Every proper alt-rocker has a secret metal memoir. Few of us were born with Bowie and the Velvets spinning in the nursery, and by the time we were teens we had more important things than quality, aesthetics, or randomness to define our musical choices. We just wanted to feel normal, let out a bit of aggression, immerse ourselves in fantasy. We took what we were offered and dug heavy metal, and we vowed never to listen to anything else. Yeah, inevitably we broke the vow. Hell, we even turned Judas and declared openly that metal sucked.
Luckily now the wheel has turned. Nostalgia ripens at about sixteen years, so there’s a rainbow burst of new books for closet metalheads. They range from the pompous (Susan Fast’s In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music) to the profane (Mötley Crüe: the Dirt), but they’re all getting the scribblers and eggheads energized with new theorems and reshuffled canons. As Ratt told us early in their career, “Round and round / What comes around goes around / I’ll tell you why”. The best books are the memoirs, though. They’re not only primary sources, but hot sellers to boot.
The central character in my own metal memoir is Ronnie James Dio: his classic album The Last in Line was the first album I bought in high school. This was one of those consciously Significant Purchases (first day of ninth grade), which I thought would forever fill my memory and eardrums with sublime resonance. Well, I still remember “We Rock”, because that was track one, side one. But track two was much better it began with Ronnie gently crooning, “We’re a ship without a storm / The cold without the warm / blah blah blah [I forget this part] / we are coming . . . home!” our guts twisted and then released when the pounding metal chords and keys surged and Dio’s voice soared in anthemic glory: “We’re the last in line!”. I still love that song, even though it’s easier now for me to laugh at the generational apocalypse that the balding elf Dio hoped to evoke.
Do I love the song because it’s good, or because it’s embedded in a nostalgic context? Probably a little of both, and my odd view of the silly album just proves once again that nostalgia is a firm seducer, a perfumed cloud, a crutch, a Siren. When a music lover like me thinks about the past, we glorify the mix tapes and cherished LPs because they are always firmly attached to soft-focus memories that seem so uplifting despite the troughs of pain that surround them. But nostalgia is a lie mostly because we are all bent on revising our musical past to make it more interesting, powerful, or retro-chic. By the time I bought my first Hüsker Dü album, I already owned damn near every release by Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Led Zeppelin, Accept, Dio, .38 Special, Dokken, Ozzy, the Firm, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, Judas Priest, and KISS. Among others. For a long time this was a bit embarrassing to admit. Now the worm has turned, and I suspect that the success of The Osbournes, Andrew WK, and those gargling perennials Aerosmith will out us all as the closet metalheads we truly are. We’ll ditch the nostalgia and reclaim our pasts, won’t we?
Most metal is dismissed by the pomo hipster crowd, yet a handful of bands retain a sliver of grudging respect. Black Sabbath, Motörhead, and KISS are the most obvious, and of the three KISS is the only one whose music is rarely discussed. They are beloved for their glam-cartoon image, their over-the-top style, and their singular pursuit of form over content, money over wisdom, power over respect. But rarely do putative KISS Army fifth-column renegades debate the merits of Rock and Roll Over versus the mighty Destroyer (let alone KISS Alive! versus KISS Alive II). Unfortunately, this defect in KISS discourse will not be remedied by Gene Simmons’ hot new memoir KISS and Make-Up, which unloads all sorts of details about band conflicts, skirt-chasing, and business savvy, but almost nothing about the music itself.
Gene Simmons achieved a bit of brief notoriety recently when his promo-tour interview with NPR’s Terry Gross descended immediately into retro-sexism and arrogance (“If you’re going to welcome me with open arms, you also have to welcome me with open legs”), with a near-speechless Gross cutting it all short, and a cowardly Simmons refusing NPR the audio rights to the interview. Simmons made an ass of himself, but the KISS Army loved it, and there’s no doubt that sales of his book were improved by the event. But before you start reconceptualizing Gene Simmons as some sort of hot new Freudian Id character worthy of serious consideration, bear in mind that his memoir is a bit dull.
