Interview: Joel Selvin, Sammy Hagar Red Autobiography Co-Author, on How He Collaborated with the Red Rocker


In nearly 40 years as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joel Selvin had a unique landscape to contend with as a writer. Some of his most famous subjects that he was writing about lived right there in the same zip code - bands such as The Grateful Dead, Huey Lewis & The News, Journey and Night Ranger are just a few that hail from the Bay Area. Blues men Robert Cray and John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana also had roots in Selvin's backyard. No pressure, right?

When you hear the stories of Sammy Hagar, himself a target of pointed music criticism from Selvin, it's a little bit surprising that Selvin and Hagar would ultimately collaborate on Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, the career-spanning autobiography from the Red Rocker. Hagar and St. Louis have a longstanding mutual love affair with each other, the latest chapter of which will find Sammy back in town for a flurry of appearances related to the new book. The first appearance is at Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, while the second is at Left Bank Books Downtown at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 18. We spent some time talking with Selvin [who himself recently published Smart Ass, a collection of his best work for the
Chronicle and other outlets] about Red and his experiences covering Hagar's entire career.

Matt Wardlaw: Watching the electronic press kit for this book, Sammy shares the great story of how you wrote a bad review for the opening night of a four night stand at home for Van Halen on his debut tour with the group for 5150. His response to your review was to give out your home phone number on stage the next three nights. What was it about Van Hagar that rubbed you the wrong way at that time?
Joel Selvin: Well, I haven't recollected my review, I should probably go back and take a look. But, I seem to remember that my basic viewpoint on it was that this had screwed up two perfectly decent bands. That I didn't see Van Halen without Roth and I didn't see Sammy in Van Halen. You know, all these years later, I'm not sure what I saw or how much I went in with preconceived notions about who should be where and what should be what.
. I do remember that the David Lee Roth-led Van Halen was one of the most extraordinary entrances to the rock scene in many years. The first gig I remember, they were on at like 10 in the morning at one of those day long baseball park concerts and I was up getting some sun and went, "What's that?" [Laughs

But I remember an Oakland Auditorium show where the audience, which was all like 15-to-17-year-old guys, was walking down the street afterwards fist pumping. And I remember one show at the Cow Palace where you know, they were just a great band. So, Sammy's entrance was really not well received on any level outside of the band itself. They loved Sammy. Sammy was something entirely different. 

For one thing, the first thing they noticed was he could sing in tune. That fascinated the hell out of them - they'd never seen that. They'd been working with this guy David Lee Roth since they were just out of high school and he couldn't sing. And then there's Sammy's sort of Labrador personality, bouncing up with his paws on your chest and licking your face. It's pretty irresistible. So I think everybody else looked askance at this. I'm noticing and maybe you are too, there's the beginnings of some critical re-appraisal out there of the Van Hagar years too. 

It seems to be getting a little bit better review in retrospect than it did at the time. 

I was tracking through the first three Van Halen albums with Sammy before our interview and I am always amazed at how well those albums hold up. I'll admit that I'm with you - at the time they made the announcement of their choice of Sammy as a vocalist replacement, I was a fan of both Sammy Hagar and Van Halen, but I couldn't picture how the two were going to fit together. 
I think that as people look back on this, I think it's going to get better ratings than it did at the time. Although obviously it was enormously popular. But somehow the perception was that it wasn't as important as the Roth years, right? Yet, looking back on it, it lasted longer, sold more records, sold more concert tickets. I mean, there's no way to measure it other that they didn't have to upramp from [being] nobody. 

Otherwise, the Van Hagar years ruled the Van Halen history. And clearly they haven't been able to do anything of merit without Sammy since he left the band. They haven't been able to pull anything off. The only thing that they did that anybody noticed was the reunion tour with Sammy. They put out a whole album with a lead singer that people don't even know happened. They've done two tours, or they're starting the second tour with Roth - I've even lost track! 

