It’s difficult to work up empathy for rock stars, those lucky bastards who get their money for nothin’ and their chicks for free. Local rock star Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe’s lead vocalist) is no exception. The singer has an ongoing reputation for alcoholic carnage. For example, when Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas Dingley perished in a drunken car wreck in 1984; Neil had been driving. Most recent infractions include a June 27 DUI arrest (Neil blew three times the legal limit) and a Sept. 5 accusation of having struck a woman in the Las Vegas Hilton. (Surveillance video exonerated him.)
But Tattoos & Tequila: To Hell and Back with One of Rock’s Most Notorious Frontmen ($27.99, Grand Central Publishing) manages to portray Neil’s warts-and-all emotional retardation and stunted life in a way that’s not cartoonish. Rather, this “autobiography” as told to award-winning journalist Mike Sager reveals the ugly truth of ’80s rock stardom and how a glam-metal icon ages disgracefully into a businessman scraping to make the millions to which his many ex-wives are accustomed.
Indeed, in the fascinating first chapter— where Sager meets Neil in Las Vegas at Feelgoods Rock Bar & Grill, which Neil owns—he captures the subject’s ineloquent yet hilariously honest voice. “It was like a rock ’n’ roll cockfight,” he says of dueling with Crüe bassist Nikki Six in the studio over artistic intent.
I’m glad those days are gone. Today it’s more about business. … We don’t have to like each other. We just have to make music together. It’s like a friendly divorce with shared custody. We do it for the sake of the music. Because what we made together, something from nothing, was valuable and groundbreaking.
Such moments reveal Neil to have once lacked a plan for achieving multi-platinum status. By his own admission, he came late to the idea of a long-term career in butt-rock. It isn’t until Van Halen’s David Lee Roth offers business advice that Neil’s entrepreneurial spirit is awakened. By the last chapters, we’re left with a portrait of a sad, still-crippled-on-the-inside salesman. (Clearly, Sager was given free rein, going so far as to call Neil a “smurf” of his former self in the introduction. Wow.)
Neil develops as a flesh-and-blood person through the contributions of his ex-wives and family. Despite his sociopath-level hedonism, he’s a solid provider and works ridiculously hard (when he’s not fucking up). As a result, he spends most of his waking hours running from the pain he inflicts on himself and others. In an instance when his pain is not self-inflicted—the loss of his 4-year-old daughter Skylar to cancer—he offers little insight, only that life sometimes deals you black damnation and you either cope or die. Still, his account of Skylar’s death is heartbreaking and humanizes Neil. The tragedy also accounts for his inability to sit still long enough to process his damage.
Neil is no stranger to autobiography. In 2001, Mötley Crüe: The Dirt Confessions of the Worlds Most Notorious Rock Band (HarperEntertainment) by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss hit The New York Times bestseller list. While The Dirt offers a much darker and disturbing account of Neil and Co., Tattoos & Tequila seems to be present a more complicated, human reality.
On the surface, Tattoos & Tequila seems designed to cross-promote with the June release of Neil’s solo album of the name. The CD is crap, mostly cheesy covers of overplayed songs like “Viva Las Vegas,” with only two originals that Neil didn’t write. Sager’s quasi-literary rendering of Neil’s life is the more satisfying, artistic and authentic document. Interestingly, it’s only when others speak for him that Neil becomes real. On his own, he seems to be a lost soul, which explains why his story is worth reading.
Tattoos & Tequila: To Hell and Back with One of Rock’s Most Notorious Frontmen ★★★★☆