April 12, 2008
Reviewed: "The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star by Nikki Sixx (Pocket Books).
Sixx, the '80s hair rocking bassist for Motley Crue, offers to the public the memoirs of his drug-addled stardom -- if only he could admit he had fun.
Bad books can still be important. This one, which is so bad it's unintentionally funny, still represents an epochal cultural moment: the final trickle-down of a formerly elitist narrative invented by Lord Byron, the wildly talented English 18th century poet, into a sleazy plotline used and abused by a man representing the very bottom of the demographic pyramid -- Nikki Sixx, bass guitarist of '80s rock band Mötley Crüe.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), was, among other things, the greatest English poet of the past two centuries, recognized as such everywhere except England and America. He was also the first and finest incarnation of the self-destructive superstar. In fact, stardom didn't just happen; it was invented by Byron. He showed the rest of the world how to be a star -- the whole storyline of early fame, wild decadence, bitter exile and a lonely, heroic death. Byron's death came in Greece, where he ended up after a lifetime of fleeing southward and eastward from his home in what he scornfully called "the moral North." Greece was in rebellion against the Ottoman Turks, and Byron died of fever while funding, training and trying to negotiate consensus among the rebel factions.
It didn't take long for that genuinely heroic death to be reduced to its lowest common denominator: "live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse." By our time, it's pretty much all you have to do -- as long as you are famous when you die. That goes without saying; there's no love lost when an anonymous loser dies, but if a celebrity dies young and pretty, the whole culture explodes in masturbatory frenzy officially presented as "grief."
Nikki Sixx, of course, may never have heard of Byron. The Byronic story came to him through more recent versions. There's a whole subgenre of Bohemian-druggie tales to borrow from, and Nikki (or his ghostwriter) borrows freely, starting with his title, a clear echo of The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll's 1987 record of his descent from star jock to hopeless junky. Carroll's book itself represented a clear point on the graph by which this elitist tale makes its way down toward the Wal-Mart crowd: Carroll was a protege/mascot of the NYC Beat scene whose greatest practicioner, William Burroughs, wrote the best American versions of druggie-in-purgatory, including Junkie (1953), which our own Nikki Sixx cites approvingly. Nikki sees it as his job to take this often-abused plotline further down the pop parade to where it has never gone before, and probably never should have gone at all: hair metal. And he manages to come back alive, in case you were worried.
Mötley Crüe is a band most people old enough to remember have tried hard to forget. Mötley was huge in the mid-1980s. I didn't realize how big until I read the diary entry in which Nikki whines that his manager sent his latest paycheck to his home while he was on tour. The check is for $650,000. I'd bet that that's more than really talented American bands of the 1980s like Husker Du made in their entire career.
The Mötley Crüe era was of course a low point in pop history. Nikki actually calls himself "a dreg." I've never heard that word used in the singular before, but it fits. This guy is the ultimate dreg. He does decadence strictly by the numbers. He even considers killing his girlfriend, because after all, the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend. And there's no pleasure in it. Part of that is the big lie in American culture that celebrity decadence always arises from and falls back into some private "pain." But Nikki really doesn't seem to like sex that much. The only part that he really seems to enjoy is the drugs, and since he's incapable of effective description, you have to infer his pleasure from the sheer doggedness with which he gets high.
And his drug stories are full of lies and bathos. The most interesting lie is the deflection of blame to heroin, when it's clear that Nikki was never a junky. He's a cokehead, a classic L.A. white-trash cokehead. So why is this called The Heroin Diaries? Because Nikki's publisher realized cocaine is too sleazy and too 1970s to interest anybody. Heroin, which only entered the middle-class California druggie's repertoire in the 1980s, still retains some of its exotic, forbidden appeal.
Occasionally he slips up, admitting that he does much more coke than smack, admitting at one point, "I'm not having [my dealer] bring smack very often but my coke intake is up 1,000%." And since Nikki's typical binge ends in paranoia, with our hero locked in the walk-in closet of his mansion hearing voices outside, it's clear that it's the coke, not the smack, messing with him.
