I’ve had this song in my head since I saw Peter Garrett recently. Not at the Midnight Oil concert, but at the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of view session at The Piano. It was the last talk in a series of goodies that formed WORD’s suite of Christchurch Arts Festival offerings.
Peter Garrett – musician, former Aussie federal politician, activist – appeared in conversation with the able and amiable broadcaster/journalist Finlay Macdonald, and followed the session with an audience Q & A and a book signing.
Peter’s book is a memoir of his life and career called Big Blue Sky. He found writing it both challenging and gut-wrenching:
It’s not just about what you remember, it’s how honest can you be.
He talked about the reformation of Midnight Oil and the series of concerts they are undertaking, including such stunner venues as Alice Springs and a rainforest in Cairns. Peter reckons they are sounding even better than their heyday.
His broad and expansive knowledge of Australian history as well as other topics made him a thoroughly engaging speaker. He talked politics, music, and more – and his move into federal politics made a lot of sense because he strongly believes:
The system cannot work unless it is infected by people who want it to work.
Peter went with the Labour Party instead of Green because he was “allergic to moral superiority and preachiness”.
There was plenty of music talk for the aficionados. He shared musical influences and passions – The Beatles, Neil Young, Rage against the Machine, Aborigine bands. Recalling seeing Muddy Waters play at ANU university, Peter got shivers right there on stage. So did we.
A big man in every sense, Norman Kirk was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1972 to 1974, and leader of the New Zealand Labour Party from 1965 to 1974. He died on 31 August 1974 and I would like to pay homage and possibly introduce him to another generation of Kiwis.
It’s not a very long period to be Prime Minister and be remembered with such affection and respect by so many and that in part explains the man. He was raised by parents in the Salvation Army and extremely conscious of social injustice and a tireless worker for the downtrodden.
In 1943 aged 20 he joined the Labour Party in Kaiapoi, North Canterbury. By this time the poor student had held down numerous jobs and was already married to Ruth Miller. The young couple bought a piece of land in Kaiapoi but due to a lack of funds and building materials being in short supply post-war, Norm built the bricks and then he built the house. All this time he was working at the Firestone factory in Papanui and cycling to Kaiapoi, doing a stint on the house and home again.
All the while he was pursuing a political career and again by sheer hard work he led a Labour team to victory in the Kaiapoi local body elections and became the youngest Mayor in New Zealand at the age of 30, also being leader of the first Labour Council in Kaiapoi.
In 1954 Norm Kirk stood for Labour in the Hurunui electorate, increasing Labour’s numbers but failed to win the seat. In November 1957 after a physically energetic (door knocking) campaign he won the seat of Lyttelton for Labour, becoming a Member of Parliament in opposition. He held this seat until 1969 when he transferred to the electorate of Sydenham.
It wasn’t until January 1958 that he resigned as Mayor of Kaiapoi and the family (Norm and Ruth had 3 sons and 2 daughters) moved to Christchurch. The work involved in being Mayor of a town outside Christchurch and the sitting MP of another electorate altogether must have been such hard work, especially for such a man as large as he had become. Partly because of his bulk and a childhood illness his health was never really good but still he worked hard for his beliefs.
Between 1960 and 1965 Big Norm progressed in the Labour Party, and with the backing of several large trade unions he was elected Vice President in 1963 and by December 1965 he was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. None of this without hard work and proving himself the right man for the job and a brilliant debater using his bulk and stentorian voice to his advantage.
On 25th November 1972, Labour won the election with a 23 seat majority. The campaign was Norm’s campaign. The conservative newspaper The Dominion bestowed its ‘Man of the Year’ prize on him for ‘outstanding personal potential for leadership’. Quite a coup!
Norman Kirk took a stand: The South African team wanting to tour New Zealand in April 1973 were not racially integrated and the Kirk government refused visas. Pressure was applied to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, this failed so a frigate was sent to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’. This was an activist government the like of which had not been seen in New Zealand for 40 years.
