Musician Magazine - June 1992
by Bill Flanagan
Shadow Boxing With Axl Rose
When Musician last checked in with Guns N'
Roses, in the summer of 1991, frontman Axl Rose was in a defensive crouch,
slapping at his enemies. In the aftermath of a riot in St. Louis concert,
the media had labeled the controversial singer a public enemy, perhaps
a dangerous nut, and Rose was defending himself, screaming to be heard
above his accusers.
Since then things have gotten a little rosier
for Axl, though no progress in Guns N' Roses career will ever be easy.
The band finally released its long-awaited albums Use Your Illusion
volumes one and two, which demonstrated the breadth of the group's ambition
- and which have now been best-sellers for eight months. Having already
gone through the tension of splitting with drummer Steven Adler, the band
then faced the trauma of losing guitarist Izzy Stradlin - Rose's childhood
friend. And one of GN'R's main songwriters.
Rose, who has been the subject of more psychological
profiles than Gary Hart, threw himself into deep therapy and began, he
says, unlocking buried childhood traumas (including being sexually abused
by his natural father) that pointed toward the causes of his various neuroses
and his rages. Rose has also been working extensively with a chiropractor
and a masseuse to relieve physical trauma - some of which he says are
manifestations of the childhood abuses he is remembering. When this interview
took place, early in March, Rose was awaiting publication of a Rolling
Stone interview in which he went public for the first time with his
accusations against his father and stepfather. Far from nervous about
the effect those revelations would have, the singer expressed feelings
of great relief, even liberation, at having exposed his demons to the
light of day.
In his faith in the righteousness and healing
power of public confession, Rose recalls another tortured rock star -
John Lennon. But to understand Guns N' Roses one must understand that
Axl is not a direct descendant of Lennon. Or Dylan, Presley or any of
the other prototypes who first inspired most important rock musicians.
A child of Indiana, strict discipline and the 1970s, Rose grew up piecing
together his idea of rock 'n' roll from what he could glean from Top 40
radio in the era of Queen and Billy Joel. He still loves that music. He
says that when he first heard Elton John's "Somebody Saved My Life
Tonight" the song had a power like no music he had ever known. He
also says that while he was growing up, forbidden access to rock culture,
the only music magazines he saw were the publications he could buy at
the local grocery store: teenage poster mags such as Circus and
Hit Parader. Axl Rose shaped his vision of rock 'n' roll out of
rock 'n' roll's most unsubstantial debris. Unaware of all the possibilities,
he began his career expressing his talent through a limited vocabulary.
As a troubled child Billy Bailey looked
at pin-up pictures of silly heavy metal bands and thought they really
meant in. So he took that trivial style and infused it with a powerful
creative vision. He brought integrity to a shallow genre through his own
passionate belief. Billy Bailey was a sad, scared kid who recreated himself
as a rock star named W. Axl Rose. And then, against all odds, he found
MUSICIAN: Guns N' Roses are
going on tour with Metallica this summer. I heard you've been trying to
get Nirvana to join you and Kurt Cobain is saying no.
AXL: It's back and forth. I just think that they're having a lot of problems
with who they are and who they want to be and trying to hold onto it at
the same time. At least Kurt is. I'd like to be as supportive as I can,
but I don't know how much he will allow support. To write a song like
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" making fun of your songwriting and
then have it used as an anthem has got to be a complete mindfuck. The
man definitely has a mountain to rise above. I think there is a part of
him that has the strength and desire to do it. I just don't know if he's
able to get in touch with it. I had an advance copy of that record and
it became my favorite. I would put it on repeatedly. Nirvana has helped
me do my job. I think that the world has gotten really bored, really fed
up and really pent up with frustration, and that comes through in Nirvana.
I think a lot of people were aware of that feeling and he happened to
find the song that touched it and was able to let that feeling out in
people. And I'd like to do anything I can to support it. That's why we
want them to play with us.
MUSICIAN: How do you feel
about touring now?
AXL: I pretty much could do without touring in a lot of ways. I'm not
a big fan of it. I like the transportation, I like flying in a private
plane, I like riding in limos. I like the grandiose nature of those things
and the material comfort. But other than that, I don't have a lot of time
to really enjoy myself. I can enjoy that I've got a nice room and a police
escort, but I don't have much time to take in a movie or TV or just sit
MUSICIAN: Do the people who
come to your shows and listen closely to your records really know you?
