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The Reverend Red Rocker

Platitudes on life, religion and music from the depths of a tequila bottle

When Sammy Hagar and his band, the Waboritas, played an invitation-only show in town at the Hard Rock Cafe last month, some dismissed the show as a publicity ploy for his new brand of tequila, or sniggered at the venue. But for the couple hundred lucky fans who got to see an intimate performance, which lasted almost twice as long as it was supposed to and covered all the varied phases of Hagar's long career, it was a reaffirmation, a jolt of power, a reminder of straightforward rock and roll. And it was also a hell of a lot of fun, perhaps most of all for the man fronting the band, who sported an honest-to-goodness genuine smile throughout the night.

It's reflective of the one feeling Sammy Hagar wants to get across with his current Red Voodoo record and tour: It's okay to have F-U-N. "Sometimes it's not fashionable to be up there having too good a time," says Hagar. "Especially when grunge came in and everyone was on this depressed trip talking about suicidal issues. And yeah, I was influenced by it, but I'm over that shit." The affable and unpretentious Hagar laughs. "You can't fake the kind of time I was having there in Houston."

When asked how he was able to play and sing so flawlessly despite devouring a steady stream of tequila shots and margaritas given to him by the crowd, Hagar, the lifelong jock, credits his performance stamina. "Well, one good thing about jumping and dancing around, you can drink more than you would just sitting at the bar. And I've always been a tequila person at heart."

Clearly the Red Rocker has reached another stage in a career that has found him reincarnated more times than Shirley MacLaine. With Red Voodoo, he has mixed all-out party tunes ("Shag," "The Revival") with slinky soul-tinged tracks ("Red Voodoo," "Don't Fight It [Feel It]") with some overly turgid ballads ("Lay Your Hand on Me," "The Love") with a pair of ambitious numbers. As a whole, the record is exactly what Hagar fans expect. He's not looking to break any new ground. But it's still odd that the leadoff single, "Mas Tequila," openly credits and uses the riff from Gary Glitter's jock-rocking stadium anthem "Rock and Roll Part II." Still, it's a catchy crowd pleaser, and not just for those who yearn for visions of the worm.

Red Voodoo then succeeds in being exactly the party record fans want, something more buoyant than Hagar's last effort, 1997's Marching to Mars. Hagar wants to carry this newfound atmosphere on tour, where the stage will be a reproduction of his cherished Cabo Wabo club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. And at every stop, a group of extremely lucky fans will get to watch the show on stage in the "club," an area replete with tequila-slinging waitresses.

"I wanted to recreate as closely as possible what it's like down at the club," says Hagar. "It's been a blast so far. I'm having so much fun on this tour." Hagar also says he's virtually worry-free about the commercial impact of the record. "I decided I don't care what the latest trend is or if I'm going to have a hit, because I'd have to fucking rap or something. I've got a great core of fans, and they come to the shows and buy the record. We made it without any pressure and only had to please ourselves."

In the album's liner notes, Hagar also admits that on this record he has finally found a level of confidence in his music he has never had before, which is a bit odd, considering the number of years he has been playing and recording. "I've made leaps and bounds in that area in feeling exactly what I am, a fun-loving guy. I tried to be a lot of different 'rock stars' in my life. I'll be the first to admit that at [some points], I was trying to be a cross between Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Roger Daltrey. But now I really feel that I can do and say what I want without compromise. And that's a hard thing to do for anybody no matter who you are."

It's an outlook that has allowed him to address a topic long of interest to him: organized religion and the dark side of it. "Sympathy for the Human" is literally the deepest cut on Red Voodoo.

"You feel a lot of pressure from these intense religious groups telling you that their way is the only way, especially after you've hit bottom in your life, like when someone dies or you try to commit suicide," says Hagar. "And they use such fear tactics that it's so unfair to a person's spiritual growth to not let any other influence in. You can take in parts of Christianity, parts of Buddhism, and everything else if you want to. It's all about God, and not the leader that gets you there. We're a little bit of all [religions], including satanism. Because if you don't see that, then you don't see the balance."

Hagar also recalls many "former hippie and pot-smoking friends" who would get kicked out of their houses and the next week would shave their heads and join a religious sect. "And if you didn't agree with them 100 percent, then you were a piece of shit who was going to die and go to hell.... I could get really heavy about this, but that's why I put a little Beatles twist on the song, to make it a bit lighter."

Hagar was born October 13, 1947, in Monterey, California. That area of the Golden State and its laid-back outlook would have an impact on the performer, especially after he gave up a fledgling boxing career for music. He was playing in a series of local bands during the late 1960s when former Edgar Winter Group guitarist Ronnie Montrose (he of the famous "Frankenstein" riffs) asked him to front the aptly titled Montrose band in 1973. Hagar recorded two records, which featured the FM rock staples "Rock Candy" and "Bad Motor Scooter."

