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?
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. Absolutely.
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.