(1) Mötley Crüe, "dr. feelgood"
(9) faster pussycat, "poison ivy"
and plays on in the sweet 16
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/17.
DEATH, RESURRECTION, AND ROCK & ROLL: JENNIFER RICE EPSTEIN ON MÖTLEY CRÜE'S "DR. FEELGOOD"
Imagine, if you would, that it’s 1816: Alessandro Volta has invented his battery and Benjamin Franklin has flown his famous kite, but neither Thomas Edison nor Nikola Tesla is yet born. Mary Godwin is hanging out with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in Villa Diodati, a house in Switzerland once occupied by John Milton. It is a literal dark and stormy night, and Lord Byron suggests that everyone writes ghost stories. Byron starts a vampire horror story but never finishes it; Percy Shelley abandons the project almost immediately; and Mary Godwin, who would become Percy’s wife later that year, writes Frankenstein.
The good doctor for whom the book is named has animated a body composed of dead parts using a science based loosely on theories of electricity—a result that births not man but monster. It’s a book very much of its time, perfectly encapsulating the anxieties of the early 19th century, when technology and scientific discovery were rapidly evolving (in addition to being a book very much about the horror and anxiety of parenthood). And it peeks at advances that are indeed, to come: future generations with faulty hearts and kidneys and eyes will have these organs replaced by cadavers. They’ll walk among us—miracles, not monsters.
Others still will die, however briefly, and be resurrected. This is what will happen to Nikki Sixx, the bassist and lead lyricist for Mötley Crüe, in 1987. Sixx had been introduced to heroin in 1983, and by ‘87, he was in the throes of deep addiction.
His hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes.
That’s a quote from Frankenstein, but it sets the scene beautifully. Sixx himself was beautiful—the whole band was. Informed by punk rock and glam, enamored of New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols and Kiss, the boys of Crüe, who ranged in age from 24 to 32 (or 36—sources differ on what year Mick Mars, the oldest band member, was born), exhibited the kind of bravado, beauty, and charming immaturity particular to rock stars.
If the Jigsaw Jimmy of “Dr. Feelgood” owned L.A.’s drug scene, the members of Mötley Crüe owned the Sunset Strip. Their previous album, Girls, Girls, Girls, had reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. They were beloved and reviled by all the right people. If they wanted to make a high-concept video where they played their instruments in an inexplicably aflame junk yard that is also somehow a tent, nobody was going to stop them.
Sixx had a mansion in Van Nuys, about 15 miles north of Sunset. It was a party pad (years later, when it went on the market, the Realtor called it “an entertainer’s dream”), but he spent his nights there shooting cocaine and heroin—the combination of which induced paranoia. He’d become convinced that someone was spying on him, so he’d trigger the panic button on his home alarm. When the company responded, he would threaten to shoot them, sure that they were the intruders in disguise. These nights would end with him alone, cowering in his bedroom closet, lost even to the social aspects of the rockstar hedonism of which he writes. Dr. Feelgood was turning him into a monster.
But who was Dr. Feelgood? Perhaps it was the man Sixx, in his memoir The Heroin Diaries, calls Jason. Jason, a drug dealer whom Sixx calls an egomaniac, pursues him even as he tries to get clean, going so far as to leave his number in the mailbox after Sixx literally builds a fence to keep him out. But Jason also helps him wean himself off heroin—a plan that works, at least for a few weeks. So maybe Dr. Feelgood is Sacha, the limo driver/dealer who supplies Sixx in New York, then moves to L.A. to connect with him in the fall of 1987, just after he’s fallen off the wagon again. Somebody’s getting paid, and Nikki is one reliable customer. His habit is costing him thousands of dollars every week.
Absent from “Dr. Feelgood” is the addict—the song is, oddly, from the point of view of the dealer. I suppose it would have harmed Sixx’s image to write a song about being naked and afraid in your own walk-in closet, or waking up next to a groupie having wet the bed. This is metal: vulnerability replaced with bravado, fear with guitars. It’s what I love and hate about it.