After Montrose abruptly quit his own unit, Hagar began a solo career in 1976 with Nine on a Ten Scale and released records such as Musical Chairs, Danger Zone and Red Alert Dial Nine. The works were met with tepid response, and most are out of print today. His fortunes changed in 1982 on the release of Standing Hampton and the single "There's Only One Way to Rock." The record was the first in a string of albums that produced the hits "Three Lock Box," "Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy" and "Two Sides of Love," and the tune that became his signature (and provided a smart-ass line for everyone who has ever been pulled over for speeding): "I Can't Drive 55." He also began to contribute songs to movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Footloose and Vision Quest, and delivered the memorable title track for the cult fave Heavy Metal.

By 1985 Hagar began to feel burned out and bereft of creativity. But his career entered another unexpected phase after a phone call from Eddie Van Halen, guitarist/front man of the band Van Halen: It seems that David Lee Roth was leaving (and, amazingly, ex-Scandal singer Patty Smyth was being considered for the spot), and the guys needed a replacement, and would he like to come down and jam with the remaining trio and, well, let whatever happens happen?

The foursome clicked, and Sammy Hagar joined Eddie, his drummer brother Alex and bassist Michael Anthony in Van Halen in 1985, immediately setting off a firestorm of debate among the group's fans which continues to this day. Though some saw Hagar's relatively ego-free team spirit and guitar and songwriting abilities as a welcome change from Roth's over-the-top antics and constantly running mouth, others deplored "Van Hagar" and its musical shift, which now included sickening sweet ballads and a downplay of balls-out theatrics.

Nevertheless, this edition was hugely successful from the start, what with albums such as 5150 (1986), OU812 (1988), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) and a live record steadily selling millions. The band yielded a slew of hits, including "Why Can't This Be Love?" (the band's first No. 1), "Dreams," "Best of Both Worlds," "Love Walks In" and "Right Now" (the last of which would be used in a Pepsi advertising campaign, furthering charges of "sellout" among fans of the old lineup). Still, Van Halen was now the biggest, most successful rock band in the world (although U2 fans might argue). Or, it was, at least before the dawn of Cobain and Co.

Tensions between the Van Halens and Hagar flared occasionally, but with the death of longtime VH manager (and Hagar confidant) Ed Leffler in 1993, band unity grew awfully shaky. But the group released a record, the dark Balance in 1995 anyway. It set the stage for the departure of Hagar, who was eventually replaced by the man he replaced, David Lee Roth, who was replaced by Eddie's houseguest, Gary Cherone.

How did it all go sour? Hagar was reluctant to leave his pregnant wife to record a song for the Twister soundtrack with the rest of the band and was wholly against the idea of releasing a greatest hits compilation. The latter was probably because either Hagar didn't want to put a huge, potentially divisive milestone on the band's career or he was concerned about his representation on the disc versus Roth's.

One day a call from an ice-cold Eddie Van Halen informed Hagar not only that the band had been jamming and recording with Roth for two new tracks on the disc, but that Roth was "back in the band" and Hagar should "go back to being a solo artist, since that's what he always wanted to be."

"I had been in this band for 11 years, and for nine and a half of those, we were great friends, really bound together," says Hagar. "And to [the rest of the band], David Lee Roth was the pure enemy. I never met him, but rule number one was: 'If you see David, kick him in the nuts.' And if someone wrote a bad review about me being in the band, Eddie would get furious. That's how much we were united. So when Eddie called me that last time, I wasn't surprised that the band could break up, but to get their ex back was shocking, especially after all the [negative] things they'd said about him. I mean, they tried to bury the guy for nine years."

In hindsight, Hagar says he would have preferred to quit the band clean after the Balance tour rather than have this messy divorce. "Because the fans are saying, 'Eddie says this, Sammy says this, Roth says this, and I don't know who the fuck to believe.' I'm over the whole thing, and it actually turned out well for me, though I still scratch my head about it." He does credit his days with Van Halen with sharpening his singing, guitar playing and songwriting.

Hagar released the solo Marching to Mars only a couple years after the breakup (with the telling track "Little White Lies") but feels that Red Voodoo really marks the next phase of his musical career. And he's wise enough to take what he has learned from all his other incarnations. "The only reason I'm still around today is because I did change and play with all those different people and have those [new starts]."

Hagar is still very much open to musical collaboration, something the Waboritas provide in abundance. The backup band includes longtime compadre (back to 1967) David Lauser on drums, solo years veteran and Red Voodoo co-producer Jesse Harms on keyboards, and new additions Vic Johnson on guitar ("He could play all of Ronnie and Eddie's licks as well as add a lot of his own style," Hagar says) and a woman named simply Mona, whom he hired despite some reservations about her gender, on bass.

"Yeah, I fought the female thing for awhile, because I wasn't sure how it would work out with all the testosterone in the band. I figured she might quit after the first show," Hagar says with a laugh. "But she really was the best person we auditioned, and thank God, she's the coolest chick in the world. Plus, she can play the hell out of that instrument."

Macho rocker and aggressive performer Sammy Hagar realizes the impact the fairer sex has had on his life in 1999. "When you think about it, Mona rules me on stage and my wife rules me off. Ha! So much for the tough jock rock and roller. My life is run by women."

And with a three-year-old daughter in tow, it looks like the Red Rocker might be turning in his "I Can't Drive 55" creed for a "Baby on Board" sign.

Sammy Hagar performs Sunday, June 27, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, $25 and $50. Call (713)629-3700 or (281)363-3300.

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