AXL: No. I don't even know how necessary it is that they know me. If somehow
through me they're able to know themselves a little better, that's what's
cool. It is hard when you are communicating with a majority of people
who have no idea where you are coming from. They just know Guns N' Roses
means party. Rock 'n' roll. Okay, that's cool, but it means a lot more
than that and if you think that's what it's all about then you can go
home. Because there are times when I just don't have the energy to continue
fostering that belief in people - that rock 'n' roll is an escape. I can't
find too many ways to escape anymore. I have to face things head-on in
my life. And each day I'm rising to the challenge a little bit more.
MUSICIAN: There's a part of
your audience that's attracted to the possibility of disaster. There are
people rooting for you to lose.
AXL: Yeah, that's like a gladiator thing. That's a morbid part of human
nature and it can be tough to deal with. Especially if you feel it from
a crowd. It's very disguised. It's not like, "Aw, you suck!"
They're screaming and they're happy but they want to see blood. To figure
out how to rise above that and still satiate the crowd is a tough job.
I've done shows where to the naked eye it looked really positive, but
onstage, being sensitive to it, it was a draining thing. These people
were out for every last drop they could get. If they're giving something
back, you can give more.
MUSICIAN: When the crowd's
energy is negative, does that force you to follow them down the road,
or can you turn it into something positive?
AXL: It's been different at different stages of my career. It used to
be more of a punk rock thing where a band would take that negative attitude
and turn it on themselves. "You want to see blood? I'll give you
more than you planned on, I'll even take my own life." I've tried
that avenue until finally
it was too hard. You just go down the
tubes too fast giving in to that kind of anger.
But it's really hard to stay positive when
there's that kind of taking and that kind of anger in the crowd.
There's places where we have played where we have turned it around. I
think that's part of the job. Sometimes it's hard to stay focused when
you're getting beat up by the energy. You can physically feel that you're
getting beat up rather than getting inspired. It feels like a nightmare
and to try to get above that is very difficult.
MUSICIAN: Does the band respond
with one mind, or might two of you be sensitive to the negative energy
while two others are having a great time?
AXL: I think it's pretty much on my shoulders and I don't mind that at
all. The band works the stage and gets off on the crowd, but I'm kind
of a shield. If I'm gone they don't really know how to get on top of it.
If I'm out there and not handling it, no one can really rescue me. It's
just very hard sometimes. We've done shows where I could feel that it
was a very taking thing and I turn around and Slash is doing handstands
because he's still getting off on the chaos of it. And I'm having the
shit beat out of me. This happened in Vegas. My jaw was hurting, my back
was hurting, my leg was hurting. I call it shadow boxing because it comes
down to between me and the audience. And for Guns N' Roses to be successful,
I have to win. And if I win, everyone wins. If the crowd wins then a lot
of people lose, including the crowd. They didn't get to be satiated, they
get to go home pissed off because we crumbled under it.
MUSICIAN: Yet if you gave
in to the negative the crowd would love it.
AXL: I'm such a Victory or Death type of person. I realized at
one point that going onstage and just smashing everything around and singing
"Jungle" wasn't getting me anywhere in my own life. It wasn't
enough for me. And taking it farther and hurting myself or taking my life
onstage wasn't going to do me any good. And if people are benefiting from
the music it wasn't going to do them any good if I was gone. So I had
to start working on other ways of dealing with it and other ways of working
with the crowd. We still haven't risen above a lot of things but we've
risen above some. And we're continually thriving.
MUSICIAN: When we go see Guns
N' Roses now we're seeing three original members and three hired sidemen.
You're one man away from a Steely Dan situation.
AXL: Slash and I are avid Steely Dan fans.
MUSICIAN: What's different
about playing with guys you've hired, as opposed to guys you slept on
AXL: In some ways it's not a whole lot different because in the beginning
we were putting a band together to achieve something. It was always kind
of a triad between Slash, Izzy, and me. And when Izzy wasn't so much being
a part of that triad, Doug Goldstein, our manager, kind of took his place.
As far as keeping Guns N' Roses going and figuring out what we're doing,
Izzy really wasn't that much involved anymore. He wrote songs, but those
songs were on the record because I wanted them on the record and because
the band agreed to learn them and liked them and we all worked on them.
