Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns ‘N’ Roses, by Stephen Davis

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.

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The Bonfire Of The Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Okay, let’s give this one another shot. About a week ago I wrote a lengthy review of The Bonfire Of The Vanities in this very spot. It was brilliant and full of insight, possibly the finest critique of a major novel that anyone has ever read. However, when I clicked the "Post" button to put my words of wisdom on the site, the entire process hiccupped and my review was gone, lost in the cyber ether. This has forced me to write this new, substandard review that pales in comparison to the one I originally wrote which you, Constant Reader (whoever you are) will never see. Pity, really.

I kid, of course, but isn’t that what this is all about? Vanity? Yes, I believe it is.

Tom Wolfe is the acclaimed writer from the New Journalism that came of age in the 1960s (or maybe earlier…not my area of expertise). His books run the subject matter gamut from the beginnings of the space program (probably his most famous book, The Right Stuff) to the LSD-addled nightmare party of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But it took him over 20 years of writing before he set pen to paper in the service of fiction. The resulting first novel, originally published serially in Rolling Stone, was The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

I first attempted to read this book back in 1990, but I started grad school when I was only 100 pages into it, and the book was placed on the shelf where it was promptly forgotten. Every once in a while I’d see the spine and think, "I really should read that…but not right now." Well, a few weeks ago I had nothing else to read and there it was.

I’m curious to know what my reaction would have been in 1990, when the events and people so lovingly fictionalized here were still playing out in the newspapers. Bonfire is the quintessential "New York in the 1980s" novel. What’s fascinating to me is that the beginnings of the novel first appeared in 1984 in Rolling Stone, and the full book was not finished and published until 1987. Yet Wolfe seems to have caught the New York of the late 1980s in his crystal ball.

With the exception of the Reverend Bacon, who is clearly modeled after either Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, it doesn’t appear that the characters are supposed to represent actual people. Still, the characters are all familiar to anyone who grew up reading the New York newspapers and watching Live at Five for the local news.

There is Sherman McCoy, bond trader par excellence,who refers to himself without the slightest trace of irony as a Master Of The Universe. This title belongs to him because of his salary, his nice wife and daughter, and his smoking hot, man-eating mistress. By his side in good times and better times is Maria Luskin, the voracious mistress who is so wrapped up in herself that her vision extends only as far as the bridge of her own nose.

Nominally, the plot hinges on what happens when Sherman and Maria, Manhattanites to the core, get lost in that urban jungle that is the Bronx. The road is blocked, Sherman gets out of the Mercedes to move the obstruction and is approached by two young black men; he panics, Maria slides into the driver’s seat and, in the ensuing escape, lightly hits one of the black men who falls and hits his head. Two days later he’s in a coma and the police, at the urging of Reverend Bacon and a political hack Bronx DA,are looking for the driver of the silver Mercedes that ruthlessly slammed into and abandoned the young honor student. What they are really looking for is the Great White Defendant, and by luck they find him.

Wolfe tantalizingly never answers the questions that lie at the heart of the book. Were the two young men attempting to rob Sherman and Maria? Or were they really innocents who were just trying to help? There is plenty of evidence that points in either direction.

The injury to Henry Lamb is the sacrifice needed to light the bonfire. Over the next 500 pages or so, the preening Sherman McCoy is reduced to suicidal thoughts, abandoned by his wife, abandoned by his mistress (the woman who is really responsible), forced out of his job. He has gone from being a Master of The Universe to a shell of a man, someone who no longer knows his own identity.

But Sherman’s vanity is not the only one ready for consummation in the flames. Every bit as bad as Sherman is the Reverend Bacon, a charlatan and race hustler who exploits the Lamb family for his own ends. There is also Larry Kramer, the assistant DA charged with prosecuting McCoy. Kramer is so vain he flexes his neck muscles before attractive female jurors, like a peacock spreading his feathers before a tantalized peahen. There is Peter Fallow, the alcoholic British journalist who makes a name for himself with innuendo-laced articles about the case and who stretches the definition of objectivity well past the breaking point. There is Abe Weiss, the Bronx DA who cares only about re-election and sees McCoy as his ticket.

These people, and many others populating this massive book, are all too familiar to this New York boy who spent his young adulthood reading about the likes of Tawana Brawley, Al Sharpton, Lester Maddox, Ed Koch, Robert Morgenthau,  Michael Griffith, and Bernie Goetz. Yeah, NYC was  a real toddlin’ town back then, as we kept climbing towards over 2000 murders a year.

McCoy is hounded, even after the initial case is dismissed. Nearly everyone else manages to escape.  Peter Fallow wins a Pulitzer,  Maria flees the country and gets off scot-free. Only the judge who did the right thing by dismissing the case is burned in the bonfire. By doing the right thing, he seals his re-election chances: he now has none.

But McCoy strangely manages to find himself through his travails (for which he is, at least partially, responsible). It is implied in a bogus New York Times article that ends the book that McCoy is once again involved with his wife on at least a superficial level, and has gotten in touch with the man he used to be before he became a Master Of The Universe.

On trial yet again (this time because Henry Lamb has, a year later, died) for vehicular manslaughter, the fourth trial for the same incident, McCoy seems to have found something in himself in his new role as the Great White Defendant.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a time piece now. It is nearly perfect in its evocation of New York City politics in the mid-80s. Anyone reading it will be able to see the bloody core of racial politics and the small-minded hobgoblins that infest politics like so many tapeworms.  Anyone from the tri-state area who is my age or older will pull a whole different level of appreciation. The characters may or may not be modeled on any particular individuals, but we know who they are. We spent a decade reading about them in the New York Post.