With Axl Rose finally delivering his long awaited Chinese Democracy album to the public in November, interest in Guns N’ Roses is at its highest level in more than a decade. Author Stephen Davis, who gave us the definitive Led Zeppelin biography in Hammer of the Gods, now opportunistically delivers Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses.
Much of the reporting on the band’s heyday is regurgitated from interviews in music mags from the era, including Circus, Hit Parader, and RIP. Rolling Stone’s spring 2000 story, “Axl Rose: The Lost Years” is also a significant source. Some of the timeline information is plain erroneous, demonstrating a noticeable lack of copyediting. But for those who ever longed to know more about how Axl went of the rails (and took the band’s career with him), Davis delivers in the last third of the book as the saga turns into a gripping page-turner on fame and fortune gone wrong.
“Axl was the greatest rock star of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and he possibly wasted that away in the making of `Chinese Democracy`,” said Davis in a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “When you listen to the album, it seems to be all about Axl trying to justify his megalomania.”
Davis narrates in car-wreck fashion — some details are disturbing to the senses, but you just can’t look away. The picture is of an extremely talented but just as troubled artist who can’t seem to escape his demons, despite achieving rock-’n’-roll success beyond or at least equaling any musician’s wildest dreams. Davis traces how the unprecedented speed with which the band went from rags to riches turned into a double-edged sword.
The saga provides details of Steven Adler’s ouster and Izzy Stradlin’s defection, as well as the death-defying substance problems experienced by Slash and Duff. But the main character is Axl, and Davis identifies two primary culprits in the singer’s troubles — his bipolar psychiatric condition and the childhood sexual abuse he only discovered through regression therapy after GNR blew up big (which Axl admitted in a Rolling Stone cover story in 1992.) Anyone who’s ever had to deal up close and personal with a bipolar friend or family member will recognize the erratic and seemingly incomprehensible behavior that can be so mystifying and heartbreaking to deal with. The fact that his band mates lacked the social skills to deal with this only contributed to GNR’s problems.
Davis notes the many times that Axl’s moodiness kept fans and band mates waiting for hours after an opening band had finished to go onstage. Sometimes this could lead to brilliant shows, such as the monumental three-and-a-half-hour performance that concluded the band’s 1991 American summer tour at the LA Forum. Other times it could lead to truncated performances that catalyzed riots, such as the infamous 1992 Montreal show. Davis supplies the answer to Axl’s antics here, quoting him as saying something to the effect of, “If I don’t feel I’m emotionally ready to do a whole show, than how can I go out to start one?”
The chance for Axl to turn his life and legacy around is starting to slip away. GNR’s electrifying live shows are what propelled the band to its legendary status. His tour attempts with hired Guns over the past 8 years have been sporadic and inconsistent. Yet the new album demonstrates the talent is still there. The big question remains whether he can pull himself together to give his fans what they really want — a reunion tour with Slash, Duff, and Izzy.
Such a tour would sell out every arena in the world. But many burned bridges would have to be rebuilt first. Watch You Bleed casts doubt on Axl’s emotional ability to make it happen. But Chinese Democracy, an album some insiders doubted would ever be released, has now seen the light of day and features some epic material recalling GNR’s 1991 peak. It would therefore seem that anything is possible for a man who holds all the cards necessary to rekindle one of the most incendiary bands in rock history.