Sammy Hagar Has The Blues
In 2013, Sammy Hagar released a blues album. “If I’d turned in this record back in the Van Halen days,” he says, “the record company would have told me to shove it up my ass…"
This article first appeared in The Blues #9, October 2013.
We can hear the blues police sirens. The fist on the door. The voice on the Tannoy. We are harbouring a known fugitive of poodle rock. Send out Sammy Hagar with his hands raised above his head. You might argue it’s a fair cop. Skim his CV and Hagar doesn’t belong here. The former singer from Van Halen. The spaniel-haired beach bum in the shades and speedos. The tequila magnate and self-styled Red Rocker. Surely there’s the Classic Rock mothership for his turned-up-to-11 bluster. What exactly is he doing in The Blues?
Back up there a moment. If flashes of the singer’s back catalogue since Montrose hinted at a latent love of the blues, then his new solo album – Sammy Hagar & Friends – drags it thrillingly to the surface. Roping in icons old and new, from Taj Mahal to Rival Sons’ Jay Buchanan, and breaking jaws with the planet’s heaviest-ever take on Going Down, Hagar’s intentions seem noble. And when The Blues arrives to drill into his credentials, we find a true student of the genre, still chuckling about the night in Atlanta when a Quaalude scuppered his dream jam…
Are you pleased with the new album?
I’m so happy I can’t tell you. I always felt like there was so much I wanted to do, but you’re always stuck with your image or the genre you’re in. But as I get older, I’m just thinking, ‘I’m gonna play music for the right reasons’, with no agenda. I’m not even thinking about hits any more. If I feel like writing a fucking Hawaiian love song, then I’ll write one. It’s like the ball and chain is gone from my life. If I’d have turned in this record back in the Van Halen days, the record company would have told me to shove it up my ass!
That’s good. But let’s be honest. Some people will be surprised to see you in The Blues Magazine.
I’m a blues guy. I was raised on the blues. That’s all I listened to. I was in a band before I joined Montrose called The Mobile Home Blues Band, which became the Justice Brothers, playing the old blues songs and R&B. We played Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Going Down, Born Under A Bad Sign. All that stuff Cream came along and did – that’s what my band was doing. Actually, I’ve never said this before, because it’s never dawned on me. Back in my hometown, I was doing what Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and those guys were doing. I was playing the same songs those guys did. But they made it, and I didn’t. I never got the chance. They’d already done it. So I thought, ‘Well, fuck, ain’t no room for me now!’
So you went in another direction?
Long story short, I was always a blues singer. Then I joined Montrose and we were a heavy metal band. I was happy as hell to be in a band like that. I just sang the blues on top of it. Then I went back to being a solo artist, and I didn’t necessarily play the blues because I was trying to get a record deal. But it was always in my voice, and whenever I jammed with people, the first song I’d say would be Rock My Plimsoul, Born Under A Bad Sign, Going Down or It’s Hot In Here by Otis Spann.
Which period grabbed you most?
I got hip to Clapton when I heard the John Mayall and Bluesbreakers record. Savoy Brown, Long John Baldry, Peter Green, early Fleetwood Mac, the British guys: those were my favourites. So I was studying them, because I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to be like those guys. I didn’t want to be like Albert King or Freddie King. I didn’t want to be sitting up there onstage in a suit smoking a pipe, man. I wanted to be fuckin’ out there, a rock star, all glittered-up. At the same time, in my collection, there was Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, all the Kings, frickin’ Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, all of them. That’s what I was listening to around my house.
A lot of the early bluesmen were complete maniacs. Did that appeal to you?
Nah, I gotta tell you, the blues lifestyle isn’t what I was drawn to. Who wants to be fucking drinking cough syrup and coughing up blood before a show? That never appealed to me. I’ll be honest, I was drawn more to the lifestyle of Prince Charles over fucking Robert Johnson getting poisoned in the back of a truck. But you can become a master at interpreting that sound. I don’t have to drink a fucking jug of whisky, smoke cigarettes, chase women and get in fist-fights just so I can sing the blues. I can do it drinking Chenin Blanc, and eating rack of lamb, and taking the most beautiful woman in the fucking building back home, y’know? I can do it that way… and I’m very happy about that. I can still be here talking to you about it.
Did you ever actually meet any of the original blues guys?
Oh yeah. One of my greatest moments, as a blues guy, was when Montrose was opening for Humble Pie. We were in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was a club called Poor Richard’s. That night, there was a blues reunion there with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, the bass player that wrote Spoonful [Willie Dixon]. Steve Marriott says, ‘Come on, Sammy, let’s go.’ I had a bottle of Courvoisier in my dressing room, so I took that, and we got in the limo after Humble Pie’s show. I had these big high-platform boots on. I was a glitter rocker. I was dressed like fucking David Bowie going into this blues club. I smuggle in the Courvoisier. Steve Marriott gives me a Quaalude – ‘Here, take this!’ – and fuck it, I just took it. I didn’t even know what I was taking.
In the first break, we went backstage and told them, ‘Hey man, we want to play with you’. They said okay. So then we go to walk up there after the second set. The stage was about two-and-a-half feet high. I walked straight into it and fucking fell down, hit my fucking face on the stage, passed out. They carried me out. I don’t remember anything. So I didn’t get to play with them, all because fucking Steve Marriott slips me a Quaalude. My one chance to play with the real guys. I dunno, I guess he played with them. I don’t even remember. I didn’t see nothing, because of that fucking Quaalude. I don’t even do that shit…
No, you’re more of a tequila nut. Do you think it beats Jack Daniel’s?
