Slash, by Slash and Anthony Bozza

As a writer, Slash makes for an awesome guitar player. It’s clear from the style of the book that Slash never actually set pen to paper, but told his "co-writer" Anthony Bozza his life story. Said life story was then written in such a way as to make it seem like you were sitting in a living room listening to Slash give his spiel.

Slash is a thoroughly entertaining rock autobiography, full of tales of debauchery: decadent, promiscuous sex, drug abuse, alcoholism, band in-fighting, great rock and roll music. It’s all there, in excess.

The Guns ‘n’ Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist comes off as a generally nice guy, the kind of guy with whom you’d probably enjoy sitting down and talking about music. He also comes off as a thoroughly reprehensible human being, the kind of guy you would kill if he tried to date your sister.

The book handles some things better than the average rock bio. For example, Slash discusses his musical influences freely. He talks about his great love of Aerosmith, and recounts times when he and various members of Guns ‘n’ Roses would sit around listening to records. Personally, I find this stuff interesting. Too many rock biographies make it seem that the star in question emerged from the earth fully formed. Any successful musician has spent more hours than you can even imagine listening to other people’s music, but this is one of the few rock bios where this passive act of listening to music is described with great fondness. At one point, shortly after hearing Aerosmith’s Rocks for the first time, Slash hooked up with a girl he had been eyeing all night long, but when they got back to her place, he ignored her in order to listen to her copy of Rocks over and over again. She finally kicked him out.

The heart of the book is Slash’s struggles with drugs and drink. He spent most of the last twenty-odd years in a completely altered state. His heroin use was sporadic in the sense that he would be deeply addicted for lengthy periods, and then quit for equally lengthy periods, but his love of alcohol was never very far away. At the end of the book, he proudly speaks of his recovery, but the reader is left to wonder just how long that recovery will last.

In his riveting and harrowing autobiography, Long Time Gone, David Crosby paints the most terrifying picture of drug addiction I’ve ever read. Anyone ever tempted to try cocaine should be forced to read Long Time Gone first. Crosby, too, had made a recovery and it was believable. His regrets over the lost years and broken relationships were apparent on every page. In Slash, the tales of madness and drugs are told in a tone that approaches nostalgia. "Heroin sure is a terrible thing," Slash seems to be saying, "but it sure is fun." Alcohol abuse, too, largely gets a pass from any sort of judgment. You can almost sense that Slash is clean and sober, but feels that he can go back to his former ways at any moment.

Of course, a major plot point for the book is the second leading man. If Slash is the main star of the book, it is Axl Rose who neatly steals the scenes in which he appears. Slash is an addict and a born troublemaker, but Axl is a sociopath. Slash does a good job of portraying Axl in a relatively fair light. Axl’s talent and drive are never questioned, and the early years of the band are portrayed as a friendlier, more respectful, grouping. It is only after fame starts to rear its ugly head that the Axl we all know and loathe starts to come into his own. Concerts delayed for hours, riots started, band members fired, fans abused…now that’s Guns ‘n’ f’in’ Roses!

Fans of real, gritty, dirty rock music owe a great deal of debt to Slash. As a guitar player, he almost single-handedly killed off that Eddie Van Halen hammer-on school of guitar wanking that every blow-dried pretty boy with pouty lips, bedroom eyes, and a closet full of hair spray was riding to the top of the MTV playlists. In a particularly telling anecdote, Slash recounts the first time he heard Eddie Van Halen play. Like every other guitar slinger on the planet, he was dutifully and justifiably blown away. However, he continues, while all the other guitar players in L.A. started practicing their hammer-ons, Slash was listening to the band Van Halen, and trying to pick out the subtleties in Eddie’s playing…the stuff that all the pretty boys missed. Slash loved Van Halen’s playing, but considered himself more from the Chuck Berry school. It shows. Slash can certainly go on a little too long in some of his solos, but generally speaking he is one of the most tasteful heavy rock guitar players to ever play the instrument.  Nobody, except for Eddie Van Halen and some of the leftover wankers from that era of heavy metal (helloooooo Yngwie!), plays in that style anymore, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that Guns ‘n’ Roses became so huge with a guitar player that didn’t play in that style. So thanks for that, Slash.

Slash gives you a very good look at the inner workings of one of the biggest bands of the last 25 years, but in the end it’s not necessarily the most reliable look. By his own admission, Slash was out of his skull for almost all of the incidents described in the book. He apparently kept a diary of sorts in day planners that he used as sources for the book, but who knows how reliable those are? Alcohol and drugs not only destroy your memory of things that happened twenty years ago, they also taint your perception of things that are happening in the here and now. A perfect example is Slash’s story of how Axl refused to go onstage one night until all the band members signed away their rights to the name Guns ‘n’ Roses. Slash recounts that they didn’t know whether or not Axl would go onstage, so they signed the contract. Is the story true? Sorry, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test. Axl rightly points out that such a contract would have been thrown out of court since it was signed under duress. Score one for the sociopath…he may be bonkers, but he’s more believable on this point.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, I plan on reading the Stephen Davis Guns ‘n’ Roses bio, Watch You Bleed. Davis has his own issues, not the least of which is a taste for the sensational, but it will hopefully provide a more reliable presentation of what really happened in the G ‘n’ R camp.

