Reading Red

So why does a guy who abhors gossip shows read rock bios?

I don’t know, but I do. I’m not talking about the ghoul books, where hacks write detached tomes about Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger without ever getting close to the subject or the inner circle. There are writers who make a career out of that, although their creative output wouldn’t fill a thimble. You know who they are, because their dust jackets brag about how many they’ve written. If you know anything about rock’n’roll and grew up listening to the artists, you already know more than you’ll ever get out of these pulp pissants – the equivalent of stones skipping across the surface of a pond.

But hey, it’s America – they’re free to write ’em and you’re free to read ’em.

I’ve actually become more of a documentary fan as I’ve gotten older, everything from social issues to films to music. The recent deluxe package of Bridge Over Troubled Water included a fascinating piece about the making of the album; it started airing on Palladia this weekend. I almost didn’t recognize Art Garfunkel, but he and Paul Simon were interviewed at length along with several key collaborators. I know that album backwards and forwards and the title song still gives me goosebumps (one of the greatest vocals, ever), but I came away learning something. More on that tomorrow.

I’ve been working like a fiend, 12+ hour days, and this weekend I knew I had to decompress, at least for a day or two. I’ve always been a voracious reader, a book a day from my teen years through my mid-twenties. When I do have the time I still enjoy reading, whether next to the fireplace on a miserable winter’s night, laying on the beach on vacation or just sitting in an Adirondack chair outside my house. Summer is short and sweet in upstate New York, so with the sun high in the sky and cocktail in hand, I grabbed Sammy Hagar’s bio Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock.

Video: Montrose:Bad Motor Scooter

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sammy’s solo material, but that first Montrose album was and is an absolute killer, and his first solo record had a few stellar tracks as well. Being a bit older, I grew tired of Van Halen rather quickly, but two of the best songs they ever did – “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Finish What You Started” – were with Sam in the band. And although the musicians in Chickenfoot are all first-rate, it just doesn’t stick with me musically. Frankly, his smaller band (whether Waboritas or Wabos) sounds looser and more fun.

Red is a pretty quick read – dysfunctional childhood, outsider with ambition, chance meetings, a little magic, and a combination of solo success mixed with playing alongside one of the most innovative guitarists in history and one of the most psychotic, self-destructive people around. And those last two people are the same guy.

Hagar doesn’t pull many punches here – he’s pretty open about his own missteps and regrets – and with few exceptions (Michael Anthony, original manager Ed Leffler) the usual suspects have the stink of the business upon them. Irving Azoff is skilled but two-faced, Ronnie Montrose is brilliant but self-directed, Eddie Van Halen can be a charming and apologetic cat but is also criminally insane. David Lee Roth is a self-serving dick. The only relationship I couldn’t figure out was Alex Van Halen; Hagar alternates between saying they are so tight they call each other on birthdays, and that Alex conspires with Eddie to screw him over at every turn. I think something went amiss in the editing.

Video: Van Halen: “Why Can’t This Be Love

I went into the book looking for the insider’s view on what really went down in the Van Halen circus, but frankly I didn’t learn a thing. What I did discover – and it was never said overtly – was that Hagar has been smart enough to reach out to successful people for advice, and then take it. Like Jimmy Buffet, he modeled his lifestyle into an enterprise that will keep him independently wealthy for the rest of his life, which gives him the freedom to play music for fun rather than necessity. Between cantinas and his Cabo Wabo tequila business – eventually sold to a majority owner who made his percentage worth more than it was when he ran it himself – Hagar is a free man.

So since he didn’t write the book for money, was it to set the record straight about the bands he had been in? To declare that the low-scale concerts and smaller albums are by design? To distance himself from the myriad of casualties he’s been associated with and celebrate family and casual living? Frankly, I’m not certain. The book doesn’t even really end, it just…stops. I think he wants his fans to believe that he’s at heart a decent guy who supports charities, who takes care of people (the Wabos are paid year-round even though they play infrequently), who has gotten to the top through hard work and dedication. I would imagine his fans already know that.

So while the book was a quick read – conversationally written, very pleasant – it was an afternoon’s diversion rather than a deep-dive. I did come away liking the guy and respecting his drive, and although I remain ambivalent about the majority of his catalogue, there are several classic songs of his that have endured well over time. If I ever meet him and he wants to do a shot of Cabo Wabo, it would probably be a good time (I did learn that Sammy brings the party with him). But sadly, maybe that Van Halen story will never be known.

Unless…I wonder if Michael Anthony is interested in writing a book?

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