first round game
(1) Mötley Crüe, "dr. feelgood"
(1) Mötley Crüe, "home sweet home"
and plays on
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/9.
Death, Resurrection, and Rock & Roll: jennifer rice epstein on Mötley Crüe's "dr. feelgood"
Imagine, if you would, that it’s 1816: Alessandro Volta has invented his battery and Benjamin Franklin has flown his famous kite, but neither Thomas Edison nor Nikola Tesla is yet born. Mary Godwin is hanging out with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in Villa Diodati, a house in Switzerland once occupied by John Milton. It is a literal dark and stormy night, and Lord Byron suggests that everyone writes ghost stories. Byron starts a vampire horror story but never finishes it; Percy Shelley abandons the project almost immediately; and Mary Godwin, who would become Percy’s wife later that year, writes Frankenstein.
The good doctor for whom the book is named has animated a body composed of dead parts using a science based loosely on theories of electricity—a result that births not man but monster. It’s a book very much of its time, perfectly encapsulating the anxieties of the early 19th century, when technology and scientific discovery were rapidly evolving (in addition to being a book very much about the horror and anxiety of parenthood). And it peeks at advances that are indeed, to come: future generations with faulty hearts and kidneys and eyes will have these organs replaced by cadavers. They’ll walk among us—miracles, not monsters.
Others still will die, however briefly, and be resurrected. This is what will happen to Nikki Sixx, the bassist and lead lyricist for Mötley Crüe, in 1987. Sixx had been introduced to heroin in 1983, and by ‘87, he was in the throes of deep addiction.
His hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes.
That’s a quote from Frankenstein, but it sets the scene beautifully. Sixx himself was beautiful—the whole band was. Informed by punk rock and glam, enamored of New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols and Kiss, the boys of Crüe, who ranged in age from 24 to 32 (or 36—sources differ on what year Mick Mars, the oldest band member, was born), exhibited the kind of bravado, beauty, and charming immaturity particular to rock stars.
If the Jigsaw Jimmy of “Dr. Feelgood” owned L.A.’s drug scene, the members of Mötley Crüe owned the Sunset Strip. Their previous album, Girls, Girls, Girls, had reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. They were beloved and reviled by all the right people. If they wanted to make a high-concept video where they played their instruments in an inexplicably aflame junk yard that is also somehow a tent, nobody was going to stop them.
Sixx had a mansion in Van Nuys, about 15 miles north of Sunset. It was a party pad (years later, when it went on the market, the Realtor called it “an entertainer’s dream”), but he spent his nights there shooting cocaine and heroin—the combination of which induced paranoia. He’d become convinced that someone was spying on him, so he’d trigger the panic button on his home alarm. When the company responded, he would threaten to shoot them, sure that they were the intruders in disguise. These nights would end with him alone, cowering in his bedroom closet, lost even to the social aspects of the rockstar hedonism of which he writes. Dr. Feelgood was turning him into a monster.
But who was Dr. Feelgood? Perhaps it was the man Sixx, in his memoir The Heroin Diaries, calls Jason. Jason, a drug dealer whom Sixx calls an egomaniac, pursues him even as he tries to get clean, going so far as to leave his number in the mailbox after Sixx literally builds a fence to keep him out. But Jason also helps him wean himself off heroin—a plan that works, at least for a few weeks. So maybe Dr. Feelgood is Sacha, the limo driver/dealer who supplies Sixx in New York, then moves to L.A. to connect with him in the fall of 1987, just after he’s fallen off the wagon again. Somebody’s getting paid, and Nikki is one reliable customer. His habit is costing him thousands of dollars every week.
Absent from “Dr. Feelgood” is the addict—the song is, oddly, from the point of view of the dealer. I suppose it would have harmed Sixx’s image to write a song about being naked and afraid in your own walk-in closet, or waking up next to a groupie having wet the bed. This is metal: vulnerability replaced with bravado, fear with guitars. It’s what I love and hate about it.
While the unglamourous man sells sugar to the sweet on the streets of Los Angeles, other Dr. Feelgoods are popping up in high rises and hospital buildings across the country. A couple of years before Nikki Sixx got his first taste of heroin, Dr. Hershel Jick wrote, in a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, that “despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare…” His five-sentence letter opened the door to the ubiquitous prescription of opioid painkillers, and with it, widespread addiction.