Ever the hard worker, Kirk pushed himself during the two years of his prime ministership, travelling and attending conferences desperate to achieve what his government had promised, all despite suffering with problematic varicose veins, breathing difficulties, blood clots, weight issues and stress. By 1974 the world economy was slowing and oil prices rising and Kirk opposed abortion and homosexual law reform both of which were gaining more recognition with the public. His government’s popularity was waning, but he still had a big personal loyal following. His health deteriorated further and he was finally persuaded to go to hospital and died of congestive cardiac failure and thromboembolic pulmonary heart disease on Saturday 31 August 1974 aged 51.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief nationally. He had gone before he could truly achieve what we all believed he was capable of. I had voted with proper consideration for the first time during the election of 1972 and felt we had lost a great leader, one not likely to be seen for a long while. Labour went on to lose the 1975 election to Robert Muldoon’s National government.
Norman Kirk summed up his and the Labour government’s political philosophy as ‘a social programme which will promote the housing of our people, protect their health, and ensure full employment and equal opportunity for all’. What a man and what ideals.
This biography caught my eye – the authorised story of Nina Simone.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is inspired by a documentary. Music journalist Alan Light (The Holy or Unbroken : Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of Hallelujah, and Lets Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain) draws on Nina’s diaries, rare interviews and her daughter’s memories to tell the story of the ‘real’ Miss Simone’ – a classically trained pianist, civil rights activist and one of the greatest artists of the last century. Did you know she rang David Bowie often? His cover of Wild is The Wind is one of my favourites.
Next up, some Sci-fi. The Switch is Justina Robson’s twelfth book. She’s won two Arthur C. Clarke awards and been nominated for many others. GoodReads is calling this one ‘ground breaking.’
Harmony is a ‘perfect’ society. To maintain this illusion, the defective are ‘dealt with’ (eradicated). Nico and Twostar are two tough cookies from the slums. They are survivors. Can they overcome Nico being sentenced to death for murder, or the loss of his mind?
The River Sings follows the fortunes of Eglantine, from mysterious beginnings in London to her father’s transportation to the Australian colonies for pick-pocketing. Eglantine must live by her wits and follow his footsteps if she is to survive.
In Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told, by Tom Phelan, journalist Patrick Bracken returns to the village of his childhood in Gohen, Ireland. He’s come back to investigate two deaths that occurred when he was a child. Patrick knows the deaths weren’t accidental, the legal ruling, because he and his best friend were witnesses…
There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.
As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.
One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:
he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.
Andrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.
An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being
deeply strange and complicated.
He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!
Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.
When Nirvana catapulted drummer Dave Grohl to fame, his Mum, Virginia, was surprised to be the mother of a Rock Star. Then when Dave reinvented himself as frontman of the Foo Fighters, Virginia quit teaching and began to travel the road. She didn’t often meet other mothers at gigs, but always wanted to talk to them about how music shaped their lives.
Like herself, many of these moms raised their kids solo, holding down several jobs to keep food on the table. While some mothers were okay with their kids quitting school to commit to music, others weren’t – Verna Griffin, Dr Dre’s Mom, worried that her son would be absorbed into the gang scene. (Dr Dre is 51 now!)
Virginia grew up in the Midwest, but Dave and his sister Lisa grew up in Washington, D.C. – a much more sophisticated environment. As a young mother she shared her music with her children (Dave remembers learning to harmonize along with Carly Simon on the car radio) and as he got older, Dave was sharing hard rock and metal with Virgina.
With a foreword from Dave himself, From Cradle to Stage is a tribute to the mothers who encouraged their kids to be creative and follow that star.
Sprinkled with personal ‘vignettes’ from Viriginia, Dave, Nirvana and the Foos, From the Cradle to the Stage chronicles the lives of eighteen musicians – from the army background of Michael Stipe , the early beginnings of The Beastie Boys, to the tragic end to the lives of Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain.
I really like her style. A former English teacher, Virginia writes a relaxed, entertaining, and at times moving story. It’s not only about people’s lives and roots, but contains slices of American history as well. It’s so interesting to read of each artists’ first sparks to creativity. For Dr Dre, it was GrandMaster Flash. Yeah.
This book is for everyone. The musicians cover a range of ages and even your Mum/Mom would enjoy it (Virginia even blanks out the F-words).
