IN the 1980s the Sunset Strip — a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood packed with bars and clubs — was the center of the hard-rock and hair-metal scene, spawning bands like Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe and Poison. Based on the Broadway musical, the film “Rock of Ages,” which opens on Friday, starring a leather-pantsed Tom Cruise (at left and right) as the self-destructive, baboon-owning sex god Stacee Jaxx, fondly spoofs the era. It’s 1987, and the boys look like girls, the groupies look like strippers, and the hair is highly flammable. Meanwhile, as a small-town blonde named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and her aspiring rocker boyfriend, Drew (Diego Boneta), try to succeed amid the sleaze, church-lady protesters are fighting to shut down a club called the Bourbon Room.
Apart from Guns N’ Roses, whose 1987 debut studio album “Appetite for Destruction” is a hard-rock landmark, the music of the Strip is often dismissed as disposable, and the scene is remembered as a cheerfully depraved Aqua Net playground. To get a fuller sense of what the Strip was really like, Sia Michel spoke with Duff McKagan, the former bassist of Guns N’ Roses, whose song “Paradise City” is sung by Mr. Cruise himself in the prologue; Bret Michaels of the glam-rockers Poison, which has several songs in “Rock of Ages”; and Sebastian Bach, the former lead singer of the New Jersey band Skid Row, who has a cameo. These are excerpts from the conversations.
THEN Frontman of Poison.
NOW Singer, TV personality, entrepreneur.
NEW IN TOWN Driving out there in a van [from Pennsylvania], it was an eye-opening experience. We chugged down the Strip in our very dilapidated ambulance van. We had gotten there on a Friday day. We had nowhere to live. We’re driving past the Rainbow, Gazzarri’s, the Roxy, the Whisky, and everyone was just on the street partying. We were like, ‘Is this really happening?’ It almost looked like Times Square in New York. The van moved about 10 feet in an hour. For small-town guys it was a surreal moment.
THE SUNSET VIBE Imagine it being one big insane frat party, like an over the top “Animal House” toga party, but it happened all the time, almost nightly. We’ve seen nakedness, debauchery, sex, drugs, everything you can think of. Everything crazy that you could do, every crazy thing that could be done was done. Most of the bands that came there were small-town kids that had no clue and got to Hollywood. It’s like when you go to Vegas, it unleashes this primitive animal instinct to party.
DEBUT GIG Our first show [on the Strip] was at the Whisky. We went out there and fliered everything, and our first shows, believe it or not, were actually packed. We went to Sir Speedy’s to buy fliers, we wanted the best color, but they said, “You can’t afford it.” So they gave us this ugly fluorescent green — like, no one wants them. There’s actually a color called Poison Green now.
GROUPIES I, Bret Michaels, was an equal opportunity rocker. The women, when we partied, there was no distinct hair color, size, shape — except for the age. You had to be of age. But the girls could throw down just as much as the guys.
SPOILS OF SUCCESS Strictly by accident I have committed every cliché rock thing — wrecking the Ferrari, the fistfights, spent time in jail, crazy debauchery with women. I said, “I’m not like that,” then I realized I had checked them all off the list.
STYLE Wearing my Cavaricci pants tucked in my cowboy boots would never happen again.
STACEE JAXX It was awesome to see Tom Cruise playing a back-in-the-day Bret Michaels meets Axl Rose.
CLEAN UP THE STRIP The P.M.R.C. [Parents Music Resource Center] movement didn’t work very good on the Strip. We were young, we weren’t trying to hurt anyone. I remember certain people being outside of clubs and yelling and I was like, “I don’t play the devil’s music. I play rock ’n’ roll!”
MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE ERA They solely want to wrap it up as a fashion statement and throw it out. But when you listen to the musicians who played then — Slash, Zakk Wylde, the songs that we wrote — we really spent time learning our craft. Something stood the test of time.
THEN Skid Row’s frontman.
NOW Singer, screen and stage actor.
NEW IN TOWN The first time I went [to the Strip] was in ‘87, and I was just amazed. Back then you would go to a bar, and there would be just as many, if not more, people outside the bar than there were inside. The whole street would just be crammed with androgynous rockers.
