>> BackGuns N' Roses - The Scum Also Rises 

November, 2003
Guns N' Roses - The Scum Also Rises
Q November 2003, Issue 208
Apparently, they took drugs.

Guns N’ Roses were evil, penniless junkies who stole from groupies and lived on biscuits. The same unstoppable chaos helped them record debut album Appetite For Destruction and rewire rock forever.

Early in 1986 Guns N’ Roses were living in a single rented room behind a low-grade guitar shop close to Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip. It measured just 16 feet by 10 feet. Here, they wrote songs, rehearsed, squashed cockroaches and got wasted. The band’s rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin remembers it as a “fucking living hell”. They sold drugs and stole lumber to build a tiny loft that slept three. Somehow they existed on less than $4 per day, eating gravy and biscuits at a local Denny’s and drinking potent fortified wine: tramps’ choice Night Train was a particular favourite. When they threw parties, they would sometimes ransack a girl’s handbag while she was in bed with one of the guys.

“A lot of crabs were transferred in that place,” recalls guitarist Slash.

“It was,” says former bassist Duff McKagan, “a place where the whole sleaziness of the band could fester.”

By the time they completed their debut album, 1987’s Appetite For Destruction, they had traded up to more salubrious lodgings. The Hellhouse was a dilapidated two-story house in West Hollywood that attracted hangers-on, drug dealers and groupies. The cops, too, were always there to break up wild parties and search for drugs.

It was clear that Guns N’ Roses weren’t just pretending to be five of the most degenerate scumbadgs rock’n’roll had ever seen. They were. Singer Axl Rose had a record of more than 20 arrests – mostly minor misdemeanours – in his home state of Indiana. Stradlin was a junkie and one of the band was a heroin dealer who once supplied Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Fly-posters for the early gigs billed them as “Fresh from detox”. Even their own record label admitted, “They’ll make it – if they live.”

In 1988 Rolling Stone described Guns N’ Roses as “a brutal band for brutal times”. Certainly the late ‘80s could offer nothing else quite like them. It was a landscape dominated by bloated stadium fillers; where U2 were playing Amnesty International tours with Peter Gabriel, and Sting was making records with jazz musicians. Guns N’ Roses complained that rock had “sucked a big fucking dick” since the Sex Pistols imploded. Even their heroes, ex-druggies Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones, had grown old and sensible. Jon Bon Jovi didn’t sing songs about shooting up heroin, driving drunk and fucking your little sister. Axl Rose did.

What this industry’s about in the ‘80s is pretty obvious,” said Slash at the time. “Trying to polish everything up. We go against every standard of the industry.”

What Guns N’ Roses did was put every ounce of badness on record and it earned them one of the biggest-selling albums in history. To date Appetite For Destruction has sold 15 million copies in the US, more than Sgt Pepper, more than any album by U2 or The Rolling Stones, and five million more than Nirvana’s Nevermind.

“They were considered fucking outlaws,” recalls Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. “They were bringing the grit back into rock’n’roll.”

“It was,” says McKagan, “the right band with the right songs at the right time.”

None of the members of Guns N’ Roses were born in Los Angeles. Duff McKagan came from Seattle looking for a new start: both his girlfriend and his roommate back home ere addicted to heroin. “Of course,” he notes drily, “I ended up in a band with three heroin addicts in it.”

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.

Flame-haired and heavily tattooed, Axl Rose had a volatile temperament: one psychiatrist noted evidence of psychosis during his teenage years. He chose his words carefully in the band’s early interviews, speaking in a low voice far removed from his on-stage scream. Raised as plain Bill Bailey, he legally changed his name to W Axl Rose after discovering, at 17, that his biological father was a drifter with the surname Rose, while Axl was the name of his old band back in Indiana. The initials of his new name, WAR, were, he insisted, 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. Michael “Duff” McKagan was a veteran of numerous Seattle punk bands who had seen and done it all by his early 20s. Izzy Stradliln, born Jeff Isabell, was the oner of the group, aloof and surly with anyone he didn’t know: 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. Originaly, they dubbed themselves Heads of Amazon and then AIDS, before settling on Guns N’ Roses, a hybrid of LA Guns and Hollywood Rose, two groups in which the various members had been involved. When Gardner and Tracii Guns dragged their feet at the prospect of a West Coast club tour, McKagan called up two old bandmates, Slash and Adler, who had both also played with Rose.

When Guns N’ Roses 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. He’d been groomed by his father for a career in the military before he fell in love with rock music, and struck a figure reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s cricket bat-wielding Ian Faith. The band released a four-track EP, Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide, via their own Uzi Suicide imprint, before setting to work on their 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 near Baltimore, Maryland, Clink had made his name working on big-selling soft-rock records, notably Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger.

“Those were pop records,” Clink 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.”

Clink harboured 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.”

This was not all that was wrecked. “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 remodelling 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 auto-biographies, snapshots of our existence”. On Welcome To The Jungle, Rose recalled arriving in LA as a naïve and nervous Midwestern kid. On Mr Brownstone, he nailed the junkie’s desperate existence. For added authenticity, Rose was recorded having sex with a stripper for the album’s closing song, Rocket Queen. “She was a goer,” McKagan recalls with a chuckle. “She knew how to work a microphone.”

But Guns N’ Roses tapped into more than mere unpleasantness. Sweet child O’ Mine was the flipside to Rose’s punk fury, a tender dedication to his future wife Erin Invicta Everly, daughter of the Everly Brothers’ Don. It was a US Number 1 single and took Guns N’ Roses to a mainstream audience. “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 really would make it. “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. This time, though, Axl Rose couldn’t resist pushing the outrage button. He had a postcard of a painting by Robert Williams, showing a robot standing over an assaulted woman, her shirt torn, scratch marks on her exposed breasts, her knickers 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.

