Behind the Curtain: Picking Up the Tab for Motley Crue’s Mick Mars

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

In his latest Behind the Curtain entry, veteran rock music scribe Steve Rosen details run-ins with Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars that didn’t quite go as planned … (Photo: Glen Laferman)

In a previous life before he began wearing makeup and outrageous clothes and was part of a hair metal band, Motley Crue, that celebrated sex, drugs and women with big breasts, Mick Mars was a mere mortal known as Robert Alan Deal.

Born on May 4, 1951, he grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, moved to Huntington about three hours away and then just prior to his ninth birthday relocated to California, where his family was in search of a better life. Our young Mr. Deal was never a particularly studious lad — more interested in shredding than scholastic pursuits — and dropped out of high school to pursue his one true love: guitar.

Robert practiced really hard on his electric guitar. He performed variously under several weird-sounding names including Zorky Charlemagne, parading out the riffs he’d learned in a series of mediocre blues bands. None of them were very good and none of them ever did anything, though one anonymous outfit called White Horse sported a singer with the name Micki Marz, a moniker that appealed to our Kid Charlemagne and one he would later purloin as his own.

Growing weary of running into closed doors whilst churning out rehashed blues licks, the young musician made a stunning transformation: Poof! [Imagine every cartoon you’ve ever seen where the fairy godmother appears before the hapless hero-in-waiting, touches him upon the shoulder with her magic wand and amidst a cascade of stardust and smoke turns him into the handsome prince].

Deal became Mick Mars and didn’t that heroic nom de guerre — and indeed it was a nom de guerre, because Mars was off to the wars to do battle with the evil empire, the music business, a monster as cruel as any demon or dragon from mythology — simply roll off the tongue fabulously? He needed his armor, and thusly began donning a suit of mail — really just a t-shirt and jeans but for poetic effect I’ve taken to a more fable-like reading — as black as a starless night and dyed his hair to match. Every good knight needed his fellow warriors and back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s there was only one place to go if you were seeking out like-minded comrades-in-arms — or used car parts, a pet rabbit or vacation rentals — and that was ye olde Recycler.

The Recycler was a local paper where musicians could list free want ads in search of other musicians. Mars inserted an ad claiming he was “a loud, rude [remember that description: rude] and aggressive guitar player.” Eventually he recruited three other battle weary dragon slayers: Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee and Vince Neil in that order. Every band of hairy pranksters needed a name and Mick conjured up Mötley Crüe [complete with the umlauts] and began writing the history of what was to become hair-glam metal.

That’s the somewhat mythologized short story. The long story, the epic tale, involved a guitar player who rose from the anonymity of the Hollywood Sunset Strip club scene to become a six-string killer in one of the most outrageous, over-the-top and successful hard rock bands of all time. Along the way, he would succumb to a passion for gobbling down painkillers and emptying  whiskey bottles down his gullet and ultimately suffer through a debilitating illness, ankylosing spondylitis, that would virtually render him unable to play or move very  much and all but end his career.

However, when I first met Mick in early 1983, he hadn’t yet fallen prey to the merciless curse of addiction and was still walking upright. The band’s second album — Shout at the Devil — had just been released, and the entire group was supposed to convene at the offices of Elektra Records in West Hollywood for my interview. But Mötley, even then, ran on a different schedule than the rest of the world, and attended to the beat of a very different drum. Nikki and Vince were there, but Mars and Lee were nowhere in sight.

Having contributed nothing of interest to the conversation, the singer would exit after just a few minutes [he may have been obligated to conduct another interview, though why Elektra would have scheduled two separate meetings at the same time made no sense and my true feeling was that he simply couldn’t be bothered to continue and as impolite, unprofessional and simply fucked up as it was had left the room to go drain a beer or harass the secretaries]. That being said, Nikki turned out to be a very thoughtful and funny dude and for 25 minutes he gave me his full attention.

At that point, Mick sauntered in and I used that word because that was exactly what he did. Slowly, casually and disdainfully, he strolled into the room, sat down in a chair and didn’t say a word. No greeting; no hello; no apology. Nothing. His was a cavalier attitude that suggested, “Yes, I have arrived. It is I, Mick Mars, bow down before me.”

I was instantly pissed. If I’m being honest here, I was never a fan of the band, nor did I think he was much of a guitarist. It wasn’t like, “Oh, man. I have Mick Mars sitting in front of me and he is one of my favorite guitar players and how am I going to get him to open up and reveal the secrets of his greatness?” Hardly. It was more like, “You rude dickhead. I have been snubbed by the greatest, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page and others [any of you who have read my other Behind the Curtain stories will know these references] and you are barely a blip on the screen, dude.” Mick had misjudged me. He must have thought I was yet another writer willing to kiss his ring and that he could play the closemouthed, mysterious rock star with me. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

We sat there eyeballing each other and finally Nikki broke the uncomfortable silence by saying, “This is Mick by the way — our guitar player.” Still not a single word out of his mouth. He sat there in defiant posture. Like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I had previously been treated like garbage by the greatest guitar players in the universe. I looked upon those confrontations as badges of courage as I traded verbal volleys with the likes of Ritchie and Jimmy and Robert Fripp and Zappa and others. They were worthy opponents, and I mean, c’mon, if you’re going to be insulted as a rock writer, who better to be insulted by than Jimmy freaking Page. Right?

