“Celebrities have nothing to say.”
It’s a phrase that journalist Mike Sager will repeat. He’ll clarify that it’s not because they’re idiots (well, not all of them) but because they spend their lives saying someone else’s words. When it comes time for them to speak for themselves, they’re often at a loss. Sager – who has interviewed the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Oliver Stone, George Clooney, Roseanne Barr and hundreds more – never is. The award-winning author has penned several books, has contributed to GQ, Rolling Stone and Playboy and is a writer-at-large for Esquire. He speaks to compelling people, certainly, but it’s his ability to take what they say and turn it into engaging, enchanting stories that makes Sager a master. But even a master has to eat.
A while back, Sager received a sweet offer: good money to ghostwrite Vince Neil’s new autobiography, Tattoos & Tequila: To Hell and Back with One of Rock’s Most Notorious Frontmen, released in September to vicious reviews – “Few books advertise their own redundancy with the flair of Vince Neil’s new memoir,” said the Onion A.V. Club – as a tie-in with Neil’s similarly roasted summer solo album, Tattoos & Tequila. (“ … a perfect metaphor to how little music really matters to [Neil],” proclaimed GloriousNoise.com.) The sobriety-touting book was further undercut by Neil’s DUI arrest a few months before its release.
For the die-hard Motley Crue/Vince Neil fan, Tattoos & Tequila is a behind-the-scenes leer at the over-indulgence of ’80s rock and Motley Crue as some of the genre’s baddest boys. Big hair, big arenas, big tits, big lines of coke ... all of the excess is in Neil’s tale and part of what made him such a great frontman. But for the fan of a well-written biography, the book is kind of a bummer for two reasons: One, these stories were already in 2001’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. Two, the book reads like a verbatim transcript – a narcissistic, syntactically confusing traipse down memory lane. Neil has plenty to say, he just doesn’t always say it very well, even with Sager’s help.
“[Sager] turns the conventions of the ghostwritten bio into a kind of running subplot,” said the Onion in the aforementioned review. “But just as often, his approach reads as veiled contempt for his assignment.” According to Sager, that’s somewhat accurate.
“When you write an authorized biography, it is a personal memoir that has been ghostwritten by someone else. That’s what we’re doing here,” says Sager. “This is not a piece of journalism. It’s not like at Esquire and Rolling Stone. I’m used to going through rigorous fact checking, sometimes with lawyers and always with fact checkers. There is none of that in this process ... and I quickly figured out that Vince is not very eloquent to begin with.”
The book includes interviews with Neil’s current wife and his exes, his kids and Motley bassist Nikki Sixx, the only band member who agreed to be interviewed. The sad part is, Sager explains, those voices were by and large far more interesting than Neil’s. But it isn’t their story. So with two hours a day over the course of two weeks of interviews and three months to finish the book, Sager did what he does best. He wrote.
“I created the backbone out of his interviews,” says Sager. “Most of what is in there are his sentiments but not his words. It’s like if he said one sentence, I wrote four paragraphs. And there is a lot of that in there. I’ve written about this shit, I’ve done the drugs, I’ve been in the scene. I know what he’s talking about, and I’m a better writer than him.”
That much is true. The best part of Tattoos & Tequila is Sager’s introduction. (“He’s notoriously early,” he writes, “when he’s decided he’s coming.”) If you’ve already read The Dirt, it’s the best reason to pick up this book.
A version of this story originally appeared in Boise Weekly
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