Guns N’ Roses showed no sign of mellowing once they got out of LA. They arrived in the UK to a tabloid shit-storm. In June 1987, just two months before the release of Appetite For Destruction, they were in the country to play three shows at London’s Marquee club. The Daily Star branded them “even nastier” than the Beastie Boys, then riding high in the charts, and seized upon a comment in which Rose expressed his disgust for poodles. They branded him a “dog killer”.

Even the first Marquee show was a battle: the band were pelted with plastic beer glasses and showered in gob by a group of people which included several minor London glam rockers unable to contain their jealousy.

The August release of Appetite For Destruction only cranked the controversy up another notch. The cover drew heavy criticism. “All that people saw was a girl with her knickers pulled down – not the karmic retribution in it,” notes Alan Niven. When major US and UK retail chains refused to stock the album, after 30,000 copies had been printed, the image was changed for a crucifix incorporating the bands’ heads as skulls: a motif inked on Rose’s left forearm.

It’s So Easy’s casual misogyny (“Turn around, bitch, I got a use for you/Besides, you ain’t got nothin’ better to do/And I’m bored”) ensured the single was banned by UK radio stations. In October 1987, with only 10,000 copies of the album sold in the UK, the band returned for five shows at British theatres with fellow LA rockers Faster Pussycat in tow. One night during the tour Faster Pussycat’s drummer, Mark Michaels, fell asleep on McKagan’s hotel bed during a marathon drinking binge. Punishment was swift: he was beaten up, trussed in gaffer tape, bundled into an elevator and sent to the lobby.

The following month Guns N’ Roses toured with Motley Crue, whose own excesses had already grown to mythic proportions. Amazingly, there were fine until they got home. After shooting up in Slash’s motel room, Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx left in search of Steven Adler. Minutes later he was found prone in the corridor, turning blue. He was revived and rushed to hospital.

“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 home of the band’s PR Arlett Vereecke. When Vereecke discovered that the guitarist had been shooting up in her house, she went for him with a frying pan. On another occasion Vereecke came home to find her furniture on 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,” said McKagan.

The summer of 1988 found Guns N’ Roses back on the road as special guests of Aerosmith. The band were told to confine their partying to their own dressing room for fear of leading the former junkies off the wagon. It would be another two years before Guns N’ Roses began to unravel completely – first with the sacking of Adler, then with the departure of Stradlin a year later – but in truth, the writing was already on the wall by 24 July at the Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas.

The band was in celebratory mood. It was only two weeks since Appetite For Destruction had reached Number 1 on the US chart. A day earlier, Slash had turned 23 and was presented with a cake iced with the message: Happy Fuckin’ Birthday, You Fucker. He drank vodka, not his usual Jack Daniel’s, because downing two bottles of bourbon a day was turning his tongue black. Having spent the previous two days alone in his hotel room, Rose warmed up by singing to a loud playback of The Needle Lies by Seattle metal also-rans Queensryche. It seemed to be a veiled reference to the ongoing drug problems within the band.

In their first two years, Guns N’ Roses had banked as much bad karma as The Rolling Stones did in 10. And, on 20 August 1988, they were rewarded with their very own Altamont (at the Stones’ 1969 concert, a young black man, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels after he brandished a gun near the stage. The incident marked the end of the ‘60s dream). At the Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington, Leicestershire, Guns N’ Roses performed to a record-breaking crowd of 106,000. “Seeing all those people bouncing in front of us, it was incredible,” Slash says. But the moshpit was too violent, too out of control. While Guns N’ Roses were on stage, two fans were crushed to death.

Backstage, one hour later, Axl Rose was unaware of what had happened. But he looked gaunt, his lips cracked, his voice barely a whisper. For him, 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.”

Worse was still to come. A year on Axl Rose would threaten to quit in protest over the heroin use. Whatever his motives, he was taking control of the band (he had legally bought the rights to the Guns N’ Roses name back in January 1988). Rose was also readying his band’s grand statement: Use Your Illusion I and II, overblown twin releases that emerged simultaneously, the week before Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Another musical change was in the air, and the band that had created the greatest rock album of the ‘80s was speeding toward its own destruction. Q

STILL AT LARGE… What Guns N’ Roses did next

Slash: Now guitarist in Velvet Revolver, a new band starring Duff McKagan, ex-Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum, guitarist Dave Kushner and Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland. He’s married with one child.

Duff McKagan: In Velvet Revolver. Married with two daughters. McKagan is now living in Los Angeles after several years in Seattle.

Axl Rose: Toured Europe in 2002 with all-new Guns N’ Roses lineup including guitarist Buckethead, a man with a KFC bucket on his head. For the last six years has been working on the long-awaited Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy. No release date is yet confirmed.

Steven Adler: Fired by Guns N’ Roses in September 1990, Adler sued the band, alleging that they had been encouraging him to use drugs (the band settled out of court for a reported $2.5m). Now lives in Las Vegas and plays drums for a new band, Adler’s Appetite.

Izzy Stradlin: Quit the band in September 1991. Released his first solo album, Izzy Stradlin & The Ju Ju Hounds, in 1992. Now working on a new solo album.

Alan Niven: Left his post as manager in the early ‘90s by mutual consent. “The average American marriage lasts four years,” he notes. “I was with Guns N’ Roses for five.” Niven now lives in Arizona.

Mike Clink: Lives in LA and has just produced a live TV special by the re-formed Duran Duran, recorded at Tokyo’s Budokan theatre. No one has recorded a live sex act in his studio for quite some time.

Thanks to Gypsy


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