The trio is releasing a reissue of their first album this week in honor of its 10th anniversary.
Nikki Sixx’s truth is more harrowing than most fiction.
Any Mötley Crüe fan at least peripherally familiar with the band’s debauched history knows about the bassist’s well-documented -- and temporarily fatal -- drug habit. By 1987, Crüe had reached new commercial highs, notching a No. 2 record on the Billboard 200 albums chart with their fourth release, Girls, Girls, Girls, and embarking on a massive North American tour through the end of the year. But their success was marred by in-fighting and personal demons, with Sixx caught in the throes of an all-consuming heroin addiction that culminated in his overdose on Dec. 23, 1987.
Sixx was pronounced legally dead for two minutes. Paramedics revived him with two shots of adrenaline, at which point he staggered home, injected more heroin and passed out. But cheating death inspired the bassist to eventually get sober, whereupon Mötley Crüe enjoyed their greatest success with 1989’s chart-topping Dr. Feelgood.
Relapses, commercial misfires and fractured relationships followed -- but in 2007, Sixx dredged up diary entries from 1987, the deadliest year of his life, and compiled them into a memoir, The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star. He teamed up with guitarist Dj Ashba and singer James Michael, both former songwriting partners, to release the accompanying The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack under the moniker Sixx:A.M. The book debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times Book Review nonfiction bestseller list; the album’s first single, “Life is Beautiful,” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and was named the No. 1 rock song of 2008 by Mediabase.
The Heroin Diaries gave Ashba and Michael their greatest taste of mainstream success yet, and it jumpstarted Sixx’s career after Mötley Crüe’s latest album, 2000’s New Tattoo, stalled at No. 41 on the Billboard 200. Sixx:A.M. have since released four additional studio albums, and this week they celebrated The Heroin Diaries’ 10th anniversary by re-releasing the book and soundtrack with new photos, chapters, album art, liner notes and reimagined versions of old songs. But nobody anticipated the project would be such a resounding commercial success or inspire fans grappling with similar issues -- they hadn’t even planned on becoming a band.
“I remember calling up [Mötley Crüe and Sixx:A.M. manager] Allen Kovac at the time and saying, ‘I found these diaries at the height of my addiction,’” Sixx tells Billboard. “‘It’s like a year. I wonder if we published it, if it would help people either understand addiction, or if they are addicted, understand that you can get out.’”
Kovac suggested writing a few songs to supplement the book, but Ashba insists they never had any long-term plans for the project. “We weren’t a band. It was just a soundtrack to this book that Nikki was doing,” he says. “We didn’t even have a drummer. James and I programmed all the drums on the album. ‘Life is Beautiful’ went No. 1 immediately, and we were all like, ‘What?’ We had no idea. And the label called and said, ‘You guys are now a band. What’s the name?’”
Ashba’s previous releases -- a 1996 solo album Addiction to the Friction and an eponymous debut with Beautiful Creatures in 2001 -- had failed to gain traction on the charts, and he declined Sixx’s invitation to join Brides of Destruction, his hard rock supergroup with L.A. Guns guitarist Tracii Guns. But the two eventually partnered in 2006 to co-write songs for Drowning Pool and Marion Raven at Sixx’s studio, Funny Farm.
They began working on material that would eventually become The Heroin Diaries, likening the process to scoring a film. “We started talking more and more about using these diaries as more of a script to a movie that was never made, and just kind of piecing songs and trying to bring out those feelings emotionally, through the music,” Ashba says.
The duo invited Michael -- a prolific producer and songwriter whose own solo record, 2000’s Inhale, underperformed -- to produce and add scratch vocals to the project. Michael had collaborated with Mötley Crüe on several New Tattoo songs, and he joined Sixx and Ashba for early songwriting sessions. “It was so clear to all three of us that this was a rare and unique camaraderie,” he says. “And it was something that all of us needed to really embrace.”
Those first sessions yielded “Life Is Beautiful,” a readymade radio rock anthem built around an infectious chord progression and explosive guitar riff. The song slowly builds tension through the verses before climaxing in a soaring chorus, where Michael wails, “Just open your eyes and see that life is beautiful / Will you swear on your life that no one will die at my funeral?”
Despite its masterful blend of huge hooks and uplifting lyrics, “Life Is Beautiful” almost didn’t happen. “I think it was called ‘Funeral’ at the time, and I was driving out, working on melodies for it and stuff,” Michael recalls. “And I kept on thinking, ‘Gosh, there’s something special about this song, but I think that ‘Funeral’ is just such a final title. It doesn’t give you anywhere to go.'”
