|An endless procession of nasty sex, bad drugs and tankers full of liquor couldn't kill Guns N' Roses.
Then came the paranoia, the arrests and an exploding pancreas.
Mick Wall files an eye-witness account of the rise and fall of the ultimate rock'n'roll hedonists.
Driving down the 101 Freeway with "a head full of coke and a gun in the glove compartment", Izzy Stradlin was startled to see it snowing outside. "I thought, gee, I never knew it snowed in LA." The fact that the 27-year-old Guns N' Roses guitarist had been up "for five days straight" had nothing to do with it, of course.
Besides, Izzy's scatter-gun mind was on other, more important things than the weather. With the success of the band's debut album, Appetite For Destruction, released two years before, still escalating beyond anybody's wildest dreams, Izzy's main obsession - apart from getting loaded - now centred on the not unreasonable question of "where all the fuckin' money had gone, man."
With combined US sales alone for Appetite and its 1988 minialbum follow-up, GN'R Lies, then tipping 10 million - making them the first band for 15 years to have two albums in the American Top 5 - it didn't take a genius to work out that Guns were now generating squillions of dollars worldwide. Paradise City, the fourth single from Appetite, had just become their first Top 10 hit in Britain, where combined album/mini-album sales were also now into seven figures. Yet none of the band were millionaires and Izzy damn well wanted to know why.
"I'm out of my fuckin' gourd, right? I'm at the fax machine and I've got, like, a hundred faxes strung across this room. I've got a loaded pistol on the desk, 'cos I keep hearing people walking on my roof, and I'm snorting coke, reading through this stuff, just trying to grasp what had happened to us. All I knew was we left [to go on tour] broke and we came back [18 months later] and suddenly there's loads of money but we can't get to it. I'm yelling on the phone going, I know it's there somewhere! Where the fuck is it?"
Actually, the money had already started to filter through but Izzy was so thoroughly out of it that when he did pick up his first six figure royalty cheque (for a cool $900,000), he walked around with it crumpled in his jacket pocket for weeks.
The rest of the gang weren't faring much better. Fellow guitarist Slash had gone back to his bad old ways almost as soon as they'd returned from the final shows of the Appetite world tour in Australia in December. When, after a two-month break, rehearsals reconvened in LA, he had been discovered injecting himself in the stomach with heroin - skin-popping- and was confronted by singer Axl Rose. On the surface, a very bad scene. In reality, just the latest in a series of ultimatums the 24-year-old (real name: Saul Hudson) had been issued with over the years - from being told in the early days to choose between smack and the band, to manager Alan Niven's astonishing decision once to have him kidnapped and put on a plane to Hawaii for a couple of weeks' enforced, drug-free r&r.
"Word had gotten out that I was doing junk [again]," Slash says today, "and at the time, I guess I was." The next thing he knew, "they were putting me in a car, I was off to the airport and I'm in Hawaii! It gave [tour manager] Doug Goldstein a great excuse to play golf. But I caused a lot of trouble in Hawaii. I've ruined many a fuckin' golf game for Doug..."
While Slash resented these "intrusions into my personal shit", he grudgingly agreed to clean up. Over the next few months, however, holed-up in his newly bought house in the Hollywood hills, playing with his snakes and "sinking deeper into my hole", his habit would grow steadily worse.
Smack wasn't bassist Michael 'Duff' McKagan's game. Despite his over-eagerness to buy into the Sid Vicious myth (hence the padlock neck-chain and lopsided sneer in pictures), Duff couldn't help but be affable. Nevertheless, even his puppy-dog enthusiasm would become subsumed as his year-old marriage began to break down. Duff may have been smart enough to avoid smack, but over the next five years the combined effects of cocaine, weed and, most hazardously, alcohol would take its own heavy toll. At one point he was said to be putting away 20 bottles of wine a day. ("Somebody must have been counting, 'cos I certainly wasn't!" he says now, only half-joking.) This increasingly desperate situation only came to an end when his booze sodden pancreas burst one terrifying morning, a few weeks after his 30th birthday in 1994.
"I couldn't reach the phone and it was right by my bed." A visiting friend found him. "He picked me up and drove me to hospital. I got, like, third degree burns all through my intestines and all the way down the muscles in my thighs. They put me on morphine and Librium for coming down from the DTs."
Back in '89, however, it would be some time before the word `consequences' would become part of the band's vocabulary. But if you were going to lose yourself in that whole decadent rock star thing, then LA in the late '80s was absolutely the place to do it - as Axl was fording out. Having just moved into his own security guarded Hollywood apartment a couple of blocks north of Sunset, he had also recently announced his engagement to 21-year-old former teen model, Erin Everly daughter of Don of The Everly Brothers - and was fast settling into the sort of life even Riley might have envied.
Meanwhile, 24-year-old drummer Steven Adler was "sitting in some big fuckin' empty house I'd bought, shooting dope twenty-four-seven, never going nowhere, never seeing no one, just out of my mind.. ."
"That was a real dark period for all of us," observed Izzy, later. "The drugs and stuff was a big part of the isolation but it was more than that. It was like self imposed and it got worse..."
