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The First 21
How I Became Nikki Sixx
By Nikki Sixx
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Rock-and-roll icon and three-time bestselling author Nikki Sixx tells his origin story: how Frank Feranna became Nikki Sixx, chronicling his fascinating journey from irrepressible Idaho farmboy to the man who formed the revolutionary rock group Mötley Crüe.
Nikki Sixx is one of the most respected, recognizable, and entrepreneurial icons in the music industry. As the founder of Mötley Crüe, who is now in his twenty-first year of sobriety, Sixx is incredibly passionate about his craft and wonderfully open about his life in rock and roll, and as a person of the world. Born Franklin Carlton Feranna on December 11, 1958, young Frankie was abandoned by his father and partly raised by his mother, a woman who was ahead of her time but deeply troubled. Frankie ended up living with his grandparents, bouncing from farm to farm and state to state. He was an all-American kid—hunting, fishing, chasing girls, and playing football—but underneath it all, there was a burning desire for more, and that more was music. He eventually took a Greyhound bound for Hollywood.
In Los Angeles, Frank lived with his aunt and his uncle—the president of Capitol Records—for a short time. But there was no easy path to the top. He was soon on his own. There were dead-end jobs: dipping circuit boards, clerking at liquor and record stores, selling used light bulbs, and hustling to survive. But at night, Frank honed his craft, joining Sister, a band formed by fellow hard-rock veteran Blackie Lawless, and formed a group of his own: London, the precursor of Mötley Crüe. Turning down an offer to join Randy Rhoads’s band, Frank changed his name to Nikki London, Nikki Nine, and, finally, Nikki Sixx. Like Huck Finn with a stolen guitar, he had a vision: a group that combined punk, glam, and hard rock into the biggest, most theatrical and irresistible package the world had ever seen. With hard work, passion, and some luck, the vision manifested in reality—and this is a profound true story finding identity, of how Frank Feranna became Nikki Sixx. It's also a road map to the ways you can overcome anything, and achieve all of your goals, if only you put your mind to it.
Spring in Los Angeles, seventy-something degrees, and my agent, Dennis Arfa, had taken me out to the ball game. The Dodgers were up in the seventh. Dennis was working on his second hot dog with not a care in the world. So naturally, in the snarkiest voice I could muster, I asked him, “Why didn’t we ever play Dodger Stadium?”
I’ve been working with Dennis for many a year, and he knows the places we’ve played as well as we do: Budokan, Wembley, Red Rocks, Madison Square Garden. Mötley Crüe’s opened for the Rolling Stones. We’ve packed every outdoor shed we’ve been booked into and headlined outdoor festivals around the world. In Los Angeles, we’ve filled the Hollywood Bowl and sold out the Staples Center. But Dodger Stadium? The only time I’d set foot on the field was to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
“I guess the reason would have to be your bright idea to break up the band.”
Both of us burst out laughing.
“If you guys ever change your minds,” Dennis said, “just call me.”
A few hours later, I woke my wife up.
“If we ever get back together, we’re going to play Dodger Stadium.”
Courtney’s used to me waking her up after midnight. Most of the time, she’ll indulge me. This time she said, “But, baby, the band signed a contract.”
This was true. A few years earlier, Mötley Crüe signed a “secession of touring” contract—and Courtney knows that I am a man of my word. But I’m also a man who’s ruled by his passions.
“I’ll think of something,” I said.
At the time, I was working on The Dirt—a movie based on the book about Mötley. The book had been a major best seller, and so far the movie was turning out better than any of us would have guessed. Tommy was being portrayed by Machine Gun Kelly. An English actor named Douglas Booth was playing me. So Booth was doing his best Nikki Sixx while the real Nikki Sixx was taking meetings with Live Nation, Apple, Spotify, radio stations, and social media platforms to promote the film. I’d show scenes and snippets from the movie, share some of my own memories, and play the new song I’d written.
