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Rock Scene - April 1988
by Beth Nussbaum

Soft As A Petal/Sharp As A Thorn

The band Guns N' Roses has been the subject of conversation quite a lot lately -- that is, if you happen to be in the music business, or are just a plain old fan of Rock & Roll. With their debut LP, Appetite for Destruction, entering Billboard's Top Ten at press time (without a single or radio airplay), and also going platinum very recently, they are slapping the faces of their detractors. For yes, they could do it, and indeed they did!

Axl Rose, Guns' temperamental and misunderstood lead singer, is probably one of the most talked about music progenitors of recent times, with one liners proclaiming: 'Axl missed this interview,' 'Axl blew off this magazine,' 'Axl didn't show up for the photo session,' 'Axl missed the gig,' 'Did you hear that he was fired from the group?'

Love him or hate him (or a bit of both), you can't deny that he's got the goods.

He may be difficult, but you know what they say about geniuses? They are "fucking crazy!" Now I didn't say that he was (crazy, that is), but sometimes he'll just give you that look that burns a hole right through your soul.

The other day, Axl called me to apologize for putting our interview off for the past month. "I wasn't being a dick or avoiding you," he told me. "As a matter of fact, I've been quite pleasant for the last month. I don't know what's gotten into me, but please, don't think that."

A hint of guilt from a man who, last time I saw him, stormed off from a photo-session (one that I flew all the way to Minnesota to do) just because I asked him... nicely, to remove his sunglasses? Could this be the same Axl Rose, the great lyricist, singer, songwriter... the one who's going to stand out when they write 'The History of Rock & Roll 1980 - 2000'? Who knows? His picture may even be on the cover of that one -- that is, if he lets them take it!

I could ramble on about how I met this guy two years ago, how I believed in him, and befriended his band, how nice he was to me (we're talking genuine LIKE here), and even though he fucked me over while I froze to death in Minnesota, I still thought he was the greatest, and excused him for just being in a real shitty mood and perhaps not having enough patience for someone that was not superficial, really did care about his band, and who had been there, not from the onset unfortunately, but way before they even sold the first copy of their debut EP. But I'd rather let Axl explain himself, cause only he knows that subject best.

"I'm too much of a perfectionist, I know that," he tells me. And is that his only excuse? "I'm a perfectionist so much, that I don't get a lot of things done. It's like, I used to run cross country and when you're working at everything, it wings a lot easier when everything's going right, of course, because everyone's doing what they're supposed to do. When it's going a lot smoother, then you can give a lot more and you can maybe break a record or something. That's what people want to see, and that's what I like to give 'em. I like to be able to go out there and give my ultimate rather than just get by by the skin of my teeth. Everyone may have loved it, but I know it sucked compared to what I should have done. Like, I can go out and not be able to hit the notes in the end of 'Rocket Queen' and I can make up a melody on the spot, right there on the stage, and people think they're getting something special cause they're hearing it in a different way, but I know the fact is that I couldn't hit the fucking notes cause I haven't slept for two days, because of insomnia. I don't think that's fair to the people in my own mind."

"I remember all the kids going to see Aerosmith for all those years, but after about four or five shows I'd go, 'You know, man, I've seen them four or five times and they sucked every time!' Now they've got their act together. That's not something I want to have on record. I want people to go and be able to hear as much of our albums as they can."

"My main motivation for all of this, and it could never be anything but, is the music, the songs. I look at it like I'm a painter or something, and that's my motivation, just to be able to get the material out the way I want it. I'm not driven for financial things, those are a bit more than secondary. It's like, I can get as excited about making money as the next person in that I'm gonna be able to buy this and that, but if the song doesn't come out the way I really wanted it to then I'm more disappointed, and the money doesn't really mean anything to me then. I now that's hard for a lot of people to believe, but that's something that we've kinda stuck by the whole time, as much as possible. You have to make compromises here and there, because... Since this is our first record, we had to make compromises to get a certain level of sales so that we could get a certain level of power to do exactly what we wanted next time around."