On the 1984 album Animalize, Gene now “the ugly guy” rather than “The Demon” croaked the self-penned lines “Burn all your bridges, take what you can get” on the ludicrous tune “While the City Sleeps”. KISS was dominated by the sexy shouter Paul Stanley back then (doffing the makeup seemed to unearth the band’s real musical talent), yet Simmons’ personal philosophy remained undisguised. He was a boring, greedy bastard. KISS and Make Up offers few insights into the origins of his hunger for power and money, and in general it’s a quick’n'trite read, but there is a fascinating dynamic hidden between the lines: class warfare. Back when I used to trade KISS cards in second grade, we’d argue about which KISS member was the best. I sided with Ace Frehley, because he had the coolest makeup and the niftiest space-age uniform. Others would dig Gene because he was the Demon and he spat blood. Paul Stanley, the Starchild (did George Clinton dig KISS too?), sung all their best songs, so he was cool despite (or because of?) his glam-queen androgyny. Poor Peter Criss. We believed the rumors that he was the “fastest drummer in the world”, but that cat makeup was pretty lame.
Anyway, we all took sides, but little did we know that the conflict within the band was nastier than we imagined. Paul and Gene were the nice (or not-so-nice) New York City Jewish boys, while Ace and Peter were the brawling drunk working-class kids with mismatched sneakers and seedy connections. Throughout the memoir Simmons devotes a lot of energy to trashing Ace and Peter, and we are given an oddly manichean portrait of the clean’n'straight Gene and Paul (Gene has never been drunk, Paul practiced moderation) versus the explosive life-threatening dark forces of Ace and Peter, drowning in bathtubs and crashing their cars with syringes bursting out of the glove box. Simmons wanted KISS to be a very rational, profitable, carefully planned enterprise, but Ace and Peter were decadent rock’n'rollers to the core. When Simmons was done for the day with spitting blood, breathing fire, and chasing skirt, he would be soberly typing up contracts and haggling with his accountant.
The origins of the God of Thunder are fascinating (born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, only a year after Israel’s independence), and the vagaries of his upbringing (doting mom, lots of TV, name change upon moving to NYC) invite lots of speculation about his psyche. But on the whole, KISS and Make-Up is one of the most sterile kiss-and-tell memoirs in recent memory. I’ve read many other pop music autobiographies from George Jones to L.L. Cool J and always there is an obligatory tone of contrition. Sinning is the business, and when you’ve had your fill it’s time to scribble a memoir. Honesty and brutal self-criticism are hallmarks of the style, and it’s no accident that the reader becomes a paying voyeur in the process. KISS and Make-Up is unique in that it’s devoid of both contrition or self-criticism. Gene Simmons is proud of being a prick (“My story is about power and the pursuit of it”, he proclaims early on). He’s never used drugs and never touched alcohol. Sure, he’s a triumphant conqueror of thousands of groupies, and we get some smutty details about his gigantic tongue, but otherwise we’re left with a strangely tiresome persona. And anyway, he hardly ever talks about the music. Songs like the image-defining “God of Thunder”, or the brilliant “Strutter” and “Deuce”, or the astounding “Detroit Rock City”, are glossed over as nothing more than itemized classics in his resumé. And the only hint we get of his musical influences are some gushing paragraphs on the Beatles and a brief mention of Jesse Colin Young (?!). Well, now I await the memoirs of Paul, Ace, and Peter. As for Gene: find it, read it, fuck it, forget it.
Gene Simmons is a horrible role model, except maybe for business majors. But Mötley Crüe took the KISS model of hype and image to the next level, by adding a hefty dose of self-abuse and cretinism to the mix, thereby embodying a comical “role model” with a bit too much reality in its veins. Still, if I were to rank my top ten greatest rock’n'roll experiences, I will always include the dynamite performance of Mötley Crüe at the Hartford Civic Center in 1986. The Theater of Pain tour! I was a pimply-faced geek with the good luck to have a friend whose dad taxied us back and forth to shows. Sure, the Theater of Pain album was crap, but the Crüe and their handlers saw fit to put together an entertaining metal set with explosions, scarves, and best of all, one of the first-ever entertaining drum solos in rock’n'roll history (because Tommy Lee and his drum set levitated, then turned upside down over the crowd). A tear rolled down my cheek as I foisted my Bic in the air during “Home Sweet Home”. But the magic was short-lived: I bought my first Hüsker Dü album a couple months after the show, and turned my back on the metal world. For a long while I was embarrassed by my brief association with Mötley Crüe fandom, but hey, I was their target demographic a working class white kid.
