Each year I promise to write less about books, and I write more. Nobody reads books nowadays, and some smart people spend a lot of time writing them. If people can’t read books, why would they waste time reading ABOUT books? I believe the first line defenders against darkness – those who fill blank pages with publication-worthy thoughts – should get first crack at your wallets and eyeballs. Despite what the NYT Book Review thinks, reading reviews should not be a substitute for reading the real thing. But each year we see more hard rock / metal books, and halfway through 2011 we have two biggies in the autobiography department: Tattoos and Tequila by Vince Neil and Red by Sammy Hagar. The parallels in these stories are striking, while the differences tell the tale of coming of age in the 60’s vs. growing up dumb in the 70’s.
First, the similarities. Both Hagar and Neil grew up in SoCal areas east of L.A. Both did some moonlighting between backbreaking day jobs and being in bands. Both had a kid early, Neil being “the only guy in high school paying child support.” They both had some luck in getting big breaks and were part of flourishing scenes. They both eventually cheated on wives or girlfriends in epic proportions. Hagar and Neil were each popular front men in bands with jealous, “tortured artist”-type musicians. Each are somewhat derided for not being “real” musicians – though they each display a work ethic and reliability that go unappreciated. Both have a taste for expensive sports cars. Finally, both of them decided to focus on other business ventures, which for each meant starting a line of tequila and opening a string of bar and grill-type restaurants (though Hagar had several other companies – including a successful mountain bike line and store-- along the way).
But the similarities end there, as Hagar comes off as an idealistic, working class and human product of the 60’s, with Neil playing the drugged out gimme gimme 70’s spawn. Hagar’s range of experience is a revelation. He did some time in the Haight Ashbury scene, playing in a band that dissolved quickly when a one member tripping on acid invited two cops back to their apartment. He moves with his wife and child to Rochester, NY, working on a garbage truck for his father in law, not far from Woodstock but unable to attend. They save money and fix a van, and the moment it starts up, they are gone back to Cali. He goes through many phases: R&B, Cream, Stones, Jeff Beck, glam, Bowie. He records with Van Morrison. He spends time on welfare and food stamps.
Hagar’s father, by the way, is the stuff therapy is made of. When he comes home drunk, the family bails out a window to sleep in the citrus groves of Fontana. Eventually they kick dear old dad to the curb, literally, as he becomes the town drunk. He dies in the back of a cop car, fighting a couple of other drunks on the way to jail. Hagar Sr. could have been the star of Cops: Fontana.
Throughout the story, Hagar comes off as honest, ethical and very much a human being with all the contradictions and flaws entailed by that esteemed status on the evolutionary ladder. When his wife basically has a nervous breakdown, he has the balls to tell Van Halen to take a break for a year. At one point, he is ready to leave his wife for an affair with a music exec, but he cuts that off when his wife gets pregnant. He openly discusses his rationale about cheating with groupies while he tries to keep his marriage alive. The parts about the Van Halens’ boozing (like Eddie’s blackened teeth from drinking too much Shiraz straight from the bottle and Alex shot gunning malt liquor between bouts of unconsciousness) are unforgettable and alone worth the price of admission.
Hagar suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fandom when he joins Van Halen, but, as anybody who can pound out “Smoke on the Water” on an E string knows, it’s nice to have a singer who can sing. Hagar’s situation was a lot like Dio’s in Black Sabbath. Both were replacing idiosyncratic front men whose range intrinsically limited their band’s output. Both Van Halen and Iommi flourished immediately with new vocalists who understood the concepts of “key” and “in tune.” Lots of people bitched, and lots of people bought the records.
In short, Hagar is more than the guy who wrote “I Can’t Drive 55.” The range of his experience puts most lives to shame, as he takes on any challenge with a childish and admirable enthusiasm. Red was written with Joel Selvin, a highly respected critic at the San Francisco Chronicle who knows this his subject is not Springsteen or Lennon, and his response to the critical elite – on the book flap – is a resounding and literal “fuck you.” As he notes, Hagar came out of the box with “Rock Candy,” and most artists can’t claim that much in an entire career.
As any reader of this blog knows – or should know or better know real quick – the first MONTROSE record set the stage for American metal and hard rock way back in the early 1970’s. Produced by Ted Templemen (of the first Van Halen records), Montrose features clear production, concise songwriting and epic riffs of heviosity. “Space Station No. 5,” “Rock the Nation,” “Make It Last” and yes “Rock Candy” beat the shit out of almost every American hard rock debut to follow – save maybe Van Halen or Appetite for Destruction – both of which owe heavy debts to Ronnie and Sammy, who supposedly concocted Montrose over just a few days. (Our readers might want to put Kill ‘Em All in that pile, but I disagree. The production and drum sound—and timing—are sub-par. The filler songs (“Phantom Lord”?) drag. The emotional “range” isn’t, and the vocals are done by a guy who, at the time, would have rather been doing anything else.)
Hagar certainly isn’t without his flaws. One wonders why he shipped his son to boarding school in New York, or about his second son, who isn’t mentioned much. He has written some schmaltzy music. But it’s music by a hard working American, for hard working Americans. He also sneaks in the Softer Side of Sears, and, as a kid growing up on hard rock and punk, in my more private moments, I would say that was appreciated. Finally – and most importantly – Hagar comes off as a guy who would probably admit most of his flaws and maybe even give the old college try to make a change.
Vince Neil, on the other hand, is your boozy, obnoxious uncle in a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, running a bait shop, whose response to any personal criticism is “that’s me – deal with it.” Neil’s infidelity is quite entertaining, but he seems to have no understanding of its effect on others. He admits he likes being married because he doesn’t like being alone around the house, but he doesn’t recognize the other parts of that deal. He views himself as Tarzan and the women as vines, and he surmises that even Tarzan has to deal with that awkward transition period between vines.
Neil didn’t come up through the Haight or Cream – he started out living at his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Covina, doing electrical work for her dad and shooting up coke in the bathroom with the boss’ daughter. That really is California in 70’s and 80’s – doing drugs at home in the suburbs and working in construction. Artistically, Neil doesn’t talk much about the fact that the first two Motley records were never equaled. He does mention that the later albums took forever to record, but he avoids the obvious conclusion that fame, drugs and egos took what was the ultimate Hollywood sleaze rock metal band and turned it into the guys on the cover of Girls, Girls, Girls -- all blow dried and Harley’d out.
The most interesting parts of Tattoos and Tequila take place when the band are living at their apartment in Hollywood, with David Lee Roth sneaking in and out of the window and passing on his rock wisdom to the young Vinny (“it’s all about distribution”). Neil misses the chance for some obvious pathos and reflection in both the death of his daughter from cancer and of Razzle from Hanoi Rocks in an accident as Neil is driving them back from the liquor store (after a three day bender according to Neil; just during a routine run to the liquor store according to his wife). He writes about these things, but the events are portrayed flatly in the “one damn thing after another” succession of events in his life, right up there with his observations that the chicken strips at his bar are really good or that a Lambroghini is better for driving around Vegas than a Ferrari. Indeed, the fact that Neil really likes living in Vegas shows you where his head is at.
Neil also used a co-author, and, to his credit, the writer hasn’t dressed up the book to make Neil any more likeable (which wouldn’t have been tough since the starting point is so low). There are extended sections written in first person by his wives, mother and others. Through it all runs Vince, coming soon to a divorce court, Crue Fest or deep fryer near you.
I’d recommend both of these books to any fan of hard rock or metal. You will learn something about the music and times, though you stand a chance of learning a little about life from Hagar’s story.