Stephan Davis made a name for himself by writing one of the most viral and controversial rock biographies of all time with Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga and later with the authorized Aerosmith biography, Walk This Way. In fact, his legacy exists from the publishing and controversy surrounding these books, so hopes were extremely high that he would deliver another tour de force tale of debauchery with Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses. The book is epic at 448-pages so one would assume that this bio would be the definitive resource on this band; sadly it's not…not even close. While reading the book, I couldn't help but feel that Davis had an ax to grind with the members of Guns N' Roses. This pessimism blinded him and it ultimately hurts the final product and makes it a bargain basement buy only.
What Stephen Davis is able to succeed in is the definitive genesis story of Guns N' Roses. He managed to find several early interviews with the band from 1984 to 1986 which give the reader a first hand look at the chaos and confusion that surrounded their lives. Unlike many of the other books on GNR recently, he delves into the background of all five members and not just the key players. The early unpublished or forgotten stories from this period are what make the book desirable. No one has ever delved this deep into the infancy period of the band and anything and everything you wanted to know is here. However, this proves to be the book's Achilles' heel as it appears that Davis stopped researching events after 1987. The childhood stories, tales and interviews of this band are unprecedented, but one the rocket ship takes off, Davis goes on cruise control relying on memory and what are most likely bad sources. Much of this latter day material I have read before…dozens of times before. Not only that, but he manages to have a few dozen factual errors throughout this time in regards to television performances, awards, songs performed and even the years! What amazes me is the depth of research he undertook with a pre-1987 Guns N' Roses and yet he called in everything from there on out. Ironically almost all of his factual errors could have been alleviated with a simple Google search. I spent three-years assisting in the writing and research of a book earlier this decade and trust me, the research is a full time job in itself, and someone here dropped the ball. This may not seem like a make or break item, but there is no excuse for lazy journalism and it hurts the potential legacy of this book.
While the early chapters take the reader into a junkie and juvenile wonderland of information, Davis relies heavily on quotes and excerpts from old magazine articles. He has very little to offer in terms of insight without these excerpts. He did secure some in-depth interviews with Vicky Hamilton (GNR's first manager), but aside from that, Davis comes across more lucky than devout. Another issue I took with the book was its overall tone. I always believe a journalist has the responsibility to showcase the light and the darkness of an artist and their music; Davis appears to not just focus on the darkness but he relishes it. Chastising all music the band created post Appetite For Destruction one gets the sense he never cared for GNR's brand of music and merely wrote a book on them because there was a market for it and some prime source material from the early days fell into his lap, which is a shame because Davis has a way with words and his eclectic prose suits Guns N' Roses very well. However, most of the latter part of the book is spent bashing the band or Axl. Make no mistakes, this was a decadent band that did a lot of bad things however, I never sensed that Davis had a genuine love for this band or their music and this was merely a paycheck for him. This is demonstrated in the last few chapters of the book which prove to be a Cliff's Notes of the band's history post 1993, most of which he seemed to lift from Slash's 2007 biography and Mick Wall's recent book on Axl Rose. While Watch You Bleed has some truly unique material in it that makes it essential reading, the book by no means is essential. Get it from your library as it's a half-baked affair, which is a shame, this could have very easily been the biblical source for the band with a little more time, care and research.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
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Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses (Rock Reads)