15 Minutes With Sammy Hagar

The rocker may be touting his rum brand but LAMag would rather regale him with stories of second row seats to Van Halen and find out how he left things with that band’s late virtuoso guitarist
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I was supposed to interview Sammy Hagar about something to do with his rum brand. A lost cask in Maui: super-premium, limited edition, etc., his publicists’ email blathered. 

Whatever. 

I talked to the rock star and liquor entrepreneur the day before I went to Las Vegas to see what might be the last performance ever by The Who and was more interested in rock and roll fame, fortune and fate. 

It’s a good thing I had something on my mind, since I had zero time to prep for the interview. After I’d suggested some times that might work for me, I didn’t hear back from the publicists. A week later, I picked up an unknown number: “Hi, it’s Sammy Hagar.” 

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know this was happening.” 

“I’m a real person!”

“I know. I just… well never mind. Let’s do it.”

I did hear back from the publicists, who emailed me during the interview (quite distracting), with apologies. Afterward, they assured me that rum samples would be sent my way, and three full-sized bottles arrived within days, one unflavored, one “Kola Spiced,” and the other called “Red Head Macadamia Nut,” which the label explains is “rum with artificial flavor and color.” That’s fine and nice as sorries go, except I’m not drinking much these days, and when I do, it’s usually when a friend decides it’s time to open that 1980s bottle of prize-winning Bordeaux they’ve been sitting on. I know, life’s tough for Allen. But if I tell you what a freelance journalist is paid, you’ll understand why I need a friend to provide the good wine. The rum? Tag me in a social post and maybe I’ll give a bottle to you. 

Anyhow, Hagar can afford to do whatever the hell he wants. More than the rum, I was interested to learn that the 75-year-old “Red Rocker” and onetime Van Halen frontman spent what he says was about a half-million bucks—but I bet was even more—to hire Dave Cobb, one of the best music producers in the world (Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson). Hagar brought his band, The Circle—which includes Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Jason Bonham—to Cobb’s Nashville studio to cut a new record, Crazy Times, that came out this fall. 

The album kind of tells Hagar’s life story. Here are the lyrics to “Father Time.”

Married young/ worked hard to raise four children/ played every bar in every small town that would have me/ finally met a record man that signed me/ said he liked the way my star was shining/ hit the road / that ain’t no place to start a family / but that highway feels familiar/ can’t remember what I can’t confess/ still living this dream and it ain’t over yet.

Our conversation is full of those f-words to which I previously referred, so without further ado but starting with the time I saw him in L.A. during his first tour with Van Halen at the Fabulous Forum and including a reference to his speed-and-safety-eschewing solo hit, “I Can’t Drive 55,” here it is, edited for clarity and length.

LAMag: I don’t know if you remember me, I was in the second row at the Van Halen show at the L.A. Forum in ’86.

Sammy Hagar: (Laughs) Did something spectacular happen, something I’ll never forget as long as I live? 

Well, I’m sure this wasn’t the only time it happened, but Michael Anthony was extremely drunk.  [Note: The staggering dude was playing a bass shaped like and with the logo of a giant Jack Daniels bottle, so this is not libelous]

That sounds like Groundhog Day to me. And then what happened? Come on, Allen. Spit it out now. Don’t hold back on me.

Ok, the real story is that it was this weird miracle. I had a friend who I knew from high school, and we were working at a summer camp together, and he was friends with the daughter of a promoter or something who had promised him Van Halen tickets. But that was, like, six months earlier and he’d forgotten. And on that afternoon, just when we got done working, we got the call from the daughter: “Your Van Halen tickets are ready.” 

We had no idea where they were or anything else. But it was one of those weird Southern California high school (actually early college kid) fantasy fulfillment things, where we drove to some house in the Valley, picked up the tickets in a daze and then showed up at the Forum. We got senate parking and basically got led to the second row, like up on the riser. And Eddie was at one point sitting right in front of us, soloing. There were many high-fives. That’s what I remember.

Ha! Well, I’ll tell you, Allen. That’s a long time ago. I remember all kinds of shit, though. You’d be surprised how many times I’m doing an interview and someone brings up “Once I was at this show…” and I’m, “Oh boy, here we go.” I’m gonna have to strain my brain here. But then they come up with something like, you know, “and I had on this red t-shirt, and I threw it up on stage and you picked it up, and then some girl came out and then I’m like—oh fuck, I remember that!”

Awesome.

My brain is easy to trigger to remember. I don’t use a teleprompter, never have. I sing about 400 songs and can remember the lyrics without a teleprompter, songs I haven’t sung for 10 years. It’s amazing. I don’t know. It’s my gift, you know? 

Do you think it’s from drinking your tequila? 

I just remember important things. Like lyrics.

It would suck if you all of a sudden started singing, “I can’t drive 54.”

(Laughs) Well, the new version is that I can’t drive 75. I just had a birthday, brother.

There you go. So are you still drinking or do you find that…

Yes! I’ve never had a drinking problem. I’ve never been in rehab and I don’t plan on ever having to be there. You know, I’ve got this little trick, because I’ve been around so many alcoholics, including my father and my brother and other people in my family and band members. I see these guys wake up the morning with the shakes and have to have a drink. And I’ve always said to my mother, who was worried about it because of my dad: “Mom, the day I wake up in the morning and have to have a drink, I’d never drink again.” I don’t get drunk and get sloppy and fall down. I got brakes on the car. I’ve always been a kind of a control freak. I had children at a young age. And my whole life being raised by a single mom, I’ve always wanted to be alert, and if something happens, I want to be able to handle it. My mom never drank in her whole life. My dad died as an alcoholic. I almost drink now more to test my own products…. The reason I started making rum is because I wanted to make a better product.

