|When the reclusive Guns N' Roses star re-emerged last year, even old band mates didn't recognise him. After a decade of hiring and firing, an $8 million studio bill and the last minute cancellation of his European tour, is there a future for the Howard Hughes of rock? Phil Sutcliffe finds out...
Thursday is a low-key night at The Cat of LA's Sunset Boulevard. Proprietor Slim Jim Phantom, ex-Stray Cats drummer and current self-styled Prince Of The Strip, has fun "slaughtering the FM classics" with his bar band, The Starfuckers, featuring ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke. But Thursday 22 June last year turned out to be something special: the night Axl Rose sang in public for the first time since the Use Your Illusion tour ended in 1993.
Phantom didn't spot him. Rose had become so reclusive nobody really knew what he looked like anymore. But the bartender advised his boss that the fellow with the baseball cap leaning on the bar was indeed the legendary hellion. "I wasn't sure," Phantom tells Q. "So I took Gilby over and tapped the guy on the shoulder. He turns round and Gilby says, That's not him! But Axl grins and says, Hey, Gilby, how're you doin'?"
Long estranged - Rose fired Clarke in 1994 - they talked until 4am. At one point, Rose got up with The Starfuckerrs for half an hour to scream the bejesus out of the The Rolling Stones' Wild Horses, Dead Flowers and other favourites.
Clarke hasn't heard a word from him since, but Phantom reckons that having "got his feet wet", Rose decided it was time to declare the silent years over. His label, Polydor, suggested that Chinese Democracy, the album Guns N' Roses' new line-up had been crafting since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, would be out this summer. UK concerts were announced for June. To prove it, they really did play live at the Las Vegas House Of Blues early on New Year's Day and again, to 200,000, at Rock In Rio on 15 January. But the tour has since been pulled due to illness - "internal haemorranging" suffered by Slash replacement Buckethead. Chinese Democracy, too, has been postponed for the umpteenth time - until autumn at the very earliest - pending adjustments by, possibly, its sixth producer, Queen veteran Roy Thomas Baker. To date, the project is rumoured to have cost a mindboggling $8 million. What, exactly, is going on with Axl Rose?
It would be silly to claim that there are straight lines to be drawn through Rose's character, any clear-cut pointers to why, after selling more than 40 million albums, he allowed his career to slide into limbo. But, probably, all the enigmatic twists and turns that ultimately broke up the old Guns N' Roses and led their frontman into willful obscurity started in Indiana.
Rose, aka Bill Bailey, grew up in the self-styled "all-American city" of Lafayette (population 43,764). It gave him a picket-fence Midwest childhood. It gave him a natural father, William Rose, who abused him as a two-year-old -"fucked me up the ass", Axl said in a 1992 interview. It gave him a Pentecostal preacher stepfather, L Stephen Bailey, who talked in tongues and beat him for such transgressions as singing along to Barry Manilow's Mandy on the radio. It gave him 20 arrests for drunken misdemeanours when he ran wild as a teenager.
And ever since he left the town for LA in '82, he has both hated Indiana and clung to it like a life-raft.
Guns N' Roses stumbled together in 1985 as an accidental combination of big city and Hicksville: Rose and his Lafayette high-school pal Izzy Stradlin (guitar), along with Angelenos Slash (lead guitar) and Steven Adler (drums), plus Duff McKagan (bass) from Seattle. En route, they discovered a special gift for uproar: drugs, girls, riots. Controversial, but it all seemed to work perfectly well for a while. When the band began to fall apart, though, that Indiana thing was at the bitter heart of it.
If Adler's sacking in '90, because of heroin addiction, was hardly seismic, when Stradlin quit the following year, Rose ballistic. Stradlin, newly drug-free, critised Rose for keeping fans waiting for over two hours before he went on stage.
Rose just felt betrayed. "I feel like Izzy shit all over me," he howled. He was appalled that his small-town compadre could fail to understand the agonies he went through nightly - the "living hell" of trying to get himself ready to face 50,000 fans. And he seemed even more upset that, after leaving the band, Stradlin hopped on his Harley and drove home to Lafayette. "The fucking idea of going back to Indiana!" Rose raged to Rolling Stone as late as '99. "I know how much Izzy hated it. It's pitiful."
