“A Little Bit Better Than I Used To Be”: On The Dirt and Possibility

by Amy Rossi

A friend of mine plays a fun, charismatic version of Mick Mars in a local Mötley Crüe tribute band. I’ve seen them play a few times now. I always enjoy myself, not just the ability to dance and scream and let it all go, but the way it brings together people of all ages, from all over the state who care about the songs enough to see someone else take them on.

Sometimes my friend weaves through the crowd with his guitar and stops in front of me, and I get to have my own 1983-on-the-Sunset-Strip moment. We’re no longer beholden to time in this space, which is part of the joy: it’s not just the musicians on stage that get to embody someone else.

One night at a show, after a particularly rowdy rendition of “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” the Vince Neil of the band paused. “You know,” he said, “girls always love that song. And I’m watching you all sing along and it’s kind of weird because, it’s about…you know…”

Of course he didn’t need to finish. Of course I knew. Perhaps he was speaking as Vince Neil or perhaps he was speaking as himself, but he was only telling us what Mötley Crüe’s music and their book, The Dirt, have been telling us. The songs are about women, are marketed to women. But at their core, they aren’t for women.

*

To ask if a movie is faithful to the book is to ask a pointless question.

Critics Linda Hutcheon and Gary Bortolotti call this “fidelity discourse.” They have no time for it, explaining that the joy of experiencing adaptation can go further and be more productive: “By revealing lineages of descent, not similarities of form alone, we can understand how a specific narrative changes over time. If we take this history into consideration, suddenly it is the success of the narrative itself, as well as that of its adaptations, that can be considered in a new light.”[1]

We can understand how a specific narrative changes over time. That is why, in the year 2019, we need a Mötley Crüe biopic.

It’s also why fidelity to the book doesn’t matter.

The Dirt is not faithful to its source material. It claims to be the true story of Mötley Crüe, but the book version isn’t the truth either: it’s dependent on the memories and judgment of people who spend over 400 pages telling us why their memories and judgment cannot be trusted. (Or, in one instance of sexual assault, we’re currently told those memories and judgment can’t be trusted.) The book may have come first, but that doesn’t make it the true story. Just part of the true story.

The site of the party in the opening scene of  The Dirt,  the apartment is just short walk up the hill from the Whisky and the Rainbow. Thirty-plus years later, the building appears to have recovered.

The site of the party in the opening scene of The Dirt, the apartment is just short walk up the hill from the Whisky and the Rainbow. Thirty-plus years later, the building appears to have recovered.

*

Almost as soon as 1980s metal became its own thing, it became a joke. This is Spinal Tap quickly capitalized on big haired buffoonery in 1984, giving us “one louder,” “none more black,” and “this one’s called ‘Lick My Love Pump’” in the process. In 1988, The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II brought us dispatches straight from the Sunset Strip. It’s hard to argue against setting up Paul Stanley as a joke, but Penelope Spheeris is equally unsparing of the made-up teenagers single-mindedly pursuing their metal dreams. Perhaps their belief in themselves is misguided, but what band ever got famous thinking about their backup plan?

On it goes. One of the most captivating elements of Rock of Love was the difference between the women who were in on the joke or part of it. There’s the existence of the 80s metal spoof band Steel Panther, whose over-the-top persona seems to be the very worst kind of parody: they might be making fun of the misogyny of the era, but they’re still saying the words. Rock of Ages hit Broadway and then the big screen, giving us Tom Cruise’s attempt at an Axl Rose impersonation, and while it’s fun, it never takes the rock part seriously. There’s the movie The Rocker, starring a whole lot of people who are way more famous now than they were in 2008, including Emma Stone, Will Arnett, Bradley Cooper, and Rainn Wilson. The titular rock star finds the same salvation as Mark Wahlberg does in Rock Star: in music that isn’t metal. Even now, if you go see a band that falls under the hair metal umbrella, you’ll find concertgoers in wigs and bandanas and open denim vests, as though they have to make it clear this isn’t too serious.

Metal, as presented in popular culture, is something to be outgrown, something to put on as a costume. It is not its own thing.


Down the street from the Whisky is the Rainbow, where something was always going on under the table.

