Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
by Mötley Crüe
who's spent an hour or two watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network
knows that we are smack-dab in the middle of the End Times. Of
course it's difficult to put too much faith in the judgment of
someone wearing a half pound of makeup and a tsunami of candy-colored
hair, but after reading master historian Jacques
Barzun's seminal From
Dawn To Decadence: 1500 to the Present I've begun to wonder
if I shouldn't give Jan
Crouch a little more respect.
Jacques Barzun, one of the most distinguished historians and
social critics of the twentieth century, completed From Dawn
to Decadence when he was well into his nineties. It is the
culmination of a life spent immersed in the patterns of history.
Barzun was known as an excellent teacher and it shows in his work.
This book is as engaging as it is informative, which begins to
explain its large popular readership. Since its initial publication
last year, From Dawn to Decadence has been a staple of
bestseller lists in the US as well as in Europe.
But the book has received its greatest reception from other historians,
who have almost unanimously dubbed the book a masterpiece. Some
have even placed it on the same shelf as such enduring works as
Edward Gibbon's Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire and Oswald Spengler's The
Decline of the West. And, in fact, though Barzun's obvious
love of his subject makes for compulsive reading, there is no
question that he shares the basic pessimism of these two great
historians. Maybe it simply goes with the territory; who ever
heard of an optimistic historian?
It is Barzun's thesis that in the sixteenth century a culture
began to emerge in the West that "offered the world a set
of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere." The
next 500 years saw one of the most creative outpourings of art,
science, religion, philosophy, and social thought in human history.
But now, sad to say, this great era of cultural creativity is
nearing an end. Our culture, once united toward a common purpose,
is now rife with moral and ideological uncertainty: "for and against
nationalism, for and against individualism, for and against the
high arts, for and against strict morals and religious belief."
The particular conglomerate of ideas that underlay the culture
that produced Mozart and Shakespeare and Lincoln and the rest
has lost its hold and begun to dissipate. If we are to believe
Jacques Barzun, the West is spent, and the next great creative
flowering will likely occur elsewhere.
This didn't strike me as particularly pleasant news, so I made
a point to seek out a few dissenting opinions. In his review in
The New York Times, William
R. Everdell, who otherwise praises the book, nonetheless castigates
Barzun for letting his pessimism about the present prejudice his
view of the past: "As the first 400 years of Barzun's history
are biased toward the best, the last 100, unfiltered by time,
are colored by the worst." And according to Roger
Shattuck, his strongest critic, Barzun's pessimistic portrait
of the twentieth century "is a very limited view of our time"
and constitutes "bad history."
I found myself comforted by, and inclined to accept these criticisms,
in much the same spirit that I occasionally accept that global
warming is a hoax perpetrated by paranoid, leftist scientists.
Who wants to believe they are living in a time of moral and cultural
decay? But then, on the recommendation of one of my coworkers
I picked up Mötley Crüe's The
Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band
and have had to concede that, in fact, things are much worse than
Lindsey has yet let on. (Thanks!, Georgie)
According to Barzun, "ridicule, denial, anti-art and sensory
simplicity mean that culture and society are in the decadent phase."
Anti-art? Ha! These boys are anti-everything, beginning with brains
and taste, and including dignity and womankind.
And I dare you to find a better example of "sensory simplicity"
than such "Crüe" classics as "Girls, Girls,
Girls," "Hell on High Heels," or, my personal favorite,
"Punched in the Teeth by Love." And though to my ear
Mötley Crüe's music is about as bad-ass as the Republican
frat boys and teenage girls who sent their albums to the top of
the charts, make no mistake: in their heyday, these boys were
about as naughty as is humanly possible. Their extraordinary hedonism
women, booze, women, violence, drugs, more women, more
drugs, etc. would make even Caligula blush.
And in this (ahem) remarkable book Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince
Neil, and Nikki Sixx recount their immoderate exploits in candid,
very graphic detail. The Dirt reads like a bizarre
mélange of "Spinal Tap", The National Enquirer,
LaVey, and a Phat Pong pussy show.
But I'll admit, once I'd started I did keep reading. The
Dirt is one of the most disgusting books to come along in
some time, which, as any fan of Hannibal
understands, can be very compelling. But it's also hilarious and
even, when you least expect it, touching.
