The 1980s: a decade of decadence, glam metal, and what later became known — first disparagingly, and then embraced — as hair metal. Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Guns N’ Roses. Going by many of the chapters, Nöthin’ But a Good Time seems to live up to the book’s title, from the Poison song, but with ëxträ ümläüts for ëxträ mëtäl. As the majority of this oral history, a phrase the authors wisely eschew, the chapter titles are direct quotations from the book’s huge cast of rock stars, managers, photographers, record executives, and more.
The bon mots don’t stop. From Chapter 1, “The Pussy-Plucking Posse Pocket of Hollywood”, through Chapter 20: “We Just Made It a Friggin’ Party”, to Chapter 49, my favorite: “Saving Whales Doesn’t Sell Albums; Leather Pants Do”, the wit never ends. I’m assuming the semicolon, like the umlauts, was added by the book’s authors—more like interviewers, compilers, and editors—Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock (interviewed by PopMatters), both experienced music writers and fans who want to update and maybe resuscitate the genre’s post-grunge reputation.
And yet, right there, interview after interview, is the possibility that the title is fortified with irony, not metal. There was, very clearly, something other than a good time goin’ on:
Poverty and hunger. See, among others, Juan Croucier, bassist in Ratt: “I was a starving musician. So I go, ‘How much is the band making?’ ‘I think we make about fifty bucks a gig.’ And I went, ‘Fifty bucks? That was groceries for a week.”
Jealousy, infighting, and rejection. See: fights and continued bad blood between guitarist George Lynch and singer Don Dokken, George Lynch and producer Tom Werman (from Dokken drummer Mick Brown: “And so they got into an argument and George goes, ‘Listen, you sonofabith, you cocksucker…’”), and George Lynch losing the Ozzy audition to Jake E. Lee:
Ozzy Osbourne: “George Lynch is an excellent guitar player. But Jake was a more tasty guitar player to me.”
Jake E Lee: “If you ask George, he’ll say I got the gig because I had better hair.”
Sharon Osbourne: “Of course he had better hair! He had better everything.”
George Lynch: “I think the big thing with me as that I had cut my hair short. I didn’t have that big rock look. But, hey, I could’ve worn a wig! Ozzy was bald at the time!”
See also: the chapter titled, “I Broke Nikki’s Nose. I Broke Tommy’s Nose. I Punched Mick Just for the Heck of It”.
Drug and alcohol addiction. See Penelope Spheeris, director of the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, on revisiting the scene of WASP guitarist Chris Holmes sloshed in a swimming pool as his mother looks on in shame: “It’s not my fault he was that drunk. I didn’t want to look at it either… The guy was just a total fuckup…. And then it turns out to be the scene that everyone talks about in the film.” See also: the chapter titled, “Everybody Would Be Throwing Up, Passing Out, Hallucinating, Or Banging Outside”.
Near-death experiences. See Nikki Sixx, bassist/songwriter of Mötley Crüe, on the heroin overdose that had him declared dead, even if reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated: “You take someone who hasn’t slept, who’s been on the rod for almost a year, and whose health is falling apart, and mix that with heroin and pills and cocaine and tons of alcohol, and what happened kind of makes sense. My body just gave out.”
Actual death experiences. See Vince Neil, singer of Mötley Crüe, on his drunk driving catastrophe that killed Hanoi Rocks’ drummer Razzle and severely injured two others: “I definitely deserved to go to prison. But I did thirty days in jail and got laid, and drank beer, because that’s the power of cash. That’s fucked up.” See also Ratt’s Robbin Crosby, who died in 2002 from a heroin overdose and complications from AIDS; Warrant singer Jani Lane, who died from alcohol poisoning in 2011; the pyrotechnics disaster during a 2003 Great White show resulting in a fire that killed one hundred people and injured over 200 more such examples of the scene’s excess.
Yet even more than the physical and emotional calamities, many of which will be familiar to fans by now, we read example after example of the incredible hard work and dedication that the musicians and people behind the scenes put in:
Photographer Don Adkins: “I think one thing I noticed … the really good bands that rose to the top … were really focused on making it. Absolutely driven.”
Poison singer Bret Michaels: “We were workaholics with a dream.”
Brad Hunt, an executive with Elektra Records: “They [referring to Mötley Crüe but could refer to almost anyone in the book] partied hard, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But they were really hard workers.”
Tom Whalley, an executive with Capitol Records: “The band [referring to Poison but could refer to almost anyone in the book] was working incredibly hard.“
History, But Not History
A whole chapter—“Flyer Wars”—is dedicated to the countless nights that band after band spent handing out or plastering flyers: “guerrilla marketing”, “ten thousand flyers”, “every night was promoting night”. More exciting than plastering flyers, we get another entire chapter—“It Was a Total Scene Out of Gunslinger or Something”—on the dedication to the craft of guitar playing that made the decade a six-string apogee. Guitar god Steve Vai opens the chapter, “We loved playing instruments.”
