As Axl Rose purportedly makes final preparations to put out Chinese Democracy any minute now, Stephen Davis, the esteemed rock biographer behind 1985's classic Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, is releasing his long-awaited Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses via Gotham Books today. In it, Davis traces GN'R's illustrious history all the way back to Rose's origins as a disaffected Indiana kid named Bill Bailey. After the jump, in an exclusive excerpt from the book's introduction, Davis discovers the inspiration behind the band's best-loved hit.
Some think the legend of Guns N' Roses began in the nighttime Los Angeles of 1985, a distant echo of West Hollywood's neon-lit Sunset Strip. Others think it should begin ten years earlier, at the confluence of two Indiana rivers, the Wabash and the Tippecanoe, in the 1970s. But in this telling, the GN'R saga begins in gritty New York, in upper Manhattan, on a sweltering, run-down street in the late afternoon of a summer day in 1980.
Actually it could begin way below the actual city street, in the deeply recessed concrete canyon of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which is where the two young hitchhikers from Indiana decided to get out of the car. It had been a good ride until then, a straight shot from the Ohio line across I-80, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. Bill Bailey and his friend Paul, both eighteen, had left central Indiana via I-65 thirty hours earlier and were making good hitching time toward their first visit to New York City.
The Ford Econoline van that had packed them up crossed the Hudson over the majestic George Washington Bridge. They were on I-95 now. Crossing on the upper deck, looking south, they could see the Empire State Building and the twin towers of the World Trade Center shimmering in the summer haze. Bill Bailey looked up and saw they were passing a sign that said LAST EXIT IN MANHATTAN. He said, "Hey, man. Let us off, OK?"
"I can't pull over," the driver said. He was an electronics salesman on his way to Providence. They were now headed east in the deep-walled pit of the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Bill asked, "Where's the next exit?"
"Way the hell up in the East Bronx."
The hitchers looked at each other. All they had were their backpacks and maybe thirty bucks between them. "Let us off here," Bill said.
"Man, are you sure? It'll be hard to get out of here."
"Yeah, let us out." Just then, traffic slowed into the constipation typical of I-95 as it crosses New York City. The boys jumped out. Cars honked at them as they inched along the sheer walls, looking for a way out. Drivers laughed at them, told them they were fucking insane. A trucker blasted his air horn and they jumped at the sound. The walls of the roadway were at least a hundred feet high, and all they could see were the tops of the buildings up at street level.
After a while they found the service ladder and scaled the wall, a thousand horns blaring far below, emerging into immigrant New York City, circa 1980: Calcutta on the Hudson.
To Bill and his friend, it was bedlam, a Caribbean neighborhood in Washington Heights with a funky street scene of bodegas and shouting kids playing under open hydrants, crones yelling out of windows in Spanish, idlers under shop awnings, hustlers working the corners of 177th and Broadway. Bill and Paul, from Tippecanoe County in Indiana, were the only white faces in a sea of black people, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Muslim women in veils, Haitians, Hindus, Chinese shopkeepers, and lots of kids immediately picking up on two white boys who'd just climbed out of the hellish Cross Bronx like hayseed mountaineers in cowboy boots, blue jeans, and very long straight hair. The boys just stood and gaped, checking out this scene. "Rapper's Delight," bass-heavy hip-hop, blasted out of a bodega speaker. Lurid graffiti covered every flat surface. Kids were busting moves — break dancing — on the sidewalk. Bill Bailey had never seen this before. Basically, there weren't any black people in his part of Indiana, so they might as well have been in Senegal.
Now an old man limped over to them. He gave them the once-over, seeming to linger over Bill's cowboy boots. Bill was becoming uneasy now, his friend noticed, which was never a good thing, because, when agitated or upset, Bill's behavior could get a little out there. Finally, the old man spoke, or rather squawked, in a high-pitched shriek.
"DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?"
The boys, taken aback, just looked at him.
"I SAID, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?"
Bill Bailey said, "Uh, we're just trying to get to…"
"YOU'RE IN THE JUNGLE, BABY!"
Bill Bailey — the future W. Axl Rose — just stared at him in wonderment. And then the little old man wound himself up to his full fury and told these white boys what they could expect from New York City at the tail end of the seventies: years of bankruptcy, endemic crime, corruption, decadence — the gateway to the eighties and the scourge of AIDS. He told it to them straight from the gut:
"YOU'RE GONNA DIE!"
Sometimes, legends come from true stories, and this is one of them.
Welcome to the jungle.
From WATCH YOU BLEED by Stephen Davis. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2008 by Stephen Davis.