There comes a time in all Neil Strauss-assisted rock-star tell-alls when the sex and sin of life at the top of the show-business food chain stops being fun and turns soul-crushing. Marilyn Manson’s The Long Hard Road Out of Hell—the title is literal; Manson really does come from Florida—and Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt each contain moments of clarity where their protagonists take a step back and ponder the moral morass they’ve reached.
Manson has at least two such moments. In the first, he stops throwing lunchmeat at a naked, deaf groupie long enough to realize that he derives no pleasure from the act. Whatever transgressive joy he should be experiencing is MIA; all he feels is a sort of numb sadness. Later, Dave Navarro goes down on Manson at a Hollywood party, and they both realize the act is born less of desire than a bleary determination to live up to their reputations. Navarro doesn’t genuinely want to suck Manson’s cock. Who would? It’s gross. There’s just some sad, self-mythologizing part of his brain that thinks that rock ’n’ roll lore should tell of a magical night when mega-stars collided and Navarro sadly suckled Manson’s greasepaint-smeared member (I don’t actually think Manson covers his cock in greasepaint, but I’m going to pretend he does), just as Manson secretly suspected that throwing lunchmeat at naked, deaf groupies is simply part of the job description.
For the hedonists in Mötley Crüe in the Strauss-co-written Mötley Crüe: The Dirt—Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, that moment of clarity comes when the band decides to amuse itself by sliding a phone receiver into the honeypot of a sadly willing groupie, then having her conduct a conversation with her mother for their demented amusement. Here’s the really tragic part of that whole scenario: They weren’t even amused. On the contrary, they were depressed. Really, really depressed. They lost respect for the woman and for themselves. I find that remarkable; who knew they even had any self-respect?
Putting a phone inside a groupie, then having her call her mother, wasn’t fun. It wasn’t cool. It was just something fucked-up rock stars do because they think that’s how rock stars behave, and they feel duty-bound to inhabit the hoary stereotype they grew up worshipping. When you’re Marilyn Manson or Mötley Crüe, part of your existential journey entails seeing just how much the universe will let you get away with. The answer is invariably “an awful lot.” As rock stars, you operate under the assumption that every woman in the world owes you a blowjob and every man wants to give you his money, unless circumstances convey otherwise.
The members of Mötley Crüe didn’t invent rock-star decadence, but they perfected it. The Dirt consequently has a vaunted reputation as the gold standard for glitter and jizz-covered super-trashy rock-star tell-alls, the crazed literary orgy to end them all. The swaggering title says it all: This isn’t your typical rock-star book. There would be no valleys, no dips, no dusty middle innings, to borrow Roger Angell’s resonant turn of phrase (via my colleague Scott Tobias). Nope, this will be nothing but the pure, uncut shit. The fucking. The drugs. The booze. The fights. The ego. The money. The good stuff. The dirt. Crüe and Strauss are throwing down the gauntlet with that swaggering title. To its credit and detriment, it lives up to it. But it also tested my tolerance for tales of rock ’n’ roll ribaldry.
In The Dirt, the four core members of Mötley Crüe—singer Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars, bassist/songwriter Nikki Sixx, and drummer Tommy Lee—come off as feral man-children running amok in a world that denied them nothing. Beyond a shared taste for the demon rum and the affections of the fairer sex, Mötley Crüe’s members are each horrible in unique ways. Mars isn’t horrible so much as certifiably crazy; when he’s diagnosed with schizophrenia late in the book, the only reasonable response is “Well, duh.” Mars genuinely seems to be on a different, much sadder, and more painful planet than everyone else. Physically, psychologically, and professionally, Mars has it rough, with a brain full of bad chemicals and a body riddled with arthritis. It’s hard to feel sorry for a millionaire rock-star alcoholic, but Mars ultimately emerges as a tragic and often pathetic figure.
Tommy Lee, meanwhile, comes off like a puppy with a raging erection, multimillion-dollar bank account, and bottomless appetite for booze, weed, coke, and women. He’s a surfer-dude space cadet with a vocabulary rich in “dudes” and “bros,” a consummate dude’s bro who’d come off as sweet if he didn’t do things like, say, rape a girl in a closet alongside Nikki Sixx early in his career, physically attack wife Pamela Anderson, or degrade groupies in ways that are immoral, if not outright illegal. In The Dirt, even the great big puppy of a drummer is a loathsome degenerate.
Where Lee seems too dumb to get into much trouble, Sixx has enough guile to do real damage. Lee and Sixx were known as “The Terror Twins”; they were like the Aerosmith’s Toxic Twins with less talent. Steven Tyler even tried to save Sixx and Crüe from themselves, but they weren’t about to listen to listen to anyone, even a legend like that weird plastic-surgery-victim guy from American Idol.
Then there’s Vince Neil. Near the height of its popularity, Mötley Crüe kicked Neil out of the band for being too much of a drunk, asshole jerk-off. Considering Mötley Crüe is more famous for being drunks, assholes, and jerk-offs than it is for its music, that’s really saying something. Before he ballooned to normal size, Neil was the band’s premier eye candy, a pretty boy who fancied himself the Hugh Hefner of the Sunset Strip and had the sexual history to back him up.