I really believed in Izzy. I was an Izzy fan for 15 years and I wanted
his songs to be a part of this project. But it was like pulling teeth
to make that happen. A lot of people might have liked the way Izzy was
standing there onstage and it was kind of cool, but the truth of the matter
was that Izzy wasn't handling any of the weight.
MUSICIAN: It seems like you
have the other guys in the band over a barrel sometimes. Everyone knows
you're capable of saying, "The hell with it, I won't go on"
or won't record or won't show up. Doesn't that force the band to say,
"We better do it Axl's way or it ain't going to happen at all"?
MUSICIAN: Does that take something
out of the band? It seems as if Guns N' Roses has gone from being a shared
vision to being your vision. Is that fair?
AXL: Yeah, it's somewhat fair. That's definitely the case with Izzy. Izzy
wanted the financial rewards and the power rewards of my vision. Izzy's
vision was much smaller. The other guys in the band just though I was
crazy. In order to make certain things happen, certain people had to think
certain ideas were completely their own. I definitely knew what I wanted.
I didn't know quite how to get there. And sometimes the only way to have
everybody going the same place is to allow them to think that they're
the ones who thought of it.
It's not so much that way anymore and it's
been real difficult to uncover that reality. It's been hard for people
to accept. But it has been a basic reality of Guns N' Roses since the
beginning. It just wasn't seen. Because I wasn't someone who had all the
answers and all the plans, I just had a vision. I wasn't necessarily someone
that people wanted to follow blindly and say, "He's got the plan,
let's go." I've finally earned respect from Duff and Slash that wasn't
necessarily there before. And Slash and I, more than anyone else, are
very much a team.
MUSICIAN: In "Garden
of Eden" you talk about "kiss ass sycophants." Are there
people around you who can look at you in the eye and say, "Hey, you're
being a real jerk, knock it off"?
AXL: Yeah. I have some close friends in the band and in our organization.
That's why I'm friends with them. We pretty much lay things on the line
with each other.
MUSICIAN: Use Your Illusion
has been out for a while now. Do you find that one volume holds together
better than the other?
AXL: No, I've never really looked at it as two separate albums. That was
Geffen Records' marketing plan. I've always looked at it as an entire
package. For me it fits together perfectly for the 30 songs in a row.
Everything that we decided to record for the album made it. Actually there
were 29 songs and "My World" just kind of presented itself.
MUSICIAN: Did you suddenly
say, "Hold on, there's another song coming"?
AXL: Yeah. That happened with "Don't Cry." While I was recording
the original version I started hearing another melody and words in my
head. It really surprised me. I told Mike Clink, our producer, "Put
me on another track! I don't know what's happening here but I've got a
different song coming through my head and I want to get that on tape."
"My World" happened when we were
sitting around being a bit bored. We had been working on "Live and
Let Die" all night and it was early morning. I'd been listening to
a lot of industrial music and all of a sudden I said, "Hey man, let's
do something. Let's see what happens. Let's just make it short and sweet
and see what we come up with." In three hours we wrote and recorded
MUSICIAN: In it you refer
to you "socio-psychotic state of bliss."
AXL: I'll expose a little more of myself - we were also on 'shrooms. A
friend of mine had stuck some mushrooms in my tea and I didn't know it.
All of a sudden we were being really mellow. So it was kind of
a socio-psychotic state of bliss.
MUSICIAN: Some people mess
up their personal lives in order to keep the music coming.
AXL: I think everybody's different. A lot of people, myself included,
will choose to stay in certain situations whether you like them or not
because they are what you know. That's what you're used to. You can even
leave one set of conditions and move into another and it's a whole other
mess, but there's some of the same essence in that mess, the same type
of chaos. I think that a lot of people hold onto these things because
it's pretty natural to have fears of moving beyond something. Like feeling
you need to keep a certain anger in your life because that's how you defend
yourself and deal with the world, rather than learning how to let it go.
You hold onto certain fears or frustrations because it's so much a part
of you that you don't know what you'd be without it. The truth is that
you'd be better, but try convincing your unconscious mind of that.
MUSICIAN: It would be tough
for anybody to peel back those layers, to confront those demons and let
go of that anger. But it must be even tougher for someone in your position.
You have been rewarded for your anger, you have had lots of reinforcement.
When you go out onstage and express your rage people cheer. It must be
very hard for you to let go of it.