So how do you go from that point in the 5150 era to being the guy that helps Sammy Hagar write his book? 
Well, you're in the news racket. I've never taken reviews personally. I've never meant them personally. If one of my pals is up there on stage, there's a tendency to be pre-disposed to be sympathetic, but if they do a shitty job, you write a review and that's the story, because that's what you're paid to do and that's why you met the guy in the first place, right? The other shoe of that story is pretty fuckin' funny too. 
Sammy Hagar live in 1983, St. Louis

So yeah, Sammy handed out my number at the Cow Palace and I got a lot of calls. And then sometime later, I was at the Bay Area Music Awards, which was this big annual event - it's total jive, but there you are. And they have this room off to the side - with a sticker pass, you can go buy drinks there. They called it the hospitality suite, but everybody knew it as the "hostility" suite. The sticker passes were pretty easy to come by, so the place was completely jammed elbow to ass. I'm in there and Sammy's there and he sees me across the room. And he starts yelling - this is the first time I've seen him since then. He goes "Joel! Joel!" I mean, as soon as I saw Sammy, I was making my way to the door, *whispers* "excuse me, excuse me" "Joel! Joel!" "excuse me" "Joel!" "excuse me, excuse me" "JOEL! I need your new home phone number!" [Laughs

So time goes on and Sammy turns 60. And he's having a big party down at Cabo and his wife calls me and says you know, if you can't make it to Mexico, maybe you'd videotape a birthday greeting for Sammy that we can show him down there. So I show up at his rehearsal hall and I've got this big piece of cardboard. And I sit down in the chair and I look in the camera and I say, "Sammy, I'm so glad we're getting along these days. It gives me great pleasure to wish you a happy birthday, be good now!" And I hold up this piece of cardboard and it's got his home phone number written on it! Lauser, the drummer [David Lauser, Sammy's drummer of 40+ years] goes, "Oh MAN, You've got SO much balls, oh MAN!" And the production crew scrambled the little message on the cardboard before they put it up in the nightclub! [Laughs] 

Sammy was in a band called the Justice Brothers and the Justice Brothers' bass player was one of my very closest friends when I was at college at UC Riverside. So when Sammy and those guys moved up to San Francisco, I was one of the few people they knew in town. I went and saw The Justice Brothers at the Wharf Rat and Sammy was in little satin pants and it was the blue jean era of San Francisco rock for Christ's sake. And we all looked askance at this guy - you know, there's a class distinction and he's such a middle America character, it wasn't an exact fit with San Francisco, which is where hipper-than-thou came from. Sammy had to plug into that current and he just sort of ignored it and swam upstream. 

So I saw Sammy right at the very beginning [when he] hit town, but like everybody else, I was sort of scoffy. I've had to reevaluate my opinion about Sammy over the years and that's one of the reasons why this book project has got a lot of special meaning between me and Sammy. All of us around town have, because 30 years ago, we'd be sitting around and we might have been making a little fun of Sammy. We might have been feeling like he wasn't the coolest, smartest, hippest musician around town. 

And if he was getting solo record deals and doing knucklehead rock on stadium shows, well that might not have been as groovy as say something else that was going on that we thought was hip, like The Tubes. So, I'm just 'fessing up here and over the years, I've had to reevaluate my opinions of Sammy and recognize that this guy had the stamina and had the goods and the stuff that we were making fun of him for was pretty ephemeral and we probably had our values a little bit askew when we were chuckling over Sammy. 

Sammy's a winner and he's always been a winner and he's also always been that same guy. That guy that I met in the satin pants in The Justice Brothers without a dime in his pocket is the same guy that I wrote the book with. [He's] older, but it's not like success changed this guy or getting money altered his character. I've seen very few people I know that have been less personally affected by their success. To Sammy, it just always seemed like an entitlement that he was due. And that also made him seem funny to us hipsters too. So now I ask you, who's laughing now? So I signed up. 

Sometime ago, I had to take my hat off to Sammy and go, "No man, this guy is for real!" All that stuff that seemed like jive is actually true to the bone, that's Sammy, man! There's a little co-author note in the back of the book - I had lunch in New York earlier this year with a person that shall remain anonymous, a former record company president. And if you were to look up "smart ass New York Jew" in the encyclopedia, his picture would be amongst many, right? But that's the kind of character - I love this guy - I mean that in only the very nicest possible way. And he said, "Well, what are you up to?" and I said, "I'm working on a book with Sammy Hagar" and he said, "Oh, money gig?" And I went, "Oh, dear." What a misconception that is - I certainly understand where he's coming from to say that, so I needed to correct that misassumption in the book. 

I wrote this little co-author's note, it's in the end, and I just want to say, Look, I know what rock critics think of Sammy - I'm a rock critic.. I'm probably as guilty as anybody of writing Sammy off and I've known him longer than all of the other mothers. But, here's what I have to say, 1) "Rock Candy" was on his first album [with Montrose], 2) Sammy has always been this guy - he is as authentic a person as the guys in the Grateful Dead, maybe more so. But he's been underrated in that department and when you read the story and find out about [Hagar's parents] Bobby and Gladys, you're going to understand Sammy is an authentic American working-class hero.


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