A black-on-black Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder purrs into the parking lot of Feelgoods Rock Bar and Grill, well off the Strip in Las Vegas. The traffic on Sahara Avenue whooshes past with the usual lunchtime urgency; five miles to the southeast, the towers of Sin City can be seen, rising dreamlike from the sprawl. If what they say is true, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, then this is most likely where it stays—a non-descript series of suburbs in the western sector of the city where strip malls, housing developments, and schools share a casual proximity with massage parlors, smoke shops, and gambling clubs. Completing the picture is a Crayola blue sky; snow dusts the moutain peaks, which stand aloof and craggy in the distance, glowing in the bright, thin light of the desert winter.
It is December and chilly. Christmas looms. Here and there people have taken the trouble to wrap their palm trees with burlap. We are already one day behind schedule. The previous day, which was supposed to be our first, was marred by three broken appointments. It was a true rock ‘n roll beginning—an absent star, a frantic dance of enablers, the expense meter spinning, the already-foreshortened deadline ticking away… The subtext: We’re all trying to make this amazing thing happen. We’ve talked it to death. All we need is our star.
Now somebody has pushed the reset button.
It is Tuesday.
The star is fifteen minutes early for our noon appointment. “He’s notoriously early,” I’d been advised the previous day by one of his people at 10th Street Entertainment. (Even as he was pushing back the time of our first meeting.) “You oughtta be early, too. He hates it when people are late.”
He’s notoriously early…
…when he’s decided he’s coming.
I guess that’s how the sentence should read.
Writing down a man’s life will take many such edits, I learn over the coming months. (Not that I expected differently.) We all have our roles. It is best to know which is yours.
The sleek Italian two-seater—512 horsepower; vanity licence plate: TATUUD; with yellow stitching on the black leather seats to match the yellow brake calipers, and the single cup holder requested by his fourth wife (“You’d think for a quarter million bucks you could get one cup holder,” is how she’d put it)—comes to a stop at a rakish angle in a pin-striped lane marked: “Motorcycles Only.”
After an interval, the driver’s door opens. Out thrusts one battered calfskin UGG boot, followed by a fashionably ripped denim leg. A well-muscled thigh strains the fabric where the tearing is most prominent—in his day, nobody could fill a pair of spandex leopard-skin tights the way he could. A left hand reaches up for purchase—the car is quite low to the ground. Occupying the wrist is a 40-karat diamond and platinum Dunamis watch with a skull design floating inside the overlarge see-through face. A $300,000 bauble, one of five in the world, he will later say. It is a difficult factoid to verify.
With some effort he limbos into an upright position and I see him in person for the first time, unmistakable after thirty years in the limelight:
Vince Neil Wharton—he of the towering platinum Aqua Net hairdo and ultrasonic banshee voice, the ultimate face boy of 1980s glam cock rock, front man for Mötley Crüe.
Today Vince Neil is forty-eight, a man in his third act; a little thicker than imagined, and smaller, too—at five foot nine, 180 pounds, he’s a bit of a smurf. He has a stubbly goatee, sparse and gray in spots, and an easy smile, which he displays most often when people are paying attention to him. There is a diamond embedded in his right upper incisor, part of a set of pearly caps, uppers and lowers; at night in a club it sparkles.
Remembered for his epic drug-and-alcohol fueled debauchery—and for the high heels, full makeup, and glittered tube tops that made him an androgynous sex symbol during the early years of the gender-bending eighties— Vince Neil is now a comfortable, middle-aged man. He spends part of his year in Las Vegas, part in Northern California, from where his wife hails. He has “money but not fuck you money,” he likes to say. He is quick to point out that group acts make a lot less than solo. (And that thirty percent goes to agent, lawyer, manager, and accountant off the top.) Besides being a rock ’n’ roll headliner, Vince is a businessman, with thriving interests on several fronts. There is Tres Rios Tequila, a line of premium tequilas made at his operation in Guadalajara, Mexico. Vince Neil Aviation charters rocked-out jets—think leopard-skin and purple velvet appointments. Vince Neil Ink, a high-end tattoo parlor and apparel shop, has two locations on the strip in Las Vegas. His tastes run to exotic cars and watches; he has a garage full of old posters and costumes, some of which he has sold to the Hard Rock restaurant chain…and a shit load of guitars that companies keep sending him, even though he only plays guitar on two songs in his entire repertoire, including both Mötley Crüe and Vince Neil solo. He still collects the lion’s share of his income from his one-quarter share in Mötley Crüe, which has sold 80 million albums over three decades. (Mötley continues to sell, even though they haven’t written any new songs since 2008’s Saints of Los Angeles, a sort of aural autobiography of the band members’ history, their best—and only original—work in years.)