Actually, I had several new songs—well-formed ideas that all seemed exciting. I had been woodshedding with John 5, a guitarist who’s played with everyone from k.d. lang to Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, and with Sahaj Ticotin, a musician who’d set a record for holding a note longer than any other male singer. We had made a bunch of demos, and I played them all for Bob Rock, who’d helped make Mötley Crüe’s biggest album, Dr. Feelgood, in 1989. Hard to believe thirty years had gone by. But when Bob heard the tracks, he said, “These sound like classic Mötley Crüe songs.” The song I had written for the credit sequence reminded Bob of “Kickstart My Heart”—high praise from the man who’d produced the original.
“We have the songs,” I told Courtney.
The songs—the music—is where it all starts. Without the music, there’d be no club tours. No theater tours. No arenas. No private jets getting us to the arenas. There’d be no money, no platinum records to hang on the studio walls. For Mötley, there would have been none of the love and the hate or the death and destruction that come with the lifestyle. Between the four of us, we’ve got 160 years’ worth of memories to draw on. If this were a VHI special, we’d all say in unison, “Some of the best we’ve had! Some of the worst! And not many that we would take back!”
We’d all be telling the truth. As a kid, I drew bands in my notebooks. Four complementary characters with superhero-like powers on drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. Those guys always looked cool and always had the best songs, played them well, and the lyrics had something to say. In my mind, I was building a new kind of monster.
Those bands were Mötley in embryo form. All I had to do was move out to Los Angeles, learn to play bass, and find three other musicians who saw the world the way I did. In the end, that’s what happened. Of course, it took a ton of hard work, and not just the work you’d imagine. On top of writing, rehearsing, working on our look and stage show, and playing—and playing, and playing—there were the constant demands, obligations the industry made: junkets. Interviews with journalists who drank our booze, did our drugs, and then turned around and slagged us in their magazines. It took years of band therapy to keep us together and remind us of all the reasons we had to keep going.
But I had my own family to look after too. At the time, Courtney was pregnant. Our daughter, Ruby, was due in July. Touring isn’t the easiest thing to do when you’ve got small kids at home. Over the years, I missed more holidays than I could count. I missed birthdays. There were PTA meetings I wanted to go to, but you can’t hop a flight from Japan when the rest of the band’s on their way to Australia.
I couldn’t blame Courtney if she didn’t want me to go. If she asked me to stay, I’d stay. If she didn’t ask me to stay, my feelings would be hurt. But now that I’d brought it up, we both knew I wouldn’t stop thinking about it.
“You have the songs,” Courtney admitted before drifting back off to her sweet, mysterious dreams.
“Live Wire.” “Looks that Kill.” “Shout at the Devil.” It’s the hit songs that made us a hit band. They’re what the audience craves and demands. The audience is a big part of the monster we’ve built, and much as we love to play deep cuts and covers and songs we’ve just written, we give the monster the red meat it needs.
The new stuff is important. Without it, we’d be stuck in stasis and turn into a cover band: Mötley Crüe plays Mötley Crüe.
But it’s just as important to keep writing hits. We can still smell one when it comes along. We’re the same band we were on day one. The same four guys. Older and smarter and no longer starving, but lean and efficient and fifteen thousand days wiser than we used to be. Sometimes we’ve been smart enough to keep going. Sometimes we’ve known when to quit.
Early on, we learned a lesson. Up in Grass Valley, Nevada, we’d gone on a radio show. It was the first time we’d been on a radio station. But when we did an in-store, later that day, no one came. We stood there, looking through records, pretending to shop. Three guys with blue-black hair, one guy with bleached hair, and we just happened to be buying records! A few hours earlier, we’d been so excited. Now, nobody knew who we were. We didn’t want to be seen like that, standing around, shuffling our feet, looking disheartened. As we were leaving, we saw a cool-looking guy with long hair.
I was like, “Oh, there’s another musician!”
“Hey, how you doing?” I said.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
“You’re in a band? I am too!”
The guy nodded.
I asked him, “What band?”
