Rolling Stone Magazine - November
by Rob Tannenbaum
The Hard Truth
About Guns N' Roses - Finally, some bad boys that are good.
A second ago, things were merely tense.
Izzy Stradlin, Guns N' Roses' scruffy rhythm guitarist, is slumped on
a dressing room counter, sullenly draining his second bottle of red
wine and testing the wattage of a portable stereo.
Sitting on a couch, trying to talk above
the racket, are Axl Rose, the group's singer, and Slash, the lead guitarist.
Slash, whose copper skin is still wet from a postconcert shower, is
wearing shorts and holding a bottle of Jack Daniels, his only constant
companion. Axl is wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt that says,
Welcome to Detroit, Murder Capitol of the World. Axl and Slash are getting
increasingly angry with Izzy, who grins obliviously and cranks up the
Rolling Stones' "Stupid Girl."
At the base of the wall nearest the door,
there is a fresh hole the exact size of Axl's boot. This evening's concert,
the last of three mid-August dates opening for Aerosmith at Pine Knob
Music Theatre, near Detroit, went so poorly that the band left the stage
five minutes early. And when the Gunners don't play well, trouble ensues.
While the band members sit in the dressing room, their sound mixer and
a bus driver are being fired for alleged incompetence.
Suddenly, there's an explosion. "Violent
mood swing!" shouts Izzy, rolling from the counter. A bottle of
vodka flies from his hand and smashes against the far wall. "Mood
swing!" shouts Axl, leaping from the couch. He grabs a vase filled
with roses and pitches it in the same direction.
Just as quickly, Izzy and Axl are seated
again. But all that smashed glass hasn't relieved any tension. The bottle
of vodka belonged to bassist Duff "Rose" McKagan, who is now
without his favorite liquor and is therefore enraged. Slash, too, is
pissed at Izzy, who still won't turn down the stereo. "This is
entertaining," says Axl, watching and smiling.
After Slash and Duff have finished yelling
at him, Izzy turns remorseful. "Fuckin' Duff, man, I never like
to break his vodka. I know he loves that vodka."
Just another rock & roll band being
assholes, trashing a dressing room? Not exactly. For Guns N' Roses,
outbursts are not merely the traditional way for a rock star to pass
the time between blow jobs. The agitation backstage in Detroit springs
from the same hair-trigger temperament that makes the Gunners the world's
most exciting hard-rock band. They are young, foolhardy, stubborn, cynical,
proud, uncompromising, insolent, conflicted, and very candid about their
The tension that is part of the band members'
daily life compresses their moods and their music until both explode.
Except for Stephen Adler, their happy-go-lucky drummer, they are willful
and combative. "It's cool that this tension is building up, because
it's gotta find its release in the music," Axl says backstage.
"If we live that long."
If you don't look any deeper than the
band members' tattoos, you might compare Guns N' Roses to Poison, Ratt,
Faster Pussycat, Motley Crue, and any other of the dozens of nearly
identical heavy-metal bands currently being pushed by the music industry.
The Gunners enrage in the same antics, revolving around booze, drugs,
and women; they trumpet their music as "rebellious"; and they
claim to play for "the kids."
But Guns N' Roses don't play heavy metal.
They play a vicious brand of hard rock that, especially in concert,
is closer to Metallica or punk than to heavy metal. They are a musical
sawed-off shotgun, with great power but erratic aim - they veer from
terrible to brilliant in a typical set, often within a single song.
And more important, Guns N' Roses really
do play for "the kids." Metal bands base their images on a
fantasy life that has no relation to the daily reality of being a teenager.
Kids may idolize or envy David Lee Roth, but they have little in common
with him. Guns N' Roses are young enough to remember what it was like
to be seventeen: Slash and Steven are twenty-three; Duff, the only married
band member, is twenty-four; Axl and Izzy are twenty-six. Axl remains
obsessed with the contradictions of adolescence: the unfocused rage
and pervasive doubt, the insecurity and cockiness, the horniness and
fear. The Gunners' songs don't hide the fact that they're confused and
screwed up. "We know we are," Axl says with a nod. "But
we're trying not to be."
