On January 28, journalists gathered inside of Beacher’s Madhouse, the small, windowless amphitheater on the subterranean level of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, to hear the band Mötley Crüe announce its retirement. Inside the room was a stage with a podium and a standard-issue conference table that sat empty in front of a banner that said “All Bad Things Must Come to an End” and “Mötley Crüe: The Final Tour.” At the front of the stage were four tombstones that read “RIP Vince Neil,” “RIP Nikki Sixx,” “RIP Tommy Lee,” and “RIP Mick Mars.” This presented a problem. It wasn’t that any of the listed weren’t actually dead — except in a way it was, but more on that later — but that Vince’s tombstone was larger than the others. A person involved whispered to another person involved, and Vince’s tombstone was taken away. We sat and waited as the room filled with the smell of pot and eventually Vince’s tombstone was returned, the bottom now significantly reduced and closer in size to the others. Now the event was ready to begin. There are a lot of feelings to contend with when dealing with Mötley Crüe.
It was time to make an entrance: The members of Mötley Crüe had pulled up to the hotel in a hearse to announce the demise of their rock band and were waiting for the tombstone thing to settle itself before they came out.
The event, which was billed as a secret press conference but had been advertised on the Internet, was introduced by a tiresome DJ with some kind of history with the band — if an anecdote about the two times they met and the second time Tommy Lee said “You’re still here?!” qualifies as history — who first reminisced about how badass they all were back in “the day,” and how drunk and how drugged and how awesome. “The day,” which was referenced no fewer than 20 times throughout that particular one, happened somewhere in between 1984 and 1991, from what I could surmise.
Before he brought out the band, he introduced a panel of men: Rick Franks, LiveNation’s regional president of North American concerts, who read a speech off a laptop about Mötley Crüe’s legacy; Randy Ortiz, the head of advertising for Dodge, who talked up the new partnership between the car company and the band; the director Jeff Tremaine, of Jackass fame, who discussed his adaptation of Neil Strauss’s tell-some book The Dirt for the screen; Scott Borchetta, founder and president of the Nashville record label Big Machine, who announced that a Mötley Crüe tribute album was being made by a bunch of country music stars — in fact, LeAnn Rimes had just texted him two hours before to say that she was in; and the band’s lawyer, Doug Mark, who explained that this was not just some press conference. No, this was a legal ceremony we were all about to witness: The band was going to sign something called a cessation of touring agreement, the likes of which had never existed before, which would stop any member from ever using the Mötley Crüe trademark again. We were here to watch Mötley Crüe’s suicide. A suicide that was a preamble for a 72-date tour.
Alice Cooper, who will be opening for the band during this last tour — teased hair, ruffled shirt, lived-in body, what women’s magazines would call a smoky eye — came out next and explained: Everyone’s fucking up rock and roll. Corporate deals, streaming services, Mumford & Sons, particularly Mumford & Sons. You either get out, like Mötley Crüe, or you stay to try to be a good example, like Uncle Alice here. Mötley Crüe wanted to go out on top, not stay past its welcome and become county fair fare, or corporate shills (pan to the guy from Dodge, nodding and smiling). Alice explained that this wasn’t a farewell tour, this was the final tour. Other bands had farewell tours. That was how they capitalized on fan sentimentality and took their money, only to “reunite” in a few years and tour again. Farewell tours are for suckers. This was the full-on end of all touring forever. After today, there would be no Mötley Crüe. Well, after that 72-date tour. And then maybe if, like, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came and asked them to perform, maybe, but nothing definite. And there was the Dodge deal. And everyone kept saying “merch” over and over. But this was the end of Mötley Crüe. Really. This wasn’t some bullshitty Fleetwood Mac or Eagles breakup. This was real.
