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Review: Sebastian Bach’s memoir 18 and Life on Skid Row exposes the garish id of eighties metal

18 and Life on Skid Row
Sebastian Bach
Harper Collins Canada

I wanted to start this review with a joke. Something about how it was best read aloud in the gutter-opera voice of Sebastian Bach, singer for the famous incarnation of the heavy-metal band Skid Row, and author of the memoir in question.

Bach, though, takes a different tack in opening his book, choosing to begin with violence. Specifically, the concert in 1989 when someone threw a glass bottle at him on stage, and he responded by throwing it back into the crowd, bloodying an innocent fan instead of the target offender. Bach was arrested for it, and it earned him a reputation as a loose cannon, even by rock star standards.

It works both ways, though, because that tension, between jokes and violence, is a fitting frame for a discussion of rock-star life in the late 1980s. The music – hair metal, glam metal, boner rock, whatever – is our culture's dark secret, a huge pop phenomenon that most people like to pretend never happened. But the numbers don't lie: by the end of 1996, when Bach left the band, Skid Row had sold more than 20 million records, and they're nowhere near the most successful band of the era. That means a lot of people currently in the thick of adulthood grew up immersed in a popular form that alternately snorted and puked out the sleaziest brand of rock 'n' roll indulgence, rooted in the unholy trinity of drinking, fighting and screwing.

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To some – many, maybe – that will sound like a great time. Indeed, that's what Bach is counting on. The bulk of his book comprises anecdotes from his tenure with Skid Row, when the band was filling stadiums. For fans, there's some nostalgia to be found reliving milestones such as the release of the band's second album, Slave to the Grind, one of the first records to reach Billboard's No. 1 slot during the SoundScan era. Or in revisiting outrageous caricatures such as Axl Rose, Lars Ulrich and David Lee Roth.

In the harsh light of 2017, however, it's impossible not to be hit by the ways in which this music, and the lifestyle it celebrated, embodies the attitudes and behaviours our culture is currently wrestling with. Particularly stomach-turning are Bach's stories involving "girls." Always nameless (except for his two wives), the girls get variously drunk, tied up, wrapped in duct tape and, inevitably, unceremoniously humped. A scene involving a woman Bach leaves on his hotel balcony, bound, blindfolded and naked – "She started to get nervous. I heard her plead my name" – plays like something from a horror movie. In almost every instance, this kind of thing is shrugged off with a claim that times were different then, and an invocation of the public muse: Rock and roll, man!

It's not all this bad. Bach's stories from his childhood in the Bahamas and Peterborough, Ont., when he was still Sebastian Bierk, have a folksy tone to them. The most interesting part recalls his time starring in the Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde. Bach's father looms over both sections, which adds a personal note to the narrative. (He rarely talks about his Skid Row bandmates, in part because of bad blood surrounding his firing.)

The early bits also have the best writing, so to speak. By the standards of the prose industrial complex – short sentences, nothing too clever – Bach is a competent, if hyper, stylist. Occasional passages read like self-contained pieces of flash fiction, such as the part wherein Bach is introduced to Judas Priest and arcades. "Right around this time, video games were invented," he writes. "The exact same time … someone gave me a hit of purple microdot LSD." Rock and roll!

It feels strange to criticize heavy-metal culture on the same grounds that organizations such as the Parents Music Resource Centre attacked it in its heyday. But, while those objections framed musicians as agents of a Satanic fringe, in retrospect, eighties metal looks more like the garish id of consumer capitalism, with its lust for excess and hatred of regulation. In light of the current wave of sexual-harassment claims, it's impossible not to be troubled by the belief at the heart of rock stardom, and celebrity in general: that wealth and fame are aspirational goals that, if achieved, allow one to live by different rules than everyone else. This includes the idea (identified by comedian Marcia Belsky in a recent New York Times article) that women are part of the prize for success.

In the cocaine-dusted fun house of the Baziverse, there's a revised edition of his book, with an extra chapter in which he breaks my nose for this review. In the context of an ethos that uses "kick ass" to refer to both doing something well and beating someone up, it's hard to say if Bach would relish the experience, or – like the bottle incident – regret it. Regardless, I'll always enjoy the first two Skid Row records; Slave to the Grind, in particular, is one of the more intense albums the hard-rock genre has ever produced. However, we're better off in a world in which Sebastian Bach is no hero, but a reminder of a less conscious time. It's at our peril that we erase the spectre of eighties metal from our cultural history. Better to look at what it was, and how huge it got, and to say, with fresh understanding, "I remember you."

Reviewed by Toronto-based writer J.R. McConvey.

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