Clarke came in as immediate substitute, but Rose had a need to fill that Indiana-shaped void. In autumn '94, Slash checked a mix of Guns N' Roses covering Sympathy For The Devil (for Interview With The Vampire's soundtrack). He heard a guitar part he didn't like and learned it was Paul Huge (it rhymes with "boogie"), late of Lafayette - and it turned out, catalyst for the destruction of the original Guns N' Roses.
"I never liked that guy from day one," said Slash. "That's one of the biggest, most personal things that Axl and I have gone through - to bring in an outside guitar player without even telling me."
Matt Sorum, who replaced Adler, confirmed to Q that the band "didn't feel Paul was one of us", while allowing that, "I guess there were times when Axl felt outside the band - and Paul told him what he wanted to hear."
Indiana in exile was taking over. Even before the Huge hoo-ha, Rose "turned down flat" an album's worth of new songs Slash had written in the hope of hurrying along the successor to Use Your Illusion (not counting 1993's interim covers venture, The Spaghetti Incident). This was where straightforward musical differences - no, for real - contributed to the conflagration. Slash wanted to make a "simple, kick-ass hard rock record". Rose was determined to modernise, and eulogised Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy, "electronica", industrial and all the new influences he reckons to have explored with the new lineup
Crucially, although the other four favoured "kick-ass" over modernisation every time, it was a debate the majority was never going to carry for the simple reason that, by them, Axl Rose effectively owned Guns N' Roses. During one of their regular post-multi-platinum power struggles, Rose had threatened to withdraw from the Use Your Illusion tour unless they gave him full rights to the band's name. They waved the white flag and he secured what he once called "the power rewards of my vision".
By September 1996, Slash was so miserable that he swore, "I'm going to confront it. Either Paul goes, or..." A month later, Rose announced that Slash had quit the band.
But Indiana wasn't done yet. A year on, Matt Sorum introduced Rose to former Nine Inch Nail guitarist Robin Finck, advising that he would make a great foil for Slash - who could then be restroed to the lineup Rose said, "No, he would be a great replacement for Slash."
"Then Paul Huge walked into the studio and made a bad comment about Slash," says Sorum. "I said, You don't say that when I'm in the room." Then Axl laid in, I argued with him and it was over. Huge followed me out into the parking lot and said, Come back. I said, I can't come back, he's fired me. Do you feel good about breaking up one of the greatest bands that ever lived?"
By 1998, McKagan, the other remaining original, had drifted away to join the others in a loose fellowship of LA club bands and uncommercial solo albums. "Paul Huge is the Yoko Ono of GN'R". Sorum concludes.
Perhaps more accurately, Indiana is the Yoko Ono of GN'R. Conversely, in January, at Rock In Rio, Rose made a point of telling the crowd that "Without Paul Huge there probably wouldn't be a Guns N' Roses." It all depends on your point of view.
For the past eight years, Axl Rose's life has been the subject of gossip, speculation and "reported sightings". Rumour and fact, however, combine to sketch a life that's quiet, drug-free, very withdrawn, yet largely mundane - apart from the never-ending nocturnal studio sessions.
Although he is rarely seen in daylight, sometimes he goes to the beach, sometimes he goes to the movies. Occasionally he attends concerts - Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Tool (he has been observed struggling to get backstage because security didn't recognise him anymore).
He lives in a mansion off Latigo Canyon Road, in the hills above Malibu, keeping fit via kick-boxing and home gym work-outs. His domestic needs are attended to by his assistant/cook, a Brazilian called Beta Lebeis (recipient of another onstage thank you in Rio) and he is sometimes spotted at a Malibu mall shopping for groceries with her and one of her three children.
Rather charmmingly - not an adverb often associated with Rose - at the singer's '99 Halloween fancy dress party, Dave Quakenbush, vocalist with LA punk band The Vandals, encountered him "wearing a dinosaur outfit. When some kids approached him and asked if he was Barney The Dinosaur, he said Nah! Barney's a fag! Then he stopped himself and said, Oh, uh, I mean Barney's a pussy."