Oh fuck, it’s a much better drink. Even though I sold my tequila company, and I make rum now, there’s nothing like a shot of tequila. If you’re gonna do a shot, you compare a shot of tequila to a shot of whisky. You gotta be kidding me! If someone takes that whisky over the tequila, they’re gonna get into a fight, they’re gonna get a hangover when they drink too much. With tequila, you don’t do that. You have a great time, you get all jacked up, you’re feeling good…
You recorded with Taj Mahal on Winding Down. He’s a character, isn’t he?
He really is. In my honest opinion, he’s one of the last authentic blues guys. It’s the end, man. There’s not a lot of guys still alive that really know and live the blues. I’ve always been a huge fan. I met him years ago, before Montrose, in 1972. I went to see him perform at a club, and Taj invited us backstage because he was trying to pick up on the girls we were with. I met him again at his concert about two months before my record… and he still remembered the girl! That show was amazing. He had just a bass player and drummer and he played guitar – and it was just scary.
What was he like in the studio?
He came down and did it, and the most complimentary thing he said was, ‘Where d’you get this song?’ I said, ‘I wrote it.’ He goes, ‘Wow, I thought it was an old blues classic that I missed.’ And then he told me I sounded like Wilson Pickett. And I said, ‘Well, fuck man, Taj – I was trying to sound like you!’ He tried to sing in my register, way up high, and he can actually sing that way – it just didn’t sound like Taj. So we said, ‘Hey Taj, come on back down, I want your best Howlin’ Wolf on here.’ I never do interviews in the mornings because I sound like Taj Mahal! He was really into it, man. He spent about four hours on it. He played some guitar and harmonica on there, but we didn’t use it, because I didn’t want to overproduce it. So I have outtakes of Taj blowing harmonica. Another track, he just sat on a chair in front of a microphone, and he just made noises and exclamations, talking shit to my singing. We took some little pieces of that and put it in there, and that’s when you hear him say, ‘Yeah boy!’ and ‘I hear ya, Sammy!’
Do you think your version of Going Down is the heaviest ever recorded?
Yes I do. I gotta tell you, my favourite recording of that song was Jeff Beck with Bob Tench and Cozy Powell. That’s my favourite version of Going Down, and whenever I jam it with people, I always say, ‘Jeff Beck version!’ Because some people play it real slow. Crossroads is the same kind of song: you can play it two different ways. But Chad [Smith]! Oh, he fucked that song up on drums. I’m telling ya, that song is so heavy, and grooves so hard, and the licks that Neal Schon is playing are live as a motherfucker. I challenge anyone to play it heavier. Come on! Come on, man! Come on with it! I challenge anyone to out-do that fucking take. There it is – bam! We did it three times and it just kept getting worse. I said, ‘What are we doing?’ Let’s go drink some margaritas, eat some tacos and forget about it. That’s the take, man.
Not Going Down was written by Jay Buchanan of Rival Sons – were you impressed when you heard it?
Well, Jay is from my hometown, and when he was a little kid, his mother used to take him to my favourite Mexican restaurant, called Mexico Lindo. When I was growing up, I went there, and when I made it, they took a picture of me and put it up on the wall. I came in to get burritos one time and the lady – Josie – asked me to sign the photograph: ‘Mexico Lindo, best burritos in the world, Sammy Hagar’. And Jay’s mum used to take him in there and say, ‘See, that’s Sammy Hagar, he’s from this town, he’s rich and famous.’
He said it had a profound influence on who he is today. And I love the Sons. I mean, God, they’re one of my favourite young bands, because they’re a throwback, man. They’re fucking Montrose meets Led Zeppelin meets Humble Pie meets… throw somebody else in there. They’re a moshpit of that era and that rock scene, and I love them for it. So I asked Jay to write me a song about how he feels from his position looking at me. And when he played it, the fucking fur went up on my whole body. We changed it up a little bit, slowed it down to make it heavier. I wanted to outdo Rock Candy. A mighty bold statement!
You must have one hell of an address book…
Yeah. I just hope nobody steals it!
Some might say you’ve lived the life of a bluesman – the woman trouble, the early poverty…
I was really poor, yeah. Not like a ‘blues-style’ poor. Not ‘in the ghetto’, but my mother would work in the fields. She would go picking fruit, and take all four of us kids, because my father was an alcoholic and he died really young. We were picking, not cotton, but we were picking fruit, like the blues people, you might say. My mum kept us going. She’d always tell us, ‘We’re gonna get out of this.’ She had a vision. She was a great mum, kept us a family, kept us tight. And there was always love. I just think having a strong parent like that, who really gave you hope and some kind of security – even though it was false – allowed me to become what I am. Otherwise, I could have just become a loser, y’know? I’m a very lucky man. Now you’re getting down into my soul, man. I’m a very lucky man. I’d be the first to admit it.
Do you think you’ve come through it okay?
Oh, absolutely. It really helped me to have come from nothing to where I am, because I never lost track of being grateful, number one, and [also] feeling sorry for people that are down and out. I have a heart, y’know? If I’d have been born rich, and just kinda kept making it, and got more rich and famous… y’know, I’ve met people like that, who really didn’t come from the bottom up, and they’re very different from me. I’ve always got my hand out to help somebody. I’m humbled by all this, and it never went to my head.
Have you ever considered renaming yourself the Blue Rocker?
[Pretending to mishear] The blue-balled rocker? No, actually, I get plenty of pussy if that’s what you’re getting at. No, I’m the Red Rocker. Straight up, man, always will be. I just love that colour. Blue is a pretty colour, and I can sing the blues any time I want… but blue ain’t me compared to red, y’know?