The mother of the ‘nicest guy in rock’ knows her stuff – using some pretty sophisticated terms (e.g. Minority Rap, Thug Rap in Dr Dre’s chapter – not Gangster Rap) but the last word goes to Dave:
There is no love like a mother’s love. It is life’s greatest song. We are all indebted to the women who gave us life. For without them, there would be no music.
On 2 May 1917, Ada Wells was the first woman elected to the Christchurch City Council.
I stand for better housing, for municipal markets, for proper working conditions for all employees, for rest-rooms and play gardens for mothers and children, I shall work for municipal activities in the direction of the uplifting of the people. We should have municipal educational lectures, music, encouragement of drama. We should have women inspectors. It must not be permitted that young boys shall sell newspapers on our streets until late hours… Municipality means the place which gives us freedom and shelter.
Reported on in the Maoriland Worker, 25 April 1917, the successful election of Ada Wells to the Christchurch City Council was “looked upon as certain” due to speeches like that above, her experience and her long standing commitment to improving the condition for women and children. She was 54 when she was campaigning to be elected to the Council for the St Albans Ward on a Labour ticket. Labour had only officially formed in 1916 in New Zealand, and they had the polarising campaign of being against compulsory military service during the First World War.
Her outspoken opinions made her a controversial figure to some, and a trailblazer to others. Ada was in favour of economic independence for married women, free kindergartens, universal access to secondary education, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869. Her involvement with the Peace movement (anti-militarism and anti-conscription) were causes she fought for throughout her life.
Ada Wells had been instrumentally involved in the Women’s Rights campaigns with Kate Sheppard in the 1880s, and she knew that winning the vote for women in 1893 was only a step in gaining equality for women.
She became involved with many societies and organisations that aligned with her opinions. She established the Canterbury Women’s Institute with Professor Alexander Bickerton in 1892, and held the position of President for many years and was a founding member of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in 1896, also serving as their first secretary for many years.
By 1900 there were cracks in the ranks of the National Council of Women due to some members — including Ada — holding pacifist views. The National Council of Women supported New Zealand’s involvement in the South African War (1899-1902). The National Council of Women of New Zealand stopped operating in 1906, but the organisation was revived in 1918 partly due to what was perceived as the moral decline of the country’s youth.
Ada was also heavily involved with the Children’s Aid Society, Peace Society, and was on the Board of Governors of the Christchurch Technical Council as a representative of the Council.
In 1899 she became the second woman elected to the Ashburton and North Canterbury Charitable Aid Board (a precursor of social welfare). She wasn’t shy about stating her opinion on the causes that she was passionate about. Ada often received antagonism from male members of the board when she stated how she thought the aid should be administered. She believed that children should be looked after in cottage homes, rather than boarded out in large orphanages. While on the Charitable Aid Board, she helped instigate an investigation into the treatment of the children at the Waltham Orphanage that the Board itself had responsibility for, even though “the progressive ideas of the lady members had not always been concurred in by the members of the Board”.
Running for Council was the logical next step in a tireless fight for women’s and children’s rights and actioning change at a higher level. Standing with Labour aligned with her anti-militarism ideals. The final outcome for the 1917 Christchurch City Council election was 9 Citizens’ Association nominees, 5 Labour nominees and 2 Independent nominees. Successfully being elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1917 threw the majority of the council into a tail spin on two points, that there was now a female Councillor, and she was with Labour!
Many heated discussions were had in the Council Chamber meetings and the newspapers of the day reported on Ada Wells speaking her mind. The discussions were varied and often reflected her anti-militarism ideals. There was talk on where war trophies that were presented to the city should be located. Ada stated it was a pity that the war spirit should be fostered at all, and she often often argued for peace rather than continuing the war. She visited the imprisoned conscientious objectors during her time as a councillor, once with her young granddaughter in tow who later recalled him as a nice man.
When the Council declined to support the Canterbury Society of Arts, she said that they might well consider themselves a huckstering, pettifogging people and pleaded in favour of the arts.
While she did stand again in the next election in 1919 her campaign was unsuccessful.
More about Ada
Born Ada Pike on 29 April 1863 in Oxfordshire, England, her family immigrated to Christchurch in 1873. She attended Avonside School and then Canterbury College in 1881 after being awarded the university junior scholarship. She then worked as an assistant teacher at the Christchurch Girls High School.