Mötley Crüe became rich and famous for the same reason everyone got rich and famous in the sleazy Sunset Strip glam-metal rock scene of the early 1980s: They looked fantastic in tight leather trousers and way too much makeup. Oh sure, they also had some catchy tunes and a charismatic frontman in Neil, but really, it was all about looks, attitude, and the irrepressibly obnoxious energy of youth.
The Dirt takes the form of a first-person oral history stitched together with mannered introductions for each chapter written in a self-consciously ironic, twee, old-fashioned manner by Strauss. A more-subdued-than-usual introduction reads, “More On A Misfortunate Party And A Skid Heard Around The World, Most Loudly In Our Driver’s Heart.” Here’s the thing: That’s the introduction to a fairly harrowing chapter about Neil killing Razzle, the beloved drummer of Hanoi Rocks, in a car crash. Strauss’ nauseatingly adorable, “Aren’t I being clever?” introductions posit the book’s subjects as scampish ne’er do wells, though their misdeeds are aren’t misdemeanors, they’re unforgivable felonies. Lee and Sixx cop to raping a girl in a closet. Neil killed a fellow musician and barely got a slap on the wrist (it was more like a tickle on the open palm), and the band just about dared the world not to lock it up en masse or have it murdered, then tossed into an open grave.
Yes, shit got real, yet for the first half of the book, Strauss acts as if he’s chronicling the misadventures of a wayward softball team, not a group that did a lot of horrible criminal things that hurt a lot of people, and killed at least one. Sure, the decadence and bad behavior is compelling and egregious, but I’ve read so many of these trashy tell-alls that I’m the literary equivalent of someone who has to shoot heroin into their eyeballs just to experience the mild amusement they once received from a mere wine spritzer. I’m super-fucking-jaded, so I need more from a tell-all than, to coin a phrase, the dirt. Thankfully, The Dirt is a long book that turns a corner during an agonizing chapter chronicling Vince Neil’s daughter’s battle with cancer. The chapter is so grim, it’s almost unreadable; I wanted to skip ahead, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Reading about Neil contemplating the unimaginable—losing the only pure, good, uncomplicated thing in his life, for reasons he can’t begin to fathom—can’t help but humanize a man who previously came across as a facile douchebag.
Just when it appears that The Dirt is going to burn itself out detailing the band’s debauchery in agonizingly graphic detail, it veers into unexpectedly fascinating new territory. Neil’s ejection from the band leads to a tragicomic segment chronicling the sad quasi-reign of John “Crab” Corabi, a guitarist and singer who took over for Neil and led Crüe (or perhaps followed it) into a raw, alternative-leading scuzzy direction the band apparently loved and the label despised. While Mötley Crüe was falling apart, the world around the band experienced a seismic rumble known as Nevermind. Suddenly, big-haired sexy dudes in leather pants and way too much makeup were out. And a band of big-haired sexy dudes in leather pants and way too much makeup trying to pawn off some unknown as their lead singer didn’t stand a chance. Hair metal was dead. Grunge was in. And the first album on the $25 million contract Mötley Crüe signed with Elektra featured something called John Corabi on lead vocals. Oh, and it was 1994, the year of In Utero and Live Through This, so the last thing rock fans were salivating for was a lesser incarnation of a group that would have a motherfucker of a time moving units in that environment under the best circumstances.
Corabi may have been a more gifted songwriter and musician than Neil, but there could be only one frontman for Mötley Crüe, and it sure wasn’t a raspy-voiced journeyman metal guitarist. Corabi’s stint as frontman was short-lived; by 1997’s Generation Swine, Neil was back in the fold, though Corabi wasn’t too proud to contribute songwriting, guitar, and backing vocals to the album featuring Neil back in his glittery throne at the head of the Mötley Crüe empire.
Then Pamela Anderson enters the picture and The Dirt becomes a sort of hair-metal version of Sid & Nancy before Lee gets hauled off to prison and the book undergoes another fascinating detour, as a man used to having the world prostrate itself before him learns to be insanely grateful for being allowed to escape the grim hell of his prison cell for a few sanity-granting moments out in the sun. A book devoted to mindlessly celebrating the misdeeds of miscreants builds slowly but surely into a compelling group portrait of overgrown boys struggling to become men in a business that rewarded them beyond reason for perpetually acting like sugar-crazed children.
To put an exclamation point on the fellas’ unlikely and half-assed maturation, The Dirt ends with a semi-tamed Lee and Sixx having an unlikely reunion at the school their sons attend. It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment. Once upon a time, these two men made little girls scream. They still do make little girls scream—the band is currently on a big money-grubbing reunion tour alongside fellow survivors Poison and New York Dolls—but in that moment, they’re just two heavily tattooed dads dropping their kids off at school, half-terrified, half-exhilarated by the prospect that someday their sons will read The Dirt and realize what magnificent bastards their daddies were back in their renegade prime.