Although I like to read about celebrities a lot, many of their stories are pretty much the same. The typical arc of a celebrity drugs-and-booze memoir is: early days (often troubled), meteoric rise to fame, introduction to drugs and booze, drugs and booze induced trainwreck, self-destruction of career, rehab, comeback of sorts. I picked up W.A.R: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose by Mick Wall because I knew it'd be different. After all, Axl Rose is one of the most magnetic, mercurial, enigmatic celebrities the world has ever known. Probably only Michael Jackson cuts a stranger figure these days.
Besides, I love Guns n' Roses. I always have. Sadly, I was born too late to be able to see them play with Metallica, and my parents were still able to veto that plan (with good reason as that tour was marked by riots). They had something special, something that only comes around a few times per generation. Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles all had it too: that indefinable quality that makes kids plaster their bedrooms with their pictures, skip lunch for a week and use the money to buy their albums, obsess over every detail of their songs and (for a select few) even motivate them to learn guitar, bass, or drums so one day, they too could be just like their heroes.
I've been trying to score Slash's autobiography for a while, but people keep checking it out. So I read the unauthorized biogrpahy of Axl Rose instead. The name "Mick Wall" rang a faint bell to me, but I wasn't sure why until the introduction. Remember the infamous track on one of the Use Your Illusion albums called "Get in the Ring?" The one where Axl named several people he intended to beat the crap out of? Mick Wall was one of them. His offense was writing a story, in Kerrang! magazine about the Vince Neil-Axl Rose feud. He says that Axl called him and asked him to come over because Axl wanted to tell his side, that he'd given Axl the chance to take his words back and he refused. Since his version matches Vince Neil's own version in my favorite rock-n-roll memoir, The Dirt, he's probably telling the truth.
But the book does suffer from Wall's lack of access. In the introduction, Wall promises "to turn on the lights in the blacked-out room where the real Axl Rose has been hiding all these years." Yet, he takes as his main source material interviews in music magazines and statements on websites. I actually remember many of those interviews -- I always tried to pick up a copy of any magazine that interviewed Axl or Slash. Overall, I was left with the feeling that I could've written the book myself, given access to the archives of magazines like Rolling Stone and Guitar World.
However much more detail the reader may desire, the story as presented is still compelling. I didn't know too much of what happened to the band after 1994, and why they split up, although my base speculation on the reason was right: Axl was nuts, and they no longer wished to have their fortunes tied to someone who would freak out on a moment's notice. The most shocking thing of all about Axl's behavior is that it is apparently not drug-induced. Axl swears he never touches the stuff, and even people with the inside knowledge and incentive to make a liar out of him confirm this. He hasn't done hard drugs since the Appetite for Destruction days, when he saw what it was doing to the rest of his band. Instead, Axl is what might be described as a "New Ager". He does past-life regression therapy, takes lots of herbs and vitamin pills, and travels with a massage therapist and acupuncturist.
Sadly, it doesn't seem to be helping him get his shit together musically. For almost 15 years, he's been working on an album called Chinese Democracy. His original bandmates are long-gone, as are most of their replacements. His record company tried everything to motivate him, and finally wound up cutting him loose and telling him that if he wanted to do this, he was doing it on his own dime. Even that didn't motivate him: that happened several years ago. In 2006, it looked like something might be happening: a rumor persisted that the album would be released that year, and Axl began to be more visible, even performing with original GnR member Izzy Stradlin. But it's still not out. Since GnR broke up, Axl has disappeared for years at a time, and apparently no one, not even Mick Wall, really knows what he's been doing with all of his free time.
In some ways, Guns n' Roses were casualties of the times. The remarkable Use Your Illusion double album was released in 1991, the same year as the landmark Nirvana album Nevermind and the Pearl Jam album Ten. They blew bands like Motley Crue and Poison off the air overnight, and Guns n' Roses has always been unfairly lumped in with them, although they're the only ones that have really stood the test of time.
The music business is much different than movies. Tastes change a lot faster, and it's harder for individuals and bands to adapt. The bands that have toured for decades, like the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, aren't doing so on the strength of new material. One of the few bands I can think of that was really able to adapt was Queen. A major influence on Axl Rose, Queen maintained a consistent level of quality and popularity over two decades and would probably still be going strong if Freddie Mercury was still alive. I think it's because they had an identity of their own. They were part of no movement. Listen to any of their albums, from their debut to their finale, and it's always Queen. You can't mistake them for any other band. Yet they were able to adapt: you can hear Queen doing funk, Queen doing power ballads, Queen doing opera, arena rock, heavy metal, but it's always Queen, never ridiculous.
Guns n' Roses had the potential to be that way, too, when you hear the diversity of sounds contained in the albums they did release. By the accounts in this book, Axl was apparently forward-thinking musically. He was listening to grunge before it even had a name. He wanted very badly to work with Kurt Cobain, but Cobain had nothing but contempt for him. The end of the book hints at a possible reunion, although all anyone can do is speculate at this point. Will money trump animosity? Maybe it would for the rest of the band, but Axl's proven over and over again that he has an infinite ability to cut off his nose to spite his face. Dear Abby often asks her readers if they'd rather be right, or happy. Axl would rather be right.
But one thing is clear: the interest is still out there. It took me weeks to get this book, and I still haven't found Slash's book in. If Chinese Democracy ever comes out, it'll be a fast seller, even if the album sucks. And people like me, who were born too late, will probably flock to whatever venues the new GnR plays in, for the privilege of telling their children that they, too, once waited for 2 hours for Axl to come on and had him walk off after 30 minutes because someone threw a bottle.