The band members came out, trepidatious and lethargic, and took their seats at the table. The drummer Tommy Lee, in mirrored aviators, a red bandanna, and black cap, has the skin quality and mannerisms of Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad but the goofiness of Tommy Lee from the Tommy Lee sex tapes. He didn’t say much, just smiled and didn’t smile and smiled again. Guitarist Mick Mars is a character straight out of This Is Spinal Tap, all alabaster skin with long black hair, Wayfarers, and a meandering out-of-it-ness. He’s 63, more than 10 years older than the youngest member of the band, but he seems even older because of a chronic inflammatory arthritis condition called ankylosing spondylitis. Bass player Nikki Sixx, in rose-colored aviators, is the surprisingly handsome, surprisingly erudite mouthpiece of the band. He has true metal-band hair, black and over-processed, straight on bottom, There’s Something About Mary on top.
Singer Vince Neil is another story. He still looks like Vince Neil, if Vince Neil were an aging Brentwood housewife: bleached hair blown out, fried from too much processing. His skin is shiny and puffy and he has a belly now and an apple shape that his gray blazer, which he wore with a T-shirt, and slacks with expensive-looking loafers couldn’t quite obscure. He was miserable at this press conference, as he was throughout the day, never making eye contact or even smiling politely or looking like anything other than a spoiled kid on his way to the dentist. Earlier, he’d asked the publicist to make sure nobody wanted to take pictures with him.
“The last impression is the lasting impression,” a 54-year-old woman named Lisa had told me two hours before as we’d waited for the Madhouse to open. She’s a lactation consultant and a perinatal educator (“I know! It’s boobs and vagina and Crüe!”) who had won a fan club contest — one ticket to see the press conference. The only thing is, the confirmation email had told her that the press conference was the night before at 11:15 p.m. when really it was this morning at 11:15 a.m. Lisa had turned around and driven back to Irvine, more than an hour, and came back again that morning. She was sad the band is breaking up, but she’s also realistic. “The last thing I want is for them to become some sort of county fair band. I’m their age. It’s time to move on.” When Lisa was younger she had been the fan club president for Three Dog Night, a band that has suffered that exact fate, and it breaks her heart every time she thinks about it. (She is grateful that Cheap Trick is still around, though.)
Brenda, a 42-year-old schoolteacher who had flown in from Phoenix, also won the contest. She was dressed in a sequined shirt, leather jacket, and heels that probably seemed more appropriate last night, but what are you going to do? You have to adapt. This is it. It’s over soon. She wasn’t going to miss this. She was supposed to take an early flight back home this morning and go to work today after the press conference last night, but didn’t of course, because it’s not the band’s fault that the contest fucked up. She called in to work, not bothering to lie. When she introduces herself to a new class each September, she goes on about what a Mötley Crüe obsessive she is. In her house, she has what she calls a Crüe Cave, like a man cave but with a white leather sofa signed by band members that she won in a radio station auction for $300. She understood it’s over, too, and agreed it’s best that they go out on top. But, gosh, what to do now?
Back in the day, but really before the day, before they got famous, the guys used to walk around Hollywood and say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if bands got stars, too?” Now they have one. All they’d ever wanted was to play the Whisky and maybe be the biggest band in Los Angeles — “which we are,” Nikki later said. (No word on how this got measured, or where the Red Hot Chili Peppers or even Maroon 5 fit in this estimate.) The morning before the press conference they’d hung out with a Maxim reporter at the Whisky as CBS This Morning shot a segment. What seems like it will be unimaginably exciting gets old fast. For a bunch of thrill-seekers who had their own plane, traveled the world, had sex with 10 women in a day sometimes, and toyed with their mortality over and over, there’s really not much left to do.
A few minutes after the press conference, on the seventh floor of the Roosevelt, Mick and Tommy sat on a sofa beneath an old Ron Galella photo of Debbie Harry.
“There are a lot of people bummed but a lot of people get it,” Tommy told an interviewer from VH1. “This will be a good time to tap out.”
