Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N' Roses by Mick Wall

9781409167211

Reviewed by Brian Morgan

One could simply describe Last of the Giants  as the story of a group of young musicians, who, on a tidal wave of alcohol and drugs, reached the top of the recording scene in the world of the late 1980’s only to break up when the world was at their feet.  But to do so would be to ignore that there is so much more to this book and to the characters, their lives and the times.

They were an extremely successful rock pop group at a time when it seemed the days of such groups had passed. Their first production – an LP initially refused by recording companies – quickly achieved Platinum status, becoming one of the best sellers of all time.  Success came quickly, too quickly.  Group membership fluctuated.  They were either just out of rehab, or about to go into it.  Performance unreliability and internal divisions completed the mix.  It went down from there.  Axl Rose, lead man and energetic performer, was left on his own.

Rose’s was not a musical family although he had piano lessons. He recalled being knocked off a piano stool by his fire and brimstone preacher stepfather, for trying to play Led Zeppelin’s D’yer Mak’er.  As Hall describes it, Axl discovered the power of music.  A confusing family situation and recurrent nightmares about abuse perhaps contributed to his behaviour as a restless and nonconforming adult.

He met Jeff Isbell (Izzy), who was to become the second member of Guns N’ Roses.  The subsequent partnership with Saul Hudson (Slash) and Steven Adler seems almost inevitable.  Slash had enjoyed a life of barefoot freedom in a house filled with music, dope and colourful characters – factors which undoubtedly shaped his adult life.  Adler was the son of an Italian gangster wannabe.  He described himself as essentially uncontrollable. His future was set at the age of twelve when he was exposed to a surprise Kiss performance at Disneyland’s Magic Mountain.  On the way home, he announced to his mother that he was going to be a rock star.  Music was the catalyst for his change from a “shy nerdy kid” to a rebellious, semi-delinquent teen.

Often, creative genius is magically unlocked.  It may also enhance personality defects.  Axl would sometimes refuse to perform, or simply fail to turn up, caring little about the waiting fans, the co-performing Rolling Stones, or the financial implications for himself and his group. Axl being  Axl or something else that defies explanation?  And what about the album that he promised for 10 years, consigned to the category of ‘lost albums’ by the time of its November 2009 release?  It sold well but was probably too late in the genre’s development to achieve the success which it would have enjoyed if published ‘on time’.

The book’s two parts will go some way to explaining this.  Part 1: Down on the Street describes how the four met up and formed the group.  It covers the period when they enjoyed their greatest success.   Part 2:  Real’s a dream takes the reader into the band’s unwinding and an infamous performance in Brazil. It reveals how various members left or were forced out of the group, until Axl was the last man standing.  Even if the reader knows little about Guns N’ Roses, chapter titles such as “Chicken a la LSD” or “Bought Me an Illusion”  are revealing.

Photos vividly portray the youths of 1984-5 and how the next twenty years treated them. There is a marvellous shot of Axl, complete with a moon boot (thanks to a broken foot) at the Coachella festival in April 2016, sitting on his borrowed “throne”.

Author Mick Wall has an impressive pedigree as a writer on musicians and the musical scene –  Prince, Foo Fighters, Black Sabbath and AC/DC amongst others. His research for this book has been detailed and exhaustive, if not exhausting!  The list of sources goes beyond fifteen pages. He quotes extensively from the Guns personalities and from people who actually witnessed events.   One anecdote tells of Axl’s forcible delivery by burly but tame police officers, to a venue and the waiting band!

This is not an easy book to read.  The tantrums and benders, and the damage to the group’s reputation represent the elements that made this a group and led to its breaking up.  That part of the story needed to be told.  But the style is entertaining with sufficient background stories to keep anyone interested.

I have one criticism.  The author quotes directly the group’s members and those who were close to them.  At times the vocabulary is fairly ripe.  This seems to have been the language of choice for the group, so Hall must quote them verbatim. For all that, it may be too much “language” for some readers.

One thing that is beyond argument is that Guns had, and hopefully still has, something very special. Axl, as lead singer, has a unique touch.  Interestingly, the book demonstrates that his stint with AC/DC earlier in 2016 has enhanced his reputation rather than diminished it.  It has revealed a more mature and responsible Axl.

Anyone who loves Rock and Roll, who has followed the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and INXS will really gain an insight into what makes a band like Guns.   Past and present followers of Guns should enjoy this book.  Now there is a new generation of fans.  They might know little about Guns but will appreciate their history.  Yes – it is replete with details of excess and bad manners, the late arrivals, cancelled tours, the omission of songs from their bracket, alcohol, girls and drugs. But what shines through is the fact that the sum of all members was greater than any one or more of the individuals.

It will be interesting to see whether, in middle age, those original members of Guns who have rejoined Axl can at last achieve what their undoubted abilities could allow them to do.  And as if by chance, as I prepared this review I received an email promoting a 2017 tour of Australia by Axl, Slash and Duff, their first since 1993. That twenty-four year gap says it all.

Last of the Giants: the True Story of Guns N’ Roses

(2016)

By Mick Wall

Hachette

ISBN: 978 1 4091 6722 8

AU$32.99; 463pp.

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