November , 1984
By David Huff
Sammy Hagar: His Drive to the Top Breaks All Speed Limits
This past September marked the 5th Anniversary of JAM Magazine. Over the years, it has been very interesting to watch the careers of certain bands that more or less started out when JAM did and chronicle their progress in the magazine. Two of the bands that appeared in the first issue of JAM, Van Halen and Journey, have done very well for themselves. Their superstar status is richly deserved. But there is one musical artist who this writer in particular has watched with keen interest over the years. His name is Sammy Hagar. I met him almost five and half years ago when he was opening for Boston. From that explosive opening set he performed, the energy of his rock and roll performance never escaped me. With great joy and somewhat amazement, it was quite a sight to watch Hagar play before some 35,000 Texas rockers during a two-night stint in Dallas. Sammy Hagar had finally arrived and how.
The following interview with the Red Rocker is the only one he has granted this year. Hagar is not a recluse, but for years he was overlooked by much of this country outside the West Coast and isolated spots throughout the country. In this in-depth interview, JAM takes a look into a man whose career was revitalized because a few individuals in a new record company 'knew' he was a superstar though his album sales didn't reflect it. Of course Texas, already knew that years ago, only now, the rest of the country knows it too.
JAM: It seems as though your move to Geffen Records was like a blood transfusion as far as your career went. What happened?
Sammy Hagar - Geffen inspired me to getting back to make a good record. They told me, 'Hey, wait a minute! You should be selling a million records. We want you to sell a million records.' When I was with Capitol, I would write ten songs, be my own producer and put out an album. Geffen gave me the money to take time off and write a good album, then hire a producer to come and do the project for me instead of doing the whole thing by myself.
JAM: That must have been quite a change having someone come and tell you what they thought you should do?
Good producers like Keith Olsen and Ted Templeman inspire you to open up your mind to different avenues. When I would be in the studio, Olsen would go, 'That song would sound great with good background vocals.' I'd say let's try it. I was open-minded because in the studio you have to be. We'd bring in background singers and it would sound great.
JAM: It sounds like you were given a new lease on life.
I was not aware of what you could do in a studio, how to triple vocals and make them stand out more. A good producer will make you aware of the little things you can do with a song to make it sound great. With Capitol, I was my own producer so I wasn't trying a lot of things. I was a narrow-minded guitar player who would bash out a chord and that was it. There was no conscious effort to make commercial records on my part with them.
JAM: I can't believe that Capitol took little or no interest in you to make records for them.
When I first got my job to make records, I really didn't know what I was doing. I had a lot of enthusiasm and I knew I could make records, but after about five or six of them, none of them was really becoming big hits. I was going out on tour, playing before 15,000 people, a headliner, playing coliseums, but my records were selling about 200,000 copies and never really doing well on the charts. I said to myself 'this is nuts,' and after my live album, things changed.
JAM: Geffen approached you?
They inspired me. John Kalodner, who brought me onto the label said write 25 songs and pick out the best nine. They gave me enough money for making a record, to get a producer to go to the top studio with the best engineers, and to take enough time off to really write the songs for the record. Before, when I was with Capitol, I would go immediately out on tour because I had to support the band. I had all of these people on salary that made it tough. It was not like we were starving. I have never starved in this business except with Montrose, because I have been a songwriter and other people have done my songs. I have had some lucky breaks, but Geffen really set me up so that I could take care of my people, take time off, and make a good record. You can make good records if you want, then they sell.
JAM: Did the state of the industry force you to change?
No. I have never been forced to do anything. I never have really planned for anything. There was sort of a master plan for what I was doing, but there has never been a plan where I say I am going to do this and it is going to get me there and then here. I always just saw the big picture. I knew I was going to be somebody someday. I believed that before I knew I was going to do it. When I was young, I knew that I was going to be a rock star, a boxer, a track star or a painter. I didn't know what the hell I was going to be, I just said to myself, ‘I am going to be somebody!’ I found the avenue and started going down it. So, as you see, I have always looked at the big picture.
