The Battle for Van Halen’s ‘Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)’
When Van Halen released “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” as the first single from their 10th studio album, Balance, fans heard one of their favorite songs from the LP. It ended up spending three weeks on top of Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart in 1995.
But few fans realized the song had come to represent the battleground between singer Sammy Hagar and the Van Halen brothers, guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex, and that Hagar knew, without a doubt, that arguments over its production heralded the end of his time with the band.
Over the course of his career, Hagar habitually wrote his own lyrics, finding inspiration from the wide range of life experiences he'd lived through. Months after the death of Nirvana icon Kurt Cobain, Hagar decided to write about the power of love and how it could have been used to save the late star.
“I do believe that,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. “Kurt Cobain could have been saved, … So I wrote that song about it to say you have control over your destiny. ... I wanted the chorus to say, ‘But I want to show you what love can do.’ I wanted to make it a love song … about what people could have done for him, people that he knew and loved.”
But, he recalled, “Ed and Al fought me on that. They wanted more of a grungy, bad-attitude song: ‘Don’t tell me what love can do.’ That’s not what I had in mind.”
It seems Hagar didn’t necessarily believe the Van Halens were arguing for artistic reasons in the first place. Instead, he felt Eddie was trying to disguise the fact he was using drugs again, and Alex was trying to cover for his brother – and also that the siblings wanted him out of the band.
Noting that it seemed as if Balance producer Bruce Fairbairn had to “throw Eddie out” of the studio “like, every night,” Hagar recalled that the guitarist "would come in seeming drunk and fucked up. You’d go into the bathroom in the studio and there’d be a hole in the wall. Reach down and there was a big bag of cocaine. A bottle of vodka was underneath the sink. ‘Al,’ I’d say, ‘your brother’s fucked up. What is this bullshit, everybody saying he’s clean and sober?’ ‘You’re crazy,’ Al would say. ‘That’s just the way Eddie acts.’”
The singer said he regularly faced down the guitarist personally: “Ed, get the fuck out of here. You’re fucked up. I don’t want you in here while I’m working.” But Van Halen would protest: “I haven’t had a drink for five months, you motherfucker.” Then “he’d break down and cry, bust things up.”
Eddie later insisted he had indeed stopped using drugs, but that the tensions of the following months started him up again. “The situation with Sammy was so bad that I had to warn Bruce not to let him know that I had come up with the title and the melody [of a song],” Van Halen said in 1996. “Because if he found out that, he would have completely turned off. When ever I suggested something to Sammy, he would just stop talking to me."
Watch Van Halen's ‘Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)’ Video
In the end, Fairbairn took Hagar to Vancouver to record his vocals as tensions boiled over. “Eddie was trying to make me quit,” the singer asserted. “He would find something wrong with every lyric I’d write. He’d never said a word about a lyric before. Suddenly, he didn’t like anything.” When it came to “Don’t Tell Me,” Hagar believed it was just a case of Van Halen being argumentative. “I had this strong, positive thought … but Eddie wanted to switch it around," he recalled. "‘I want black, no, I want white.’ Okay, I’ll go with white. ‘No, I want black.’ Okay, I wanted black to begin with. ‘You know what? I want white.’ It would drive me crazy. The brothers were dead against me.”
Hagar argued that if it hadn’t been for Fairbairn, Balance would never have been completed. And even though he knew his time with Van Halen was at an end, he was holding on for one reason: his opinion on the treatment of David Lee Roth when the band's original singer bowed out of the group in 1985. “I saw what they did to the other guy,” Hagar said. “They will lie. They will crucify me. They will kill me with the fans. The fans went against Roth. … I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
Another reason, Hagar suspected, was that he had recently completed his divorce and was settling in with another partner, who was pregnant with his child, and his happiness was upsetting those who didn't share the same feeling. Eddie Van Halen had a different viewpoint. "In the last couple of years, Sammy went through a lot of changes," he claimed. "Possibly because of that, he stopped being a team player. He was especially irritated by the fact that I began to get involved with the lyric writing. Sammy would say, 'You never complained about the lyrics before!' Well, I wasn't sober before, and I wasn't even listening to the lyrics! It's not like I suddenly wanted Sammy to be my puppet or anything, but once in a while I would take issue with a specific lyric or line."
Balance reached No. 1 and went on to achieve triple-platinum status, with the opening track, “The Seventh Seal," nominated for the following year's Best Rock Performance Grammy. But it was to be Hagar’s last turn with the group, and he left in June 1996.
Speaking later that year, Van Halen explained what had happened from his perspective, saying he felt there were too many incidents of Hagar placing his own values above the band’s.
“I called Sammy a bunch of times, and when he finally returned my call, I said, ‘Sam, if you want to make another record or do another tour, you've got to be a team player. Van Halen is a band. … We should be called Piss for all I care, but we are a band,'" he noted, " He finally said, ‘Yeah, goddammit, I'm fuckin' frustrated. I want to go back to being a solo artist.’ And I said, ‘Thank you for being honest.’
“We ended hanging up like everything was cool, because it was all out in the open. He’d admitted that he wanted to do solo stuff. And I said, ‘Well, you can't be in a band and do that too, so see ya.’ I didn't fire him. He just quit.”