The end is near for heavy metal stalwarts Mötley Crüe

Los Angeles rockers rewrote the book on rock excess

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 4:37pm

There will be fire and explosions. There will bone-shaking guitar riffs, scantily clad dancers and an upside-down drum solo. Middle-aged men and women will pump their fists and bang their heads, remembering younger days when monsters of rock roamed the earth.

Throw your devil horns in the air, Eugene, Oregon. Mötley Crüe have come to town.

On a July afternoon, the four founding members of one of rock's most notorious bands - singer Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars, bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee - stand onstage at the Matthew Knight Arena, preparing the set list for an upcoming show.

Heavy-metal anthems such as Shout at the Devil, Girls, Girls, Girls and Kickstart My Heart that thrilled Reagan-era teenagers and horrified their parents echo through the empty venue as dozens of crew members move heavy equipment, tweak sound levels and prepare the show's over-the-top pyrotechnics, which include a giant burning pentagram and a bass guitar that shoots flames. Their backstage passes read "The End Is Near".

Thirty-four years after exploding out of the Sunset Strip in a blaze of hairspray, skin-tight leather and power chords, Mötley Crüe are kicking off the last stretch of the final tour of their career, an 18-month global farewell that will culminate at the end of the year with three shows at the Staples Centre in downtown Los Angeles.

Say what you will, this is a band that have never done things halfway (why just one umlaut when you can have two?) and the members are determined to go out with as big a bang as possible. "We're like, 'Hey, this is it - let's blow the place up'," says Sixx.

The stage show is as theatrical as ever, their musical blueprint essentially unchanged since the early 1980s, but behind the scenes things have changed considerably. The legendary drug-and-alcohol-fuelled debauchery has abated after a few trips to rehab. Once upon a time you could find all manner of intoxicants backstage at a Mötley Crüe show. (According to one story the band likes to recount, while on tour with Crüe in 1984 Ozzy Osbourne once snorted a line of ants.) Now the catering area is stocked with multivitamins, antacids and various kinds of tea, and the only powder you'll find is protein powder to mix into smoothies.

Where there used to be a revolving door of groupies, one member of the band's team notes drily, now backstage you'll find the rockers playing with their dogs.

That they made it this far is remarkable enough. With Mötley Crüe, everything has always been turned up to 11, including offstage decadence and drama. Over the years, the band have weathered drug and alcohol addiction, internal strife, arrests, jail time, public scandals (including an infamous leaked sex tape involving Lee and then-wife Pamela Anderson) and shifting fashions in music - all of it chronicled with unflinching candour in their bestselling 2001 tell-all The Dirt.

Yet through it all, even as other '80s glam-metal acts have faded into teased-hair oblivion, Crüe have persevered. The band have released just one album of new music since 2000, but here they are, filling arenas from Anchorage to Abu Dhabi. Even the group can't fully explain it.

"I can't believe all four of us are still alive," Lee says. Using the kind of language you'd expect from the drummer in Mötley Crüe, he theorises that each band member must have a lucky horseshoe lodged in a particular part of his anatomy.

With the hedonism stripped away, what remains is a much-loved (though not always critically lauded) body of music - paeans to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that have propelled the band to more than 75 million record sales worldwide. That music and the brash, middle-finger-raised attitude that goes with it still mean as much to the band and their fans as it ever did. Maybe even more.

The rehearsal finished, Neil, 54, sits in his dressing room with his girlfriend, make-up artist Rain Hannah, and their Yorkshire terrier, Cali. "You see a lot of people crying when we're doing Home Sweet Home," he says of the 1985 power ballad that closes the show. "Then you start getting choked up and you try not to look at them. For a lot of the real fans, they know this is the last time they're going to see us."

More than that, it may be the last time they see anyone like them. "There are no more rock stars - we're some of the last of them," Neil says. "It's sad. But we'll see what happens. Hopefully there's some kid in his garage somewhere, playing with his band and lighting himself on fire."

As he sees it, Mötley Crüe's primary songwriter and lyricist Sixx, 56, says the band's decision to hang it up is simply a matter of common sense. Granted, that's not a quality typically associated with Mötley Crüe. "The frontal lobe doesn't develop until you're like 25 years old," Sixx says. "In Mötley Crüe's case, it probably never developed."

But underneath the chaos has long been a streak of career-minded pragmatism.

"Let's be real: rock'n'roll is not meant to age," Sixx says. "We've worn our welcome out a few times, and we're still here. We're in tatters and covered in tattoos, but somehow we survived our own insanity. Eventually, though, the wheels are going to fall off the fire truck, and then no one is going to want it."

Rock fans have learned to be sceptical about farewell tours, which often turn out to be just the first in a series of reunion tours when bank accounts need another boost. So to cement the sense of finality, last year Mötley Crüe publicly signed a "cessation of touring" contract that prevents any of them from performing under the Crüe name beyond 2015. The band members - who own their own masters and publishing rights, a rarity among major music acts - say they would rather burn out on their own terms than slowly fade away playing clubs and county fairs.

Back in the day, Mötley Crüe tours were physically punishing affairs, tough on the liver, the brain cells and everything else. "We were always just trying to finish them in one piece," says Neil.

Over the years, the physical demands of a full-scale worldwide rock tour have been hardest for Mars. The oldest member of the band at 64, Mars suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that affects the spine and can cause the vertebrae to gradually fuse together. The condition limits his movement and produces chronic pain. But it hasn't stopped him from doing what he loves most.

Soft-spoken and self-effacing offstage, Mars sits on the couch in his dressing room and stiffly tries to settle into a comfortable position. "I move around like Frankenstein," he says with a raspy laugh. "But I still play. Sometimes it's a bit of a grind, bouncing around a bus or walking 900 miles through an airport. But I'm a guitar player. I don't want to just sit in a chair."

Mars says he never expected Mötley Crüe to last as long as they did. "I come from a generation where bands would last a maximum of five years and no one wanted to live past 30," he says.

It hasn't been the smoothest ride. Crüe's internecine fights are the stuff of legend; at different points, Neil and Lee were each out of the band. "I'm not going to lie - it's a love-hate thing," Mars says. "That's the way that it is with any band." He pauses. "Except for the Eagles. They hated each other all the time."

Like his fellow band members, Mars plans to continue to make music on his own after Crüe end their run. In no uncertain terms, he insists the four will never play together again. "The minute the band is done, it's done," he says.

"Each of us has different directions we want to go in. We'll still see each other off and on because Mötley Crüe Inc will still go on. But we won't be a band. We'll be a corporation kind of deal."

Not long before Mötley Crüe are set to take the stage, Lee, 52, sits in his dressing room with his drumsticks in his hands, his knee bouncing with excess energy. Nearby, his dog Bowie - a miniature greyhound mix he owns with his fiancee, Sofia Toufa, who dances in the band's show - is catching a nap.

"Before a show, I typically sit back here and play music really loud and bang on anything that doesn't move," Lee says. He smiles conspiratorially. "Things that move, too. If my girl comes by, I'll play the butt bongos. You know the deal."

Soon, Lee will be hanging 15 metres in the air from the arena's rafters, pounding out a solo on a roller-coaster drum kit called the Crüecifly. Even for a self-described thrill-seeker, it's a bit daunting. "It's getting crazy," he says.

Unlike in the '80s, these days Lee is careful about what he puts into his body before a concert.

"I eat breakfast or a super-light lunch and then I don't eat until 11 or midnight after the show's over," he says. "Spinning around upside down on a full stomach …" He laughs. "That would probably be pretty awesome and punk rock. But we're just a little smarter than we used to be."

Los Angeles Times