Sammy Hagar exudes positive energy. If you have a bone to pick with him, it could simply be envy talking. He’s a famous rock singer, a tequila distiller, a restauranter, and an entrepreneur worth over $150 million. Better than the financial security Sammy enjoys are the career milestones he achieved. Sammy reached legendary status in the music business decades ago. All the way, he’s done it as a fan favorite, with a welcoming grin.

He isn’t retiring anytime soon. While other legends from the 1980s have died from hard living, disappeared from the scene, or deftly pantomime their old hits to backing tracks, Hagar lives out his nickname “The Red Rocker.” He just announced a 2024 world tour. The setlist is a mile long. Not only that, Sammy has guitar ace Joe Satriani on the wing. The band is real, and the stakes are high. Why not? Sammy can get close to his best singing at age 76. 

To envy Sammy Hagar is a natural reaction. How did one guy get so much talent? Back in his heyday, Sammy was not included in the bravura class of singers with Steve Perry from Journey, even though Sammy’s voice was as strong and went as high. As a solo artist, Sammy wrote a rock classic that became a pop culture meme in “I Can’t Drive 55.” Disliking him takes work.

Some fans found a reason. It has become a stain on Sammy’s otherwise perfect résumé. You can imagine it pains a positivity guru like Sammy Hagar to have even one critic. Sammy will go to his grave in the crosshairs of a legion of them. To these critical fans, Sammy’s crime was saving rock band Van Halen.

You can imagine it pains a positivity guru like Sammy Hagar to have even one critic.

It’s not the way critical fans see it, of course. In their eyes, Sammy ruined Van Halen. Almost as bad, and possibly worse, Sammy upset Eddie Van Halen. Sammy called out Eddie’s drug abuse in a book.

In rock and roll, these charges can destroy a rocker’s reputation.

Of everything Sammy Hagar can claim to be, he isn’t a Bible-reading man. If Sammy cracked the Good Book all those years ago, he could have seen this drama on the horizon. It’s a gross understatement to say that from Moses to Jesus, the Bible tells us what happens when someone saves the day. At first, the savior is hailed as a hero. By the end, he’s public enemy number one.

We saw this cycle play out in Sammy’s whirlwind tour of the band he joined in 1985. Eddie and Alex welcomed Sammy as a consummate professional they had never played with before. The press touted the new Van Halen as a supergroup. Of course, a number of fans objected. They believed Van Halen wouldn’t be the same after the departure of David Lee Roth. For others, it was the point. Sammy Hagar would lead the band to a new era. And he did.

Ten years later, the story was much different. The Van Halen brothers complained Sammy was too old and lazy to keep up with them. Journalists accused Sammy of diluting the band’s rock image with a pop sensibility. Sammy’s lyrics were called pedestrian. He was the band’s weak link.

What happened in the years in between? 

Sammy and Van Halen became the biggest rock band in the world, with four platinum-selling albums in a row. The band would reach number one on the Billboard charts. It was a new level of success for everyone involved. And yet, the partnership ended. Sammy was no longer in the band. 

Today, Sammy is considered a Judas by diehard Van Halen fans. Some of these fans never accepted the Sammy era. Others enjoyed the “Van Hagar” years but felt Sammy betrayed the band in the end. They believed the story the Van Halen brothers told in interviews. Sammy wasn’t the great fit they initially thought. They had made a mistake. The band could do better.

Instead, the Van Halen brothers would chase faded glory until the end. Isn’t it old news, one asks? Since then, Eddie has passed away. Van Halen disbanded. Sammy moved on and isn’t hurting for cash or credibility. And yet, rock fans do value the truth. For them, rock history matters. For example, if the TikTok generation suddenly believed Ringo wrote all The Beatles songs, true fans would be spitting out their coffee. They would set the record straight.

…if the TikTok generation suddenly believed Ringo wrote all The Beatles songs, true fans would be spitting out their coffee.

In retrospect, Sammy took one huge career gamble that he could never fully win. He agreed to front an already-famous band. It made him extraordinarily wealthy but also uncommonly reviled. The truth, however, is far kinder.

Sammy Hager saved Van Halen. In doing so, Sammy helped Eddie’s reputation as one of history’s top guitarists. Without Sammy Hagar joining Van Halen, Eddie would not be the unanimous favorite he is today.

First things first. By 1985, Van Halen was dead in the water. Few knew it. Not the fans, nor Eddie and Alex themselves. Van Halen had hit the big time. It was just getting started. 