With the recently released Appetite still struggling to get near the charts - despite generally excellent reviews, initial sales were slow due to almost total lack of airplay- the band arrived for their first British tour. The five dates would end at a packed Hammersmith Odeon (200 tickets short of a sell-out) where, as a result, the press would hail the tour as a triumph. At the Apollo in Manchester, however, attendance was so poor they had been forced to close off the balcony.
Arriving on stage to scattered applause, the band thundered through a truncated 65-minute set. Despite the low-key vibe, it was clear they had come
on considerably since the three high-profile dates at the Marquee back in June which had served as a launch pad for Appetite. Where then they had swung from ramshackle on the first night to quite brilliant by the last, now then made their presence felt immediately.
Cobra-swaying Axl was the charismatic ringmaster. To his right, Duff; a tall, bottle-blond whose clean-cut good looks belied his Seattle punkroots. To his left, Slash, one boot resting on a monitor, firing off riffs with the gleeful abandon of a man pissing his name into the snow. Behind them, sweating and shirtless, Steven Adler. Cleveland-born, but straight out of sunny smog-assed California: the quintessential blond himbo that likes to "hit things and get high". And then - last, as always, but not least - Izzy, who never found a permanent place for himself on stage, ghosting around at the sides and the back, scaring away crows.
If their stance was familiar, what came across immediately was how little this music had to do with the more nonsensical forms rock had twisted itself into by the mid'80s. There were no dungeons or dragons, no armies of marching men in their songs. In their place staggered junkies and sluts (Mr Brownstone, Rocket Queen), thieves and outcasts (Welcome To The Jungle, My Michelle). Even more intriguing, there were also tales of loved ones and lost dreams buried in that dark, chaotic set. Paradise City, with its chiming riff and adolescent yearning for a place where the "grass is green and the girls are pretty" emerged as an instantly uplifting anthem. Sweet Child O' Mine, too, suggested a submerged vulnerability: "Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place/Where as a child I'd hide," intoned Axl.
It was this transcendent aspect to their music that would enable Guns N' Roses to rise above an LA scene then dominated by lightweight metal misfits like Motley Crüe, Poison et al. Just as Nirvana would do four years later, Guns N' Roses eschewed contemporary musical mores in favour of a more meaningful '70s mien.
"We didn't have any defined goals," says Slash today. "We just didn't want to be lumped in with the LA scene. We were (lying to get away from that. The Who, the Stones, Aerosmith... that's what we grew up with. The decadent '70s shit."
By 1987 decadence was in short supply. Post-AIDS, post-Reagan, third-term Thatcher, rock had become a shiny, happy, big-haired thing that no longer needed drug dealers and groupies to sustain it. Jon Bon Jovi was still claiming he'd never even tried drugs; most bands avoided the subject completely, whatever the reality behind the scenes. Instead, they were all apparently into working out (and cosmetic surgery, liposuction etc). Marketing was more important than A&R; videos more `market penetrative' than tours. In this light, Guns N' Roses were the antidote to this corporate vision of rock.
Standing in the dressing room after the Manchester show, it seemed like the clock had been turned back 15 years. It wasn't just the way they dressed- the hats, bandanas and button-less shirts; the scuffed leather jackets, skull and crossbones tattoos and lurid, rock-crucifixion jewellery - it was the way they were.
"Hey, man," said Steven Adler, spying strangers. "Where can I score some loods?" referring to Quaaludes, the drug du jour for early '70s American concert-goers; heavy-duty tranquillisers that made walking into walls seem fun.
"You can't get loods in England," I replied.
"What!" he cried. "You're fuckin' kidding me! What can you get?" "Mandrax," I said, "Mandies. Or reds - Seconal. That's probably the nearest equivalent."
"Cool," he said, "so how can I get me some red Mandies, dude?"
The guy was clearly on a mission. Then Izzy ambled over. "Hey, man," he drawled, "I smell pot. Who has pot?" Someone passed him the joint and he clung to it like a drunk steadying himself against a lamppost. I turned to speak to Slash, the only one I'd actually been introduced to. He looked like he'd just stepped off the album cover: black top hat pulled low over a waterfall of dark curls, deliberately obscuring his soft brown eyes; holding tight to a Jack Daniel's bottle like a toddler clinging to its teddy.
"I bet you go to bed with that thing," I joked.
"Sure," he said, "I like to wake up to it, too. It's the only way..." He paused and glanced around, "... I can handle this."
I was introduced to Axl as we passed on the stairs. Utterly unlike the manic, pumped up, backcombed banshee who had just bossed the stage, up-close he looked surprisingly small; his pinched, freckled face and upturned nose giving him a vulnerable quality the stage lights had hidden. He avoided direct eye-contact, glancing at you warily when he thought you weren't looking. It was hard to believe this was the guy who had just been arrested for attacking a security guard at a show in Atlanta; had launched into an on-stage tirade at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, three nights before, inviting Paul Stanley - who had apparently accused Guns, somewhat ludicrously, of ripping off Kiss - to "suck my dick!"; and had ripped the phone out of the wall and thrown it at the hotel receptionist before the show in Nottingham the night before. Controversy was becoming part of the act, it seemed. Despite the bullshit, it was clear Guns had something. I decided to keep in touch...
