As they often insist on reminding us, it is a hard life being a rock star. The demands of the music business, coupled with constant touring, difficulties in forming lasting relationships and struggles with alcoholism, drug abuse and infidelity push many musicians to breaking point. But there are others who have more to face than most, being forced to overcome health issues and personal tragedies to remain at the top of their game. Poison frontman Bret Michaels has spent his entire career coping with diabetes and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a car crash but continued to perform, while Mötley Crüe guitarist Mick Mars has dealt with the pain and discomfort of ankylosing spondylitis. A type of arthritis that causes inflammation and fusion of the spine, resulting in chronic pain and immobility, AS, as it is sometimes referred to, drastically alters the life of the sufferer, often forcing them to retire from their chosen profession to instead focus on physiotherapy and rest.
Mars was born on 4 May 1951 in Terre Haute, a city on the western border of Indiana. When he was six years old Robert Alan Deal was given a guitar as a Christmas present from his parents and less than a decade later he was performing Beatles songs with a local band called The Jades. But by the end of his teens Deal had begun to suffer severe pains, something that would continue to plague him throughout his life. As he recalled in The Dirt; “I first noticed it when I was nineteen. My hips started hurting so bad every time I turned my body that it felt like someone was igniting fireworks in my bones. I didn’t have enough money to see a doctor, so I just kept hoping that I could do what I usually do: will it away, through the power of my mind. But it kept getting worse…
‘Then, one afternoon while doing my laundry, I started having trouble breathing. At first, it felt like someone had plunged a knife into my back. But as the weeks passed, the pain kept moving around my back. Next, my stomach started burning, and I worried that my whole body was about to fall apart. I thought that there was a hole in my stomach, and acids were leaking out and destroying my bones and organs. I’d grab hold of doorknobs, anchor my legs into the ground, and pull with my hands to stretch my back and ease the pressure out.”
As his passion for guitar playing grew he eventually adopted the stage name Mick Mars, relocating to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. Forming White Horse in the mid-1970s, Mars soon became frustrated that the band only wanted to perform cover songs, while he wanted to write original material. This decision would result in him being fired. Mars placed an advert in a newspaper called The Recycler, in which he described himself as a “loud, rude and aggressive guitarist.” Among the hopefuls to respond was a bass player seven-and-a-half years his junior called Nikki Sixx, who had enjoyed minor success on the Hollywood scene with both Sister and London.
Sixx had decided to start a band with his drummer friend, Tommy Lee, and Mars was invited to audition, in which they performed several songs that Sixx had written. After recruiting Vince Neil, the singer from another act from the L.A. music scene known as Rockandi, Mötley Crüe was born. One of the most successful of the so-called hair metal groups of the 1980s, Mötley Crüe‘s debut album Too Fast for Love was released independently through their own label, Leathür Records, before later being re-released by Elektra Records once the band were signed.
Like many of the other groups who performed regularly around Hollywood, Mötley Crüe soon gained a reputation for their excessive drug use. Sixx and Neil would become the most notorious, while the death of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle due to Neil driving under the influence cast a darkness over the endless partying the group had enjoyed up to that point. Neil faced prison, the passengers of another vehicle were hospitalised and Hanoi Rocks would split following the tragedy. Being several years older than his bandmates and suffering from a painful illness, Mars seemed less destructive and avoided some of the more embarrassing incidents, although this was not always the case.
As Neil revealed in his autobiography Tattoos and Tequila, while Mötley Crüe were touring Japan a particularly excessive evening brought an intoxicated Mars to the attention of the Roppongi authorities; “Leaving the club wearing a Godzilla mask, Mick terrorized people in the street. Reportedly with his pants around his ankles, he was apprehended by police as he was urinating along the side of the road.”
But for the most part Mars was known as the quiet one from Mötley Crüe, often remaining silent in the background as the other three caused mischief and mayhem around him. “But the more successful we became, the harder it was to enjoy the rewards,” Mars continued. “New ankylosing spondylitis symptoms kept appearing: Something called “iritis” set in, producing bolts of pain in my eyes whenever I looked into bright lights, like I did onstage every night. And my lower spine seized up and froze completely solid, causing scoliosis in my back and squashing me further down and forward until I was a full three inches shorter than I was in high school. That’s why I never take off my platform boots. I don’t want to be a pygmy.”
