Ryan Dorgan

‘The First 21’ & How He Became Nikki Sixx

When you’ve been a certified rockstar and globally known bassist for more than four decades, you would think that looking back on life means reflecting on the days of partying on the road, marrying Playboy Playmates, releasing hit album after hit album, and having a love-hate relationship with drugs. However, Nikki Sixx is looking past all of that in order to revisit his roots – his real, non-commercialized, pre-“bad shit” happening, grandfather-inspired roots.

There’s a saying that states you should never meet your heroes. I’ve met my hero three times and have even interviewed him on the phone twice here for The Aquarian. This would be the first time that I interview my hero face to face (via a Zoom call) and the young Tim Louie inside jumps out every single time that I get to talk to him.

I’m talking about Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe.

Like most Crüe fans, I’ve read The Dirt, The Heroin Diaries, and This Is Gonna Hurt, but on October 19, Mr. Sixx is back with a new book about his formative years titled The First 21: How I Became Nikki Sixx, where he discusses growing up in Idaho, being raised by his grandparents and dysfunctional mother, Deanna, his band before Mötley Crüe (London), the Stadium Tour, and, of course, how he got his name. This is a side of Nikki Sixx that no Mötley Crüe fan will be familiar with. In fact, this is a story about Frankie Feranna – the boy who became Nikki Sixx, the creator of one of the world’s most notorious rock ‘n’ roll bands. Here’s how my sit down with Nikki Sixx went:

Congrats on another amazing book! The Dirt and The Heroin Diaries are my two favorite books of all-time. Now, I have a third and I read it in record time just for this interview. As a Cruehead who has read the first two books, I’m just wondering why you felt it was important to tell your story about before you became Nikki Sixx?

You know, I found this 8MM footage from my family that we turned into video, and I found it interesting to go back to the beginning and ending when I changed my name to Nikki Sixx – before I started Mötley Crüe. My wife said to me last night, “Everybody knows the guy in Mötley Crüe, the guy who was unfortunately addicted to drugs, and then recovery, and speaks out about that, has another band, and blah blah blah.” I’ve had gallery showings of my photography and that’s all Nikki Sixx – and actually, who Nikki is, is Frank. Frank was a small town boy with dreams. Kind of what I found through this book was…. Well, there’s a few themes we’ll talk about and I’m sure you have a lot of questions, but that there’s a Frank in every city, every country. There are young Tony Hawks, young top soccer players, Magic Johnson at one point was a small town boy with a dream and in his first 21 years, he’s like, “This is what I’m gonna do.” I hope to activate that in some people. If you’re a Mötley Crüe fan and you loved the blood and the guts and the car crashes, there’s interesting anecdotes in there that I think you will find really interesting, but [this] was a very different experience and quite cathartic to be honest with you. 

You made a move to Wyoming, which by the way looks beautiful on Instagram. Was it a peaceful move for you after living around the Los Angeles area for so long? How was that transition?

Nature is so inspiring, but it also is reminding me of what it was like to be a kid in Idaho. You’re in the middle of a potato field, but you can’t wait to get home to put on that new New York Dolls record. That’s kind of where I’m at here, I’m in the middle of nowhere. We’re community-based. We try to do a lot for the community and give back. The nature is inspiring. The creativity is coming and I’ll still put those records on, so all I did was remove myself after 40-something years. Los Angeles had just started to change. It wasn’t the creative melting pot that it was for me – and maybe it’s because I’m not 20 anymore. Maybe if you’re 20 and you’re out doing your thing, it still is that. You have to make choices in life for what’s good for you in life. I can’t wait to get on stage and blow the whole stage up, but it’s nice when I pulled into my driveway yesterday and there are two grizzly bears and I go, “Ok, I’m not getting out of my car! I have press to do for my book… I’m not getting out of my car!” [Laughs]

You know, I had a deal to do a book. I’ve had quite a few books that have been successful. I’ve always been a writer, a documentarian, taking pictures, writing it down, writing lyrics, writing short stories, so I kind of had this idea of doing a book to help people that work their whole life understand that tipping point where they were now the top soccer player or the top musician or people who come into money that weren’t necessarily educated on money, and I wanted to talk about that because I have been able to withstand highs and lows of my career because of have this concept. Well, not this concept… it’s just something I do. I save 20% net of anything I ever make, so if I make a dollar, by the time you subtract commissions and taxes and split it four ways, I got ten cents. Then, two cents have to go into a savings account that never gets touched, so that one day when you wake up, and you find out that you’re not “cool” anymore, but you still make records and you still tour. Then one day everyone thinks you’re “cool” again and you’re like “I’m glad you changed your mind back.” I was able to withstand that like basketball players, soccer players, and race car drivers.

