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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 himself again.

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 and relax.

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 floors with?
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"?
AXL: Yeah.

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 the song.

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 that?
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.



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