by Slash with Anthony Bozza
Published by HarperCollins
459 pages, 2007
A Cure for the Common Cold
Reviewed by Diane Leach
I spent Wednesday in bed with Slash. Well, not exactly. I was home with a head cold, sick enough to be bedridden, well enough to require diversion. Slash’s autobiography fit the bill perfectly.
For those of you unfamiliar with the rock n’ roll scene circa 1987, meet rock band Guns N’ Roses, whose debut album, Appetite for Destruction, remains one of the great rock records. Heavy, loud, offensive, offering a triple shot of great singer, blasting guitarist, and pounding drummer, the album was a monster hit by a monster band.
Excesses of all kinds dogged Guns. Their charismatic, talented, handsome lead singer, W. Axl Rose (nee Bill Bailey), is a madman whose antics -- public fisticuffs with fans, an acrimonious relationship with Erin Everly, a brief relationship with then-supermodel Stephanie Seymour -- were the stuff of tabloid fodder. His increasingly erratic stage behavior occasionally led to rioting, most notably at a 1991 St. Louis show, where Rose attacked an audience member videotaping the concert. He then left the stage, inciting a riot that destroyed the Riverport Amphitheatre and injured dozens. Another notorious riot ensued during Guns’ 1992 tour with Metallica. When lead singer James Hetfield suffered severe burns due to malfunctioning pyrotechnics, Metallica apologized to fans and asked Guns to take the stage an hour early. Axl refused. Once Guns finally did get onstage, Rose was angered by equipment problems and refused to perform. Enraged fans responded by destroying the venue.
Meanwhile, as Axl stole headlines, his amiable, tour-loving guitarist, Saul Hudson -- Slash -- established himself as both a talented guitarist and heavy drug user. When it came to wine, women, and song, Slash never said no. Nor did he refuse cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, crack, or, later on, crushed lines of Oxycontin. It’s a wonder the man is alive, and now, in the confessional style that’s all the rage, telling his side of the story.
Initially I was dubious. Many rock biographies (Danny Sugarman’s Wonderland Avenue and Jimmy McDonough’s abysmally written Shakey: the Biography of Neil Young come to mind) suffer from awful writing by those “close” to the band. But co-author Anthony Bozza takes an admirable step back, allowing Slash’s voice, intimate, direct, highly colloquial, to roll right in your ear. What comes through is a largely easygoing, earthy guy. Slash ain’t Hegel, but to borrow a quote from Paul Simon, he can read the writing on the wall.
Slash’s early years set the stage for his unconventional existence. Born in England to a white father and an African-American mother, young Slash and brother Albion inhabited an artistic milieu. Mother Ola designed costumes for the likes of Flip Wilson, David Bowie and Bill Cosby. Father Tony, a painter, did the cover of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.
Slash was eight years old when Ola and Tony Hudson’s marriage ended. Though his parents were civil and caring, Slash suffered enormously, shuttling between his oft-destitute father’s apartment, Ola’s home, and his maternal grandmother’s apartment. The Hudson family lived in and around Hollywood, and a surprising benefit of the book is Slash’s encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles in the days before the Tate-LaBianca murders:
“In pre-Charles Manson L.A. -- before the Manson clan murdered Sharon Tate and her friends -- we (Slash and his father) used to hitchhike everywhere. L.A. was innocent before that; the murders signified the end of the utopian ideals of the sixties flower power era.”
Joan Didion he’s not, but this man knows every street corner, old theatre, the long-gone diners, and his memories give the book an indelible sense of place.
Slash rapidly grew into a wild adolescent, competing in BMX racing, cutting school, terrorizing the streets with a band of fellow bike freaks. One night he helped a kid who had taken an especially violent skateboard fall. The kid’s name was Steven Adler. When not skateboarding, drugging, or making it with older women, he was working at being a musician. He turned his new friend onto playing guitar.
Slash’s loyalty to guitar was immediate and consuming:
With these words, a story already roaring along ramps up to an even faster clip. Slash does not live life so much as rush madly through it, cramming more into his 42 years than most do in twice that. The result is an autobiography that reads like a potboiler. Who will Slash meet next? What drugs will they ingest together? Will the band make it to the show? Will the members sustain drug or auto-related injuries along the way? Will Slash’s collection of venemous snakes break free from their aquarium?
Sex and drugs enter the picture early -- by 13 Slash is drinking and smoking heavily. He is also beginning a long period of promiscuity, the only part of the book that gave me pause. Until marrying wife Perla, Slash cut a wide swath, preferring women who worked in the sex trade either as strippers or porn actresses. (Though Perla’s professional aspirations are never stated, Slash met her through Ron Jeremy.) He treated women as disposable toys. Granted, it was consensual, but even the 1994 Northridge earthquake merits the following:
Apart from his caveman instincts, Slash is carefully diplomatic. He uses the book to express both remorse and gratitude: he is careful to thank people, to apologize, to publicly expose his lesser moments and ask forgiveness. He is immensely careful around the subject of Axl, prefacing his surprisingly few anecdotes with disclaimers. Axl, he assures us, is certain to have his own side of the story. Slash discloses little personal information about this complex man, even going so far as to say it isn’t his place to discuss confidences about Axl’s childhood. He will admit to frustration over are Axl’s notorious inability to get onstage and his legal maneuvering surrounding ownership of the band’s name and rights, matters still dragging, Jarndyce style, through the courts. He is unsparing about Doug Goldstein, the man who replaced Alan Niven by worming his way into Axl’s mind:
At bottom, though, Slash is about drugs and alcohol. The man ingested stunning amounts of heroin and coke, went in and out of rehab, hallucinated and suffered such violent DTs that, at his worst, he needed a drink before getting out of bed. When he was 35, his alcohol-swollen heart nearly stopped, necessitating the implantation of a cardioverter-defibrillator, a device that shocks his heart into a regular rhythm.
Slash is unapologetic about his drug use -- he admitted to being in rehab only recently, well after finishing the book, a married man and father of two young children. It’s clear that Slash’s relationship to drugs is akin to that of Keith Richards: both would keep right on doing them if death weren’t knocking.
There are weak spots. Venerable Los Angeles rock station KNAC is repeatedly called KNEC. And while Slash is disgusted by band manager Alan Niven’s simultaneous involvement with Great White, a band he gleefully insults, he never mentions the 2003 club fire that killed Great White guitarist Ty Longely and 99 others -- another pyrotechnic act gone awry.
Stranger still is his skipping over the flap caused by the song “One in a Million,” a nasty number off 1988’s Lies. Rose was publicly excoriated for the song’s homophobic, racist lyrics. And while Slash is happy to discuss a rape charge brought against Axl (dismissed), his wife Perla’s 56 days in county jail for a DUI, and his own long history of theft, Slash has nothing to say about the lead singer of his band singing “police and niggers, get out of my way.”
Ultimately, the book offers an insider’s look at life inside a particular Los Angeles bubble, a place and time that won’t recur. For Guns fans, Slash will be manna from heaven. For the rest of us, for whom Appetite was the soundtrack of our late teenage years, it’s an amusing, at times rocky trip into the past. Perfect reading for your next head cold. | January 2008