I won’t go so far as to say that I like them now in some sort of retro-chic way, but still their rock’n'roll memoir The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band is almost a work of genius. This absorbing and mostly honest little parade of vignettes (modeled on the ghostwritten first-person narrative style of Aerosmith’s classic “autobiography” Walk this Way) does not redeem them as human beings, although it does try. Instead, it gets you thinking about the pros and cons of decadence. It’s one thing to theorize about decadence when you’re a pointy-headed academic or record critic. It’s another thing entirely to embody it. Mötley Crüe’s greatest contribution to the world of music is not their songs, or their shows, but this memoir.
The most interesting character in the book is Mick Mars, a weary observer of the band’s antics and a bit of a dim bulb. Yet one can’t help sympathize with him. All he ever wanted to do was rock. After years of slumming in cover bands with handlebar moustache and clumsy fret fingers he ultimately became world-famous as an uncharismatic and unimaginative metal guitarist for a decadent and silly band. He was a glammed-up sad sack who played guitar as if he had fewer fingers than Tony Iommi.
Mick Mars-bashing was a favorite pastime for the metal cognoscenti. Not only was he a crappy guitarist, but he was like forty years old in ‘86. Every live show saw him slouched over his guitar looking like Richard Nixon in a fright wig. I remember my pal Dan and I flailed around the living room playing air guitar to “Looks that Kill”, “Ten Seconds to Love”, and “Helter Skelter”, then headed to the show to see Mick chugging in place while the other band members cartwheeled, levitated, and backflipped all around him. The disjunction between our fantasy air-guitar world and the stationary goofus with the phony sneer we couldn’t quite express it, but I think we were truly disillusioned. Nobody liked Mick anyway, ‘cause he was a bloated old drunk. The letters columns in Hit Parader and Circus were rife with astute readers pointing out that Mick Mars was butt-ugly, or “revealing” his hidden past as a cheesy pop-rock guitarist in the 1970s. Turns out the letters were mostly correct. And the reason Mick was such a dull performer was his disease: ankylosing spondylitis a nasty arthritis of the back and hips and god knows what else. He just couldn’t move without being in pain. Anyone else with such a disease would have chosen a different career maybe a sound engineer or a guitar tech or something. But the fact is, Mick had no other skills. Sure, he worked in a laundromat for a while, but he wasn’t such a great worker there. He only got the job ‘cause his early ‘70s wife pulled some strings. Playing guitar and not all that well that was his ambition, and his trade, from the late ‘60s onward. He ultimately became a wealthy man nonetheless; not through perseverance or skill, but through just dumb luck. He’s a god for the luckless. As Sallust reflected when considering the series of perverted crazies who became emperors of Rome, “Fortune is a capricious power, which makes men’s actions famous, or leaves them in obscurity without regard to their true worth”.
Mick’s presence in the book is like a Greek chorus crossed with Bob Woodward; he is a clearheaded and bravely uninsightful observer. The fact that he’s not all that articulate or interesting (despite the valiant efforts of the ghostwriter) makes his passages more endearing. The kids clamored for bread and circuses; Mötley Crüe delivered the goods, and Mick was the dull little troll in their midst. You may have seen him gigging in the early ‘70s with a Gregg Allman haircut, a pack of Marlboros in his shirtsleeve, and a bottle of Jack in his fist, but little did you (or he) know that his future would include lipstick, mascara, and a pack of lies about his age. In the memoir he’s skeptical, pithy, brief, weary, and contrite (actually everyone in the book is tediously contrite, but Mick’s so boring he has nothing really to be contrite about). He trusts no one. When the entire group tried to sober up together following their decadent Girls Girls Girls tour, he was the only member who disdained all the mushbrained twelve-step programs (“Every therapist wanted us to let loose and cry, and I hate crybabies. Grown men who cry in the middle of a fucking crisis will die”.). So he came up with his own method of staying clean (“Whenever I craved a drink or felt frustrated, I’d just curl my fingers into a circle as if I were holding a shot glass, yell BOOM, and snap my hand toward my mouth as if I was hammering a shot of tequila”). And he was the only one who stayed sober. In many ways he seems the sanest, most self-made of the bunch.
