I requested some books for Christmas. Under the tree I found a few titles, including Watch You Bleed, the Saga of Guns n' Roses by Stephen Davis (Gotham, 2008).
The name Stephen Davis should sound familiar if you're into rock biographies. He's written a ton, including histories of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.
Anyone who really loves Metal already knows the story of Guns n' Roses. You know, a bunch of ne'er do wells learn to play music and all eventually form bands...meet in L.A. and somehow to get together. Along the way, they bring a history of abuse, neglected childhoods, drug addiction, alcoholism - and horrible tempers. The men that would eventually become the classic lineup of Guns n' Roses formed a certain type of gang, with the mission to survive, make music and become famous. They succeeded.
Since its release more than 20 years ago, Appetite for Destruction has become one of the top selling rock records of all time. A large portion of Watch You Bleed, the Saga of Guns n' Roses is spent recalling events that led to Guns signing with Geffen records and eventual recording of Appetite. In a lot of ways, it seems that Davis is trying to make the reader feel like an extra member of the band, recalling club shows, interviews and recording sessions, paying close attention to detail. There's an overwhelming bit of minutia here as Davis explains conversations by random engineers and always makes a point to list the clothing of each band member (obviously this detail comes by way of thousands of photographs).
When Davis gets past the Appetite sessions, the book gets a little more interesting. The stories of infighting and drug addiction are well known. The stories of Axl Rose going bonkers are well documented...and yet it's still hard to read. I mean, Axl was (is?) just really nuts. Davis uses Axl's episodes to paint a pretty bleak picture of the biggest band in the world. Instead of happiness, most everyone in Guns was a miserable wreck - no one more so than Axl Rose.
The attention to detail that Davis affords many tour stops on the "Get in the Ring World Tour" (in support of the Use Your Illusion discs) is appreciated. Sure, there are factual errors. I've found this to be the case with every music biography I've ever read. While some deeply criticize Watch You Bleed, the Saga of Guns n' Roses, I can't help appreciating the book for what it is: a tormented and entertaining journey down one of rock's darkest alleys. Appetite for Destruction is probably the best record released during the 1980s - but that doesn't make it all sunshine and kittens. That record was borne out of street smarts and desperation - and kids were eager enough to take it all in. When the Illusion discs were released, Guns were world famous and rich - and no one could handle it. To his credit, Davis is able to depict Axl for what he is: a maniacal genius and generally terrifying.
Should you read Watch You Bleed, the Saga of Guns n' Roses? Absolutely. The book is fun, does provide a few new tidbits for die hard fans and paints a very clear picture of what it was like backstage at some of the last Guns shows with all original members. I must note: the recalling of the way Axl beat his girlfriends is upsetting. Stephanie Seymour would fight back but it seemed as if Erin Everly just took more than she gave. Truly painful to try and understand.
I must say Watch You Bleed, the Saga of Guns n' Roses is not as good as Walk this Way, which I consider to be Davis' best work. Still, the Guns book is probably the best offering out there for a complete history of GnR. Obviously no one in the band would talk. Axl still has people under "gag orders" from the Illusion tour. Those people spoke with Davis on the condition of anonymity. Perhaps someday Axl Rose will get enough mental stability to write an autobiography, but I'm pretty sure I'd only believe every fourth word of that anyway.
Buy the book here.