"The 'Mats now seem to be the greatest American band that never was. It's like a secret club. Those who know carry their torch, while those who don't yawn, roll their eyes and reach for their Pixies or their Nirvana or their Flaming Lips....'"
a comet's tale:
two new tomes tackle the replacements and guns n' roses
by john richen
A confession: I'm a big fat sucker for rock pulp-- always have been. If a book's been written about a band I care about I've at least eyeballed it carefully if not sat down and plowed through the thing while sitting on the floor at Powells. Bowie, Zep, Barrett, Nirvana, Stones, Ramones, Pistols, Iggy, Beatles, Kinks etc.-- I've read thousands of pages on the bands that littered my listening landscape. I continue, after decades of disappointments, to do this in spite of the fact that the majority of these written records leave me feeling no more in tune with the people who make the music. Worse, they often leave me feeling ripped of and insulted. All things considered I recently took a blood oath after reading the recent, largely forgettable Jimmy Page tome Magus Musician Man (reviewed in Smokebox 48) that it was the last one.
So imagine the internal dilemma presented not two months later when a pair of rock and roll hardbacks centered around the histories of two of the more determinedly self-destructive bands of the last 30 years landed square on my desk within the same 24 hour span. In my head I quickly counted at least 14 fatty livers, one ice bucket full of poop in an elevator, a 'fuck you Kansas City,' 75 trips to rehab, eight browless eyes, a few good riots, a handful of microphone stand facials, countless right hooks, penicillin shots numbering in the triple digits, a 'Portland We're Sorry', one exploded pancreas, one crock pot of slow simmered barf at a bat mitzvah, one enlarged heart and resulting battery implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, and a heck of a lot more bona fide chthonic debauchery. Fascinating implications for all the wrong reasons, but fascinating nonetheless.
Train-wreck appeal aside, these books were also about two acts whose music I was intrinsically connected with, an ardent fan of actually, though on completely different emotional planes.
In the case of the Replacements I have to admit straight up that things got ridiculous. At times, mostly in various states of misguided chemical induced euphoria, I proclaimed the 'Mats the most important American rock band of all time, a mantle far too big to bestow on any band, let alone the frost-bitten lads from the Twin Cities. To me they were really that good. Albums like Let It Be, Stink and Hootennanny oozed a brand of resigned crypto-urban heroism that I could never put a finger on, but whose vitality was apparent nonetheless. The problems then? First: I had pinned expectations of messianic rock and roll conquest on the band far and above their abilities or desires to deliver. Second: Paul Westerberg could have recorded himself playing bongos while emitting drunken bathroom gargling noises from which I would promptly have gleaned some indication of heartfelt compositional genius. Yes it had gotten that bad, and it wasn't until the lyrics of "Love Untold" punctured my myopic little Westerbergian Hamlet many years later with the magnitude of their sheer horrific awfulness that I realized what a pathetic flannel-sniffing dope I had become. The guy's instincts were fallible after all. The clues had been there for a long while. People had tried to intervene. But until I found myself repeating mantra-like "both just in case, wore clean underwear" in utter despair did the river of denial finally dry up. Was this really the same Paul who couldn't say it was okay to an answering machine? Who'd write me a letter if he could only hold his pen and find a stamp to borrow? Turned balladeer contemplating the purity of his main characters' under garments? It was like "Afternoon Delight" except worse because I cared. It was too much to bear. I spilled some tears, crushed some Mickeys, kicked my copy of Eventually under the couch, and took up with Rob Pollard and Pavement.
But I return now and then, with a more level head and the benefit of a self-corrected historical perspective, and wonder if it's possible that in spite of such ridiculous adulation I might have accidentally been at least partially right. The 'Mats now seem to be the greatest American band that never was. It's like a secret club. Those who know carry their torch, while those who don't yawn, roll their eyes and reach for their Pixies or their Nirvana or their Flaming Lips. You hear their enduring influence but you still don't hear their music. I wonder if maybe deep down even the 'Mats themselves realized that the critics shoveling the platitudes were in the same stroke tying an albatross around their collective necks that was bound to sink them sooner than later. Yes they were truly great, but in the end they didn't save rock and roll from anything, especially themselves.
