The Paris Review

Nostalgia for a Less Innocent Time

On the glory and depravity of hair metal.

Still from The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is a documentary that often feels like a mockumentary—in part because of the inherent absurdity of the LA metal scene in the late eighties, in part because of Penelope Spheeris’s directorial choices. Spheeris, of Wayne’s World fame, let her subjects decide how they wanted to be filmed. Gene Simmons of Kiss did his interview in a lingerie store—“I don’t want to do anything tacky,” he’d told her. Simmons’s bandmate Paul Stanley suggested, “How about in bed with a bunch of women?” His segments were filmed from above, with lingerie models absentmindedly stroking his spandex pants. Chris Holmes, the lead guitarist from W.A.S.P., suggested, “How about drowning in a pool with my mother watching?”

In what is probably the film’s best-known scene, Holmes floats in a pool chair, wearing black leather pants, and tells Spheeris he’s a “full-blown alcoholic.” To prove it, he pours vodka from a liter of Smirnoff down his throat and all over his face for almost ten seconds. His mother, Sandy Holmes, who has strong June Cleaver vibes, is indeed there watching from the side of the pool, looking disappointed but resigned. He says, “I’m a happy camper.” Spheeris asks him if he wishes he was a bigger star. “I wish I was a smaller star,” he answers. “I don’t dig being the person I am.” Later, after we’ve seen several musicians say that metal is better than sex, Spheeris cuts back to Holmes in the pool making a jerking off motion and saying, “It’s like this, I love it, it’s great,” with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We hear Spheeris off camera: “It’s like beating off?” “It’s worse than that,” he says. (I can’t explain why, but I love him.) Simmons, back in the lingerie store, says that anyone who claims “it’s lonely at the top” is “full of it”: “It’s the best.” Back to Holmes in the pool: “I would rather be broke and happy than rich and sad.” If only we were given that choice.

Most everyone in the film ends up looking ridiculous. Some random scenester tells Spheeris, “I don’t work,

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