HYATT HOUSE, LA
Almost a year after its release, Appetite entered the US Top 10 for the first time, propelled by heavy rotation on MTV of the new Sweet Child O' Mine video (shot as-live at the Ballroom, Huntington Park, in April, and featuring Erin; the first of three times Axl would put his girlfriends in a GN'R video). Their two scheduled appearances opening for Iron Maiden at the 17,000-capacity Irvine Meadows arena, in LA, should have been a glorious homecoming. Instead, both appearances were cancelled when Axl succumbed to ,voice problems'. The rumour-mongers whispered that there was nothing wrong with his voice. Axl simply resented opening for a band he now considered smaller than Guns N' Roses.
Whatever the truth, the sudden break left Slash kicking his heels that weekend. Staying at the Hyatt House on Sunset, under the name Mr Disorderly, he invited me to join him on the Saturday. I arrived just as he was saying goodbye to his father, Tony Hudson. A well-dressed, soft-spoken Englishman who looked nothing like his son, Tony was a successful album sleeve designer in the '70s (that's his handiwork on Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark) who knew enough about the music business to be concerned about his son's impending elevation to its giddiest heights.
"He was telling me to keep my feet on the ground and stuff," Slash said, as we crossed to the bar. "I told him, I'm cool. I know what it's all about. I mean, look at me. T-shirt , jeans, boots, that's me, man. That's all there is. Besides," he added, "we haven't had any money yet. We just get these phone calls - yesterday it was 35,000 sales, today it's 91,000 sales. It freaks my ass out."
He was most excited about the next album, which would be "even more angry and anti-radio" than on Appetite. "To prove there's more to us than those bands whose roots go back, like, three years. The ones who bought the clothes first. That's what we're really against."
It was that same quest for authenticity, he seemed to suggest, that led to incidents like Steven breaking his hand in a drunken barroom brawl when the band had opened for Motley Crüe. Steven and Slash had also been involved when Crüe bassist, Nikki Sixx, ODed. Finding Nikki unconscious on the floor of his hotel room, the needle still sticking out of his arm, Slash said, "Steven got him into the shower and I called the paramedics." It was a close call: Sixx's heart had stopped beating at one point.
Then, in February, halfway through their own West Coast tour, Axl had walked out. Things had being going badly since he'd been arrested for trying to smuggle a sten-gun across the Canadian border. "Axl was biting everybody's ass," Slash later recalled. Following another violent bust up at the hotel, Axl split. But three days later he was back after a lengthy heart-to-heart on the phone with Slash.
Acknowledging that part of the band's appeal lay in the notion that it might end tomorrow, Slash concluded, somewhat prophetically, "Actually, I'd rather it collapsed. I'd rather be as good as possible in the amount of time that you can do it, and do it to the hilt. Then fall apart, die, whatever. . . "
By the time Guns N' Roses jetted in on Concorde to appear at the Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington, both Sweet Child... and Appetite were sitting pretty at Number 1 in the US charts. As such, despite being only fifth on the bill, Guns were now indisputably the biggest rock band in the world.
Backstage, Alan Niven - a garrulous, blues-loving New Zealander who had taken the band on "when nobody else wanted them" -was the personification of bonhomie. "When I first heard the album I thought we'd be doing well if we sold 200,000 copies," he confided cheerfully. "If you'd told me there was a hit single on it I'd have laughed in your face." He laughed anyway as he went off to fetch more champagne.
Though official figures put attendance that day at 97,559 (the largest in the festival's history) the crowd was only about 50,000 strong when GN'R came on at 2pm. The torrential rain that had lashed down for the past 24 hours, turning the site into a mud bath, had briefly subsided but the wind was still howling, blowing a video screen into a neighbouring field. Halfway into the third number - the slowed down You're Crazy from Lies - Axl stopped the show as a commotion broke out in front of him. Fans were being dragged out by security. "Back up! Back up!" called Axl, angrily. After what seemed an age Slash began peeling out the riff to Paradise City, but was forced to stop again as more fans were pulled from the mud.
They tried to bring the mood down by playing a ballad, Patience, but the crowd seemed distracted. The intro to Sweet Child..., the last number, received a belated cheer. There was no encore. "Don't kill yourselves," offered Axl as he left the stage, unaware of the awful truth.
There had been a massive surge towards the front of the stage as the band came on; dozens of fans knocked over and trampled into the mud as an ugly scramble ensued, which continued right through the opening songs, It's So Easy and Mr Brownstone. Tragically, two of the trampled teenagers yanked from the mud - Alan Dick and Landon Siggers - would later die in the emergency tent; Siggers so badly disfigured his family was only able to identify him by the scorpion and tiger tattoos on his arms.
