A: Hey, listen, I got all dolled up for you and everything. That little test we did earlier? I looked at myself and jeez, man, I had just woken up. I looked rough. Do I look better now?
Q: You look great. I don't think we have any complaints about your appearance.
A: Okay, well good. It’s always the worst part about doing anything with video. Audio, I’m good all day long.
Q: Let's get this one thing out of the way. You've talked about being bummed out about wearing masks and some people have attacked you. I sensed you were just feeling bad about having to mask, not telling people not to do it.
A: I believe in freedom and all that, but then there’s a certain point of freedom where you say, “No, I’ve got to sacrifice my freedom. If I’ve got to wear a mask and you’ve got to wear a mask, then that’s what we have to do so that everyone can be protected and be safe.” And this thing, I know it’s serious now. Like I said, it took so long before anybody I knew had it. Well, now I know all kinds of people that have gotten sick and I know people that have died of it — friends of mine, friends that have died, and their parents and young people and old people. I’m a hardheaded guy and I’ve always been a rock star my whole life to do whatever you want, whenever you want. But we’ve got to get it fixed. That’s all I ask of everyone. Do what you got to do to make sure this thing goes away and stays away. And I hope it will someday go.
Q: Something else important: I saw one of your recent set lists and it did not include "Rock Candy."
A: Well, now hold on, Geoff. That was just that night. You know, I don’t play the exact same songs every night. I mean, sometimes we play two nights in a row. But “Rock Candy” is a staple for 99 percent of the shows I’ve done in my life since 1972 in Montrose. We play almost two hours, sometimes more than two hours, and we mix it up pretty good now. We’re going heavy on Van Hagar lately because that really got neglected over the years before Eddie died. My era [with Van Halen] kind of got pushed aside. Unfortunately, that reunion with all of us together never happened, which would have been wonderful. So we’ve been concentrating a lot, Mikey and I, on the Van Hagar era. And, yeah, we’re going heavy on it, and the fans are loving it because they haven’t heard that stuff in a long time and no one else can do it. I can’t even hardly sing them. I painted myself into a corner, Geoff.
A: I can tell you every band I’ve ever met from my era, from the Van Halen era, let’s call it, come up to me and go, “Oh, the first Montrose.” You know, Tom Scholz said, “Man, when I mastered the first Boston album, that was one of the biggest first records of all time.” Every drummer in the world that ever steps on the stage with me, I’ll say, “What do you want to play?” They go, “ ‘Rock Candy.’ ” And Montrose. . . . We were only together three years before I was kicked out of the band and then they slowly dissolved completely. But we opened for Humble Pie for two years. And I got to watch Steve Marriott [Small Faces] every night. And that little guy, he was shorter than me, little skinny guy in a pair of overalls, down and dirty. Steve Marriott, when he talked to the audience, he wouldn’t say, “Hey, how you doing?” He’d go, [sing-screaming] “Whoa, how’s everybody doing tonight?” I used to think, my God, it’s gonna blow his voice up. How can you sing all night the way he sings? I love that guy, God rest his soul, you know?
Q: Peter Frampton just recorded this record that is all instrumental, and it's really wonderful. And he obviously has a great voice. Have you thought about doing that? You really didn't play guitar in Van Halen.
A: I didn’t play for 10 years. I didn’t play for three years in Montrose. And I played guitar when I met Ronnie Montrose. I was the lead guitar, lead singer and I was always a Peter Frampton type. Alvin Lee, Jimi Hendrix, the guys who played lead and sang, that was always me. And when I left Montrose, I did it again with the Sammy Hagar Group with “I Can’t Drive 55.” I was the lead guitarist, but I had a second guitarist. For me, I find it difficult to sing as good as I can sing at my best and play guitar at the same time. I think it cuts me in half a little bit. So I would rather either just be a guitarist or just be a singer. But I still write songs on guitar and I still play 50 percent of my show.
But when you play a Van Halen song or a Montrose song, I don’t play guitar on it because, except for “Finish What Ya Started,” that’s only one, because I wrote that with Eddie on guitar. I like to just sing because I don’t have to think, “Oh, no, I got to play guitar. Oh, no, I got to do this.” I just close my eyes and sing, and there’s something about how I elevated my voice, my ability as a singer doubled in Van Halen. I got more range than I’ve ever had before. I didn’t even know I could hit those notes in “Dreams” and “When It’s Love.”
Q: You came into Van Halen after David Lee Roth as the red rocker. Is there a moment where you notice the other guys are like, "Oh, my God, this guy can sing differently and things are going to be different?"
A: From the second I walked in this studio, I got there around noon. They had been up all night working on a couple of songs on the “5150” record before we started the record, but when I came to see if I wanted to be in the band, it wasn’t like an audition. Eddie asked me to come down and jam. And I said, “Sure.” I mean, who’s going to refuse to jam with Eddie Van Halen? Right. . . . A hundred and 30 shows. I was a little cooked, but those days I was so healthy and in such good shape, I could sing like a bird. And he started playing “Summer Nights” and I immediately started singing that. And they almost stopped and looked exactly like, “What the hell’s going on?” I went home, wrote the lyrics. I had all the melodies. I just made them up. And his music was so powerful that when he would play me a song for the first time, it would go right to the heart, right to the brain. We never struggled.
Q: You wrote "Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock," which includes a very unvarnished, hard look at what Eddie Van Halen went through and put others through because of his addictions over the years. When you look back at that book, which was a bestseller, do you wish you had couched it a little more or not quite laid that out there for folks?
A: Yes. I’m not trying to backpedal and apologize. I’ve already apologized in public. I loved Eddie Van Halen as much as anybody loved him on this planet. He had a dark side. We all know that he got sick. If I could have seen the future, he was going to pass early like this and have such a sad thing, I definitely would have left the dark side out of it. I just really would have, I would have swept the dark side out.
The problem was, I was really hurt when I got thrown out of that band and the way he was acting. He was just really impossible to deal with. I was hurt, and I wrote that book really quick. I started writing that book the frickin’ first week I was thrown out of that band and I was angry. So there’s anger in there. I’ve been asked many times to do the audio for that book, which I would love to do, except I don’t think I could do those parts. I don’t have the anger anymore or it may stir something up. So I won’t do an audio of my own book because of that, because of the Van Halen stuff. But it’s so sad what happened to Eddie. But I don’t feel horrible about what I wrote. I wrote the truth, but I would have left the dark side, put a little polish on there.
Anying Guo contributed to the production of this story.