JAM: Was Geffen in a sense, the last resort for Sammy Hagar?
Listen, I still think that I am going to be somebody. I still want to be more than I am because I think I can do the world some good. Like Reagan, if I went from show business to an old man in politics, I will carry the same thing with me that I have with rock and roll which is honesty, dedication and staying true to myself and the goals I set.
JAM: How do your fans fit into this grand scheme of things you see yourself in?
I don't ever want to do a bad show. I don't ever want to bum anybody out with a poor performance. My audience, I want them all to feel like they get all they can get out of me. Then I try to give them more. That's what I'd be as a politician or whatever I would want to be. I want to be somebody still. I don't think that I have had enough and I still think that I can do some good. Wherever I happen to see it, I will probably do it, but right now I am rolling and I can't see any end to my rocking.
JAM: How would you describe the last four years with Geffen?
The last four years have been a lot of fun with me just doing what I wanted to do. Finally, I am having a little success. The last four years have been fantastic for me. The changes have been real gradual and the only big jump in my life was from Capitol Records to Geffen. That first album with them (Standing Hampton) just started selling real fast and everything started going good after that. Personally, that was the big change for me, but after that, I just had the same pattern; go out sell 6-700,000 records, do a good tour, sell-out basically everywhere, then have a couple of places where I am unknown and do my show. I keep putting more and more into my production. It's like making an album. I have gotten hipper to making a good concert tour.
JAM: Has it also made you aware of the enormous responsibility a musician of your stature has with people today?
When we’re on stage, I become aware of the power I have because I feel it too. That's what hooks you being a musician definitely. It makes you want to keep on going out there and playing, but, I would never abuse that power.
JAM: What do you mean?
I do not like to see people getting hurt in front when others rush the stage. I don't encourage audiences to rush the stage, but I do encourage the security guards to let people do whatever they want to do. I think it's the stupidest thing in the world for people to pay $15 to get into a concert and then they have to sit there. My concerts are built around having fun, so usually my audiences are fairly humane and there are never a lot of fights at my shows. I hope to God it never gets out of hand.
JAM: Do you ever have problems yourself keeping your emotional high?
Sometimes I come out and forget the fun feeling up there on stage and I project an evil side. In a lot of the heavy metal, which I am compared to oddly enough, people think it is devil worship and that the music has a sort of evil, sinister thing about it. Those types of bands, even though a lot of what they say or do is fake; have no problems abusing their power. I try to use my power to say, 'Let’s go and have a good time.' I think that people get the most out of an evening when they walk away smiling, laughing, having a good time. If only one person feels good for the evening after one of my shows, and I mean feels great, then that is worth a whole weeks pay to me.
JAM: Do you try to figure people out?
No, I just do one thing - play. When people come to my concerts, I don't want them to care about anything but having a good time. For those two hours that people watch Sammy Hagar perform, I don't want them to worry about paying the rent. I don't want them to worry about a job. I don't want them to worry about anything. I want them to just get down and totally let go and have the best time they possibly can have. That is where I try to use my power to influence people's feelings in a positive way.
Jam: Music itself is a powerful influence, but what about image, both off on and off the stage. Do the two go hand in hand?
I don't deal with image, but I am conscious of it. I have always been myself. I don't try to cultivate some image that everyone will dig. The more confident I get, the more the real me comes out. That is important to where I am at today.
JAM: What about someone like Boy George whose image coincides with his music?
Whether Boy George is real or not, I don't know. I understand that the guy is a faggot, so if that is the case, then he looks the part, he is playing himself. If he isn't, then he is a businessman, so I would rather him be a faggot and be for real than think that he is a businessman that has cultivated his image so that he can con the people with it. I hate that more than anything. There is so much imagery in rock. It is important to a certain degree for groups starting out to have one, but in the long run, your image can kill you. Look at KISS. They were one of the first big image bands. Then all of the sudden that same image that made them huge is what killed them in the end. But I will hand it to those guys, they stripped down, started over and they have really made a pretty good comeback.