The singer suggested changing the title to “Life Is Beautiful,” and the song immediately clicked. “Since our inclination is to be dealing with such heavy subject matter, things like addiction and recovery, it became clear to us that if we’re going to do this as a project, we need to always focus on the positive outcome, the hope within the song, and not just get mired down in the darkness,” Michael says. “We realized that if we do this, and if we approach all of these songs with a large degree of hope, we might really be able to connect with people. And that became the underlying theme for every single Sixx:A.M. song that’s ever been in existence.”
The rest of The Heroin Diaries follows this pattern, candidly addressing Sixx’s addiction while also offering words of encouragement for anyone experiencing the same thing. It’s a visceral, ultimately uplifting album that builds upon its modern hard rock foundation with theatrical, nearly progressive flourishes and Sixx’s plaintive spoken-word passages lifted from his book -- a sound far removed from the hedonistic glam metal of Mötley Crüe’s heyday.
Sixx welcomed the opportunity to shake up his sound and collaborate with new musicians. “The early Mötley days, I wrote pretty much exclusively everything myself, and I really got tired of that,” he says. “That really felt isolated, and when I met James and Dj and we started doing all these co-writes together, it was so exciting to hear somebody else’s melody line that’s not even near what you thought about.”
The bassist gave Ashba and Michael manuscripts of The Heroin Diaries to fuel the songwriting sessions, with no reservations about sharing the graphic material with his bandmates. “The first thing in writing music is you have to be able to trust people, and that means if you’re collaborating with people for their music, everybody has to be pretty vulnerable in the room if you really want to get to the heart of the matter,” he says. “I trust James and Dj, and I know they trust me. It was obviously my story, so they would constantly ask me, ‘Does this fit with what you were feeling at the time?’ and, ‘This journal entry here made me think about this guitar riff.’ And James would say, ‘I’ve got this melody,’ and I would be like, ‘That exactly captures what that’s about!’ That was a lot of fun, and there was no fear involved.”
Sixx and Ashba originally planned to enlist different singers to tackle each song on The Heroin Diaries, but soon discovered they’d have a hard time filling Michael’s shoes. “I have a pretty broad range for a male vocalist, and we realized it was gonna be a pretty tough challenge to find somebody that was gonna be able to sing these songs live in a band setting,” the singer says. “So we just kind of said, ‘Well, you know what, let’s just leave my vocals on there and let’s just see what happens with this.’ And that’s literally how I became the lead singer of the band.”
Michael also wowed his bandmates with a handful of solo contributions, including album centerpiece “Dead Man’s Ballet,” a sprawling, gospel-tinged agro-ballad with a lurching rhythm that demonstrates the breadth of his singing and songwriting talents. “As soon as we both heard James singing on these songs,” Sixx says, “it was just like it was meant to be.”
The Heroin Diaries garnered Sixx:A.M. the widespread critical acclaim that often eluded Mötley Crüe, and the band had a runaway hit on their hands with “Life Is Beautiful.” They took part in the inaugural Crüe Fest in the summer of 2008, but still had no plans to become a full-time touring and recording entity. Sixx was busy with Mötley Crüe, Michael continued producing and co-writing for other artists, and Ashba joined Guns N’ Roses as a touring member in 2009.
The band finally embarked on their first North American headlining tour in support of their third album, Modern Vintage, in 2015. Eight years after its release, it was clear The Heroin Diaries still deeply impacted their fans. “I remember when I was on the last Sixx:A.M. tour, there was this girl in the front,” Sixx recalls. “She had the book and she had tears in her eyes, and she was holding it up and she had a silver Sharpie with her. I wanted to sign the book, but I’m also playing a concert. So I kept waiting between songs, and she kept holding the book up, and finally there was this moment when nothing was happening. I went over, and it was silent between songs. And all I heard was this little voice, and she said, ‘Thank you.’”
Sixx -- who last month penned an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times about steps the Trump administration should take to end the opioid crisis in America -- believes The Heroin Diaries’ message resonates louder now than ever, and has the opportunity to positively influence a whole new generation of readers and listeners.
“A kid who was 10 years old was not listening to Sixx:A.M. or reading a book about heroin addiction," Sixx says. "They’d probably never even heard of a Mötley Crüe or a Nikki Sixx. And now he’s 20, or she’s 20, or if they were 15, they’re 25, and they might be dealing with this."
“Sometimes a book like this is a gateway book," he continues with a chuckle. "You used to call things ‘gateway drugs’; it’s like a gateway book to sobriety.”