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One happy Crue

For longtime fans it seemed to good to be true. But there they were, on the stage of this year's American Music Awards _ Motley Crue reunited. Desperately trying not to appear as 1997's poster boys for rehab rock, the band thundered through a new song, Shout'97, dicing it up like the days of old.

But for Vince Neil, returning to the stage for the first time in nearly five years with drummer Tommy Lee, bassist Nikki Sixx and guitarist Mick Mars provided a revelation.

"I think that night was when I realized how much I love this band, even when I tried so hard to deny it," Neil said from his hotel room in Hershey, Pa., last week. "Actually, I don't think any of us realized how important it was."

Such sentiments probably aren't expected from the 36-year-old singer, who has exchanged punches with fans, managers and bandmates over the years. Neil calmly dismisses the notion that he has mellowed. "I'm just getting smarter about the way I live," he says.

The band is in the middle of the first leg of a world tour in support of its summer release, Generation Swine. Things couldn't be better, Neil says: "We've got a lot of respect for our fans. After all, they convinced us that we needed to get back together in the first place."

Fans remember that in 1992 Neil was unceremoniously fired from his band of 16 years, because of what were termed irreconcilable differences. The parting proved to be therapeutic though sticky for Neil, who filed a $5-million wrongful -termination lawsuit against the band and its managers.

Over the next four years Neil enjoyed a fairly successful solo career while Motley Crue continued with singer John Corabi. Though Neil attempted to contact Sixx, Lee and Mars to work things out, "It always ended up being our lawyers doing the talking."

Finally, the opportunity came late last year after Corabi announced that he was leaving Motley Crue to form his own band.

"We just sat down by ourselves and hashed out everything right there," Neil says. "It was weird, but it was right. Believe me, we're happier now than we've ever been."