I was a Supertramp fan. There were some Supertramp songs I loved. But before I could ask any questions, the guy said the one thing you usually don’t want to hear from an old band you’ve loved: “We just recorded two new ones.”
“Oh! That’s amazing.” I wasn’t cynical about it.
“Yeah,” he said. “We never talk. People live in all different places. One guy in England, one in Florida. I live here, so we recorded the twenty-four-track parts and shipped them to each other.”
“You didn’t play them together?”
“We never even saw each other. I didn’t talk to them once.”
The guys and I walked back to the van in a daze.
“You have to promise that will never happen to us.”
“No way, dude. We’re brothers for life.”
But lo and behold, when we recorded new tracks for our own greatest hits, we weren’t on speaking terms either. We weren’t speaking when we wrote The Dirt. Each of us worked on our chapters in private. We didn’t even look at each other’s parts until the whole thing was assembled.
That wouldn’t have worked out so well on the stage.
For us, it had become impossible to paper over the cracks that start showing after five years or ten—and by that point, we had been going for twenty.
When you’re young, you can show up hungover, wearing the clothes you’ve been wearing all week, and somehow you look good. You look good in your tight pants and heels and have all your hair. Then one day you wake up, and it all takes more effort. Musically, you may have gotten much better, but physically, it’s become more of a drain. Getting out on the road is a drain. Staying out on the road is a drain. Onstage, you feel the same, but it takes longer each time to recover, and dealing with the other guys can be exasperating.
For every rock band that’s able to push past that point, there must be thousands that fail. Maybe we didn’t because we were balanced just right in a few crucial ways. But there were certainly times when I wouldn’t have bet on our long-term survival.
Tommy is extremely driven. That’s an invaluable thing when we see eye to eye.
Mick doesn’t care about anything except for his parts and his tone. He doesn’t care about pyro, costumes, the stage show, or anything else—he only cares about his guitar. He plays so loud, we’ve all got hearing damage. But that’s who Mick was when we met him, and it’s who Mick is today.
Vince is a Gatling gun. He blows in. He does his thing, and it’s usually two hundred proof. Then he goes off on his own, like a wolf or a lone samurai.
Often enough, that adds up to a functional unit. When we’re in agreement, we’re driven, passionate, and very focused: “This is who we are. This is who we were born to be. This is what people want from us, and this is how we deliver the mail.” But when Tommy and I aren’t seeing eye to eye, Mick’s being passive, Vince can’t be bothered, and I have a bee in my bonnet that’s driving all of us crazy, it takes more than flowers and candy to get us in line.
Historically, one of the problems we’ve had is our communication. Early on, I would insist on rehearsing whole sets, playing backward from the encore, then forward again, building our intros, breaking every song down, remaking it, breaking it back down one more time. It was relentless. To the other guys, it might have seemed frivolous and redundant, and we did it seven days a week. The only way out of this vicious circle of rehearsal was to have a gig, but the only way to do a gig was to have new music or a new song. Then, when we did have new songs, it meant booking a gig at the Whisky, the Starwood, the Troubadour, or doing dates up the West Coast. The band had to be working and focused, and my focus was always full-time on the band. I was obsessed. Being obsessed was the only way to get great, to get ready, to know in our bones that we could compete with the big boys. But it didn’t make me the easiest person to get along with. I’m not always a walk in the park, and as we’ve gotten older, some of the other guys are like, “Dude, don’t tell me what to do.”
That’s a good thing. When we were younger, they’d just seethe and snipe behind my back, and I ignored it for ten years or twenty, until it all came up in band therapy.
Most of the time, we get past it. Sometimes I’ll storm off. But then I’ll remember what life was like before Mötley.
Going down to the Starwood on punk night, alone. I’d be in heels, a band like Fear would be playing, and someone would scream in my face, “You’re a faggot!” Or I’d get spit on and I’d throw my glass—not the drink out of my glass, but the actual glass. I’d bust the guy’s forehead open. Then I’d get my ass kicked and get thrown out of the club.