The coroner's inquest recorded an open verdict, concluding nothing more could have been done to guarantee the safety of the crowd. Nonetheless, Northwest Leicestershire District Council placed a crowd limit on all future Donington events of 70,000. It was two years before promoters were granted another licence.
Slash: "We just looked out and it was like, Ob, fuck! You could see that surge when we came on, you could see the force... " When they were told afterwards that two fans had died, "It just destroyed the whole thing for me."
Duff: "There just seemed like nothing you could do except scream at them. I was ready to jump into the crowd, but I was scared to die myself. . ."
The first Izzy knew about it was when he woke up hungover in Phoenix County Jail. His lawyer had to fill him in on the grisly details. He'd been arrested at Sky Harbour airport the day before for making a public disturbance on a flight from LA - urinating in the aisle, verbally abusing a stewardess and smoking in the non-smoking section. The charges were dismissed in a press statement simply as "Izzy's way of expressing himself" but the damage was done.
With a `prior' for possession, Izzy was put on probation and ordered to seek help (including random urine tests for a year). "That was my wake-up call. That was the point where I said, This has got to fuckin' stop. I didn't wanna wind up dead or, worse, in prison."
It wasn't easy. "I'd been straight for a long time before some of the others even noticed. They'd offer me a line. I'd say, Uh, no thanks, I don't any more, remember? But these were the only friends I had. Those first five years we were together, the band was like our little family. Dysfunctional as hell but everybody had each other, you know?"
Slash's turning point, in terms of smack, came just a few months later and, bizarrely, also involved a strange trip to Phoenix. Slash had followed Doug Goldstein to an exclusive luxury resort where he was vacationing. "This was when I was in my worst drug period - and actually what ended up getting me to clean up. [Doug is] on the golf course and all of a sudden the fuckin' police come looking for him saying, `We've got a naked guy in handcuffs. He assaulted a maid.'
"I'd smashed up my room, there was glass, I was all bloody. I'd showed up in Phoenix the night before. I'd done all [my drugs] and mentally had a trip-out scene. I took off running naked out of the shower - went through the glass shower windows. Ran out naked onto the resort, into one of the rooms, ran over this maid and kept running. It was a big scene."
Narrowly avoiding arrest, he flew back to LA and checked into a hotel. "I passed out and woke up to what they call an 'intervention'. I ended up going for the first and only time to rehab, which lasted for all of about three days. I said, I'm not that fucked up. So I got out and took myself to Hawaii - on my own this time-and dried out. I've never had that serious a problem since then."
AXL'S PLACE, LA
I had known Guns N' Roses for three years, in which time they'd gone from being just another bunch of gutter-snipes to becoming the biggest, most sought-after rock act in the world. While the immediate effects of that success had appeared to all but crush Izzy and Steven, Slash and Duff, at least, still looked like they were having a so-called good time. Axl, meanwhile, hadn't changed so much as been let loose. With the means to now do as he pleased, that's exactly what he appeared to be doing. None more so than on this particular evening, sparking the incident which would lead to him later exhorting me by name to "Suck my fuckin' dick!" on one of the most vitriolic songs ever spat out, Get In The Ring, from Use Your Illusion II.
The whole thing hinged on an interview I had done with Axl at his apartment late one night in January 1990. Behind the couch on which he sat, hunched up over his Coke can and cigarettes, was a huge bay window, through which you could see the flickering lights of LA. Before us sat a rather grand-looking marble coffee table. He ran his hand over it lovingly. "Third one I've had," he said. Oh? What happened to the other two? "I smashed 'em."
Axl had begun the interview in a froth, in which he unwisely challenged Motley Crüe singer Vince Neil to a fight over some disparaging remarks Vince had made about Izzy in a recent issue of Kerrang!. Despite checking through the most inflammatory quotes with Axl first, when the interview was published it caused such uproar - Vince actually offering to fight him live on MTV - Axl then decided he'd never said any such thing.; That I had, in fact, made the whole thing up.
A molehill that quickly grew into the Himalayas, looking back now the great pity was that it obscured so much of what else he had to say that night, from the funny to the peculiar. For example, he recalled going out for a reconciliatory dinner with David Bowie, who he had earlier punched at a video shoot for paying too much attention to Erin.
"We started talking about the business and I never met anybody so cool and so into it and so whacked out or so sick in my whole life!" he said, "sick" being a high compliment in Axl's book. When the band later opened for the Stones, Jagger and a visiting Eric Clapton cornered him about it. "They were laughing, saying that when Bowie gets drunk he turns into the Devil from Bromley... "
(Three months later Axl would drive over to Erin's house at 4am and threaten to kill himself if she didn't marry him; they drove to Las Vegas and were wed the same day. A month later, Axl filed for divorce, then changed his mind. Following a miscarriage, however, the marriage would be annulled eight months later. In 1994, Erin would launch a multi-million dollar lawsuit against her former husband, citing physical and mental abuses. As with similar charges later brought by Axl's next girlfriend, model Stephanie Seymour, the matter was settled before reaching court.)