The band was split up for junket interviews following the press conference, separated based on who got along better. The friendships in the band are notoriously tumultuous, but today, following the signing of the document, everyone was mellow. Détente was in the air. Mick and Tommy clinked VH1 mikes like they were wine glasses and laughed. “This is going to be a lot like a bitching wake,” said Mick.
Mötley Crüe is very much a band about death and mortality. Its songs are occupied by the devil and by death and its near misses, with good reason. In 1984, Vince was drunk-driving a car with members of the band Hanoi Rocks when he lost control and crashed, killing the band’s drummer. Vince had a daughter named Skylar who died from cancer when she was 4 years old. During the height of their addictions, Nikki had OD’ed on heroin one night and actually died for two minutes in an ambulance before being revived, Pulp Fiction–style, with two shots of adrenaline to the heart by the medic, who happened to be a fan. (When he tells this story, he includes that the paramedic was a fan of the band, as if that’s the reason he took extreme measures to revive him.) When Nikki recovered, he wrote “Kickstart My Heart.” It routinely plays on stages that are engulfed in pyrotechnic flame. If this announcement, with its hearses and headstones, seems a little on the nose, it’s because death has been a theme throughout their careers.
“What was it like for all four of you to be up there together again?” asked a journalist, whom everyone was nice to even though she didn’t really sound like she knew what she was talking about. They hadn’t been broken up except briefly in 1991, when Vince left the band either because he was fired or because he quit, and then in 1999 when Tommy left because he couldn’t be around Vince anymore. They reunited in 2005 with a new album and embarked on, yes, a farewell tour — one no journalist who encountered them that day brought up or maybe even knew about. Or maybe it was just too awkward to confront them: Those bands they were talking about, the ones that break up and get back together? That’s them.
“Mötley Crüe has five members,” said Mick, not really answering. “The fifth member is in Tommy’s pants.” Everyone has heard this joke before, but still they laugh. Mick is clueless sometimes, and he makes dad jokes, but Tommy feels protective of him and so he laughs and puts his arm around him and poses for pictures with crossed eyes and a stuck-out tongue that descends like a pink staircase down his chin.
The journalist asked how they’d like to be remembered. Tommy had to think, but Mick knew right away. He’s faced the limits of his body in a way that Tommy, who has simply filmed the limits of his body, has not. Mick hopes that as time goes by, he’ll be treated the way he believes Jimmy Page is treated, like people would watch him go by and whisper with awe to each other, “Oh my god there goes Mick Mars!” He recounts this as if it’s happening, his hand stretched out to a ghost of himself.
What Tommy said was this: “I’ve always wanted to blow people’s minds, either on the drums or in my personal life.” Left unsaid: I’ve done that. Turn the page.
More than anything, they don’t want to be associated with what’s going on now in music — the lip-synching, the synchronized dancing, the banjos. The Grammys had been the Sunday before and all four of them were left to wonder where the hell the rockers went. Banjos? Not banjos, please not banjos. Anything but banjos.
Three floors below, in an almost identical room but with a Galella photo of Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger on the wall of this one, Vince and Nikki spoke with a different reporter. On the table was a fruit platter, Saran Wrap still covering it, and on the muted TV, Fox News was going on about Hillary and Benghazi.
The reporter wanted clarification on the cessation of touring agreement: It’s clear that none of them could perform as Mötley Crüe alone, but what about if they all decided, in a few years, that they wanted to get back together? What then?
“You journalists keep looking for a loophole,” Nikki laughed through his nose, annoyed, disappointed, sneering. “There are no loopholes. This is over.” But the journalists didn’t seem to be looking for a loophole — merely asking a logistical question about whether they’d reunite for, say, a Super Bowl halftime show or something. What else are you supposed to ask at these things?
Vince, meanwhile, just sat and stared straight ahead, answering only questions that were directed at him and only in as few words as possible.
