Sammy Hagar on music, local roots, and rocking the business world

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By JACKIE MOE

Inland Empire Magazine. For subscription info, visit inlandempiremagazine.com

On the night of June 5, 1964, British rock band The Rolling Stones pulled up in a school bus in the parking lot of the Swing Auditorium of San Bernardino to perform their first concert ever on American soil. In the lot, 16-year-old Fontana kid Sammy Hagar and his friend were waiting outside the back door of the venue.

“I didn’t have a ticket. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have my license yet, so it was just me and my friend who had a car. We waited there and the frigging Stones pull up in this school bus with George Babcock from the a local radio station, and they got out of the bus and walked through the back door and we walked right in with them like we were a part of the entourage; as if we looked like the frigging Rolling Stones. We walked right in and I saw my first concert and it changed my life.”

As the saying goes, the rest is history. That teenage boy became the “Red Rocker,” one of the world’s most successful heavy metal musicians of all time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and multifaceted entrepreneur. At 71, new projects and aspirations include recording his first-ever concept album “Space Between,” with his band The Circle, to be released May 10.

A veteran solo star and the former lead singer and rhythm guitarist in the bands Van Halen and Montrose, Hagar also founded the Cabo Wabo Tequila brand and restaurant chain, as well as Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. He is also just finishing up filming the fourth season of his AXS TV show “Rock & Roll Trip with Sammy Hagar,” in which the legendary rocker travels across the U.S. to perform with fellow rock icons.

In addition, he is recognized for his charitable efforts, earning a Humanitarian Award for his private non-profit Hagar Family Foundation, consistent donations to local food banks in every city he tours, and benefit concerts like his upcoming 4th annual Acoustic-4-A-Cure with some of the biggest names in music.

Gearing up for a new tour, there seems to be no slowing down for the “I Can’t Drive 55” rock star. Hagar opens up to Inland Empire Magazine about what drives him, memories of growing up in the I.E., and what “living the good life” means to the man who knows how to party.

What was the inspiration behind your new concept album, Space Between?

It’s about money, greed, enlightenment and truth. So I kind of made this story up of when the Federal Reserve started printing money where there was no gold and silver, and people didn’t get paid for the work they did with their trapped beavers from over the winter; they’d use those pelts to trade in for supplies for their house to live for the rest of the year. So it starts about money being the root of all evil and greed and it goes through a guy’s life and his horrible experiences before he gets enlightened and realizes that it’s not money that’s the problem, it’s greed, and money is actually beautiful. With money, you can save the world, you can stop a war, you can feed the poor, you can heal the sick, you can make people that are down-and-out happy by paying their bills. Money can do wonderful things; it’s just that most people are greedy and want to hold onto their money and not help other people with it. As an artist at my age, if I didn’t have something to say, I probably wouldn’t have made another record. I made a statement saying this could be my last record. And it could be, I’m not trying to hype it like that, but it could be my last record because unless I have something to say, I wouldn’t just make a record to make money or to have more success or fortune. I would only make a record if there was a reason to make it. And that would be this.

So having grown up in poverty yourself, how did this concept resonate with your own life? 

I’ve been poor in my life, growing up in the Inland Empire, I was as poor as you can get. I was on food stamps and everything else, and I had a family at a young age — I had my son, Aaron. And I struggled. I ran into so many bad people in the music industry and the business world. I’ve had some great experiences and bad experiences, and I’ve learned that really without greed, which is the name of the last song on the record, it’s called “Hey, Hey, Without Greed,” the world would be a lot more beautiful place to live. This album’s just insight into who I am and what I’ve done. I wish I could have done this in my thirties because then I could have carried on my whole career this way. I mean, I’m happy with who I am and where I am today. But if I would’ve had this enlightenment earlier, I think I could have had a great message, instead of, you know, just “I Can’t Drive 55” or “Mas Tequila” — which I love, don’t get me wrong; it’s part of me. That’s what got me here. I think I see a pretty good picture now though and I feel it’s a necessary record in the world today.

