Nostalgia for a Less Innocent Time

On the glory and depravity of hair metal.

Still from The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is a documentary that often feels like a mockumentary—in part because of the inherent absurdity of the LA metal scene in the late eighties, in part because of Penelope Spheeris’s directorial choices. Spheeris, of Wayne’s World fame, let her subjects decide how they wanted to be filmed. Gene Simmons of Kiss did his interview in a lingerie store—“I don’t want to do anything tacky,” he’d told her. Simmons’s bandmate Paul Stanley suggested, “How about in bed with a bunch of women?” His segments were filmed from above, with lingerie models absentmindedly stroking his spandex pants. Chris Holmes, the lead guitarist from W.A.S.P., suggested, “How about drowning in a pool with my mother watching?”

In what is probably the film’s best-known scene, Holmes floats in a pool chair, wearing black leather pants, and tells Spheeris he’s a “full-blown alcoholic.” To prove it, he pours vodka from a liter of Smirnoff down his throat and all over his face for almost ten seconds. His mother, Sandy Holmes, who has strong June Cleaver vibes, is indeed there watching from the side of the pool, looking disappointed but resigned. He says, “I’m a happy camper.” Spheeris asks him if he wishes he was a bigger star. “I wish I was a smaller star,” he answers. “I don’t dig being the person I am.” Later, after we’ve seen several musicians say that metal is better than sex, Spheeris cuts back to Holmes in the pool making a jerking off motion and saying, “It’s like this, I love it, it’s great,” with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We hear Spheeris off camera: “It’s like beating off?” “It’s worse than that,” he says. (I can’t explain why, but I love him.) Simmons, back in the lingerie store, says that anyone who claims “it’s lonely at the top” is “full of it”: “It’s the best.” Back to Holmes in the pool: “I would rather be broke and happy than rich and sad.” If only we were given that choice.

Most everyone in the film ends up looking ridiculous. Some random scenester tells Spheeris, “I don’t work, I can’t stand work.” She asks, “What was the last job you had?” “Uh,” he says, “I’ve never had a job.” Paul Stanley remarks thoughtfully, “Once you have money, you realize that it’s really not important.” In one of my favorite moments, Spheeris goes to the Cathouse, Riki Rachtman’s “big fun sleazy” club a couple miles south of the Strip (Rachtman later went on to host MTV’s Headbangers Ball), and asks some people why they go there. The response is just metal word salad: “Fucking rock!” “Heavy metal!” “Party!” “Drink!” “Guns N’ Roses!” “LA!” In another notorious scene, Spheeris films Ozzy Osbourne making breakfast in a leopard-print robe; there’s a close-up shot of him attempting to pour orange juice into a glass and spilling it all over the counter. Spheeris later admitted in an interview that part was a stunt: “I faked the orange juice spill.” But most of the stupid excess was real—or maybe in the metal years it was hard to distinguish between stunt and reality.

In their tell-all collective memoir The Dirt, the members of Mötley Crüe show the extent of the era’s depravity in great detail. Bassist Nikki Sixx describes a day on tour when Ozzy Osbourne announced he “fancied a bump,” but they’d run out of coke. (Picture broad daylight: “We rolled out of the bus under the heat of the noonday sun and went straight to the bar.”) “Unfazed,” he crouched down on the sidewalk and snorted a line of live ants. Trying to keep up (“we wanted to maintain our reputation as rock’s most cretinous band”), Sixx “whipped out [his] dick in full view of everyone” and pissed on the floor. Ozzy crawled over and licked at the puddle. At that point Sixx had to admit defeat: “From that moment on, we always knew that wherever we were, whatever we were doing, there was someone who was sicker and more disgusting than we were.”

And they are profoundly disgusting. When I picked up the book, I looked at the table of contents, figuring I could just skip to the depravity chapter. But every chapter is the depravity chapter, with titles like “Born Too Loose,” “Save Our Souls,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Some of Our Best Friends Are Drug Dealers,” and “Some of Our Best Friends Were Drug Dealers.” The first paragraph has the word “cum” in it. (It also opens with an epigraph by Wilkie Collins. Their ghostwriter outdid himself.) In the early days, the apartment they shared, which was near the Whisky A Go-Go and functioned as a de facto nightly afterparty, had alcohol and bloodstains all over the carpets; the walls were scorched black because the band “couldn’t afford pesticides” so they torched the roaches with hairspray and a lighter. They also “couldn’t afford” toilet paper, so the bathroom was littered with “shit-stained socks.” As much as they brag about their substance abuse and sexual exploits, metal dudes also love to brag about how broke they were before they hit it big. In “Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of ’80s metal,” published in Salon, Jani Lane of Warrant claims “We went down to the store every day and got a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and put the peanut butter on the bread using a Social Security card.” Because, I guess, they couldn’t afford a plastic knife? I hope the card was laminated.

