Music books: the most debauched tales of rock'n'roll excess

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The Independent Culture

How better to salve the pangs of remorse induced by a season of over-indulgence than by voraciously consuming the reminiscences of those whose lifestyles make the most debauched works do seem like the ascetic rituals of a monastic community? This year has thrown up a particularly rich harvest in the well-tended field that is the rock '*' roll debauchery memoir, and the pick of the crop is undoubtedly Slash (HarperCollins 18.99), the disgracefully entertaining rsum of the misdeeds of the former Guns N' Roses lead guitarist. This volume is a fitting monument to its subject's heroic commitment to living his life as a walking rock'n'roll clich.

Slash cannot so much as see a hotel television without throwing a bottle of Jack Daniels at it, and then getting his bodyguard to break into another room and swap the ruined set for a fresh one. Happily, a significant share of this book's anecdotal riches will not melt down quite so easily into the base metal of showbiz custom.

While it's widely known that the guitarist started life in Stoke, the fact that his mother was an African-American fashionista who designed the costumes for David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth ushering in a brief but intriguing period in which the Thin White Duke became the pre-teen Slash's de facto stepdad was news to me. Whether he's smuggling his pet mountain lion into a luxury hotel suite, or revealing his adolescent strategy for deciding whether a new musical discovery Cheap Trick, say, or Kiss were really worth his attention (he would always begin his exploration of their oeuvre with a live album), Slash's memoirs are an unexpectedly intoxicating cocktail of irresponsibility and dedication.

The one area into which he does not go into much detail (presumably so as not to render a lucrative Guns N' Roses reunion even less likely) is the character of his erstwhile creative foil Axl Rose. These gaps in our knowledge are more than filled by Mick Wall's W Axl Rose: The unauthorised biography (Sidgwick & Jackson 16.99). Wall is a publicist's nightmare: the former camp-follower gone feral. Having registered the rare accomplishment of being slagged off by his subject in a song (Guns N' Roses' "Get in the Ring"), this hardened rock hack plainly decided that revenge was a dish best served with a large publisher's advance.

In other contexts, Wall's brutally efficient and grimly hilarious demolition job on the beleaguered remnant of Rose's personality might come across as an act of bad faith, but even Axl's most ardent admirer would struggle to deny that he had it coming. There's something rather mesmerising about the cast of ne'er-do-wells and hangers-on with which Rose surrounds himself. My particular favourite is the "Victoria Principal-lookalike" regression-therapist who informs Axl that his PA is "a 50,000-year-old being".

Further down rock '*' roll's evolutionary food chain, we come to Nikki Sixx's The Heroin Diaries: A year in the life of a shattered rock star (Simon & Schuster 17.99). It is one of the curiosities of modern publishing that Sixx's band Mtley Cre, while they never produced a single decent record, have now been the subject of not one but three deeply diverting books (the others being Anthony Bozza's Tommyland and Neil Strauss's The Dirt). The distinguishing feature of this one is that Sixx's diligent UK-based co-writer Ian Gittins has tracked down many of his victims and co-dependents to solicit their versions of events. The consequence is an unusually balanced and affecting portrait of a man it had never previously seemed possible to view sympathetically.

For all Sixx's manifest failings as a human being, he at least has a sense of humour. This is not an accusation anyone will ever be able to level at Old Slowhand. Seasoning robotic rehab-speak with self-justificatory pomposity, Eric Clapton: The autobiography (Vintage, 20) manages to transform autobiographical gold (illegitimacy, addiction, bereavement, a ruthless campaign to steal George Harrison's wife) into unreadable dross.

By happy contrast, MaryBeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues (Cape 12.99) crams an enormous weight of thought-provoking material into a slim and elegant volume, subjecting the primitivist assumptions which underlie the myth of the Delta blues to a far-reaching interrogation, while painting tender yet unsparing pen portraits of those responsible for that myth's creation. Peter Doggett's much heftier, but still beautifully balanced, There's a Riot Going On (Canongate 25) is another book with the courage to overturn conventional wisdom. Getting in ahead of the next wave of 1968 nostalgia with a rigorous assessment of the moral failings as well as the creative achievements of the Sixties' counterculture, this exhaustively researched and thoroughly readable volume is the perfect antidote to the endless egotistical ramblings of superannuated Soixante-huitards.

Like Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds's history of post-punk, Doggett's is a close to definitive account of one of music's periodic upswings by someone who arrived just too late for the party. Paul Morley's Joy Division: Piece by Piece (Plexus 14.99), on the other hand, offers a fascinating insight into what it feels like to have a rock legend crystallise inside your own head. As the original events to which he was originally a witness are endlessly replayed through a dizzying array of different media, Morley both shapes and is shaped by this process, to the extent that unpicking the threads of this Mancunian Bayeux Tapestry requires courage as well as dexterity. To have recycled these not so raw materials into a kind of cubist portrait somehow illuminating and vivifying Joy Division's familiar death-mask from all angles at once is a remarkable achievement.