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Gods And Generals, by Jeff Shaara

In The Killer Angels, author Michael Shaara wrote what many consider to be the greatest novel of the Civil War ever written. When you consider that this company includes both Gone With The Wind and The Red Badge Of Courage, you realize you’re talking about some pretty heady company.

After Shaara died, his son Jeff picked up the mantle and began writing books in the same format and style as his father. Jeff Shaara doesn’t get a lot of points for originality since his style is virtually indistinguishable from that of his father, but he does score with his novels nonetheless.

Gods And Generals is Jeff Shaara’s prequel to his father’s The Killer Angels. The latter book focused entirely on three days in July 1863…the three bloodiest days in American history, at a tiny town in Pennsylvania that has become synonymous with all that is horrific in, and all that is honorable about, war: Gettysburg.

Gods And Generals starts just as the Civil War is about to begin. Fort Sumter has not been shelled, but war is in the air and seems inevitable. The book ends as the Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, begins his march north towards Pennsylvania and the turning point of the war. In between are battles at Harper’s Ferry, two battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Antietam and, acting as the centerpiece of the book, the horrible carnage of Fredericksburg and the confusion and incompetence that turned Chancellorsville into a humiliating Union defeat.

The battles are described with an historian’s eye for accuracy, and a storyteller’s eye for narrative. The problem with this book, and almost any book that attempts to describe the mass confusion generated by hundreds of thousands of men hurtling themselves at each other, is that there is so much going on at any given time the narrative can become confusing. The Killer Angels was remarkably coherent, which may explain its reputation. Stephen Pressfield’s Gates Of Fire was also an amazingly detailed, yet easy-to-follow, view of the battle of Thermopylae. Ditto Stephen Harrigan’s brilliant novel of the titular battle in The Gates Of The Alamo. In Gods And Generals, the overall narrative is sometimes lost in the thirst for accuracy and the seeming need to cover all bases.

It’s difficult to criticize the book, however, because in general it is so well done. Shaara may be copying his father’s style, but he does so flawlessly. If the descriptions of troop movements are a little confusing, there are maps to help out. If it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between many of the supporting characters, you can take solace in how well the main characters are drawn. I don’t know if there’s a finer portrayal of George Washington in fiction than in Jeff Shaara’s The Glorious Cause. In Gods And Generals, he applies the same fine brush to paint convincing portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson especially, but also Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Hancock on the Union side.

With Lee and Jackson, we feel the astonishment as one inept Union general after another blows one opportunity after another. What should have been a decisive Union victory at Chancellorsville, one that may even have ended the war two years and hundreds of thousands of lives earlier, instead becomes a panicked retreat from a vastly outnumbered Confederate force. What could have been a Union victory at Fredericksburg instead is handed to Lee’s forces on a silver platter: Lee’s forces sweep in and occupy the high ground while the Union forces are prevented by their leadership from crossing a shallow river because they don’t yet have pontoon bridges in place. Poor leadership on the Union side was so rife; it’s no surprise that Lee and Jackson genuinely believed that God was on the side of the South. One can only wonder what history would be like if Lincoln had not brought in Ulysses Grant to take over the Union forces.

There is talk early in the book about the why of the Civil War. As a college professor, Joshua Chamberlain pontificates about slavery as he makes his decision to enlist in the Army. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are both opposed to slavery, but view the encroaching war as an attack on the sovereignty of Virginia. For them, the issue is not slavery, but the right of individual states to make their own laws. These arguments largely disappear once the battles begin. I suppose that there is honesty in that. Contrary to what you’ll find in B-movies galore, my guess is that the average soldier rarely spends too much time debating the geopolitical events that landed him in a trench at Fredericksburg, or the Somme, or Bastogne, or Baghdad. But as a reader of a historical novel, it would have been good for Shaara to have the horrific battles of the Civil War placed in some context. Slavery was unquestionably the catalyst for the war and the main evil that the war was fought to address, but it was not the only issue. Without the exploration of these other issues, Lee’s and Jackson’s decision to take arms up in support of an institution they both abhorred seems odd.

As the war begins, many characters struggle with the idea of what to do. Many of the Southern military leaders were in the U.S. Army when hostilities erupted, and had to make a choice whether to stay loyal to the country, or their home state. Nowadays that seems like an odd thing about which to be conflicted, but at the time people considered themselves first off as citizens of their state, and secondly as citizens of the United States. In many ways, the Civil War was the bloody culmination of the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Federalists won the debate in 1787, but Anti-Federalism was a way of life for many Americans outside of the immediate orbit of Washington, D.C., especially down South. The snake in the cotton fields of the South, of course, was slavery. While it was understandable that slavery was not outlawed by the Constitution when it was first crafted in 1787, the price of this compromise would be long and brutal.

A little more…not too much, lest it become tendentious…of the why of the war would have placed these combatants in the middle of a cause where they were fighting for what they believed was right, rather than subjecting them to the hail of musket fire and the end of the bayonet blade for reasons that many modern readers might find murky.