In my mind, Mars was so beneath the radar that I couldn’t have cared less if he opened his mouth at all. That’s not exactly true. I was embarrassed, uneasy and humiliated. I’m not saying his silence didn’t bother me. It did. I’m also not trying to say in any way I was so special or entitled that Mars owed it to me to give me a good interview or anything like that. I have never felt that way in 45 years of talking to guitar players. In fact, my self-confidence levels have always been wanting, and standing up for myself and trying to weather the sometimes withering barbs and stares hurled at me has not been an easy thing. I just wanted the guy to act like a human being and engage in normal social discourse.

Anyway, I tried to soldier on and dove into the interview, but by the second question I knew I was beating a dead horse.

Me: What kinds of mics did you use in the studio?

Mick: It’s top secret. I don’t want anybody else copying my sound.

At first I thought he was joking. I thought he had to be joking. Please tell me you’re joking! I tried to kid him about it. “Right,” I said in jocular fashion. “Top secret, hahaha.” I was sure the façade would crack and he’d bust out a big smile but he didn’t. He was serious. There were and are no secrets about miking or types of microphones or placement of mics or magic devices or fairy tale fuzzboxes. Everybody used the same stuff in basically the same way: you stuck a microphone close to the speaker cabinet [this goes back to a time when guitar players actually used amps and speakers and not plug-ins or modeling gear] and a mic out in the room for ambience. Simple. This was the way it had been done for virtually decades, and though guitarists and producers certainly tweaked the process and had their own favorite mics and processing gear, everybody had access to all the same stuff and it was just down to the abilities of the musician and inventiveness and creativity in dialing up a cool six-string sound.

I recognized Mick’s statement came from a place of insecurity and not superiority. I hate to tread over the same ground, but in hundreds of dialogues with guitar masters, not one of them had ever said to me, “It’s top secret.” Everyone was more than willing to divulge the types of mics and outboard gear they used. They knew a guitar player’s sound came mainly from his fingers and everything else was secondary. They weren’t afraid or reluctant to divulge what they used because they knew even if everybody else used the exact gear that nobody else would ever sound like them. Only a novice or someone unsure about his own tone would have made the type of comment Mick made.

I tried to dislodge the guitarist from his moronic perch but he wouldn’t budge. Even Nikki must have picked up on the stupidity of his band mates’ comment and tried to lighten the mood. I had questioned Mars on types of pickups and strings when Sixx said, “Shoes you wore?” to which the guitarist responded, “My NBAs.”

It was funny in a not-so-funny way. The interview was for some musician’s magazine somewhere so the questions were all pretty much gear-related. At the end of the day it was hardly earth-shattering content but to guitar fans it was important.

I just chalked up Mars as another casualty in the loss column. To tell you the truth, the interview just felt well, wrong. It didn’t feel natural. When an interview is really going well, a natural sort of rhythm happens between the interviewer and interviewee.  You can feel it almost like a drum beat. But there was no cadence in this conversation and I knew I was in no man’s land when the questions I asked were longer than the responses received.

Admittedly, the repartee I shared with Nikki was pretty cool. He was far and away the nicest and brightest person there that day and it was probably his helmsmanship that would ultimately guide the Crüe juggernaut for decades to come.

By the end of the conversation, Mars had focused in on the conversation a bit more, but not much. It felt like he had some place else he wanted to be and couldn’t really take the time — or find any real interest in — answering my questions in anything more than a perfunctory manner. I lay claim to part of the blame for conducting such a misguided interview. I am not trying to make excuses, but whenever you get more than one band member in a room at the same time, the dynamic changes. You have to keep your mind focused in on different personalities and it becomes a balancing act. On top of that, I should have done a more thorough job of researching the band. I should have listened more to the Shout at the Devil album and asked more specific questions about the songs. I didn’t, and that was my fault.

But what I couldn’t control was Mick’s tardiness and rudeness [there’s that word again]. I came away from that interview with a bad taste in my mouth. If I never spoke to Mars again, it would be too soon, but life has a way of making liars of us all and a few years later I was face-to-face with the Crüe-man again. Not so much for an interview but like a social meeting. I met him at a photo studio in Culver City and I girded my loins for the confrontation. Waiting outside for his arrival — he was a few minutes late but certainly within acceptable social norms — I watched him drive up in a beautifully tricked-out and very expensive Corvette.

Mötley had earned Mick a mountain of moolah by this time and apparently he wasn’t hesitant in spending some of his rock and roll riches [dude, was I wrong]. I want to say the ‘Vette was blood red but it may have been black. Equally as stunning was the girl sitting beside him. In thinking back on that moment now, I’m pretty sure this was Emi Canyn, one of the backup singers on the Girls, Girls, Girls [1987] and Nasty Habits [1990] tours. A buxom babe with a huge corona of blonde hair, Emi was actually quite a sweetheart.

