Reviews — From the May 2016 issue

War of The Roses

Piecing together the GN’R story

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Discussed in this essay:

Slash, by Slash with Anthony Bozza. It Books. 480 pages. $16.99

It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, by Duff McKagan. Touchstone. 384 pages. $17.

My Appetite for Destruction: Sex & Drugs & Guns N’ Roses, by Steven Adler with Lawrence J. Spagnola. 304 pages. It Books. $17.99

Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses, by Stephen Davis. Avery. 480 pages. $17.

W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose, by Mick Wall. St. Martin’s Griffin. 384 pages. $19.99

The original recording lineup of Guns N’ Roses — rhythm-guitar player Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, lead guitarist Slash, drummer Steven Adler, and singer Axl Rose — released a total of eighty minutes and nineteen seconds of original music: twelve songs on Appetite for Destruction, the band’s 1987 debut album; four more on GN’R Lies, which was released the following year; and one final song, Civil War,” on a 1990 compilation album. Appetite for Destruction, Guns’ creative and commercial peak, has sold more than 21 million copies — it remains the best-selling American debut album in history — and Lies another 7 million. It is difficult to think of another rock act that became so influential and popular while producing so little music.

Guns N’ Roses performing at the Los Angeles Street Scene, September 28, 1985 © Marc Canter

Guns N’ Roses performing at the Los Angeles Street Scene, September 28, 1985 © Marc Canter

Despite the reunion tour that kicked off last month — Axl, Slash, and Duff are back together onstage for the first time since 1993 — Guns as a vital, creative force has been spent for more than a quarter-century. The story of the band’s rise and what virtually everyone besides Axl Rose considers a great fall has now been documented in several biographies and memoirs. Duff, Adler, and Slash have all written, or had ghostwritten, their version of events. These accounts, along with several books by rock journalists — in particular those by Stephen Davis and Mick Wall, a onetime Guns confidant — make it possible to tease out the story of a band that was, for a time, that rarest of parlays: one of the most popular rock and roll groups in the world, and arguably the best.

The emergence of Guns N’ Roses as a global phenomenon, which followed the release of Appetite, owed much to their invention of a sound that was at once fresh and reassuringly familiar. The band’s provenance (Hollywood’s burgeoning Sunset Strip club scene) and their look (big frizzy hair, aviator sunglasses, leather chaps, cowboy boots) seemed to situate Guns as the latest in a long line of glam-metal bands — Quiet Riot, Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Warrant, White Lion, Cinderella — that had been foisted on America’s teens by MTV. By the mid-Eighties, guitar rock played by skinny men in tight pants with gravity-defying hairstyles had become so unexceptional that Appetite was largely ignored by the rock press when it was released, in July 1987. Rolling Stone didn’t even bother to write a review; it’s easy to imagine an editor taking one look at the band’s carefully cultivated “dangerous” image and dismissing the group as yet another attempt by a record label to squeeze money out of what had become a tedious and predictable genre.

The truth, however, is that Guns — or at least the three members who have so far produced memoirs — despised hair metal. And yet without the existence of a commercially viable rock scene, which produced dozens of forgettable bands, Guns might never have gotten its chance. Nor would American teens, who by then had been sold so much bogus hard rock that the real stuff was like a taste of pure cocaine after years of mannitol. As Chuck Klosterman writes in Fargo Rock City: “Appetite for Destruction is the singular answer to the question, ‘Why did hair metal need to exist?’ ”

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is the author, most recently, of The Subprimes, a novel. His essay “Fever” appeared in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Karl Taro Greenfeld:

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