Yet heroin that gets the blame when Nikki's retarded band mates discuss his descent to what Tommy Lee calls "a dark fucking place." If you've spent any time in L.A. you've probably met guys like this. For them, cocaine is simply part of a normal healthy diet, whereas heroin is just plain evil. Odd, because among intelligent druggies opiates get a lot of respect, while coke is simply despised. For serious drug people there are two ways to go: up with some variety of speed, or down with some kind of opiate. Coke is scorned as a short-acting verbal emetic, a silly drug for moneyed trash. The only intellectuals who took it seriously were Freud and Sherlock Holmes -- one a half-baked intellectual who masqueraded his literary criticism as therapy, postponing effective treatment for schizophrenia and depression by generations, the other an apotheosized peeping tom, who of course never really existed. Indeed, both were nasty voyeurs; perhaps that's a feature of coke addiction too.
Opiates, by contrast, have been the drug of choice for an astonishing number of the really talented people of the last few centuries: Coleridge, de Quincy, Poe, Donald Goines, Jean Cocteau, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix. And prescription opiates are still the choice of L.A.'s upper class, which is why when one of the stars is arrested, their glove compartments are always full of perfectly legal percodan or Demerol. (If you're a star, you see, you can get special prescriptions which are issued after your arrest but dated weeks before.)
Of course injected street heroin has a terrible potential for fatal overdoses, because you don't know the purity of the dose until it's already in your bloodstream. What no one seems to realize is that this too is a side effect of Prohibition. When you make a drug illegal, you are encouraging smugglers to import it in the most concentrated, potent form available, then charge insanely high prices for infinitesmal amounts. In the case of heroin, these quantities are so tiny that the drug must be injected to be effective. Without Prohibition, quantity and content would be clear, and people would be free to smoke opium in legal dens. In such conditions, accidental overdoses are rare. Conversely, in countries like Iran which prohibit that allegedly safe, mainstream drug, alcohol, many users die or go blind from ingesting street booze laced with the usual variety of poisons. Prohibition kills far more people than "drugs."
Alas, even educated Americans are too intimidated to point this out. In a provincial, Puritan society like ours, nothing is worse than your neighbors' disapproval, and speaking up against the drug laws can get you whispered about. And if Nikki's betters won't speak out honestly on the topic, we can hardly expect him and his idiot hessian friends to get it. So naturally, they're all eager to blame heroin, "the worst drug in the world." They're also in love with its notoriety -- hence the book's title.
A roadie explains that at first, nobody worried because everyone thought Nikki, like his hair twin Tommy Lee, "was just snorting coke and drinking." And after all, mixing cocaine with a fifth of Jack Daniels never hurt anybody. It's amazing how self-righteous these scum can get, as when a friend of Nikki's protests, "I used to do loads of pot and coke with Nikki, but I'd never do heroin." That's purity, huh? Perhaps the worst thing about coke is that it makes idiots think they're eloquent. They spew clichés, convinced they're the soul of wit. And they know, by now, exactly how to play the doomed celebrity. Every one of us, every single consumer/victim of American culture, shifts easily to celebrity-speak. You see this in interviews with momentarily famous nonentities who refer to themselves in the third person and clearly imagine themselves as the protagonists of a tragic, heroic narrative.
The trouble is that Mötley Crüe is not the stuff of tragedy. It's the stuff of Spinal Tap, and in fact this book reads like Hunter Thompson rewritten by Nigel Tufnel. Every rock cliché you ever heard can be found in its pages, even "Welcome to my nightmare." But Nikki and the friends interviewed for their recollections of his crisis are hopeless at depicting the nightmare, taking refuge in stale adjectives like "dark" and "pain." Tommy Lee explains that drugs "led us to this really dark fucking place," then, realizing he's onto a good adjectival thing, amplifies his remarks, stating that said place was, in fact, "dark as fuck."
This darkness amounts to shameless plagiarism of the works of Hunter Thompson, right down to the imitation-Ralph Steadman graphics splattered across this book's 400 glossy magazine-style pages. Except that Thompson was one of the funniest and least boastful druggies who ever wrote, while The Heroin Diaries are simply Spinal Tap without the jokes.
There isn't even any suspense or risk involved in all the drugging, because Mötley Crüe are stars, and stars are not subject to the drug laws. This is shown conclusively when a couple of Chicago cops come into Mötley Crüe's dressing room and see the band snorting lines off a mirror. Not only do the cops not arrest them but they give the boys their cards and tell them to call if any other cops give them trouble. Try that if you're not famous, and you'll have a very different experience.
So nothing much happens, until the overdose, and that's a long time coming. For the most part, Nikki sits in his mansion sulking in the dark. Burroughs made a good story out of sitting in the dark doing drugs, but Burroughs had two things Nikki lacks: a brain and a sense of humor. Thompson, a speedfreak rather than a junky, went out and did things while hideously twisted. Either way can work, but Nikki's catalogues of coke consumed in a closet are very dull.
