After racing from his Malibu home, rock singer Sammy Hagar breezed into the parking lot of a Westside Italian restaurant in an eye-catching Ferrari convertible--just one of the stallions in his stable of cars.

Indirectly, it's because of his passion for Ferraris that his career has veered sharply in another direction. If he weren't a Ferrari fanatic, he might not be the lead singer of Van Halen today.

In 1985, while the members of the group were in the market for a replacement for lead singer David Lee Roth, guitarist Eddie Van Halen was at a garage one day having work done on his Ferrari. He explained the lead-singer problem to a mechanic named Claudio, who suggested that one of his customers, Hagar, would be ideal for the position. Van Halen liked the idea and called Hagar right away.

"At first, I wasn't sure I was interested," recalled Hagar, rearranging his long curly locks, disheveled by that windblown drive. "I had just come back from a long trip and I wanted to relax. But I decided to give it a try. So I tried out with those guys to see what would happen. We knew right away that it would work."

Hagar joined Van Halen in 1985. This was the same singer-guitarist who, after splitting with guitarist Ronnie Montrose in the early '70s, vowed he'd never work in another band. Boosted by Hagar's writing and singing, Van Halen's album "5150"--released last year--is the band's biggest ever, with U.S sales of 3.25 million copies. He made their fans forget all about Roth.

Hagar's 10-year solo career, at its peak in 1985, seemed over. He had revitalized his career through considerable effort after a late-'70s slump, switching to Geffen Records in the early '80s and moving away from heavy metal to a more commercial pop-rock sound. But after he joined Van Halen, his fans figured they'd seen the last of solo Hagar.

He fooled everyone.

The demands of Van Halen weren't overwhelming enough to keep him from recording a solo album (on Geffen), "Sammy Hagar," with Eddie Van Halen as co-producer and bassist. Released in June, it's been a fair-sized hit. His last solo album, "VOA," sold over a million. The new one would probably outsell "VOA" if Hagar would go on a concert tour to promote it.

"No way," he said. "I wouldn't have time. We're going to start writing the next Van Halen album in the fall. Van Halen is my priority now. Though I did a solo album, I'm not a solo artist anymore."

Hagar ordered a salad and an elegant pasta dish. He had no alcohol except for the vodka used to flambe the pasta sauce. "I'd like a bottle of wine so I could get loose and be outrageous," he said. "But I can't drive that car with booze in me. The cops stop me all the time because they figure I've been speeding or I'm going to speed. But it would be nice to get loose with a nice bottle of wine."

Hagar doesn't really need any stimulant to loosen up. He's one of those breezy, casual, carefree people that you can't imagine ever being plagued by stress.

"I don't let things bother me," he said. "I kinda breeze through life. Things that would bother most people don't bother me."

For instance, most guitarists would tremble at the thought of playing guitar with the great Eddie Van Halen at an audition. But not Hagar.

"I respect Eddie but I wasn't intimidated by him as a player," Hagar said, recalling his tryout with the band. "I know he's a sensational player who can speak 10 different languages on the guitar. I can only speak one, but I do it well.

"Besides, I'm 39 years old--I've been doing this 15 years. If I was a kid, I would have probably been intimidated. But all I can do is do what I do well. I'm confident I can do that. I think of myself as young, and young at heart. But I'm also too old to be intimidated."

The most controversial song on the "Sammy Hagar" album is "What They Gonna Say Now," both an attack on the deviousness of politicians and a counterattack on critics who've rapped him over the years.

His target isn't all critics, Hagar explained, just a few: those for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe and The Times' Robert Hilburn. "These guys have slammed me so much over the years," Hagar said. "It goes beyond not liking my music. They whack me every chance they get--even in stories that aren't about me. I must say some of them came around on this album, but I'm still having problems with two others."

Hagar was so incensed at the critic for the Chronicle that he announced the critic's home telephone number at a concert. Naturally, fans kept calling and harassing the critic for knocking Hagar.

"These guys gotta be able to take the heat, too," Hagar said smugly.

What is it about his music that brings out the barbs in critics? A flood of possibilities came to him: "They obviously don't understand what I'm doing. They don't understand my sincerity. They may think I'm a phony out there on stage or that I'm a businessman going through the motions. Or maybe they just think I'm dumb."

Hagar also speculated that it might be the spontaneous, lowbrow quality of his music that turns off critics. "There's not much intellect to my music. I'm the first to admit that. It comes straight from inside. I don't overthink my tunes. When I'm writing, I don't work on them and work on them and rearrange them to death. I just let them come out.

"Lyrics come to me in strange places. Like in the shower--I'll jump out soaking wet and put them down. Lyrics come to me when I'm driving. I'll get in a car with a song churning in my head. I'll drive down the highway with a tape recorder and all of a sudden they'll come to me. When I'm driving I sing loud, too. But I'll be in one of my cars with blacked-out windows so people can't look in and see this nut singing at the top of his lungs."

Hagar, who seems to become snarled in one controversy after another, admitted that the Iran- contra scandal inspired the political aspects of "What They Gonna Say Now." But he also made another admission--this one rather startling: Contrary to popular belief, he's not into politics.

Though he's made some well-publicized pro-Reagan comments, he argued they were strictly from an apolitical point of view.

"I dig the cat," he said, referring to President Reagan. "He's spontaneous. A lot of times he'll blurt stuff out--I can relate to that. That stuff comes from inside, it's not rehearsed or planned. I dig him for that. It's a natural quality. It shows he's human."

How about the President's politics? "I'm not into politics--period," he insisted. "I can't tell you what's going on in the world today."

So far Hagar's political comments haven't gotten him into trouble with rock fans because, he said, they're not politically oriented. "I know some people think I'm crazy for saying anything nice about Reagan, but I'm not going to get hassled or punched out or lose fans over something like that.

"These are rock fans we're talking about. People who care about politics aren't hard-core rock fans. They're intellectuals. Hard-core rock fans don't give a damn about stuff like that. I'm not saying they're stupid. I just don't think a person's political views mean that much to most of them."

Realizing that his comments about rock fans' political consciousness might come out sounding harsh, he said, "I'm not knocking rock fans. I'm not saying they're ignorant. I'm just making an observation based on years of being around them."

Then he added, "Do you think I've put my foot in my mouth again?"

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