Down the street from the Whisky is the Rainbow, where something was always going on under the table.

*

As a film, The Dirt is often unflinching. It makes us look at Razzle, from the excellent band Hanoi Rocks, lying dead in Vince Neil’s lap, face mottled with blood. It makes us look at Vince’s 4-year-old daughter Skyler, lifeless in the hospital. It won’t let us turn away from Ozzy Osbourne, seeking new lows of depravity in the form of ants and urine. It makes us look at Nikki Sixx with two syringes sticking out of his chest in a resuscitation attempt after a heroin overdose. And then it makes us look at Nikki a few hours later, passed out at home, needle in his vein, blood trailing down this arm.

This is what fame does, the film tells us. It is comfortable adapting these threads into the larger arc of the story.

However, in this telling, fame has nothing to do with women. Not a thing. It was the major question I had going into viewing The Dirt: how will that particular narrative live in our present, as more varied narratives complicate our understanding of the past? Would we get to see the shades of gray in power and consent? Would it all be presented as fun and games until the line of excess is crossed, just like drugs? Could we see the reckless joy of groupie life, the reasons young women wanted to hook up with rock stars and stars-to-be? Any take seemed possible. What seemed the least likely was ignoring women entirely.

And yet.

Tommy Lee’s history of domestic violence is condensed into a tour bus fight with a fiancé who has called his mother terrible names and fucked his best friend. We’re asked to believe his violent outburst is an aberration. Something that managed to shock Nikki, who had just snorted cocaine off her butt, and Mick, who had just declared all the women who screw the band “slobs” in the same breath as he announced his respect for “females.”

Fame has so little to do with women in The Dirt that we never meet Lita Ford or Vanity or Pamela Anderson or Donna D’Errico, let alone “Bullwinkle” (the nickname given to the girl who can ejaculate, apparently well after stimulation stops?) or Lovey (the one Nikki refers to as that, as in muzzle that). We don’t meet the woman to whom Mick is paying child support, or the one he marries on tour. We don’t meet the girl who Tommy Lee tells to blow all his friends. Or the ones who they get to do unspeakable things with a hotel phone, or the ones who bought them food and drugs when they were struggling. We barely meet any of A&R executive Tom Zutaut’s girlfriends. In the film, Zutaut says: “Don’t leave your girl alone with Mötley Crüe, because they will fuck her.” He doesn’t appear concerned about the agency of the girl – or of the band.

This would maybe be less disturbing if I didn’t have a visceral memory of the real-life Zutaut sharing a story of a different encounter, with a different girlfriend, and a different member of Mötley Crüe declaring he wanted to have sex with her (and doing just that) on VH1’s Do It For the Band: The Girls of the Sunset Strip. A story that ended with Zutaut smirking and saying: “But she could’ve said no.”[2]

*

Roughly 30 minutes into The Dirt, the band is preparing for their first big gig. Mick Mars is terrified, and he wobbles down to the rest of the band, unsteady in his heels, makeup on, pentagram headband tied firmly, studded electric blue harness only somewhat restricting his movements.

And while maybe his deadpan proclamation of “We’re gonna die” is supposed to be funny, his look is not.

It just is.

For once, we’re being invited to look under the surface.

If this doesn’t sound like it matters, consider why people move so quickly to dismiss hair metal as surface-level, empty, image-driven. Maybe the bands were always already the punchline because they embodied a certain level of privileged shittiness. That’s one way to look at it, sure, but it seems like an overly generous read on 80s discourse. We’re invited to laugh at hair metal bands because they borrow the markers of femininity – big hair, makeup, high heels etc. – and many of the fans were women. We don’t have to take this group seriously; they’re just a chick band.

The Dirt doesn’t question the band’s look. It doesn’t give an origin to teased hair and makeup. It’s part of being glam. It’s part of being metal.

It’s part of the story.

Motley Crue's final show at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, December 31, 2015. If I wasn't around to be part of the birth of Hollywood metal, I wanted to at least help say goodbye.

Motley Crue's final show at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, December 31, 2015. If I wasn't around to be part of the birth of Hollywood metal, I wanted to at least help say goodbye.