And that's okay.
When Jim Walsh's oral history of the band All Over But The Shouting tested my mettle what choice did I have? I may as well have surrendered right then.
So there was the first strike against my resolve. It was the Replacements after all. I had to read it.
The other of these hardcovers was a self-titled autobiography penned by a guitarist who found his top hat playing in the middle of the poisonous gas cloud known as Guns N' Roses. Slash. Yeah, the super chatty Jack and smack-bitten cartoon character that played guitar notes forged in some voodoo snakepit marking the eleventh circle of hell. That guy who usually does his talking with his fingers. Wrote a 458 page book. No shit.
Like GNR the band, Slash the book appealed to something far different inside me than revisiting my ardent youthful dalliance with the Mats. There's no arguing GNR's sleaze metal impact on contemporary music. It left a crater the size and smell of Cleveland. Appetite For Destruction, surely the most aptly titled album of all time, stands up member-proud among the best of the hard rock classics. Whether or not GNR stood up for anything that "mattered" is a whole 'nother thing though. Guns N' Roses was the proud antimatter of rock and roll poignancy. At the same time dirty, powerful, grimy, talented, horny, menacing and morally indefensible, their witch's brew of LA glam aesthetic, punk nihilism and hard rock posturing popped the tops of budding young heathens worldwide. Guns music was experienced on a purely visceral level. C'mon, admit it. You never really gave a rip about what the songs were "about." But the music...man...the music! When the hard working Duff, Slash, Izzy and Steven Adler dropped into that pocket there was unloosed a din so voracious it felt like a seal bomb going off in the pit of your stomach. Right when you adjusted to the intestinal turbulence Axl would cut loose with one of his pipe shattering snarls and make your hair stand on end. It was a body high, not a head or heart thing. It was about that swing. Guns were masters of the I-don't-give-a-funk double-axe chop-block. They'd take you out at the knees without thinking twice about it. They burned your balls burn and bounced your tits. They made you want to get wasted and blow shit up just for the hell of it. They tattooed their logo square on the ass of the drooling beast in every poor sap moved by the monster Les Paul riff, and didn't care if they got smacked in the face for their trouble. How rock and roll was that?
A bio hatched from the inside of such primal realities is not to be trifled with. It may have been illusory, but Guns N' Roses seemed nothing if not 100 percent authentic.
It dawned on me quickly: Aside from the obvious role that the staggering degree of substance abuse played in both modern rock tragedies, the weird thing about this whole process was that there were some striking similarities in the trajectories of these two bands that were so very different. They both kicked out founding members for drug/alcohol abuse in cases of pot-meet-kettle unfathomable in their degrees of hypocrisy. They both had lead singers who had issues with artistic control in bands that weren't necessarily theirs to hijack in the first place. Both lead guys on mike could be enormous dicks to the fans who buttered their bread. But perhaps most obvious was the degree that both bands went to seemingly intentionally sabotage their own careers.
They came at this from different angles obviously. Guns actually got to the point where they made, and quickly squandered, a ton of money. They had the support of a major label who sunk serious energy into marketing them in spite of their seeming incorrigibleness, and were willing at least on the surface, to do some things that didn't appeal to them if it meant exposure and/or cash. They sold albums by the millions. And yet the real Guns N' Roses still managed to burn to a crisp quickly, efficiently and completely, leaving a nasty stain and a puddle of bad blood. There weren't a lot of secrets with these guys. Most of their story is right there in the great wide open and has been for some time now.