Instead of spandex he sports a tee-shirt from Vince Neil Ink; the neck band is ripped; in our time together I will see him wearing it four times in two different cities, so I assume that’s the way it’s supposed to look. A fur-lined hooded sweatshirt rides up over a slight paunch as he stretches to work out the kinks. His once-teased and towering hair is regularly seen to at a favorite salon on the Strip. Colored a boy-next-door shade of dirty blonde, highlighted with honey streaks, straightened and flatironed with the latest technologies into a silken consistency, it is truly a rock star-worthy head of hair. The hint of time is reflected only in his slightly receded hair line. Gold-framed Chanel goggles hide his hazel eyes.
When I think of Vince, I see a trio of pictures in my head. One is this Vince, the Vince of today, the Vince I’ve been describing as he exits his Lambo. The second is of Vince on the (reissued) cover of Mötley’s second album, Shout at the Devil. Who could ever forget those eyes—his expression at once so vulnerable and so totally absent. Equally memorable is the third: his leather-encased crotch on the cover of their inaugural album, Too Fast For Love, his left thumb applying pressure to the clearly-visible outline of his penis.
As you read this book, I think it would be helpful if you keep the second of these images in mind. (Though I’m sure the third won’t be far from your thoughts, either; he has spent much of his aggregated waking time on this planet in flagrante delicto.) The studio photo was taken at the height of Mötley’s early success, sometime in 1983, during the group’s Mad Max/Escape from New York period of post-apocalyptic-influenced style. With his high cheekbones and full lips—the legacy of his parents’ mixed Mexican and American Indian ancestry—Vince represented the male archetype of the New West’s golden generation. Part James Dean, part Tony Hawke, part Jeff Spicoli, Vince was the male twin of the sun-kissed California girl.
Try to imagine what it was like to be that guy—a rock star, rich, achingly beautiful by any standard, flying around the world in a private jet during an era, before AIDS, when cocaine, quaaludes, Jack Daniels, and wild consensual sex were the equivalent of karaoke—what you did on a night out. Even in flyover land people were partying like rock stars. Vince had a rep to upkeep and took full advantage. He had the gall of the beautiful; he never had to seek, he only had to choose. He did whatever the fuck he wanted without a thought. He plied the Strip with a vengeance, fucking girls in the bushes, getting into fist fights with undercover cops and a drunk yuppie in a Porsche. As Vince’s career expanded, so did his range. He drove race cars and racing boats. He participated in orgies on yachts in the Caribbean. He traveled the world. He threw his empty bottle of Jack Daniels out the nearest window. Sometimes, the window wasn’t open. He didn’t give a fuck. Nothing could be out of order. Nothing could be too outrageous. Nothing could violate the standards because there were no standards. He owed his existence, his place in the spotlight, to humankind’s need for heroes and entertainment. He was the show. Excessive was what was expected of him, aided and abetted by fawning minions. Groupies lined up outside his dressing room, his hotel room, his tour bus, in the back of the jet. Groupies waited behind the drum riser, eager to give him a blow job during a drum solo— “which gives you an idea what I really thought of that egotist,” he will later say of Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. The 1987 Aerosmith classic “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” was written after Steven Tyler and Joe Perry spotted Vince in a bar and mistook him for a hot chick. Was it any wonder that at seventeen Vince became the first kid in high school to owe child support?
One-tenth sexiest man alive.