AXL: It's like signing a contract with a big record company and being
promoted as the bad boys. Then after your success reaches a certain point
you're expected to be able to just talk with the lawyers and be very social
and business-wise, communicate properly. And you're like, "Wait a
minute, the reason we're here is because of what we were and now we're
supposed to be something completely different?" That's taken a long
time for me to get on top of, and to turn things around in myself so I
wasn't just the bad boy. All of a sudden in order to keep things rolling
smoothly business-wise and career-wise I had to be two different people,
and that was really hard. I'd rather be one person. Being the fucked-up
bad boy with mental problems, flipping out and trashing stuff, was getting
in the way.
MUSICIAN: To some degree the
entertainment business expects you to be a hypocrite. "Well, surely
that's just an act. Now let's get in the limo and talk about the franchise
rights for Japan."
AXL: Yeah, and you're expendable. If it's not an act, well then you just
couldn't cut it and you're out. It's a real law of the jungle. The strongest
survive. Maybe there are some people trying to help you, but you have
to get on top of it yourself. And if you don't, well, see ya.
MUSICIAN: The reason a lot
of musicians say, "Just put me in the car and tell me what city I'm
in" is because they don't want to deal with business, they don't
want to have to make those decisions. They just say, "Let me be a
performing monkey, put me onstage and I'll dance around."
AXL: But nine times out of 10 that attitude comes back and slaps you in
the face later. For me one of the greatest examples of that is that there
is no Alice Cooper band like there used to be. I think that's a reason
why a certain level of success and creativity isn't there anymore. Alice
is a great human being, but something was killed a long time ago.
MUSICAIN: Are there artists
that you see as an example of doing it right? Of whom you say, "That's
the kind of career I'd like to have"?
AXL: I look at U2 that way. They're my favorite band right now. I'm finally
getting certain songs that I never understood before or couldn't relate
to. I've always listened to them, but the only song I really got into
was "With or Without You." I couldn't relate to their other
songs because I was like, "That's great, but I don't see that part
of the world." Things were a little too dark for me. Now I can see
more of the things he's talking about.
I bought Achtung Baby and the third
song, "One" - I actually wanted to do a cover of that song.
I want to play it on tour this summer. I think "One" is one
of the greatest songs that has ever been written. I put the song on and
jut broke down crying. It was such a release. It was really good for me.
I was really upset that my ex-wife and I never had a chance because of
the damage in our lives. We didn't have a chance and I hadn't fully accepted
that. That song helped me see it. I wanted to write Bono a letter just
saying, "Your record's done a lot for me."
I kind of think that we're on this planet
exploring pain and I think that I've reached a point where I'm trying
to explore whatever the opposite of pain is. I've found a lot more peace
in the last year than I've ever known and I feel a bit more creative than
ever. I'm not writing a whole lot but I write a little bit and I play
a bit on the piano and it comes easier than it used to.
MUSICIAN: To what do you attribute
AXL: I've done a lot of emotional therapy and getting in touch with my
real self, rather than the self that I've created to deal with life. Even
though I was fighting to be myself, I wasn't really in touch with who
I was. I guess I allowed it, but what are you going to do? You're a baby
and things happen. You get affected.
MUSICIAN: You're talking about
being abused as a child?
AXL: Yeah. I was affected by what I saw at such an impressionable age.
I kind of separated from the self I came here with. Man, I did a really
good job of putting together a reasonable facsimile of who I thought I
was. I was an angry pissed-off person most of the time. At least I was
very honest to that. I didn't then try to split off and be somebody else
from that. If I had you'd be seeing me on "Oprah" talking
to my 23rd personality.
MUSICIAN: You were sexually
abused by your father and then your stepfather abused your sister?
AXL: Yeah. And it was a very strict spare-the-rod, spoil-the-child uptight
religious family. It was okay to beat the kids. Those situations embedded
themselves deeply within my personality. Going back through those situations
and experiencing the anger or the pain or the hurt and letting them go
is the healing process. Then you start to become who you really are. Usually
a person is going to be a lot more happy with who they really are than
whoever they think they are. There is really nothing to be afraid of,
but it seems scary.
MUSICIAN: Are you in touch
with your family?
AXL: No, I haven't talked with my parents in over a year-and-a-half. I
sent them some letters just recently to let them know this was happening,
but when I started to uncover things they let me know, very adamantly,
to drop the issue.
