Tommy Lee's first tattoo was of Mighty Mouse, a small, gaudy rendering of the pocket-size superhero bursting through a bass drum with sticks in his hands. Back in his early 20s, Lee identified with the cartoon underdog because he was one himself: With scrawny ostrich legs set against a pile of puffed-up hair, the long, lanky Lee looked kind of like a heavy-metal Q-tip. His band was so broke that during its first recording sessions, Lee would have sex with the weasel-faced studio owner to earn free recording time from her.
A little more than two decades later, Lee still feels like something of an underdog. Understandably so. Now in his 40s, he's about to hit the road to try to reclaim his place in a young man's sport. With age comes wisdom, which is like saltpeter to a band like Mötley Crüe, a proudly impulsive bunch that made its name by channeling a horny teenager's libido into sweaty, mascara-stained rock 'n' roll. They got down Caligula-style in a different city every night and left the thinking to the dudes in R.E.M.
"In the early days of touring, people would come backstage and they'd expect to see this maniac with a bottle of Jack Daniel's in each hand," Lee says from his home in Los Angeles early on a recent Tuesday morning, still chasing the sleepiness out of his voice. "There's a certain pressure, like, the last thing you wanted to do was have some fan walk out of a backstage area after they just met you going, 'Well, that was fuckin' wack. The dude was back there drinking Gatorade. I expected to see some fuckin' crazy shit backstage and a bunch of fuckin' rock stars partying.'
Scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 19
"And that's what we did," he continues with a chuckle. "People did walk out of there going, 'Those guys are out of their fuckin' minds.' And a few of us still are. But I don't feel like I did then. It's like, if somebody comes back and I'm just chillin', got my feet kicked up, well, that's just what I'm doing. I know who I am, and I don't really feel like I need to prove that to anybody. I think everybody knows who we all are."
Only strippers age less gracefully than rock stars. The reason millions of kids were attracted to Mötley Crüe in the first place was to live vicariously through the four fearless fuck-ups who seemed to exude an eternal adolescence. Rock stars are supposed to be larger than life, bulletproof gods with titanium livers and permanent erections. And no band struck that pose better than Mötley Crüe, which literally partied itself to death and back, with a giant penis and testicles painted on its tour jet.
But when fans see a band that once defined youthful abandon begin to go gray, it only underscores their own mortality. When a guy like Nikki Sixx -- who's snorted his height in cocaine in a single sitting, OD'd twice, and cheated on death like it was an anonymous groupie -- starts to show signs of age, it's a reminder that, eventually, we're all doomed. And that's a total bummer, man.
But if you gotta go out, it might as well be with a smile, and Mötley Crüe's first tour in five years should provide plenty of dopey grins.
"I remember sitting there, starting to design the show, and we started with three trucks, then it's four trucks, five trucks -- we must be up to six or seven trucks all of a sudden," Lee says of the Crüe's latest circus-like stage show, which will be divided into two hour-long sets, with no opening band. "We put some tickets on sale, and all of a sudden arena shows are selling out in two to three days. I was like, 'Wow, I really had no idea.' When we all saw the response and the tickets flying around like that, we were like, 'Holy shit, this is crazy.'"
It's not that surprising, really. In the years since the Crüe last toured, there's been a dearth of bona fide rock stars, bands with leopard-print guitars who blow up lots of shit onstage. Yeah, the Darkness paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to the conceits of arena rock, but it was with a knowing wink and a bit too much self-awareness. Besides, as the Darkness quickly discovered, even an over-the-top parody can't match the Crüe's debauchery.
And who'd want to? These guys have long been rock's sacrificial lambs, killing themselves in an attempt to live up to their own rock mythology. It wasn't always a fun ride, either. Raging egos provoked tensions within the band, primarily between Lee and singer Vince Neil. They've even thrown punches. But Lee insists the feuding is behind them.
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"You know what it is? We never really dug back in and dealt with some of the stupid things that have gone on," he explains. "Obviously, people have let a lot of things slide, which is important in any relationship. We've been together now for several months rehearsing, and there's been no bad vibes, no funk in the air, no nothing."
Besides, at their age, these guys don't heal quickly enough to fight anymore.
"I think everybody sort of realized, 'Okay, you know, we have two choices: We can either make this work and function, or we can have it be completely dysfunctional, a fuckin' nightmare, and no fun for anybody,'" Lee says. "I'd rather continue to make solo records that sell two copies than go out and play sold-out arena shows with Mötley and be fuckin' miserable, you know what I'm saying? At this point in my life, I just want to be happy and have a fuckin' blast."
Some things never change.