Exclusive: Sammy Hagar Remembers His First Van Halen Concert – ‘Man, This Could Bomb’
On March 27, 1986, the city of Shreveport, Louisiana bore witness to the very first public performance of Van Halen MKII – sometimes nicknamed “Van Hagar,” in reference to the band’s new front man, Sammy Hagar, who had controversially replaced former singer, David Lee Roth, a few months prior.
And while the night and the tour turned out to be a gigantic success, looking back Hagar says it was “stupid” that the new lineup “rebelled against our pasts” by featuring so much of their as-yet unheard debut album ‘5150‘ in the set list instead of songs from their respective pasts.
The rock and roll media machine had been steamrolling ever since the Roth / Van Halen split became public, seemingly filling every available column inch with screaming headlines and bold type seeking to capitalize on the very public sparring between both parties, the biggest rock and roll feud since McCartney vs. the remaining Beatles truly arrived in the court of public opinion on that particular Thursday night.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the ten-odd-thousand ticket-buyers in attendance at Shreveport’s Hirsch Memorial Coliseum proved to be heavily partisan towards the Hagar team, with many fans donning t-shirts or hoisting banners depicting Roth’s name or photo circled and crossed out like a 55 mph speed limit sign, in honor of Hagar’s recent solo hit.
For their part, the band clearly basked in the audience’s show of unwavering support, with Hagar reportedly proving so bold as to sport a “Dave Who?” shirt at one point. But as he would later admit in a 2014 interview with Ultimate Classic Rock’s Matt Wardlaw, the singer was actually “a wreck” before the show:
“It was f—ed up. [Laughs] I mean, we were excited and we knew how good we were. But we had made the commitment that we weren’t going to play any of the old material…..[but then] our album didn’t get out yet. It was supposed to be out for a week before we did our first show. But they went ahead and booked a show which sold out in five minutes — every show did — and the album wasn’t out. All they heard was the single, ‘Why Can’t This Be Love.’ I remember during the last week of rehearsal that we decided to do ‘You Really Got Me,’ ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’ ‘One Way To Rock’ and ‘Jump.’ Two of mine and two of theirs and ‘Jump’ was going to be the encore and I was going to bring a guy up to sing ['Jump']. I wasn’t going to sing it myself. It was stupid… even though it worked and we were extremely successful — we had our first No. 1 album and we certainly had the biggest tour of the year. But it was stupid that we rebelled against our pasts. But you know… when you’re rich and famous rock stars and young and really in the middle of it, you make some stupid mistakes and ironically you get away with it half the time, which makes you even stupider — I’m talking about myself now — because it worked.”
Hagar goes on to say he’s glad this lineup didn’t make their debut during the instant feedback Facebook and Twitter era. “There was no internet then, so we didn’t have to sit and read about it. But truthfully, it was really scary to say ‘Wow, we’re going to walk out there and play the ‘5150’ record’ and this is sold out. These people are expecting some old Van Halen and some old Sammy Hagar, because that’s who sold it out. But it worked and I just remember opening up with ‘You Really Got Me’ and it was like the frikkin’ barricade went down and it was like ‘Okay, the nerves are gone.’ But I was a wreck, man, I was really a wreck. I thought ‘Man, this could bomb.’”
As if to make things even more difficult for himself, Hagar decided to perform without a traditional microphone stand as well, instead using a headset-based system. Along with the fact that his guitar-playing duties were now reduced compared to his solo days — a natural result of sharing the stage with Eddie Van Halen — this change left him even more vulnerable.
“They had just invented that headset microphone and just two guys were using it back then, Peter Gabriel and myself. I was walking out there without a microphone, you know, naked, hands in the air. I came out there running all over the place and people are looking around going ‘Who the f— is singing? Where’s that voice coming from?’ Because I had that little headset mic and it was a new invention — not that many people had seen it except for some of my fans from the previous tour. It was just stuff like that — it was pretty damn intense and if you look at an early live video of Van Halen, nobody was even near each other. We were flying all over the place and we were running from one end of the stage to the other, jumping off of shit and man [Laughs], I’m surprised we could even play our instruments, doing what we were doing!”
Regardless, the night was by all accounts a huge success. By the time the quartet took their bows and exited stage left that night, the revamped Van Halen was on its way to achieving the impossible: shutting up David Lee Roth…or at least making him scramble for colorful jabs and excuses to deflect his former band’s superior record sales and tour receipts, despite his own solo band’s considerable success on both fronts. Because for one hot night in Louisiana, all those years ago, America’s greatest hard rock band enjoyed the first evidence of a second lease on life.
Watch Van Halen Perform Live in 1986