OK, fine, the rum. 

So I said, I’m going to get into the rum business. I’m going to go to Hawaii. I have a house there in Maui. Found a guy to make it in Hawaii. It was so expensive, It was crazy. And that’s why I have this lost cask because I only made it there for three years.

Was it really lost? 

Oh, fuck yes. I said, let’s stick it in barrels and just age it. And then I sold my house over there a couple years later and I started making the rum in Puerto Rico. And I just didn’t stay in touch with those people. So one day, the guy calls up the CEO of my company and said, “Ask Sammy what he wants us to do with these three big giant ass barrels that we have stashed in the back of the warehouse.” I had completely forgotten about it. I went nuts. I said my, this is like the greatest mistake I’ve ever made in my life. Now that’s a sipping rum.

I assume you’ve never chatted with Bob Dylan about his liquor brand. 

No. I haven’t had Heaven’s Door whiskey.  I don’t like the brown spirits in general. Too much wood.

You’re 75. A lot of musicians do their best writing before they’re 30. Are you more businessman than a musician now? 

Oh no, everything is based off music for me. But I can’t play music every day of my life. I do 35, 40 shows a year, always. I have a band called The Circle. We just made a new record. My music is better because of my other entrepreneurial things. I’m not frustrated, because I’m not trying to make money with my music. I make plenty of money in other ways. My record came in number six and went to number five on the Billboard chart. And it sold 27,000! 27,000 records in the eighties, I would have lost my record deal. Everybody spending a month in Nashville making a record in this day and age, I didn’t want to have a record company come in first telling me what to do. I love Dave Cobb and we made a great record if you listen to it. My best writing in certainly 20 years. I’m so proud of it. It’s everything I worked my whole life for.

So you financed it? 

Yeah, myself. And then I made a record deal with MCA. I’ll probably lose a few hundred thousand dollars. 

What did it cost to make the record?

Half a million. 

Do you have any regrets, thinking back over your career? 

No regrets. But I probably could have done a better job — not just me, the whole band. I’m not taking all the blame here — but if Van Halen would’ve stayed together and gotten over that hump, that decade thing. Everything, marriage, everything after 10 years needs an overhaul. I wanted to make solo records again and they hated me to make solo records. 

So I was frustrated, and then we weren’t getting along. Eddie and I, our writing started suffering. I think towards the end, The Balance record, there’s great music and great songs and the lyrics are better than the 5150 record. But 5150 had the love and magic to where Balance is dark. The love was gone. And I wish we would have gone past that, taken a break, and that they wouldn’t have wanted to push forward and do any reunions or hire another singer like they did. And that I would’ve gotten over my desire to be a solo artist where I could do everything my way, which is so stupid. When you go back and look at a video like “Life Without a Net,” I’m like, “oh my God, who wouldn’t be happy and satisfied in that band?” I would’ve brought on a psychologist or something like Aerosmith did. Aerosmith made it past that, you know, they got help. Now Eddie’s gone and it’s too late.

How’d you leave things with him? 

Great. We talked the last few months. Thank God. As devastating as it was, the only thing that could have made his death worse would’ve been if we hadn’t buried the hatchet. We were talking about doing a reunion next year with everybody. I have been pushing for Sam and Dave [David Lee Roth, the original Van Halen frontman] for a long time. That’s the only way Van Halen’s going to satisfy all the fans, so let’s go out and give it to them.

That would’ve been good. 

It’s too late now. That’s about the only thing I regret. But the breakup of Van Halen allowed me to do things like Cabo Wabo, and make my own tequila and sell it for a zillion dollars, and just life-changing stuff that would’ve never happened. That’s just somebody, the little angel on my shoulder, that said “Stop crying, you’re gonna come out on the other side a happier man. Secure. Less beat up.” Who knows how beat up I would be if I was still in a rock and roll band doing 100 shows a year?

Are you going to get in the pot business?

I gotta pick my highs. I don’t smoke. I can’t. Growing up I smoked some bad pot one time when I was just in a bad place and it made me so depressed that I said I’ll never smoke pot again. So I didn’t for about 30 years. And then one time my wife. Kari, and I were in Hawaii, someone offered some to us and as a goof we said why not? And oh boy, the pot that’s around now. I laughed so hard, I almost hurt myself laughing.

I didn’t ask you about Shep Gordon, who also has a place in Maui of course. I assume you hung out with him. [Shep, a legendary talent manager and character, was the subject of the Mike Myers documentary, Supermensch. I know him because Shep was involved in the early days of Food Network, which I wrote a book about.]

That’s the guy I’m talking about! 

He got you high. How did I know? 

I know how you know. But I laughed so hard that I almost had a brain hemorrhage, which was not a bad thing. But you can’t do anything. You can’t have sex, can’t drive a car, can’t watch tv. Everything’s too crazy. I like to be more in control. 

The limited-edition bottles of Sammy’s Lost Cask –10-Year Aged Rum, priced at $299 each, will be available for purchase starting Nov. 14. More info on that and the new record at www.redrocker.com.

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