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The last days of Mötley Crüe

The last days of Mötley Crüe
Motley Crue's Nikki Sixx, left, Mick Mars, Tommy Lee and Vince Neil celebrate the ending of another concert as the audience cheers at the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore., on July 22, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

There will be fire and explosions. There will bone-shaking guitar riffs, scantily clad dancers and an upside-down drum solo. Middle-aged men and women will pump their fists and bang their heads, remembering back to younger days when monsters of rock roamed the Earth.

Throw your devil horns in the air, Eugene. Mötley Crüe has come to town.

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On a July afternoon, the four founding members of one of rock's most notorious bands — singer Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars, bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee — stand onstage in the Matthew Knight Arena here, running through the set list for the next night's show.

Heavy-metal anthems such as "Shout at the Devil," "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Kickstart My Heart" that thrilled Reagan-era teenagers and horrified their parents echo through the empty venue as dozens of crew members move heavy equipment, tweak sound levels and prepare the show's over-the-top pyrotechnics, which include a giant burning pentagram and a bass guitar that shoots flames. Their backstage passes read "The End Is Near."

Thirty-four years after exploding out of the Sunset Strip in a blaze of hairspray, skintight leather and power chords, Mötley Crüe is kicking off the last stretch of the final tour of its career, an 18-month global farewell that will culminate at the end of the year with three shows at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Say what you will, this is a band that has never done things halfway (why just one umlaut when you can have two?) and its members are determined to go out with as big a bang as possible. "We're like, 'Hey, this is it — let's blow the place up,'" says Sixx.

The band's stage show is as theatrical as ever, its musical blueprint essentially unchanged since the early '80s, but behind the scenes things have changed considerably. The legendary drug-and-alcohol-fueled debauchery has abated after a few trips to rehab. Once upon a time you could find all manner of intoxicants backstage at a Mötley Crüe show. (According to one story the band likes to recount, while on tour with Crüe in 1984, Ozzy Osbourne once snorted a line of ants.) Now the catering area is stocked with Centrum, Tums and various kinds of tea, and the only powder you'll find is protein powder to mix into smoothies.

Where there used to be a revolving door of groupies, one member of the band's team notes drily, now backstage you'll find the rockers playing with their dogs.

That they made it this far is remarkable enough. With Mötley Crüe, everything has always been cranked to 11, including offstage decadence and drama. Over the years, the band has weathered drug and alcohol addiction, internal strife, arrests, jail time, public scandals (including an infamous leaked sex tape involving Lee and then-wife Pamela Anderson) and shifting fashions in music — all of it chronicled with unflinching candor in their bestselling 2001 tell-all "The Dirt."

Yet through it all, even as other '80s glam-metal acts have faded into teased-hair oblivion, Crüe has persevered. The band has released just one album of new music since 2000, but here it is, filling arenas from Anchorage to Abu Dhabi. Even the group can't fully explain it.

"I can't believe all four of us are still alive," Lee says. Using the kind of language you'd expect from the drummer in Mötley Crüe, he theorizes that each band member must have a lucky horseshoe lodged in a particular part of his anatomy.

With the hedonism stripped away, what remains is a much-loved (though not always critically lauded) body of music — paeans to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that have propelled the band to more than 75 million records sold worldwide. That music and the brash, middle-finger-raised attitude that goes with it still means as much to the band and its fans as it ever did. Maybe even more.

The rehearsal finished, Neil, 54, sits in his dressing room with his girlfriend, makeup artist Rain Hannah, and their Yorkie, Cali. "You see a lot of people crying when we're doing 'Home Sweet Home,'" he says of the 1985 power ballad that closes the band's show. "Then you start getting choked up and you try not to look at them. For a lot of the real fans, they know this is the last time they're going to see us."

More than that, it may be the last time they see anyone like them. "There are no more rock stars — we're some of the last of them," Neil says. "It's sad. But we'll see what happens. Hopefully there's some kid in his garage somewhere, playing with his band and lighting himself on fire."

Why now?

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With major preparations for the following night's show mostly done, Sixx sits in his dressing room and puts his feet up. A few candles and a stick of incense burn on the coffee table next to a vase of red roses and collection of Charles Bukowski's poetry titled "The Pleasures of the Damned" — inspiration as he works on new songs for his other band, Sixx A.M.

Mötley Crüe's primary songwriter and lyricist and the rare rocker who is comfortable talking about business models ("'Analytics' is not a dirty word"), Sixx, 56, is explaining why the band decided to hang it up.

As he sees it, it's simply a matter of common sense. Granted, that's not a quality typically associated with Mötley Crüe. "The frontal lobe doesn't develop until you're like 25 years old," Sixx says. "In Mötley Crüe's case, it probably never developed." But underneath the band's chaos has long been a streak of career-minded pragmatism.

"Let's be real: Rock and roll is not meant to age," Sixx says. "We've worn our welcome out a few times, and we're still here. We're in tatters and covered in tattoos, but somehow we survived our own insanity. Eventually, though, the wheels are going to fall off the fire truck, and then no one is going to want it."

Rock fans have learned to be skeptical about farewell tours, which often turn out to be just the first in a series of reunion tours when bank accounts need another boost. So to cement the sense of finality, last year Mötley Crüe publicly signed a "cessation of touring" contract that prevents any of them from performing under the Crüe name beyond 2015. The band members — who own their own masters and publishing rights, a rarity among major music acts — say they would rather burn out on their own terms than slowly fade away playing clubs and county fairs.