"Like, with 'Sweet Child,' the video version will be... they'll be an even shorter version put out for the single. To me, that's like a heart-wrenching compromise, and I just don't like to make any compromises with our art, so it's really hard for me to live with an edit or anything. At the same time, I can see what it will do for us, but I have to keep weighing back and forth, what's it gonna do to me? I don't know. It's something that I have to live with and figure out what my values and things are. I don't want to end up like a lot of bands that have been out playing the circuit for so long and they want to make this amount of money, and be looked at a certain way, so they'll do whatever they have to do to their song. They'll delete all the hard rock or mellow the guitars out for a version of it. If that's something I set out to do, fine. If I want to put out three versions of a song, that's one thing. But if I'm doing it just to get sales, that will really bum me out."

"You see, music is my love. It's the only thing for me that's always there, and has always been there. It's like my closest friend, it's what I turn to when there's no one else to turn to. I turn to music, or I turn to the radio or a cassette, and I kinda just let my subconscious mind and my hands guide me. Like, if I'm really upset, what do I need to hear? And I'll usually find some record that I least expected to play, and find some line in the song that will get me through the situation I'm in."

When Axl Rose speaks about music, you can see how much respect he has for it. You can also tell from his songwriting that it's been given a lot of nurturing -- a lot of care and thought went into each individual line. For lyrical inspiration and influence he cites ex-Elton John cohort Bernie Taupin.

"I think Bernie Taupin is the best lyric writer that's ever lived on the face of the earth," he tells me. "Do you know how that guy writes? He writes off the top of his head. He said, 'I can write a double album that will ship platinum -- in two hours.' He would get a trip to the Bahamas put in his contract. He'd fly there, throw his bag on the bed, pull out his notepad, write the album, Federal Express it off, and have two weeks in the Bahamas, on the beach, with nothing to do. I like his style. I also like the actual style of the way he writes. Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Dan McCafferty of Nazareth are some other lyrical influences. The list can go on and on, but those are my favorites."

Axl's complex writing style takes on quite personal subject matter, especially when it comes to lyrics. Does he mind his 'dirty laundry' (so to speak) being aired for public viewing (listening)?

"I don't like to hide anything," he answers honestly, "and basically, that's why I take every song, if I wrote it directly about somebody I know -- I take it to that person. It's because I have to, because some of the times I'm treading on very personal ground in their lives."

"It's gonna be known it's about them, if I wrote it, in Hollywood, and they're in our crowd of people going to the clubs, or whatever. Maybe not so much on a world-wide basis, but... Like the song 'My Michelle' for example, I had to take that song to her and see what she thought of it. So we went, took it to her dad, to see what he thought of it. I mean, this guy could shoot me."

"When it says, 'You're daddy works in porno...' her dad's Vice President of one of the top video companies. And 'Rocket Queen,' that was about a very close friend. Plus, I gotta see if they can, like, cut it down. That's gonna help me write it better. It's like, I have to take it to these people so they can go, 'well, that's not really me. I never did that,' and unless I can point out, 'well yeah, you did,' then I didn't word it right. See, I'm trying to describe something. To me, it's like a portrait of somebody, and I'm trying to do my version, how I would paint this person."

"Not all our songs are written about somebody else. 'Paradise City' is more about me and the streets. Duff wrote the first part of the chorus, Izzy wrote the second part, and Slash wrote the melody of the last half of the chorus... See, that's the best, just that the whole band is into it, and everybody puts their two cents in. That's the true Guns N' Roses that we come up with a song we believe in, and that we feel hits the mark."

Although Guns N' Roses have been quite busy lately touring, Axl still finds time for his creative juices to flow, penning songs that will hopefully air on their next few LP's.

"Right now I'm really into writing, not necessarily ballads, but they're not like blazing fast rockers either," he explains anxiously. "Things that have a lot of feeling, and that show some growth in understanding the world around you, and trying to relay that to other people. I've been writing a lot of different stuff for myself. I feel I'm growing as a songwriter. I don't necessarily know what the kids will think of it, or the majority of the public will think about it, but it's something I want to do. Like the next record, or the record after that could just fall flat on its face, but if I'm writing songs that I like, that I feel good about, that's all that counts. I'll still be happy."

