First it was Slash’s autobiography, cleverly titled Slash. Now it’s Stephen Davis’s latest entry into the rock bio sweepstakes, Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses. And I’m even listening to Chinese Democracy right now. I haven’t given this much attention to Guns N’ Roses since 1991, when I was driving around in my 1987 Toyota Celica with my “best of” the Use Your Illusion discs blaring out at top volume.
As rock biographies go, Watch You Bleed has enough debauchery to satisfy even the most jaded rock fans. Axl’s nuts, Slash, Izzy, and Steven are junkies, Duff’s a drunk, Dizzy’s wondering what on earth he’s doing on stage with these guys. Youth and good genes are the only reasons any of these guys are still alive. Their intake of both legal and illegal substances is legendary. I mean, come on, Duff’s pancreas ruptured causing third degree burns to his guts…that’s some serious indulgence. And Slash died a couple of times (he got better).
Watch You Bleed does a very good job of describing the Los Angeles music scene from which the Gunners emerged. But though they came from the same scene as bands like Poison, Guns were never really a part of that scene. They lived a life of total squalor, selling drugs to get the money to buy more drugs, using women to get them places to sleep and food to eat. The picture of the guys in this band that emerges is that none of these guys were the kind of people you wanted to associate with if you had even the slightest sense of normalcy in your life. These were genuinely bad guys, and the music they did reflected it: gritty, angry, determined, violent, and real. “Talk dirty to me,” sang Poison as they pranced around the stage, looking like girls playing dress up, mugging for the camera. “You’re in the jungle, baby/You’re gonna die,” countered Axl, face contorted in a very unphotogenic grimace of pure rage and adrenaline.
That first Guns album, the timeless Appetite For Destruction, remains their testament. They were a street gang at the time they recorded it. Largely homeless, broke, strung out, and carrying a massive chip on their collective shoulder, the resulting music is a roller coaster ride of whiplash riffs and Axl’s vicious, sometimes unearthly, vocals. At a time when the boys of Los Angeles were dressing like the girls of the Sunset Strip mall and doing anything they could to get on MTV and the radio, Guns filled an album with songs many of which couldn’t be played on either format because of FCC regulations. The album sold over 15 million copies based on a lot of airplay for the safest songs: the lovely “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and the anarchic “Paradise City” I have no doubt that there were more than a few people who purchased the album for “Sweet Child” and were…um…shocked by the casual misogyny and brutality of “It’s So Easy.”
But damn, that album rocked. Followed by the hodgepodge of Gn’R Lies, half bogus live tracks, and half stunningly good acoustic songs, this was clearly a band bigger than the stupid scene they came from. I can still remember hearing “Patience” for the first time and being so surprised and happy that the first verse wasn’t followed by the usual hard rock bombast of the “power ballads” that were all over the radio. No, “Patience” stayed an acoustic ballad, and it was awesome.
Stephen Davis does a very good job of tracing these years of forming the band, getting the record contract, and heading out on tour as an opening act for bands like Aerosmith. I was very surprised to learn that Guns didn’t do a major tour as a headliner until the Use Your Illusion tour, despite being arguably the biggest band on the planet in 1988 and 1989. Despite all the depravity going on behind the scenes, the early Guns were a juggernaut. By the time of the Illusion albums and tour, the excess had taken a severe toll and Axl, who was surprisingly non-toxic (well, less toxic) in his habits but completely poisonous in his attitude, was going off the rails in a cataclysmic collision of therapy, arrogance, paranoia, and megalomania.
Davis gives all credit to Appetite and Lies, despite spending a lot of time on decrying the lyrical content of Axl’s “One In A Million” (from Lies). Davis never misses an opportunity to wag a politically correct finger at Axl for his decidedly non-PC views and turns what was a small controversy into a seemingly major debacle.
Unfortunately Davis also slams the Illusion albums mercilessly. I’m the first to admit that there is a whole lot of filler spread out on those two discs, and there are some songs that should have never seen the light of day (“Get In The Ring,” “My World,” and their atrocious cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”). But the highlights of the Illusion albums are standout tracks. From the opening salvo of “Right Next Door To Hell” to the closing fever dream of “Coma” the first of the Illusion discs has more good songs and is a more consistent disc. The second, with “Civil War,” "Yesterdays," “Estranged,” “Breakdown” among others has some of the best songs, but also the most filler. Between the two discs, you can make one solid album that rivals Appetite For Destruction.
The book came out before the release of Chinese Democracy, and ends with the tormented story of that album, asking the musical question “Will it ever come out?” Well it has and, as Bart Simpson might say, “Meh.”
Where Davis fails miserably in this book, and in his others, are the errors of fact. The book is full of little things that are just flat out wrong. Paul Stanley is the bass player of Kiss? The Replacements were "the best new band of 1990"? That’ll be news to all those people who had been listening to them since 1981. There are dozens of examples, and I usually find many of these whenever I read one of his books. I get the impression that Davis is most interested in telling a savage tale in his books, and that he is more motivated by his love of the sales that sensational stories engender than he is by any love of the music these people create. Look at the subjects for his books: Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Guns…the most drug-addled, groupie-shagging reprobates on the planet get the Davis treatment, and his books linger lovingly over every stained sheet and discarded needle. Music is always secondary to a good overdose story. It caught my eye in Watch You Bleed that Guns is frequently compared to other bands: Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Doors…hmmm, all subjects of previous Davis bios. While his research about the band itself is thorough, I get the impression that his knowledge of the broader history of rock music is fairly limited.
It’s a good story, told well, but I have a feeling the author is in it for the money, and that’s not very rock ‘n’ roll.