The most entertaining passages come toward the beginning of
the story, when these four boys are first trying to create a killer
band. To begin with, Nikki, Mick, Tommy, and Vince are a band
of messed up, angry, lonely boys with very big hair, very high
heels, and a dream. They worry as much about their hair and what
clothes to wear as they do about the actual music. Of course,
the goal is to be cool. Unfortunately, just how dressing
crack whores on steroids is equated with extreme virility
is never fully explained, so some readers might be perplexed by
passages like the following:
I was really into white. I'd wear white satin pants with white
leg warmers, Capezio shoes, chains around my waist, and a white
T-shirt that I had ripped up the sides and sewn together with
lace. I dyed my hair as white as I could get it, and fluffed
it until it added half a foot to my height....life didn't get
any better than that. (Vince)
Next, they had to work out their stage technique. One of the
band's early influences was an established rocker named Blackie
Lawless: "he was inspirational to talk to because he was
into making an impression not just with music but with appearance.
He was into eating worms and drawing pentagrams onstage..."
After they had come up with a name for the band, given it a cool
spelling peppered with umlauts, and fashioned all their graphics
after Nazi propaganda posters and the Jack Daniels label, voila:
Mötley Crüe. Dude!
Even before they hit the big time, the band's attitude toward
women would have made Hugh Hefner cringe. But once they started
attracting groupies by the hundreds, the band's extreme lack of
concern for the well-being and/or dignity of the many, many
women they, uh, "met" began to take on epic proportions.
"Objectification" just doesn't quite capture the Mötley
Crüe attitude toward the fair sex. Here is Mick on rock groupies:
On the Monsters of Rock tour in Sweden, one of the guys from
AC/DC brought a girl back to the hotel bar. He was really drunk
and puked all over her. A hotel security guard brought him up
to his room, but he was back in fifteen minutes, pounding on
the bar for more beer. After drinking enough to make himself
sick again, he asked the girl to come up to his room with him.
She was still stained with his puke, but she said yes anyway.
How gross is that?...What's wrong with these women?
What's wrong with them?
But as these stories go, things quickly began to go sour. If
it wasn't bad enough to discover that after several thousand casual
encounters sex becomes a bore, the members of the band gradually
begin to find out, much to their dismay, that after drinking,
snorting, inhaling, freebasing, and injecting thousands of dollars
of drugs per day each this band of happy hedonists
has become a group of junkies. And as they take turns discovering
rock bottom, each struggles to find a way to take control of their
unraveling life. For most of them this involved rehab and a lot
of therapy, where they practice communicating their emotions instead
of using sex, drugs, and rock & roll to supress them.
Tommy was a particularly devoted analysand, and when he wasn't
spending time with his wife, the
most famous blow-up doll in the world, he was with his therapist
discovering all sorts of amazing things:
I walked into a session with the analyst...and he looked at
my tattoos and fucking flipped out. I told him about my parents
and how they used to communicate when I was a child. At my next
session, he said he'd been thinking about my family all week
and come to a conclusion: "At a very young age, you watched
people draw pictures and communicate with them. Now, you use
those tattoos as a form of communication." He pointed out
that a lot of the tattoos were symbols of things that I wanted
in my life, like koi fish, which I got inked long before I ever
had a koi pond in my house. I also have a leopard tattoo, and
one of these days I'm going to have a fucking leopard. I want
one on my couch just chilling when I get home from a tour.
In all seriousness, though there is much to chuckle about in
The Dirt, it is ultimately a surprisingly good book. The
Crüe's ghostwriter, Neil Strauss, did an excellent job shaping
the various band members' stories. As the story progresses, these
debauched caricatures gradually round out into three-dimensions
(well, maybe two and a half). After a great deal of personal tragedy
and genuine soul-searching these self-absorbed boys in tights
and Hair gradually become recognizably human. Mick tells the story
of his daughter's tragic, painful death from cancer and his subsequent
breakdown with such candor and grace it's impossible not to feel
for him. By the end I was shocked to realize that I had gotten
so carried up in the story I was actually rooting for a
Mötley Crüe comeback. (Well, I suppose that's better
than Celine Dion.)
Perhaps Jacques Barzun, and Western Civilization at large, could
take a tip from Mötley Crüe. Does it seem any less likely
that a culture that produced Einstien and Joyce could get a second
wind than that these fortyish glam rockers could reinvent themselves
for a new generation? As I write this, the Crüe is back on
the road and giving 'em "Hell on High Heels" in Cincinnati.
Who knows, maybe we're in for a Hair Metal renaissance. Better
dig into your bottom drawer and get out those mesh tank tops.