Between interviews, as a Japanese TV crew set up, Vince stood up and stared out the window onto Hollywood Boulevard, where adults dressed as Superman and Puss in Boots take pictures with tourists and children for tips. He checked his iPhone and looked outside again. Below, a new star was being carved out in the sidewalk for some producer no one had ever heard of. Across the street was Madame Tussauds wax museum, a place that specializes in capturing artists at their peak, freezing them right before their downfalls begin.
The Japanese guys asked what they were going to do next. Nikki has his band Sixx: A.M., and he’s into photography. He recently traveled across Canada chronicling addiction through photographs. Vince has a chain of restaurants and a strip club in Vegas, where he lives, but says that music will always be a part of him.
Nikki thanked the interviewer for asking about music, which the interviewer hadn’t. Everyone else had been asking about money. (Somewhere, that Dodge guy is still smiling and nodding.) Some interviewer before had asked about another album, but while they won’t officially comment, Nikki said albums are no way to make money lately. They’re a lot of effort for very little payoff. The world has changed, he said. It’s not the way it used to be.
What no one asked them about was each other: What now with each other? Would they attend each other’s kids’ bar mitzvahs, maybe show up and surprise the world at Coachella some year? But really, what will they do without each other? It can’t be that easy. It can’t be that you sign a document and they are no longer part of you. A signature doesn’t exorcise a comrade from your weary, kick-started heart.
And they didn’t bring it up, either. (I might have, but at no point throughout the day did anyone make eye contact with me. For a while, I wondered if I perhaps no longer existed, but then eventually I realized I was a brunette in her late thirties, and that they couldn’t actually see me: I wasn’t on their register, the way humans can’t hear a dog whistle.)
What was most important to them was their legacy, that they be remembered. Nikki doesn’t have a lot of faith in what’s going on in rock and roll now — the banjos, the banjos, the banjos — but he does have some hope that there are garage bands out there still slugging it out in his version of rock and roll’s good name, and he hopes that while they’re doing it, they’re thinking of Mötley Crüe and knowing it can be done.
The junket ended, and the next time they appeared was four hours later, behind the wheel in Dodge Challengers, each with a different rented young woman in the passenger seat (Dodge provided both the cars and the ladies), driving the roughly 400 feet from the Roosevelt to the alley behind the theater where Jimmy Kimmel Live tapes. There was a barricade to prevent a cluster — big enough to need a barricade but small enough to seem inconsequential — of big-haired fan-men and severe metal ladies from rushing them. The man who dresses up as Superman for the tourists on Hollywood Boulevard also stood behind the barricade.
Jimmy Kimmel’s booker hadn’t wanted them on the show. She hadn’t believed they were really breaking up this time, and the show didn’t want to be associated with a retirement gag that resulted in another farewell concert a few years later. The booker relented, granting them two songs at the end of the show but no interview, a hedged bet.
They went into their dressing rooms to change. Someone in the green room who was there in support of Jimmy’s other guest, Morgan Freeman, mentioned they hadn’t realized that Mötley Crüe was still together. But they are. They had performed in two legs of a nearly sold-out residency at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas that ended late last year. Someone else asked why you’d have to go through a breakup in the first place. Can’t you just stop performing? That’s a good question, but it belies a basic misunderstanding about the band in general. These are all addicts, people who need guidelines and rules and bars between them and the thing they keep returning to, which, in this case, is each other. They’re also people who don’t know how to behave themselves properly (Vince dated Pamela Anderson before Tommy ever did) and how to stop themselves from doing things that are destructive (Pamela and Tommy reunited no fewer than three times before calling it quits for good). They themselves have broken up and reconciled more than four times.
Sure, there’s a document that can prevent them from performing without each other. But in legal terms, there’s no such thing as an enforceable document that can prevent them from reconciling, reuniting, and kick-starting this thing all over again. They sat in that junket, swearing over and over that this was it. That this was the end. They can’t stay away from each other, but perhaps the potential humiliation of making these promises (again) and going back on them (again) will help this breakup take. Girl, don’t go away mad. Girl, just go away.