After Emi said hello, I greeted Mick and expected some kind of reaction, but there was none. He didn’t remember me from the interview a few years earlier and that didn’t really surprise me. Why should he? But he seemed cordial enough and after hellos were exchanged, we all entered the photo studio. Emi helped Mick in transforming from normal guitar player into the Mötley Crüe icon. Mick put on an elaborately adorned black outfit with silver studs and various designs. There were matching fingerless gloves that fitted over his forearms as well as a beaded headband. His hair was pouffed out, makeup and lipstick applied and after donning a pair of futuristic dark sunglasses, Mars was ready for his moment in front of the camera.

Mick knew the routine. Brandishing his custom-painted Theatre of Pain Kramer guitar, he went through all the various rock positions — hands stretched out and fingers curled, tongue stuck out, legs spread in god-like fashion — and seemed more comfortable in his alter ego than he did in his own skin. When he was Mick Mars, just a guy sitting in a room answering questions, he was flippant and disengaged and not very interesting. But as Mick Mars, the Mötley Crüe legend, he was magnetic and forceful and in control.

The shoot ended and we all decided to have some lunch. Actually it may have been Mick’s idea to grab a bite to eat, though it may have been consensual. We drove over to a restaurant somewhere nearby and the four of us sat down [you’re probably thinking the restaurant would have gone crazy seeing Mars walk in in full battle regalia but he had removed his war paint and armament before leaving the studio and now just looked like another dude with long hair]. Mick and Emi both ordered pre-lunch cocktails and then honed in on  big entrees — steak or pasta or something similar — and may have also downed a glass of wine or two. We ate, chatted and had a thoroughly enjoyable repast. Mick and Emi ordered dessert and after-dinner aperitifs [I didn’t drink but Mick and Emi certainly did]. Finally the dishes were cleared away and the bill came.

What happened next absolutely blew my mind. The bill came in one of those little leather folders and you knew when a restaurant had to hide the bill inside one of those things that you were going to have to sell a kidney to pay it. The waiter placed it in the middle of our table. I must admit, I thought Mick was going to pick it up. Remember I mentioned his expensive ‘Vette? How he had money to burn and liked spending it? I just figured that this was Mick Mars and he was driving a ridiculous car and was making insane money with Mötley and what was it to pay for lunch? On top of all of that, he and Emi had drank like fish [I didn’t drink] and ordered the most expensive food on the menu. Was it that wrong in assuming he’d spring for lunch?

Oh man, was I wrong.  In fact, just seconds after the bill was placed on the table, he and Emi rose from their seats and made for the door. It wasn’t that he didn’t pay for the huge meal he’d just devoured — or even been willing to split the bill — but he didn’t even acknowledge the fact that I was now stuck with paying for a very expensive lunch for he and his girlfriend. That’s what sucked. So OK, he didn’t pay the tab. That was excusable. So OK, he didn’t even offer to pay his share. That’s a little bit less excusable, but he was Mick Mars, and probably hadn’t paid for a meal in a decade and was out of practice. But not even saying thank you? C’mon, dude. Be a human being. Can you spell r-u-d-e?

He just took his girlfriend by the arm and walked outside to his mad expensive car and drove off.

If I was mad over the way he’d acted years earlier during that interview, I was now apoplectic. It was selfish and thoughtless and a shitty thing to do. I hated the guy all over again. Mick thought he didn’t have to abide by normal rules of etiquette and was somehow above and beyond the social mores all the rest of us had to follow.

Certainly he felt immune. Invincible. He must have thought he could do anything, say anything and act out in any way that suited him and there would be no consequences. How wrong he — and so many other musicians were — in thinking that way. It was easy to see why he felt that way, because nobody ever said to him, “No” or “That’s enough” or “Why don’t you pay for lunch?” Mick and most other musicians of a certain status probably thought excess was daily fare and control was just part of being a superstar.

Outsized egos got in the way of normal thinking patterns. “Pay for lunch? Are you fucking kidding?”

But it was just that kind of warped thinking that probably accounted for the litany of horrific ODs and suicides in recent years. Far from being immortal, these cats were more fragile than the rest of us. Even Mick and for that matter the entire band almost paid the ultimate price with their destructive behaviors, because too much was never enough and nobody ever said stop.

Maybe that’s all claptrap and psycho-babble from an angry rock writer who got stuck with the bill. I don’t know. Maybe he was just cheap or had forgotten his wallet that afternoon. To be fair, years later I’d do a couple of phone interviews with Mick where he was nothing but talkative, informative and pretty funny. By that time, he’d gone through the nightmares of his debilitating disease [surgeries and paralysis] as well as succumbing to an addiction to painkillers. Those horrors had softened him, made him more human, brought him back to earth. Whenever people endure such nightmares, they tend to come out the other side with a clearer understanding of the human condition. They’re just nicer.

And it was true with Mick. It was just a shame that he had to travel to the edge of darkness before his eyes were opened.

I’m sure Mick would now say, “Hey dude. Let’s go to lunch. It’s on me.”

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