Sammy Hagar: "What do you do with $80 million? Anything you want!"

Sammy Hagar performs during the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert to benefit United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Some guys have all the luck. Guys like Sammy Hagar – rock star, entrepreneur, multimillionaire. He hasn’t always had it easy, though. Born on 13 October, 1947 in Salinas, California, he grew up poor, with an alcoholic father. But in his lengthy career as a singer – for Montrose, Van Halen and Chickenfoot, and as a solo artist – he has enjoyed huge success. Yet it was a business venture unrelated to music that made Hagar rich beyond his wildest imagination. In 2007 he sold an 80 per cent stake in his Cabo Wabo tequila brand for $80million.

What was the thinking behind this album?

This whole album was not planned. It took on a life of its own. Originally I was going to do an anthology called Four Decades of Rock – cherry-picking songs from Montrose, my solo stuff, Van Halen, the stuff I’ve done since. I was going to write a new song for each era – a song like Rock Candy by Montrose, a song like Red from my solo years, a Van Halen-type song…

So what happened to that plan?

I went to license the Van Halen songs, and those two knuckleheads wouldn’t okay it.

You mean Eddie and Alex Van Halen?

I certainly do. Now, I could have hired an attorney and done it anyway, because I own 30 per cent of that music. But that would have got a bunch of ugly press. It would have brought the whole thing down.

Why wouldn’t they co-operate with you?

I don’t know. Whatever. They’ve got their trip, and I don’t really care.

Van Hagar lets rip in happier times at the Memphis Colliseum, 1986

Van Hagar lets rip in happier times at the Memphis Colliseum, 1986 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Maybe you’re paying the price for dishing the dirt on Eddie and Alex in your autobiography (2011’s Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock). Was there a reaction from them about that book?

No, there really hasn’t been. And I think the reason is because they know I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. I was being kind to Eddie in my book, believe it or not. There’s some worse shit than that.

But you described Eddie as something akin to a functioning alcoholic.

Well he wasn’t functioning very well during the Van Halen tour in 2004. It was horrible to know a person that was in that kind of shape. I’m happy now when somebody sends me a video of those guys in concert, and I see Eddie’s playing good again. I wish that would have been the guy that did the 2004 tour. If it was, we probably still would have been together.

But now they’re back with original Van Halen singer David Lee Roth, and you’re the enemy.

Well, my original intention was to be friendly about it, to have them license to me four or five VH tunes and then I would get together with Ed and Al and write a new song. That would have been my dream come true. But when they turned me down, I figured this isn’t going to be friendly, so I sure as hell ain’t gonna bother asking them to do a new song. And once I got past that – okay, this is not going to be an anthology record – I was much happier to make a new album.

And you’ve kept the songs that were originally written for the anthology – songs in the style of your past work?

Yeah. Those songs are so freaking good. There are two songs that are very a la Montrose – Not Going Down and Knockdown Dragout – so I used Denny Carmassi and Bill Church on them. Not Going Down was one that Jay Buchanan from Rival Sons wrote for me. I said: “Write me a new Rock Candy.”

That’s a tall order. A bit like saying: “Write me a new Whole Lotta Love.”

I raised the bar! And what he came up with is the heaviest song I’ve ever sung. And then we did Knockdown Dragout, which is like high-energy Montrose. ‘Knockdown dragout’ is fighting talk – when somebody’s been knocked down, you grab ’em by the feet and drag ’em out. The song has that kind of attitude: ‘You’re going down, motherfucker!’ That’s why I wanted Kid Rock on it – he’s full of piss and vinegar. So many guys in this business are pretending, but that motherfucker is real, man. He gives it up.

You’ve recorded a cover of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. Why?

I was never a huge fan of synth music in the 80s, but that song has a badass groove and a cool lyric. We bluesed it up. And we took it to church. We got these black gospel singers out of Oakland to sing all the answer parts. That really makes my fur go up.

As well as all the star names on the album, your son Aaron duets with you on the song Father Sun. How old is he?