I'm not using "dull" in the disingenuous way a lot of prudish reviewers do, using that word when they mean "offensive." Nikki's decadence isn't offensive, it's just secondhand. His prose style, yes -- that's offensive. To paraphrase Tommy Lee, it's bad as fuck. This book was supposedly co-written by a British rock journalist, but this fool, one Ian Gittins, can't write either. Let's play count-the-clichés in this passage from Ian's "Introduction," in which he explains his work on the book:
"[W]e were able to fill in the black holes and piece together the story of a man who, at the beating heart of an over-the-top rock band, was profoundly falling apart at the seams." Well, everybody knows that black holes are tough on seams, even if you're wearing leather pants. Ian is so clueless he can't tell the difference between the idiom of 1990's Britain and1980's L.A. Here's a quick tip, Ian: 1980s L.A. cokeheads didn't use "gear" to mean drugs.
Ah, drugs; these stories of "pain" and redemption do keep circling around the "black hole" of drugs, And hardly anyone will say the simple truth that people do drugs because drugs are fun. Whenever I hear about another celebrity's "battle with drugs," I have to laugh. What's the battle -- getting enough of them? Price dispute?
If somebody like Nikki could come out and say, "I did a lot of drugs and had a wonderful time!" he could redeem himself. That wouldn't take much talent or brains, just a little honesty. But there's no honesty here. Byron was blunt about why he left "the moral North" to die fighting in Greece; he was driven out by the moral disapproval of his own people:
When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbors;
Let him think of the glory of Greece and of Rome,
And get knock'd on the head for his labors.
Byron died without finding God or AA's "higher power" or groveling to the sanctimonious majority back home. In our time, perhaps only Hunter Thompson showed that sort of lifelong heretical courage. It certainly can't be found in Nikki's tale, which doggedly follows the Protestant tale of the Saved Sinner.
The elements of the story are simple: the hero has to dive deep into sin. This part of the story is always bragging disguised as confession: "My sins are bigger and gaudier than your sins." The gaudier and noisier the sin, the better. Nikki has done his best to check this item off the list, God knows. The sinner must then crash and burn, hitting bottom. Nikki fulfills this requirement on page 384. Anybody else could have managed it much sooner, but then that's the point: Byron's Progress has touched down on the very bottom of the demographic sea. So, naturally, God comes in when the lights go out, right there on page 384. Before he can even turn blue properly, Nikki is visited by Grace -- Grace the religious epiphany, not the groupie of the same name. His unintentionally hilarious reaction to the fact that he's been literally, physically saved is, "Maybe there is a God."
Many an observer would have come to the opposite conclusion: Cobain kills himself and Nikki lives? There is no god.
Nikki survives simply because he's famous; he's surrounded by adoring, masochistic women, one of whom revives him. Without the fame and fortune, not only would he have died but his "pain" would interest no one at all. Suffering served up without these condiments is available all around you; just look into the cars stopped beside you at the next red light. But how many bestsellers do you see about the suffering of, say, a single mom working at Wal-Mart in Houston with chronic back pain and a broken air conditioner? That's true suffering. That's Hell on earth. But nobody wants to know about it. Nikki's suffering, by contrast, has spent a long time on Amazon's top thousand sellers.
The appeal of rock-star suffering is simple: it's not suffering at all. Here's an example of what Nikki calls suffering. Keep in mind that the ostensible point of this anecdote is to show how lonely our star is, deep inside:
"I've been thinking about last Christmas Eve when I picked up that girl in a strip club, brought her back here [to his mansion] on my bike, took her home the next day, then had Christmas dinner all by myself at McDonald's. I haven't made much progress I see."If that's suffering, then there are millions of horny selfish guys who would love to suffer like that.
The only really radical, interesting thing a rock star could say would be what people dread hearing: "Ha ha, I'm famous and you're nobody! I drink your adulation like blood! You send me all your love and money and I give you nothing! And I'm the happiest man in the world!"
If Mark David Chapman's lawyer had made that argument the thesis of his defense: "My client killed Dracula! You should be giving him a medal!" we might have the beginning of an interesting discussion about celebrity as a new form of extortion, of oppression. Instead we get Spinal Tap's cover of "Amazing Grace."