|Part 1 : Where the hell is Axl Rose? by Dave Everley
Last month, a quarter of a million people gathered in a field in upstate New-York to witness Woodstock 99, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the legendary hippy festival.
The line-up was astonishing : Metallica, Korn, the Offspring, Red hot chili peppers and Rage against the machine were just a handful of the bands who played. However, one band were noticeable by their absence. In April, it was rumoured that Guns N’ Roses were to be making their long-awaited come-back at the festival. After an absence of six years, it was suggested that GN’R were returning to preview songs from their equally anticipated new album. And then, in typical Guns fashion, the whole thing fell through.
The rise and fall of Guns N’Roses is one of the most intriguing tales in the history of music. For six years during the late 80s and early 90s, they were the biggest band on the planet. To many, frontman Axl Rose was Guns N’ Roses - a flame-haired wild card as enigmatic as he was unpredictable, it was partly his antics that led GN’R to be crowned ‘the most dangerous band in the world’.
And then they disappeared. Or rather, Axl did. While his bandmates were spotted out and about in LA or touring with their respective side-projects, Rose retreated to the solitude of his Malibu mansion. Once the most recognizable rock star on the planet, such was the effectiveness of his vanishing act that only one picture of him has been seen in the past six years.
Latigo Canyon road, a long and winding stretch of grey tarmac that runs through the barren, fire-scorched Malibu hills, leads to the home of Axl Rose. Although it is possible to walk up the road, the huge security gates that stand in front of the singer’s residence make it clear that visitors are not welcome.
According to insiders, Axl rarely emerges from his house, and when he does it’s only to buy sundries at the beach-side shopping malls in the presence of his matronly housekeeper.
Over the past six years, Rose’s public appearances have been few and far between. In April 1996, he turned up backstage at a Red hot chili peppers concert at the LA forum. « He’d cut his hair short and grown a beard », recalled Chilis drummer Chad Smith. « I didn’t recognize him. »
Such was his anonymity that when Rose attended a Radiohead show he had to undergo a thorough body search by the venue’s doorman. Three months later, in March 1998, he was spotted on the balcony of the Hollywood Palladium, watching Tool.
Sightings by members of the public are more common, though not always as reliable. In December 1997, Axl was reputedly seen at the Universal Film Studios in Los Angeles with a child and a Hispanic woman. Another sighting placed him buying popcorn at a cinema in Century City, Los Angeles, while further sources claim to have seen him as far afield as New-York, apparently sporting black or brown hair that looked suspiciously like a wig.
Indeed, the only public sighting that can be properly verified occurred in February 1998, when he was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, for disorderly conduct at the local airport. Rose’s trial took place exactly one year later. He didn’t attend the hearing, and was fined $500 in his absence. A police photo taken at the time of his arrest shows him with short hair and five o’clock shadow. This is the last picture anyone outside of the Guns camp has seen of him.
Details on new GN’R material are equally vague. Those working on the album have been sworn to secrecy about its contents and the working methods surrounding it. What we do know is this : sometime between 1993 and 1997, Axl jettisoned virtually all of the other members of Guns N’ Roses. Guitarist Gilby Clarke was the first to go (« the cheques just stopped », he claimed afterwards. « I took that as a hint. »), followed by Slash, Duff Mc Kagan and drummer Matt Sorum.
In their place Axl began working with a series of ‘name’ musicians, including former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde, Nine Inch Nails drum programmer Chris Vrenna, ex-Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abruzzese and even original gunner Izzy Stradlin’. Between 1994 and 1998 these various line-ups rehearsed at LA recording studio The Complex, where they would work 10-hour shifts running from 9pm to 7am.
By April 1998, the line-up had finally settled down and the band were said to be making their first tentative steps towards actually recording a new album. As well as Axl and long-standing keyboard player Dizzy Reed, GN’R also featured guitarists Paul Huge (a buddy of Axl’s from Indiana who played on the Gunners’ last recording, their cover of ‘Sympathy for the devil’ for the ‘Interview with the vampire’ soundtrack, and the man largely blamed for Slash’s departure), and former Nine Inch Nails man Robin Finck, ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and Vandals drummer Josh Freese. Production duties were being handled by Marilyn Manson / Pantera associate Sean Beavan, after Axl had approached ‘Appetite for destruction’ producer Mike Clink, Killing Joke bassist Youth and techno guru Moby.
