[13 March 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
So what exactly is a rock ‘n’ roll “biography”? It’s usually a thinly veiled backstage pass with which readers can live vicariously through their heroes’ respective fame, fortune, and fate. And, depending on the notorious nature of the artist in question, such access is expected, rather than coming as a byproduct of a given subject’s life story.
Mötley Crüe set the tell-all bar quite high some years back with The Dirt, a raucous collection of war stories from one of music’s most infamous hell-raising bands. In Crüe’s case, a healthy amount of dirt was dished, confirming previously known exploits, as well as presenting illuminating new lows in debauched excessiveness. The book’s runaway success (and surprising crossover appeal) came from reaching, and subsequently surpassing, readers’ expectations.
Yet as dirty as The Dirt was, such cannot be said about Slash, the purported expose on the Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist’s life and times. Penned by Slash and author/journalist Anthony Bozza, the near 500 page tome carried much pre-publication promise for what it was to offer: Guns fans would revel in their band’s misdeeds to the same extent that Cruebees did with The Dirt; urban legends would be confirmed or debunked as to the band’s numerous breakdowns and ultimate break up; we’d hear all the nasty little secrets about the Guns’ legacy, in addition to being in the dive bars, strip clubs, five-star hotels, and shooting galleries that hosted Slash and his compadres.
Oh, to hear the lurid accounts of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, from the modern day Keith Richards! With sufficient fodder to become an instant classic, and potentially formidable rival to The Dirt, Slash amazingly—no, inexplicably—sounds flatter than a dead E string.
How could this happen? Slash’s story is rife with addiction, alcoholism, and membership in one of history’s most legendary groups. He may not be as technically (or inherently) skilled as Jimi Hendrix or Randy Rhoads, but his guitar playing bears a unique sound and texture, serving as the bedrock from which the Guns N’ Roses catalogue still resonates so strongly. Yet somewhere between Slash living the junkie-cum-rock star lifestyle, and recounting the same life, there is a profound disconnect; the writing is bland and lifeless, condemning a remarkable rise from gutter to penthouse to unsatisfying pedestrian status.
Blame it on Bozza’s inability to translate Slash’s tale into anything more than a static rock resume; blame it on Slash’s own methodical “voice” as he sifts through the drug and alcohol drenched memories; blame it on the publisher for not wanting more from the final draft, and casting a blind eye toward the numerous copyediting errors. But blame it on someone, for Slash could have been, should have been, so much more.
That’s not to say the book is completely without merit. Admittedly, Slash displays an understated sense of humor when critiquing his Sunset Strip contemporaries during Guns N’ Roses initial lean days, referring to RATT’s Stephen Pearcy as “a complete moron”, expressing unmitigated disdain for Poison and Great White, or heaping praise (and admiration) on the hard-charging Crüe. Earlier on, the description of his quasi-vagabond childhood is interesting, from BMX-obsessed teen to drug and alcohol infused street urchin.
As a product of a bi-racial Bohemian couple, Slash certainly faced a multitude of social challenges; alas, he addresses his formative years with matter-of-fact candor, and rarely delves into any tangible substance, despite routinely delving into a variety of substances. It’s established that once his passion for bikes was supplanted by guitars, he rapidly grew beyond his years, chemically, sexually, and musically. But once readers are served the platter of young Saul Hudson knocking around the LA scene, getting high, getting laid, and getting in tune, the collective appetite for destruction is quickly satiated, leaving the sordid tale ... well, somewhat yawn-inducing.
Even the recounting of Guns N’ Roses’ meteoric rise and flame out lacks the true storyteller’s sheen. This was a band after all, which dared to deviate from the prevailing Hollywood ‘80s Aqua Net curve, harnessing an intense, bluesy rage for its sound, and a grimy gutterpunk flair for its attitude. And it didn’t take an eternity for Guns N’ Roses to ascend from populating a decrepit storage unit/practice space to becoming the world’s biggest, and baddest, musical commodity. That fact alone begged for thorough description and introspection, yet the Guns N’ Roses saga is presented primarily at the surface level, with Slash loping through the band’s roughly five-year major label trajectory with minimal emotion.
And during this placid regurgitation, Slash’s band mates are relegated to one-dimensional status. Bassist Duff McKagan is little more than a passive cardboard cut-out; guitarist Izzy Stradlin is painted with empty brushstrokes as an addict-turned-teetotaler; drummer Steven Adler is acknowledged to have been an original co-partner in crime, but with scant attention paid to his life-threatening descent into the post-Guns N’ Roses abyss. Secondary Guns N’ Roses members, Matt Sorum, and, more so, Gilby Clarke, are glossed over as mere footnotes to the saga.
Only vocalist/antagonist Axl Rose has any depth in Slash’s story, and even then, it’s far from substantial. He’s given fairly even-handed treatment, yet is portrayed as obsessive, eccentric, and domineering. Yes, Slash, we know that. But how did your egos clash? At what point did Axl’s penchant for grandiosity and bombast become insurmountably divisive? Did Guns N’ Roses really jump the shark when keyboards and back-up singers were added? And are readers to believe that your professional integrity was never compromised while under the influence? So many questions, so few answers.
With page after page of anecdotes and missed opportunities to tell more, perhaps the book’s greatest shortcoming is its principal. Slash’s status as functioning addict/alcoholic/guitar god is widely held (and often glorified), and it’s not inconceivable that the decades of abuse have simply taken a toll on him. Maybe it’s not that Slash can’t tell his story well, but rather that he can’t tell his story well, as the bulk of it has dissipated into a smoky haze.
His most recent creative endeavor, Velvet Revolver, is also given short shrift, despite it being commercially successful and critically acclaimed. And in a glaring bit of partisanship, Slash fails to elaborate on the unpredictability of vocalist Scott Weiland, caused by the singer’s own track record of addiction and related eccentricities. If much of the Guns N’ Roses implosion can be laid at Axl’s feet, then c’mon Slash, you need to deal ’em up straight and talk about how Velvet Revolver’s fortunes are precariously tied to Weiland’s avoidance of the daily police blotter.
Overall, Slash is a fast read, peppered with generic rock star snippets of overindulgence, with a passable history of a legendary band and one of its founding members. It isn’t on par with The Dirt, though Guns N’ Roses fans will undoubtedly delight in their favorite axeman’s tales of yore, indifferent to the depth, or lack thereof, within. But it can’t be overlooked, that a person so integral to Guns N’ Roses’ success, has failed to make the same impression on the literary world that he has on the music industry. With a robust 480 page framework to work with, Slash leaves a distinctly underwhelming impression ... not bad by any means, but far short of expectations.