Imagine if that dude was you.
In a decade defined by cocaine, voodoo Reaganomics, the discovery of the HIV virus, and rising neo-fundamentalism, the members of Mötley Crüe—Mick Mars on guitar, Tommy Lee on drums, Nikki Sixx on bass, and Vince Neil on vocals— set new standards for decadence, self destruction, and excess as they acted out their every impulse, determined to live the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle to the hilt. Their sound was an amalgam—rooted in hard rock and the bombast of KISS, glam’s transgender fashion, pop’s bubblegum, L.A. punk’s effrontery… all of it slathered together with mascara and blood. Mötley’s songs will never be as memorable as the band’s attitude and approach. Fast, loud, and showy—but also melodic and candy-coated—their music was a bridge on the rock-and-roll time line between the theatrical dress-up bands of the eighties and the self-conscious, shotgun-swallowing grunge movement of the nineties.
Raised (or having come of age) in idyllic Southern California— the land of surfers, skaters, garage bands, and worshipers of self—the members of Mötley Crüe had no political or social agenda beyond their next high, their next fistfight, their next prank, their next piece of ass. What separated Mötley Crüe, what makes them memorable, was their inarticulated philosophy—an aggressively perverse dedication to all things darker and meaner and nastier than the rest; an American iteration of the savage, balls-out traditions of English punk, a sort of nihlism-lite. Yes, they played music. But more than that. They were the music. In Freudian terms, they were pure Id. They did what they felt like doing, what looked and sounded cool to them, with no care for the consequences—rebels without a clue. Like Vince will later tell me: “The answer to ‘Why?’ was always, ‘Why not?’ ”
Over the years, Mötley Crüe’s relatively small quiver of hit songs would come to embody youthful urgency and disregard for the rules; life without fear of consequences, lived as far out on the edge as possible. As the eighties became the nineties and beyond, the fortunes of the band and its members rose and fell and rose again. Today the work of Mötley Crüe is part of the vocabulary of rock and roll, a huge draw around the world. As I write this introduction, Vince and the other members of the band are making their way to rehearsals in Los Angeles, prepping for a tour of Canada. Through all of their hijinks and arguments, all of their ups and downs, they are still playing together and are relevant—though it seems, in real time, that a great bit of will is necessary to get them onto the same stage. In all the interviews for this book, more than forty hours overall, Vince was hard-pressed to find anything good to say about any of his fellow band members. Only Nikki Sixx could be persuaded to be interviewed. He spoke of Vince only in the most glowing terms. There are obviously many tortured emotions between them. To date, all four members are millionaires many times over, though some have been more successful than others at holding on to their earnings. All have attempted solo careers in one form or another; they are all clearly elevated by their association with the band. Finally, they all seem to grudgingly understand: Mötley Crüe is something greater than the sum of its parts. After three decades, they are like a wildly dysfunctional family, all love and hate, with not a hint of the love showing on the surface.
After the Mötley tour Vince will head south for a solo tour of Mexico, Latin America, and South America in support of the new album and book (this one), both by the same name, Tattoos & Tequila. Acts as varied as Papa Roach, Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Moby, Slipknot, and Belladonna have all cited Vince and Mötley Crüe as an influence in recent years, most notably for Too Fast for Love and Shout at the Devil, the band’s first two hits. Mötley Crüe’s early look in music videos has also been borrowed by a variety of artists, from Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to New Order, Aerosmith, and the Backstreet Boys. Even today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Mötley Crüe is still a musical right of passage and an instant time machine. Their songs are the easier ones to play on Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Thanks to the timeless magic of digital music, keen marketing, and several successful greatest hits efforts, new Mötley fans are ever entering the fold. A Mötley Crüe or Vince Neil Band concert is today an intergenerational affair, with aging mullet heads sharing the venue with thirtysomething squares, tatooed young rocker wannabes, and slutty-looking suicide grrls of all ages, who now as then observe the time-honored ritual of baring their breasts to the band.