Ada was 20 when she married the Cathedral Organist Harry Wells (11 years her senior) on 7 January 1884. In 1885 the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter Christabel, and completed their family in quick succession by 1889 with the addition of 2 more daughters (Alma and Alice) and a son (John Stanley). The marriage was not a happy one and Ada often provided the only source of income for the family through teaching, or working as a healer through massage therapy which she learnt from her mother Maria Pike.
She juggled raising and supporting her family while working for the equality of women and this demonstrated her admirably strong character. When she was campaigning to become a councillor, she was already a grandmother of five.
Harry Wells died in 1918. Ada Wells died in Christchurch on 22 March 1933. In her obituary it was said of her that:
A cause might be despised, obscure, rejected, she not only helped it all the same, she helped it all the more, and in the dark and stormy days of unfounded truth she was always to the front. Press, Volume LXIX, Issue 20812, 23 March 1933, Papers Past
In 1933 the Ada Wells Memorial prize was established for undergraduates, or graduates of up to three years, and awarded for an essay on the exposition of some subject chosen from literature having reference to social ideals. This prize is still awarded annually.
For a lively fictionalised account of Ada Wells, her eccentric unmarried daughter Bim, and Kate Sheppard I can certainly recommend Farewell Speech by Rachel McAlpine, who is a great-granddaughter of Ada Wells. Based on family stories and talking to those who knew the women, three very strong, different personalities come clearly through.
Women In The Council Chamber: Ada Wells This brief political biography originally featured in an Our City O-Tautahi exhibition from 19 – 30 September 2006, featuring Christchurch’s own “Women in the Council Chamber”, initiated and co-ordinated by Cr Anna Crighton.
When I heard that British historian A.N. Wilson was going to be talking at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season this month I oohed and aaahed, and inwardly danced the conga. Nothing — short of A.N. Wilson himself requesting me to leave this event for being far too bright-eyed, enthusiastic, and downright scary — could make me miss this evening.
A.N. Wilson is one of the historians who first sparked my interest in biography and history. His beautiful biography of C.S. Lewis was written with an honesty and empathy that left me with a truer sense of the man. His depiction of a troubled and less than perfect individual was contrary to many previous accounts of Lewis, which portrayed the beloved creator of Narnia as an almost patron saint, living by the perfect standards Christian historians envisaged for him.
Wilson cut to the chase but with a sympathy and affection for his subject. He touchingly described the demands made on Lewis by Mrs Moore, and the loneliness that dogged him through events such as the death of his mother, and his brothers struggles with alcoholism. Wilson’s ‘humanisation’ of Lewis encouraged me to investigate more and read some other sadly under-read works by Lewis (such as the very moving A Grief Observed), a sure mark of a very great biographer.
The astonishingly prolific A.N. Wilson has written many other biographies including a landmark biography on Leo Tolstoy, a fascinating study of Queen Victoria (which has recently been adapted for television), and Hitler: A short Biography. Wilson unfailingly succeeds in making his subjects come to life with a poignancy and finesse that make him a joy to read.
While Wilson has had his struggles with Christianity over the years (rather like C.S. Lewis himself), it hasn’t stopped him from also writing moving and valuable accounts of the lives of Jesus and St Paul. There is a richness and complexity to his writing that informs the reader, but also makes them question things. Theology is one of the most complex subjects for an author to tackle, and being able to follow Wilson’s own complicated spiritual journey through his work makes for fascinating, relatable reading.
In addition, he is the author of such popular novels as Dante in Love and Winnie and Wolf. One of Wilson’s most praised novels My Name is Legion relates what happens when a newspaper begins a smear campaign on an Anglican missionary, seeking to overthrow a corrupt African regime. Wilson takes a hilarious but brutal look at the morals of modern day Britain – its people, politics, and press, and does so with an elegance and subtlety that make his work compulsive reading.
It seems that Wilson is able to adapt to any format and genre having also written a children’s story, presented several television series including The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood (one of Wilson’s own heroes), and contributed to publications such as ‘The Times Literary Supplement’ and ‘The New Statesman’.