I was sitting on the back 28-acres of our property and I was overlooking the Grand Tetons and as an eagle or a crow flies for about two-and-half hours from where I grew up in this small town, and I had this thought, “Where did everybody go?” So, I run inside. I write down a couplet. It was something like “To my friends, it’s not you that was lost, it’s just once I started flying, I forgot how to stop.” A good way to stop is a pandemic to be like “I’m spending all this time with my family” and “Maybe I need to write that book instead of a financial book that isn’t very sexy.” Maybe I’ll write that when I’m 72 – something that I feel will be helpful to people. In this, I felt passion about it and that started the journey going back. 

The book really is amazing. And as much as I thought I knew about you, I really didn’t know about you. Growing up, you really were a blue-collar worker. You did a lot of different work that a Mötley Crüe fan will be surprised to learn about you and then you turned that into what you have and who you are today.

I learned from my grandfather. We weren’t very well off. We moved from town to town and he worked at gas stations, equivalent to minimum wage, right? That man got up at five in the morning and came home at eight o’clock at night. He never complained. He worked his ass off. He can still take this young boy out fishing or hunting or when I played football, he’d come and watch my games. I also learned unconditional love from my grandmother, and so, I was able to take his work ethic and her unconditional love and passion towards something that I want, and so I can never complain. I would feel like such an asshole to complain about rehearsing for a month straight before I go on tour or doing this or doing interviews or just everything it takes. I saw it first-hand that life takes that so you gotta give it everything you got. 

The second half of the book was mostly about the formation of your pre-Mötley band, London, and your relationships with those band member, Lizzie [Grey] and Dane [Rage], which I was really interested in. Then you talked about learning your skill in songwriting and how you’re not a “Moon-June-Spoon” type of songwriter and that you like to tell stories when you write, which is a skill my band learned from you. But then, you brought up the song “Stick To Your Guns” a few times in this book. I always loved that song and “Toast of the Town,” those two songs were just singles before Too Fast For Love came out. Why didn’t you ever decide to re-record it and re-release it on one of the Elektra releases? Or were you afraid, you’d make Kim Fowley a millionaire?

Yeah, I had this idea when we were getting ready to go out and do the Final Tour that maybe we should re-record “Stick To Your Guns” – like re-record it nowadays. Back then we barely had two pennies to rub together to record it… or maybe we would ruin it, so I never really brought it up to the band. I thought it would be a cool way to end, what I thought we were ending our career on, by ending it with the same song we began it with. Hey, you never know! [Laughs] But, yeah, I talked a lot about London because what was important about London was the passion and the gang-like mentality that we had. All pre-Mötley Crüe. How hard we worked. What we were willing to do without. The side hustles we were willing to do to survive.

Also at that time, in 1976, Van Halen, the biggest band in Los Angeles, blew up and was gone, and they changed the music scene forever because no one had ever seen a guitar player like that. Then you had Quiet Riot with Randy [Rhodes], and Quiet Riot had two Japanese record deals. They didn’t have good distribution, but in L.A., they were like it. I would go see them and all that stuff. Then there was London, my band, and when we got Nigel Benjamin, who was the guy who replaced Ian Hunter in Mott The Hoople, that band was Queen (because he had a five octave range) meets Bowie meets T. Rex. We couldn’t get arrested because they wanted us to do our hair like Flock of Seagulls or the handclaps like U2 does and the Go-Gos and we’re like “No, this is who we are!” No record companies would sign us, and when Capitol Records, my own uncle passed on us, Nigel Benjamin with such talent did not have the fortitude to keep it together and keep working so he quit the band. I was not going to go back to Idaho and work on a Goddamn farm again. I had a dream and I just kept going, and a lot of that is important for people to understand. Bad shit happens to good people, but you have got to keep going. In fact you might have to work harder than the next guy, and if I hadn’t continued on, I would have never have formed Mötley Crüe. I would have never have met Tommy, Vince, or Mick… and they changed my life forever. 