While the unglamourous man sells sugar to the sweet on the streets of Los Angeles, other Dr. Feelgoods are popping up in high rises and hospital buildings across the country. A couple of years before Nikki Sixx got his first taste of heroin, Dr. Hershel Jick wrote, in a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, that “despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare…” His five-sentence letter opened the door to the ubiquitous prescription of opioid painkillers, and with it, widespread addiction.
These days, Sixx is 16 years clean and writes earnestly about the opioid epidemic, including a recent Op-Ed in the L.A. Times. According to the CDC, nearly 42,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016—and that doesn’t count the thousands who, like Nikki, were resurrected. Whereas Nikki’s dealers were the kinds of predators I thought only existed in DARE narratives, these Ivy-educated Dr. Feelgoods surely pushed opioids with the best of intentions. Like Victor Frankenstein, they were victims of their own hubris.
Dr. Hershel Jick is speaking up these days, too. The man who almost single-handedly set off the opioid crisis regrets the harm he has caused. He gave a measured apology in an NPR interview last year, saying he’d “take it back” if he could. I can’t help but imagine that in his most despairing hours, Jick feels the isolation and confusion of Frankenstein.
By the end of Frankenstein, Victor tears apart a second creature that would have been the monster’s companion—he has seen the consequences of playing god and wants no part of it. Eventually, he dies alone, bereft, literally drifting on an ice floe after having told his story.
We don’t learn the fate of Nikki’s dealers—not in his memoir. In the song, Jimmy is finally caught by the law but his interior life is as absent as it was in the first line. We don’t know if the real Jimmy regrets his role, if he’s living or dead, if he too was in the grip of addiction or merely a supplier.
But isn’t it something that he’s called Jigsaw Jimmy? I’ve wondered what to make of that nickname—maybe he had a massive scar across his face, or used his coked-up energy assembling mighty puzzles. But I keep landing on the idea of Jimmy as the sum of disparate parts, a hybrid of companionship or even well-meaning and danger. It brings to mind the common error where people call Frankenstein’s monster Frankenstein. Frankenstein is doctor, not the monster. Except, of course, he’s both.
Jennifer Rice Epstein is a fiction writer and journalist living in Long Beach, California. She has written for dozens of publications including Los Angeles, LA Weekly, The Millions, Flaunt, Vice Sports and The Morning News. Her heavy metal phase lasted from 5th grade until her freshman year of high school, when Nevermind was released and her head exploded. She is pictured sitting on a 1955 Pontiac station wagon that her father promised to fix up for her and never did. She was planning to have it painted pink and orange.
amy rossi on faster pussycat's "poison ivy"
This is a story about timing.
It’s the story of a band who came along at the right moment.
And it’s the story of woman thirty years later finding just what she needs when she needs it.
Faster Pussycat formed in 1985, a perfect year to be playing sleaze/glam/hair metal. They were barely out of their teens (or barely out of high school, in the case of guitarist Brent Muscat). Around that same time, lead singer Taime Downe and his roommate, future Headbangers Ball host Riki Rachtman, started the Cathouse, a nightclub open every Tuesday that only played rock. It quickly gained traction among big names in Hollywood and metal fans alike.
Rachtman’s and Downe’s goals for the Cathouse were basically to have a place to party and meet girls without having to clean up, but it became an indelible part of the scene. If you need further proof: Axl Rose wears a Cathouse tee shirt in the “Paradise City” video.
And of course several segments of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years were filmed at the Cathouse, including the performance of Faster Pussycat singing “Cathouse.”
There is something so gloriously excessive, so perfectly decadent about picking the same name for your song and your nightclub. It doesn’t matter to me which came first. The tipping point for hair metal (I know many bristle at the term, but having come along later, I always called it that) is this: either you like things being pushed past their logical point of excess or you don’t.
“Poison Ivy,” much like Faster Pussycat themselves, embodies so much of what makes hair metal good. Because whatever your preferred nomenclature, this kind of metal is good, and at its best, it’s the most un-ironic, actual fun you can have. The song pulls in blues rock influences, complemented by a caterwauling vocal and a textured, sing-a-long chorus. (Faster Pussycat has the best choruses.) It’s filthy, sexy fun. The writing is clever, and the level of musicianship is strong. And it’s drenched with sleaze, including the line So this is how you get your kicks, licking up everything after me, which is so delightfully raunchy, I don’t even know how to finish this sentence. All in all, “Poison Ivy” is a completely underrated track from a completely underrated band.