These days, Sixx is 16 years clean and writes earnestly about the opioid epidemic, including a recent Op-Ed in the L.A. Times. According to the CDC, nearly 42,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016—and that doesn’t count the thousands who, like Nikki, were resurrected. Whereas Nikki’s dealers were the kinds of predators I thought only existed in DARE narratives, these Ivy-educated Dr. Feelgoods surely pushed opioids with the best of intentions. Like Victor Frankenstein, they were victims of their own hubris.
Dr. Hershel Jick is speaking up these days, too. The man who almost single-handedly set off the opioid crisis regrets the harm he has caused. He gave a measured apology in an NPR interview last year, saying he’d “take it back” if he could. I can’t help but imagine that in his most despairing hours, Jick feels the isolation and confusion of Frankenstein.
By the end of Frankenstein, Victor tears apart a second creature that would have been the monster’s companion—he has seen the consequences of playing god and wants no part of it. Eventually, he dies alone, bereft, literally drifting on an ice floe after having told his story.
We don’t learn the fate of Nikki’s dealers—not in his memoir. In the song, Jimmy is finally caught by the law but his interior life is as absent as it was in the first line. We don’t know if the real Jimmy regrets his role, if he’s living or dead, if he too was in the grip of addiction or merely a supplier.
But isn’t it something that he’s called Jigsaw Jimmy? I’ve wondered what to make of that nickname—maybe he had a massive scar across his face, or used his coked-up energy assembling mighty puzzles. But I keep landing on the idea of Jimmy as the sum of disparate parts, a hybrid of companionship or even well-meaning and danger. It brings to mind the common error where people call Frankenstein’s monster Frankenstein. Frankenstein is doctor, not the monster. Except, of course, he’s both.
Jennifer Rice Epstein is a fiction writer and journalist living in Long Beach, California. She has written for dozens of publications including Los Angeles, LA Weekly, The Millions, Flaunt, Vice Sports and The Morning News. Her heavy metal phase lasted from 5th grade until her freshman year of high school, when Nevermind was released and her head exploded. She is pictured sitting on a 1955 Pontiac station wagon that her father promised to fix up for her and never did. She was planning to have it painted pink and orange.
cybele knowles on Mötley Crüe's "home sweet home"
In the summer of 1985, when I was 14, my best friend Shauna gave me a mix tape. On one side was Love at First Sting, Scorpions’ just-released album of monster jams, and on the other side was a selection of songs from Mötley Crüe’s first two records, Too Fast for Love (1981) and Shout at the Devil (1983). Shauna had written out the song titles on the cassette’s cardstock insert in confident loops that expressed her joyful, bold personality.
The mix tape—unforgettable love token—was the first anyone ever made for me. It was also my first heavy metal, and I received this music as one receives a magic talisman from a helpful witch: with firm belief in its transformative powers. Heavy metal was grown-up music, and I was ready to grow up. To stop being the kid whose world was dominated by Little House books, Louisa May Alcott books, and Betsy-Tacy books: all children’s series that agonize and proselytize across their many volumes about what it means to be a good girl. But I had just seen my first teen movie, Footloose, and I wasn’t interested anymore in studying good-girlhood. Now I knew what our human existence offered to the bad and brave: CUTE BOYS and SEX and the freedom to choose your own values, which could include luxurious, visceral pleasures such as rock music, dancing, and cool clothes. But how to become the kind of person for whom life’s treasure chest spilled these riches?
My family had just acquired the latest audio entertainment toy, the first technology that made portable, private music-listening accessible to the general public: a Sony Walkman cassette player. We had only one for the four of us and were supposed to share it. I hogged it to listen to my mix tape in my darkened bedroom. Just as I had hoped, heavy metal was a growling, menacing, sexy siren song, but all metal was not same. I liked Scorpions well enough, but it was with Mötley Crüe that I fell in love. I couldn’t have told you what it was about the Crüe that captivated me. They just did.
After listening to my mix tape a bunch of times, I needed more Mötley Crüe. Armed with my allowance, I hit the mall. At the drugstore I found and purchased this issue of the heavy-metal fan mag Hit Parader:
And thus I fell prey to the spell of the Crüe’s famously powerful image. Here’s a photo from inside the issue:
These photos are Shout at the Devil-era, and although this was the Crüe at its most threatening, what drew me wasn’t just the leather and spikes—you could get that just as well from Judas Priest—but the unexpected contrast to this posed by the Crüe’s prettiness: their blush, lipstick, and eyeliner, and the pretty boys themselves. (OK, so Mick Mars wasn’t pretty, but he was scary-looking, and that was cool too.) Vince Neil was the ultimate surfer boy. Tommy Lee was tall, dark, and handsome. Nikki Sixx—he was harder to categorize. With jet-black haystack hair partially covering his feline face, he was mysterious, elusive. And so pretty.
I still think 1980s Nikki Sixx is one of the prettiest boys of time and space:
For each of their first three records, the Crüe crafted a distinct look, all incorporating some amount of genderbend. Check out the high heels from the back cover of their first record, Too Fast for Love:
And Vince in pink and white lingerie from the back cover of Theatre of Pain:
I was completely fascinated by this costume. I couldn’t understand why Vince was wearing girl’s clothing; neither could I look away. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the Crüe’s gender-bending self-presentation was a big reason why I loved them. As a matter of fact, when Girls, Girls, Girls was released in 1987, I lost interest in the Crüe partly because with this album they dropped their makeup and lace for good.
When I rediscovered the Crüe in my mid-forties, the first thing I wanted to understand about the band was what their early-era genderbend, which had meant to them. Sadly, I discovered that these experimentations were essentially content-less and opportunistic. I believe that the Crue played with genderbend in their self-presentation simply because it made them stand out and went over gangbusters with female fans such as myself. In no significant way did their look connect to an ideology that otherwise disrupted traditional masculinity. As Vince once said, “Just because we wear lipstick doesn’t mean we can’t kick your ass.” This quote is wildly popular with fans old and new who value the Crüe for the ways in which the band reinforces, even epitomizes, certain traditional and toxic masculinities.
But art lives and breathes in how it’s received as well as in how it’s intended. Early Crüe was my first encounter with a masculinity that also embraces and embodies femininity. I adored it, treasured it, desired it.
I still do.
Without intending to, the Crüe taught me something deeply important about myself.
Mötley Crüe’s music has always been inextricably entwined with their image. But let’s take look at the music, considered separately from the much-loved publicity photos, chart-smashing videos, and best-selling autobios.
Research reveals that the music we listen to as teens leaves literal love-bites on our brains. When we’re young, listening to music creates an electrical storm of neural activity that imprints on our grey matter. When we’re older the music we listen to still sparks a fire, but one that burns less bright because our brain is not as plastic anymore. It has finished the work of creating its pathways and passionate romances; it rests now. Because I fell in love with the Crüe when I was a teen, I can’t help but love the music. However, I believe there’s undeniable magic at work in Mötley Crüe’s early records: qualities that transcend circumstance and that earn them new young fans in every generation.
Probably the first thing you notice in the Crüe’s sound is Vince’s unique voice. High-pitched, lilting, and marked by idiosyncratic pronunciations, it’s slightly feminine, a little (or a lot) odd for the genre. Within his limited vocal range, he moves with utter confidence from purrs to growls to shrieks. Stolen by Nikki and Mick from another band for Mötley Crüe, Vince was inarguably a deeply charismatic front man.
If Vince’s voice is the heart of the Crüe, Mick’s guitar is its soul. Mick Mars is the poet laureate of hair-metal guitarists. His playing is never merely technical or show-off-y, but instead is emotional, eloquent, and erotic. “I’ve always been about melody and tone,” he has said. His first love was the blues, and he’s named Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Alvin Lee as some of his favorites. In interviews he sometimes expresses regret that he didn’t stick with the blues, but I’m glad that this soulful shredder stumbled his way into hair metal, the only place where he could have created the drop-dead sexy solos for “Home Sweet Home” and “Girls, Girls, Girls,” the killer licks in “Looks That Kill,” and more.
And then there are the songs, mostly composed by the Crüe’s mastermind, bassist Nikki Sixx. In his early days, some of Nikki’s most important influences were not KISS or Aerosmith, as you might expect, but glam rockers David Bowie and Mott the Hoople. (You can learn more about the genesis of Mötley Crüe in this great essay by A. E. Weisgerber.) A lot of early Crüe songs aren’t really metal at all. For every satanic spell like “Shout at the Devil” or dirty grind of “Ten Seconds to Love,” there’s the melancholy portrait of a despairing man in “Merry Go Round,” the flash of vulnerability in “Starry Eyes,” the jolly roll of “Come on and Dance,” or the bittersweet anthem of “On With the Show.” And although I loved and love the sheer might of heavy metal, even as a kid I could appreciate how the Crüe combined that might with melancholy. The space given to sadness in the Crüe’s songs allows one be and feel merely human in this genre that values intense power and raises superhuman energy. Mötley Crüe, masters of saudade: a Portugese word for which there is no equivalent in English but can mean melancholic longing for something that may not even exist.
For the Crüe, that spirit of saudade found its most successful expression in “Home Sweet Home.”