U2 manager Paul McGuinness has called
the Gunners' success "the most exciting new thing to happen in
our business for a while." They have been embraced by the fashionable,
and their concerts are invaded by HIGs (the band's sneering code for
huge industry giants). Their debut album, Appetite for Destruction,
which has sold nearly six million copies, reached Number One on the
Billboard charts in early August, having been released the year
before. The album succeeded despite resistance from retail chains (some
refused to stock the LP because of its gruesome cover art, which was
relocated to the inner sleeve for the second cover), from album-rock
radio stations and from MTV. Eventually, the media caught up and helped
Sweet Child O' Mine become a Number One single. But the early
support, the support that forced MTV and radio to play the Gunners,
came from "the kids."
The week of the band's Detroit shows,
USA Today published a frightening story that helps explain Guns
N' Roses' appeal. According to a survey, nearly one in seven American
teens say they've tried to kill themselves. More than half of the girls
polled said they find it hard to cope with stress, and a third said
they often feel sad and hopeless. I Want to Hold Your Hand can't
mean much to these kids.
Guns N' Rose have less in common with
metal acts than with rap artists like Public Enemy, which project a
lethal toughness while urging self-improvement, and black-comedy gore
movies like RoboCop. They also bring to mind the early Rolling
Stones, who won a similar notoriety for singing about spite and hostility.
And if the Gunners go beyond what the Stones sang about, it's because
times are rougher; they are a brutal band for brutal times. Unlike the
Stones, they don't keep an ironic distance between them and their songs.
"Our attitude epitomizes what rock
& roll is all about," says Slash. "At least, what I think
rock & roll is all about, which is all that matters. You know how
some bands go out and the whole thing is going completely wrong but
they can put on a good show anyway? We're not like that."
He holds up his right hand, which is swollen
and welted from smacking his guitar onstage. "We fuckin' bleed
and sweat for it, you know? We do a lot of things where other bands
will be, like, 'Get the stunt guy to do it.'"
Name a city on their tour itinerary, and
Guns N' Roses probably have a story to go with it.
In Atlanta, Axl jumped from stage to grab
a security guard who, Axl says, shoved a friend of his without provocation.
The police held Axl backstage while the rest of the band played "Communication
Breakdown" and "Honky Tonk Women" with a roadie singing.
To avoid a trial, Axl pleaded guilty to assaulting the police and paid
In Philadelphia, just minutes before a
concert, Axl got into a fight with a parking-lot attendant who, Axl
says, shoved Stuart, Axl's younger brother and personal assistant. Doug
Goldstein, the group's tough but temperate and shrewd tour manager,
persuaded the police to release Axl in time for the show.
In Saratoga Springs, New York, a local
paper reported, "police and security guards are calling it a night
they won't soon forget." "There was nearly a riot," Izzy
says. "I get off on that kind of vibe, where everything's just
about ready to crack. When there's 25,000 people and they have, like,
three security guys. God, it was intense, man. It was just on that fucking
edge of 25,000 people coming down to the stage." When fans began
sprinting onstage, the band bailed out. Three nights later in Westport,
New York, the Gunners topped that with a show Axl describes as "just,
In Hamburg, Germany, Izzy and Duff beat
up the drummer of Faster Pussycat, bound him with duct tape and tossed
him in an elevator.
In Chicago, the band members got hassled
when they tried to check into the hotel early. A fight was narrowly
averted. Later that night, in the hotel bar, Axl punched a business
man who hassled his friends and called the singer a "Bon Jovi look-alike."
Dozens of cops broke up the brawl, and Axl and Steven went to jail.
Afterward, Goldstein found Slash drunk in the bar, threw the guitarist
over his shoulder and carried him back to his room. To show his thanks,
Slash peed on Goldstein's shoulder.
There are other incidents, minor by comparison.
Like the time Axl jabbed his microphone stand awfully close to the face
of a photographer who wasn't supposed to be using a flash. Or the time
Axl decided not to show up for a Phoenix concert, leaving the opening
band, T.S.O.L., to improvise Zepplin jams until the Gunners' cancellation
Then there are the lawsuits. Soon after
they signed with Geffen Records, Guns N' Roses dismissed their manage,
Vicki Hamilton, who sued the band. (The suit has been settled out of
court.) After Slash insulted Poison in a number of interviews, two members
of that group poured booze on Bryn Bridenthal, the Gunners' publicist.
