With the opening lines to Wild Side – “Kneel down ye sinners, to / Streetwise religion…” – L.A. glam metal band Mötley Crüe kicks off their 1987 album, Girls, Girls, Girls. But what exactly is this “streetwise religion” to which lead singer Vince Neil is referring, and how precisely are these “sinners” that bassist and lyricist Nikki Sixx mentions supposed to find “salvation” amid his band’s excessive branch of some rock n roll “religion” he’s discovered on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in the late 1980s? The answers to these questions are revealed throughout the sordid stories contained in the rest of this album’s tracks – tales of drugs, underage sex, and murder. By unearthing these discoveries, we paint a timely portrait of “romantic” danger that has colored the collective vision of many young artists ever since the French poet Charles Baudelaire gave birth to the notion of “modernity” as a definition for our fragmentary, ephemeral times. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is – Is there any inherent “value” for the “modern” individual in examining these portraits of suffering and escape from suffering that Mötley Crüe, in keeping with the urban artists of many other recent eras, paints on this album?
This reference to Charles Baudelaire with regard to the lyrics of Mötley Crüe is by no means spurious. For, it is Charles Baudelaire himself who has captivated more than 150 years’ worth of audiences with his seedy poems of the Parisian underbelly. In fact, it is this Paris of Baudelaire’s era that has become the archetypal urban landscape for many “modern” artists: the psychologically disturbing reality of a man-made monstrosity’s constant flux. Tales of drugs, sex, and Satan dominate Baudelaire’s conceits. He was and is taken seriously as an artist, though, not because of the darkness of his subject matter, but rather due to the rigors of his form and the musicality of his language. However, in light of his structural beauty, it appears to be Baudelaire’s shocking subject matter that has continued to seduce many young thinkers into wishing they were, as William Blake put it in his infamous The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party”.
Certainly, the members of Mötley Crüe viewed themselves as a band of Blake’s “true poets”. For, the inner sleeve photo of their debut album, Too Fast For Love, reveals them in S&M garb amid skulls and burning candles, pointing at an inverted pentagram, the symbol for Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, hanging over them. A fitting image to declare one’s allegiance to “the Devil’s party”. In fact, when looking at this image, we cannot but think of Baudelaire’s “Thrice-Majestic Satan” reclining “on his wicked pillow” and “vaporizing the rich metal of our souls”, which appears to be the precise operation Nikki Sixx eventually describes through the songs composing the band’s fourth full-length album Girls, Girls, Girls: the complete annihilation of the human spirit. However, we must go on to ask ourselves the more pertinent questions of – What is the actual value of destroying the inner self? And does this annihilation of the self by means of debauchery lead one to the same point of “enlightenment” that the mystics of many religious traditions have claimed to attain when annihilating the self by other means?
With regard to our first question, the act of destroying the inner self, at least according to Buddhist sentiment, is a cessation of the suffering associated with life. Therefore, the goal of destroying the inner self is to cease the individual’s emotional suffering. If we look back at the lyrics of the songs composing the album Girls, Girls, Girls¸ our attention must be drawn to the repeated words of the song Nona, the only lyrics in the song – “Nona, I’m out of my head without you,” repeated over and over, again and again. As I’ve learned from outside sources, this song is a reference to Nikki Sixx’s grandmother who had recently passed away at the time of this album’s recording. Thus, we have revealed the true root of the speaker’s suffering. The root of this suffering is the realization of death. Furthermore, it is this same realization of death that the speaker is trying to escape by means of the annihilation of the inner self.
With regard to our second question as to whether or not this annihilation of the self leads to the same sort of “enlightenment” as a religious experience, we must first ask ourselves what the experience of annihilation would feel like in a religious context. Buddhist Nirvana is a desirable state to be achieved as an escape from the suffering associated with life. If we read the lyrics of Girls, Girls Girls, particularly those of Nona, we discover that this album also reveals a desire for escape from suffering. Therefore, the root causes of both attempts at escape (both through debauchery and through asceticism) is the same. However, although the causes may be the same, the end results could be completely different.
The question we must examine at this point is whether the attempt to annihilate suffering through pleasure actually alleviates one’s internal suffering or if it simply creates more of it. This will answer our question as to whether the points reached through both debauchery and asceticism are one and the same. The answer to this question resides in the lyrics to the song Dancing on Glass, which starts by saying: “Can’t find my doctor / My bones can’t take the ache / If ya dance with the devil / Your day will come to pay”. This song is dealing with the realities of heroin addiction and a subsequent withdrawal from the substance. For our purposes, the most telling line in this verse is the last: “Your day will come to pay”.
This final line reveals an internal point of suffering reached solely because the “doctor” (or drug dealer) is unavailable at the moment to provide more of the needed substance. Therefore, it appears the practitioner of this streetwise religion has been misled. The internal suffering will not cease through debauchery. It will only be temporarily removed. Then, it will come roaring back with a vengeance so strong your “bones can’t take the ache” as a result of withdrawal from the now required substances. These substances are now “required” due to the addiction necessitating the self’s further annihilation. This would lead one to the conclusions that the debauchery Nikki Sixx describes on this album, as a means for cessation of suffering, is a series of actions the Buddhists would perhaps characterize as “misguided”.
Does that mean the history of modern art’s “debauchery” from Baudelaire to the present is a misguided attempt at enlightenment? Perhaps, one could turn to the writer Flannery O’Connor for an attempt to answer that question. In a letter she wrote to Dr. T.R. Spivey, with regard to those progenitors of the American aesthetic of sex and drugs, the beat poets, she once said, “They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing.” Perhaps, for Ms. O’Connor, the “payment” required is the chastity permeating many religious attempts to alleviate this life’s suffering, something that the easily found pleasures of sex and drugs does not require. For, if payment is required, the physical transactions of cash for sex and/or drugs as described in Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls¸ is not the kind of fee a Catholic writer such as Ms. O’Connor would have had in mind.
Ms. O’Connor would have been referring to some sort of spiritual toll to be collected, which one who has chosen the simple escape of physical pleasures has not yet paid. However, it very well could be the case that the debauchery of physical pleasure is the precise spiritual toll one must pay to find enlightenment. For, although enlightenment will not be found in the escape brought about by physical pleasures, the increased suffering of intense physical pleasure (a suffering caused by the eventual removal of that physical pleasure and the body’s simultaneous craving for even more of that same pleasure) could lead one to search even harder for the answer to the cessation of that suffering. For, as another Catholic thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, implies in his Summa Theologiae, Question 109, Article 6, a human being can further turn God’s divine grace upon oneself by first seeking out God. Perhaps, that itself is the devil’s job in the marriage of heaven and hell – to lead the sinner closer to God by increasing her suffering so severely her peace can only be attained through any means necessary.
It’s no small fact that Nikki Sixx got clean from drugs and alcohol shortly after the release of Girls, Girls, Girls. Perhaps, then, the spiritual value of “streetwise religion”, is the precise dilemma Goethe’s Mephistopheles explains himself to be at the opening of that author’s play Faust: Part I. For, Mephistopheles declares he is, “Part of the Power, not understood, / Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.” Perhaps, this is the value to be found in “streetwise religion” for any individual from any time, whether that individual be Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, or Nikki Sixx. The value of the religion one finds in the streets is that, if the practitioner can survive, it attunes the individual to the higher frequencies of the universe in an attempt to help that individual escape the infernal depths of this world.