The ultimate ‘man of letters’, Wilson is a consistently compelling writer with an awe-inspiring literary oeuvre. His session at WORD Christchurch Autumn Festival promises to be a fascinating evening. Wilson will be discussing his impressive career with arts critic Christopher Moore, and his most recent works Resolution: a novel of the boy who sailed with Captain Cook and a biography on Queen Elizabeth II.
I’ll see you there on May 15th (and yes, I am counting down the days…)
Life dealt me the recessive gene MC1R (only achievable through both sides of the family) and I arrived with a ‘reddish’ hue to my hair – together with the obligatory pale skin and, a few years later, a mass of freckles. I managed to avoid the ‘Tudor’ blue eyes so I actually have discernible eyebrows. Phew…
When I found this book on the shelf recently it screamed ‘Read Me, Read Me’. So I did.
What a revelation! Little did I know about my heritage and what different cultures felt about my red/auburn/ginger ancestors and modern-day counterparts.
Stereotypes of redheaded women range from the fun-loving scatterbrain to the fiery-tempered vixen or the penitent prostitute. Red-haired men are often associated with either the savage barbarian or the redheaded clown.
I’ve never been a great fan of ‘stereotyping’ and especially not of this negative variety. My only negativity was related to the pitfalls endured on summer holidays where I always ended up swimming in more clothes than I normally wore, in addition to ‘slip, slap & slopping’ in a frenzy and still missing bits that needed TLC in the evening by use of cotton wool balls and calamine lotion. All this angst whilst my so-called friends gambolled and frolicked in the surf like slippery little seals and acquired golden overtones by the minute!
Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables was one of my childhood heroines (for obvious reasons) and when she finally walloped Gilbert Blythe for pulling her pigtail and teasing her mercilessly – OK so she might have been fiery but he certainly had it coming!!
Maureen O’Hara was famous for her fiery nature and red hair in the films but she always had to endure John Wayne – so who wouldn’t want to vent their spleen! Can you see where I am going with this – provocation. Tease a blonde, brunette and any other hair colour under the sun and you would get the same result.
Dwelling in the past isn’t good for you so I quickly read on and sure enough, there were also positives such as redheads being considered the darlings of the Renaissance period. Acclaimed artists such as Degas, Titian and Rossetti couldn’t do without their favourite ‘red-haired’ muses – the first one of note and possibly the first supermodel of her time being Elizabeth Siddal.
I was unaware that many differing cultures to mine (Northern Hemisphere Celt) such as Russian, Italian, Chinese and even some Pacific Islanders also have the recessive gene that sits on Chromosone 16.
But true amazement came in the form of googling – apparently there is Calendar of Redhead Events, Ginger Pride Rallies all over the world and Melbourne has been voted as Host City for the 2017 Ginger Pride Rally which is being held on 29 April – the event raising funds and awareness for, both children’s anti-bullying and skin cancer non-for-profits.
I have been a fan of Star Wars for as long as I can remember and a large part of that reason was Princess Leia. Growing up in the 70s and 80s she was, along with Charlies’ Angels, the kind of cute but fearless hero that I longed to be like.
Later in life I came to appreciate Carrie Fisher for her other roles in films like When Harry met Sally, and more recently her brilliantly comic turn as the mother-in-law from Hell in sitcom Catastrophe, but most especially for her writing.
Having been equal parts amused and horrified by her earlier memoir Wishful Drinking*, late last year I placed a hold on her most recent effort, The Princess Diarist. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that by the time the book became available that she would be dead. How could I have? And even worse, that her family would suffer a double tragedy when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, would follow just a couple of days later. I wept unapologetically and over the Christmas period I watched song and dance numbers from Singin’ in the rain on YouTube and moped.
So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I finally picked up The Princess Diarist and, after steeling myself and making sure a box of tissues was handy, started to read it.
But I barely needed them because, and this is the magic of writing and the author’s voice, Carrie Fisher was alive again on every page. Dripping with acerbic, self-deprecating wit and wordplay, The Princess Diarist was this amazingly comforting fan experience for me.