And to think the suits got their shorts in a bunch at the sound of Mötley Crüe’s noise! This scarved and powdered quartet with vomit on their lips and syringes in their boots they weren’t threatening unless you were physically in their presence. Seen from a distance, they were comical bozos, party animals, pricks, sluts, null-bits. Nikki Sixx was the articulate dissolute geek; Vince Neil the ostracized prima donna; and Tommy Lee the likable and sexy mimbo. They only wanted to party, and that whole “Shout at the Devil/Theater of Pain” schtick was just window dressing. They did a lot of narsty drugs, sure, but they didn’t actually make you want to do drugs any more than Dean Martin makes you want to drink. I angrily blasted Shout at the Devil as an eager twelve year old hoping to piss off every adult I could, but it’s hard to distill any real rebellion out of such a clumsy theatrical pentagram showpiece. I got much more rebellion and catharsis out of Zen Arcade and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Still Mötley Crüe does resonate in some strange way, and maybe it’s because they’re the epitome of pointless decadence. Read the book. It’s fun, a real page-turner, and you won’t learn a thing.
But if you do want to learn a thing or two about metal, you’re in luck, because Chuck Klosterman is the man of the hour. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota is the finest book on heavy metal I’ve ever read, and it even rivals Chuck Eddy’s Stairway to Hell as the definitive treatise on the subject. It’s both an unrepentant fan memoir and a righteous tract. To cut a short story lengthwise, Chuck was this groovy kid from North Dakota who dug metal and engaged in all the usual white-male sociological scenarios of Wyndmere. He liked girls, but was a mite too geeky to attract them early on. He bought Lita Ford cassettes at the mall. He had a Mötley Crüe bumper sticker on his headboard. He was in love with music as theater and spectacle, as something that was less boring than real life. And, just like me, he thought Def Leppard stopped making heavy metal when that damnable Hysteria crammed the racks.
Klosterman refuses to take on the usual critical poses of feigned importance or shifty-eyed revisionism. Instead he acknowledges the fact that glam metal was derivative, transitory, and often pretty lame. But he manages to make it interesting, and even important. “Talking about music was more exciting than hearing it (which is still the way I feel about most rock’n'roll)” that’s an insight for rock scribes everywhere to step back and ponder, ain’t it? And anyway, it underscores his view that glam metal was above all a mode of discourse, not just music.
Klosterman’s nostalgia and enthusiasm always illuminate rather than disguise. And with his crazy wit, rambling theories, and conversational tone he might as well be our own Samuel Johnson! His technique is genius: he suggests an indefensible premise (e.g., “Metal might not be sexist”), starts making you agree with him, then steps back to confess he’s full of shit. Only then does he unveil the real reasons why metal might not be sexist. Best of all, he comes up with all this stuff without having to resort to the clunky theorems of Griel Marcus or Theodor Adorno. I doubt that Griel Marcus could dig up a more resonant insight into the sociology of rock than this: “Part of the reason ‘80s hard rock will never get respect even kitschy respect is because so many of the major players have retroactively tried to disassociate themselves from their peers”. Right on! Give Nikki Sixx a kick in his soft ass and start churning up some schlock-metal solidarity, Chuck!
Yep, it’s the one book on metal you need to read, and you can acquire some cool pub-argument starters, such as the beauty of being an “Ironic Contrarian Hipster” (“the Jedi Knight among trendy rock fans”), or the elegance of the “Jack Factor” (how much cash you’d need never to listen to a record again) in rating albums. Klosterman is the smart buddy who sits next to you in the nosebleed section of the stadium, wisecracking between songs, then jumping up and pumping the devil’s sign once Ozzy kicks in “Crazy Train”. A brilliant book, and an effective cure for the nasty nostalgia hangover you’ll acquire from reading the funny’n'flawed tomes of Gene Simmons and Mötley Crüe. Come on, feel the noise. Again.