Rock fans were stunned by the announcement Wednesday that Van Halen had reunited with singer David Lee Roth--who left the band acrimoniously in 1985--and had fired his replacement, Sammy Hagar.
But not as stunned as Hagar.
"[Eddie Van Halen] just wanted me to change one lyric in a new song, and I didn't want to," said Hagar, recalling the incident that precipitated the upheaval.
"I thought [the song] was great," Hagar said. "But after I left he drove to David Lee Roth's house, and man, that's worse than sleeping with the enemy."
Five days later, on June 16, Hagar--who said he had been unaware of the Van Halen-Roth meeting--got a call from Eddie Van Halen.
"[He told me], 'You never do what I ask you to do, you're really stubborn,' " Hagar recalled Thursday by phone from his house in Hawaii in his first interview since the split. "I said, 'It's never been like that before, Eddie.' . . . But he said, 'You're a solo artist in this band, so you might as well really be a solo artist.' "
(A spokeswoman for Van Halen's manager, Ray Danniels, said that band members would not comment at this time.)
Roth, who formed the band with brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony in Pasadena in the mid-'70s, is working on a new track with the group to be included in a greatest-hits album, due in October. The band will not officially say that he has rejoined permanently, but sources say plans are being made for a new album and tour with Roth next year, and Hagar said that he has also been given that impression.
Roth's colorful showmanship and boisterous personality, matched with Eddie's guitar playing, took the band to the top ranks of the hard-rock world. His departure for a solo career was seen by many as a death knell for the band, but with veteran rock singer and songwriter Hagar, Van Halen actually surpassed its previous record sales while Roth's career sputtered.
Still, many fans remain loyal to the original lineup, and concert promoters often note that a tour of that band would do tremendous business.
Hagar, 48, said the incident over the lyric was the culmination of tensions that had been mounting since the band concluded a long concert tour in January. At that time, the band wanted to go right into the studio to record two new tracks for the "Twister" soundtrack. Hagar, exhausted from the trek and with his wife pregnant, wanted to go home to his primary residence in Marin County.
"But they conned me into coming down and spending a couple of weeks," he said.
At the end of those sessions, though, he was informed that one of the two songs, "Between Us Two," was being replaced on the movie album by an instrumental and was now intended for a greatest-hits album. Hagar, who had long fought plans for a hits collection, was livid.
"We're not a greatest-hits kind of band," he said. "We made great albums and sold out concerts all over the world, and we do not need to rely on the past. . . . We spent 11 years trying to bury the past and make the music different and expand and grow."
Still, he said, he agreed to work more on the new song, but the sessions proved heated and tense.
At the same time, Roth, who had heard about plans for the hits album, reportedly initiated contact with Eddie Van Halen, apologized for derogatory statements he had made and expressed interest in being involved in the project.
"We bumped heads," Hagar summarized, "and the next thing I know, Eddie calls and David Lee Roth is back."
Hagar said his problems with Van Halen started after longtime band manager Ed Leffler died of cancer in 1993. Hagar said that he never really developed a good relationship with Danniels, who was hired the next year. (Danniels was also unavailable for comment.) But he said that the chemistry between him and the other band members remained strong until the end of the last tour. As for his own plans, Hagar said he won't rush into anything.
"I might be a beach bum in Cabo San Lucas," he said of the town in Mexico where he and Van Halen members own the Cabo Wabo nightclub. "Or I might be a studio rat and just record. I write songs constantly that are not meant for Van Halen. I probably have 20 great songs I could record."
One thing he most definitely will not do is attend any Roth-fronted Van Halen concerts. But he'll be very interested to hear about the shows.
"It was one thing for me to do some of the old songs," he said. "But if they try to do my songs, that will be a joke. I might send my produce guy. If [Roth] sings one of my songs, he deserves to get a tomato thrown at him."