MUSICIAN: When you uncover
things that are buried that deep and that happened in early childhood,
how do you know that what you're remembering is even real? How do you
know you're not uncovering a dream or fantasy or some projection or demonization?
AXL: I have a lot of corroboration from people who knew something horrible
happened. Even now I could talk about it with my grandmother and she'd
nod her head yes, but would not talk about it. Also, the emotions that
end up surfacing and the amount of weight that is lifted each time we
get into certain issues kind of makes me go, "Wait a minute, I can
trust myself here." I can trust myself because I feel a hell of a
lot better. I mean, you could go to a medium and talk to someone in your
family who had died and when you come out you'll feel much different.
Someone will say, "Was it real?" and you'll say, "I don't
know, but I know I feel a lot easier with the situation and acting on
it isn't going to hurt me."
MUSICIAN: Sure, but if it
makes you fell better to believe in a phony medium, that affects no one
but you. When you say publicly that your father molested you and your
stepfather molested your sister, you're affecting your whole family. The
rules of evidence would have to be stricter.
AXL: Oh yeah. My sister is involved with my life and works with me, so
I know what happened there. I know what reaction my mom has to dealing
with any of it. Her eyes turn black. It's complete anger and she will
fight to the death to not have to re-experience that. That somewhat justifies
it. The physical damage manifesting itself is another thing that puts
it together. Certain thought patterns are there that would have no reason
to be there unless something happened. I don't believe too many people
are born evil or born fucked up. Something had to happen somewhere. You
go back and find the time that something happened and work through and
finally find the base underneath. And by letting it go, all of a sudden
you don't have certain problems in your life. That somehow validates the
situation. I've gone back and realized that I had thought my whole life
that sex is power and also that sex leaves you powerless.
MUSICIAN: Because sex was
used as a weapon against you as a child, it made you grow up assuming
that sex equaled power over people?
AXL: Without even realizing it. It's like, wait, I'm trying to have a
happy life here - why do I keep getting in my own way with it? What's
going on here?
MUSICIAN: I could sit here
and play pop psychologist and say, "Oh well, that explains why you
use sex as a weapon in your songs" or explains the antagonism towards
women in some of your songs. What do you see in your music that you understand
better for going through the therapy?
AXL: Well, the things you just said made sense. So there you are, pop
psychologist. Now I feel I know why I've gotten myself into negative situations
and why I've been negative in situations and how I've kept that ball rolling
whether I wanted to or not. I can see a lot of that in my life and in
the albums. I was pretty much trying to express the anger and frustration
and I was blaming certain things on the women involved. That's not to
say that when I was writing a song like "Locomotive" that the
person I was inspired by wasn't doing something completely fucked up.
You know, I can even have some love for my real father now, which I never
had before, but that's not to say he wasn't an asshole. I can understand
Izzy leaving the band and be fine with that, but that's not to say he
didn't go about it like an asshole. Someone could understand why I stormed
offstage but I have to take responsibility for that. I could have been
bein' a fuckin' baby.
I'm trying to learn how to take more responsibility
for my actions. I just wish I didn't have so many actions that were fucked
up that I had to take responsibility for.
MUSICIAN: It's got to be good
for some kid who is into Guns N' Roses because he finds a manifestation
of his anger to be presented with the possibility that anger is not an
end in itself.
AXL: Yeah, that's what I'd like to promote. It's very hard because for
a lot of people that's a new concept. And rock 'n' roll music is so huge,
with all the amps and the watts of power, that someone can think, "This
means I should go home and scream at my girlfriend for giving me shit."
And I'm saying, "NO, that's not what it means. It means you can feel
like that and that's okay, and then you need to communicate so you can
let that go." Expressing your anger can be really good. I know it's
really good for me. But using anger as a tool to try to achieve something
doesn't necessarily work.
MUSICIAN: When you're talking
to your therapist, are you Axl or Bill?
AXL: Axl. Bill was something that got left behind long ago. I was named
after my real father and that wasn't something I was a big fan of. If
I'm getting in touch with the child in me then I'm dealing with Billy.
But I'm Axl. That was the name of a band I had with Izzy and at one point
he said, "You live, breathe, eat, sleep, walk and talk Axl. Why don't
you just be Axl?" So I was like, "Good. Now I'm Axl Rose."
And I won.