By Wil Forbis
It's hard to overestimate the impact Guns N' Roses had on those of us who were teenagers when their debut album "Appetite for Destruction" found a foothold on the music charts in 1988. We were already neck deep in the golden age of hair metal --- bands like Motley Crue, Poison and Whitesnake were dominating MTV --- but there was something different about the Gunners. Most hard rock bands of the day seemed fun-loving and wild but ultimately nonthreatening. Not so with Guns N' Roses. They weren't a band as much as a gang of thugs led by the charismatic but serpentine train wreck that was William Axl Rose. With lesser talents, GNR might've been a minor blip on the Billboard charts but, in addition to their mephistophelian image, these boys had the goods --- raucous hard rock with searing vocals, formidable guitar playing and an undeniable groove. As teenagers, we had finely tuned antenna for authenticity and it was clear Guns N' Roses was the real deal.
Part of what made the band stand out was their visual presence. Unlike so many other rock groups of the era --- the Bon Jovis, the LA Guns, the Trixters --- the individual members of Guns N' Roses looked quite disparate from each other. Rose had hair as red as his horticultural namesake, and aside from a brief attempt at hairspray glam in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video, kept it straight down his back. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin cut his hair short for a hard rocker and dressed out of a Rolling Stones documentary, circa 1968. Bass player Duff McCagen had honed his gaunt frame to a fine model of gutter punk heroin chic. Only fluffy haired drummer Steven Adler seemed to vie for the fashion of the Sunset Strip that was popular at the time.
And then there was Gun's lead guitarist, Slash. Though he kept his eyes hidden behind the shadow of an magician's top hat he had the most presence of them all. More than any other member of the group, Slash defied the stereotype of the kind of person who would be in a hard rock band. This was partly because of his race --- he is half black --- but mostly it was due to his seeming disinterest to the pageantry of the genre. Keith Richards, founding member of the group most would agree to be the prototype of dirty white boy blues had taken on the pose of a human peacock, adorning his fingers with glittering rings and draping his body in 6 foot neck scarves. AC/DC's Angus Young embraced the role of an epileptic schoolboy, racing about the behemoth stages his band performed on. But Slash's insular character was carved in concrete by his performance in the "Sweet Child O Mine" video: neck slouched and legs bent to a gravity defying angle, he never looked at the camera and instead stayed focused on what his fingers were doing on his guitar. And Slash's sullen apathy was the perfect counterpart to Axl Rose's shrieking and maniacal pomposity (not to mention his racism.) Guns N' Roses was undoubtably something greater than the sum of its parts, but the two most important parts --- Rose and Slash --- were equals. And Rose's failure to understand this equation is what set off the slow self-destruction of the band.
"Slash" the recently released autobiography is the first document to provide an insider's account of the rise and fall of the momentous beast that was Guns N' Roses. The book's arc is wide, starting with Slash's tumultuous childhood as a British expatriate turned Hollywood brat and ending with his life as a seemingly sober and contented family man. But the bulk of the tome is built around a career of Guns N' Roses: their early lean and hungry years, the massive success that came after the release of "Appetite...," the addictions and personal dysfunction that success engendered and the Icarus like flameout of the group as original members were replaced and egos fused into fortress walls. There's some mild irony here --- the band member who at first seemed so reticent to engage the public is now quite comfortable airing dirty laundry; both his own and that of his bandmates. But there's nothing "gotcha" about the book. "Slash" takes a fair-minded approach, often pausing to consider the validity of other people's interpretations of events.
Let's get one thing out of the way: "Slash" is horribly written. According to the cover credits Slash was aided in the writing process by Rolling Stone scribe Anthony Bozza, but with the quality of the text rendered, the rock star might as well done it himself. Much of the verbiage is so bulky and unstructured that the reader may presume Bozza transcribed Slash's slurred dictation and made no effort to clean it up. I'd guess this was an ill-fated attempt to maintain the character of the author through his language.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the hell out of reading it. As a teenager, I can remember hearing brief accounts all of the Gunner's early days --- scrounging for food, developing a harem of women to support them, thoughtlessly feeding their appetite for drugs and drink but all the while totally focused on their music. It was a lifestyle that certainly attracted me though I never had the charm, courage or, let's be honest about it, full on depravity to embrace it the way they did. (In an early chapter, Slash recounts the pleasures of "sharing" a female fan with fellow guitarist Izzy Stradling, up until the point that Izzy accidentally ejaculates on Slash's leg.) Part of the joy of "Slash" is just the cheap vicarious thrill of all.
But not all enjoyment of the book is so vulgar. I've played in numerous bands and come to the realization that much of what makes a band succeed or fail --- more so than talent or songwriting --- is the interaction between the members of the group. A rock band, like the clichéd chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. And despite their chemical dependencies and general insanity, the first iteration of Guns N' Roses was rock solid. As "Slash" makes clear, the five band members may have had different musical tastes, ranging from Stephen Adler's Hollywood glam to Duff McCagen's Seattle punk, but they absolutely realized that together they combined to make a lethal cocktail. That sort of self-awareness, the ability to take the mile high view, is quite difficult, especially for a band barely out of their teens. It almost adds a sense of predestination to the course of the group's career.
But, with literary efficiency, the very attributes that made the band succeed --- their refusal to compromise, their stubbornness, their raw ego --- tore them apart. Members of the band may have always been hedonists, but until the success of "Appetite for Destruction," poverty kept their desires in check. By 1990, the group was drowning in a bottomless pool of drugs, alcohol, money and women. Slash's description of his descent into chemical and sexual excess is dizzying and, oddly, un-enticing. This unbridled debauchery, combined with Axl Rose's increasingly erratic and tyrannical behavior, caused a band that could've had the kind of generational impact achieved by the Rolling Stones or Nirvana to slowly devolve into farce. Members quit or were fired and the quality of work declined. (I've always considered the "Use Your Illusion" albums creatively inferior to their predecessors, and "Slash" makes clear they were written and produced in a less than inspirational manner.) Finally Slash is forced to realize that his tenure with the band is up.
After reading the book, one gets the sense that even Slash, perhaps too close to the events, fails to appreciate how disappointing the immolation of Guns N' Roses was for fans of rock. He cheerfully talks of the pleasures of playing with his current group, Velvet Revolver, with no acknowledgment of that band's dispassionate predictability. And while I've been pleasantly surprised with the latest Guns record, "Chinese Democracy," featuring Axl Rose and a cast of thousands, it's clearly a Guns N' Roses album in name only. The truth is, none of it, not anything by Velvet Revolver, not "Chinese Democracy," can compete with the fire and brimstone that coursed through the veins of "Appetite for Destruction" and its follow-up, "Lies." After reading "Slash," the reason becomes obvious: those albums were created by a band hungry to succeed on their terms. GNR was a band that was fiercely loyal to itself, angry at the world and determined to make its mark. Eventually both Slash and Axl will have to concede that whatever comforts and pleasures their success has brought them, it's taken its toll on their music. Once fed, the great beast grew tired.