That January night he also explained why he preferred recording to performing; it sounded a warning bell that would echo throughout every GN'R tour to come. "If I'm psyched for the gig, great," he said. "Nine times out of 10, though, I'll always not wanna do the fuckin' show and hate it." Something "always happens" before a gig, he sighed, "and I react like a motherfucker to it." He had "always been that way, but now I'm in a position to just be myself more. People allow me to do it whether they like it or not, you know?"
He had just spent Christmas alone. "Fuckin' hibernated, didn't see anybody." He spoke earnestly of a couple of songs he was working on that "if they come off like I want them to, are going to be the biggest things this band has ever done." He was referring specifically to a ballad he'd written called November Rain, a song he'd begun as a child, he said, but had only now brought to the band. "If we get that right," he said, "I can walk away from this..."
Why would he want to walk away?
"Why would I want to stay?" he snapped back. "I've had a Number 1 record, I've learned to work a stadium... All I want now is to get this next record done. If we can pull this thing off, if we do it right, it'll be five years before we have to make another album."
We also talked about his adopted childhood. He'd recently discovered his real father was (lead. "Murdered in '84 and buried in seven miles of strip mining in Illinois." I asked him if he knew who the murderer was. "No," he said, "but it was probably at close range. Wonderful family... "
He told me how he'd once been diagnosed as suffering from a manic depressive disorder and prescribed Lithium, which only made him more depressed. The only thing it did was "help keep people off my back, 'cos they figured I'm on medication."
Back then Axl was one of those guys you'd see out at LA dives like the Rainbow and the Roxy. There were no bodyguards, just a protective circle of friends and Stuart Bailey, Axl's younger half-brother, a likable chap with nothing better to do. Getting to know Stuart provided a unique insight into Axl's small-town origins. I was boiling eggs in the kitchen one morning when I asked Stuart to fetch some eggcups. He looked at me puzzled.
"Egg what?" he said in his sing-song Midwestern accent.
"Eggcups. You know, for putting eggs in?"
I fetched them myself. "Eggcups. See?" He looked but no lights came on. "What do you call them then?" I asked impatiently.
"Uh, we don't call 'em nuthin. I never saw nuthin like that before..."
I looked at him. "Are you taking the piss, Stuart?"
"No, sir. Where I'm from, we don't put'em in no cups, we just peel 'em and suck 'em."
William Bruce Bailey was born February 6, 1962, in Lafayette, Indiana, a small college town built onto the banks of the Wabash River. One of those decorously bland Midwestern towns, even the public market on 5th Street, where Axl hung out as a kid, has a musty, middle-aged air; circled by tall, Italianate brick buildings from the 1850s, when the railroad arrived and the muddy settlement first became a proper town. Farming, manufacturing and trade are the mainstays of Lafayette life. Before Axl, the most famous person from there was John Purdue, founder of the local university, and he died in 1876.
But if that sounds boring, life was anything but for the restless teenager. When, at 16, his parents broke the news that `Bailey' was his adopted name, he took it badly. His real father, William Rose, a notorious local troublemaker, had walked out on the family when Billy was still an infant. When his mother, Sharon, later married L. Stephen Bailey, he agreed to adopt the boy, giving him his surname.
When Billy found out the truth about his past it led to so man fights at home his stepfather eventually kicked him out. All of which only fed the boy's already manic depressive personality. (In March 1986, just before the band signed to Geffen, he would change his name legally to W Axl Rose. The acronym it formed - WAR - being purely coincidental, he said.) He had always been the kid in trouble at school; the oddball with the red hair who studied `sissy' piano. Now, living away from home, staying at his grandmother's, he had his first brushes with the law - mainly misdemeanours like public consumption [of alcohol] and disturbing the peace. Over the next two years he would serve time at various weekend correctional centres, including 90 clays in county jail when he didn't have the money to pay a fine. Other times, he was busted simply because "the cops hated me. I got thrown in jail over 20 times and five of those times I was guilty." He became so used to courtroom procedure, often he would defend himself. "I didn't trust the public defenders for shit."
One thing he always had going for him, though, was his music. At five, he had begun singing in the Pentecostal church. Later, he sang in the Bailey Trio with Stuart and their sister, Amy He was 13 when he "first got seriously into the radio". At the time, his three favourite records were Led Zeppelin's D'Yer Maker (which he recalled "getting knocked right off the bench by my dad" for daring to play on the family piano); Elton's Bennie & The jets (he was "a huge Bernie Taupin fan"); and 10cc's I'm Not In Love (he loved the way "the guy is contradicting himself all the way through the song"). It was his friend Izzy who first suggested he try singing.
Born in Lafayette, April 8, 1962, Jeffrey Isabelle was lust a toddler when his parents bought him his first record: (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction by the Stones. Growing up with "nothing to do except smoke a joint and play along to Aerosmith records", Izzy, as his pals called him, was already adept at guitar, bass and drums by the time he met Bill Bailey, a fellow student at Jefferson High.
"I didn't even know if he could sing," Izzy told me. "I just thought, Hey, here's a guy who's pretty crazy, he'd be a great front man." It didn't go so well in the early days. "Sometimes he would come over and just stand around, embarrassed. He'd start to sing then stop and just leave. I wouldn't see him again for three days."
