The rock autobiography is nothing new with many musicians of a certain age realising it’s a great cash cow to keep them in people’s minds between usually increasingly infrequent albums – Mötley Crüe’s 2001 take on the idea, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band (written along with Neil Strauss), though came as something of a shock to the system at the time and now, nearly two decades later, remains just that.
Having been made into a film released through Netflix earlier in 2019 I took the opportunity to go back to the source and wondered if it would seem tame and passé in a world where ‘celebrities’ lives are publicised in such instant detail by the press, but I wasn’t disappointed.
The conceit of the book is, in many ways, what makes it stand out. Each of the four main band members tell their own story, in their own voice — and a varied bunch they are.
Unsurprisingly Nikki Sixx probably takes up the lion’s share of the pages elaborating in depth on his childhood, how this came to him getting into music and forming Mötley Crüe and then going in depth on his personal issues from family trauma to a spectacular level of drug addiction, all with a slightly over analysing edge.
Tommy Lee isn’t far behind but with a far less thoughtful approach as his manic energy is barely contained by the page at its better moments, while his tale comes with a feel of genuine broken innocence that is almost poetic, and of course those ‘celebrity marriages’.
Vince Neil is generally a pretty unbearable presence but also has some of the most genuinely tragic moments, though his version of personal growth is at best debatable as he regales us of his Playboy bunny marriage as if its one of his most mature moments.
And Mick Mars is, as he is on stage, the least forthcoming but also the most mysterious and genuinely bizarre, though his tale is wracked with desperation and melancholy throughout that is as tragic as any off the others (in between the random conspiracy theorising).
As well as the central four there are passages from other key players, often to put their side of events across, including one time vocalist John Corabi and various managers and back stage players in the Mötley machine.
What this does is paint a picture of approximately two decades of decadence from the early 80s to the early 2000s in astonishing detail with plenty of ‘that can’t be real’ moments that turn out to be more real than even the books makes them feel.
The real triumph of the book is that, even more so than the film version, it doesn’t try and sugarcoat anything.
In fact with the use of up to four angles on most major events the opposite is true so even if one member of the band or entourage might try and put a good spin on something it’s usually counteracted pretty swiftly with the truth often seeming to fall between the two stalls.
It isn’t all sensationalist rock ‘n’ roll self inflicted idiocy though and does get genuinely tragic at times.
It’s clear the death of Hanois Rocks’ drummer Razzle (in Vince Neil’s car) early on has a lasting and profound effect on the whole band — one that even by 2001 seems not entirely resolved — while the sections about Neil’s daughter Skylar and Mick Mars ongoing illness in particular are at points truly harrowing.
The other thing that sets this apart from many other books is that none of those involved try to hide their flaws and a lot of the time don’t come across well, at points more than living up to their reputation as misogynistic overgrown teenagers.
Through it though reasons for their issues are presented and, with the exception of Neil, are fairly convincing giving them at least a vaguely more compassionate side.
The final masterstroke of The Dirt (this early edition of it at least) comes on its climax as, unlike the film, it doesn’t tie everything up in a neat package of the band reunited and playing sold out arenas once more.
In fact things are left on a very uncertain note, albeit one with a positive edge, that far more fits Mötley Crüe than anything else could and makes the whole thing a fascinating and wild rollercoaster of a read that is essential for any fans of rock ‘n’ roll or anyone else with an interest in this strange outsider subculture that few survive as well as these four men, against all the odds, managed.