Monday, April 11, 2011

Sammy Hagar - Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock

Sammy Hagar With Joel Selvin
Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock
It Books/Harper Collins Publishers

Sammy Hagar is the living embodiment of success, whether it’s with his music, or the various business ventures the singer/guitar/song writer has outside his music career.
Musically, it’s hard to ignore Hagar’s achievements. Not only did he play a big part in Van Halen’s career, but he’s also managed to maintain a solo career in the years since he parted ways with the band. And in more recent times, there’s his involvement with Chickenfoot, which has been a runaway success for all involved.
On the business side of things, Hagar has been blessed with the ability to turn everything he touches into gold. His various ventures into property developments, restaurants, mountain bike stores and tequila has earned Hagar the life only people dream of, and then some.
So with Hagar turning his hand to his first autobiography, you can’t help but think it’s going to be another winner for ‘The Red Rocker’ right? Well, from a sales and financial perspective, it’s a forgone conclusion. After all, ‘Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock’ has topped the bestseller charts, and Hagar’s hit the road drumming up publicity across the globe in support of its release. But at the end of the day, behind the hype and the staggering sales figures, what really matters is the story it tells, and whether or not its worthy of the paper it’s written on. And to be quite honest, there’s no real clear outcome to be made. Because while in some areas the book is well written, informative and interesting, in others it falls well short of expectations.
In terms of writing style, Sammy Hagar and writer Joel Selvin have ensured that ‘Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock’ is a fairly easy read. The bulk of the book feels like it’s written primarily from interviews Selvin has conducted with Hagar, with Hagar simply recounting his long and storied career and life of sixty-three years in chronological order with Selvin providing the prompts every now and then.
After a brief foreword by ex-Van Halen/Chickenfoot bassist Michael Anthony (Who essentially details his own story of joining Van Halen, meeting Hagar, his eventual dismissal from Van Halen and his reconnection with Hagar after years apart), the book begins at the start of Hagar’s story (‘Hard Luck Son Of A Bitch’), namely Fontana (California), where Hagar grew up, learned to fight and lived in poverty. Hagar goes into great detail about his hard life growing up as the youngest of four children, living in a low income household and his alcoholic/abusive father. If anything, the opening chapter spells out just how tough life was for Hagar.
Hagar’s first venture into music is discussed in ‘Mobile Home Blues’, along with Hagar’s first dabble in drugs, and his eventual brief stint in jail. These early couple of chapters are invaluable, as even diehard fans will most likely be unaware of some of the stories detailing Hagar’s early history. Needless to say, everything is presented in a light-hearted manner, and as a consequence is also quite funny at times.
By ‘Going To San Francisco’, Hagar’s married to his first wife Betsy Berardi, had a child (Aaron) and moved to San Francisco in a beat up van and cheating welfare in order to stay in the black. The hard luck story is still a major part of the story at this point, but the chapter is spiced up a little with Hagar’s familiar tale of having his mind being intercepted by aliens, a visitation from his father before he died and first his introduction to numerology.
From here, the book starts to move a little more swiftly, with ‘Montrose’ detailing Hagar’s learning curve of the music business and eventual success with Montrose, along with his eventual removal from the band under conditions that obviously still don’t sit well with Hagar. And it’s here that the first real issues of the book are evident. While Hagar is willing to provide the backdrop to the story of his musical and personal life, he doesn’t delve much into the music itself. While he does single out the odd song here and there, there’s not a real lot of discussion on the music itself. And that issue only gets worse as things progress.
Both ‘The Red Rocker’ and ‘I Can’t Drive Fifty-Five’ are supposed to cover Hagar’s solo career, but you wouldn’t know it. Details surrounding the recording of the eight studio albums he released and the one sole release from H.S.A.S. (Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve - ‘Through The Fire’ - 1984) are fleeting at best, with Hagar spending most of his time instead talking his run-in with Sly Stone, the disaster of opening up for Kiss, fooling around behind his wife’s back and starting up his own travel company, mountain bike business and clothing line (Which by all accounts was a disaster). There’s nothing boring or irrelevant about what’s on offer here, but a little more detail surrounding the recording and the songs on the albums would have been a real bonus here for diehard fans. But despite this, the chapter does end with a twist, with Hagar admitting that he planned to record one more album and tour, before calling it a day.
