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The Red Menace 

Bad music. Bad press. Bad hair. Sammy Hagar's heard the insults. But for the Bay Area's Red Rocker, the best revenge is living well.

Wednesday, May 26 1999
You pace the living room, talking on a cordless and looking out plate-glass windows at the grassy slopes of Mount Tamalpais, high above Mill Valley. Pastel-colored artwork adorns the hallways. Your beautiful wife and kids are upstairs. There's a Ferrari in the garage, a Lexus SUV in the driveway.

Houses, cars, a nightclub in Baja California: These are your rewards. For 30 years of rock 'n' roll. For the times you slept on floors, drove the van to play other people's songs for gas money, fed your family with food stamps.

The critics hated you. Younger musicians wrote songs mocking you. The two biggest bands you ever sang for both fired you, then trashed you behind your back.

Nobody handed it to you. You earned it all.
Now you're past 50, and people still make fun of your hair. In fickle, youth-driven America, you're utterly unfashionable, a footnote from 1980s arena rock shows. Mention the nickname "Red Rocker" to anyone who grew up in the Bay Area, and it triggers embarrassing memories of concerts and keggers.

Screw 'em. You've got enough money to do whatever you want. You have a new album, a new single, a new tour. You're Sammy Hagar. Add it all up at the end of the day, and you won. Even if nobody else sees it that way.

Up tree-lined roads and in rolling hills across the Bay Area are scattered the homes where rock 'n' roll's gentry fell to Earth. From the hippie-folk roots of Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead, to the blues of Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker, to the sappy likes of Journey and Night Ranger, the equivalent of a recording industry retirement community was born.

Contrary to what popular culture suggests, the percentage of late-20th-century musicians who burned out, overdosed, or otherwise succumbed to the age of excess is relatively small. For every Jim Morrison, there are dozens of Peter Torks and Maria Muldaurs.

If they once let their freak flags fly, or recorded the soundtrack for youth rebellion, now they're old enough to be part of the problem. They raise families, cash royalty checks, and some continue to release an occasional Grammy-winning album. Some still get gigs on the casino circuits doing dinosaur old-timer shows.

With its quiet streets, German car dealerships, and some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Marin County, in particular, has become such an elephants' graveyard. It's not uncommon to spot Robert Cray looking for a parking spot in downtown Mill Valley, or Journey's Neal Schon browsing through records at Maximum Music in San Rafael.

For years, a hilltop mansion on Corte Madera Avenue was home to the late concert promoter Bill Graham, the Bay Area's most powerful man in the business. Tucked away behind the trees, and surrounded by sculptures from the Grateful Dead, the so-called "Masada" home hosted parties for the area's rock elite.

Folks sitting on barstools at the only saloon in Lagunitas are accustomed to pointing out where Janis Joplin once lived, and where Jerry Garcia died.

The Bay Area easily absorbs these stars of varying brightness who pay their taxes, buy groceries, and stand alongside other parents to cheer on the kids at ballgames. The majority of them have little, if anything, left to prove.

Except, it seems, Sammy Hagar.
Because Hagar can't relax and enjoy his wealth. He has to keep stabbing a finger into the world's chest and asking if anyone's got a problem with him.

He seems a nice, personable guy. Loyal fans chat with him in airports, and he always shows up at benefit shows. But his blue-collar roots compel him to keep fighting his reputation as a rock 'n' roll punch line. He knows that his career has always rested on the shoulders of only one person -- Sammy Hagar.

Someone this driven doesn't grow up with a wealthy banker father, like Grace Slick, or study at Cornell University, like Huey Lewis. Somebody this stubborn probably grew up as poor white trash, bloodying the noses of neighbor kids in his garage while his father cheered and guzzled beer. That is, in fact, exactly what Sammy Hagar did.

The Hagar family moved frequently around California during the 1950s and 1960s, before settling in the industrial valley town of Fontana, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Dad's drinking cost him a lot of jobs. He was sweet to Sam and Sam's brother, but he was a brawler who kept getting in fights -- with guys in bars, cops, even some firemen once who were trying to extinguish the family's burning home.

Wherever they lived, Dad set up a ring in the garage, and made Sam box. When none of Sam's friends were around, he had to fight his older brother. "Stay in shape, boy," Sammy remembers his dad saying. "You never know when you're gonna get in a fight."

So Sam trained, jumped rope, ran through the streets of Fontana. "I just knew I wanted to be somebody," Hagar says. "I don't care how it was. I was tired of being a poor fuckin' kid."

At 16, it was time to turn pro. Hagar and his dad drove to Los Angeles. Sam climbed into the ring to face a Hispanic kid with a fucked-up nose who punched so hard that Hagar's ears rang. They headed home, stopping so Dad could sell his blood for gas money. Sam tore up his professional license, and never fought again.

In the mid-'60s, radio stations were saturated with the Beatles, the Stones, Dick Dale. Kids picked up guitars and started rock 'n' roll bands. One group in Southern California was called Mobile Home, starring a cocky, frizzy-haired kid named Sam Hagar on guitar and vocals, with his pal Dave Lauser on drums. In 1967, the two met bass player Jeff Nicholson, changed the band's name to the Justice Brothers, and played San Bernardino biker bars. On the advice of their manager, they headed for the then-lucrative music scene evolving in San Francisco.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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