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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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.