Faster Pussycat was the first band from this era that I fell for as an adult, as opposed to the ones I loved from Monsters of Rock commercials and the Big Hair Show (hosted by Mark Arson on 106.1 WRDU every Friday night from nine to midnight), both of which had untapped my teenage desires circa 1999-2002. In 2015, when I was elbow-deep in research for a novel project taking place on the Sunset Strip in the 1980s, studying The Decline of Western Civ and interviews with Almost Famous-style Band-Aids who supported guys in Hollywood metal bands, Faster Pussycat—a little rawer, a little edgier than a lot of what I’d listened to—became first inescapable and then necessary.
I had been waffling about flying to Los Angeles for Mötley Crüe's final show on New Year’s Eve when I checked the lineup at the Whisky. 1/1/16: Faster Pussycat and LA Guns. That sealed the deal. I needed to go to LA not just for book research, but for me. I needed to line up on Clark Street to get into the Whisky, bang my head, scope out the old Riot House, drink Jack and Coke at the Rainbow. It, too, was past the logical point of excess. So it had to happen.
There’s a scene in Decline of Western Civ where Penelope Spheeris is pressing the guys in Faster Pussycat about their goals, their music, their finances. When Brent Muscat reveals how much it costs for them to be on the road, Spheeris is surprised and concerned. Taime Downe quickly interjects with the most self-aware sentence uttered in the whole documentary (non-Lemmy division): “Well, we’re new.” The impression then is of a band who understands how all this works and doesn’t let that stand in the way of having a good time.
If you google Faster Pussycat, the preview text for their website calls them the Kings of Sleeze and “the premiere sound from the underground.” This is true in both senses: their music, in all its sleazy (or sleezy), raunchy glory, wants to pull you down to the gutter where the real party lives, and also, they were going to do their own thing. (Even their power ballad doesn’t fit the mold.)
There are a few people who say the timing of Faster Pussycat’s debut album hurt them because Appetite for Destruction was released about two weeks later. This seems apocryphal. Some things just happen to flourish in the underground, which makes the pleasure of discovery that much greater.
The video for “Poison Ivy” further cements Faster Pussycat’ aesthetic as a group of dudes who were doing it their own way. If you watch it on mute, you might think it was that power ballad—for other bands, that’s usually when the black and white, life on the road footage is rolled out, contrasted against dramatic posing in front of a backdrop.
I spoke to Brent Muscat on the phone (a sentence I still can’t believe is a thing I can type), and he explained that the video was reshot while they were touring because their drummer was arrested for shipping himself drugs. The black and white footage introduces the new drummer, Brett Bradshaw. “It was important to show that we were still out there,” Muscat said of the replacement clips. This unplanned change takes the video in a different direction, offering an almost tender depiction of the band as they bowl, goof around, dance. Just some guys, living their best lives.
Neither those moments nor the ones of them singing in front of the world’s highest powered wind machine seem to have anything to do with the song. Maybe not lyrically. But the mood and the music—fun, loose, somehow both grounded and reveling in it all—it’s there.
I was nervous the night I walked down to the Whisky to see Faster Pussycat. I had been looking forward to traveling alone, to drinking it all in. But walking to the subway to the Staples Center for Mötley Crüe the night before, I was followed and harassed by some guy who saw a woman on her own as a target. It became so intense that I ended up running out of the station to get a Lyft. Once I was safe inside the Staples Center, I was able to have a great time, but I was unsettled. Worried about how I was dressed, how I walked, how I occupied space. And there, I’d had a seat. At the Whisky, I would have to stake my spot.
The tickets said doors opened a good two hours before they actually did, so I dutifully waited in a line that curled up Clark Street. Questionable footwear choice aside, I loved it, listening to everything around me, the memories, the traffic on the Strip. I was transported in time, just like I had wanted.
