
It's not about making money, he insists.
"It's about going out and doing it. I'm really lucky -- I can play anywhere in the world. I only do what I want to do -- that was my aim."
He hopes the next audience shows up for Planet Us, a project including Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Journey guitarist Neal Schon. The plan is to do a concept record tackling world affairs. It doesn't faze him in the slightest that concept records don't generally sell well. Again, there's more to life than sales.
"It's about us, all being here together," Hagar says, waving his arms to make a point. "And if we don't get together and do something, we're doomed. This whole Middle East situation drives me nuts because the idea of nuclear war, or germ or chemical warfare, is the worst thing. The planet is almost dead. We've damned near killed this sucker and, you know, I've got grandchildren now."
Despite the serious theme, Hagar smiles and gets antsy just talking about a new band. He says it'll be ready to go in January.
"I'm a very busy guy," Hagar says. "I like to do projects when I really feel like it. I love to be horny for anything. I don't want to sit at the dinner table until I'm starving, then I want to say, 'Damn, this food is good.'" He's also making a movie about his adventures of the past year on the road. He already wrote the accompanying book. He swears his cooking is good -- enough to make him a Food Channel star. Limits don't exist in Hagar's world. Not even when it comes to his old band.
"I'm fine with them," he says. "I almost thank them for helping me get my head into a (good) place. I was really sold on being the biggest and the baddest. I'm so happy I let all that go, because now I can have so much more fun in a band. When I left Van Halen, I took inventory. I went, 'What the (heck) am I doing working this hard, when all I need is to relax and grow up and not be trying to compete with kids anymore?'
"When I did that, I felt so good about myself," he explains. "My life has changed."