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

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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 he wrote about lived right there in the same zip code – bands like The Grateful Dead, Huey Lewis and The News, Journey and Night Ranger are just a few that hailed 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, who is himself a target of targeted music criticism of Selvin, it’s a little surprising that Selvin and Hagar would ultimately collaborate on Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, the red rocker’s cross-career autobiography. Hagar and St. Louis have been in love with each other for many years. In this final chapter, Sammy will be back in town for a number of appearances related to the new book. The first performance will take place on Thursday, March 17th at 6 p.m. in Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill, the second on Friday, March 18 at 6 p.m. in Left Bank Books Downtown. We talked to Selvin for a while [who himself recently published Smart Ass, a collection of his best work for the Chronicle and other outlets] about Red and his experiences throughout Hagar’s career.

Matt Wardlaw: Sammy looks at the electronic press kit for this book and tells the great story of how you wrote a bad review for the opening night of a four day booth at home for Van Halen on his debut tour with the group for 5150. His Response Part of your review was to post your home phone number on stage for the next three nights. What rubbed you wrong with Van Hagar back then?

Joel Selvin: Well I didn’t remember my review, I should probably go back and take a look. But I seem to remember that my basic point of view was that this screwed up two perfectly decent bands. That I didn’t see Van Halen without Roth and didn’t see Sammy in Van Halen. You know, all these years later I’m not sure what I’ve seen or how much I’ve done with preconceived notions about who should be where and what should be what.
. I remember Van Halen, led by David Lee Roth, was one of the most extraordinary entrances to the rock scene in many years. The first gig I remember was at one of those day-long baseball park concerts at 10am, and I got up and said, “What’s this?” [Laughs]

But I remember an Oakland Auditorium show where the audience, all like 15- to 17-year-old men, walked down the street after pumping their fists. And I remember a show at Cow Palace that was just a great band. So Sammy’s performance wasn’t well received at any level outside of the band itself. They loved Sammy. Sammy was something completely different.

For one thing, the first thing they noticed was that he could sing in the right mood. They the hell fascinated them – they had never seen it before. They’d worked with this guy, David Lee Roth, since they’d just finished high school and he couldn’t sing. And then there’s Sammy’s kind of Labrador personality that pops up with his paws on your chest and licks your face. It’s pretty irresistible. I think everyone else looked at this wrong. I can see it, and maybe you too, there is also the beginning of a critical reassessment of the Van Hagar years.

In retrospect, it seems to be a bit better than it was then.

I looked through the first three Van Halen albums with Sammy before our interview and am always amazed at how well these albums hold up. I’ll admit I’m with you – when they announced they’d chosen Sammy to replace a singer, I was a fan of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen, but I couldn’t imagine how they would be doing match.
I think when people look back on it I think it will get better reviews than it did back then. Although it was obviously hugely popular. But somehow the perception was that it wasn’t as important as the Roth years, right? In retrospect, however, it took longer, sold more records, and sold more concert tickets. I mean, there is no way to measure others that they didn’t have to upgrade from [being] nobody.

Otherwise, the Van Hagar years dominated the Van Halen story. And obviously they couldn’t do anything worthwhile without Sammy since he left the band. You couldn’t pull off anything. The only thing they did that anyone noticed was doing the reunion tour with Sammy. They released an entire album with a lead singer that people don’t even know happened. You have done two tours or you are starting the second tour with Roth – I even lost track of it!

How did you get from that point in the 5150 era to the guy helping Sammy Hagar write his book?
Well, you’re in the news racket. I have never personally given ratings. I never meant her personally. When one of my friends is up there on stage there is a tendency that they are willing to be compassionate, but when they do a shitty job, write a review and that’s the story because that’s what you get paid for and that’s why you got it you met that guy in the first place, right? The other shoe in this story is damn funny too.

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