It was Los Angeles, 1981, and the residents of a dilapidated dump just off the Sunset Strip had found a radical way to deal with their roach problem: Take a can of hairspray, pair it with a lighter, and flame the suckers until they stuck to the already scorch-marked walls.
Considering the nauseating state of this particular dwelling — a rotting hell-on-earth littered with empty bottles, soiled clothing, and unsavory amalgamations of bodily fluids — it may seem strange that something as tame as a bug problem would prompt such an extreme reaction. But for the then-struggling metal act Motley Crue, it’s just the sort of senseless, annihilative behavior that propels The Dirt, Neil Strauss’ jolting oral history of the band’s 21-year career.
Written with the full cooperation of the band and several of its hangers-on, The Dirt is aptly titled — its forays into the quartet’s private lives leave little to the imagination, and for rock-lore junkies, it’s a fitting successor to both Stephen Davis’ 1985 tome Hammer of the Gods, the Led Zeppelin bio that recounted backstage life in lurid detail, and Strauss’ 1998 collaboration with Marilyn Manson, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.
And while The Dirt is an especially sleazy read (there are more references to throwaway sex than there are to music, including one particularly shocking hotel-room moment involving two groupies and a phone), Strauss’ account is also a sympathetic portrayal of four damaged individuals whose nonstop misogyny and chemical carousing is matched only by a near-karmic amount of personal grief and loss.
That such a conflicting portrait emerges is due both to the band’s candor and to Strauss’ decision to eschew the typical three-act, Behind the Music-style structure of most celebrity tell-alls. It must have been tempting to simply stick with the sexcapades and drunken binges, especially with the Crue. As a gang of flamboyant, taste-deprived rock stars in a period that seemed to nurture both excess and musical retardation, they cultivated a reprehensible reputation regarding women, one that The Dirt gleefully confirms: Sexual conquests are tossed off with such casual abandon that it’s almost numbing, and virtually every partner, whether it be a groupie or a wife, is reduced to the same loveless, four-letter description (it’s the only word that appears as many times as ”dude”).
But by allowing the group’s individual stories to unfold slowly, Strauss humanizes the cartoonish, headline-grabbing quartet, making for some rare introspective moments: Cocky frontman Vince Neil anguishes over the slow death of his young daughter from cancer, while hyperactive drummer Tommy Lee (whose famed relationship with Pamela Anderson takes up too sizable a chunk of the book’s final pages) touchingly recounts his dying father’s influence.
The most revealing passages in The Dirt, however, focus on the group’s lesser-known members, bassist Nikki Sixx and guitarist Mick Mars. Sixx, a product of familial and social neglect and a poster boy for youth gone wild, moved from broken home to broken home, and was constantly hassled by bullies until he toughened up and went on a binge of delinquent behavior and substance abuse. He’s the most articulate and insightful of the four, and his troubled past functions as a visible catalyst for his self-destructive tendencies.
Mars, the quiet loner with the weird mustache and sunken eyes, is The Dirt’s biggest surprise. The oldest (he’s age 45) and most thoughtful of the quartet, he at first appears to be on a quest to one-up his younger bandmates with anger and detachment (not to mention with his drinking problem); it’s not until halfway through that he reveals how a decades-long struggle with a degenerative bone disease shaped his life. The condition greatly limits his ability to move on stage; in a brief but touching aside, he describes his frustration at not being able to share in the audience’s enthusiasm, to shout at the devil with them.
Despite such empathy-inspiring moments, Strauss never tries to make the case that the Crue are simply nice guys done wrong by society — not that the band would want us to believe that anyway. Instead, The Dirt explores and questions rock’s decadent trappings, finding surprising notes of regret and anguish amid the pyrotechnic razzle-dazzle.