After all, Van Halen conquered the world with its sixth album, 1984. Many feel Van Halen produced the song of the 1980s. “Jump” was only surpassed by “Beat It” on the charts with Eddie’s guitar solo for the assist. 

It wasn’t to last. In true rock fashion, at the height of fame, clashing egos ended the famous group. David Lee Roth, the flamboyant singer and sudden rock icon, was gone. He was the face of Van Halen with his flyaway blond hair and a tea-filled bottle of Jack. Where did it leave the brothers’ VH?

In truth, the band was finished. The creative force behind the group’s image was Roth. He wrote tight but lazy lyrics that put Van Halen into permanent party mode. It would come out later that Roth charted the course along with producer Ted Templeman. The strategy of recording so many cover songs was from Roth and Templeman. They were about surefire success, not art. It was a big reason Van Halen had transitioned from the Sunset Strip to arenas.

This narrative is nearly impossible for Van Halen fans to believe. Both Eddie and Alex were masters of their instruments. Wasn’t the success of Van Halen due to Eddie’s incredible music? Eddie was arguably the most dynamic guitarist to come along since Hendrix. Van Halen would succeed no matter who sang the songs. It was what everyone believed when Roth took off.

Rock historians knew better. The number of great bands that changed lead singers can be counted on one hand. The Van Halen brothers expected to follow in the footsteps of Black Sabbath and AC/DC. In a newer era, Joy Division would become New Order. The examples dry up. A new singer has to fit the band and also bring something new to make a seamless transition.

The number of great bands that changed lead singers can be counted on one hand.

It would require great decision-making on the part of the Van Halen brothers. Unfortunately, Eddie and Alex rarely showed a skill for personnel. After the brothers forced out Sammy, they chose little-known Gary Cherone to front the band. It wasn’t a good fit. Even Gary himself said he wasn’t a big Van Halen fan growing up and preferred classic rock bands like The Who. It was Cherone’s guitarist from Extreme, Nuno Bettencourt, who idolized Van Halen and encouraged Cherone to do it.

After Cherone left, the Van Halen brothers would reunite with David Lee Roth. At that point, it was clear they had no idea how to build a band. Roth was their childhood friend from the group’s founding. It was the obvious idea. After Roth’s first departure, Eddie even offered the job to a female singer, Patty Smyth. One tries to imagine all the gender-bending in songs like “Hot for Teacher” and “Ice Cream Man.”

It was a needle-in-a-haystack problem. One only looks to the career of Jimmy Page, post-Led Zeppelin. Page wandered through bands with lead singers Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale while trying to recreate his success with Robert Plant. It didn’t happen. Decades later, Jimmy Page gave up the search.

When Roth first left Van Halen in 1985, Sammy watched from afar. “They have to call me,” he told interviewers. Sammy understood this world-famous band didn’t have compatible options. It was Sammy or bust. Fortunately, Hagar was willing to leave a solo career to join the Van Halen brothers.

To this day, many Van Halen fans view it the opposite way. Sammy was invited to join Van Halen at its creative peak, they say. Eddie and Alex brought Sammy aboard the success train. Four platinum albums followed. The Van Halen brothers were the constant. They were the reason. 

It was the truth fans knew from 1985-96. And yet, after Sammy left, more would come out. Sammy had assumed the creative duties that Roth once performed. He changed Van Halen from an adolescent party band to a Dad-rock band that fit the band members’ ages. Sammy’s lyrics were often uplifting and inspirational. Whereas Roth fit the stoners at the back of the bus, Hagar’s lyrics would be blasted in a locker room before the big game.

“Eddie isn’t a leader in any way, shape, or form,” Sammy would tell Dan Rather in a 2015 interview, explaining his role. Eddie was a head-down guy who made the music. He expected the lead singer to do lead-singer things, like write the words and melody and promote a cocky rock and roll image.

As fans, we can mistakenly give musicians credit they don’t deserve. Eddie was a pyrotechnic guitarist who popularized an entirely new way to play. We think he must be a great bandleader. 

Eddie and Alex clearly felt they were in charge. They implied as much in interviews after Sammy left. In a rock band format? They were supporting members. They needed a lead singer to sell tickets. Eddie wasn’t Eric Clapton. Alex wasn’t Phil Collins. Neither could sing or front a band.