A few milestones for perspective: Mötley has been featured on a number of VH1 countdown shows: “Dr. Feelgood” was ranked the #7 Greatest Air Guitar Song, “Live Wire” was ranked the #17 Greatest Metal Song Of All Time, and “Home Sweet Home” was ranked the #12 Greatest Power Ballad Of All Time. Mötley Crüe was featured several times on VH1′s 100 Most Metal Moments and was one of the many bands featured on VH1′s popular Behind the Music series. The band was ranked #19 on VH1′s list of the most popular hard rock bands of all times. Mötley Crüe was also ranked tenth on MTV’s list of “Top 10 Heavy Metal Bands of All Time”. In 2008, iTunes picked “Saints Of Los Angeles” as the number one song in the Rock category of their “Best of 2008″; the song was also nominated for a Grammy Award in the “Best Hard Rock Performance” category.
All of which has made for a pretty interesting life. Vince has been married four times, fathered three children, fucked thousands of groupies— sometimes ten a day according to numbers floating around; he won’t venture a count. He has had liaisons with dozens of brand-name women, including the porn stars Savannah and Gina Fine (simultaneously) and the TV actresses Tori Spelling and Shannon Doherty (on separate occasions). He dated super model Christy Turlington; he dated Pam Anderson before Tommy Lee, when she was the Tool Time Girl on Home Improvement; his third wife was the knockout soap star and primetime TV actress Heidi Mark, who exemplifies most of the women in this book, Vince’s “type”: long blond hair, pretty face, blue eyes, large augmented boobs, visible abs, tiny ass, long legs. He starred in one sex tape (a three-way with Vivid Video girls Janine Lindemulder and Brandy Sanders), several pornos (directed by adult film legend Ron “the Hedgehog” Jeremy), dated handfuls of Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets, ingested every drug and combination of drugs he could possibly find, drank an ocean of booze—or so I remind him. There is a lot he doesn’t remember. At least that’s what he says. Says one ex wife: “He’s got a memory as clear as diamonds when he wants to. Sometimes it’s just easier to say you forgot. He has a lot of regrets.”
In our sessions together, Vince was always courteous; he reminded me of a schoolkid with a tutor—he didn’t really want to do it but someone had convinced him he should. On several occasions during our window, Sunday football took precedence over interview time. Occupying his usual reserved table at the sports book at the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa was clearly a higher priority than this autobiography. Often, as I tried to pin him down—three middle schools or two? What year did you marry Sharise?—he would become annoyed with me. I wondered if the emotion he was really feeling was embarrassment or some kind of shame. What person doesn’t remember why he moved out of his parent’s house for good at seventeen? A lot of clarity is lost in a haze of years and booze. Obviously there are painful truths that haunt him to this day… things we will learn a little bit about as we slog through his history and his murky depths.
Trying to chronicle such a life is difficult: Even Vince can’t keep straight how many stints in rehab he’s done or how many times he’s been arrested. For this reason we have enlisted the voices of others. We hear from Vince’s current wife, Lia, and all three of his ex-wives: Beth Neil, Sharise Neil, and Heidi Mark. We hear from his children, Neil Wharton and Elle Neil; from his parents, Clois Odell and Shirley Wharton; from his sister, Valerie Saucer; from the members of his first band, formed in high school, Rockandi. Other interviews done in preparation of this book include: Poison’s Bret Michaels, rapper MC Hammer, porn star Ron Jeremy, LA Laker’s owner Jerry Buss, Night Ranger Jack Blades. Making a special guest appearance is Nikki Sixx, along with a score of behind-the-scenes managers and other close confidants who’ve been there throughout Vince’s career.
Onstage, Vince was and is undeniably the center of the Mötley Crüe circus—no longer clad in bright spandex or built like a Greek god, he still rips his signature piercing-yet-clean wail on lead vocals. Nikki Sixx , the main writer and musical force behind the group, who’s never gone out of his way to compliment Vince about anything, once called him “the quarterback of Mötley Crüe.” Though Vince isn’t well known as a songwriter, he co-wrote some of Mötley’s biggest hits, including “Home Sweet Home,” “Wild Side,” and “Same Ol’ Situation.” That he has always been a multifaceted entertainer is sometimes lost in his seemingly effortless work on stage; what looks like wild abandon is really the product of decades of effort and experience. He has always been the consummate showman.
