Old Glory: David Hansen reviews the Sammy Hagar RNC kick-off

Sammy Hagar First Avenue, August 31 By David Hansen

He was first in line. In jean shorts and a Cabo Wabo top, he drummed the bows of his light-up wrap-around sunglasses on the palm of his hand, declaring that he hadn’t been to First Avenue since Ace Frehley’s solo show some time ago. He had a 12-inch single of "Lighter Shade of Pale," he said, an original pressing. He was in the dusk of his middle age, and in his shortness and baldness, he was benign above all else.

Behind him, a meager admission line took shape. Black chauffeured limousines angled curbside, releasing charcoal suits and mustard ties, cell phone belt holsters, laptop bags, and a handful of RNC badges onto the corner. Unions and reunions were undertaken, names disclosed, austere handshakes and occasional hi-fives dutifully administered. Up and down the line, a journalist probed the few likely delegates without luck. Changing from heels to pumps on the sidewalk, a young woman with a coffee tan and a miniskirt of blazing, bridal white spoke jubilantly on one iPhone while summoning driving directions from a second.

And at the helm of it, this peculiar Cabo Wabo fellow, fastening his day glow orange shades over his eyes and quietly proclaiming, to no one in particular, “I just love Sammy.” If the line for Sammy Hagar’s invite-only First Avenue show, the kick off event in this week’s RNC and an evening rife with phantom political pretense, was an exclamation, this man was its insoluble point. Just before the doors opened, he peered back on the line behind him. “Gee,” he said with some anxiety. “If this is all the people that show up…”

Its official name was Southern Tribute III, and the first impression made by the Main Room, its entryway festooned with a “Friends of the GOP,” its merch area tidily outfitted with modest towers of RNC t-shirts, was one of instant disorientation. Attendees, coiffed and cologned and maneuvering for drinks at the open bars, and staff, all knuckle tattoos and natty dreads, regarded one another with polite bewilderment. The conversations, some energetic, some listless and jet lagged, suggested the aimlessness of late summer June bugs.

With the dance floor empty and the monolithic curtain still emblazoned with Sammy Hagar’s grin, Congressman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) appeared briefly at stage right. He issued prayers for New Orleans. In a slip of the tongue, he referred to the event as the third annual “Southern Tradition.” He held up a black Gibson guitar, autographed by Hagar and “many other artists,” alerted the crowd to the silent auction that would make a prize of this and many other pieces of memorabilia, announced Hagar as “a great republican,” and left the stage without fanfare.

And the evening began to show seams. A crowd, perhaps three columns deep, assembled at the stage, and on the screen before them, a video began to play. Google-able by the name “Cosmic Universal Fashion,” it was an obvious echo of the iconic video for “Right Now,” the Van Halen hit that approached social relevance but had the sense to keep a safe distance. Amid images of American flags burning on the streets of Iraq, of Bush and Blair limply shaking hands, of a peepshow dancer picking crumpled bills from under her stiletto heels, strange messages flashed.

“Right now,” it stated over footage of Arnold Schwarzeneggar flexing as Mr. Universe, “entertainers are becoming politicians.” Wipe to George W. Bush, and the message is completed: “…And politicians are becoming entertainers.”

A Virgin Mary icon: “Right now, your God is _________.” Are we meant to fill in that blank? The lifting of the flag on Iwo Jima: “Right now will be page 55 in a history book.”

In this manner, the video continued for many minutes, each image and declarative undermining the last, and tampering with the premise of the evening.

A second video followed, a pastiche of R&R scenes at Hagar’s Cabo Wabo nightclub featuring Hagar among cohorts like Toby Keith (a man who’s own political alignment runs to the bizarrely pan-partisan), and Kenny Chesney, sweaty, peroxide ode to tequila and easy sex, cigarette boats and dune buggies.

The hits came early in a top-heavy set that began with the high-water mark of his solo career, “I Can’t Drive Fifty Five.” A medley of Led Zepplin songs, retooled to fit Hagar’s inflated swagger, led into “Why Can’t This Be Love.” Excepting a third act performance of “Mas Tequila,” the set was puffed out by lesser works from Hagar’s past life as a '70s hard rocker, an age of his career eclipsed for most by his time in Van Halen. Though his voice has retained much of its range and its grit, the high notes were graciously reserved for the crowd, and in harmonies, Hagar sat low in the mix and low in his register, shying away from all but the most necessary falsettos.

Aged. Inflexible. Patterned. Out of touch. Unclear. These were the musical and performative conditions projected from Hagar’s every gesture and vocalization upon the political pretense of the evening. The question, which burned so dimly that no one seemed interested in the answer, was “Why Sammy Hagar?” Or perhaps, “How Sammy Hagar?” With every strut he performed an open ended mating dance, the middling vintage of his sexuality now aged to vinegar. He drank from offered bottles of liquor, coyly discouraged front row flashers, and brandished around his neck the plastic chintz of the RNC merch tables.

He seemed confused by his presence there, inspecting the pendants with puzzlement and remarking “So all you gotta do is wear one of these and you’re a republican, huh?” He kept platitudes to a minimum, but still found room to embarrass himself. “Sorry about what happened with the hurricane and all,” he said after a moody version of “Right Now.” “But hey. We’re Americans. We know how to handle this shit.” Not a snicker, not a raised eyebrow, not so much as a cough of discomfort. He crossed himself, gulped from a keg cup of Cabo Wabo, and toasted to the RNC, and every hand presented him with affirmative thumbs.

The Republican party has always found strange bed fellows (see Ted Nugent). But Hagar’s kickoff of the RNC seemed neither provocative nor appropriate. Instead, it had all the fuzzy edges of poor planning, as artificial as the papier-mache palm trees that turned the First Avenue stage into a hedonist’s Eden (trademarked Cabo Wabo, naturally). The RNC had selected as a musical mouthpiece a man who’s cultural pertinence came and went while he was passed out backstage, and that was well over a decade ago; a man who leaped the consciousness of an entire generation of swing voters in a single bound; a man of such faded infamy that his performance at the RNC seemed crushingly commonplace. Hagar and McCain might share a love of liberty. But McCain would have the citizenry use liberty as a tool of order and virtue. Hagar loves the lawlessness of it, and loudly. To Hagar, liberty is an agent of vice and little more. His very presence was the fruit of misinformation, and as the crowd swelled and approached capacity, the evening became an orgiastic celebration of muddy thinking.

But soft -- what light? As Hagar wrapped up his encore performance of “Dreams” (a song that, according to Hagar‘s on-stage preface, “is as important to me, to the world, and should be in your lives as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat”), a familiar flicker briefly illuminated the edge of the crowd. Dazzled, hands in pockets, a short bald man in crisp jean shorts emerged, his sunglasses afire with crawling LED lights, his Hawaiian shirt stamped in an all-over print of Margarita shakers running over. He was urgently on his way to the bathroom, and he was singing every word, and he was the very picture of unerring, singular purpose.

--David Hansen

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