Over the next 12 months, the band apparently recorded 30 songs for the album, continually reworking them. Tracks recorded were said to include ‘Prostitute’, ‘Cock-a-roach soup’, ‘This I love’, ‘Suckerpunched’, ‘No love remains’, ‘Friend or foe’, ‘Zip it’, ‘Something always’, ‘Hearts get killed’ and ‘Closing in on you’. Depending on who you believe, they veered from techno-industrial rock to old-style Guns sleaze. Matt Sorum revealed Axl’s love of samples and loops; contrarily, Chris Vrenna stated: « I have a feeling it’s gonna be more like Appetite, than anyone is expecting. »
When the Sex Pistols were rehearsing for their 1996 reunion tour, Pistols mainman John Lydon claimed to have heard « some folky nonsense » emanating from the next room, only to discover it was actually Axl and co hard at work. Basket player-turned-rapper Shaquille O’Neal supposedly appears on one track, after befriending Axl while recording in the same studio.
Interestingly, sources even suggested that the album already had a title - possibly ‘Cockroach soup’ or, more realistically, ‘2000 intentions’. And then....nothing.
August 1999, and there is still no sign of a new Guns N’ Roses album. The band’s record company, the Polygram / Universal group, say that they have tentatively scheduled its release for the end of this year, although sources admit that it has been on the schedules several times before and the band have consistently failed to meet deadlines.
Speculation has mounted that Rose has forced the band to re-record the entire album three times, and that the process has already cost more than a million dollars. One certainty is that Robin Finck has left the band and returned to Nine Inch Nails. The guitarist had signed a contract to join GN’R for two years; when it expired earlier this month, he had done nothing other than record guitar parts that have yet to see the light of day.
However, earlier this month, the rumour mill sprang into action once more regarding a ‘new’ GN’R song. The closing credits of the Adam Sandler movie ‘Big daddy’ features Guns classic ‘Sweet child o’mine’. Halfway through, it segues into what appears to be a completely different version of the same song with Axl’s original vocals over the top. The most common theory is that the latter was recorded by the most recent line-up, although no one seems to be able to confirm or deny that fact. Moby has added further fuel to the fire, claiming that there is a completed version of the album and suggesting that Axl should simply release it immediately, regardless of circumstances.
Whether that happens or not is in the hands of Axl Rose. Hidden away in his Latigo Canyon retreat, he’s fully aware of the pressure to deliver something truly spectacular - something that will return GN’R to their position as the biggest band on the planet. The last six years have offered only rumour, gossip and hearsay, both about the band and Axl himself. Some of it is feasible, some is downright ludicrous. But separating truth from fiction is only one part of the puzzle. The big question is : what will Axl Rose do next? And at the moment, there’s only one man who can answer that....
Insert : the lost boys : the whereabouts of the other original Guns N’ Roses members.
Slash : the mop-topped guitarist began work on his second solo album in June, as well of reviewing tapes of GN’R shows for possible inclusion as a live album. Unfortunately, his plans were scuppered when he was arrested last month at an LA studio for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend. He was released on $500,000 bail.
Izzy Stradlin’ : Slash’s six-string cohort reportedly returned to the Guns camp in 1995 to help Axl write a batch of new songs, which have never seen the light of day. Apparently still in touch with all the other members, he released his second solo album ‘117°’ last year.
Duff Mc Kagan : after teaming up with Duran Duran’s John Taylor and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones in the Neurotic Outsiders, the bassist returned to his native Seattle in late 1997 to reform his early-80s punk band Ten Minute Warning for a reunion album. His second solo album ‘Beautiful disease’, was set for release in December 1998, but he was dropped by his label after upheavals rocked the US music industry and it never came emerged. He is now reported to be recording yet another solo album.
Steven Adler : the drummer has had a patchy career since he was ousted from GN’R ranks in 1990, first playing with LA glam tarts Vain and then attempting to get his own Roadcrew project off the ground. Two years ago, he took out a court case against the band and won a six-figure sum. Last October, he was jailed for 150 days after being found guilty of domestic violence. Ironically, he was the only former Gunner to turn up when the band was awarded a Diamond Award for selling more than 10 million copies of ‘Appetite for destruction’ earlier this year.
Part 2 : Appetite for destruction by Sylvie Simmons
‘The most dangerous band in the world’. That’s what they called Guns N’ Roses back in the second half of the 80s, when punk was long gone and metal had disappeared up its own arse in a cloud of hair-spray. And ‘dangerous’ is exactly what they were - an unstoppable hurricane of substance-abusing, beer-guzzling Olympian excess.
When W. Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan, Izzy Stradlin’ and Steven Adler first crawled out of the bottle-strewn, bathroom-less Hollywood apartment they shared with each other and any female gullible enough to pay both their rent and dope bills, they gave the self-indulgent music scene a much-needed shot in the arm.