*

Women aren’t the only characters missing from The Dirt. We meet Tommy Lee when he’s about to see the band London, one of the most pervasive presences on the Strip – a band that seemingly launched a thousand groups. You’d never know it though, from the movie. There is no time for this lineage.

We get an incredible visual of David Lee Roth and the aforementioned Ozzy scene, but other Sunset Strip bands only exist on a marquee: Y&T, Dokken, Quiet Riot (only the first metal band to have an album hit #1 on the charts; it’s fine). We’re informed the punk scene exists. Razzle has to tell the band who he is. As far as the movie is concerned, the whole metal scene on the Strip is adapted, mutated into a vacuum that gives birth to Mötley Crüe. Nikki is lighting himself on fire because he’s proving how punk he is, not to outdo other bands competing for attention from labels.

It feels like a missed opportunity, and not just because the feud between Axl Rose and Vince Neil could have filled a 100-minute movie on its own.

If this adaptation was intended to take metal seriously, to introduce a new generation to sweaty guitar licks and rock horns and headbanging, to show us that teased hair and lipstick and eyeliner and boots were girly and feminine and fucking badass, it could have shown us all the bands that followed in Mötley Crüe’s footsteps. It could have shown us the trail they blazed. It could have shown us that the scene was a living, breathing, pulsing force, that this square mile or so gave birth to a scene that eventually took over.

The Strip: as sponsored by Jack Daniels.

The Strip: as sponsored by Jack Daniels.

*

When the Vince Neil in the Mötley Crüe cover band said he didn’t get women singing along to the lines, “Girl, don’t go away mad; girl, just go away,” I thought: of course not. I didn’t think this unkindly. It’s the natural order. He is a member of the target audience.

The “girl” in the lyric feels like a filler more than anything else. I’ve screamed along to the song on some New Year’s Days after rough years. I’ve sung it with a man in mind, romantically and politically. I’ve casually and probably tunelessly sung along to it simply because it’s a fun chorus. The sentiment is easily adaptable.

Or maybe these are negotiations I’ve become so accustomed to making that I no longer think about them – which is a privilege unto itself.

*

LA Weekly writer Lina Lecaro points out that this isn’t the story of the scene or the girls. That’s a fair take, and she was there, so who am I to call it invalid? But all these years later, the true story of Mötley Crüe is the true story of the Sunset Strip, and the true story of the Sunset Strip is the true story of the girls who supported the bands and packed clubs every night, sharing clothes and makeup with the guys on stage – people at the right place at the right time finding each other.

We can understand how a specific narrative changes over time.

When a narrative has longevity, change is inevitable. That’s the beauty and power of adaptation. That’s why we need more of The Dirt, not less. We don’t need one true story; we need the mess and overlap and challenge and difficulty of many stories.

Maybe now that we’ve established metal matters, we can invite more voices to the narrative. Maybe we can keep looking under the surface. Maybe we can claim this one for our time, for all of us who want it.

You know you've made it when Miller Lite creates a banner for you. There was a rumor that Motley Crue was going to come play at the Whisky the night after their last show, and the place was packed. The wrong time was printed on the tickets, so we lined up on Clark Avenue to see Faster Pussycat, LA Guns, and maybe Motley, and you never would have known what year it was. (They didn't play.)

You know you've made it when Miller Lite creates a banner for you. There was a rumor that Motley Crue was going to come play at the Whisky the night after their last show, and the place was packed. The wrong time was printed on the tickets, so we lined up on Clark Avenue to see Faster Pussycat, LA Guns, and maybe Motley, and you never would have known what year it was. (They didn't play.)

[1] Bortolotti, G. R., & Hutcheon, L. (2007). On the origin of adaptations: Rethinking fidelity discourse and "success"-biologically*. New Literary History, 38(3), 443-458,601-602. Retrieved from https://proxying.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/docview/221382152?accountid=12725

[2] A ten-minute clip of this show has been on YouTube for years but was recently taken down. Zutaut recounts this story in The Dirt on page 94, saying “She didn’t even try to stop him” after Nikki asked if he “minded.”


Amy Rossi's favorite Mötley Crüe song is "Wild Side." Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as Wigleaf and Paper Darts, among others. Find out more at amyrossi.com.