My favorite bar in Baltimore is Rocket to Venus. It’s a hipster enclave smack dab in the middle of the working class neighborhood of Hamden. The people who hang out in Rocket are pretty cool. The jukebox reflects the sophisticated taste of the clientele. John Coltrane, David Bowie, The Replacements, the Descendents all share space in the box. I was there with my friend Brad for happy hour, and we were drinking and having a good time. My hipster guard was up at first, namedropping trendy bands like Los Campesinos!, The Hold Steady and the old standby of Bob Dylan. The drinks continued to flow and I was feeling rather comfortable. I was so comfortable that I forgot to be cool. Suddenly I found myself discussing Faster Pussycat.
Just mentioning Faster Pussycat in hipster circles is bad enough, but I was writing a dissertation. Here is a reenactment.
“I’m telling you Brad, Faster Pussycat’s first album is a CLASSIC! It’s sleazy from start to finish, and most of the songs are about strippers! Their second record, Wake Me When It’s Over, has its moments, but the first one rocks like a motherfucker!”
Brad has been a close associate for several years now, so he is used to my ramblings about hair metal. Most of my friends are. It comes with the territory. If you become friends with me, three things will probably happen.
1. I will ramble about hair metal at least once a week.
2. I will send you a YouTube video link at least once a month. This month’s selection is “When the Children Cry” by White Lion, because the solo is awesome.
3. I will drag you to a show, where you will pretend not to be embarrassed as I pull out old Ratt records for Stephen Pearcy to sign.
Hair metal is the red-headed stepchild of rock n’ roll. Critics hate it, most people grow out of it and today’s generation sees it as a joke. I understand why people make fun of it, because it seems silly and frivolous, especially when compared to Nirvana or Pearl Jam. As a young adult, I understand the need for people to relate to a band. It’s such an exhilarating feeling to listen to a record and say to yourself, “Wow, that guy knows exactly how I feel.” However, if you are looking at hair metal the same way you look at R.E.M., you are missing the point entirely.
I discovered hair metal a decade ago. I was fourteen. I had a crooked spine, bad hair, braces, completely and utterly uncool. I’d never been kissed, never been on a date, never been invited to a real party. I was stuck in the suburbs, a world of carefully manicured lawns and Dave Matthews records. I was pretty unhappy.
Then I bought a record by a band called Poison. My parents had gotten me a generic 80s metal compilation for Easter, and one track stood out. The song was called “Talk Dirty to Me,” and it blew my mind. The song was about the most glorious, dirty, seductive, sinful, carnal sex I could imagine….and they were doing it for fun. It was so catchy that I bought Look What the Cat Dragged In about a week later and I never looked back.
The album is a fantasy from beginning to end. There is no substance to be found. Bret Michaels and the boys party without consequence for about 45 minutes. Whenever I pressed play, the party started. Whenever the party started, I was always invited. I was a huge nerd, but Bret didn’t care. The Crüe didn’t care either, nor did Ratt. Whenever I listened to the records with a friend, they were invited too. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you came from, you were always invited to their party.
During the height of my hair metal fandom, I did not want to be told that my life sucked. I already knew that my life sucked, so why did I need Morrissey to remind me? The music took me outside of suburban normalcy and into the sleazy glamour of the Sunset Strip. I wasn’t John Nagle when I listened to these records, I was Johnny Toxic. Johnny Toxic dated five Playboy Playmates at once, because he could. David Lee Roth considered Johnny Toxic a close personal friend. Johnny Toxic had the tightest pair of leather pants money could buy, with hair that defied gravity. Johnny Toxic didn’t take any shit from bullies, and if he did…his buddies Nikki Sixx and Sebastian Bach were there to back him up. After they kicked the bullies’ ass, they drove around in a hot tub mobile with several scantily clad women, because they were rock stars.
That’s what hair metal gave me. At a time when I felt awkward and unsure of myself, these bands gave me confidence. I’ve never forgotten that.
My tastes have expanded quite a bit in ten years. Poison is no longer my favorite band. Hair metal is no longer my favorite genre. However, I will always defend it, because it played such an important role in my life. Besides, the first Faster Pussycat record still kicks ass, I don’t care what Rolling Stone says.
John Nagle is a music journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. He has written for Baltimore Metromix, B-More Live and 411Mania.com. You can also check out his blog, Rant N’ Rave With John. Mr. Nagle lives in Timonium, where he occasionally pretends to be Stephen Pearcy in the “Wanted Man” video.