Few moments encapsulated the overblown decadence of 80s hair metal like the infamous Chris Holmes pool scene in 1988’s The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Directed by Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World, et al.), the second instalment of her Decline documentary series captured the glam metal scene at its zenith, with a focus on the clubs, bands and poofy-haired personalities of L.A.’s Sunset Strip.
Spheeris conducts interviews with a broad spectrum of artists ranging from the mega-successful (KISS, Aerosmith), to the up-and-coming (Dave Mustaine, Poison) to a nameless parade of unknown glam metal caricatures who each insist that they will become “The Next Big Thing,” but whose fame would never extend past the documentary.
Of the film’s endless colourful moments, none rival the sublime excess — and unqualified tragedy — of W.A.S.P.’s then-guitarist Chris Holmes, sitting on a floating chair in his pool, fully decked-out in leather and studs, slurring while seemingly chugging vodka straight from the bottle. His mother, sitting beside the pool, looks on in grave silence.
“Chris?” Spheeris asks from off-camera.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Holmes replies, clearly intoxicated.
“Do you drink very much?”
“Do you drink very much?”
“Uh, yes,” he replies, “I’m a full-blown alcoholic.”
As the scene unfolds, Spheeris attempts to dig deeper into the psychological roots of Holmes’ behaviour but of course, he’s devastatingly drunk (he estimates his consumption that day at five pints of vodka and counting), and his capacity for introspection is limited. And yet, when asked if he wished that he were a bigger star, he replies, “I wish I were a smaller star. I don’t dig being the person I am. I just don’t like it.” There’s not a hint of posturing or even self-pity; it’s a glaring insight into the frayed psyche of a man who externally seems to have it all but who is nonetheless, deeply troubled. Changing the subject, Holmes unscrews a bottle of vodka and seems to chug the lion’s share of it, though pouring a good deal over himself in the transaction. He then gathers what looks like three other bottles floating in the water and sinks into the water as his mother stares wordlessly at the camera.
A boxed set of the three Decline documentaries was released in 2015. In an interview at that time, Spheeris revealed that her initial reaction to the interview was that the entire bit was unusable, due to Holmes’ impairment. “When I shot Chris Holmes, you know,” she told Goldmine, “I thought we didn’t get the interview. I remember saying, ‘We’re going to have to reshoot this. Because we didn’t get anything.’ The guy’s just sitting there screwing off and we didn’t get anything...I would never have imagined it would be the most talked about and kind of most memorable moment of the movie.” She also clarified that when Holmes chugs a bottle at the end of the scene, it’s actually mostly pool water.
The scene still occupies a prominent place in the annals of heavy metal infamy. Lita Ford, who was briefly married to Holmes in the early-90s, alleged that the scene “destroyed his career,” and is the reason why Holmes no longer lives in the US (he now lives in France with his wife and manager Cathy-Sarah Holmes). In 2017, Ford said, “It's not vodka in that bottle. Can you imagine pouring vodka all over your face like that? It was a setup, and it really ruined his career. It just destroyed his career, which is why he doesn't live in this country anymore."
In 2017, he shot a new version of the scene for Duke TV and in his own 2021 documentary, Mean Man: The Story Of Chris Holmes, we find the musician alive and sober, playing small solo shows in Europe while antagonising French motorists and shopkeepers with a defiant resistance to speaking their language. In February, it was revealed that Holmes was diagnosed with throat and neck cancer and as of this April, he had finished his final course of radiation treatment, though he continued to struggle with the ravaging effects of chemotherapy. This month, Holmes announced a fall tour of the UK and Ireland.
Watch the original, infamous pool interview below.