What was life like growing up in the I.E.?  

Growing up in Fontana, my mom raised four kids as a single mom. My dad was an alcoholic, became a street person right away, and my mom raised us all, and she worked her ass off every day of her life. And I saw it, and it just like a work ethic, you know? As a family during the summer, we would all get in the car at five o’clock in the morning and we’d go down to the berry patches down on — I forget what street it was on — but, there used to be this boysenberry patch, and we’d go down there and pick berries. You know, those kinds of experiences — hard work, being poor, hanging with poor people, having nothing, and having to make something from nothing. All those things became creativity.

So that creativity and work ethic you learned from your mother is at the root of your success? 

When I was in a position where I had fame and fortune and was able to do more things, that same creativity works where you have to make something from nothing. When you got nothing and you’re still creating, that’s when you make good stuff. And that’s why my tequila was good. My rum’s good. That’s why my restaurants are good. That’s why my music’s good. I’ve got a work ethic, you know? I want things to be as good as they can possibly be. So it’s kind of like all that magic came from my roots of Fontana, San Bernardino, Riverside, Colton, Rialto and so on. [Laughs]

But boy, when I mowed enough lawns or threw enough papers on a paper route and made enough money, me and my buddies who had a car, we’d put in a couple of dollars for gas in the tank and go to the beach. Yeah I’m still that same guy if you really think about it; I’m still all about the beach. I’m all about tacos and tequila, you know, growing up that way. And music. That pretty much sums me up!

Besides seeing the Stones, what other memories do you have of the Swing Auditorium? 

Oh man, I love this question. It was a really cool venue. I saw so many cool bands there. I saw The Seeds there. I saw Buffalo Springfield there. I saw Jimi Hendrix there. If you asked me, ‘Who’s your favorite band of all time?’ I would have to say it was Cream, and when I saw Cream there, the PA blew up. My buddy was in the opening band called The Caretakers; they were a local Inland Empire band, and Eric Fields, who’s no longer with us, was in the band and they gave them their PA to use because theirs blew up in the house. Ah man, I could go on about the Swing.

How many times did you play there? 

In ‘75 when I left Montrose, I started a band and played in San Bernardino at the old Swing, and there was only about 500 people there, and the place held about five or six thousand, I think. And it was my first solo experience, and I called myself Sammy Wild and the Dust Cloud, and I did a frigging show there…I wanted to do a concept record, a concept tour, but it was science fiction. And it just wasn’t successful. So I dropped the Sammy Wild and went with Sammy Hagar. So I’ve wanted to do this concept album thing my whole life. And I tried it out originally at the Swing. I played there maybe twice as a solo artist and I finally sold it out once, and then the airplane hit it and then crashed it out. It was a shi–y place. It actually sounded really bad [laughs]; but they had every band, and all the cool bands played there.

Several musicians have covered and had successful hits with your music. Any particular favorites? 

Well, I think the biggest surprise was when Rick Springfield had a number one or top five single with “I’ve Done Everything For You” because when I wrote that song for myself, I told my record company, ‘Oh, this is the hit. I know this is the hit.’ And at that time, I hadn’t really had a solo big hit, you know, a top 40 single. So I’m saying ‘this is a hit; and ‘just wait, you’ll see,’ and they released and bombed it. I got like five radio stations playing it. But that song’s a frigging hit. I argued with my record and said, ‘You guys didn’t do the right thing.’ I argued with my manager and said, ‘Nobody’s getting behind this record.’ I was so disappointed. And then Rick Springfield comes along a few years later and has a giant hit with it. The album sold 5 million records. It’s like a multimillion seller and that was very redeeming.

That must’ve felt good!

I just went around smiling and saying, ‘I told ya, I told ya.’ I asked Rick about it when I met him. I went to see him in concert when he had that song out along with ‘Jessie’s Girl’ on the same album, and he said, ‘Dude, it’s because I’m better looking than you.’ (laughs) So on my ‘Rock and Roll Road Trip’ TV show, I’m just finishing up filming season four, and I interviewed Rick Springfield at his home in Malibu. And we talked about that and had a good laugh and we actually sing it together on the episode.