While further cuteness is not expected to crop up on the Rose agenda, his last known breach of public tranquillity occurred as long ago as 1998 when he was arrested at Phoenix airport for refusing to let security search his bags. He has also been involved in several cases against a persistent stalker called Karen McNeil, jailed last year for breaking into his property at least six times after travelling from Ohio in response to Rose's "psychic call", she claimed.
But there seems no doubt that his dominant pre-occupation for the past years at least has been that Guns N' Roses album. Most weekdays he's spent the hours between 9pm and 9am at a Los Angeles or San Fernando Valley Studio with a shifting cast of expensive players. These have included former members of Jane's Addiction, Circus of Power, Ozzy Osbournes band, The Vandals and intriguingly, Queen's Brian May. Rose loved Freddie Mercury and the old Guns N' Roses lineup always described the Wembley tribute concert in 1992 as their collective happiest moment.
Together, the new model Guns N' Roses have assembled more than 70 songs. In 1998, Moby did some production work with Rose and told him he had a finished album and should release it, but only one track has emerged as yet, the End of Days soundtrack contribution Oh My God, a song clearly informed by post-Limp Bizkit developments in metal. Which makes the $8 million studio bill rumour almost believable.
Unusually in the hush-hush environs of Guns N' Roses, ex-Killing Joke bassist and Verve producer Youth was willing to recount his experience of Chinese Democracy. He had "four or five" spells working with Rose in 1998-'99. The first thing he did was temporarily distract the singer from inter-minable studio rehearsals of Appetite For Destruction - which, astonishingly, Rose did later re-record in its entirety (conspiracy theorists suggest it will be released to kill off sales of the original and deprive the old lineup of royalties, but that's both unrealistic and over-paranoid).
"I went to his house and we started writing songs, strumming guitars in the kitchen", says Youth. "That was a major breakthrough because it got him singing again which he hadn't done for a long time".
But when Youth ushered Rose back into the studio, progress ceased: "So I said, Next time I come over I want to record the songs, and he said, You're pushing me too fast. I had to pull out. Sadly, because I think he's one of the last great showmen of rock, incredibly committed and passionate."
So why can't Axl Rose finish the record? Is it perfectionism? Is it fear - or as Slash once put it, "The more you hide from people the more you can't get off your fuckin' ass".
"Partly perfectionism," says Youth, "But the psychology is that if you have something out you get judged - so you want to stay in a place where you don't get judged. Which means it is a good sign that he's now playing live.
Yet, even as Axl Rose and his band creep towards the light of day, wrangles with his old cohorts continue. For one, the Live Era '87-'93 album released in 1999 caused another row between Rose and Matt Sorum. A few months before its release, Sorum was quoted expressing his concern that Rose was "being taken advantage of" by hippy healers he visited in Arizona. Rose made no public reply, but when Sorum saw a proof of the album sleeve, his heart sank: he was listed only as an "additional musician".
"That hurt", he says. "It was the biggest dig he ever took at me. But Axl said he wouldn't release the album if it was changed. That's how spiteful he got. I didn't mean what I said badly. I felt sorry for him".
Strange. People fight him for years, suffer the rough end of his power and money, and still come out empathising with his vulnerability and isolation. Ex-wife Erin Everly told a court she had suffered regular beatings and that Rose removed all the doors in her appartment so that he could keep tabs on what she was doing. She also testified "I felt sorry for him" and "I thought I could make it all better"
Slash, who hasn't spoken to his former partner for five years, once reflected: "I feel sorry for him sometimes, if only because he's such a tough act to be - he's in such a funny place because Axl is Axl and no-one will really understand him as much as he would probably like to be understood. He's really on his own in that respect. You know, I once asked him why he didn't do a solo album to get it off his chest. Well, he didn't see any reason why he should, because in Axl's mind, Guns is his solo project."
It is now. And still the hesitation continues.
Perhaps Axl Rose might consider the merits of Slim Jim Phantom's rough-hewn summing up: "He should just go out and play a couple of new songs, then do the family favourites like The Rolling Stones and pink Floyd do. Sometimes you can over-think these things".
Typed up by Louise @ Highway 65