When Izzy, left for LA at 17, Bill - now renamed Axl after his first short-lived band without Izzy - began visiting, crashing on the floor of his small Huntington Beach apartment.
"Axl was always coming out, getting lost. Then, at the end of '82, he came back out with this girl and rented an apartment. That's when he finally stayed."
Of all the most outrageous rock tours - the Sex Pistols' nightmarish trek through the American south in '78; the Stones' ill-fated '69 tour which ended in Altamont-none were so gruellingly long or incident filled as that outwardly wildly successful, inwardly tragically solipsistic road trip Guns N' Roses undertook between 1991 and '93.
By the end of it they were not only the biggest rock band in the world, they were also the deadest. Indeed, Axl would never perform with any of the original members again. The show that set the tone for what followed occurred early on.
The tour had already got off to an ominous start when Alan Niven was fired just days before it began. Unlike Alan, who was never slow to voice his opinions, tour manager Doug Goldstein - hurriedly promoted to the hot seat - was seen as someone who did what he was told by Axl. "The red-headed one," as Niven called him, was now more in control than ever.
Steven had also been shown the door nine months before; Axl's patience finally snapping when, he later claimed, the drummer took "over 60 takes" to get his part right for Civil War, a track from the new album. His replacement, 29-year-old, LA-born Matt Sorum, had been poached from The Cult after Slash caught their LA Forum shows the year before.
Slash: "Izzy and I went through great pains to get our shit cleaned up [but] we never could fuckin' pull Steven back in, and we really tried. Axl never really liked Steven, so that was all the excuse he needed to fuckin' fire him."
One of the many side-effects of Niven's departure was to delay the new album still further- the band were allegedly holding Geffen to ransom over a new contract before allowing it to be released. As a result, it remained unavailable throughout the first three-month leg of the tour, begun in East Troy, Wisconsin, on May 24.
Then there was the subject of how to package 36 tracks. Axl had originally fought for a box containing four separate CDs. Too expensive, said Geffen. A compromise was reached: two separate double albums released on the same day, plus a series of `mini-albums' of cover versions and live tracks at a later date. The title, Use Your Illusion, was taken from a painting by Axl's friend, Mark Kostabi, which would also serve as the album cover.
On July 2, with new single You Could Be Mine (as featured in Arnold Schwarzenegger's new Terminator 2 movie) soaring up the charts but the album still unreleased, Axl's frustration boiled over to such a degree he turned the Riverport Performance Arts Centre, in St Louis, into a real-life battle zone.
When security failed to respond to his demand to have someone in the audience thrown out for taking pictures, Axl impetuously dived into the crowd, punching one security guard and, in return, being hit back by several more. Clambering back onto the stage, he told the crowd, "Well, thanks to the lame-ass security; I'm going home," and walked off, sheepishly followed by the band. At which point a full-scale riot broke out: 60 people were seriously injured before armed police in riot gear were able to restore order. Three days later a warrant issued for Axl's arrest on charges of assault and inciting a riot; crimes that carried a maximum one-year jail term. (First, though, he would have to return to the state of Missouri, and it was 12 months before he was actually served with an arrest warrant, by which time his lawyers were able to wrap the whole thing up in fines, counter-suits and expensive red tape.)
Izzy: "It took me right back to Donington. Like, what if someone had died again? Because the singer doesn't like something? Like, what are we getting at here?"
TOWER RECORDS, LA
Use Your Illusion I and II were finally released in Europe on September 16; 24 hours later in the US, where they debuted on the charts at Number 1 and 2 respectively. If Appetite had taken the LA sound to another dimension, following it up four years later with two double albums was a genuine history-making event.
It has often been suggested since that a combined, scaled-down version of Illusion I and II would have produced perhaps the greatest rock album of the '90s, but that is to miss the point entirely. Here was a major band showing off all of its tricks while operating at the very height of its crooked powers; both albums characterised as much by their throwaway moments - the effete The Garden; the ludicrously offensive Back Off Bitch - as they are by towering heights like Estranged, Coma, or Axl's much-cherished November Rain.
Released just a month before Nevermind, over time the idea of two double albums would be seen as the ultimate folly of a band now straying dangerously into self-parody. The Zeppelin to Nirvana's Pistols, Guns N' Roses, until then the coolest, baddest band on the planet, were suddenly distinctly unfashionable.
But if releasing 36 tracks was a folly, it was a brave, monumental one. True, there is nothing there that anticipates Nirvana - what did? - but they certainly kicked down the doors for edgy, passionate rock that blithely ignored the rules. Much as Kurt may have despised the fact, it was no coincidence that many of the nine million Americans that bought Nevermind were also Guns N' Roses fans.
"None of us had anything to say about the music at that point," says Matt Sorum now. "Axl had this vision he was going to create. We'd start [recording] at noon, the work ethic was cool. The heroin thing had definitely subsided at that point - Slash had quit, Izzy had quit [everything]." By the end of the sessions, however, "it was later nights. We'd start at six or seven. Axl would want to do November Rain and Don't Cry, his songs.
