Book review: ‘Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses’
Vail CO, Colorado
VAIL, Colorado ” Rock biographer Stephen Davis casts Guns N’ Roses as the last great American rock band, and you truly want to believe him.
Unfortunately, Davis spends just as much time building his argument as he does tearing it down in his uneven examination of one of the most successful, notorious and confusing bands in music history. This is not to say the book is compulsively readable and thoroughly entertaining, but to ask is Davis an objective writer or a critic with an agenda? Did he once wait three hours for Axl Rose to come onstage?
Davis spends the first 300 or so pages painting Guns as the ultimate Sunset Strip success story, a blend of attitude, technical skill and songwriting prowess that was the antidote (and eventual death knell) to the Poison coursing from Los Angeles to suburban America.
More of a gang than band, Guns lived the all-for-one mentality to the hilt, often with all five members sharing a garage-sized space as living quarters and rehearsal space. The band turned ears with a crippling blend of blues metal, capturing the best parts of Aerosmith, The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones with swagger to match.
They caught eyes because they weren’t teased up in glitter and makeup, although Axl remained consciously flamboyant for a time.
At the front, literally and figuratively, was W. Axl Rose, he of inhuman vocal range that could go from broken bluesman to banshee wail, sometimes in the same verse.
Rose’s frenetic energy and siren screech was the manifestation of a childhood fraught with abuse, and an adulthood spent battling multiple personality disorder.
Geffen Records signed the band, hoping to rush the members into the studio before one died or was sentenced to a lengthy jail sentence, both of which nearly happened. What resulted was “Appetite for Destruction,” which stands as the all-time bestselling debut album from a band and a searing end to glam metal.
From here, Guns toured the world and left a turbulent wake, and, frankly, it’s hard not to like the rags-to-riches story of five misfits who just wanted to play music. Once this notion crystallizes, Davis switches gears to harsh criticism.
Bearing the brunt is Rose (duh), who remains as one of the more polarizing rock stars. Davis lampoons Rose’s vision, and decision to transform the band from a hard charging rock band to three-ring circus.
Rose’s bloated stage show including horns, percussionists, backup singers, big screens, pyrotechnics and multiple wardrobe changes are the subject of much ridicule from Davis. Not only did the marathon world tour shred any street credibility Guns had left, it left them nearly broke with the payouts to ornamental players and entourage that were now, sadly, part of the band.
Inexplicably, Rose turned on the same media that made him and his band rich, famous, and, most importantly, respected musicians during this ill-fated global conquest.
Davis does have a soft spot for rhythm guitarist and principal songwriter Izzy Stradlin. A Keith Richards wannabe, Stradlin developed Guns bluesy rock style while shunning the limelight. He was, as Davis says, “the ultimate cool rocker of the time.”
Davis also argues that the “Use Your Illusion” albums could be combined into one special record, just take all the Stradlin-written tracks and put them together. He’s right. Contrasting those tracks with Rose’s obscene rants about his former lovers, cops and journalists makes for the ultimate Guns dichotomy.
Rose forced Stradlin’s hand when he informed the laconic strummer that he was being taken out of the band partnership and put on salary. The reason? Stradlin wasn’t dancing enough on stage. Rose later took sole possession of the Guns name, brand and publishing rights.
As we prepare for an Axl Rose onslaught in the coming weeks as the mythic “Chinese Democracy” will (allegedly) be released on Nov. 23 after nearly 15 years in the making, Davis’ bio is well-timed. And if the early tracks from Rose’s opus are any indication, it will make the L.A. quintet the ultimate nostalgia act as “Chinese Democracy” seems destined to be the punch line of the pop culture world if former drummer Steven Adler, now of “VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” doesn’t beat him to it.
There is plenty of shock value between the covers of “Watch You Bleed,” none of it particularly surprising. There are some nuggets, however, that Davis should be commended for unearthing.
For example, oft-drunk bassist Duff McKagan invested some money into two little Seattle-based startup companies, which happened to be Microsoft and Starbucks, thus making Duff wealthier than all his comrades combined. And Guns members made, and still make, some serious coin.
And Axl’s serpentine dance moves? Cribbed from Stevie Nicks. Who triggered his descent into megalomania? Mick Jagger.
Sadly, Davis offers little in the way of credibility himself with no actual band interviews, and resigning to 13 interviewees who remained anonymous because of gag orders imposed more than a decade ago (an impressive feat of legal wrangling). Instead we get quotes from various Guns articles throughout the years and former associates jilted by the band when it hit the money.
Certainly this is a refreshing trip down memory lane for any Guns fan of yesteryear, and you’ll breakout the albums and listen them to with a whole new respect, interest and disgust, but Davis hardly brings you to your sha-na-na-na-na knees.
Stephen Bedford works at The Bookworm.