Beaujour and Bienstock highlight this attitude in their introduction: “Almost every person we spoke to for this book exhibited a single-mindedness, work ethic, confidence, and, yes, courage, that was nothing short of indomitable. That determination … is the shared DNA that connects the characters in this story… This was total-immersion rock ‘n’ roll.”
Yet perhaps the one shortcoming of the oral history format is the overall lack of historical context. The combination of debauchery with overwork—materialism and excess in all forms—is one of the hallmarks of the ’80s in America, but it was usually reserved for discussions of the Reagan Revolution, yuppies, and Wall Street — the film and the phenomenon — not heavy metal. Yet here, with the regular references to drugs, crime, and poverty, the occasional allusion to a world just on the cusp of the AIDS crisis, and the obscene amounts of money the successful bands made, then squandered, Nöthin’ But a Good Time becomes a metal microcosm of the decade. Seen in this light, the Hollywood hair band scene is a mirror of, not a rebellion against, Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. Park Avenue leads to skid row, but not for the reason Sebastian Bach imagined.
Yet despite the not-quite-behind the scenes Sturm und Drang, the near- and actual fatalities, or the work ethic usually associated with a Bruce Springsteen or a Bud Fox, Gekko’s Wall Street protégé, more than a Faster Pussycat or a White Lion, what the title gets absolutely right is that the music was fun. Awesome, even. The scene, the bands, the vibe—all fun, all awesome. It’s the reason I wanted to read and review this book. I lived it. I loved it. I still do.
After becoming “untouchable”, glam metal is enjoying the comeback chronicled in the final chapters. As Beaujour and Bienstock conclude in their introduction, “This musical apocalypse is where we initially planned to end the story…. The truth of the matter is that there actually is a happy conclusion; it just took a couple of decades to reveal itself…. What once was dismissed as anachronistic schlock is the new classic rock.” Fans who came of age with this music, and even many who didn’t see it for the good time it was and still is.
Even if lacking in historical context, Nöthin’ But a Good Time provides something like a cultural context. To a generation, the 1980s is no longer a decade, not exactly. For them, the ’80s is now, thanks to a decade of iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, like the ’50, ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s, it is a genre on the Sirius XM Radio station “Hair Nation”. The ’80s glam metal scene is more than an actual time period or lived experience.
Which takes us back to that hair.
“Hair bands” was supposed to be derogatory, dismissive. To the detractors, hair represented vanity and frivolity, artifice ahead of authenticity. Appearances more than music.
But this is wrong. As Nöthin’ But a Good Time, for hundreds of pages over hundreds of examples, the bands were dedicated to the music, the craftsmanship of songwriting, and to mastery of their instruments. They were into amassing and entertaining their fans, and, yes, they were also into their image. Hair in glam metal didn’t symbolize a lack of substance, but the commitment to the cause. In the 1980s, long hair on men prevented all kinds of employment and invited all kinds of harassment. It meant choosing the rock identity and life over all others, the badge and uniform that we couldn’t change out of or remove. It was a declaration of membership in a tribe, a subcultural invitation to insiders and it warded off outsiders.
Title to the contrary and in keeping with the book’s retrospective lens, I’m not convinced that the era was nothing but a good time. The Poison video for “Nothing But a Good Time” itself makes its rock identity politics explicit while even taking a swing at class consciousness and solidarity. In a conflict redone in a dozen similar videos, a harried, ponytailed dishwasher is threatened and exploited by his boss. But a mystical door opens to a Poison concert, a temporary, fantastical, and fun escape before the video concludes back in the kitchen. But now, our rocker’s hair is down and he looms triumphantly over his boss through the magic of metal and the virtue of hard work.
But what if we take Poison’s “nothing” in the Existentialist sense, like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness? Nothing is less a negation than a characteristic in and of itself, and a way for us to understanding ourselves.
The book includes but never centers the social and economic devastation of the ’80s: AIDS, crime, poverty, drugs, the widening gulf between rich and poor, the apocalyptic threat of Cold War annihilation that was the backdrop of so many of the era’s Mad Max-style videos. Hair metal, as Poison understood, is the perfect antidote, an entire genre and movement of what their contemporary Prince made a little too explicit in “Let’s Go Crazy”: “We’re all excited/ But we don’t know why/ Maybe it’s ‘cause/ We’re all gonna die”. Or even more so in “1999”, with lyrics befitting a Megadeth song: “Tryin’ to run from the destruction/ You know I didn’t even care/ Two-thousand-zero-zero party over/ Oops out of time/ So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999”. Prince released that song in 1984. It turned out that his timing was perfect.
Even Sartre said, “You are nothing other than your life.” If Beaujour and Bienstock can add their umlauts, then in light of the chronicled hardships and dark backdrops, maybe I can add my own punctuation.
The ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion: Nothing. But, a good time.