Slash is one of the world’s most iconic guitarists. Instantly recognizable, his top hat, thick curly locks and of course his Gibson Les Paul have positioned Slash second only to Hendrix as one of most world’s easily identifiable axe men.
His place in music history was secured by the age of 25 as Appetite For Destruction and the unforgettable riffs to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Welcome To The Jungle” seeped into guitar folklore. The way in which Slash combined the dirty, uncompromising, and dangerous swagger of sprawling blues with stadium rock excess and post-Van Halen histrionics defined an era. His playing, along with Axl Rose’s depraved cries, captured both the nihilistic drug fuelled violence of the Californian underground and the self-indulgent pomp of the 1980s perfectly.
In the years following the Guns and Roses split, Slash became crystalized in rock history as the calm everyman who watched a legendarily unstable band being torn apart by an eccentric egotist. Always cast in a sympathetic light Slash has been allowed to drift into the rock and roll hall of fame long before his time.
He, and we, are constantly reminded of Slash’s former glories; Time Magazine named him the second greatest guitarist of all time, Total Guitar declared “Sweet Child o’ Mine” the greatest ever riff, and the riffs and solos from “Welcome To The Jungle”, “November Rain” and “Paradise City” continually litter fans’ and critics’ greatest lists. Metal Hammer even went as far as to invent a new title (not merely an award) for Slash at their annual Golden Gods Awards, declaring him simply “Riff Lord”.
When interviewed by guitar magazines Slash is spoken to with the type of deference usually reserved for the dead, on music television he’s continually pandered to, and he is rarely challenged and never pushed by critics or by fans to stay relevant. It’s understandable, Slash is revered, most fans are satisfied with the mere opportunity to see him live, having long since reconciled themselves to the idea that the original Guns and Roses aren’t coming back.
He has become a relic of a bygone age of excess, walking nostalgia, and he is conscious of it; Slash has maintained the same look, the same style, and of course the same basic guitar for the past twenty years. He plays to expectation, giving the audience the quick fix, checklist moment that they’re after.
Even at Velvet Revolver’s height, with two albums under their belt, Slash still erred on the side of nostalgia, performing a minimum of six Guns and Roses and Stone Temple Pilots covers a night. Damningly, despite being in a new band, designed to create new music, “Mr. Brownstone” and “It’s So Easy” sit in the top 10 of the tracks most performed by the supergroup.
There is no doubt that Slash sends the fans home happy, but aged 45, having already wasted the best part of 20 years reliving the past, surely Slash is too young to be consigned to a musty museum display cabinet. Surely the man who penned some of the most electrifying riffs and solos in rock history, has more to offer than cringe inducing guest spots and lazy albums that do more to showcase Slash’s celebrity address book than his artistic evolution?
Sadly, as the years continue to pass, Slash appears all too comfortable with his A-list status. His enduring but increasingly unwarranted celebrity has not gone unnoticed, as Slash became one of the latest celebrities to be satirically skewered by South Park. The guitar legend was presented as a mythical character (like Santa Claus) who would turn up to play the opening of a pair of curtains, provided you pay him of course.
While Slash is above the “mall openings” that he’s depicted as playing on South Park, the image is nonetheless accurate; Slash has become the equivalent of rock star credibility for hire. Whether it’s Superbowl half time shows or famous birthday parties Slash has become “that famous guitarist” who pops on stage for a brief and entirely meaningless cameo. No moment was more telling than his appearance at the Black Eyed Peas’ Superbowl half time show, unlike Usher he wasn’t a guest performer given his own showcase moment, instead he was a prop for Fergie to dance around and lean against as she butchered “Sweet Child o’ Mine.
Slash’s descent into artistic irrelevance isn’t just occurring in the live arena, 2010’s eponymous album was a depressing document of the zeitgeist long lost. As an album it appeared more like a pact between friends, a mutual love in, than a statement of creative intent, as Slash was joined by a range of guest vocalists including Dave Grohl, M. Shadows, Fergie and Kid Rock. The transaction was obvious, Slash’s guests got a dose of legendary rock star credibility, and Slash was given a renewed relevance, not through any great artistic accomplishment but by merely sharing space with rock and metal’s A-list.
Depressingly, Slash is resorting, in his forties, to the same trick that Tom Jones used in his sixties to retain his credibility with a new generation of music fans. Slash can and should mean more to music than this, and what makes his plight all the more frustrating is that we know he still retains the talent and technique required to make an important statement.
Anyone who saw Slash’s Snakepit during the 90s or early 2000s knows Slash is capable of pulling off mind boggling improvised solos that marry immaculate intricacy to hedonistic rock and roll abandon. Similarly, while Velvet Revolver never lived up to the hype as an artistic entity, there were small glimmers of greatness, most obviously “Slither” the band’s irresistible lead single driven by Slash’s totemic riff.
The talent is clearly still there, and while he may have cheapened his image with a series of ill-considered guest slots, Slash is still a tremendous live performer. The issue may therefore be creativity and opportunity. Slash is a guitarist first and foremost, not a songwriter; he needs a band and a driving creative force to complement his immense technical talents. The problem is that Slash is so legendary that his presence overshadows every outfit he joins as he inevitably becomes the focal point. It has reached the point where Slash is simply too big to be in a “regular” band.
This is a crucial stumbling block, but it is not impassable. In his search for renewed relevance Slash should turn to Jeff Beck, Johnny Cash and, yes even, Tom Jones. Artists whose creative peaks as songwriters had long since past, but whose distinctive voices, playing techniques, and powers of reinterpretation have yet to be diminished. The 21st century has been awash with hugely successful and incredibly insightful covers albums, where classic artists pick, not populist hits, but lesser known tracks that mean a great deal to them personally, either historically or presently.
The whole process offers rejuvenation, not just to classic often underappreciated works, but to the artists themselves; as they are given the opportunity to reveal their influences, offering something of themselves in the pursuit of finding a new meaning and a new reading of vintage material.
This can take the form of either genre exploration, as an artist dips his foot in untested waters, or reinterpretation, where a legend moulds a seemingly disparate piece into his signature sound (see Jeff Beck’s “Nessum Dorma”). The art reinvigorates the artist as artist reimagines the art. Whatever route the performer chooses to take, renewal and discovery are often the result, and right now, there is no guitarist more desperately in need of a new leash on life than Slash.
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