Bette Midler’s cover must have also been a surprise.

It was unbelievable when she recorded a song for the movie “The Rose,” where she played Janis Joplin’s life story and used my song “Keep On Rockin’,” which also wasn’t a hit for me and wasn’t necessarily a hit for her either, but she put it on that record and in the movie. And that was really cool. So then I got to meet Bette and she asked me, ‘Write me another a song, join my band, play guitar with my band!’ And I was like damn Bette, I got my own career here I’m trying to work out [laughs]. And so I played her my song “Red” because she’s a redhead and she fell in love with it, and put it on her “Broken Blossoms” record. So that was neat too, because if I wouldn’t have met her first, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I don’t think she would’ve discovered that song on her own, but I had that opportunity to share it with her, my theme song.

What does it mean to you to hear your music being covered by another major artist?  

Having people record your music is honorable. When you hear someone else playing it, you kind of get a funny glimpse of yourself. It’s like when you see yourself on TV talking and you’re sitting and watching yourself on Kimmel or whatever, and you’re sitting there going, “Wow, that’s me” [laughs]; it’s freaky. In the old days when I first heard myself getting airplay on the radio, I would be driving down the street in my car and all of a sudden, my song would come on, and it takes you a second to realize it. You’re like, ‘Woah, wait a minute, is it? It is! My god it’s me!’ And you can crank that up as loud as you can possibly hear it and you still can’t hear it loud enough. You just can’t. It’s freaky. And it’s kind of like that when someone records your song, and you hear your lyrics and music, it’s just cool. It kind of stretches you out a bit. It’s kind of enlightening, like, ‘Oh, so that’s what I meant!’ It’s awesome. It’s crazy. It leaves you kind of scratching your head.

Do you see or hear your influence in modern rock’n’roll?

I actually see more of my influence through my entrepreneurial things that I’ve done outside of music. Maybe some up-and-coming heavy rockers today have been influenced by my Montrose, Van Halen, Chickenfoot days, or my solo stuff, or now The Circle. But I think it is mainly things that I have done outside of music that have influenced. Every musician or artist looks at themselves like, ‘I have five years maybe, where I can make my money and then what am I going to do?’ You know, one day you’re a big star and the next no one cares about you. I’ve protected myself from that by starting businesses and being creative, which is just like writing music.

Wow, so what inspired you to create something so largely outside of an album, like Cabo Wabo Cantina?  

When I built Cabo Wabo, I had a vision. I went to San Lucas and it was all dirt roads; there were no phones, no TV, no newspaper, one flight in a week and one flight out in a week to America. And I went down there under those circumstances and I saw a vision, and I said, ‘I’m going to build a cantina down here’ and ‘I’m going to build somewhere you can play music’ because there were no music spots, no entertainment whatsoever. And I’m like, I love this place and I’m going to make it a place where you can listen to and play music with a tequila bar. This is at a time where tequila wasn’t even fashionable. People would drink tequila back then and spend the day around the toilet the next day throwing up, you know? [laughs] But when they tasted the 100 percent pure agave tequila, the real deal, they know that’s different than the tequila they grew up on. That’s just creativity. No different than when I wrote “Space Between” or any other record.

So your venturesome spirit has influenced artists in a much different way than just their music style.   

I think I’ve inspired artists to do the same thing to create their future and stay creative, and open up restaurants or bars or other businesses. It’s not like selling out if you own it, you know, I don’t endorse. Some people will place their name on a product or something; like some guy will put his face on a milk carton but really drinks beer for breakfast [laughs]. That’s selling out. But starting a business, being creative, and getting paid for doing what you want to do, that’s not selling out. And I believe in giving money back. I give all the money that I make out of my Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grills, there’s one in Honolulu, Maui, Las Vegas, Cleveland, and I give all the money that I make from that restaurant to the local communities. And that makes me happy.