The Whisky was much smaller inside than I’d pictured, but getting a spot near the stage wasn’t so bad at first, since there were a few opening bands. What I didn’t think about was what would happen when I had to go to the bathroom. If you’re with someone, they save your spot. If you’re not, you have to find another way to muscle back to where you were standing. Right before the final opening act took the stage, I worked up the nerve to ask a very tall stranger who’d probably never had to factor in such things for his concert-going experience if he’d save my space.
Honestly, I don’t remember if Faster Pussycat played “Poison Ivy” that night—not because I was drunk, but in the way that the harder you want to take in everything, the easier it slips through your hands. I remember their cathartic cover of “Killed By Death,” as Lemmy had just passed away a few days before. I remember screaming along and swiveling my hips and taking up my space amid raised phones and rock horns. All I needed was to be there.
I remember feeling like the best version of myself.
As far as I can tell, there are two great sins an 80s metal band can commit now: aging—the continued shock on the part of some concert reviewers that someone might be heavier, slower, and/or balder than they were thirty years ago astounds me—and touring without the “real band.” And these are sins of time. They ask us to ponder our own aging. They ask us to consider what it means that your music taste hasn’t changed when everything around you has. They ask us to realize that relationships forged in one’s late teens or early twenties might change.
In a 2015 interview with the Miami New Times, Downe himself acknowledged, “We were never a huge band.” They are the premiere sound of the underground, after all. But, he continued, they still get to go out and play a bunch of nights out of the year.
On the phone, Muscat, who recently released the single “Tomeka” with his new band Saints of Las Vegas, expressed how lucky and blessed he feels. “We made some great records,” he said. “We’re a part of history, of Sunset Strip sleaze metal.”
The personnel evolves. New projects take flight. But the clubs are still full. The music—and the interest—is still there. Because when it comes at the right time, it stays.
Of course, this isn’t March Seminal Rock N’ Roll Scene Creators or March This Band Is Deeply Meaningful to Me In a Way I Could Not Have Foreseen. It’s March Shredness, so the question is, does “Poison Ivy” shred, on its own and relative to the song on the other side of this page? And the answer is absofuckinglutely.
Muscat listened to it while we talked, pointing out techniques and sharing how certain moments came to be. “There was sort of a phrase from the verse, I remember that when we were in the studio, I worked up to the harmony of it,” he said, noting the lick when it arrives. Because he and Greg Steele shared lead and rhythm guitar duties, he explained, they both have their own distinct parts during the solo. His comes in at the second half, an elastic, hip-shimmying groove that he described as funky and upbeat, a “basic rock and roll bluesy solo.” What more could you want?
The song shredded then and it shreds now. In shreds in a way that’s so youthful and joyful and danceable and decadent that you might forget how hard it’s actually shredding. Don’t worry. It’ll come sneaking up right behind you.
So there’s no nostalgia when it comes to me and Faster Pussycat. This is what I like. This is what I have chosen, or has chosen me. Howling vocals and the halfway unintelligible lyrics and the blistering guitar and the way it all coalesces into something that is more than the sum of its parts.
When I listen to Faster Pussycat, I don’t think about my teenaged self. I don’t associate the songs with ex-boyfriends or old crushes. They are mine and mine alone. I think about who I could be. I think about being a woman by herself in a nightclub, claiming her spot. I think about wearing a leather miniskirt and a tank top with a detached neck cuff, and no one around to question that look. I think about walking down Sunset Strip to see a band I love like so many other women have done in decades past, and pretending it’s 1986, not 2016, imagining myself as one of the girls handing out flyers or hanging out in the parking lot behind the Rainbow. I think about the spaces we fit into when we let go.
And I think about the now. We can’t help our timing, but we’re still here, aren’t we, still singing along, and isn’t that beautiful.
Amy Rossi is a writer living in North Carolina. Her fiction has recently appeared online at matchbook, CHEAP POP, and Synaesthesia Magazine. She blogs intermittently about 80s metal music videos at amyrossi.com/big-hair-video-lair.