(The two pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, but a civil suit is still
Although trouble seems to follow Guns
N' Roses, they say they don't instigate the conflicts, they merely refuse
to back away from them.
A lot of bands in L.A. lay down, 'cause
they think they have to," Axl says. "But it's harder to live
with your conscience of going, 'Man, I just kissed ass.' You can't live
with that. Everybody in this band just goes, 'Man, I can't let this
person just fuck with me like that.' We fight."
Axl is so sensitive and so erratic that
even the other members of the band are awed by - and maybe tired of
- his "mood swings." He travels on a separate tour bus, not
only because he stays up at night and sleeps during the day but also
to reduce friction with the other band members. "Axl's a real temperamental
guy," says Slash. "He's hard to get along with."
Izzy, who's known Axl for thirteen years,
says the singer used to be far more troublesome. "If it wasn't
for the band," Izzy says, "I just hate to think what he might've
"David Lee Roth said something about
how every time you get onstage, you're dancing someone into the dirt
that didn't want you to get up there, that tried to stop you in some
way or another," says Axl. "Whether or not they knew what
they were doing or not, you know, it messed up your life somehow."
Axl Rose grew up as Bill Bailey, the son
of L. Stephen and Sharon Bailey. He was the local juvenile delinquent
in Lafayette, Indiana, and was arrested, by his count, "over twenty
times," serving as long as three months in jail and representing
himself at trials "'cause I didn't trust the public defenders for
shit." A psychiatrist who noted Bailey's high IQ decided that his
behavior was evidence of psychosis.
One of Bill Bailey's best friends was
Jeff Isabelle, known to all as Izzy. According to Izzy, Bailey "was
like a serious lunatic when I met him. He was just really fucking bent
on fighting and destroying things. Somebody'd look at him wrong, and
he'd just, like, start a fight. And you think about Lafayette, man,
there's, like, fuck all to do." Izzy graduated from high school
in 1979 (he's the only member of Guns N' Roses with a diploma) and moved
When he was seventeen, Bill Bailey discovered
that his real last name was Rose. His natural father, a chronic troublemaker
whose whereabouts are unknown, had left his wife and family. When Sharon
Rose remarried, she and her new husband gave his surname to her children.
Axl now considers L. Stephen Bailey his "real dad," but he
discovered his hidden past at a time when he was growing his hair, playing
in bands, and fighting with his parents. So, Bill Bailey began calling
himself W. Rose. He became so engrossed in one of his Indiana bands,
Axl, that his friends suggested he call himself Axl. Years later, before
he signed his Geffen contract, he legally changed his name to W. Axl
Rose. The initials - W.A.R. - were, he says, merely an accident.
It's appropriate that Axl has had two
different names, because his "mood swings" reveal two distinct
personalities. Onstage, releasing years of anger, he's a remarkably
charismatic figure. He sings savagely, abusing his vocal chords and
working the crowd with an unequaled ferocity. Offstage, his pale skin
and strawberry-blond hair make him appear fragile, almost angelic. This
is the Axl who listens to Raspberries, George Michael, and Phillip Glass
and has written an eight-minute ballad, "November Rain," about
which he says, "If it's not recorded right, I'll quit the business."
Even the other band members describe Axl
in terms of a Jekyll-and Hyde dichotomy. "He does a lot of weird
shit no one understands," says Slash, "but I love the guy.
I mean he's a real sweetheart."
"He can still be a tyrant,"
says Izzy, "but then he can turn around and be the nicest guy in
"A lot of things about my mood swings
are, like, I have a temper," Axl says, "and I take things
out on myself. Not physically, but I'll smash my TV knowing I have to
pay for it, rather go down the hallway and smash the person I'm pissed
at." Becoming a star so quickly has only worsened matters. "With
all the pressure, "Axl says, "it's like I'll explode. And
so where other people would go, 'Oh well, we just got fucked,' Axl's
going, 'God damn it!' and breaking everything around him. That's how
I release my frustration. It's why I'm, like, pounding and kicking all
over the stage."
As an example, Axl cites Geffen's decision
to cut the "Sweet Child" 45 from almost six minutes to under
four minutes. "When something gets edited," he says, "and
you didn't know about it, you lose your mind, and it's like 'Axl's having
a mood swing.' 'Mood swing' my ass. This is my first single, and it's
chopped to shit."