"It was candlelight in the studio - you'd look and there's Sean Penn and Bruce Springsteen hanging out, and supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Elle McPherson. It was like a Fellini movie! But it was never really cool to do a lot of drugs in front of Axl. Even though he'd be on some pills, like, 'Yeah, man, I just took a bunch of Halcyon'. I did some coke with him once and he talked for about fuckin' 10 hours! I never did coke with him again..."
USE YOUR ILLUSION TOUR, PT. 2
Axl's unfortunate predilection for not wanting to do "the fuckin' show and hate it" led to dozens more incidents over the next two years - so many gigs either cancelled or rearranged, or halted midway through while Axl walked off, or simply begun hours late, it would take a separate feature to recount them all here.
Axl's boastful claim that "People allow me to do it whether they like it or not", also rang horribly true. In Stockholm, in August '91, to give just one example, he deliberately kept 13,000 fans waiting for nearly three hours while he gambled at a casino then went to watch the fireworks of the nearby Vattenfestivalen.
When the gig finally began, Axl chided the crowd for "falling asleep the whole fuckin' show", adding sarcastically: "If you're bored, you should've saved your money and gone and seen the fireworks tonight... "
Izzy was so disgusted he took to travelling separately from the band. "By then the music had taken a backseat completely."
There were other setbacks. Not least of these was the cringe-making video for the November Rain single in June '92 (a $1.5 million farce in which Axl got to `marry' Stephanie Seymour, Slash was `best man', and taste and sanity were distant members of the family that couldn't make it). Or the time Axl embarrassingly dedicated Double Talkin' Jive to Warren Beatty, Seymour's ex-, before a nonplussed crowd of 58,000 during a televised pay-per-view show in Paris. (The self-confessed former "party girl" dumped Axl not very long after.)
Even the buddy-buddy co-headlining tour of the US with Metallica, which kicked off at the 90,000 RFK Stadium in Washington, on July 17, 1992, didn't go smoothly At Giants Stadium, Axl was hit in the balls by a cigarette lighter thrown from the crowd during Knockin' On Heaven's Door and had to go off The following day he was diagnosed as haying sustained `severe damage to his vocal chords' and the next three shows were hastily rescheduled.
There were highlights, too, of course. Like their several Wembley Stadium appearances. All 72,000 tickets for the first, in August '91, a month before the Illusion albums were even released, had sold out in record breaking time. To celebrate, Geffen ran a modest campaign in London which read: "Guns N' F____g Roses, Wembley F____g Stadium, Sold F____g Out!"
Then there was the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness in April '92, when Axl duetted with Elton John on a positively surreal Bohemian Rhapsody.
Sadly, Wembley '91 would also be Izzy Stradlin's last appearance as a full-time member of the band. "I'd just had enough. you know?" he told me. The band had "become like the Jerry Springer show. Everything was so magnified. Drug addictions, personalities, just the craziness that was already there anyway."
But the mainly reason Stradlin left was because, he said, couldn't relate to Axl any more." Post-world domination, heroin, post-everything, Axl had been transformed from the awkward, "embarrassed", small-town hick with an "authority problem" into an increasingly blinkered megalomaniac: issuing contracts for journalists and photographers to sign. Even starting to thrust bits of paper in front of his own band.
Izzy: "This is right before I left - demoting me to some lower position [and] cutting my royalties down. I was like, Fuck you! I'm not signing that, I helped start this band."
The key to Axl's mania, Izzy thinks now, lies back in Rose's birthplace in Lafayette, with a child who "got nothing but shit as a kid" and "never got no pussy at school". Now the rock star adult had "the chicks lined up, he's got money, people... and the power went to this guy's head. He became a fuckin' monster! The control issues just got worse and worse!"
Izzy would return, briefly, for five dates in Europe in 1993, including two nights at the Milton Keynes Bowl in May, after his replacement, Gilby Clarke, broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident. "But Duff and these guys, man, they didn't even recognise me. It was really bizarre, like playing with zombies."
When the short tour was over he didn't even say goodbye.
"I thought, They don't even know I'm here, what's the point in telling 'em I'm leaving?"
RIVER PLATE STADIUM, BUENOS AIRES
The final night of the world tour, 26 months after it had begun. Though they didn't know it, the last performance by (what was left of) the original band.
Broadcast live on TV in Argentina and Uruguay, for once the set kicked off promptly at 9:30pm. By midnight the band were already back at the hotel, where Axl, Slash and others remained in the bar until six o'clock the following morning, Axl at the grand piano for some of it, treating his compadres to one last tune.
Forty-eight hours later, they were back where they belonged, in LA. It had been the longest tour in rock history - 192 dates in 27 countries, with ticket sales in excess of seven million, and album sales soon to be in excess of 35 million in the US alone. (To offer some commercial perspective, that's a million more than Bob Dylan has sold in his entire career.) Even Led Zeppelin took four albums to reach that sort of sales figure. For Guns N' Roses it all happened immediately. Little wonder they had such trouble hanging onto themselves.