Despite his symptoms worsening, Mötley Crüe‘s success would continue throughout the remainder of the decade, culminating with their 1989 hit album Dr. Feelgood. By this point the band had become newly sober, following Sixx’s near-death experience and the gruelling experience of recording their last album, 1987’s Girls, Girls, Girls. But, like many of the groups to emerge from the Hollywood scene, the new decade brought changes in the music industry and Mötley Crüe were forced to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant.
Following the departure of Neil, they released a self-titled album with a new singer called John Corabi, although his time would be short-lived and was soon replaced once again by Neil. Further complications would result in Lee quitting the band in 1999 prior to the recording of their eighth studio album, 2000’s critically panned New Tattoo. Sixx then formed a new project called Brides of Destruction with Tracii Guns of L.A. Guns but after releasing only one album, 2004’s Here Come the Brides, he decided it was time to bring together the original Mötley Crüe line-up for the first time in almost a decade.
“I had done a side project or two and when it came time to resurrect the Mötley machine, Mick was nowhere to be found,” explained Sixx in his book This is Gonna Hurt. “It’s always been Mars riffs meets my pop and lyric sensibility that was the core to the songs in the Crüe. Now he wouldn’t answer his phone or the countless notes I left at the security gate at his private estate. I was not only worried about writing music without a partner, but I had that gut-wrenching feeling that something was wrong… What I saw haunts me to this day. A frail man of eighty, maybe ninety pounds, shaved head, gray skin, with a beard to his chest. He was dying, addicted to painkillers, brought on by a disease called ankylosing spondylitis.”
“I immediately got on the phone with our manager, Allen, and started a mission to save Mick’s life,” Sixx added. “First thing was the crazy girlfriend. She had to go. Not only was she feeding him pills by the bucketload, she was spending his cash faster than anyone could imagine… So Mick Mars was living in my guest room, kicking prescription meds, girlfriendless. It didn’t look like a Mötley album was going to happen any time in the near future for sure. After we had settled into a routine came the doctors, one after another… day after day… until finally Allen found the doctor who got Mick sorted out.”
In an article published by MTV regarding Mars’ operation surgeon Dr. Brad Penenberg explained, “The surgery went extremely well. I expect him to be walking with the help of a physical therapist as early as Wednesday morning.” Due to Sixx’s intervention Mars was able to make a significant recovery and Mötley Crüe prepared to make its long-awaited comeback, commencing in early 2005 with a new retrospective entitled Red, White & Crüe. Gathering together material from almost twenty-five years, the album featured two new studio tracks, If I Die Tomorrow and Sick Love Song.
The band were soon on the road once again, although due to his recent health issues Mars found the touring quite difficult. In a 2008 interview with Yahoo’s Associated Content Mars looked back on his comeback tour, “I guess the last tour that I did was kind of messed up from a lot of things. AS (ankylosing spondylitis), of course, which, without getting into too much detail or dragging it on, led to drug abuse, prescription quick-fix drugs, which was crappy, and made me worse, and then there was the hip-replacement.”
The same year he explained to Metal Sludge, “I kept getting worse and worse, and I just stopped playing guitar for almost two years. Nowadays, it’s not so bad, but back then when I was high on all that stuff and Mötley were having a break, I knew if I didn’t stop I was gonna die. In the end, I have to go to a neuro-psychiatrist to straighten me up and he said to me “Just hold the guitar for an hour a day – don’t play it, just hold it”… It was pretty bizarre but I got through it, and in the end I think I’m actually a better player because of it.”
In 2008 Mötley Crüe released Saints of Los Angeles, their first studio album in eight years and, following over a decade of struggling to regain their former glory, produced a record that rivalled their earlier classic Shout at the Devil. Although at present there is no known cure for ankylosing spondylitis, Mars has learned to cope with the illness and continues to perform music, most recently on a sell-out tour featuring Mötley Crüe, Poison and the New York Dolls. “It still hurts. It still grinds now and then, but like I said, music is my whole passion. It’s what I do. It’s what I live for. I guess it keeps me alive,” he revealed in a recent interview with The Times Leader. “I’m just happy to be here, to be able to make people happy, to make people smile and give them what I feel inside from my music.”