|GUNS N' ROSES THE DIRTIEST STORY EVER TOLD!
THE SCUM ALSO RISES
THE UNCENSORED STORY OF HOW FIVE FULL-BLOWN SOCIOPATHS FORMED GUNS N' ROSES AND SOMEHOW RECORDED ONE OF THE GREATEST RECORDS IN THE HISTORY OF HARD ROCK.
BY PAUL ELLIOTT / Q 208 NOVEMBER 2003 / PLANET SYNDICATION
On March 18, 1987, three LAPD squad cars arrived at a dilapidated two-story house in West Hollywood, a few blocks south of Sunset Boulevard. The place resembled a squat: bags of trash piled up, empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays on the floors, a terrible stink rising from the stained carpets. To its occupants, it was known as the Hellhouse.
The cops had come by many times before, to break up wild parties and to search for drugs. It was here that the five members of the rock band Guns N' Roses had lived, on and off, for a couple of months with a loose coterie of friends, hangers-on, drug dealers, and groupies.
Guns N' Roses were trouble. Their singer, W. Axl Rose, had a record of more than 20 arrests in his home state of Indiana. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin was reputed to be a heroin dealer who had once supplied Aerosmith's Joe Perry. Posters for the band's gigs billed them as "fresh from detox." Even their own record label had admitted, "They'll make it - if they live."
When the cops visited the Hellhouse on that spring afternoon in '87, the band was gathered on the front porch for a photo session that would be used for its debut album, Appetite for Destruction. A rough mix of the album was playing at deafening volume. One officer stepped over some broken furniture on the lawn and asked the band to turn the music down. Once he had driven away, Stradlin griped, "The West Hollywood sheriffs have got to be the biggest fucking pig-faces I've ever known."
Eighteen months later, cops would be asking for Guns N' Roses' autographs, as Appetite for Destruction topped the charts, selling six million copies and producing a No. 1 single in "Sweet Child O' Mine." "That record just hit a nerve," says lead guitarist Slash. "Kids related to us, which was odd, considering how fucked up we were."
In 1987, rock music needed Guns N' Roses. Two years earlier, Live Aid had seen many of the world's biggest and richest stars embracing the new political correctness and fronting a global effort for famine relief in Africa. Heading rock's new elite were the worthy U2 and big-haired, radio-friendly pop-metal acts like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. It was all rather too cozy for Guns N' Roses, who complained that "rock had sucked a big fucking dick since the Sex Pistols," and whose heroes, ex-druggies Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, had grown old and sensible. To Slash's mind, Mick Jagger "should have died after Some Girls, when he was still cool."
Described by Rolling Stone as "a brutal band for brutal times," Guns N' Roses, like Metallica, offered an alternative to the corporate rock that had dominated the Eighties. John Bon Jovi didn't sing songs about shooting heroin, driving drunk, and fucking your little sister. Axl Rose did. Long before grunge entered the mainstream consciousness, it was Guns N' Roses who were keeping it real.
"They were considered fucking outlaws," recalls Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl. "They were bringing grit back into rock and roll."
"People were very afraid of this band," Claims Teresa Ensenat, who helped sign GN'R to the Geffen label in 1986. But it was that element of danger - a reckless, hedonistic abandon - that made Guns N' Roses compelling. "What this industry's about in the Eighties is pretty obvious," said Slash at the time. "Trying to polish everything up. We go against every standard of the industry." And in doing so, Guns N' Roses created one of the biggest-selling albums in history. To date, Appetite For Destruction has sold 15 million copies in the States alone, more than the Beatles' Sgt Pepper, more than any album by U2 or The Rolling Stones, and five million more than Nirvana's Nevermind.
"It was," says GN'R bassist Duff McKagan, "the right band with the right songs at the right time."
"Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty." Duff McKagan wrote these lines when he was 19 and living in Seattle, where both his girlfriend and his roommate were addicted t heroin. He was dreaming of a fresh start in Los Angeles. "Of course," he notes dryly, "when I got there, the band I joined ended up with three heroin addicts in it."
