Red – Sammy Hagar (book review)

Red – My Uncensored Life in Rock – Sammy Hagar (It / Harper Collins) book review

Sammy Hagar is one of the most likeable figures in music.  He’s the kind of guy that you’d invite back to your place for a backyard barbecue.  After reading Red – My Uncensored Life in Rock, we also find out that he’s quite a good businessman – not only forging a successful music career, both solo and with Van Halen, but also as owner of a bike shop, travel agency, the Cabo Wabo Cantina, and his most popular venture, his own brand of tequila.

It really seems like just about everything Hagar is involved with turns to gold.  And, therein lies the problem with his book – there’s just not enough drama here to really keep things interesting.  Most great music biographies have some sort of theme that runs throughout – something they’re working toward; maybe they’re trying to kick a drug habit, or obtain that long-overdue critical acclaim.  That’s what’s missing from Hagar’s book.  He never admits to any serious substance abuse problem – sure, he does it, but he apparently can keep it under control.  And, he’s not only sold millions of records, but he’s also gained the respect of his peers (when you’re invited to jam onstage with the Grateful Dead, you don’t have a problem in that area). Without a recurring storyline, Red comes off as more of a series of great memories than a cohesive book.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great parts to his book.  His tales of joining Van Halen after their original vocalist, David Lee Roth, quit, are intriguing.  It’s surprising to think that, back then, everyone was expecting Roth to succeed and Van Halen to fail – yet, Hagar managed to take the band to new heights, both creatively and commercially, while Roth played smaller and smaller clubs.  Another highlight is Hagar’s ill-fated tour with Roth, after being fired from Van Halen.  They actually had to keep their dressing rooms on either side of the arena each night to keep them from killing each other.  The most gripping part of the autobiography is when Hagar is invited back in Van Halen for the 2004 reunion tour.  His depiction of Eddie Van Halen as a strung-out, complete shell of a human being is both harrowing and sad.  Apparently, the guitarist was even forgetting parts of songs during a show.  That vignette is worth the price of the book by itself.

He also spends a great deal of time talking about his other business ventures, especially the Cabo Wabo Cantina and tequila, but it seems like everything he starts becomes successful – good for him, but it doesn’t really make for interesting reading (he was once offered 100 million dollars for the tequila business – and he turned it down!).  There’s also a lot of talk about his love of fast cars – but when he’s got a new Ferrari for every day of the week, it kind of gets boring.  I actually found myself longing for a Def Leppard-style car crash just to add some drama (okay, I wanted Sammy to come out unscathed).

The other thing that’s strange about all of his stories – his tales with other musicians often come off as casual run-ins instead of real friendships.  Sometimes those descriptions are somewhat cruel – there are several stories of his encounters with Stephen Stills which are particularly unflattering.  It seems the only close buddy Hagar has in that department is bassist Michael Anthony, who chose to leave Van Halen and be a part of Hagar’s band.

There is no doubting Sammy Hagar’s influence on rock n’ roll.  He put together a string of great solo records, then added a melodicism that was missing in the Roth-era Van Halen, taking the band to dizzying heights.  Despite all that, he’s still managed to be a regular guy — but regular guys don’t always make for great reading.  If you’re a fan of Hagar or Van Halen, there’s some great stories here to enjoy, but if you’re not, there’s just not enough here to recommend to everyone.  –Tony Peters