W.A.S.P. was known for throwing raw meat at the audience. There is no why. Wrongness was the point, an amorality unto nonsense. In The Dirt, Sixx describes some “ideas” he had for Mötley Crüe’s second album, Shout at the Devil: “I had grand ideas of creating a tour that looked like a cross between a Nazi rally and a black church service.” They actually did a photo shoot in Nazi regalia, but their record company drew the line there. It’s not that the band held any fascist beliefs per se; they held no beliefs, apart from embracing provocation and “evil” in all forms. Front man Vince Neil once said, “Nobody’s really into the devil. It’s showmanship.” But Sixx seemed to get confused by his own antics, flirting with genuine satanism for a while, as if it were the only logical endpoint of the atmosphere of escalating chaos. When he crashed his Porsche into a telephone pole, he interpreted the accident as a sign that maybe he’d been dabbling a bit too much in devil worship. He got into heroin instead. Sixx was once legally dead from an overdose for about two minutes, but woke up, left the hospital, and shot up again. I think of the “Behind the Laughter” episode of The Simpsons, a parody of VH1’s Behind the Music, where Homer says, “Fame was like a drug, but what was even more like a drug was the drugs.”

The members of Mötley Crüe were generally encouraged in these directions. “The more fucked up we got, the greater people thought we were,” Sixx writes. “Radio stations brought us groupies; management gave us drugs.” I won’t go so far as to say they were blameless for their “cretinous” behavior—but in a way everyone around them was also to blame. Reading The Dirt made me feel guilty—not in the sense of a guilty pleasure, but with actual guilt. (I was alive in the eighties, I watched MTV—I share in the blame.) I got a little nauseous. After reading it for most of the day, I went to a housewarming party, took one sip of white wine and felt already addled, as if I couldn’t remember how many drinks I’d had.

Things get weird for the guys when they finally suffer some consequences worse than a hangover. On the fourth night of a debauched celebration to kick off their third album, Theatre of Pain (amazingly, it’s an Artaud reference), Vince Neil and Razzle from the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks run out for more liquor and Neil wrecks the car. “We were both fucked up and shouldn’t have driven,” Neil writes, “especially since the store was only a couple blocks away and we could have easily walked.” Razzle died in the accident. Neil was charged with involuntary manslaughter and eventually sentenced to thirty days in jail and five years of probation. It created a divide between him and the rest of the band, a cloud of resentment and cognitive dissonance. Sixx writes, “When I thought about Vince, it wasn’t with pity; it was with anger, as if he was the bad guy and the rest of the band members were innocent victims of his wrongdoing. But we all did drugs and drove drunk. It could have happened to any of us.”

Through the fog of vice and perversion, there are occasional hints of remorse and something close to moral clarity—like the part where Sixx remembers a woman he knew grabbing his hand and pulling him, “slurring and stumbling,” into a closet at a party. “We fucked for a while,” he writes, then he sent Tommy Lee in. The next day she called him, “her voice trembling,” and told him, “I got raped last night.” “My heart dropped into my stomach, and my body went cold,” Sixx writes. But the woman wasn’t talking about him or Lee: “I was hitchhiking home from the Hyatt House, and this guy picked me up and raped me in his car.” At first, Sixx was relieved, “because it meant I hadn’t raped her”—as if rape is only rape if you’re accused of it. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I pretty much had,” he writes. He almost gets it—there is almost a reckoning—but he moves quickly on: “I was in a zone, and in that zone, consequences did not exist. Besides, I was capable of sinking even lower than that.”

It seems fatuous to linger long on the politics of the scene. It’s not as though what was happening is troubling merely in hindsight, by today’s higher standards. It’s disturbing by any standards; it was disturbing at the time. It was a low point for innocence in pop culture, or a high point for nihilism. The counterculture of the sixties may have given us the principles of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but at least they believed in peace and love and freeing the mind to reach a higher consciousness. Metal in the eighties was about pure filthy hedonism for its own sake. As Nikki Sixx sums it up in a VH1 special called “The Fabulous Life of Mötley Crüe,” “we fucked the chicks, we shot the drugs, we wrecked the cars.” (The show, narrated by Robin Leach, is mostly a celebration of how Mötley Crüe spent all their money—Sixx built a custom pool in the shape of a vagina, while Neil had thirty-two cars and a mud-wrestling pit.) Misogyny was endemic in the music industry, but metal in particular wore its misogyny with pride. They performed it. It was used to disguise the paranoia they must have felt about their androgynous costumes, as if the only way they could get away with wearing that much eye makeup was by coupling it with incandescent sexism and homophobia. They take pleasure in violence to demonstrate their high testosterone. In that same VH1 show, Vince Neil announces, “Just cuz we wear lipstick don’t mean we can’t kick your ass.”

