Sammy Hagar

Red by Erin Wade

A while ago I opined about the derogation that is directed towards Sammy Hagar when it comes to his time in Van Halen. This was inspired by listening to Van Halen specific playlists on Apple Music, and those playlists also reminded me that Hagar had come out with a memoir a few years ago, titled Red.

I'd come across the book by chance in a somewhat atypical bookstore in Denver - a place called The Tattered Cover - when we were there for a conference a couple of years ago. I was curious about it - I've been listening to Sammy Hagar since I was in junior high - but it wasn't available on Audible at the time (I've found that I typically can't keep my eyes open when I try to read in the evenings any more, so I capitalize on the opportunity to "read" when I'm driving and working around the house and yard), so I made a mental note of it and moved on.

Listening to the playlists fired up that mental note, and I did a renewed search on Audible, with success this time. A couple of clicks later I was the proud owner of the unabridged audiobook, and set about listening in the car, on my bike, working on my trailer...

...It is, as they say, possible to know too much about those you admire.

Perhaps unwisely, I had entered into the book with hopes of learning about Hagar's approach to writing music, pulling lyrics together, playing guitar. While I would never describe Sammy as a musical genius - for every thoughtful, interesting song like Remember the Heroes or Salvation on Sand Hill there is another like Sweet Hitchiker - his material has often struck me as presenting a working class philosophy, perhaps colored with a bit of California beach life for good measure. Within that structure as well he's always been a master of the hard-rock hook, producing songs with a musical edge that also stick with you.

After listening to Red I don't know any more about how he accomplishes any of that than I did before I started it. In fact, I couldn't even say whether he thinks about his music in any way even close to what I've just described above. The amount of time dedicated to anything about actual music production is so brief and poorly described as to almost leave one wondering whether he actually sees himself as a musician, as opposed to just a guy who shows up on stage in-between parties and expensive purchases.

Red is, in short, a tell-all book.

To be clear, my disappointment here is most certainly my fault. In retrospect, it is obviously the case that someone - either Hagar himself or a manager or publicist with his ear - encouraged him to produce something that covered all of the "titillating" details of his time with Van Halen before public interest dwindled to nothing. After all, his 10-year span with the band started nearly 30 years ago, in 1986.

But there's something more here.

When telling a story - even a tell-all like this book - one would like the author to have some self-awareness with respect to how he is presenting himself. He is, after all, the main character of the book, it's hero, for want of a better word. What we see of Sammy Hagar here, however, is a man in his 60's who, although looking back on his life, hasn't seen, is perhaps unable to see, the inconsistencies between who he describes himself as and who he actually presents as being.

Examples include passages in which he indicates that he doesn't really drink or do drugs, followed a short time later by descriptions of himself jumping into a limo and snorting coke with Eddie Van Halen; and indicating that he was largely faithful to his first wife, except, of course, for all of the random casual sex he had when he was on the road.

Perhaps the most troubling example of this, however, are the ongoing descriptions of how much time he spent away from home, and how difficult it was on his first wife, who nonetheless tolerated it and supported him; followed by his protestations that she was really bringing him down when he finally had to take a year off to care for her after she had a nervous breakdown; and that followed by his eventual breakup with her accomplished largely by avoiding her by moving from place to place ahead of her attempts to meet up with him and to bring his children to see him. At Christmas.

I actually found myself wondering whether he actually read the book after it was compiled (it seems clear from the way it reads that it was a series of stories dictated to someone else to have it out together).

I was grousing about all of this to my 13-year old daughter when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book. I went on long enough, apparently, that she felt the need to pat me on the shoulder and say "Dad, you know you can stop listening to it, right?"

But I couldn't. It was like passing an accident on the side of the road - you don't want to look, but you are compelled. I had to finish it.

There were interesting bits. Hagar is the second musician of his era whom I've learned has chosen to enter other businesses so that he doesn't have to rely upon music as an income (Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull being the first; I'm sure they are not unique in this). I learned that Marching to Mars, probably my favorite Hagar solo album, was a poor money maker. I learned that he owns a chain of bicycle shops.

And, fortunately, I find that I still enjoy the music.