Predictably enough, ‘5150’ marks Hagar’s eleven year tenure in Van Halen. Most of the story behind Hagar joining Van Halen would be common knowledge by now, but it is interesting to hear Hagar’s take on things. And by all accounts, it was positive at the start. Van Halen went from being a big act, to the world biggest in the space of one album (‘5150’ - 1986), and life for the band changed virtually overnight. Of course, apart from some selected tracks, the process behind making their hit albums is kept to a minimum, with the majority of the focus within the book looking at Hagar’s personal and business life.
Interestingly enough, Hagar admits that that ‘OU812’ (1988) was difficult, and that the ensuing ‘Monsters Of Rock’ tour was a disaster. Even more surprising is to hear that by the time the band were recording ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ (1991), the strain was really starting to show up within the ranks.
From here, Hagar’s first marriage falls apart (Which, despite having been on the cards for some time, its still presented in a cold manner by Hagar), the band release their live album ‘Live: Right Here, Right Now’ (1993 – Which is in fact recorded in the studio according to Hagar), and the death of their manager Ed Leffler only adding to the eventual demise of the band. As predicted, Hagar’s view of Van Halen brothers (Guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex) at the time isn’t all that flattering. And according to Hagar, a lot of the problems came down to a growing dependency on alcohol and the games their new manager Ray Danniels was playing against the members of the band.
Large sections of the book are dedicated to Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina in Mexico (Which again was once affiliated with the Van Halen brothers, and which eventually added to the tensions within the group), Hagar’s marriage to Kari, the birth of Kari and Samantha and the gradual rise of Hagar’s tequila empire (Which he eventually sold eighty percent off for a whopping one hundred million dollars). Throughout all this, the story is tied in with the making of ‘Balance’ (1995 – Which is barely mentioned), the band’s contributions to the ‘Twister’ soundtrack (1996) and the eventual parting of ways between Hagar and Van Halen. This is undoubtedly the one area that fans are still a little unclear on, and for good reason. In the end, the end was more than any one thing, and it appears that Hagar both bailed and was fired, without really being fired or leaving the group of his own accord. All that is apparent is that it was a messy ending for Van Halen, and the band were a very much a mess at the time.
The tail end of the book is centred on Hagar’s ever growing business empire, his return to his solo career (1997’s ‘Marching To Mars’ is talked about, but the releases that followed are passed over for the most part), and his eventual return to Van Halen in 2004 (‘Samurai Hair’). If Hagar was critical before, then he is positively savage on the Van Halen brothers around the time of the reunion (And with very good reason I might add), he’s scathing of the tour that followed. Needless to say, while the tour was a huge success in money terms, Van Halen are done and dusted before the tour was even started.
Towards the end (‘Going Home’ and ‘Who Want’s To Be A Billionaire?’), Hagar talks openly about taking stock of his life, and focussing on taking things easy and doing what he wants - not only because he can afford it (And he certainly reiterates that statement plenty of times), but because it’s also where he feels he’s at in this point in his life. And so he should. He’s earned it.
As a book on Hagar’s personal life, ‘Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock’ covers a lot of ground, and really lifts the lid on a lot of history that fans wouldn’t otherwise know: which makes the book invaluable from that perspective.
But on a musical level, the book is sorely lacking. And that’s what really brings ‘Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock’ down as a whole. The pacing too is quite uneven (Some areas seem too rushed after the detail given within the first couple of chapters), and the figures quoted by Hagar (Album sales, concert attendances and the like) are at times questionable.
Overall, I got a lot from ‘Red - My Uncensored Life In Rock’, but it did leave me wanting more. And unlike an album, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

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© Justin Donnelly