A psychiatrist has diagnosed Axl's problem
as manic-depressive disorder, a condition that can cause people to swing
from impulsive, reckless, and argumentative fits to catatonic and suicidal
periods. "I can be happier than anybody I know," Axl says.
"I can get so happy I'll cry. I can get completely opposite, upsetwise."
Many manic-depressives turn to drugs or alcohol to lessen the pain of
Although Axl takes lithium to combat the
disorder, he thinks it's ineffective and claims to be in control of
his moods. "Did you ever see that movie - I think it was Frances?"
Frances Farmer, an actress, was institutionalized because of her emotional
outbursts. "I always wonder if, like, somebody's gonna slide the
knife underneath my eye and give me the lobotomy. I think about that
"Was I, like, a major dick last night?"
It's one in the afternoon, Detroit time,
and Slash has just awakened with a hangover. After numerous rounds at
the hotel bar, he was taken up to his room by Ronnie Stalnaker, a burly
member of the band's security staff. (Slash says, "His job is to
follow me around when I'm drunk.") When Slash threatened to throw
his furniture through the locked windows, Ronnie removed the TV from
the guitarist's room and slept outside his door to make sure Slash didn't
"I'm one of those blackout drunks,"
Slash says later. "I get so fucked up I don't remember anything.
I probably give the impression of being a real asshole most of the time,
but I'm not really that bad."
Slash, who refuses to divulge his given
name, was born in England, but when he was still young, his parents,
an interracial couple, moved to Hollywood, where he "experienced
a lot of shit." His father, Anthony Hudson, designed album covers,
including Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, and his mother, Ola
Hudson, was a clothing designer who made David Bowie's suits for The
Man Who Fell to Earth. Slash, who was given his nickname by a friend's
father, started playing in bands in his midteens. "I had total
freedom, all the time," he says. "I used to not come home
Because the early-Eighties music scene
in L.A. was so volatile, and because the Gunners' memories are so clouded,
no one can pinpoint when the band came together. Duff, who had moved
down from Seattle, where he'd played drums and guitar in thirty-one
different bands, answered an ad Slash had placed in an L.A. paper. Axl
hitchhiked to L.A., wandered around and finally found Izzy, the only
person he knew in California. Izzy got together with Slash after seeing
a caricature of Aerosmith that he had drawn. They played, they fought,
they got high, they toyed with the idea of forming bands with names
like Heads of Amazon and AIDS. They finally settled on Guns N' Roses,
combining the names of two bands that various members had been involved
in, L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose.
Teresa Ensenat was in Geffen's A&R
department when she heard about the Gunners in the fall of 1985. Because
the band didn't have a phone, it took Ensenat and Tom Zutaut, her A&R
partner, several months to find them. Eventually, they found the band
living in what Ensenat calls "this thing" - a tiny, seedy
studio apartment on Sunset and Gardner. "A fucking living hell,"
says Izzy. There was no bathroom, shower, or kitchen. By stealing lumber
from a construction site, they built a loft that slept no more than
three at a time.
"I'd fuck girls just so I could stay
at their place," Slash says. There were parties in the parking
lot next door almost every night, which brought a constant procession
of pimps, drug dealers, and cops through the studio. If they had enough
money to buy hamburger, they burned Steve's drumsticks for firewood.
(Even after they decided to sign with Geffen, in the spring of '86,
they pretended to be undecided, just so competing labels would continue
to take them out for meals.) Axl was banned from the Rainbow, an L.A.
club, for two years because of obnoxious behavior. "We would just
go out annihilated, pass out fliers and just make everybody in the room
know we're here," he says. They lived like vermin, they drank too
much, they didn't practice safe sex, they didn't do aerobics. "It
was, like, just the complete opposite of what the Eighties was all about,"
Guns N' Roses didn't have a manager pushing
them to record companies. The labels came to them, and the band isn't
surprised. "Rock & roll in general has just sucked a big fucking
dick since the Pistols," says Izzy. Even after signing with Geffen,
Guns N' Roses couldn't find a manager or a producer. "People were
very afraid of this band," says Ensenat. Tom Werman, Motely Crue's
producer, "came down to rehearsal, covered his ears and left,"
says Duff. The band broke up briefly, then got together again and agreed
to record with Mike Clink, a quiet young engineer best known for his
work with Heart and Eddie Money.