In case you didn’t know, the book is based on Fisher’s diaries from 1976 during the making of the first Star Wars film. The book is a mix of explanatory set-up of how she came to even been in the movie (or showbiz for that matter) and her observations on that time from a distance of some 40 years, as well as some really fascinating musings on the nature of fame, or at least her very specific version of it. And throughout runs her brutally honest humour and no BS attitude. The main revelation of the book is her on set affair, at the age of nineteen, with her married-with-kids co-star Harrison Ford. She dedicates a whole chapter to it which is, rather delightfully, titled “Carrison”.
You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.
(Harrison Ford “breaking character” by saying something heartfelt to Fisher, as they parted company)
The book also includes a section of verbatim entries from the aforementioned diary. In some ways this was my least favourite part, only because it’s written by a rather tortured teenager about her less than satisfying love life and I have unfond memories of writing similarly tortured diary entries when I was the same age. I can immediately understand why it took her 40 years to publish any of it (There is poetry. About Harrison Ford being distant. It’s wonderful/terrible).
Having said that, Fisher’s diaries are much better written than those of the average teenager. She admits to having been rather precocious and the sly humour and clever use of language would read as being written but someone much older… if not for the This Is So Very Important And Deep style of diarying that teenagers of a certain sort are prone to.
So skim through that section, casting grains of salt as you go, would be my advice. But the rest of it is great – an absolute must-read for Princess Leia fans, or just fans of Fisher’s signature snappy rejoinders.
Having got through pretty much the whole book with nary more than a slight moistening of eye, I admit to some small amount of tearfulness upon reading the acknowledgments, primarily due to this passage –
For my mother – for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die. I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.
With sales of over 100 million records, God knows how many downloads and sold out arena tours from the late 1980s until today, Guns N’ Roses are long overdue their definitive biography. Mick Wall, a former writer for Kerrang, Sounds and Melody Maker has finally written one – The Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses.
Mick Wall became close to the band during their ascent, gaining access to their dark inner world until he angered the band’s singer, Axl Rose. This earned Wall a name check and a vicious put down in the Use Your Illusion II track, Get in the Ring. Despite this, Mick Wall takes a very even-handed and sympathetic look at the band and their enigmatic lead singer. The focus is on the personalities and music, as much as the eye-watering tales of rock and roll excess, violence and insanity – of which there are many.
Wall describes the dizzying rise of the band from the L.A. glam metal scene with the accuracy of someone who was actually there, charting their beginnings in tiny, sleazy clubs while living in poverty and squalor. Their rapid ascent is described by industry insiders who helped them, with former managers telling detailed and brutally honest stories of brilliant live shows and dreadful behaviour.
The band’s many controversies are dealt with – from the death of two fans at an English show, to the heavily criticised lyrics to the song One In a Million. Wall has the clarity and insight gained by 25 years’ worth of hindsight. While there are no new interviews with any of the band members, Wall has drawn from a wealth of interviews from the era and new interviews with many who were there at the time. The splintering of the original line up is detailed in all its depressing, drug-soaked inevitability, and he lists the factors and pressures that broke the band at the peak of their fame.
While all members of Guns N’ Roses have their story told in full, including several chapters on the short-lived but popular supergroup Velvet Revolver, Wall does focus on the temperamental figure that is Axl Rose. We hear his story from his abusive childhood, his unwavering determination to make Guns N’ Roses the biggest band in the world, and his perfectionism and desire for control that ultimately broke the original line up. The subsequent revolving cast of musicians that make up Guns N’ Roses are covered with an in-depth and surprisingly enthusiastic review of the much maligned Chinese Democracy album. In fact his obvious fondness for the album made me give it another go and he is right. It is a better album than I remember it.
Wall makes the case that Guns N’ Roses were the last great band of the “Rock Era” – a time when a rock and roll band could be a truly subversive cultural force while reaching a huge audience. It’s a hard theory to argue with when you start trying to list all subsequent contenders. Cobain? Too depressing. Eddie Vedder? Too populist. Jack White? Too niche and he arrived a little too late. Eminem? Perhaps, but do genre definitions and his arrival as popular music stopped being the dominant cultural force disqualify him?
What is impossible to argue with is the story of Guns N’ Roses as one of rock’s most absorbing and fascinating tales. Drugs, sex, violence, controversy and great music are all there in abundance and Wall’s insider knowledge and palpable love for the both the band and the era make Last Of The Giants a cracking good read for anyone who misses the glory days of rock and roll.