The other guys in the band were the same way. Lock us in a room, and we’d fight like crazy. Vince and Tommy would get into it, I’d get in the middle to break them up, and we’d all end up with black eyes—except for Mick, who just watched and shook his head. But out in the world, we were different, a united front. One time, after a long night of drinking, a guy with a Fu Manchu moustache offered us all amyl nitrite. I was too far gone to try it, but Tommy and Vince did, and right away they started fighting. I went to break them up, and we were scuffling when four or five dudes walked over to us: “Hey, what the fuck are you doing?”
We turned and jumped those guys. After we’d beaten the shit out of them, Tommy and Vince went back to fighting each other. When they were punched out, we went into the parking lot and shared a bottle of Jack.
That was Mötley Crüe on speaking terms.
Not the most functional band in the world. But functional enough when it mattered. By the time The Dirt film came around, we had gotten back to a good place. Seventy-three million people watched the film. In the studio, with Bob Rock back in the producer’s seat, we had recorded those new songs—and they really had sounded like real Mötley Crüe songs.
I’d driven around LA, listening to them on repeat, looking for flaws.
After a week of that, I had decided, “These songs hold up.”
After that, I’d called Tommy.
“Roll your eyes,” I had said. “But doesn’t it just feel like something is missing?”
“But didn’t we promise that we wouldn’t tour?”
“I know. I know.”
It took a while to convince him that sometimes a promise is meant to be broken. There was a way out of the contract we signed—but only if all four of us agreed to it. If all of us weren’t on board, none of us could be.
“Nikki, we told everyone we’re done with touring,” Vince had said.
“I know. I know.”
We got Vince to agree to a meeting. Mick was curious too. We talked to our manager, partner, and label head, Allen Kovac, who had already made a few calls of his own.
Allen Kovac is a genius. He’s the guy who helped us get our masters back from Elektra—and, in doing so, made a real difference industry-wide. He’s been with us for twenty-seven years. He’s my personal manager as well as the band’s. And for all those years, we’ve only ever operated on a handshake.
I would trust him with my life. I might even trust him with my wife.
“If you’re serious,” Allen had told us, “Live Nation’s interested in a big way.”
Now it was time to speak to Dennis again.
“The movie’s exciting,” I’d told him. “But if we did tour, would it have the same charge that it used to? We’ve done a million arena tours. If we were to do this, what would be different?”
“Live Nation doesn’t want an arena tour. They want to do stadiums.”
“Does that mean Dodger Stadium?”
Dennis laughed. “Yes,” he had said. “Aren’t you glad we went to that baseball game?”
In 2019, only a few guitar bands could pack a stadium, much less go out on a stadium tour. U2. Radiohead. Springsteen and the E Street Band, in their prime, could have probably sold out the state of New Jersey, but would they have racked up the same numbers all over the place that Taylor Swift or Beyoncé could have drawn? I’m not so sure. The clubs we’d started out playing held a few hundred people. Theaters could hold a few thousand, and arenas fit thousands more. (Madison Square Garden’s a good place to play, and it holds about twenty.) Next came the outdoor sheds: anywhere from fifteen to thirty thousand. But stadiums, which start at around thirty thousand and can be triple that size, have always been the holy grail.
It was ambitious. But every time I hear “rock is dead” or “guitar bands are dead,” all it does is light a fire. Technology has its place, but I don’t like rock and roll that’s made on laptops. I don’t like the idea of dragging and dropping loops, moving this hook or chopping that part up and putting it somewhere else. The older I get, the more I want single takes of a performance. I want to leave the mistakes in, move on, and be raw. I tell Courtney all the time, “I want to do a record like Led Zeppelin I or the first Aerosmith album. Write the songs, go to some shitty rehearsal room, eat shitty pizza, cut the album, mix it, and release it.” I’m not a person who likes to go slow—I don’t believe anything sounds better than real guitars, real drums, and real bass playing real songs with a history that goes from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Aerosmith and AC/DC. And I’ve played for millions of people, so I know that millions believe the same thing.