JAM: So no matter how you really look at it, it boils down to consistent, good music?
Well let's face it. The key to staying around for a long time is consistency. Longevity comes from good music like the Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones, who are sort of a parody unto themselves, but for several years they had pretty good music. Success is strictly a personal thing to someone starting out in the business. I am a success. I have gold albums, platinum records, everything. But I don't feel as though I have had success yet. Like I said, I still have the big picture in front of me and there is more to it. I don't feel fulfilled and I don't feel as though I have had success.
JAM: What is the reason to be a musician in the first place, your ego, the crowd, what?
That is not what gets you into this business in the first place. In the beginning, none of that is there. You play for people who look up at you like you stink, and normally you do in the beginning. That’s not what sucks you into music, that's what hooks you. What got me playing rock and roll was I wanted to be somebody. I dug music and I felt as though I had some talent. I said to myself, 'Hey, I can be a good guitar player. I can be a good singer!' Then later I said I can be a good entertainer. Then the people started going crazy, and then I started saying this really feels good. I didn't know it was going to be like this. That's what hooks you for the long run.
JAM: When you were with Capitol and let's face it, you weren't selling albums and radio ignored you, were you prone to periods of self-doubt about your decision to pursue music?
I have written about 160 songs in my career. When you keep on writing albums, and you are not having any radio success or hit records you go, 'Man, maybe I am not a good writer. Maybe I need to change my writing styles until I finally get a hit.' That’s what I did and out came "Plain Jane."
JAM: So that song gave you confidence as a writer because of the positive feedback radio gave it?
No. The greatest feeling for me as a songwriter was when Rick Springfield got the big hit with "I've Done Everything for You". I had released that song with Capitol the year before and it got no airplay, zero, boom, it died. Springfield comes along and has a platinum single with it. The song went Top Five and I told the label rep, 'See, I told you that that was a hit.' I knew it was a hit.
JAM: Are you sure that was not an example of someone doing something with a song you couldn't?
That is an example of No. 1, a record company getting behind a song making it a hit. Capitol never did that with me. When I released that song it was, 'Oh, another Hagar single. Bury it!’' They just never worked my records. Labels have to work your records once they are released. Radio stations don't come begging to play your songs. You have got to go and beg them to play your songs.
JAM: Geffen made you realize that?
I already knew that. It was reemphasized when Springfield made a hit with my song. Geffen came after me and bought my contract from Capitol. I knew that if I wrote a song, a good song, they would push it. There is so much competition out there that until you are a heavy, like Pat Benatar or Bruce Springsteen, the whole world wants to play their records when they are released. All I ever wanted Capitol to do was give me a chance.
JAM: A chance?
When you are starting out with a record company, you have to go out there and say, 'Come on, do me a favor. Have the radio stations play this song. Just play it for three weeks and if you don't get any phone calls on it and the song doesn't do you any good, you can drop it.' For Sammy Hagar, Capitol wouldn't do that. The people that would play my songs were fans in radio, but they never really hammered it. "Plain Jane" was the first one that received pretty good airplay.
JAM: Did it change your thinking on how to write for the future?
Not as much. It just made me feel more confident. I was just going to keep on doing my trip and eventually it was going to click and it did. The Rick Springfield thing was much more a confidence builder for me first of all, because it made me a shit load of money.
JAM: One last question. Today's concert crowds seem to be getting younger these days. Does it bother or excite you that your music is spanning generations?
Why should it bother me? I would hope that my music transcends any age barrier because that is what it is supposed to be - the universal language. It has nothing to do with age. It has nothing to do with color. It has nothing to do with your political feelings. Concerts are gatherings for individuals to get together with their friends and have a good time. That reaches all age levels.