Still, there were women in the scene who wielded their own kinds of power. Legendary groupie Patti Johnsen said meeting the bands was “a huge high.” Some just wanted the same right to rock and get obliterated as the men. According to Iris Berry, formerly of bands including The Lame Flames, Ringling Sisters, Pink Sabbath, Leather Mumu, The Bittersweets, The Flesheaters, and Honk If Yer Horny, “If you remember the Rainbow [Room] clearly, you weren’t really there.” (I love the names of metal—the lead singer of London called himself Nadir d’Priest.) Two unnamed girls in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II claim that sex is their favorite pastime: “Every day. At least three or four times.” Vicky Hamilton, who worked as a manager and promoter for bands including Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and Poison, was a “freakin genius” according to GNR’s original drummer Steven Adler. Rachtman once bragged, “Lita Ford puked in my club!” like it was a true honor. In another (great) VH1 show called “When Metal Ruled the World,” Tawny Kitaen—the redhead who dances on the hoods of two Jaguars in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video—says of the time, with starry-eyed reverence, “It was magic.” Maybe some of these women were brainwashed, I don’t really know. I do remember, as a kid, watching the “chicks” in those videos with a sense of real awe, as though the male gaze transmitted superpowers. I couldn’t wait to be a teenager, to be cinematically seventeen. Alas, even at seventeen, I never looked the way seventeen looks on TV.

People think of nostalgia as a yearning for “a more innocent time.” But I’m nostalgic for a less innocent time, or maybe for the way it felt to watch these scenes of decadence from the perspective of childhood innocence. I was a good kid, too, a teacher’s pet type. I obediently ate all my vegetables, while my older brother snuck into the bathroom and spit them out into the shower stall. But I fucking loved hair metal. (The first comment, with thousands of likes, under a YouTube countdown of the top ten best hair bands is “Motley FUCKING Crue baby!!!” This is the simplicity of sentiment I crave.) My first tapes were Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Poison. My favorite Poison song was “Fallen Angel”—a play on the cliché of the Hollywood hopeful just off a bus from the Midwest. The guys from Poison were the actual bus-hopping wannabes; they formed in Pennsylvania and then moved to Los Angeles in 1983. But the song is about a girl who leaves home with dreams of becoming an actress or model, then gets chewed up by the machinery of the scene: welcome to the jungle, sweetie.

In my endless quest for more hair metal documentaries, I found a compilation of clips titled “Vintage Glam/Hair Metal Interviews Collection (3),” which includes a snippet of an interview with a band I’d never heard of named Bang Tango. (I couldn’t locate parts 1 and 2.) Here’s the lead singer, Joe Lesté, waxing on about their first album, Psycho Café: “This is only Psycho Café … we’ve got umpteen albums to go … we’re going to continue to make albums and albums and albums … like each album is a kid, like we just had a kid. This is Psycho Café, this is our kid.” He’s completely earnest. They must have felt they were on the verge of true rock-stardom—what Mötley Crüe, in a section of The Dirt called “An Introduction to Cog Theory,” terms “the big cog.” Cog theory “is an attempt to pull back the curtain of the popular music business and examine the mechanics of success.” Artists start on a conveyor belt, and if they release an album and “experience a degree of success,” they get “caught in the machinery” of the first cog. Some musicians move up to the second cog, where “they realize that the machinery is stronger” than they are and “there is no way off.” Most bands roll around and around on the second cog and eventually get dropped back at the bottom. But a few, like Mötley, make it to the big cog:

The big cog is a huge grinding gear, and there’s nothing artists can do about it if it picks them up. They can stand up and scream, “I hate everyone in the world and you all suck, and if you buy a single record of mine I’ll kill you.” And all that will happen is more people will run out and buy their records. Trying to get off the cog is futile: It only makes the process hurt more.

Bang Tango certainly never made it to the big cog. I posted that quote about Psycho Café on Twitter, and a friend responded with a link to their video “Someone Like You,” saying, “This is certainly vintage 80s hair band, but I have heard of exactly zero of their songs.” I’d never heard the song, either. A 2015 documentary about the band called Attack of Life tries to make the case that Bang Tango never made it really big because they were too unique. (The director, Drew Fortier, later joined the band; I don’t think it’s objective.) To me “Someone Like You” looks and sounds like an amalgam of the rest of the genre. It’s not good, exactly, but I can see that they might easily have been as famous as Cinderella or whatever, or as any of what Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider once referred to as “the W bands” (Whitesnake, White Lion, Winger, Warrant). So much of history is interchangeable.