All in all, it took a couple of band meetings—but a $100 million offer can be very convincing.
The guys in Def Leppard are all friends of ours. They stepped up to say, “No question. We want to do this with you.” After that, we didn’t think of the bands we wanted to go out with as supporting acts. Plenty of people were crunching the numbers. We were more focused on throwing a party. An around-the-world celebration for us and the fans.
Early on, we asked David Lee Roth.
“I don’t open for bands that I influenced,” he said.
I shook my head. “Dude. You’re gonna play in front of eighty thousand people! When is the last time David Lee Roth played for eighty thousand people?”
We were all big fans of David’s. We’ve always been fans of Van Halen. Obviously, we’d been influenced by them—who hadn’t? But David passed.
Joan Jett was next on our list. We ranked Joan highly not only because of her songs, which we loved, but also because she’s always been a real pleasure to work and hang out with. Thankfully, she didn’t play hard to get. Now it was us, Joan Jett, and Def Leppard. Then the boys and girls in market research told us we needed to get one more band from that era.
Poison was the band they settled on.
We were not thrilled. The four of us felt that Mötley had been there from the get-go. Metallica, Mötley Crüe, and U2—for us, those were the bands from the era that came to mind. Guns N’ Roses came later, and that was a hard band to argue with too. But then there had been an onslaught of bands we didn’t feel were really real. Bands fabricated by industry people who’d said, “We need our own Mötley Crüe. We need a blond singer and three guys like that.” The same thing happened with alternative bands later on: you had Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and then you had a lot of bands that looked and sounded a bit like Nirvana and Pearl Jam but were just watered-down, lightweight versions of the original.
Well, it turned out we were wrong. Our fans wanted what they wanted, and what they wanted was us and Def Leppard, Joan Jett, and Poison—and if we were going to go out and tour one more time, we were going to give our fans just what they wanted: hours and hours of hit songs delivered with musicianship, attitude, and the biggest show they’ve ever seen.
With that lineup in place, we put eight shows on sale. They sold out right away. Eight more shows sold out just as quickly. Eight more shows—same story.
We all thought, “Wow, what a nice way to celebrate the movie! What a great way to go out one last time!”
With twenty-four shows booked and counting, I knew I’d have to shift, full-time, to training mode.
Every musician has his or her own way of going about it. For me, training mode is a beast with multiple tentacles. There’s the physical part, the mental part, the emotional part, and the musical part. Stage design comes next, along with broad concepts and an overview of what the whole show is going to look like, what it represents, what we’ve all got to say, and why right now is the right time to say it. But physical conditioning makes everything else possible, and for Mötley, that’s deeply entwined with our setlist.
We build each one out of five-minute segments. Technically, some of our songs are shorter or a little longer, which also leaves time in between songs if one of us wants to talk to the audience. In reality, you can only use up so much time. Before you know it, you break curfew, the promoter gets fined, and the band’s looking at fines: suddenly we’re paying $50,000 for going one song over the limit. In some places—Europe, Japan—if the band goes too late, people can’t take the subway or train back home, plus the promoters will actually turn off the power. If you truly care about people, you can’t just go out there and jam. So at five minutes a song, we build out, in accordance with the kind of show we’ll be playing: two hours if it’s just us. Ninety minutes if we’re the headliner. Those lengths dictate our workouts too.
What I’ve done, going all the way back to the days of cassette tapes, is print the setlist out and put it right next to wherever I’m going to do cardio. If we’re opening with “Kickstart My Heart,” I’m going to burst through the door with guns blazing. If the third song’s going to be “Home Sweet Home,” I know that I can slow down to a walk on the treadmill. If the next song is “Wild Side,” I’ll kick it back up—but “Wild Side” has a breakdown halfway through it, and I know I’ll be able to catch my breath then. With a lot of bands, you’ll look over at the guitarist halfway through the set and see that he’s panting. I factor the stamina it takes to avoid that into my workouts, timing each segment to match all the songs.