Offstage, for all their drama—Mick with his crippling ankylosing spondylitis and female troubles; Nikki with his well-publicized addictions; Tommy with his trials with fame, actresses, hairstyles and anger management issues— none of the other Crüe members would live a life characterized by the the monumental highs and lows experienced by their front man. In 1984, Vince would be found guilty of vehicular manslaughter. Left dead on the street that rainy night, after a three-day drug party, was his good friend Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley from the Hanoi Rocks. The driver and a passenger of another car were also permanently maimed in the drunk-driving incident; Vince would pay $2.5 million in restitution and serve time in jail. Some years later, having been fired/or having quit Mötley Crüe, he would sit helplessly by the hospital bedside of his four-year-old daughter as she fought and lost a wrenching battle against cancer. The time period immediately afterwards was lost in a bottle; today there is a charity, the Skylar Neil Foundation.
Vince is still haunted by many demons, some of which I don’t think he can even explain himself. He is, in his own words, “an entertainer.” He needs others to write, score, arrange and organize. “I get out there and sell the songs,” he will later tell me. Like many a diva before him, he has often felt himself mute offstage, in the cold, unscripted, and unforgiving light of real life. Alone, without an audience, without anyone to keep his company, he becomes lost and uncertain. This much we know. It is the explanation for many things.
As he arrives in his Lambo, I spy on him through a door that’s been left open to air out the stink of beer and pheromones from the night before. Feelgoods is a prototype for a chain. They hope to have forty places like it someday, scattered all around the country. Vince owns 30 percent. They send him a check. He can sign for food. The place is decorated with purple velvet and leather and faux leopard skin. A huge bank of Marshall amps dwarfs the moderately sized stage, where live acts hold forth several nights week. Glass display cases hold authentic heirloom guitars, gold albums, his old auto-racing fire suit; there is a fully chromed and tricked-out chopper on the way to the bathrooms. TV screens play a greatest hits-assortment of rock videos, giving the place the feeling of a sports bar, only instead of sports, the theme is rock—a museum masquerading as a dive bar. An older couple—he with a gray ponytail, her hair dyed jet-black, both wearing leathers—dine in a booth to one side. The center of the room is dominated by a large round table full of men in identical workshirts, their names authentically in bubbles over breast pockets, some of them no doubt enjoying the $6.95 lunch special the place has recently added to the menu in order to combat the economic downturn.
Of course I was early for the meeting. (I was early the first day, too.) My mission: to climb inside a rock star’s mind and bring out what I can—the memories, the sensations, the collected experiences; the sex and drugs, the exhilaration and the heartache. A chronicle of a lifetime spent in the bung hole of unbridled self-indulgence. It might be hot and tight in there, but the smell is not so good sometimes.
And so it is that I gather up my clipboard and my digital recorder (and my cute little flip cam, which will prove to be a piece of shit) and move to meet him at the hostess stand. Up close he is still a handsome man, his face maintained by a number of cosmetic procedures, some of which were famously (and excruciatingly) documented on the 2005 VH1 series Remaking Vince Neil. He is enveloped in a pleasant cloud of Lagerfeld cologne, a discontinued scent he has stockpiled from sources around the country. He shakes my hand warmly and leads me inside.
Beyond a velvet rope there is a small VIP area. Vince proudly points out the four tables he had designed specially for the club. Taken together, the pieces form the shape of a giant guitar. Around the rounded bottom part is a leather banquette. We take a seat at the next four-top, a rectangle like the rest, this one representing the lowest part of the neck, where the highest-register notes are fretted.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Ask whatever you want?” he says. His face is blank. His voice is thin and a little bit hoarse. There is a tonal uptick at the end of his sentence; his loopy Cali dialect makes many of his statements sound like questions.
Mike Sager La Jolla, CA 3/1/2010