Zutaut invited Tim Collins, Aerosmith's
manager, to see the Gunners play in L.A. When the band members came
back to his hotel room, Collins checked into a second room to get some
rest. In the morning, he learned that they had ordered $450 worth of
drinks and food on his bill. He decided not to manage them.
Club ads for L.A. shows routinely read,
FRESH FROM DETOX, or ADDICTED: ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE. Their drug problems
- some were involved with heroin - were common knowledge. Says Slash,
"There was a point where I fuckin' stopped playing guitar and didn't
even talk to my band except for Izzy, 'cause we were both doing it.
I didn't come out of the apartment for three months, except to go to
the market. The one thing that really stopped me was a phone call from
Duff saying, 'You've alienated yourself from everybody.' Since they're
the only people I'm really close to, that really affected me, and I
Without the band, Slash says, "I'd
probably OD or something. I'm not into 'life for life's sake.'"
Asked if the band can survive drugs and personality conflicts, he responds,
"It doesn't matter. What kind of priority is that?" Mick Jagger,
Slash suggests, "should have died after Some Girls, when he was
still cool." The guitarist says he could die in a heavy-metal AIDS
epidemic, which would also strike several other well-known L.A. bands,
"since we all fuck the same chicks."
"I've got a bad drinking problem,"
he says. "It's the only thing that brings me out of my shell enough
to be able to deal socially." Slash doesn't get drunk until after
the shows, but he drinks steadily all day long, and his hands shake.
"I'm an alcoholic in the sense that I need to drink all the time,"
he says, "but I don't have a physical dependence on it the way
some people do." One of the Gunners' favorite stories is how Rick
Nielsen of Cheap Trick invited them to his house, then issued a tequila
challenge to Slash. The story ends with Nielsen drunkenly assaulting
the band and Izzy kicking Nielsen in the balls. "I didn't kick
him hard," Izzy says, shrugging. ("That's way wrong,"
Nielsen says. He acknowledges that he invited the band members to his
house and got drunk with them and that the evening ended in a physical
confrontation. But Nielsen says he fought with Slash, not Izzy. Nielsen
also says he didn't start the fight but did end it: "I decked that
"Drug use is not in the past,"
Axl says. "We scare the shit out of each other, because we don't
want to lose what we have as a family."
"Guns N' Roses are what every L.A.
band pretends to be," says country singer Steve Earle, who is both
Ensenat's boyfriend and a friend of the band. "But I don't think
drugs or anything else is as important to anybody in that band as being
in Guns N' Roses is."
It seems their drug use is triggered by
boredom, and their current schedule doesn't permit much down time. When
Tim Collins hired the Gunners to open for the Aerosmith tour, however,
he didn't take any chances. Having already spent millions to put key
members of his band through detox twice, Collins added a rider to the
contract: Guns N' Roses had to confine their drinking to their dressing
room. At the beginning of the tour, Guns N' Roses agreed to leave the
arena soon after their sets, so that they wouldn't tempt Aerosmith.
Members of the two bands had met years before, Slash says. "Our
guys were selling drugs to their guys."
The Aerosmith-Guns N' Roses bill was a
great success, drawing at least two generations of rock fans. The tour
concentrated on outdoor sheds, ministadiums that seat about 15,000,
and it's here that the Gunners found their audience.
The sheds are set out in the suburbs,
where the kids can't damage too much property. For a couple of hours,
the only supervision is the security guards, who have nice haircuts
and thick arms. You can get a big, warm flat Miller Lite for $3.75,
if you have proof you're over twenty-one or if one of your feet touches
the ground. The guys in the audience wear black T-shirts depicting the
last band to play at the venue, and their dates wear K-Mart knockoffs
of the clothing L.A. models wear in music videos.
Although Aerosmith was the headliner on
the tour and was applauded enthusiastically, the kids seemed to regard
the band as history, a band they knew from the radio, like the Doors
or the Troggs. Their response to Guns N' Roses' set was much more powerful
and demonstrated as unusual emotional connection with their songs and
"The sincerity of the band shows,"
says Slash. "That's why the crowds are so fuckin' violent. Not
to say that I condone crowd violence and riots, but it's part of the
energy that we put out."