That’s ninety minutes flat-out on the treadmill, followed by two hours of weights. After that, I’ll spend another hour and a half with my bass, sitting and playing the songs straight through in order. Eventually, I’ve built my stamina up to the point where I’m doing the entire show physically and musically without feeling destroyed. Then I’ll do the whole musical part standing up. That’s one more thing that can trip a band up. You sit down and play and think you’re in pretty good shape. But get out on stage, and the same thing will kill you.
I carry the setlist with me long after it’s been memorized. I tape it next to the bathroom mirror and to the side of the fridge—that way, I have to see it whenever I want some ice cream. For the stadium tour, we hired trainers and a nutritionist. All of a sudden, we were all watching our intake of proteins, carbs, and greens and keeping track of the calories we burned. The nutritionist made sure we ate enough to get through our workouts while maintaining a five-hundred-calorie-a-day deficit.
It might not sound very sexy, but if you want to compete—if you want to stay in the ring with the big boys—you find yourself doing whatever it takes.
Before long, I was shredded. My stamina was way up. Mentally and emotionally, I was fully charged, fired up, feeling inspired whenever I picked up a bass or guitar. And because my health is directly connected to my creativity, I could barely go out to the store to buy milk without getting ten new ideas I’d have to pull over to write down.
On the Final Tour, we had twenty-one trucks and buses carrying us and the gear. We’d built a roller coaster for Tommy and his rotating drum kit. We’d put on the biggest pyro show anyone had put on, anywhere, ever. We lit the whole top of our lighting rig and had flames shooting down
- “A deeply personal plunge into Sixx’s dysfunctional upbringing….The journey from Feranna to Sixx – a name he maybe, sort of stole from another local musician who had dubbed himself Niki Syxx – is a fraught and complicated one. But it’s a story that Sixx shares with humor and honesty."—USA Today
- “ Amazing... The First 21: How I Became Nikki Sixx is the origin story many have been waiting for…. There are many poignant moments and stunning revelations. You’ll learn how he went from sweeping floors to selling out shows at The Starwood, the artists and authors who inspired him, the meaning behind the trademark black lines he wears onstage, how he ripped off everything from Johnny Thunders’ look to the name Nikki Sixx, and how James Caan almost lassoed him poolside. However, his determination to succeed is the real story.”—The Aquarian
- "[Nikki] writes it in a way where the reader feels like they're there."—Dr. Phil
- "This book is so exciting...I love the backstory of [Nikki's] life...What a great book."—Matt Pinfield, "New & Approved"
- “[The First 21] explores how [Nikki Sixx’s] hand-to-mouth upbringing made him hungry to see his rock-band dreams come to fruition…thoughtful glimpses into the backstory of a very determined musician.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[Nikki Sixx] follows his searing memoir, The Heroin Diaries, with an equally exhilarating look at the first 21 years of his life… Fans will relish this passionate look at the man behind the hair.“
- “The First 21: How I Became Nikki Sixx, is an up-and-comers blueprint to creating one of the biggest bands ever."—The Festivals Hub
- “A fascinating read, one that Sixx tells with candor and an awareness of self that few possess.”—Audio Ink Radio
- “This is a profound true story finding identity, of how Frank Feranna became Nikki Sixx. It's also a road map to the ways you can overcome anything, and achieve all of your goals, if only you put your mind to it.”—BraveWords
- “[The First 21 is] illuminating and insightful… very honest – painfully so.”—Cleveland.com
- "This is Sixx’s origin story, filled with adventures and misadventures as well as a surprising amount of warmth that puts flesh and heart into the miscreant image he cultivated."—Macomb Daily
- “There’s surprisingly no shortage of new stories to behold here. Perhaps the most fascinating are the lesser known ones; Sixx finally dives deep into the history of pre-Crüe acts such as Sister and London, and working with the likes of W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless (among others)…. Do yourself the favor of getting to know [Sixx] a little better by reading this book, and you might just be glad you do.”—Rewind It Magazine
- On Sale
- Nov 8, 2022
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Books