The 'Mats had none of that industrial leverage to squander. Theirs was a different currency to burn. Their indie legitimacy was proclaimed early and often before most folks even had time to register them. They were loud and fast and had a sense of humor and sophistication that made them stand out. Westerberg really did have the ability when he brought his A-game to break your heart while simultaneously sandpapering your face. There was the flip side though. Even though "critics" loved them they could be legendary in their drunken musical squalor, and chose the most inopportune times for their worst performances. And not everyone wanted to get the joke. They went out of their way to piss on nearly everyone who tried to help them. They both craved the bright lights of stardom and openly despised them. That dichotomy lent a tragic note to the late-inning bases-loaded whiff of the better behaved version trying to grab the ring while touring Don't Tell A Soul. They made a half-hearted attempt at shaping up that seemed to kill their spirit at the time they needed it most. They had given MTV the collective finger for its inane superficiality, when the station was regularly putting bands with nowhere near the talent or relevance on the charts. That the 'Mats were right in standing on this principle didn't change the fact that it was a very public line drawn in the sand, a very calculated form of commercial suicide. By the end everything had changed. The faces were different. The band still had its moments but mostly seemed tired and cranky. It was down to Tommy and Paul and maybe they had just matured to the degree that the Replacements really couldn't matter in the same way we wanted them to anymore. I dunno. It was a puzzling sort of fizzle for a band that had burned so bright.
Which brings us back to Walsh's All Over But The Shouting. Reminiscent of Legs McNeil's tome on punk rock, Please Kill Me, the author here functions as historian as opposed to biographer, assembling a story of the band built primarily around the words of those who knew them or were affected by them from interviews conducted in 2006-2007. Comments are also mixed in from older source material including all included commentary from the big three remaining 'Mats: Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars. While this older material doesn't seem out of place per se, neither does it always seem to neatly fit.
More recent retrospective analysis includes comments provided by replacement Replacements Slim Dunlap and Steve Foley. Foley's enthusiasm is infectious and refreshing and serves as a reminder of all the things we loved about the Replacements. But Slim seems to have the more focused bead on how the band was ticking towards the end and presents a more somber assessment.
Whereas McNeil was shaping an entire movement in music, his approach of many divergent viewpoints worked pretty well In Please Kill Me. Here Walsh tries to capture the significance of a pretty specific phenomenon, a particular attitude with that same device, and meets with more mixed results. He's trying to grab onto a moment he alludes to finally as a comet in his excellent preface the the book. Admirable. It's what fans long to feel again. But the comet's long gone and it's a slippery one, that tail it trails. To one degree it may be to hot too handle. To another it may have permanently faded away into something far more nebulous.
Aside from Walsh's intro, the real muscle of All Over But The Shouting comes from the detailed recollections of industry players with Minneapolis roots -- among them Peter Jesperson (Twin Tone), Lori Barbero (Babes In Toyland), Twin Tone label mate Curtiss A., and Craig Finn (Lifter Puller, The Hold Steady) -- who come as close to letting us in on what it felt like caught in that comet's tail as we're likely to get until Paul, Tommy or Chris start looking back and let us know what it felt like to be the comet itself.
All Over But The Shouting is a welcome and long overdue collection of Replacements lore, and a very enjoyable read for those of us who still wonder and care about the band. Walsh is the man for the job and is squarely in tune with the Minneapolis scene of that period. He obviously knows who to tap into to get a feel for the Twin Cities underground that hatched these seminal indie anti-heros. And if pressed to pick out just one thing that he offers here that makes his book worth your dime it is his ability to piece together from multiple sources a portrait of the deceased 'Mats guitarist Bob Stinson as the damaged human he was rather than the fucked-up caricature that he unfortunately became: The insane guy selling flowers at the airport. The junkie. Just another rock and roll sad sack. Contributors opened up when talking about Bob's legacy in ways that they were more guarded in when talking about the others. The result is that Bob actually becomes the most rounded band figure represented here. Something seems decent and right about that, if not entirely balanced.