Gene Simmons might think fame is the best, but I’m much more interested in the banality of fame, its emptiness. In my favorite hair metal videos, fame is exhausting, lonely, and boring. (Vince Neil said that he understood why rock stars have such big egos when he first played for a giant stadium crowd: “From the stage, the world is just one faceless, shirtless, obedient mass, as far as the eye can see.”) The banality of fame is best captured by the tour montage, an especially popular choice to showcase a power ballad. Take Bon Jovi’s perfect video for “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which has it all, in slow motion—the grainy black-and-white footage of hands holding up lighters and flashing the sign of the horns; the women in the audience screaming and sobbing and lip-synching, one clutching a single drumstick; the band dragging themselves on and off different modes of transportation, gazing contemplatively out the windows of planes and buses; Jon finally collapsing after the show, dripping with sweat, on a sofa backstage. It’s exhaustion pornography—exhaustion as a trophy of excess. Mötley Crüe’s video for “Home Sweet Home” is similar, with its time-lapse footage of stage sets being assembled and concertgoers milling around outside stadiums like something from Koyaanisqatsi. Inside, women are diving onto the stage and being dragged off by security. But they all still look like they’re having a great time—“Home Sweet Home” is from the band’s third album, before Girls, Girls, Girls and then Dr. Feelgood; they hadn’t yet made it to the big cog.

Guns N’ Roses wasn’t really a hair metal band, but they were inextricable from the Sunset Strip scene. The “Welcome to the Jungle” video starts with Axl Rose as the pretty, naïve ingenue stepping off the bus with his life packed in a suitcase. He’s even chewing on a stalk of grass. This was the closest to the hair/glam look they really got—Axl’s hair is teased and sprayed and he’s wearing visible eyeliner. The rest of the band just looks how they look. (The only thing that ever changes about Slash’s look is whether he’s holding a guitar or a bottle of Jack.) Appetite for Destruction put GNR at the big-cog level, so when they released “Patience” as a single from their follow-up G N’ R Lies, they were easily in a position to do an exhaustion porn video.

In my opinion, and also in the realm of undisputed fact, “Patience” is the greatest rock video of all time. I watch it at least once a week before bed. It’s not a montage of live footage, more a short film that approximates a typical day in the life of a touring band. It was shot in LA’s Ambassador Hotel, best known as the site of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Shots of the band playing the song are intercut with scenes of them hanging around the hotel: Duff McKagan is tall and sexy in a white blazer with no lapels, carrying a tray of room service. Slash reclines in bed, handling a large snake (literally) while a series of beautiful women in lingerie try to seduce him, dissolving into one another. They can’t hold his attention; fame is boring. Steven Adler looks sheepish on a couch in the lobby, scratching his head with his drumsticks, while two women sitting next to him laugh and gossip and ignore him. Adler’s there although the song is acoustic, with no drum part (Dee Snider, on “unplugged” metal: “What’s metal about that?!”), and it was his last video with the band, before they kicked him out for being too wasted to keep time. A writer I know, a fellow fan, once told me her favorite part of the video is when Adler stays occupied by playing with candles. My favorite part is when Axl watches the “Welcome to the Jungle” video in his hotel room, a visual echo of the parts in the “Welcome to the Jungle” video where Axl watches TV—in someone’s apartment, through a store window on the street, strapped to a chair in a straitjacket. Screens within screens. In “Welcome to the Jungle,” Axl can’t look away (he’s on some of the screens). In “Patience,” he’s slumped over with his chin in his hand: the banality of fame. He’s sick of himself.

By the early nineties, people were tired of the nonstop party, the too-much-ness of hair metal. When Nikki Sixx got “the orgy of success, girls, and drugs” he had always wanted, he was “confronted with a new problem”: “What do you do after the orgy?” Everyone in Mötley Crüe eventually went to rehab. Hair metal was starting to look formulaic, plasticky. “It got so processed and so refined that it became pablum,” Snider said. Grunge, with its apparent authenticity, its gestures toward a value system other than hedonism, was moving in to deliver the death blow. At the end of “When Metal Ruled the World,” George Lynch from Dokken says he realized, “I gotta go buy a flannel shirt.”

For me, “Patience” represents peak metal, the sliver of time when scene fatigue was setting in but it hadn’t yet all gone to shit. Rock stars were still capable of magic. The video seems to know how ephemeral it is. The people in it keep fading to nothing—the staff, the groupies, the hotel guests. They go transparent and then disappear, like hallucinations, like ghosts.


Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean).