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Rock from Axl to Zep

Reprising music on campus: Biographer and BU alum Stephen Davis has told it all

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Rock writer Stephen Davis (CAS’70) (above) at his home in Milton, Mass. Photo by Melody Ko. (Below) Stephen Davis (CAS’70) (left) interviewing Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, in Los Angeles in 1975. Photo by Peter Simon (COM’70), courtesy of petersimon.com

Celebrating the belief that it is musicians, as much as ballplayers, who really know the score, our musical coverage over the past school year ranged across multiple octaves of style, personality, and performance. This week, we’re reprising a handful of those offerings: literary encores.

Stephen Davis can no longer ignore the squawks rending the sky above his head. He steps off his back deck and sets his container of French fries on the woodpile — an offering.

“I have this family of crows that hangs out here, five of them,” he says. “When they start up like this, I usually give them some bread or something. We used to have big flocks, but then they got West Nile and the crow basically disappeared from Massachusetts. So you gotta feed the crows.”

Considering that Davis (CAS’70) is perhaps America’s best-known rock biographer, the scene drips with symbolism: the insistent screams of five black-as-night creatures, the thinning out of their ilk, and Davis’ affectionate sustenance. For more than 40 years, Davis has been chronicling 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 Times best-seller list. He’s dressed in rumpled khakis and a green fleece pullover and is fighting a cold, his white hair slightly mussed. He hardly looks the part of rocker aficionado. His 1809 home, nestled near the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass., is modest; the only clue to his colorful career is the silver Jaguar parked in the driveway.

Davis knows that the world he’s made a career of illuminating is slipping into the mists of time, but he doesn’t mourn its passing. “I think of rock as an ‘ism,’ like modernism or romanticism,” he says. “These artistic movements shouldn’t go on forever. There should be term limits. Modernism lasted about 40 years. And hard rock lasted from 1965, 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 rock and metal fan. The bio offered readers one of the first behind-the-scenes accounts of a rock band, from debauchery at 30,000 feet 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 played at a now-demolished theater on Mass. Ave., called the Back Bay Theater,” Davis says. “Changed my life. The Lizard King came stumbling out on stage, put on the best show I’d seen anywhere, just a killer rock show. He was just like a god, leather pants, the whole bit. I said, ‘This is the energy I want to be around every day for the rest of my 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 the Starship, Led Zeppelin’s private tour plane. The idea was to introduce the 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’t until 10 years later, 5 years after Led Zeppelin disbanded following the death of drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham, that Davis, looking for a book 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 on his laptop showing the young rock reporter chatting up lead singer Robert Plant in his L.A. hotel room, in the elevator, on the balcony, with the dusty city spread out below.

BU daze
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 and turbulence of life on campus in the late ’60s. In 1968, for example, he got a call that an Army deserter was hiding in the basement of Marsh Chapel.

“Within 24 hours, they had 10,000 students surrounding Marsh Chapel to prevent the FBI from snatching him,” Davis says. “They put up a sign that said, ‘Sanctuary.’ Howard Zinn was up there haranguing people. Murray Levin, all these famous professors, came over from Harvard. All the famous war protestors came up from Yale. It was so exciting. We ran nothing else for two weeks. It was the epicenter for two weeks of the anti–Vietnam War 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 people said Boston is where all the college kids are and where all the music critics are, and that stayed true for about 10 years.”

Perhaps the most famous band associated with BU is Aerosmith; Davis later toured with the group for two years in the ’90s. “Aerosmith started playing out in front of the George Sherman Union at lunchtime for free. They were living on Comm. Ave., but had a friend who was an RA on West Campus and gave them meal tickets. And over the course of two years, one or two members of Aerosmith could be seen at any given time in the West Campus cafeteria.”

Guns N’ Roses

When GN’R was burning up the metal scene in the mid-to-late’80s, Davis says, he was more focused on reggae. But when he started looking more closely at the band a few years ago, he thought their story had all the classic ingredients: ambition, excess, addiction, discord, and implosion.

“They went from a 5-piece classic American guitar band from the streets of L.A. into this bloated show band with 12 to 14 people on stage, keyboards, horn sections, 3 girl singers, dancers in bustiers and Madonna clothes. It was like a Las Vegas act.”

But their impact on music at the time was undeniable, he says. He decided to tell the GN’R tale unauthorized and flew out to L.A., tracking down former bodyguards, limo drivers, ex-girlfriends. “The best way to write an unauthorized biography is to go to the little people who remember what happened,” he says, “as opposed to the bombed-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 every detail.”

Technically, Guns N’ Roses still exists, although famously reclusive and volatile frontman Axl Rose is the sole remaining member. And while the sun may have set on hard rock, Rose still garners plenty of interest. The long-awaited GN’R album Chinese Democracy, slated for release on November 23, 2008, the firmest of many dates announced over the years, was 14 years in the making at a cost of $13 million. (Dr. Pepper promised a soda to everyone in America if Chinese Democracy appeared in stores in 2008.)

“Every time Axl farts, it’s national news,” Davis says. “I don’t get it. For a lot of people, he’s an icon of American cussedness, just sheer stubbornness. He doesn’t take any bull**** off anybody, is first to admit he has mental status issues, is crazy as a hoot owl. But that music, 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 was released, Davis says. The five-piece hard rock band, with dual attacking guitars and a rebel frontman, is over. Grunge saw to that. Then came the Internet and the breaking up of albums into downloadable computer files. Even concerts have become passive — and expensive — forms of entertainment, with popcorn and concessions, rather than a communion, rooted in rebellion, between artist and audience.

Davis is pleased, however, to see vinyl making a comeback and proudly claims he never got rid of his turntable. He rushes into his house and brings out a stack of Rolling Stones 45s he just bought on the street in Brooklyn, sorting through them like a kid with rare baseball cards. Unlike the flat sound of a compact disc, he says, vinyl allows you to hear 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 your niche, he says: “The old joke is if you write a successful book, the only way to continue to be successful is to write the same book every time.”

Writing about rock bands, he says, is basically a retelling of the quest saga, one of the oldest forms of literature. “It’s Jason and the Argonauts setting out after the Golden Fleece or Achilles and Agamemnon going up to Troy for booty and to kick some ass. The stories haven’t changed, just the names. It’s five guys from nowhere named Axl, Izzy, Slash, Duff, and Stephen, setting out from Lafayette, Ind., and finding the pot of gold at end of the rainbow. In some cases, they keep the pot of 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 cdanilof@bu.edu.

This story originally ran on October 21, 2008.

1 Comments

One Comment on Rock from Axl to Zep

  • Anonymous on 06.16.2009 at 8:30 pm

    The problem with Watch You Bleed is that it is shocking how poorly researched it is. The Yahoo reviews of the book by average readers have assembled a long list of errors in the most basic information. These could have been fixed with a basic google search had the writer taken the trouble.

    Plus of course there is Davis’ completely tilted anti-Axl Rose approach which compromises his objectivity.

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