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"Dude, it was like Animal House fucked Satan and had a baby," says the heavily tattooed and pierced Nikki Sixx over the phone from a tour stop in Arkansas explaining the genealogy behind Motley Crue, his voice youthful-sounding but hoarse with a Spicoli-like cadence. "You know, Satan with a sense of humor," he adds laughing.
Currently, Motley Crue is touring in support of its recently released single-disc Greatest Hits package (including two new songs, "Bitter Pill" and "Enslaved"), a record that seems a tad superfluous in light of the Crue's 1991 best-of Decade of Decadence compilation. This might explain why Greatest Hits is falling short of sales expectations: After only five weeks on the Billboard charts, it had already plummeted to number 144. (Greatest Hits is also the Crue's first release on its own label, Beyond/Motley, since "acquiring" all its master tapes from Elektra, an unprecedented move that raised more than a few label-cheese eyebrows.)
"I think the alternative press tried its best to paint a line or build a wall between music," theorizes Sixx on the flaccid sales of the band's latest offerings (the Crue's 1997 "comeback" release Generation Swine failed to go gold) and hard rock in general. "And I don't know how much of that was the industry saying, 'Okay, look, let's get all the same kids to buy new records so we'll say what they did have was bad. They did it in the '70s, they did it in the '60s, nothing new."
The Crue story is well-documented, almost overworked: The band (guitarist Mick Mars, drummer Tommy Lee, singer Vince Neil and bassist Nikki Sixx) sold millions of records with a kind of Kiss-nicked, hyperactive imagery; a somewhat calculated decadence that grew to mythic proportions when fueled by the rise of MTV, Reaganomics and incredulous white kids itching to transgress the 'burbs and devour and dispose of everything in sight.
As with any turning point in history, timing is everything, and the CrYe's was impeccable as well as reactionary. They arrived just after a stoic period in pop that saw the overall commercial failure of punk and New Wave. "We were a reaction the whole way across," says Sixx about the stagnation of the early '80s. As a result, dig it or not, the Crue left a skid mark on pop history.
Motley Crueheads were generally teenaged, horny and male. They were bored or stoned or ill-educated or intolerant or all of the above. And throughout the '80s and early '90s, these kids bought 35 million Motley Crue records while the band weathered death, addictions, grunge, flop records, failed marriages, various overdoses, embarrassing porn-film appearances, jail time, rumored bankruptcies, and the firing and rehiring of singer Vince Neil.
"If you tried to lump us in with Ratts and Poisons, I mean we fuckin' had to go throw up in the corner," Sixx says of the Crue's mascara-tinged, lite-metal '80s contemporaries. "We've always had a real problem with that because we cut our teeth on the Pistols and the Ramones.
"It's funny 'cause the whole concept of being made up was to be more ugly. It was never to be pretty. It was to be shocking, not to be glammy. We were emulating the fuckin' [New York] Dolls."
When Sixx speaks, his ardor ups the impression that he truly believes in the rock 'n' roll mythology he spouts, that its ability to destroy lives like Johnny Thunders' is just part of the same crapshoot that made Sixx a millionaire. It is that sensibility that makes Sixx a rock 'n' roll star in the purist--albeit most archaic--form, and one that makes Sixx somewhat deserving of respect, in spite of who his bandmates are.
Johnny Thunders, a man who expired at age 38--Sixx's age now--was a forebear to the Crue shtick, both in attitude and choice of vices. "Johnny Thunders was the man," Sixx says of the Dolls guitarist. "Guys in my band don't get it. They [the Dolls] sucked in a beautifully artistic way. The way William Burroughs sucked as a writer. The way I suck as a writer. It's about gut, instinct, it's about stringing words and chords that don't necessarily go together. It's about the 'tude and the way you dig into the strings.
"Joe Perry is here because of Johnny Thunders. Kiss is around because of the Dolls. These guys owe homage to that band."
For the buck-wild Crue, the party really commenced after the group's second album, 1983's Shout at the Devil, started selling in truckloads and catapulted them into a no man's land of undeniable excess. But the downside to the uproar swiftly made itself felt: The next year Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas "Razzle" Dingley was riding shotgun in a car manned by Crue singer Vince Neil that plowed head-on into oncoming traffic. Razzle was killed and two others were seriously injured. Neil was shit-faced at the time.
That accident--which saw Neil get off relatively lightly with community service, a huge fine and a short stint in a county slammer--was the single most sobering experience for the band. It offered Razzle up as a kind of sacrificial lamb that changed the way Sixx looked at life, his band, and his own heroin addiction.