Slash: "At some point... I just lost Axl. Everything was so out of control, then suddenly we came home and everything just kind of... stopped."
A year later, guitarist Gilby Clarke had been fired, original drummer Steven Adler had been paid off to the tune of $2.5 million, and the so-called `punk' covers album, The Spaghetti Incident?, had come out and bombed. Oh, and Duff's pancreas had exploded. "They said if I had another drink my pancreas was done. It was pretty black and white. I said, I'm over it. I'm fuckin' done."
Three months before, on January 20, 1994, Axl had been one of the guests at Elton John's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York. Later that night he sang Come Together with Bruce Springsteen. It was the last time he'd be seen in public for four years.
Guns N' Roses 2005
Whatever happened to Guns N' Roses? Clive Prior finds out.
On December 12,1994, Guns N' Roses released a cover of the Stones' Sympathy For The Devil. The single-taken from the Interview With A Vampire soundtrack - seemingly signalled the fact that Guns were working on a new album after 18 gruelling months on the road. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, the last vestiges the original Guns N' Roses line-up were on the point of collapse.
As 2005 dawns, Guns N' Roses remain unrecognisable from the band that tumbled offstage in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1993. Gone are original members Slash and Duff McKagan along with drummer Matt Sorum from the Mark Two line-up (all three are now in Velvet Revolver). AxI Rose-now the sole proprietor of the band's name-has assembled a new incarnation of GN'R and toured the world in 2002. The tour itself appears to have been booked to promote the long-awaited album, Chinese Democracy. The only snag? The lack of the same said album.
Despite showcasing material such as Madagascar, The Blues and Riyadh And The Bedouins, Rose has spent the best part of a decade revising both music and personnel. Collaborators include producers Roy Thomas Baker and Bob Ezrin, ex Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, Tom Waits drummer Brain Mantia and a raft of guitarists including the now departed Buckethead and Richard Fortus (ex-Psychedelic Furs/Honky Toast). Brian May has also contributed to the album.
"There's some wonderful stuff there," states the Queen guitarist. "Axl's so intense about every single note very much in the way that Freddie [Mercury] used to be. He's utterly meticulous."
The burning question remains then: when will the new Guns album actually surface? The smart money's on mid-2005.
"If you're really into waiting try holding your breath for Jesus," laughs Axl. "I hear the pay off may be that much greater."
Guitarist Slash on the LPs that inspired him.
Aerosmith Live! Bootleg CBS, 1978
"It's one of the most underrated fucking albums of all time and one of the best live rock'n'roll albums ever made. That album started the trend for me to go out and discover new bands by buying their live albums. That way, I could get all the best songs. For some reason the whole live thing was the most exciting thing in the world."
Fave track on it: Back In The Saddle.
"The whole intro makes this one of the best songs ever, and with the crowd and the flash pots going off, that whole build up. It's incredible."
Four more Slash raves
Queen A Day At The Races EMI, 1976 Queen's fifth album matches Brian May's at his heaviest (Tie Your Mother Down) with Freddie Mercury at his most heartfelt (Somebody To Love) - a combination not lost on GN'R.
Aerosmith Rocks CBS, 1976 If Live Bootleg is incendiary, then the 'Smith's fourth outing provides much of the fuel for that particular fire, including the Slash-approved original version of Back In The Saddle.
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin ATLANTIC, 1969 Zep's first album is dazzling in its energy and scope - something which Guns clearly attempted to echo on their Appetite debut.
Kiss Alive II CASABLANCA, 1977 "Funnily enough, it's a band I've always hated," laughs Slash. "But that's what Steven Adler was always jamming to every day." Hence the inclusion of the double live set here.
Bassist Duff McKagan on the LPs that inspired him.
Prince 1999 WEA 1983
"I was always into R&B soul stuff. This album helped me blossom as a musician. It came at a time in my life when everything I was going through was had and it took me away from it. It
- brings back amazing memories. I love the OutKast record - Andre's [The Love Below]. That's the best soul record since Prince did 1999.
Fave track on 1999: Something In The Water (Does Not Compute).
"The emotion of the song. It's just bare-drum machine and synthesizer. So much space. You can hear him breathing when he goes up for the high notes. It's a very emotional, powerful song."
Four more Duff raves
The Clash The Clash CBS, 1977 Not so much an album as a manifesto, the impact of The Clash's debut reverberated around the world. In Seattle a youthful Michael McKagan was listening intently.
The Stooges Funhouse ELEKTRA, 1969 The Detroit punks' second album remains a pre-eminent influence on ,cattle grunge-niks, including Duff who would fulfil a life-long ambition by playing with Iggy in '89.
Black Flag Damaged SST, 1981 The perfect hybrid of punk and metal, the Cali-crew's debut album helped spawn the entire US hardcore scene and set a new standard n nihilism and aural thuggery.
The Rolling Stones Black And Blue ROLLING STONE, 1977 Ronnie Wood makes his debut on this diffident mid-'70s set which showcases a noted reggae vibe.
Compiled by Paul Elliott