Do you think that after reading this book many readers will start searching for your old London recordings and/or video footage with Nigel Benjamin fronting the band? Because I find myself interested in hearing some of that stuff. Is it even out there?

I hope so and I think so. I don’t have any copies of anything because it was so long ago. Lizzie passed away while ago. I can reach out to his wife. I’m sure Lizzie had the masters to some of this stuff, but I’ve seen some little things out on the Internet here and there. Not great recordings. Some live stuff here and there. It was a really cool band. Mötley Crüe was the thing that the record companies were looking for, though, like minimalistic rock. Mötley Crüe offered some of that in songs like “Live Wire.” We offered some of the brutality of punk rock in the beginning, yet we had the melodies of Cheap Trick – or we’d try! I would never say we had them, because they were one of my favorite bands, and we still couldn’t get signed.

What I learned was through reading music books on lawyers and how the music industry works. I was always studying this stuff because I was scared that I was going to end up in a situation where I get ripped off or my band gets ripped off, so I tried to educate myself as much as possible. The other great educational tool was watching punk rock bands. No one wanted to sign the punk rock bands to major labels, so they started forming their own labels. That’s what we did with Mötley Crüe. We formed our own label and got a distribution deal, and we were selling out two, three, four thousand seaters, and still no record company would sign us. We were going to own our own music, we were going to own our own image, we were not going to change for you, and we were going to own our own recordings. Again, it’s those life lessons from my grandfather: keep working, even when it’s hard, and never give up. Never be afraid to re-write your lyrics. Never be afraid to make those choruses stronger. Be open to change. Creativity is like an evolution, and if you stop, you’re gonna turn to stone or you’re gonna freeze. I talk a little bit about that creativity in the book to help other creatives to say, “Oh wow! Maybe that can help me.”

I thought that was interesting that you bullet pointed those tips on creativity at the end of the book. You basically answered many questions that musicians would want to ask you if they had the chance. Now, you mentioned your Uncle Don, did him passing on London and Mötley Crüe ever put a strain on your relationship?

No, because from his perspective, being the president of a label, it’s like he’s going to go into a board meeting and he’s going go, “So, we’re gonna sign my nephew!” And they’re going to say, “What?” He’ll have to say, “And he is not in a band that fits the music industry right now, but I’m gonna sign my nephew because they’re selling out clubs!” And they’d be like, “You’re out of your mind!” I can understand that from him and his A&R guys that this isn’t a good fit for our label. Later in life, Don told me – and this is a guy who worked with The Beatles, Bob Seger, Steve Miller, and one of my favorite bands, Sweet – “Man, the biggest mistake I ever made in my career was not signing you. You were living in my house, writing songs in my guest room…and I didn’t see it.”

If we do the math, just do a rough guesstimate, record companies make like ten dollars a record, let’s say, especially when records were actually selling. I sold 150 million records. That’s a $1.5 billion mistake. How would we know? I also passed on producing Appetite for Destruction. That record made $24 Million, and if I got a dollar a record as a producer? [Laughs] You don’t know! I made that mistake because I was fearful that I would not do the best job because I was addicted at that time to heroin, and if maybe my mom had not passed down all that information to me about how shitty my dad was, carrying this stuff… maybe I would not have got addicted, maybe I would have produced that record…. I don’t fucking know! All I know is that when I didn’t get signed to that label or any other label, my band said, “Let’s just form our own label.” I told Mike Clink once, who produced Appetite for Destruction, that story, and he said he heard that and he said, “You know, I basically…” which is what I love about G‘n’R and that first album. He says, “I basically just pushed records.” It was what it was. Axl [Rose] came in later and did some vocal parts. It was those low vocal parts he had going in. He said that it was like in and out. It was like capturing magic in a bottle, so maybe he was the right man for the job. Those are my friends, so I was so happy for them. 

I also don’t think I ever heard that story about how you got the name Nikki Sixx. What a great story! You stole the name from a guy in a band called Squeeze. Not the Squeeze, but Squeeze. I do remember a story when some guy accused you of stealing his identity saying he was the real Nikki Sixx and that you were an imposter. That story was in The Dirt, but I don’t remember ever hearing this story, and I thought I knew everything there is to know about you!

