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Sammy Hagar on Rocking with Van Halen, Building His Cabo Wabo Empire, and Why Live Music Will Be The ‘Ultimate Savior of Art’

Contrary to what you might have heard in a certain song, there are, in fact, quite a few ways to rock. And few people know that better than Sammy Hagar.

 Throughout his half-century career, Hagar has witnessed or actively participated in just about every major phase of rock and roll. He was there, as a teenager in San Bernardino, when the Rolling Stones played their first U.S. tour. He lived by his wits as a struggling musician in San Francisco during the Summer of Love era in the late 1960s. He spent the 1970s touring ramshackle Middle American concert halls as an opening act for the likes of Humble Pie, Boston and Foghat. He became a platinum-selling arena act during rock’s dizzy commercial peak in the 1980s, joined one of the biggest bands in history, and then continued into the current millennium, rebuilding his solo career all over again. Along the way, he became something of a pioneer in music entrepreneurship, establishing a wildly successful chain of restaurants, bars and spirits under the Cabo Wabo umbrella.

 

And yet, for all the turns his career has taken and all the seismic shifts he’s withstood, Hagar still believes in the fundamental primacy of three chords and the truth.

“I truly believe that live music is probably going to be the ultimate savior of art,” Hagar says. “You can have all this AI stuff, you can do so many things with computers, but then when you see a Bob Dylan-type walk out with a guitar and a harmonica around his neck and start singing about something that matters, with heart and soul and truth in it… that’s always going to be valuable to people.

It was that conviction in the distilled purity of music that kept Hagar going through his up-and-down early years. After slogging it out in cover bands in San Francisco, he got his first break as the frontman of hard rock outfit Montrose, recording two albums that earned the respect of the band’s peers, though made little headway on the charts. Leaving the band in 1975, he spent the next half-decade slowly building a following as a solo artist, weathering label changes and uncomprehending label bosses, and finally emerging in the 1980s as a genuine rock star courtesy of hits like “Red,” “One Way to Rock” and “I Can’t Drive 55.”

Hagar’s fortunes then unexpectedly shifted into the stratosphere. After the departure of frontman David Lee Roth from Van Halen, guitarist Eddie Van Halen (a Montrose fan of long standing) asked Hagar to join the band in his place. It was an unlikely marriage on paper — Hagar’s more serious musicianship and unpretentious everyman appeal couldn’t have been further removed from Roth’s preening wildman persona — but phenomenally successful. From 1986 to 1995, the Hagar-fronted Van Halen released four No. 1 LPs, each going platinum several times over.

Leaving the group was rough for Hagar, who suddenly found himself more famous than ever, but somehow needing to prove himself anew.

Of course, Hagar’s post-Van Halen solo ventures were plenty successful: he notched rock radio hits with 1997’s “Little White Lie” and 1999’s “Mas Tequila.” But it was yet another band — the supergroup Chickenfoot, with guitarist Joe Satriani, former Van Halen bandmate Michael Anthony and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith — that saw Hagar return to the uppermost reaches of the Billboard charts in the 2000s.

“Not to beat my chest, but I’m a real easy guy to work with,” Hagar says. “I really don’t have an ego when it comes to music. I’m always better with other people, I’ll be the first to admit. I personally know that when I would write songs with Eddie or Joe, they were better than what I could do myself.”

Sammy Hagar and Vic Johnson will perform at the opening night of Fontana’s Stage Red.Larry Marano/Getty Images

It was that same collaborative spirit (pun very much intended) that saw Hagar notch one of his most unexpected coups starting in the 1990s. After falling in love with Baja California while on vacation, Hagar teamed with a local developer and opened up his own bar in Cabo San Lucas. Eventually, that one bar blossomed into a multimillion-dollar beverage line and a chain of satellite Cabo Wabo Cantinas and Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill locations across California, Nevada, Ohio and Hawaii. Long before the likes of Jay-Z and Rihanna made these sorts of ventures de rigueur for pop stars, Hagar was already busy building his own south-of-the-border business empire.

“It’s funny, because in recent years the rappers kind of made it OK,” Hagar notes of his extra-musical adventures. “But when I was doing it, it wasn’t cool. When I was in Van Halen, I used to get so much shit from the guys: ‘Man you’re always trying to start some kind of business, why don’t you just focus on the music?’ But the important thing for me is that I don’t endorse anything. Endorsements are still cheesy as fuck, I don’t care what anyone says. So I was careful not to endorse: instead, I started companies. I built Cabo Wabo. I went down to Jalisco and met with farmers when I started making tequila. I had to do everything, and I had a blast. It was awesome. That’s the whole difference between what I do and what a lot of other people do: I build the company, I create the thing.”

 

And just as it was in his earliest days, as a kid in Fontana who saw Elvis on television and immediately wanted to pick up a guitar, that act of creation remains the central driver for Hagar, no matter the venue or the audience.

“At a certain point, I decided I didn’t want to be on a record label anymore,” Hagar says of his later career. “Music was changing, radio wasn’t playing my type of music, MTV was gone, so it was like: ‘Wow, where are you gonna go?’ So I said I don’t care, I’m just gonna make my own records. A record like [2000’s] ‘Ten 13,’ or [2006’s] ‘Livin’ It Up,’ those are great records. The best record I ever made in my life was the last one: [2022’s] ‘Crazy Times.’ I’d argue with anyone. It’s right up there with [solo breakthrough] ‘Standing Hampton.’ And it sold like 70,000 copies, and that’s fine. I make records these days because I get creative ideas and I can’t just sit on them. I have to go hit ‘record.’

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