On the glory and depravity of hair metal.
Still from The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is a documentary that often feels like a mockumentary—in part because of the inherent absurdity of the LA metal scene in the late eighties, in part because of Penelope Spheeris’s directorial choices. Spheeris, of Wayne’s World fame, let her subjects decide how they wanted to be filmed. Gene Simmons of Kiss did his interview in a lingerie store—“I don’t want to do anything tacky,” he’d told her. Simmons’s bandmate Paul Stanley suggested, “How about in bed with a bunch of women?” His segments were filmed from above, with lingerie models absentmindedly stroking his spandex pants. Chris Holmes, the lead guitarist from W.A.S.P., suggested, “How about drowning in a pool with my mother watching?”
In what is probably the film’s best-known scene, Holmes floats in a pool chair, wearing black leather pants, and tells Spheeris he’s a “full-blown alcoholic.” To prove it, he pours vodka from a liter of Smirnoff down his throat and all over his face for almost ten seconds. His mother, Sandy Holmes, who has strong June Cleaver vibes, is indeed there watching from the side of the pool, looking disappointed but resigned. He says, “I’m a happy camper.” Spheeris asks him if he wishes he was a bigger star. “I wish I was a smaller star,” he answers. “I don’t dig being the person I am.” Later, after we’ve seen several musicians say that metal is better than sex, Spheeris cuts back to Holmes in the pool making a jerking off motion and saying, “It’s like this, I love it, it’s great,” with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We hear Spheeris off camera: “It’s like beating off?” “It’s worse than that,” he says. (I can’t explain why, but I love him.) Simmons, back in the lingerie store, says that anyone who claims “it’s lonely at the top” is “full of it”: “It’s the best.” Back to Holmes in the pool: “I would rather be broke and happy than rich and sad.” If only we were given that choice.
Most everyone in the film ends up looking ridiculous. Some random scenester tells Spheeris, “I don’t work, I can’t stand work.” She asks, “What was the last job you had?” “Uh,” he says, “I’ve never had a job.” Paul Stanley remarks thoughtfully, “Once you have money, you realize that it’s really not important.” In one of my favorite moments, Spheeris goes to the Cathouse, Riki Rachtman’s “big fun sleazy” club a couple miles south of the Strip (Rachtman later went on to host MTV’s Headbangers Ball), and asks some people why they go there. The response is just metal word salad: “Fucking rock!” “Heavy metal!” “Party!” “Drink!” “Guns N’ Roses!” “LA!” In another notorious scene, Spheeris films Ozzy Osbourne making breakfast in a leopard-print robe; there’s a close-up shot of him attempting to pour orange juice into a glass and spilling it all over the counter. Spheeris later admitted in an interview that part was a stunt: “I faked the orange juice spill.” But most of the stupid excess was real—or maybe in the metal years it was hard to distinguish between stunt and reality.
In their tell-all collective memoir The Dirt, the members of Mötley Crüe show the extent of the era’s depravity in great detail. Bassist Nikki Sixx describes a day on tour when Ozzy Osbourne announced he “fancied a bump,” but they’d run out of coke. (Picture broad daylight: “We rolled out of the bus under the heat of the noonday sun and went straight to the bar.”) “Unfazed,” he crouched down on the sidewalk and snorted a line of live ants. Trying to keep up (“we wanted to maintain our reputation as rock’s most cretinous band”), Sixx “whipped out [his] dick in full view of everyone” and pissed on the floor. Ozzy crawled over and licked at the puddle. At that point Sixx had to admit defeat: “From that moment on, we always knew that wherever we were, whatever we were doing, there was someone who was sicker and more disgusting than we were.” Read More