It’s where anti-Sammy fans will say, “Van Halen would have been better off ending after Roth left.” To which a rock historian might reply, you may have regretted this. Eddie needed more time to cement his legacy.

A curious question: without the Sammy Hagar-era albums to extend Eddie’s résumé, how would Van Halen be remembered? The band put out six studio albums with David Lee Roth. The albums showed a lot of flash and promise, and they offered up some classic hits. And yet, Roth-era Van Halen was short-lived and somewhat unfinished. The albums relied heavily on cover songs and they generally ran only thirty minutes. Eddie had impressed the music industry as a guitarist but needed to stick around longer than eight years to be considered one of the best ever.

…without the Sammy Hagar-era albums to extend Eddie’s résumé, how would Van Halen be remembered?

Sammy-era Van Halen gave Eddie those additional years and albums. Fans might say Eddie didn’t break new ground as a guitarist while playing with Hagar, but it didn’t matter. Eddie was in the public eye for another decade. It helped to make his case as one of the best guitar players in rock history. Other guitarists on that list, including Hendrix, SRV, and Clapton, were lead singers as well. They imprinted their styles in the rock consciousness much more easily as frontmen. The guitar-only guys would need a longer incubation. Eddie was in a class with Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Jimmy Page. It would take decades in the public eye to raise their profiles.

It’s hard to imagine where Eddie Van Halen would rank with only the Roth-era albums to his credit. Those albums showed he was a genius. So was Randy Rhoads, who is often forgotten.

There’s also an elephant in the room: Eddie turning to keyboards. No other top guitarist abandoned the instrument. It’s seen as evidence of Eddie’s superior musicianship. And yet, the Van Halen keyboard songs have not aged well. “Jump” is given a pass for its cultural ties to the 80s. “Love Walks In,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” and “Dreams” are not as easy to classify. At the height of his career, for some reason, Eddie chose to play keyboard riffs.

Because Eddie was boyishly unassuming in public, his flaws were passed off on others. Fans blamed Sammy for Van Halen getting “soft.” What would any other singer do? Eddie was in charge of the music. He gave David Lee Roth “Unchained.” Many times, he gave Sammy keyboards like in “Right Now.”

Sammy had a history of writing love songs like “Your Love is Driving Me Crazy.” He drew from that experience, elevating Eddie’s keyboard forays into memorable tracks. Van Halen did get softer in the Hagar era, but there wasn’t much Sammy could do with Eddie’s new infatuation.

Fortunately, through guitar songs like “5150,” “Summer Nights,” “Poundcake,” and “Finish What Ya Started,” Eddie grew his guitar legend with Sammy on vocals. In fact, by every metric, the Sammy years were an improvement for Van Halen. Nostalgia for the Roth years could never be overcome, but the Sammy era had every reason to continue. Only the misfortunes of fame could undo it. The death of a longtime manager and Eddie’s descent into drug and alcohol addiction eventually dissolved the band. As a natural leader, Sammy wouldn’t stay quiet about it. 

Nostalgia for the Roth years could never be overcome, but the Sammy era had every reason to continue.

His memoir, Red, would be seen as his final act of disloyalty against the band. Hagar broke the rules and related the flaws of Van Halen. The book goes into the reunion tour of 2004, where everyone could see Eddie was in the throes of addiction. His behavior was erratic, and his performances were subpar. It put a strain on everyone and showed an unprofessional side of the band.

At the time, Eddie was beginning to make enemies with his former friends. He didn’t want bassist Michael Anthony on tour. Sammy demanded it, and it broke his friendship with Eddie. Because Eddie was so likable and talented, his substance abuse was overlooked by seemingly everyone but Sammy.

Ironically, Sammy and Eddie were both raised by alcoholic fathers. When Sammy tried to help Eddie behind the scenes, and later, through his memoir, Sammy was seen as a traitor, not a concerned older friend. The rock world would be split. Many quietly sided with Sammy, who would become rock’s elder statesman. Some wonder if Eddie would have recovered faster by listening to Sammy in 2004. Eddie passed away at the age of 65.

To diehard Sammy critics, none of this matters. Sammy’s involvement in Van Halen ended an era for them. These fans remember their good times listening to Van Halen in high school. David Lee Roth was the older friend of your brother’s who got you into so much fun trouble. Nothing could replace that feeling, not even David Lee Roth rejoining the band in 2008.

Sammy didn’t end the old Van Halen. Sammy’s presence announced it was time to learn and grow, not resent a guy who signaled we all need to grow up.

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