Hidden halfway through The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years, Penelope Spheeris’s love-it-or-loathe-it documentary about ’80s glam metal, is a modest little scene that freed my teenage brain from decades of cultural indoctrination. I’m referring, of course, to the infamous Dude-in-the-Pool interview, featuring W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, three bottles of Smirnoff, an inflatable pool recliner, and his mom.
In the scene, a handsome blond man is floating on his back in the pool of a Hollywood mansion, telling us he’s dreamed of being a rock star ever since he was a child. In spite of his grin, we know something is seriously wrong. Maybe the grin itself is the tip-off—that, or the look on the face of his mother, hunched and silent in a deck chair a few feet away. Immediately after telling Spheeris that he has “five, six, ten, twelve” gold records, Holmes pours the better part of a fifth of vodka down his throat and calls himself a “piece of crap” and a “full-blown alcoholic”—as if we need to be enlightened on that score. “I don’t dig the person I am,” he mumbles, almost apologetically, and for an instant we glimpse the polite and bashful boy he must have been. He offers his mother a drink, lets out a cackle of unadulterated suffering, and announces, with a toothy all-American smile: “I’m a happy camper.” Then he lets himself disappear into the pool.
I was twenty years old when I first saw that footage of Holmes. I have very little insight into the soul of the greasy-haired meathead I was at that age, but I must still have been in thrall to the elemental myth of the entertainment industry—talent equals fame equals wealth equals happiness equals self-respect—because those four and a half minutes shocked me. The presence of Holmes’s mother is a significant part of what makes the Dude-in-the-Pool interview so haunting—a feature-length doc about their dynamic would have given Grey Gardens a run for its money. I laughed out loud, I remember—the film can be side-splittingly funny—but years later, that scene was still alive and twitching in my brain.
None of which is to say that DWCII isn’t as joyously sleazy as the viewer might hope and expect. Among its darkly glittering delights are Kiss’s Paul Stanley soliloquizing about group sex from a satin-sheeted waterbed, surrounded by lingerie-clad women; Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine explaining why beer is the omphalos of his personal cosmology; and Ozzy Osbourne, in what looks disturbingly like a Tipper Gore hairpiece, holding forth on the dangers of drug abuse while frying eggs and bacon in a pan. Spheeris’s film was condescended to by the mainstream media when it premiered, and it’s not hard to understand why; I remember feeling no small amount of embarrassment myself, after that momentous first viewing, by how much I adored it. The year before last, however, while researching a book about metal, I watched DWCII again—and finally recognized it as a frost-tipped masterpiece.
The simple passage of time has rendered its subject matter more profound—the starry-eyed goofballs that Spheeris raps with about their plans for global domination seem less ridiculous than tragic. What’s most mesmerizing to me now are the rapid-fire interviews with total unknowns: the Strip Rats and Strip Kittens, the Chris Holmes wannabes, each of them on-screen for just a few seconds. The experience of flitting from one lost cause to the next is both punishing and bewitching. They’re all utterly certain they’re going to be megastars, reflexively parroting the great rock platitudes. I could quote a dozen lines from memory:
I wouldn’t mind being a rock star… as long as “rock star” is defined as rich… and rich.
I think it will come pretty easily to me—because I’m, you know, different from everyone else.
When you doubt it is when you lose it, man.
They’re all such happy campers.