Conversely, our friend Slash isn't guarded about much of anything in his project. It's pretty easy to come to the conclusion that the members of Guns N' Roses were for all intents and purposes bona fide Philistines in their heyday. This book will do not one thing to dispel that notion, I am here to report. So lest you think I'm going to tell you that after all this careful reading and deep pondering I found some redeeming social qualities about this snarling lot of metallions in any collective sense -- it's not going to happen. There doesn't appear to be any time in the history of the original GNR where the band hadn't waged open warfare on pretty much everything in their way, including, unfortunately, their internal organs.
What I have discovered, however, is that individually they appear to be much more housebroken than one would suspect from analyzing the behaviors of the original gang. Look, let's be honest here. Every one of those guys is fortunate to be alive right now. And they know it. It's hard to feel a lot of empathy for folks who intentionally set out to drink, snort, shoot or otherwise pummel every rock and roll cretin that crosses their path under the table. It's a silly record book to try and rewrite after all. And to their credit neither Slash nor Duff or Izzy has ever looked for a public shoulder to cry on about where they found themselves after countless years of that schtick finally kicked their asses and and drugged them under.
But in Slash's case I was taken by the fact that not only is the guy unassuming and articulate, he also knows how to spin a tight yarn. This book obviously is what it is -- Slash telling his story. It's not the official Guns N' Roses bio, nor does it ever claim to be. What it ultimately amounts to will surprise you if you give him your ear. And not for the debased reasons that you're thinking of either. Oh sure there's the drunkalogs, and OD's and the startling confession in which Izzy's execution of a Catholic birth control drill finds him inadvertently sowing a packet of manseeds all over Slash's leg. If it's drinking and drugging and screwing and rioting you're after you'll get that because if there's one thing the Gunners (except maybe the testy one) seem to buy into it's that you pay your bills by giving your fans what they pay for and then you make your points.
For the less purist GNR fan Bacchanalian indulgence is not the true meat of the matter here. Saul Hudson (Slash) lays out his story from his earliest memories as a child, surrounded by art and artists, through his teen years transitioning from skater/bmx biker to dedicated guitarist, playing his way straight into the blast furnace that was GNR and out the other side -- somehow still intact and kept on his feet with the occasional jump from an implanted heart defibrillator -- and into a new start in Velvet Revolver, marriage, fatherhood and what he hopes to be a saner, soberer future. How he pulls you into this journey is no mean feat. Against your better instincts you start rooting for the guy right out of the gate. And considering his pedigree, to be honest that came as a surprise.
Interactions with other acts and Slash's encounters with other well known figures in the business provide some of the book's most entertaining moments. Mötley Crüe, Metallica, Iggy Pop, Soundgarden, Iron Maiden and assorted LA hair metal abominations are all pondered and commented on at various points in the missive. I suspect some of them may be a slight bit put off by Mr. Hudson's candor here. But you'll thank him for it. And his meeting with Keith Richards is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Slash is relayed with understated cheek, a sense of wonder and even a hint of actual gratitude that was completely unexpected. The author is careful to point out (on multiple occasions) that the recollections represented here are his and his alone. And that his perspectives may be skewed or even inaccurate and that others may have a completely different interpretation of events. Some may view this as a copout. I don't take this as artistic timidity on his part at all, but more as a testament to the enduring respect he holds for all of his fellow band mates. Even Axl. Especially Axl.
When you get to the book's final chapter "If Memory Serves" where Slash lays bare his reasons for writing the book, you've come full circle. Finding yourself at the start? Maybe a new volume? With what that man has put himself through, Slash actually finishes out as a tale of redemption and rebirth, although I suspect he'd balk at the thought of it being looked at that way. Don't get me wrong. We are talking about Slash after all. And seeing as a guy named Weiland and ex- GNR chums Duff and Matt Sorum are among his band mates in Velvet Revolver I doubt that next chapter is going to be without its dramas. Yeah sure, no drama at all.
No, Slash's sequel may not be quite as loin-curdling as the original. But you can bet your bottom dollar that you won't be confusing it with A Hard Day's Night either...