Singer Sammy reveals how dream job turned into nightmare – and band came close to being officially named “Van Hagar”
Sammy Hagar’s career with Van Halen started out so well the band nearly changed their name to “Van Hagar” – but by the end of his time with them he was desperately trying to wriggle out of his contract.
The singer reveals he tried to quit after 40 shows of their disastrous 2004 reunion tour, during which guitarist Eddie Van Halen regularly turned in substandard performances.
And he says the reason he’s telling all in his book Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock is to explain to the band’s fans why he did what he did.
Hagar tells MusicRadar: “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 he could tell the story and frame it the way he wanted.
“I thought the story needs to be told so the fans know why everything’s happened the way it has. I didn’t like what was going on at the time. I didn’t like the way Michael Anthony was treated and the way they tried to treat me. Eddie and Alex Van Halen really made the experience unpleasant.
“After 40 shows I tried to quit – that’s how bad it was. But they and their management had me sewn in and I was stuck. It was hell. So I have to paint the proper picture of what Eddie was like in order to justify my behaviour at the time. It ain’t about me, Dave Lee Roth, Ed, Al or Mikey – it’s about the fans. But Van Halen are not friendly towards their fans. All they’ve ever done is drive a wedge between themselves and their fans. I’m different – I owe it all to my fans and I never want a wall between us.”
In the book Hagar explains how his stint with Van Halen started out as a dream.
I walked into their place in Studio City. Alex Van Halen took one look at my short hair and started laughing. “You look like somebody put a doughnut on your head and cut it off,” he said. Alex was drunk on his ass. He was drinking a case of tall malt-liquor cans a day. He pounded them too. He would pass out a couple of times a day, wake up and shotgun two or three beers, crack one more, and walk out of the room. Eddie drank all day too. They both woke up, grabbed a beer, lit a cigarette, and that was the way they started their day.
We started playing, and the engineer Donn Landee recorded everything we did. I made up the first line on the spot: “Summer nights and my radio.” It just popped into my head the first time I heard that riff. The rest of the song I scatted my way through. I did the same thing with “Good Enough” — I really had my scat together. Eddie couldn’t believe it. Dave apparently didn’t have good rhythm and wasn’t a great singer, didn’t have any range. I was singing Eddie’s guitar licks with him. After five hours, they were freaking out. “We’ve got a band,” they kept saying.
Mo Ostin, the chairman of Warner Bros. Records was, let’s say, cautious. He liked the idea of changing the band’s name to Van Hagar. Eddie and I powwowed about it and decided, no, we’re Van Halen. We loved each other. There was no animosity, no egos, no nothing. They wanted me to be in this band, and I wanted to be in it, because we were making the music and we knew we were good.
Hagar left the band in 1996 but rejoined in 2004 for a short-lived reunion that ended in disaster.
I had been waiting at 5150 studios for more than an hour when Eddie finally showed up. He looked like he hadn’t bathed in a week. I’d never seen him so skinny in my life. He was missing a number of teeth and the ones he had left were black. He walked up to me, hunched over like a little old man, a cigarette in his mouth. He had a third of his tongue removed because of cancer and he spoke with a slight lisp.
He may have lost a chunk of his tongue to cancer, but he was still smoking cigarettes. He claimed the cancer came from putting the guitar pick in his mouth while he used his fingers to play. 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.
He was living with a pathologist, who kept taking slices off his tongue, to check for cancer. He beat the cancer. He told me he cured himself by having pieces of his tongue liquefied and injected into his body. He also told me when he had his hip replacement, he stayed awake through the operation and helped the doctors drill the hole. What a fruitcake.
Whatever he was doing, he kept it out of view. I never saw what it was, but he was doing something. Plus drinking wine all day. He would never be in one place longer than 20 minutes. “I’ll be right back,” he would say. “I gotta take a shit.”
This was Eddie Van Halen, one of the sweetest guys I ever met. He had turned into the weirdest fuck I’d ever seen, crude, rude and unkempt. I should have walked, but Eddie’s got a very charming, cunning side to him, where you feel like he’s got a good heart. He’s going to come through. He’s going to clean up and we’re going to get this thing done.
Our new manager, Irving Azoff, agreed to hold an intervention with Eddie. He brought a big, beefy security guard and met Al and me at 5150. Eddie walked in, carrying his wine bottle. Irving did all the talking. He told Eddie the tour was going to be difficult, that he needed to go away for a week or two, that we could postpone some dates if we needed. We all agreed Eddie needed to clean up.
He smashed the bottle. “Fuck you,” he said. “I will kill the first motherfucker that tries to take this bottle away from me. I left my family for this shit. You think I’m going to fucking do this for you guys?”
They kept us apart as much as they could. We flew in different jets. We stayed at different hotels. We had our own limos. They had their bodyguards. Mike and I had ours. I stayed in my own dressing room on the other side of the hall. The only time I saw that guy was when we stepped out onstage.
Once in a while, I’d go over to his dressing room before the show and see how he was, and the times I did that it was usually great. He’d start playing, I’d start singing, jamming around, like old times. Other times, he’d start telling me crazy shit, like, “I pulled my own tooth — this thing was bugging me so I got a pair of pliers and pulled it out.”
I didn’t think he could make it. I kept thinking each week would be the last. He was going to land in the hospital. He collapsed a couple of times. He told us one time that he had been hit by a car. He was lying down, and he was so fucked up, he couldn’t get up. “I got hit by a car,” he said. “You guys don’t understand.”
The last two shows were at a small amphitheater in Tucson. The second night, Eddie unwound completely. He knew it was the end of the tour. He knew he was done. He came up to me before the show, when I was talking to Irving, and rolled my sleeve down over my Cabo Wabo tattoo. I didn’t even acknowledge him. I just rolled it back up. He rolled it back down. I rolled it back up. “Don’t be fucking with my shirt, dude,” I said.”That thing ain’t gonna last,” he said, showing me his Van Halen tattoo. “See that? That’s better. That’s going to last longer.”
Irving took me aside. “When this show’s over,” he told me, “I’m getting you in a limo, and we’re getting out of here.” My plane was waiting to take me home. It was the worst show we’d ever done in our lives. Eddie played so bad. He smashed his favorite guitar to pieces. Sprayed shrapnel into the crowd. He got on the microphone, crying. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You people pay my rent. I love you people.”
They tell me he pulled some crazy shit on the plane home. My man was completely gone and out of it. I went straight to my plane after the show and home to San Francisco. I never spoke to him again after telling him to keep his hand off my shirt.
Hagar says: “Eddie’s problems are all from drugs and alcohol, and all of it self-inflicted. Eddie’s not tortured by anything but Eddie.”