GROUPIES The second time I went there was after our “18 and Life” video came out. I walked from the Hyatt Riot House over to the Rainbow, and I felt like the Pied Piper. By the time I got to the Rainbow there were 300 people behind me going: ‘Is that him? That’s him!’ ”
‘YOUTH GONE WILD’ I always heard of quaaludes, reading Circus magazine and Creem in the ‘70s when I was a kid, but I’d never encountered quaaludes. One night me and Duff McKagan and Lars Ulrich from Metallica were at the Rainbow, and someone had a whole bag of quaaludes. I was like: “Finally! Where’ve you been all my life?” Me and Duff, being the adventuresome pleasure-seeking fellows that we were, decided to do some quaaludes. All of a sudden we’re standing up, and we lose control of the muscles in our face, our lips start drooping, and we start drooling on each other. We were like, “We better sit down.” So we go to the booth, getting spit on each other’s leather jackets, and Lars comes up with the brilliant idea of charging fans $5 to get a picture taken with us. He’s like: “Here’s your heroes! Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row! Get a picture.” Snap. We’re going [slurred slow-motion voice], “Hey, man, Lars, that’s not cool.” Click. [“I don’t remember that happening,” Mr. McKagan said, while Mr. Ulrich said: “I don’t have a recollection of that, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But I do remember most of the shenanigans.”]
SPOILS OF SUCCESS When I first came there, I rented myself a white Corvette, and I remember driving it around Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills, thinking, “I have [really] made it in rock!”
HAIR NATION I am the man who put the hair in hair metal. I also headlined Broadway musicals. I acted in millions of TV shows. I didn’t get to star in “Jekyll and Hyde“ on Broadway because of my haircut. My voice has gotten me everything in my life, not my hair.
STYLE I’ve never worn [buttocks-revealing] chaps. The worst thing I ever wore, really, was rubber pants, but I don’t think that was a cliché. They were just way too hot. Rubber doesn’t breathe. I look back on my photos, and I dig them. I think I look really cool.
FAMOUS FANS I just walked up to Tom on the set and he said, “Hey, Sebastian, I’ve been following you a long time.” I’ve been told that by a lot of famous actors. When I met Sean Penn, he knew everything I’ve ever done. He was like, “Sebastian, why the [expletive] were you in jail?”
MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE ERA People get it wrong that metal was based on image more than music, because a lot of this music has passed the test of time really well. What is music for? It’s to make you feel good. I think this music definitely succeeds in doing that.
THEN Bassist of Guns N’ Roses.
NOW Musician, writer, co-founder of Meridian Rock Capital Management.
SPIRIT OF SUNSET A couple years ago men’s Italian Vogue asked me to write a piece about 1987 Hollywood, the Strip, and I think they wanted me to write this fancy frolicking story. But at that time AIDS was still thought of as a homosexual disease — needles were shared, sex was unprotected, there were a lot of drugs. I remember housewives from Beverly Hills and Bel-Air coming down and slumming it and getting strung out. The dark underbelly, I resided there. That’s the stuff I saw — people OD’ing. It was kind of gnarly then.
FIRST GUNS GIG There were three people there [at the Troubadour], and one of them was our friend, and one was one of our girlfriends, and the other was the girlfriend’s friend. But we believed in ourselves from the first chord we played together. [Later] I remember us reopening the Whisky, which had closed [before I moved to Los Angeles]. It was a bummer that I never got to go. When they opened it back up, we were picked as the band, and we played two shows. That was really fun for me to be able to go in there for the first time ever. That’s one of those gigs that they can’t take away from you.
WANNABES We left on tour in June of ’87 and were gone for a year and a half. There were no computers, no social media, hardly even fax machines, so we had no idea that people in L.A. made this shift in culture to look and sound like us. Imagine landing back on Planet Earth: People were all glammed out when you left, and now you could tell the photo of us they were trying to look like. There was the Izzy [Stradlin] guy, the Slash guy, the Axl [Rose] guy, the me guy, the Steven [Adler] guy, and they were walking all over Hollywood. It was weird.
MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE ERA What people don’t realize is that a lot of the bands I saw worked really hard, and maybe the reward at the end of the night was getting [wasted] or hooking up. All [Guns] ever did was work. We worked our day jobs in the morning, then we just worked on our band, we slept a couple hours a night. That was it.