None of the members of Guns N' Roses were born in Los Angeles. Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin were friends from Lafayette, Indiana, who moved to LA separately. Slash was born in England, in Stoke-on-Trent, and drummer Steven Adler in Cleveland, Ohio.
They were an odd bunch. Rose, flame-haired and heavily tattooed, had an enigmatic quality. Although possessed a volatile temper that lead one psychiatrist to note evidence of psychosis during his teenage years, Rose exuded a calm authority. A deep thinker, he chose his words carefully in the band's early interviews, speaking in a low voice far removed from his onstage scream. Above all, Rose was clearly the group's leader, although McKagan insists all were equals. Raised as plain Bill Bailey, Rose legally changed his name after discovering, at 17, that his biological father was a drifter with the surname Rose. The initials of his new name, W.A.R, were, he maintained, purely coincidental.
Slash was born Saul Hudson, the son of an interracial couple, and was raised in a liberal environment in Hollywood. An extrovert performer, he drank to overcome the shyness that he hid behind a mass of curly hair. His childhood friend Steven Adler was typical drummer material: loud, funny, uncomplicated. He smiled more than anyone in the band. Duff McKagan was a veteran of numerous Seattle punk bands who had the easygoing demeanor of a man who had seen and done it all by his early twenties. Izzy Stradlin was the loner of the group, aloof and surly until you really got to know him - in essence, the Keith Richards of Guns N' Roses.
The five came together in 1986. Rose, Stradlin and McKagan had formed the first incarnation of the band with guitarist Tracii Guns and drummer Rob Gardner. They dubbed themselves Heads of Amazon and then AIDS before settling on Guns N' Roses, a hybrid of L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, two groups in which the various members had been involved. When Gardner and Guns dragged their feet at the prospect of a West Coast club tour, McKagan called Slash and Adler. He and Axl knew these guys were good: The bassist had gigged with them in a band called Road Crew, the singer in Hollywood Rose.
"From the first day we all played together," McKagan says, "you could just tell we had something."
The band rented a single room, 16 feet by 10 feet, behind Hollywood's Guitar Center, where they wrote songs, rehearsed, squashed cockroaches and got wasted. They stole lumber to build a tiny loft that slept three. "It was," Stradlin recalls, "a fucking living hell". They existed on less than four dollars per day, eating gravy and biscuits at a local Denny's and drinking potent fortified wine. Night Train was a favorite. "We sold drugs," Izzy says. "We managed. We'd throw parties and ransack the girl's purse while one of the guys was with her.
"A lot of crabs were transferred in that place," recalls guitarist Slash. "We'd go there to drink and raise hell."
Says McKagan, "It was a place where the whole sleaziness of the band could fester."
When GN' R signed to Geffen in early 1986, they didn't have a manager. Aerosmith's Tim Collins had passed when the band ran up a $450 bar tab in his hotel room after he had checked into a second room to get some sleep. Eventually they were taken on by New Zealand-born Alan Niven, a figure reminiscent of Spinal Tap's cricket-bat-wielding Ian Faith. The band released a four-track EP, Live?!*@ Like A Suicide, on its own Uzi Suicide imprint, before setting to work on its debut album. "I believed," says Niven, "that if I could keep some kind of discipline in place, we could sell half a million records."
Discipline was uppermost in the mind of the man chosen to produce the album, Mike Clink. Born in Maryland, near Baltimore, Clink had made his name working on big-selling soft-rock records, notably Survivor's Eye Of The Tiger. "Those were pop records," he notes, "but I knew what to do with Guns. They played me records they liked. Slash had Aerosmith, Axl had Metallica's Ride The Lightning."
Initially, Kiss' Paul Stanley had expressed an interest in producing the album. Bob Ezrin, producer of Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Kiss, and Pink Floyd's The Wall, would later admit to McKagan that he was approached by Geffen with a view to working with GN'R but opted to "steer well clear." Clink harbored some reservations. "I'd never come into contact with guys like that. During our first meeting, they were spitting over each other's heads! They really were living on the street, that reckless life. But I pushed them hard and had a rule: no drugs in the studio." Slash concurs: "While we were working, all I did was Jack Daniel's and coffee and Marlboros."
Outside of the studio, however, there was no controlling them. "I'd be out until 3am, carousing," says Slash. "I had a van that I crashed after passing out. I woke up sitting in the middle of the road with this chick." "I put them in an apartment when we were making the record," Clink recalls, "and they destroyed it. One night they locked themselves out, so they put a boulder through a window! They thought it would look like somebody had robbed the place. When they finally got kicked out, there wasn't one thing left intact. It looked like somebody was remodeling and had knocked down the walls."
As McKagan reasons, "We had to go out on the edge to get the songs we got."
Slash describes the album's 12 songs as "little autobiographies, snapshots of our existence". On "Welcome to the Jungle," Rose recalls arriving in L.A. as a naive and nervous Midwestern kid. On "Mr. Brownstone," he speaks with a junkie's ennui.
For the song "My Michelle," he scrapped his original lyrics. "I'd written it all nice," he reveals, "but then I thought, That's not how it really is. So I wrote the real story down, kind of as a joke."
The subject of the song was an old friend of Rose's, Michelle Young, who recalled driving Rose to a gig and hearing Elton John's "Your Song" on the radio. Young says, "I said I wish somebody would write a beautiful song about me. But you know the song, and what it says is all true: My dad does distribute porno films, and my mom did die."
For added authenticity, Rose was recorded having sex with a stripper for the album's closing song, "Rocket Queen." Michael Barbiero, who mixed the record with Steve Thompson, comments, "I didn't want to be around for recording a girl getting fucked. That wasn't the high point of my career. So I set up the mikes and had my assistant record it."
"She was a goer," McKagan recalls with a chuckle. "She knew how to work a microphone."
But it wasn't all sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The album's surprise track was "Sweet Child O' Mine," a tender dedication to his future wife, Erin Invicta Everly, daughter of the Everly Brothers' Don. "That song made the hairs on my arms stand up," says Clink. "It was magical."
When the work was done, Clink was certain that Guns N' Roses had made a classic. "I said to Tom Zutaut at Geffen, 'This is going to sell two million copies. He said, 'No - it's gonna sell five million!"
All it needed was a title. Rose had a postcard of a painting by an L.A. artist named Robert Williams showing a robot standing over an assaulted woman, her shirt torn open, scratch marks on her exposed breasts, her underwear around her calves. Above, bearing down on the robot, was an avenging vision of hell with red claws and dagger teeth. The painting was titled Appetite For Destruction.
In June 1987, two months before the release of Appetite For Destruction, Guns N' Roses headed to England for three shows at London's fabled Marquee club. On arrival, they got their first taste of the country's tabloid newspapers. The Daily Star branded them "even nastier" than the Beastie Boys, who were riding high on the charts with Licensed to Ill and were famed for their outrageous, beer-fueled antics. On the day of the band's first Marquee gig, the Star reported that Rose had nearly died following a fight with L.A. police a few weeks before GN'R flew to England. "I was dead for a minute," Rose says. "The cops hit me so hard that I blacked out. I woke up in the hospital two days later tied to a bed and with electrodes all over me." These stories would be parodied on the tabloid-mocking cover of the band's 1988 mini-album, GN'R Lies, subtitled The Sex, the Drugs, the Violence: the Shocking Truth. "It was hilarious!" McKagan says, laughing. "But we knew our rock history, we knew how these things worked."
More controversy followed when Appetite For Destruction was released in August. Inevitably, the cover drew heavy criticism. "All that people saw was a girl with her underwear pulled down - not the karmic retribution in it," notes Alan Niven. When major U.S. and U.K. retail chains refused to stock the album, after 30,000 copies had been printed, the cover was changed for a crucifix incorporating the band members' heads as skulls - a motif inked on Rose's left forearm.
