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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very independent bookseller

 
no. 8   
From Dawn to Decadence
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The Dirt
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From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
The Dirt by Mötley Crüe

Anyone 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 even Hal 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, Anton 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 like deranged 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.

Heavy!

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.

Rawk on!

—Carlisle

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