And perhaps the fact that metal is over and rock and roll has changed will help to enforce this agreement; it took four years for their most recent album, Saints of Los Angeles, to achieve gold status. Mötley, as they call themselves, were of a time, and time has soldiered on. During the reporting of this story, as I took notes, my iPhone kept auto-correcting “Kickstart” to “Kickstarter,” and what better harbinger of the end is there than a computer announcing your irrelevance?
They are letting go tentatively, and not completely. Sure, Tommy will be playing drums on the Smashing Pumpkins’ next album. The adaptation of Neil Strauss’s book will someday get cast, though with the band members listed as producers, I wouldn’t count on consensus about anything. This is not the end of Mötley Crüe. It can’t be, because Dodge is smarter than that. It can’t be, because the band members won’t allow it. It can’t be, because I have tickets to see them at the Hollywood Bowl in July. It is, they say. It is. But methinks the girls girls girls doth protest too much.
You can forgive them their ambivalence. This is not how they wanted to say good-bye. Years ago, on a plane to some concert or another — who can remember at this point? — they discussed the best way they could retire: to go down in a plane crash, all four of them. That’s it, done. But it didn’t happen, no matter how many plane rides they took together, no matter how much heroin they injected, no matter how many times they kissed the edges of fate. None of the ways they fantasized about dying actually happened, even the ones they tempted, like chemicals ingested and fires set. They waited and waited. They shouted at the devil. They did advanced pyrotechnics on the stage of their residency at The Joint. Maybe that would do it. But no, the residency ended and it was over and the fire marshal had never been called even once.
“I never thought we’d make it to 10 years,” Nikki told the Japanese interviewer. “I’d always thought we’d flame out like the Sex Pistols.”
It became clear that they might grow old and die the normal way. So this is what they came up with: a deal with Dodge, a press conference with some lawyers, followed by the usual repeat cycle of junket questions. Thirty-three years now. Same old fruit platter still covered by Saran Wrap. Same old hotel rooms. Same old, same old situation.
As the sun went down, the crowd gathered into the parking lot behind the Kimmel theater, which had been transformed into a small concert venue. There were plenty of metal types there, people who still wear their hair big and have tattoos and make their hands into the signs of the devil. And that was sort of touching, to see these throwbacks who used to travel in packs — who used to rule — just standing out as oddballs alone, reunited among one another. Rob Caggiano of Volbeat, but formerly of Anthrax, was there, sucking on an e-cigarette. Duff McKagan from the original Guns N’ Roses was there too.
Later the band came onstage, dressed now in tight jeans and fingerless gloves and denim and leather jackets with no sleeves.
“Are you alive?” Vince screamed at the crowd in that bizarre Vince Neil voice. His eyes were electric, his skin sweaty, his hair damp and frizzy. But we’d been alive this whole time; it was he who was finally joining us. He had been revived, he’d been kick-started like Nikki had been so many years ago. He skipped around the small stage like a caged animal, spitting, cursing; he was giddy in a way that just a few hours before, as he stared forlornly out the window at Madame Tussauds, had seemed impossible.
Nikki wandered over to Tommy and played his bass up at him; Tommy banged his drums back down, tongue sloppily wagging. Mick wandered around in his stoic Mick way, just walking and playing, commanding this territory like he might not be able to do for much longer. Vince, whose energy expenditure is remarkably low compared to the connection he achieves with the audience, commanded the night. He came to the edge of the stage, barking “HWOAH! HYEAH!” and pointing at the crowd in the silence between screams. It was over, but endings aren’t quite so black-and-white. There had been so much dying today, but there was a little life in them yet. It would never be OK that they didn’t die young, so they might as well die rich. They would use what they had left to go down hard and swinging, this band that everyone hadn’t even been sure was still a band. For a few more minutes, here was one last stab at living.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner (@taffyakner) writes about culture, business, health, and emotion in Los Angeles.