Oh boy, are you ready? Aaron’s in his forties now. Don’t start with me – you know I’ve been around a long time. And with kids I started early.

Do you think you’ve been a good father?

Yeah, I did a good job. I was on welfare when Aaron was born. I was trying to become famous. My passion was a little selfish, and he grew up with that. The first time I went to Europe with Montrose, I borrowed money so I could take my wife and Aaron. I never left my family behind. I’m proud of that.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Do you regret the failure of your first marriage?

No. The marriage was not a failure. It was 23 years. That’s quite a bit for a rock’n’roll guy. Can’t complain about that.

Is there anything in your life that you’ve failed at?

Whew! Not keeping Van Halen together. That was a failure to me. It would have been great to have kept going while we were so creative. In my head-space today I probably could have made that happen, but at the time I was just as big an asshole as they were. I was horny to make a solo album, and those guys are so insecure that it freaked them out and they threw me out. If we had split up on good terms it would have been okay. But to lose friends, that’s a failure. And I’ve had a couple of failed businesses. The Red Rocker clothing line – I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on that because I didn’t have the time to put into it.

Clearly you didn’t make the same mistake with your Cabo Wabo tequila company. You made a lot of money.

More than I’ll ever need.

The reported figure was $80 million.

That was for 80 per cent, yes.

Was selling it a difficult decision to make?

No it wasn’t! When the first offer came in at 60 million, and, you know, after taxes… I just thought, I love this company, it’s making a ton of money, more than I was making in Van Halen, ever. Why do I want to sell it? But then they said: “How much will it take?” I told them 80 million and they just went: “Okay.” If I’d have said no to $80 million somebody would have committed me to the hospital – like: ‘He needs psychiatric treatment!’

So what does a guy do with $80 million?

Anything you want! I already had everything. I already have a house in Hawaii, a house in Mexico, my main residence in California. I have five Ferraris, E-Type Jags and Aston Martins and old muscle cars. When all that money came in I was like: “What am I gonna do with this?” So I gave millions of dollars away to my family, I gave all my band members big bonuses, and I started a foundation to help kids.

You’ve launched a new spirit, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. Can you repeat the tequila success?

Why not? It’s better than any other white rum on the market. We make it in Hawaii, which has the most pristine water, the most fertile volcanic soil, and cane you can eat like candy. The pollens from all the tropical fruits and flowers are flowing through that air, and the rum takes on that flavour.

How did you become such a connoisseur?

I hate to brag, but I have a great palate. I can smell certain wines and tell you what grape it is. If there’s bad wine, I won’t drink. I don’t drink to get drunk.

Have you ever had a drink problem?

No. I’m lucky. I know when to stop – with anything – and some people don’t. My father died an alcoholic at the age of 56. It took him all the way to the ground. Seeing that, I didn’t start drinking till I was around 30, when I discovered fine wines and spirits, very high-level booze that’s really exciting to taste.

Were you ever much of a drug taker?

I haven’t smoked dope in 10 years. It ain’t like the old days where you smoked the whole joint. Nowadays you take one hit and you’re on the moon. And I don’t like to be that out of it. In Van Halen I played with coke a little more than I should have. I didn’t have to go to rehab, but I did like it. It’s like I said about spirits – I’m a connoisseur. When you drink a fine cognac, you don’t chug a bottle down, you sip it, you want to taste it. And when you’ve got really good coke, you do a little tiny bit and you’re like: “Whoo! Nice…”

You appear to have a supreme level of self-confidence. Where does it come from?

[Laughs] It’s fake, man! Seriously, I don’t think I’m that confident. I’ve never been a self-confident singer. If I’ve just written a new song, I can’t sing it for people. I just can’t. I’m embarrassed. It’s funny.

What is David Lee Roth really like as a person? Is he at all like you?

Nah. He’s from another planet. The only thing he and I have in common is that we were both lead singers in Van Halen. That is it. You can stop right there. Don’t even try to put us into any kind of a nutshell.