You’re a brilliant entrepreneur, but you have a charitable side that seems to take precedence over business.  

Yeah I’m really not a businessman. I happened to be lucky and I’m a creative person, so I come up with creative businesses, but I never do anything with them until I find the right person to run it because I don’t run my own; I can’t run it. I make the big decisions about, you know, what color the bottle should be and how it should taste, and what kind of food is served in my restaurants, and you know, all that kind of stuff like how it should look and feel. But I don’t run the day to day. I find good people to do that.

What continues to drive you to spend so much of your time and money in charity? 

My charitable side definitely comes from the fact that I was poor. If it wasn’t for back when I was growing up in Fontana; there weren’t food banks, but you know, we had things like during Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter, charities would have food giveaways. You could go down to some place local and get a turkey or ham and get some vegetables and things. And my mom did it every year. I can’t ever remember times being good enough to where we went to the freaking grocery store and bought a big old turkey and a bunch of potatoes and some bread… we had big dinners at home and invited the family over if my dad brought a turkey home from work because, you know, the union would hand them out.

I can imagine that majorly shaping your ambition to give.  

I saw that happen and I saw how important that was because we were a functional family. I mean, well, before my dad really hit bottom, but before that, you know, we were a functional family. My dad had a job and wasn’t making a lot of money. My mom would do things, like I said, like go pick berries or fruit and stuff with all four kids to make money for school and school clothes for the first day of school and stuff like that. The giveaways, the freebies, the canned goods, or you know being able to go to churches and get food — all that made the difference to whether or not we ate sometimes.

So when I see the food banks today in every town I’ve played for the last 10 years, I write a check to the food bank. I don’t care where it is. If I play San Bernardino, San Bernardino Food Bank gets it. And sometimes when I have a day off, I go down and deliver the check and hand out food, just so I can keep in touch with that part of my life. My philosophy is to keep it small, keep it local, and keep it going.

So, in Sammy Hagar’s terms, what is living the good life? 

I wrote a song called ‘Living On a Coastline’ awhile back. And I think, family, friends, good food, good drink is about as good as it gets. I believe in the simple things, you know, the ocean and the coast is, to me, the most beautiful, valuable thing in America. And the mountains, too. I love the mountains, don’t get me wrong, but something about laying on the beach, the ocean, the water, the sunshine, a beautiful day — and guess what? We all can afford that, and that’s the good life.

Sounds simple enough to achieve. 

You know how much it costs to grow a garden? You can go down to the nursery and buy some seeds and plant them; then come spring, you’ve got tomatoes, onions, lettuce, fruit trees, man, you can have your own apples and strawberries. And you go down there, you pick that food that costs nothing to make and you have friends over, and enjoy that. Honestly, that’s the good life. You know, flying around in my own jet plane, that’s wonderful, but that’s not necessarily the good life. That’s just a luxury, you know? But the good life, everyone can have it. I’m telling you, that’s the secret to life. Happiness is a very strange thing, it’s really aloof and it comes and goes. Like I said buying my own beautiful jet plane made me really happy, and it still makes me happy every time I have to be somewhere. Because I’m like, ‘Oh good, I don’t have to wait in that line’ or I don’t have to be late flying somewhere. But I’m not sitting here happy because my plane is sitting at some hangar place right now, and I don’t feel nothing. All the money I got in the bank is sitting there, and I don’t feel that.

So, what brings you happiness? 

When I look outside my window and I see my garden down there, I’m like, ‘Oh man, the tomatoes are almost ready!’ And I’m all excited [laughs]. I mean, I can go down to the store and buy them, but what the hell, I can walk down there and pick them. Are you kidding me? What would you rather do? My mom taught me that. My mom was so in love with her garden. We had a garden, we had chickens. I would go out there in the morning and go get four fresh eggs that are still warm. Come on, that’s the good life. Right? Doesn’t matter how much money you got. All you’re gonna do is go buy the same stuff. But creating it yourself, having a little music, enjoying it with friends and family. Yep, that’s the good life.

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