Rock from Axl to Zep
Biographer and BU alum Stephen Davis has seen — and told — it all
Stephen Davis can no longer ignore the squawks rending the sky abovehis head. He steps off his back deck and sets his container of Frenchfries on the woodpile — an offering.
“I have this family of crows that hangs out here, five of them,” hesays. “When they start up like this, I usually give them some bread orsomething. We used to have big flocks, but then they got West Nile andthe crow basically disappeared from Massachusetts. So you gotta feedthe crows.”
Considering that Davis (CAS’70) is perhaps America’s best-known rockbiographer, the scene drips with symbolism: the insistent screams offive black-as-night creatures, the thinning out of their ilk, andDavis’ affectionate sustenance. For more than 40 years, Davis has beenchronicling rock ’n’ roll, first as an editor at the Boston Phoenix, then at Rolling Stone, and now as a biographer of the biggest names in rock, from Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith, often tagging along with his subjects in their private planes, limos, tour buses, and hotel rooms. Davis’ latest book, Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses (Gotham), narrates the rise and fall of one of hard rock’s greats and effectively documents the end of an era in rock music.
Davis is home between legs of a book tour promoting the GN’R book, which has spent several weeks on the New York Timesbest-seller list. He’s dressed in rumpled khakis and a green fleecepullover and is fighting a cold, his white hair slightly mussed. Hehardly looks the part of rocker aficionado. His 1809 home, nestled nearthe Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass., is modest; the only clueto his colorful career is the silver Jaguar parked in the driveway.
Davis knows that the world he’s made a career of illuminating isslipping into the mists of time, but he doesn’t mourn its passing. “Ithink of rock as an ‘ism,’ like modernism or romanticism,” he says.“These artistic movements shouldn’t go on forever. There should be termlimits. Modernism lasted about 40 years. And hard rock lasted from1965, with the Stones and the Yardbirds, and pretty much ended with Guns N’ Roses in 1990.”
Davis’ rock writing career exploded with the seminal Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga(William Morrow & Co., 1985), required reading for any hard rockand metal fan. The bio offered readers one of the firstbehind-the-scenes accounts of a rock band, from debauchery at 30,000feet to hotel-room boredom. Davis has since penned biographies,authorized and unauthorized, of the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, Bob Marley, Levon Helm, and Jim Morrison.
“In 1968, I was a junior at BU, and the Doors came to town and playedat a now-demolished theater on Mass. Ave., called the Back BayTheater,” Davis says. “Changed my life. The Lizard King came stumblingout on stage, put on the best show I’d seen anywhere, just a killerrock show. He was just like a god, leather pants, the whole bit. Isaid, ‘This is the energy I want to be around every day for the rest ofmy life.’”
In 1975, a publicist friend offered Davis, by that time an editor at Rolling Stone,an invitation to join the band for two weeks on the road aboard theStarship, Led Zeppelin’s private tour plane. The idea was to introducethe British metal group, which had developed a bad reputation at home,to American audiences. Davis secured a story assignment from Atlantic Monthly magazine, and he and good pal and photographer Peter Simon(COM’70) set off. What they came back with became the stuff of legend.“This was a book that outed members of Led Zeppelin as heroin addicts,and as people that brutalized other people,” Davis says.
While the younger staffers at the Atlantic loved the piece,he says, senior editors sniffed, and the story was killed. It wasn’tuntil 10 years later, 5 years after Led Zeppelin disbanded followingthe death of drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham, that Davis, looking for abook project, blew the dust off his tour notes. “For a while after Hammer of the Gods came out, the band said, ‘Who is this Stephen Davis? We never knew him.’ But fortunately, I’ve got these pictures.”
Davis scrolls through a series of Simon’s unpublished photographs onhis laptop showing the young rock reporter chatting up lead singerRobert Plant in his L.A. hotel room, in the elevator, on the balcony,with the dusty city spread out below.
Davis traces his writing career back to his days on staff at the BU News, a predecessor of the Daily Free Press,where he became managing editor. He recalls the excitement andturbulence of life on campus in the late ’60s. In 1968, for example, hegot a call that an Army deserter was hiding in the basement of MarshChapel.
“Within 24 hours, they had 10,000 students surrounding Marsh Chapel toprevent the FBI from snatching him,” Davis says. “They put up a signthat said, ‘Sanctuary.’ Howard Zinn was up there haranguing people. Murray Levin,all these famous professors, came over from Harvard. All the famous warprotestors came up from Yale. It was so exciting. We ran nothing elsefor two weeks. It was the epicenter for two weeks of the anti–VietnamWar movement.”
The Boston music scene was bubbling just as hard and hot, he recalls.“All the English bands played in Boston first. The London label peoplesaid Boston is where all the college kids are and where all the musiccritics are, and that stayed true for about 10 years.”
Perhaps the most famous band associated with BU is Aerosmith; Davislater toured with the group for two years in the ’90s. “Aerosmithstarted playing out in front of the George Sherman Union at lunchtimefor free. They were living on Comm. Ave., but had a friend who was anRA on West Campus and gave them meal tickets. And over the course oftwo years, one or two members of Aerosmith could be seen at any giventime in the West Campus cafeteria.”
Guns N’ Roses
When GN’R was burning up the metal scene in the mid-to-late’80s, Davissays, he was more focused on reggae. But when he started looking moreclosely at the band a few years ago, he thought their story had all theclassic ingredients: ambition, excess, addiction, discord, andimplosion.
“They went from a 5-piece classic American guitar band from the streetsof L.A. into this bloated show band with 12 to 14 people on stage,keyboards, horn sections, 3 girl singers, dancers in bustiers andMadonna clothes. It was like a Las Vegas act.”
But their impact on music at the time was undeniable, he says. Hedecided to tell the GN’R tale unauthorized and flew out to L.A.,tracking down former bodyguards, limo drivers, ex-girlfriends. “Thebest way to write an unauthorized biography is to go to the littlepeople who remember what happened,” he says, “as opposed to thebombed-out rock stars. In fact, it’s better that way. For these people,it’s usually the high point of their lives, so they remember everydetail.”
Technically, Guns N’ Roses still exists, although famously reclusiveand volatile frontman Axl Rose is the sole remaining member. And whilethe sun may have set on hard rock, Rose still garners plenty ofinterest. The long-awaited GN’R album Chinese Democracy— 14 years in the making at a cost of $13 million — is slated for releaseon November 23, the firmest of many dates announced over the years.(Dr. Pepper has promised a soda to everyone in America if Chinese Democracy appears in stores in 2008.)
“Every time Axl farts, it’s national news,” Davis says. “I don’t getit. For a lot of people, he’s an icon of American cussedness, justsheer stubbornness. He doesn’t take any bull**** off anybody, is firstto admit he has mental status issues, is crazy as a hoot owl. But thatmusic, especially Appetite for Destruction and GN’R Lies, touched millions. It was the last of the hard rock albums. GN’R was their Led Zeppelin.”
Much has changed in the 20 years since Appetite wasreleased, Davis says. The five-piece hard rock band, with dualattacking guitars and a rebel frontman, is over. Grunge saw to that.Then came the Internet and the breaking up of albums into downloadablecomputer files. Even concerts have become passive — and expensive —forms of entertainment, with popcorn and concessions, rather than acommunion, rooted in rebellion, between artist and audience.
Davis is pleased, however, to see vinyl making a comeback and proudlyclaims he never got rid of his turntable. He rushes into his house andbrings out a stack of Rolling Stones 45s he just bought on the streetin Brooklyn, sorting through them like a kid with rare baseball cards.Unlike the flat sound of a compact disc, he says, vinyl allows you tohear the room, the ambient noise. “It sounds like music.”
On writing about rock
On his book tours, Davis is often asked for writing advice. Find yourniche, he says: “The old joke is if you write a successful book, theonly way to continue to be successful is to write the same book everytime.”
Writing about rock bands, he says, is basically a retelling of thequest saga, one of the oldest forms of literature. “It’s Jason and theArgonauts setting out after the Golden Fleece or Achilles and Agamemnongoing up to Troy for booty and to kick some ass. The stories haven’tchanged, just the names. It’s five guys from nowhere named Axl, Izzy,Slash, Duff, and Stephen, setting out from Lafayette, Ind., and findingthe pot of gold at end of the rainbow. In some cases, they keep the potof gold. In other cases they lose it, so the end is a little different,but the arc of the story always seems to be the same.”
But if rock is fading as an art form, does that mean rock biography will soon follow?
“No, I’m planning a project on the Jonas Brothers,” Davis says with a wry smile. "I’m kidding. I’m very interested in writing about women now. There’s Carly Simon. There’s Stevie Nicks. I hear Debbie Harry wants to do a book and that they’re looking for a writer. The Blondie story would be a good one. We’ll see."
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments