Guns N' Roses: Out of control -- Is the band headed by Axl Rose built to last?
They are rock & roll stars with a gift for mayhem. THey are young, talented, and every parent’s nightmare. As fans await a new abum — and the latst police report from their raucous tour — we wonder: Are these boys built to last?
”Thank you, Dallas, f— you, St. Louis, and God bless America.”
With those cheery, climactic words, delivered to 20,000 howlingly appreciative Texas fans, Axl Rose, lead singer of the most popular rock & roll band in the world, closed his July 8 performance. By Guns N’ Roses’ standard, it had not been an unusual show. The band arrived onstage two hours late, and Rose had something to tell his expectant and impatient audience. ”We apologize if the sound isn’t up to par,” the singer announced eventually, ”but if you have a problem with that, you can talk to f—ing St. Louis.” They knew what he meant: Most of the band’s sound gear was new, hastily acquired to replace equipment demolished or stolen a week earlier when Rose dived into the audience during a performance near St. Louis to stop a fan from taking unauthorized photographs. The resulting melee had caused some $200,000 in damage and left more than 60 people injured, with accusatory fingers pointing in every direction.
That in almost any other band’s history would be its most infamous night, but it was merely a blip in Guns N’ Roses’ chaotic career. For W. Axl Rose (born William Bailey, 29), guitarists Slash (Saul Hudson, 26) and Izzy Stradlin (Jeff Isabell, 29), bassist Duff (Michael McKagan, 27), and now-departed drummer Steven Adler (26), controversy and uproar have been intrinsic parts of the package from Day One. Since forming the band in 1985, they have contended with their own serious overindulgence in drugs and alcohol, squabbles with other bands and within their own, fistfights, lawsuits, arrests, concert cancellations — and now the St. Louis riot. Since late May, when they began the first leg of a planned two-year world tour — their first as headliners after uncomfortable treks as openers for, among other groups, Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, and INXS — the group has, among other things, been fined for violating curfew laws in Indiana, come onstage 2 1/2 hours late (publicly blaming their record label and an extended magazine photo shoot) in New York, and ordered the ejection of an audience member whom Rose said was flipping him the bird in Colorado.
If you think Guns N’ Roses are making a mess of things, you’re entirely correct. But — and here’s the kicker — it makes absolutely no difference. In an age when rock & roll heroes stand in line to tout sneakers and soda pop, Guns N’ Roses’ aura of real danger carries an enormous wallop. The few — very few — records the band has released have sold in staggering quantities: 13 million copies of a debut album, Appetite for Destruction, and 4 million of a low-key follow-up, GN’R Lies, a casual compendium of acoustic songs and rare pre-Appetite tracks offered, as Geffen Records, the band’s label, said, not as a full-fledged second album but as a stopgap to keep fans happy. Even critics have embraced the group’s searing hard rock, a genre disdained by sophisticated listeners for nearly two decades despite a popular resurgence late in the ’80s that Guns N’ Roses themselves helped spark. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, notes the ”thematic intelligence and honesty” of the band’s material, especially in songs like ”Welcome to the Jungle” and ”Mr. Brownstone,” its harrowing depiction of heroin usage. Hilburn calls Rose ”the most compelling and combustible American hard rocker since Jim Morrison.”
Guns N’ Roses, in this view, grandly continue the tradition that has always set apart the most powerful rock & roll. They’re bad boys, as the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones were in their time. They’re thumbing their noses at the sacred, aiming a kick in the pants at the ordinary, and, with an unbeatable combination of skill and gut instinct, reshaping the mythology of rock even as you read this. There seems to be at least one difference between the rock myths of past decades and those of today, though. Twenty-four years ago, the Doors, led by Jim Morrison, made a brilliant first album, then slowly and painfully disintegrated. Yet during the half decade of their existence, they released seven records. During this half decade, Guns N’ Roses, though they’ve been working for almost three years on a successor to Appetite for Destruction, haven’t yet completed even their second.
That second album, when it finally gets here, will be big: three dozen songs or so. It will be unusual: two separate packages, issued simultaneously, called Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. And it will be late in coming: Sept. 10 is the most current of several unofficially announced release dates, but, as Bryn Bridenthal, Geffen Records’ vice president of media & artist relations, says (and has been compelled to say many times), ”That’s not a confirmed date — it’s only hypothetical, and I doubt that the record will make it.” Use Your Illusion will apparently be here when it damn well feels like it, and the delay has its cost. Rock & roll bands usually put out albums, sell them, go on tour, and as a result, sell even more albums. By being on the road too early, the band is losing the promotional boost touring naturally provides, and very possibly alienating retailers and radio stations who’ve anxiously awaited the record since its upcoming release was unofficially announced in May. That’s risky indeed, though Guns N’ Roses have another view. ”Axl has gotten very angry about people writing that the album is delayed,” Bridenthal reports. ”Because in his mind, there is absolutely no delay. Because the album has never been finished.”
Give him an F for logic, but for consistency, at least, he ought to get an A: Being on the road now makes completing the album even more difficult. Here are three reasons why the album is late, all of which, according to people close to the band, fall squarely at the feet of Guns N’ Roses:
1. The drummer problem
The group put off recording for 18 months, waiting for original drummer Steven Adler to halt his heroin habit; he was fired in July 1990, when, or so Slash has said, he couldn’t kick it. (Adler last month filed a lawsuit contending, among much else, that he was let go because he tried to stop — or, more precisely, because the band lost patience when the opiate-blocking drug he was taking interfered with his concentration.)
2. The no-show syndrome
A well-known hard-rock singer was invited to perform on Use Your Illusion. Flying in from frigid New York, he arrived at the Los Angeles studio and found the session postponed. How come? Because Axl Rose had decided he’d prefer seeing L.A. rockers Jane’s Addiction in concert that night. When the same thing happened again the next night, the singer decided that waiting comfortably in a plush Hollywood hotel room paid for by the band and its record company was altogether preferable to spending the winter in Manhattan.
3. The mixing mix-ups
Bob Clearmountain, one of the most respected sound engineers in the record industry, spent several frustrating weeks in Los Angeles’ Record Plant recording studios working with Guns N’ Roses, all for naught. Of the 24 song mixes he completed, not one will appear on Use Your Illusion.
Recounting that experience, Clearmountain cites one major frustration: Axl Rose ”seemed to have a lot on his mind at the time,” and getting the singer to join the rest of the band in the studio — Clearmountain prefers his clients to be heavily involved — was an absolute nightmare. Because Slash and Rose were going through one of their periodic personality clashes at the time, Clearmountain says Slash deliberately stayed away from the studio so as not to ”distract” the singer, and instead worked with him over the phone — ”a very awkward way to work.” And Rose himself? ”You wouldn’t hear from him for a week, and then he’d show up,” . Clearmountain recalls. ”I’d ask if he listened to the last couple of mixes I did, and he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, man, it’s happening.’ And that’d be about it. He basically wasn’t paying attention.”
Worse yet, several sources say that by the second week of mixing, no one in Guns N’ Roses was talking to Tom Zutaut, the Geffen A&R executive who’d signed the band to the label and had an enormous role in the making of Appetite for Destruction. ”Axl said he didn’t want Tom around,” says Clearmountain, ”which was too bad, because I think he would have had a lot of good input.” The official comment from the group is that Clearmountain departed due to a scheduling problem — but according to a source close to the band, ”Everybody thought Clearmountain’s mixes sucked. But they didn’t want to be hateful or harmful to him, because he did his very best.” Oddly enough, no one from Guns N’ Roses ever bothered to air his complaints when the mixer was around to hear them.
Convulsions like these are one reason friends of the band sometimes speak of ”the Axl Rose Circus.” Bob Clearmountain isn’t alone when he refers to Guns N’ Roses as ”he” before instantly correcting it to ”they.” Everything revolves around Axl; ask him a question at the wrong moment and trouble is almost guaranteed. Clearmountain vividly remembers how Rose would respond to pressure in the studio: ”He would threaten to quit the band three times a week.”
Eventually, Clearmountain recalls, the singer told Geffen Records he didn’t want input from anybody at all. Staffers at Geffen made the mistake of asking him to work on the album just before the band’s June 17 show at New York’s Nassau County Coliseum. ”I was there doing some publicity work,” recalls Bryn Bridenthal. ”Tom Zutaut was there to work on some of the music, and the art director was there with some boards for approval on the packaging. Axl felt there was pressure on him to make decisions. Before a New York show, that was probably not smart of us.” It wasn’t: An angry Rose ended up denouncing the label from the stage. No wonder Geffen is, in the words of Clearmountain’s manager, Dan Crewe, ”petrified” of the band. Or as a source at the company reports: ”Until these albums are delivered, we’re in jeopardy any time we say anything. I don’t mean this to sound negative, but Axl’s got everybody by the balls.”
Is Axl Rose crazy? It’s a question he’s apparently asked himself. He’s publicly acknowledged that prior to the current tour he underwent intensive therapy — five hours a day, five days a week, according to one report — to get to the root of his self-destructive behavior. ”I was told that my mental circuitry was all twisted,” he said of the experience, adding that it helped him understand the source of much of his frustration. In the past, Rose has been diagnosed as manic depressive; sources say he has taken lithium to help combat his mood swings. But some of those sources maintain that he does not take the medication regularly, and if the trail of destruction Rose has left behind him during the past few years is any indication, they may well be right.
It is a very long trail. In 1989, Rose demolished a Chicago apartment the group had been renting and remained there in its shambles while his fellow band members headed back West. Equally eventful was his now-annulled April 1990-January 1991 marriage to Erin Everly, 25, daughter of singer Don Everly of the Everly Brothers and the inspiration for the Guns N’ Roses hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Neighbors near Rose’s former Laurel Canyon house in L.A. recall one early morning scene: As Erin was fleeing from the house, Axl chased her in his Jeep, repeatedly yelling ”psycho bitch.” Another morning, neighbors found a headstone spray-painted on the couple’s garage, containing the emotional inscription ”Erin Rose, R.I.P. Sweet Child O’ Die. Slut. You were one of many, nothing special.”
Still, according to those close to him, Rose generally means well and is wholly devoted to pleasing his fans. Guns N’ Roses’ manager Doug Goldstein points out that even now, when he confronts Rose and company on financial matters — the potential lost revenues caused by a late album, say — Rose’s pat answer is ”Yeah, if we were interested in finances, Doug, that’d be a great theory. But what we’re interested in is delivering product to the fans. So it really isn’t about finances.”
You can see the good Axl Rose, or at least the friendly Axl Rose, for yourself, plugging MTV’s current ”Evict Axl Rose” contest. One lucky winner will get the singer’s L.A. bachelor pad free of charge — including, Rose jokes, the bed he’s never slept in. You look at him laughing at himself and think: This is not a jerk, this guy could be a friend.
One of Guns N’ Roses biggest supporters may be Geffen’s Bridenthal, who worked independently with the band before Appetite for Destruction and whose longtime reputation as a thorough professional is among the highest in the * music industry. She is one of the very few people at Geffen still close to the band and speaks with Rose regularly. By definition her job requires her to stay on top of the band’s activities; that she’s seen more than half of this tour’s performances, however, may be above and beyond the call of duty.
Bridenthal, like others who know Rose, considers him very bright. ”He’s been doing a lot of reading and really working on educating himself,” she says, sounding almost motherly. ”He’s really thirsty for information and growth all the time.” Fine. But does she like him? ”I absolutely adore him,” she gushes, ”because he’s a very sincere and loyal person. He cares so honestly and deeply about doing it right.” She pauses. ”It doesn’t necessarily always come out that way, in other people’s perception, but his intentions are always correct.”
And so the contradictions continue to fly. Middle American parents read news accounts of concert riots and glumly watch their televisions. They see footage of a sweating, tattooed singer violently wailing onstage. They hear newscasters using such phrases as ”police accounts,” ”few injuries,” and ”concert cancellations.” And they think about their children and worry.
Meanwhile, younger middle Americans watch the same footage, hear the same newscasts, and hope their Guns N’ Roses concert won’t be the one that gets canceled. They are, in many ways, like the generations before them who watched excitedly as charges of indecent exposure were leveled against Jim Morrison; who gossiped eagerly about what Led Zeppelin did with groupies in closets; who argued passionately among themselves over when Rolling Stone Keith Richards might finally die of a heroin overdose.
Some years ago, rock became a very big business. That Guns N’ Roses are now a part of that business is a given; that their behavior goes so much against its grain provides many with hope, inspiration, and, best of all, in the view of more than one Guns N’ Roses fan, a sorely needed kick in some very complacent behinds. Younger middle Americans watch MTV newscasts, waiting for the day to be announced when Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II will at long last be released. They wait for the tour to reach their city. And they get very, very excited.