On a hot night in 1997, Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee offered an indelible lesson in owning your own identity.
Let me tell you about the night I hung out with Mötley Crüe.
Okay, to be honest, it was only half of Mötley Crüe, and it’s not like we were out clubbing it up with groupies and blow. But we were at a club. I was reminded of this story the other day when I happened to hear “Shout at the Devil” on the stereo for the first time in quite a while.
This was June 1997. I was working in New York City as technical producer for a website called Rocktropolis.com (sadly now long deceased). Our company, N2K Entertainment, ran a variety of genre-specific music sites, all meant to drive traffic to our online CD store, Music Boulevard. At Rocktropolis we ran rock music news, contests, curated streaming radio, artist chats, and — coolest of all — live concert webcasts.
Some of our live shows were simply streamed versions of special syndicated radio broadcasts, but more and more we began to arrange our own on-location webcasts. We would get a temporary DSL line installed in the venue (if they didn’t already have one — and they usually didn’t), hump our equipment over there, tap directly into the soundboard, and stream the feed out to users via RealAudio. (Believe it or not, this was trailblazing stuff at the time.)
So it was that my friend and colleague Andrew and I lugged our gear uptown to Roseland Ballroom one afternoon to set up for a special Mötley Crüe record release show. This was their big comeback attempt — well, their first one, anyway. Vocalist Vince Neil had just rejoined the band after an angry stint away, and the new album, Generation Swine, featured a touch of oh-so-no-longer-hip industrial flavoring.
For the weeks leading up to the show, we’d been running giveaways on the site and debuting a new track from the album every day. The office favorite — okay, the favorite of me and Michael, tech producer on Classical Insights — was track 12, a re-recording of the Crüe’s 1983 hit called, imaginatively enough, “ Shout at the Devil ‘97.” Michael and I would arrive at the office early just to blast this tune at full volume in our little wing of the cubicle farm. (I wasn’t super-familiar with the original version, having deliberately avoided all things hair-metal in high school, so the faster, harder 1997 version is still the one that sounds “right” to me.)
Anyway, along with our decks for compressing and transmitting digital audio, Andrew and I brought a couple of huge laptops. These were not just for running the webcast but also for the live chat session we were doing before the show with Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee — the so-called “Terror Twins.” We set up shop in a balcony overlooking the club floor. At about two hours to showtime, our chatroom was teeming with fans who’d logged in for the unmoderated free-for-all. That’s when Nikki and Tommy walked up to the long table where Andrew and I had the laptops set up.
Now, I met some of my favorite musicians while working that job, folks like Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, and John Wesley Harding. Chuck D. was in our office once. I even spent a couple of hours on the phone with Krist Novoselic from Nirvana, moderating a chat session. Hell, my boss was Nick Turner, who’d been the drummer for Lords of the New Church and The Barracudas. But of all those people, Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee were the two who looked more like rock stars than anyone else. Tall, muscular, slim, heavily tattooed, wearing their expensive white T-shirts, black jeans, cowboy hats, and boots with casual ease, oozing charisma. They shook our hands and put us instantly at ease. They came across as the nicest, most charming guys in the world.
We all sat down at the table. I ended up between Nikki and Tommy, with Andrew on Nikki’s far side. The two of us had the jobs, for the next 45 minutes or so, of monitoring Nikki’s and Tommy’s activity in the chatroom, standing by to offer any needed assistance, and being ready to fix any technical issues.
“So, do we just jump in and start?” Nikki asked, watching the chatter scroll by on the laptop in front of him.
“You’re both logged in,” Andrew said. “Any time you’re ready.”
Nikki started typing. I was watching Tommy’s screen, and I saw Nikki’s first comment appear:
Nikki_Sixx> Hey fuckers!
I must have chuckled, because Nikki turned to me and said, with a grin but in all earnestness, “Insults and profanity are the entire basis of our relationship with our fans. Which is mostly thirteen-year-old boys.”
I thought this was a remarkably cogent analysis of market expectations from someone I hadn’t expected to be quite so self-aware. (I don’t think I realized it at the time, but Nikki was and remains the band’s primary songwriter.) I was mulling his statement over when Tommy, who had been pecking two-fingered at his keyboard, leaned past me.
“Hey, Nikki!” he said, sounding as proud and excited as a three-year-old. “I just typed ‘Fuck’!”
I have to say, hanging out with them during the chat was a lot of fun, even if it was a little surreal to have someone who’d been clinically dead for two minutes after a heroin overdose sitting to my right, and the star of the most infamous celebrity sex tape to date sitting to my left, and who between them had been married to three Playboy Playmates. (Of course, we were seeing only their most charming selves. I’m not sure I would have wanted to meet them under other circumstances.)
After about 45 minutes, Nikki logged out. “Time to get in wardrobe,” he said, standing up. “Come on, Tommy.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Tommy said. He was having a hell of a good time chatting.
Maybe fifteen minutes after Nikki’s exit, Tommy turned to me in consternation. A troll in the chatroom had been saying for some time that Tommy and Nikki were not who they claimed to be, and now he was urging everyone else to stop chatting with Tommy.
“What am I supposed to do?” Tommy asked me. “This guy’s telling everyone I’m not Tommy Lee. How do I prove I’m Tommy Lee?”
“Um,” I said, racking my brain, “I don’t know. I guess all you can do is say something only Tommy Lee would say.”
Tommy frowned, then bent back to the keyboard and typed:
Tommy_Lee> fuck you i am tommy lee!!!
Eventually someone from the band’s management came upstairs to the balcony and insisted that Tommy get down to his dressing room. He hugged us both and went on his merry way. Not long after, he was on stage pounding his drum kit wearing nothing but a leather diaper.
I worked other live location webcasts, including a Halloween show with The Cure at Irving Plaza, and two nights with the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre, but our Mötley Crüe night was by far the most memorable. That was night I learned this indelible lesson:
When confronted by hostility and doubt, just repeat: “Fuck you. I am Tommy Lee.”
Originally published on my blog, in slightly different form, on January 31, 2013.