Hard to believe there was a time when this band was considered dangerous. The four dark-haired guys who played at the Riviera didn’t even smoke a cigarette, didn’t even break a sweat, didn’t even sell the place out. If not for the famous name on the marquee, you might have thought you’d stumbled into one of those video shoots for an unknown band where kids show up and jam to music they’ve never heard before in hopes of getting their faces on MTV.

When most of the people at this show were in junior high, Motley Crue was the walk on the wild side. They blasted REO Speedwagon off the pop charts and took on MTV clad in leather and face paint and a chorus of “Shout at the Devil,” all while the Parents’ Music Resource Center geared up to stop them. The band gathered death threats at shows; singer Vince Neil served time for killing another musician in a drunk-driving accident; bassist Nikki Sixx was pronounced dead on arrival after a heroin overdose (but lived to tell about having his heart kick started); and drummer Tommy Lee donned a white leather tuxedo and made the cover of People when he wed Dynasty vixen Heather Locklear. The Crue claimed to have had “more sex, drugs and rock and roll than any other band in history.” And all the while it made some of the cheesiest, sappiest, fluffiest hair metal this side of Bon Jovi. Crue’s excesses were offstage and off record.

Sixx chronicled tales of “Girls, Girls, Girls” on Sunset Strip and sentimental love on “Home Sweet Home” rather than penning paeans to heroin like modern bands such as Alice in Chains. (Even the band’s few songs about drug abuse skirted the issue, turning “Dr. Feelgood” and “Kickstart My Heart” into double-entendres for sex and love.) The formula worked well enough to sell several million copies each of five albums and net the band a deal with Elektra Records worth $25 million–the first of the now-commonplace megadeals.

And then all the rules changed. Glam metal became the furthest thing from cool as bands like Poison and Winger played their prettiness to the hilt. Kids found that while bands like Motley Crue might brag about their bad reputations, Seattle musicians had better riffs, and gangsta rappers didn’t just sing about trouble–they were balls deep in it. And of course Neil left the band, taking his platinum blond hair and screechy voice with him.

Like a band lost in a time warp, Motley Crue reemerged after a five-year absence, proclaiming to anyone who would listen that it was new and improved–harder, meaner, with something to prove. But it was actually a band trying to escape the monster it created when it spawned the new wave in heavy metal 13 years ago.

As the Riviera crowd watched the new Crue it was obvious that despite Neil’s posturing he was sorely missed. He was the comic relief to the drugged stupor of the other members, he was the only real motion on the stage, he was the living caricature of hair metal.

Though three of the new Crue are holdovers, they look like strangers: the faces of the two side henchmen on bass and guitar barely show behind stringy black hair. Even the songs are different: slower, lower key. Their word of choice: grungier. But the Crue isn’t grunge, and dropping the umlauts doesn’t change that.

In Neil’s place stood John Corabi in his Jesus Christ pose, playing guitar and acting for all the world like a rhythm guitarist rather than a lead singer, although he did force a falsetto occasionally as the band covered a very few of the old tunes. The new Crue has done everything in its power to adapt to the times–slamming Neil in every interview, even claiming to have been forced by him to do that cheese metal while the rest of them wanted to be tougher. Any reader of Sixx’s recent interviews could almost picture him pulling at his hair and sobbing, “We just want to be cool again! Oh God! We’ll do anything!”

But even though they’ve tried so hard to change their sound and everything they were ever about, they were better before. An informal survey at the show revealed that four out of five metalheads preferred the old Crue (and Marlboros over Trident), no matter how hopelessly lame that would seem to alternative-rock fans.

Yes, the Crue’s version of “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” is laughable and “Piece of Your Action” is hopelessly cliched, but watching the metal chicks get teary eyed over “Home Sweet Home” and seeing boys with faint mustaches give the devil-horns hand sign while chanting “Shout at the Devil” was so fucking touching. It was like watching your parents sing along with their Tommy James and the Shondells records. It’s hopelessly uncool, positively lame. And yet they really seem to be enjoying themselves, so you enjoy it too.

More than anything, that’s what Motley Crue needs to realize from this tour. The band members can’t reinvent themselves this late in the game, so they may as well go for the sentimental shtick that reminds fans of what it was like to be in junior high and be bad. If they’re smart about it, they can be like Aerosmith and keep rewriting the same songs–and maybe end up being cool, for real, all over again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.