In a career that spans more than 27 years and 27 albums, Sammy Hagar has been about as rock solid as a rock star can be. Whether the fiery singer-guitarist was performing as a solo artist or being the frontman for Van Halen and Montrose, he could be counted on for high-energy, hard-hitting rock and roll and a relentless party-animal persona.
But last year, Hagar took time to re-evaluate things and make a few changes. He cut those wild, curly locks. He moved from the major MCA to his own Cabo Wabo Music, a boutique label distributed by Beyond Records. And the former amateur boxer decided it was time to stop fighting his own instincts.
Hagar, who will be in concert Wednesday night at the Stranahan Theater, said his latest release, “Ten 13,” is the most honest and open album he's recorded in years, maybe in his entire career. The disc is named for Hagar's birthday, October 13, and birthdays, just like the New Year's holiday, can be viewed as an opportunity to start anew.
“It wasn't that I felt like I needed to start over, but it had to do with this being the third or fourth incarnation of Sammy Hagar,” Hagar, 53, said from a recent tour stop in New York. “First I was with Montrose, then it was Sammy Hagar the solo artist, then 11 years with Van Halen, and then Sammy Hagar the solo artist again.”
After being ousted unceremoniously by Eddie and Alex Van Halen in June, 1996, Hagar said he went straight into the studio and recorded his first solo album in a dozen years, “Marching to Mars. “ Looking back, he sees it as a time when he tried too hard to separate himself from VH.
“I think that was some of the best songwriting I ever did, but I was saying to myself, `I'm not going to be what I was in Van Halen. Anything that resembled Van Halen I pushed back in my heart and soul. Even though Van Halen was a large part of me for 11 years, I was suppressing it. I wanted to shed that skin.”
The CD was a hard-hitting blast of rock and roll but Hagar wasn't feeling very comfortable with himself at the time.
“`Marching to Mars' was not a real Sammy Hagar album,” he said. “It was a frustrated Sammy Hagar with a lot of luggage on his back.”
His next release, “Red Voodoo,” was another step in the process of peeling back the layers of his personality. Hagar cut loose, he put the pedal to the metal, but still had trouble opening up to his instincts.
“With `Red Voodoo' it was like, `I'm rich, I'm famous, and nothing matters to me,'” Hagar said, “and I really went over another edge. And it still wasn't the center.”
He believes he hit the bulls-eye with “Ten 13.”
“This album was the rebirth. After two solo albums, it was like a rebirth because I kind of found myself. I realized that anything that I learned that was good in Van Halen was good now. It was a part of me. It was almost like I got back to what was destined.
“I feel real free now,” Hagar said. “It's really great. ... I'm not trying to be somebody I'm not.”
The new release includes Hagar's trademark blasts of guitar-drums-bass and scorching vocals on tunes such as “Shaka Doobie (The Limit),” “Let Sally Drive,” and “Ten 13,” but it also features poignant, mature ballads such as “Deeper Kinda Love” and the wrenching love song “Little Bit More.”
“I've had a ballad on every record I've done in my life,” Hagar said. “`When It's Love' - I brought that to Van Halen. If there's one thing I brought to Van Halen, it's the melodic structure that leads to a chorus that makes a ballad. ...
But you have to have a reason to write a ballad. You're so exposed as a lyricist and as a singer. The music is always subdued. You'd better have something to say. Better have some conviction. Otherwise, it can be pretty poor. Hey, I love to sing. I'm a singer. There's no better format to express yourself and your voice than a ballad.”
He said “Little Bit More,” which is about lost love, touched his emotions so deeply that he got choked up and had trouble recording it.
One of the most impressive tunes on “Ten 13” is “Serious Juju,” a subtly rhythmic and multilayered rocker that shifts gears and textures. The complex tune reveals Hagar's growth as a lyricist, songwriter, and arranger.
Despite those changes, Hagar hasn't changed completely. For one thing, he still loves to party - especially if it involves tequila. He now has his own tequila company, called Cabo Wabo, and won a couple best-of-show awards at last year's American Tasting Institute competition in New York City.
“It's the greatest party drink of all time, “ Hagar said. “People think when they go across the border into Mexico that they're going to have fun because of the mariachi bands or the beaches or whatever. It's not that. It's the tequila.
“If you're going to drink, and you want to have a good time, I recommend tequila over anything else.”
Hagar still spices his conversations with enough expletives to make a sailor blush, and that got him in hot water in Toledo when he played the zoo amphitheater in 1996. His salty words resounded through the venue and into the adjacent residential neighborhood, stirring a backlash of complaints from offended citizens.
In his last Toledo appearance, in June, 1999, Hagar played for about 40,000 people who flocked to see him perform at International Park in a concert sponsored by a radio station.
“Yeah, that was a free show,” Hagar recalled. “This time it'll be about 3,000 people. People are funny; they freak out when you charge money for a ticket. But it's OK, I don't care if it's 300 or 3,000. We're still going to have a party.”