You have to understand how useless rock had become back then. The wave of LA bands who burst into earshot at the start of the 80s - Motley Crüe, Ratt et al - had been a glorious antidote to the overweight, over-paid, corporate rockers of the time. Hungry young men with big hair and attitude who sloshed and rattled when they walked, they made LA the rock capital of the world. But by the mid-80s, as the platinum discs began mounting up on their walls, they too had become sterile - not to mention ludicrous - and in a desperate need of a kick in the cod-piece. Enter Guns N’ Roses, the bastard sons of the Sex Pistols and Aerosmith, Hanoi Rocks and the Rolling Stones.
In the five years between their first indie EP and the double whammy of the twin ‘Use your illusion’ sets, Guns were bigger than Metallica and Nirvana put together. Record sales? How about 20 million copies of their debut album. Outrage? Controversy followed them like flies on a turd. Arrests? Causing riots at gigs, pissing in aeroplane gangways, beating up security guards, neighbours, girlfriends and wives....take your pick. Sex? Porn stars, strippers, models. Drugs? Where do we start? Suffice to say that Motley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx overdosed and was declared clinically dead while partying with GN’R. Even ex-chemicals dustbins Steven Tyler and Joe Perry knew when they were beaten, and in a backstage ceremony handed over their ‘Toxic twins’ t-shirts to the young band.
Every day Guns rewrote rock mythology. And every day they teetered on the edge of breaking up. When Axl failed to show for a gig in Arizona, the rest of the band fired him. When GN’R came onstage in Los Angeles to open for the Rolling Stones, fried out of their skulls, Axl fired the others. When drummer Steven Adler became too stoned even for them, they fired him. Izzy got so sick of being stoned he fired himself. And then Axl seemingly went power-crazy and, one by one, got rid of anyone who was left.
I first met them in 1986, just before they released their debut mini-album ‘Live ?!@ like a suicide’. Their then manager, a seasoned old rock pro, had told me about this new band he’d hooked up with. They were brilliant, he enthused, while a tape full of sweet, dirty, adrenalised grease-rock with great tunes and a nasty punk edge screamed out of the nearby speakers.
Even back then, Axl Rose stood apart. He didn’t show up for our interview, leaving Slash, Duff, Izzy and Steven to tell their tale without him, opting instead to talk to me later on his own. A smart, charismatic guy, he had an incisive take on what rock - and Guns - were all about. He talked like he was already a star, challenging then glam gods Poison to a fight in one breath (« I’ve told those guys personally that they can lock me in a room with all of them and I’ll be the only one who walks out ») and declaring : « The only thing I really want out of this whole thing is a record that stays on the shelves for a while, you know? That gets a place in history. »
Axl was born Bill Bailey in Lafayette, Indiana. He sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school until, figuring God hadn’t done much for him, he went to the other side and wound up in jail. The name change came at the age of 17, when he discovered that the man who raised him wasn’t his real father and that his real Dad was a trouble-causing delinquent named Rose (the ‘Axl’ bit came from one of his early garage bands).
According to Izzy, who had grown with Axl in Indiana, the singer was « a serious lunatic ». The pair had made their way to Hollywood to play in a number of nowhere bands. They dossed at the same places and kept the bottles on the table by signing up for $5-an-hour medical experiments at the local university, on the effects of non-stop smoking.
Slash was born Saul Hudson in Stoke-on-Trent, the son of a British album-sleeve artist and an American costume designer. When his parents broke up, Slash moved to LA. One of his childhood memories is visiting Iggy Pop in a mental hospital with glam legend David Bowie, whom his Mum was dating at the time. Slash was turned on the guitar by his school friend Steven Adler, a Kiss and Aerosmith fanatic. Having both failed auditions to join Poison, Slash and Adler formed their own band. Duff McKagan - who’d hitched down from Seattle where he’d played guitar and piano in punk bands - joined on bass.
The rock scene in LA at that time was hugely incestuous, so it was no surprise that the five like-minded souls would eventually gravitate together. In 1985, a nascent Guns N’Roses - featuring Axl, Izzy and guitarist Tracii Guns - played its first official gig. There were two people in the audience so they decided to head out on the road. They borrowed some equipment and got hold of an old car. The car broke down the first day, so they hitched.
Meanwhile, back home the buzz was growing, and on their return the slum that they called home was mobbed by record company men. Opting to sign to Geffen records, they spent half of their advance on clothes, and the other half on drinks and drugs. By this time, the line-up was solidified. Tracii Guns was out: Slash, Duff and Steven were in. It was around this time that the ‘Most dangerous band in the world’ tag was first attached to them. It was easy to see why - GN’R were unpredictable : there hadn’t anything this untameable since punk. Guns saying fuck live on TV during an awards ceremony was America’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols infamous expletive-laden appearance on ‘the Bill Grundy show’.