"At times, like in Philly, I think
I could've easily started a riot, "says Axl. "It's great watching
'em go crazy and beat each other up, but I don't want to see people
"I hate to even mention anything
like that, but I guess we are playing with fire," says Duff. "I
would seriously hate for anything to happen, but we're not the kind
of guys to really change our ways." It seems that a violent incident
is inevitable, the same way the Stones were destined to have an incident
like Altamount. "I've watched that movie [Gimme Shelter] probably
a hundred times," says Axl.
Like a number of current rappers - to
say nothing of TV, movies, and most of society - Guns N' Roses issue
a lot of vague and contradictory signals about violence and drugs. But
Axl and Slash argue that their lyrics don't advocate certain behavior,
they only describe it, and often in grim, dissuasive terms. Slash cites
"Mr. Brownstone," an ugly depiction of gradual heroin addiction
that he and Izzy wrote on acoustic guitars one night while stoned. "So
there's a bunch of kids strung out 'cause we said [heroin] was cool,"
says Slash. "And we never said it was cool. They misunderstand
it, and it pisses me off. We never made any messages, but if kids are
gonna take it that seriously, then that fucks me up. Because then it's
my fault. And it's Izzy's fault, and it's Duff's fault, and it's Axl's
fault, and it's Steven's fault. I don't want to be a part of fucking
up kids' lives."
By the end of the year, Guns N' Roses
will release a new album: four tracks from Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide,
their 1986 indie EP, and four new acoustic songs, including "I
Used to Love Her, but I Had to Kill Her," a track sure to incite
controversy. The song is "a joke," says Izzy, who co-wrote
it with Slash. "Wife beating's been around for 10 million years
or something, I mean, I don't advocate it. I understand it. But I don't
treat women any differently than I treat men."
Slash is less cavalier, and more irresolute,
when grappling with the question of responsibility. Here's the conflict:
On one hand, Guns N' Roses didn't get where they are by acting responsibly
or claiming to be anyone's role model. On the other hand, the kids who
constitute the majority of their audience and put the Gunners at the
top of the charts, who believe in the band and don't have security men
to protect them or tour managers to post bail - these are the kids most
susceptible to disaster. So Slash is apprehensive about the kids' reaction
to "I Used to Love Her": "If some guy goes out and kills
his girlfriend," he says, "that's gonna fuck my head up. I
mean, this is serious. It's affecting the lives of people you don't
even know, which is definitely a scary thing, to have that much power."
On August 20th, Guns N' Roses played at
Castle Donnington, in Derby, England, with Iron Maiden, David Lee Roth
and several other bands, in the ninth annual Monsters of Rock Festival.
During "It's So Easy," many in the crowd of 107,000 began
to slam-dance. Three times, the band members say, they stopped playing
in order to calm the audience. At the same time, they enjoyed the rabid
response. After they left the stage, they learned that two fans had
been crushed to death during their set. In a creepy parallel to the
Stones' Altamount show, Guns N' Roses' video crew had taped the incident.
Anticipating a wilder response when they
headline next year, they are trying to design barricades that will reduce
the risk of a fatality. But as Duff says, "We're not the kind of
guys to really change our ways." They will continue to play concerts
with festival seating (which increases the chance of additional injuries)
because, they say, shows with assigned seating are too dull - "like
driving 55 instead 150 on an open straightaway," says Axl.
"I don't know really what to think
about it," Axl says a month after the Castle Donnington show. "I
don't want anybody to get hurt. We want the exact opposite."
He does not feel that the Gunners' emotional
performance - "just on that fuckin' edge," in Izzy's phrase
- makes them responsible for the deaths. "We didn't tell people
to smash each other," Axl says. "We didn't tell people, 'Drink
so much alcohol that you can't fucking stand up.' I don't feel responsible
in those ways."
If Axl seems upset but not quite distraught,
it's because he believes that Guns N' Roses did all they could to prevent
the deaths. Leaving the stage, he told the crowd, "Have a good
fuckin' day. And don't kill yourselves."