"I Can't Go to Jail. I Gotta Go Out on Tour."
Each successive Rock autobiography seems intent on out-shagging, out-snorting and out-drinking the last. Led Zeppelin’s Hammer Of The Gods described in lurid detail life on the road with one of the biggest band in the world and then Stephen Davis also helped the various members of Aerosmith pen their thoughts and hazy memories of drugs, drugs and more drugs (with the occasional musical reference) in Walk This Way.
Soaked in excess and debauchery, Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt, (co-authored by New York Times writer Neil Strauss) is the latest high-profile tell-all book in this genre and its candid tales of porn stars, overdoses, and glam-metal makes the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll memories of other bands seem almost as sweet and innocent as that book by Britney Spears and her mother. The basic story is the rise to fame, fortune, and prominence of Vince Neil, Tommy Lee, Nikki Sixx and Mick Mars—four guys with big dreams and big libidos who fulfilled both as Mötley Crüe’s brand of spandex, leather, and dumb choruses catapulted them from the scummy clubs of the Sunset Strip to arenas and the big time, thanks to a multitude of multi-platinum albums.
However enjoyable the book is in charting the rise of these four young L.A. upstarts, The Dirt also stands as something of a cultural indicator of the decade of decadence itself. Music, like the age, was superficial, and as forefathers of the American arena-rock era it’s true to say Mötley Crüe could only have emerged in the 1980s. Without a doubt, Mötley Crüe were collectively talented but even bassist and chief troublemaker Nikki Sixx admits that two of his band’s biggest-selling albums, Girls Girls Girls and Theatre Of Pain, were, to put it kindly, awful.
Music may be the pretext behind this book, but ultimately that is not what it is about, or what makes it so utterly compelling. The stories behind the songs, or even the by-now-cliched activities of touring rock bands titillate rather than fascinate, but this is much more than a typical bland autobiography. Instead, The Dirt is the literary equivalent of Reality TV with a subtly Chaucerian moral tone, detailing the backbiting, the politics, the self-destruction, and just how much trouble, strife, and pain went hand in hand with the copious amounts of hard drugs, fast women, and faster cars.
Of course, the well-documented incident of former Crue drummer Tommy Lee beating up Pamela Anderson is given plenty of analysis, as is his subsequent period in jail. Yet he wasn’t the only one to see the other side of the glamour and fame. Vocalist Vince Neil also served time in 1984 for vehicular manslaughter after he killed a man (Razzle from Hanoi Rocks) and disabled two others when he lost control of his Ford Pantera after a three-day alcohol binge. Thankfully, instead of brushing this incident under the carpet, The Dirt tackles it head-on from a number of perspectives, but even today Vince Neil tells how if he had been thinking straight he would have refused a breathalyser test and how he - and the rest of the band - continued to drink after this horrific incident. Nikki Sixx’s drug problems and inner struggle with his rejection by his father draws further attention to the reality behind the gloss of fame and fortune, and his extraordinary account of “dying” for a few minutes after a massive heroin overdose in 1987 demonstrates the lengths he went to in an effort to blur the past from his tortured mind.
Even mild-mannered guitarist Mick Mars failed to emerge unscathed from the wreckage of Mötley Crüe’s twenty-year career. Broke after a string of failed marriages and nearly crippled by a hereditary back problem, Mars shunned the hedonistic lifestyle of his bandmates by immersing himself in an alcohol-fuelled blur that still takes its toll today. As Mötley Crüe’s former manager Doc McGhee recalls, the band were hardly the picture of success, even with million-selling albums behind them:
“They looked pathetic. There was Nikki, who was dying; Tommy who was getting loaded and fighting with his wife; Vince who was completely outta control; and Mick, who basically woke up every morning and drank and sobbed to himself until he passed out. And this was supposed to be one of the biggest, greatest rock bands in the world”.
As a result, Mötley Crüe come across—deliberately or otherwise—as not only the band without a conscience, but also as willing players in the merciless music business that chewed them up and spat them out. Each band member’s separately narrated chapters detail how they were collectively unable to deal with the levels of success they achieved after getting caught up in the rock star myth, until eventually reality was something completely alien to them. Through various accounts of sharing oversize Beverly Hills mansions with drug-addicted Playboy bunnies, the constant trips to and escape attempts from rehab centres and depraved activities with porno stars and groupies, Mötley Crüe’s inability to recognise the need for accountability in any aspect of their lives is all manifested in grisly detail; perhaps most pertinently, when Neil was told he may have to go to jail after his drunk-driving offence in 1984, he responded, “I can’t go to jail. I gotta go out on tour.”
Even though one genuinely heart-wrenching chapter describes the death of Vince’s daughter from cancer, The Dirt is far from being a glum read—accounts of the band’s early days are particularly humorous and enjoyable, Nikki Sixx’s memories from a chaotic childhood are often very amusing, Vince’s pot-shots directed at Tommy Lee raise a wry smile (“if he had tits he’d be a fucking Spice Girl”) and Lee’s chapters are peppered with enough “dudes,” “bros,” and “mans” to make his accounts the most jovial and down-to-earth.
If the reader is finally left to decide how to judge the band after such a rollercoaster ride of no-holds barred stories and recollections, then typically Vince Neil tries to make that process a whole lot easier by closing his final chapter with an honesty that imbues the whole book:
“What everybody always loved Mötley Crüe for was being a fucking decadent band: for being able to walk in a room and inhale all the alcohol, girls, pills, and trouble in sight. I suppose a happy ending would be to say that we have learned our lesson and that it’s wrong. But fuck that.”
Familiarity with Mötley Crüe’s music is not a pre-requisite to reading The Dirt—anyone fascinated by the whole music business and the recklessness and abandon of the 1980s music scene will be captivated by this often unsettling, but ultimately enthralling book. As an indicator as to the realities of being a mega successful rock star in a byegone era, it may even be the last of its kind. Put it this way. I don’t think the autobiography of the Backstreet Boys or ‘NSync will have quite the same impact.