When debut album ‘Appetite for destruction’ appeared in the summer of 87, the hype had reached staggering proportions. A tour with Iron Maiden was cancelled when Slash was packed off to Hawaii to kick his drug habit, while Axl ended up in intensive care at an LA hospital after attacking a cop. When the press saw the album cover - a controversial Robert Williams painting of a girl being raped by a robot - the hype went into overdrive. Thankfully, the music more than lived up to it - classic tracks like ‘Welcome to the jungle’, ‘Paradise city’, ‘Mr Brownstone’, ‘Sweet child o’mine’.
« It’s like if there’s nothing to write about, let’s talk about Guns’ latest antics », Slash once told me in an attempt to explain the media’s reaction to the band. « When you actually meet the press face to face, some of them are a little paranoid, like I’m going to smash a bottle in their face or something. Some of them want you to! I haven’t been able to figure out the psychology behind that. »
That winter, Guns toured Britain - just five days, but they still managed to get into trouble. On the plane ride over, Slash set fire to a seat with his cigarette; once in the UK, Steven Adler broke his fist in a bar-room brawl. By the time the band returned home to tour with Aerosmith - who were so scared of their support band that they stipulated that all chemical abuse must be confined to GN’R’s dressing room - their album was at Number One in the US charts.
The following year, the band returned to the UK to play the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington. Despite a lowly spot, Guns gave it all they had. Tragically, two fans were crushed to death while they played.
The next few months were equally frantic : Izzy was arrested was pissing in the aisle of a plane, Axl fled warrants for his arrest in Australia, and the band pulled out of a New-York AIDS benefit when gay activists protested against the homophobic lyrics of ‘One in a million’ from the ‘GNR Lies’ mini-LP.
There was tension and conflict within the band too.
« We’re just a little more volatile than most bands », said Slash. « We’re not willing to just go : ‘okay, whatever you want, we’ll do that for you’ ».
Minutes before they were due to go onstage, it was not unusual to find at least one member missing and the rest on the verge of killing one of the others. Usually Axl.
The singer, said Slash, was « very sensitive ». Other descriptions were less tactful. He certainly had a hell of a temper - his ex-wife Erin Everly once told a reporter that he beat her when he didn’t like the way she tidied his CD collection.
He was also a stickler for control. Take his chemical abuse : he simply refused to become addicted.
« I did heroin for three weeks straight », he told US magazine RIP, « and had ones of the greatest times in my life because I was with a girl I wanted to be with in this beautiful apartment and we just sat there listening to Zeppelin, doing drugs and fucking. I stopped on, like, Saturday, because I had serious business to attend to on Monday. »
At the end of 1989, Guns N’ Roses played four shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the enormous LA coliseum. The first show was fraught with incident. After just one song, Axl stopped the show, turned to Slash and berated him for « dancing with Mr Brownstone » - a reference to his side-kick’s heroin problem. At the end of their set, Axl announced that this would be his last gig with the band. One album into their career and the world’s biggest new rock band were finished.
But the next night it was business as usual. Axl apologized onstage for his outburst, gave a five-minute anti-drugs speech, and the show went on. As did the arrests, lawsuits, marriages, divorces, riots, overdoses, break-ups....
Albums number two and three appeared on the same day in 1991. ‘Use your illusion 1’ and ‘....2’ - featuring a grand total of 30 songs ranging from Elton John-style ballads to testicle-peeling rock - debuted at Numbers One and Two in the charts. But it came at a price - Adler had been fired (he later sued the band, accusing them of introducing him to heroin) and Izzy, who had cleaned up, quit.
And that was it. A stop-gap covers album entitled ‘the Spaghetti Incident’ emerged in 1993, followed 18 months later by their version of the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the devil’ (recorded for the soundtrack to ‘Interview with the vampire’), but there has been no more new material.
Last time we looked, there wasn’t even a band. Stradlin’ s replacement Gilby Clarke had been fired, Adler’s replacement Matt Sorum had grown tired of waiting around and rejoined the Cult, and a drug-free Duff had turned his side-projects into full-time bands, as had the ever-loyal Slash. Axl allegedly owned the sole rights to the name and was hiring and firing musicians as the mood took him. At the last count it stood at long-time keyboard player Dizzy Reed, guitarist Paul Huge, ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, former Vandals drummer Josh Freese and - until last month one-time Trent Reznor cohort Robin Finck. A studio has been booked for ever, but no one outside of the Gunners’ close circle has heard a note.
« They’re living fast - and they’ll die young », said one of their early ad campaigns. But they didn’t. They simply disappeared. But for a while there, Guns N’ Roses were simply untouchable.
Thanks to Laura for this article!