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Mötley Crüe's longtime manager, Allen Kovac, sees Led Zeppelin, which disbanded in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham, as the ideal precedent. "No one has left more money on the table than Zeppelin, and yet they have one of the highest-selling catalogs and merchandising lines in the world because they didn't go out and diminish the brand like so many bands have," Kovac says. "Mötley Crüe recognized that part of the puzzle."

Sixx points to the Who's current tour as an illustration of where Mötley Crüe doesn't want to end up. "I mean, the Who is cool and all but, guys, really?" Sixx says. "They're playing half-full places with just two guys left in the band. I get it. They're entitled to that. But it's just not for us." Such a statement might not sit well with many a baby boomer, but Sixx is clearly not going to lose sleep over it.

The bassist — who nearly died from a heroin overdose in 1987 and finally kicked drugs and alcohol in 2001 — is not the nostalgic type. There are plans for a big-screen adaptation of "The Dirt," to be directed by "Jackass" co-creator Jeff Tremaine. ("We've always said we see it as somewhere between 'Goodfellas' and 'Boogie Nights,'" Sixx says.) But for the most part, he doesn't spend too much time looking backward.

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Asked if he ever gets wistful thinking about the old days, Sixx laughs. "No, I had my share of penicillin shots — I'm all good," he says. "I tell people I'm like the old hunting dog on the porch. I'm married. I have four kids. I'm no danger to the neighborhood."

Tours remain tough

Back in the day, Mötley Crüe tours were physically punishing affairs, tough on the liver, the brain cells and everything else. "We were always just trying to finish them in one piece," says Neil.

Over the years, the physical demands of a full-scale worldwide rock tour have been hardest for Mars. The oldest member of the band at 64, Mars suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that affects the spine and can cause the vertebrae to gradually fuse together. The condition limits his movement and produces chronic pain. But it hasn't stopped him from doing what he loves most.

Soft-spoken and self-effacing offstage, Mars sits on the couch in his dressing room and stiffly tries to settle into a comfortable position. "I move around like Frankenstein," he says with a raspy, self-deprecating laugh. "But I still play. Sometimes it's a bit of a grind, bouncing around a bus or walking 900 miles through an airport. But I'm a guitar player. I don't want to just sit in a chair."

Mars says he never expected Mötley Crüe to last as long as it did. "I come from a generation where bands would last a maximum of five years and no one wanted to live past 30," he says.

It hasn't been the smoothest ride. Crüe's internecine fights have been the stuff of legend; at different points along the way, Neil and Lee were each out of the band. "I'm not going to lie — it's a love-hate thing," Mars says. "That's the way that it is with any band." He pauses. "Except for the Eagles. They hated each other all the time."

Like his fellow band members, Mars plans to continue to make music on his own after Crüe ends its run. In no uncertain terms, he insists the four will never play together again. "The minute the band is done, it's done," he says.

"Each of us has different directions we want to go in. We'll still see each other off and on because Mötley Crüe Inc. will still go on. But we won't be a band. We'll be a corporation kind of deal."

Fans gather

It's the day of the show, and hours before the band is set to go on, the crowd starts to gather outside the arena. Two women in Mötley Crüe T-shirts play "Shout at the Devil" out of a small boom box and sway along with the music. A guy in his late 40s wearing a Black Sabbath shirt regales a younger fan with his memories of seeing Crüe's breakthrough performance at the US Festival in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino in 1983.

"They hadn't even released 'Shout at the Devil' yet," says the man, who calls himself War Pig. "For a 15-year-old kid from southern Oregon, it was mind-blowing."

The young fan, 22-year-old Nathan Holmes, listens with rapt attention. He wasn't even born when Mötley Crüe was at its peak of fame but fell in love with the band from a young age. "My dad used to play all their music," he says. "I was a little kid with spiked hair listening to '80s rock."

Holmes drove three hours from his home in Grant's Pass, Ore., to see tonight's show and says he'll drive the 12 hours to L.A. to see one of the band's last shows in December. "Music is dying, man," he says, shaking his head. "That's why this is such a big deal."

Not long before Mötley Crüe is finally set to take the stage, Lee, 52, sits in his dressing room with his drumsticks in his hands, his knee bouncing with excess energy. A few feet away, his dog Bowie — a miniature greyhound mix he owns with his fiancée, Sofia Toufa, who dances in the band's show — is catching a nap.

"Before a show, I typically sit back here and play music really loud and bang on anything that doesn't move," Lee says. He smiles conspiratorially. "Things that move too. If my girl comes by, I'll play the butt bongos. You know the deal."

Soon, Lee will be hanging 50 feet in the air from the arena's rafters, pounding out a solo on a roller-coaster drum kit called the Crüecifly. Even for a self-described thrill-seeker, it's a bit daunting. "It's getting crazy," he says. "It looks like Six Flags in there."

Unlike in the '80s, these days Lee is careful about what he puts into his body before a concert.

"I eat breakfast or a super-light lunch and then I don't eat until 11 or midnight after the show's over," he says. "Spinning around upside-down on a full stomach. …" He laughs.

"That would probably be pretty awesome and punk rock," Lee says. "But we're just a little smarter than we used to be."

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