The album's first single was equally shocking. "It's So Easy" combined punk-rock fury with sneering, misanthropic lyrics: "Turn around bitch I got a use for you/Besides, you ain't got nothin' better to do/And I'm bored." Metallica's Lars Ulrich was stunned.
" 'It's So Easy' just blew my fucking head off," he says. "I had never heard anything with that kind of attitude. It wasn't just what was said - it was the way Axl said it. It was so venomous. It was so fucking real and so fucking angry."
Soon after the release of Appetite, Guns N' Roses hit the road with Motley Crue, whose own hedonistic excesses had already assumed mythic proportions. Amazingly, they all survived the tour, but on returning to L.A., a party with Crue bassist Nikki Sixx almost proved fatal. Having shot up heroin in Slash's motel room, Sixx left the room in search of Steven Adler. Minutes later, he was found prone in the corridor, turning blue. He was revived and rushed to a nearby hospital.
For him and for Guns N' Roses, it was a narrow escape.
"The fuckin' hard part was when a tour finished," Slash explains. "That's when it all went to shit. My smack thing always came around when we weren't doing anything."
Between tours, Slash lived for 18 months at the L.A. home of the band's PR Arlett Vereecke. When Vereecke discovered that Slash had been shooting up in her house, she went after him with a frying pan. Only Rose's intervention spared him a sore head. On a separate occasion, Vereecke returned home to find much of her furniture in the driveway. Slash had removed it to make room for his collection of 17 snakes.
"Slash and Izzy and Steven were out of their fucking minds," McKagan says. A disaster, it seemed, was bound to happen sooner or later.
The summer of 1988 found Guns N' Roses back on the road as special guests of Aerosmith, the former drug addicts who had cleaned up and resurrected their career. GN'R were told to confine their partying to their own dressing room for fear of leading Aerosmith off the wagon - a valid point given Stradlin's alleged dealings with Joe Perry. "These guys were our idols," McKagan says. "We might have been fucked up, but we weren't idiots."
On July 24 at the Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas, GN'R were in a celebratory mood. A day earlier, Slash had turned 23 and was presented with a cake iced with the touching message "Happy Fuckin' Birthday, You Fucker." He drank vodka, not his usual Jack Daniel's, because two bottles of bourbon per day were turning his tongue black.
Another cause for celebration was that Appetite For Destruction had reached No. 1 on the chart two weeks earlier. "We do whatever we feel like doing," Slash had crowed.
But on August 20, disaster struck. At the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington, Leicestershire, England, Guns N' Roses performed to a record-breaking crowd of 106,000. "Seeing all those people bouncing, it was incredible," Slash says. But for those fans near the front of the stage, the excitement was matched by fear. "The crowd was so tightly packed," reports eyewitness Andy Hunns, who was 21 at the time, "that I couldn't get my cigarettes out of my pocket. I was lifted clean off my feet and swept along. The situation was completely out of control." One hour after Guns N' Roses had left the stage, police confirmed that two people had been crushed to death.
Backstage, one hour later, the band was unaware of the fatalities, but Rose appeared gaunt, his lips cracked, his voice barely a whisper. For him, it seemed that the end of the road could not come soon enough, although the band was scheduled to keep touring until November.
"I didn't know those kids had died until I went to a pub with Alan Niven," says Slash. "When he told me, he was just short of crying. That changed the whole thing. From such a high to such a low, it was too much. We never felt that carefree again in front of a huge crowd."
It would be another two years before Guns N' Roses began to unravel - first with the firing of Steven Adler, then with the departure of Izzy Stradlin a year later - but in truth, the writing was already on the wall in Dallas, in the month before Donington. Having spent the previous two days alone in his hotel room, Rose prepared for GN'R's performance by singing to a loud playback of "The Needle Lies" by Seattle metal also-rans Queensryche. A year later, he would threaten to quit the band in protest of ongoing drug problems. Whatever his motives, Rose was taking control of Guns N' Roses, and the band that had created the greatest rock album of the Eighties was speeding toward its own destruction.
Special thanks to Arlett Vereecke.