How did you get on with Roth when you toured together in 2002?

I thought that tour would be really cool, and it wasn’t. He was so pompous and demanding. He’s a strange guy. He’s so ‘pretend rock star’ and so protective of his image. It’s like he’s living two different lives. He’s projecting one thing and he’s something else, man. It was just weird to me. Who is he? What is he? He must be really miserable because he can’t be himself. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m for real.

To many people, Ronnie Montrose was an enigma. Did you feel the same about him?

Ronnie was such a private guy. You never knew what he was thinking. I know he was tormented – he was tormented back in ’72. He was always ready to explode, like his eyes were about to pop out of his head. So I know he had a lot of tension about something. But he never shared that with anybody.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When Ronnie committed suicide in 2012, was that hard for you to comprehend?

It was really hard to comprehend. It was the last thing I would have expected from Ronnie, and it devastated me. I don’t see any good in what he did. It was so hard for his family, for his friends, his band members and the fans that loved him. It was a fucked-up thing to do.

When was the last time you spoke to Ronnie?

It was a month before he did it. I got hold of him because it was my 65th birthday coming up. I said: “Ronnie, I want to get the original Montrose back on stage while we’re all still alive.” I wanted to bring him down to Cabo [where Hagar has his Cabo Wabo nightclub]. I told him: “I’ll put you up for a week in the finest hotel, and all you gotta do is play one night – the whole of the first Montrose album.” He goes: “Hagar, you’re always trying to con us into getting back together somehow.” I said: “I’m not trying to con you! It’s for my birthday.” So he says: “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then he starts leaving me messages every day, making these demands. I’m going, damn, what an asshole! Why has he always gotta make it so difficult? And then he kills himself a month later.

Do you feel angry with him?

Not angry. But it gets me all off-kilter thinking about it, because it doesn’t make sense. I wish I could have helped him. Maybe he could have opened up to me, I don’t know. But he was a strange person. If Ronnie had been easy to work with I would have done Montrose reunions all the time. I loved that band.

Have you ever felt misunderstood? You seem like a pretty easy-going guy, but on your 1984 song VOA – Voice Of America – you stated: ‘You in the Middle East, you be on your toes/We’re bound to strike, everybody knows/Just tell your friends, the USSR/We’re gonna crash that party/‘Cos they’ve gone too far!’ Are you really such a hawk?

Not now, but I was back then. I don’t know why, but I got real jumped up when Russia pulled out of the Olympics in ’84. It just seemed so chickenshit. So I went on a big anti-Russia thing. I had a lot of attitude in those days. Too much testosterone.

Who did you vote for in the last US election – Obama, or Romney?

I didn’t. I couldn’t stand either person. In my heart I’m a liberal Democrat, but in my head I like people to do things for themselves, which is the Republican way. I have a problem with the way the Democrats run the country, but I am not a Republican kind of person. When I get around hardcore Republicans I’m ready to punch somebody in the face.

Some people might think you’re a little crazy for claiming that you were visited by extraterrestrials in the late 60s.

Well, it was for real. I was at my house in the foothills of the San Bernadino Mountains, just lying in my bed, when I felt something weird going on, like someone was tapping into my brain. At the time, I didn’t know how to fucking explain it. But they were downloading or uploading. That’s the simplest way to put it.

How did the experience affect you?

Before, I didn’t know about the planets, about psychic phenomena. But from that point on I became interested in outer space, started reading books, reading Einstein. I went on a quest. And I’m still on it.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Yours has been an extraordinary life, hasn’t it?

Well, it’s ordinary to me. But honestly, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. In my whole career I never had to make a comeback. I never had to do a tour because I needed the money. I see this in so many older rock stars. They’re broke and they have to try to put it all back together. They become bitter. That never happened to me. And it never will.

And you’re richer than Eddie and Alex Van Halen will ever be.

Yeah. And that’s probably why they hate me.

This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #189.

Van Halen Quiz

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”