Let’s get one thing clear from the outset: The Dirt – Neil Strauss’s brash, bawdy, often breathtaking oral history of the glam metal band Mötley Crüe – isn’t a book for those faint of heart or delicate of disposition. Obviously. It’s an oral history of the glam metal band Mötley Crüe. True, the subtitle promises “Confessions of the world's most notorious rock band” but while the precise musical genre is up for debate, the confessions and the notoriety are not. The Dirt dishes the dirt – by the spade-load. Take it into a church and it probably self-combusts.
For those at the back: in their 1980s’ heyday Mötley Crüe were one of the world’s biggest bands – glam, metal, rock, whatever. Sporting black leather and hair visible from space, Crüe released five platinum and multi-platinum albums culminating in 1989’s Dr Feelgood, their critical and commercial zenith. The rise of grunge and the band’s nigh-on limitless appetite for self-destruction triggered a fall every bit as spectacular as their rise. The Dirt tells the story of both, primarily through the voices of the four band members, although the occasional manager / publicist / temporary band member will briefly chime in.
Our protagonists are Vince Neil, the flamboyant lead singer; Nikki Six, bassist and de facto Crüe leader; guitarist Mick Mars, a rather tragic figure whose body is ravaged by early on-set arthritis; and puppyish drummer Tommy Lee. Each chapter is narrated by a different band member – although they sometimes offer conflicting recollections of the same event – and the contrasting voices is one of the book’s great strengths. Yes, it’s a story of excess on a barely conceivable scale, but it’s primarily a story of people – their flaws, their triumphs, their mistakes, and their demons.
But yeah, the excess. It may be possible to read The Dirt and maintain belief in a benevolent God, but your faith will be sorely tested. Alcohol and drugs are consumed in such industrial portions you start to recalibrate your understanding of what the human body can endure. Groupies wait backstage with wine bottles in places no wine bottle should be. Earlobes are nailed to tables. Ozzy Osbourne licks up his own urine. (“We thought we had elevated animal behaviour to an art form. But then we met Ozzy.”) Hotel rooms are trashed almost as a sense of obligation. On a visit to Japan – on second thoughts, let's not mention Japan.
One memorable chapter recreates a day in Tommy Lee’s life on tour – “5pm-6.30pm: Phone rings. Wake up. Remember nothing.” – and you can decide the exact hour that you would have died were you living this day in Lee’s place. Mine’s around 2am when the zombie dust comes out: a mixture of Halcion and cocaine, which keeps the body awake but shuts the brain off. Yeah, that’ll do me.
View on Instagram
Crüe’s one-time manager Doc McGhee summarises the band as “savages with cash who care nothing about nobody, even each other.” And perhaps at the height of their debauchery this statement was true, but The Dirt was published in 2001 and its protagonists have the voices of older men, not devoid of remorse and self-reflection. There is plenty to reflect on. The first half depicts four young miscreants swapping their souls for success; we then see what happens when the Devil comes to collect.
Vince is involved in a fatal car accident in which his passenger is killed and the occupants of the other vehicle are left with brain damage. Nikki becomes addicted to heroin, overdoses, awakes, breaks out of hospital and stumbles home to shoot up more heroin. Mick Mars is driven to vodka and painkillers owing to his increasingly agonising bone condition. Even the irrepressible Tommy is jailed for assaulting his then-wife Pamela Anderson.
The Dirt moves into outright tragedy with a lengthy chapter on the death of Vince’s infant daughter Skylar. It’s an achingly painful meditation on love and grief and powerlessness, and it’s genuinely hard to believe a hundred pages earlier Vince was starting fights with Yakuzas and being robbed by their girlfriends. But then The Dirt is a book that sneaks up on you. Come for the debauchery, linger over the stark portrayal of addiction.
Strauss examines plenty beyond the pills and parties. The loneliness of celebrity. The ennui of success. The strange alchemy that unites four very different personalities into a successful band, and what happens when that alchemy is gone, and why can’t it ever quite be recaptured.
The book ends on a note of surprising grace: Nikki and Tommy, now fathers, see each other at the school gates after dropping off their sons. We grow up and we grow old and neither of those is a given. But, man – you should’ve seen us when we rocked!
Purchase The Dirt here