Nikki Sixx has said that “Home Sweet Home” is about how, as a rock star, “all you ever want is to get in a band and go on the road, but then you’re on the road and you want to come home.” Saudade: a longing for something that may not even exist.
The song begins with a pretty piano solo by Tommy, the notes echoing as if played into a lonely void. Soon Vince’s voice, in a quiet mood, joins the sweet and melancholy melody. But when he snarls out
just one more night
which ushers in a crescendo of keyboards, drums, bass, and guitar, you know this song has something more than just pretty and sweet in store. From here the song alternates between quiet spaciousness and furious onslaught, culminating in an entirely devastating Mick Mars guitar solo that expresses desire, despair, ambition, and menace all at once. The song ends close where it began: with Vince’s becalmed voice and Tommy’s piano notes again echoing like bells in the void—but a void that now feels a little less lonely.
“Home Sweet Home” is an absolute killer of a song that had to fight to see the light. First the record company didn’t want it on the album, so Mötley Crüe found a new record company under which to release Theatre of Pain. Then the new record company didn’t want to promote the song as a single, so Mötley Crüe paid for the production of the music video themselves—and made music-video history. “Home Sweet Home” became a unstoppable giant hit on MTV. It famously held onto the top spot of MTV’s daily request chart for over three months, and it would have stayed there longer except that its stranglehold on the top of the chart caused MTV to create a new “Crüe rule” that legislated that videos at the top of the chart for more than 30 days were no longer eligible for voting.
Culturally, the power of “Home Sweet Home” the song is inseparable from the video, which is an ultimate vision of rock stardom. An incredibly skillfully shot and edited live performance, the video reveals and shares the holy/profane energy exchange between band and audience. The slo-mo shots are as gorgeous as they are expressive: A girl crawling across the stage to Nikki. A girl and Vince singing lyrics into his microphone together, their foreheads pressed together. Vince moving like a dancer, with uncommon rhythm and grace. Nikki seducing the audience:
The “Home Sweet Home” video is also a masterful self-mythologizing. You can really see its tight control when you compare it to some other hair-metal concert music videos: Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” Van Halen’s “Panama,” Ratt’s “You’re In Love.” These are all great videos, but they lack the total ambition of the “Home Sweet Home” video. These other videos have their goofy moments and goofy guys (Bobbie Blozter, I’m looking at you), and Def Leppard and Van Halen are even okay poking a little fun at themselves in their videos. Not Mötley Crüe. There is no goofiness or self-deprecation in the “Home Sweet Home” video. Their goal was to be fucking flawless, and they achieved it. In the “Home Sweet Home” video, they will live on forever as ultimate rock gods.
In 2015, 34 years after they began, the members of the band drew down the curtain on Mötley Crüe. They concluded a world tour with a final performance on December 31, 2015, at the Staples Center in their home city of Los Angeles. The last song they played was “Home Sweet Home.”
Back to 1985, and me. After a year or two of being a big fan of Mötley Crüe and other hair metal (Ratt and Twisted Sister were other faves of mine), I lost interest in the genre. The mid-eighties were a wildly exciting time in music, and so many other artists and styles were clamoring for my attention: Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Duran Duran, Kate Bush, Phil Collins (don’t @ me), U2, INXS, and more. I stopped listening to hair metal and didn’t listen to it again for decades.
But when I was in my mid-forties, something inspired me to give the Crüe a careful listen again. And I discovered that the music made me feel just the same as it did when I was 14: spurred towards power, impatient for everything life has to offer, predatory for pleasure of all kinds. I discovered via Instagram that teens all over the world still love Mötley Crüe. I also noticed, really for the first time, the misogyny of the Crüe, and I wonder what it did to me to take in those messages when I was just a kid. Just because you love the Crüe doesn’t mean the Crüe will love you back.
But the Crüe has permanently marked my brain with their love-bite, and their music will always sound to me like wanting to get as large and wild as possible. Like wanting to kiss and fuck and rebel. If you haven’t, give them a real listen. Check out all of their first and best record, Too Fast for Love. Be amazed by the accidentally feminist music video for “Looks That Kill.” Listen to “Home Sweet Home” and ache deliciously for something that maybe doesn’t even exist.
Cybele Knowles is the creator of Feminist Nikki Sixx, an Instagram account that brings together feminism and Mötley Crüe fandom. She also co-writes movie screenplays with Laura C. J. Owen. Their script The King of California placed in the Top 50 of the 2017 Academy Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. Learn more at cybeleknowles.com