[Laughs] Again, it’s that process of what can I do to keep improving the idea of who I am. I didn’t want to be Nikki London of London, even though that’s what I was for a long time. I wanted to be a gang member. I wanted to be a team player. I wanted to be a part of it, whether I’m writing the majority of the songs or co-writing or not writing any songs, I wanted to be part of it, because we’re a band, right? I told my wife this, I go, “Yeah, I stole his girlfriend and then I stole his name.” And she goes, “You’re such a shit!” And I go, “Well, you know… you gotta do what you gotta do!” [Laughs]

Well, I guess that was a sign of things to come since Mötley Crüe was known for stealing girlfriends

[Laughs] Yeah! A few! 

When it’s safe to go back to Broadway, are we finally going to see The Heroin Diaries Musical? 

Well, our nemesis, coronavirus, really destroyed that for us. We were auditioning. We were in preproduction. We were there. When Broadway comes back and says “We’re going to open Off-Broadway, too, and also touring theaters….” Our idea was to tour it like a band and take this message into cities and tie it in with recovery centers in local cities. It was a great story, but it was about helping, especially with the opioid epidemic. They were like “We need to put the ones in there that are going to sell out and do great to get us back on our feet,” because a lot of these theaters just lost a lot of musicians, so they were basically on the verge of losing everything. With that being said, we obviously put it on hold, and it’s still on hold. We’re talking about making it into a movie. I just signed a deal and I don’t want to disclose who it is yet, but it’s a massive director in animation and we formed a company basically to create children’s programming. It will have some positive messaging and each episode has to have an “original” song. That’s gonna be fun.

Me and my wife are working on a book right now, a children’s book about this little girl who goes to all of these countries in her imagination. She goes to Africa and she has this little African boy or girl teaching her about that culture, or she goes to England, and then she goes to Wyoming and learns about horses, then goes to Japan and learns about the food and the culture and the language. That is a great idea and that will come out next year.

COVID was an interesting thing for me. It knocked us off our axis on touring two years in a row, so we are going to go next year, 100%. We have got to go on tour starting June 19. It created an opportunity to sell our house in Los Angeles and move to a better place to raise our daughter, and then the other gift was all of a sudden that I felt more creative. We can’t see another house from where we live. It’s just peaceful and so it’s all internal whether it’s coming out on the bass or it’s coming out on the pen. For me, there was a lot of negativity, but I also got to spend a lot of quality time with our family because I pulled my kids out of college and they all came back to where we lived in Los Angeles. We lived in the house for three months when we were on lockdown and we were having conversations that we haven’t had in years about things because they have their own lives and dad’s got his own life. We get together five or six times a year and do fun stuff, but anyway, COVID allowed me to re-focus, re-center, and just try to be as safe as possible and take advantage of some of these creative ideas. 

There are also 3 new SixxA.M. songs to coincide with the book release?

Well, we did that after we did the double album, Prayers for the Damned and Prayers for the Blessed, which was an unbelievable amount of work in a short amount of time. I’m really proud of those two records. Then, we were like “Let’s put out a collection thing to re-acquaint the new audience,” which would mean Spotify, the streamers, the Pandoras, the Apples, and get us integrated into rock playlists so people would be like “Wow! I forgot about this band or I never heard this song ‘Life Is Beautiful.’” We wrote some new songs for that and then the pandemic came and one thing got pushed off to the next. Then, I was working on the book, so I talked to James and DJ, and I said, “It worked so well with The Heroin Diaries having the music inspired by the book,” when we kind of wrote a soundtrack to the book. I go, “Let’s write a song called ‘The First 21’ and let’s have the lyrics inspired by that coming of age, youthfulness.” I think there’s a line in the song that says, “We’re as high as the stars in the sky.” It’s just about being young and dreaming about that girl you see in the hallway so we got that into the song. What was fun about doing it with James and DJ was we took the song and the verse in a very seventies style – actually the verse is the chorus, but the chorus is it’s own thing.

It was very fun to write and I found all of this 8MM footage from my family doing the research, added some photos from the scrapbook, and added lyrics from that, so it really captures the book and it captures SixxA.M. We also have a song called “Penetrate,” which is really traditional SixxA.M. sounding, but if I wrote it back in 1985, it would have a totally different meaning. Then there’s song called “Waiting All My Life,” which has that same spirit of “The First 21.”