Right now, he's happy (how couldn't he be?) and he may be delirious when he writes a killer tune, but the inspirations for some of his material are not all taken from the proverbial 'good times.'

"The original way 'You're Crazy' was written," he illuminates, "was without the curse words. THEY didn't come in until it came on full electric, in front of a crowd with some girl trying to hit me with a beer bottle, and I started directing the words directly at her. That's where the curses happened. I stamped her head with the bottom of my mic stand, and she kept coming at me! I didn't even know her -- nobody in the band knew her. She hit Duff with a beer bottle."

"It was at Raji's, Paul Stanley was there as well as the Geffen people. The stage is only like six inches off the ground and the crowd stands right up against you. You only have like eight inches to breathe. This girl is trying to kill me and I didn't even know who she was. Her boyfriend was in another band and he thought I was God, she thought I was God, she was just on bad drugs or something."

"It was really weird cause her boyfriend was shaking my hand backstage going, 'man, you're the greatest,' and I was trying to be nice but I could never shake this guy. He was there when I first came in, he was there at the side of the stage, but he must not have been looking when I hit his girlfriend with the mic stand. All of a sudden he goes, 'Wait, you hit my girlfriend? I'm gonna kill you!' And that was it, I started tearing him to shreds. Robert, our photographer, jumped in the way, fell down, I went to kick the guy and kicked Robert instead. Then the guy got loose, he came at me, Robert jumped in the way again and got kicked in the nuts! He wasn't having a very good time. The guy had grabbed one of Steven's drum stands by then, and the security guard had grabbed me. I had this security guy pinned against the wall, and my hands were filled with the other guy's hair. It was a huge mess."

Judging from the story above (and I can assure you there are many of those in the Guns N' Roses history), it's easy to see that Axl Rose has also got an extremely low tolerance level for bothersome pests, and that Murphy's Law (everything that can happen, will -- something to that effect) is something he finds inexcusable. Or at least he will not stand for it! However, sometimes Axl's temper is inflamed by unsavory hazards that effect his music and his craft, and in that case, he's far from being 'the spoiled little child' and has every right to be pissed.

"The live concert we did for MTV," he relays one of those uh, experiences, "you couldn't hear shit! It wasn't so much that you couldn't hear shit, it would have been better if I couldn't hear anything. Instead, I heard spaceships landing onstage, echoes on my voice that were twisting everything. There's never any echoes when I'm singing. I couldn't tell what was coming out of my mouth onstage. They had Slash's guitar cranked up a few times, so loud, and then other times it was Duff's bass, and then it was no bass at all! It made it very hard to act like we were having a good time, and to give the people a good show. If you watch the concert, there's a point where I throw the microphone down when we end one of the songs, but actually, I left the stage three times during the show. I nailed Doug, our tour manager, with the microphone while I was trying to hit the monitor man."

"It's kinda weird when you're filming a major television thing and you got some guy who doesn't know how to run monitors. I think we could have done a lot better for ourselves, but at the same time I feel we should be able to give the people of Anaheim (one of their best shows to date - Ed.) every time we play. I don't think that interviews, or photo shoots, or anything should get in the way of that. That's the priority for me, that people get what they paid their money for. Not, 'Yeah, you pulled it off man. They didn't even know you couldn't sing, and your voice was thrashed.' Well, my voice shouldn't have been thrashed, and the monitor man should have known what he was doing, and I should have been able to do something special for these people."

Axl Rose has had a hard time adjusting to such fubars that are part and parcel of everyday life (even if you are a rock star), and it's also taking him awhile to get used to the rigorous, hell or highwater lifestyle of a touring band.

"Being the perfectionist that I am," he says, "everything must be in order, or I'm a wreck! So nine times out of ten, I'm completely disorganized! When we first went on tour, things were just a mess and it took awhile to get into the swing of things. I pretty much got everything down smoothly, and as soon as I can figure out hotels, and the way they don't know how to run their own phone systems... 'OK, no calls to this room please,' and five minutes later the phone is ringing! As soon as I can get that worked out, I'll be fine, and until then, I buy a lot of phones!"

"I just wish that I could function more smoothly on tour, so that I wouldn't end up upsetting so many people. They never know what's gonna happen. It's like, 'What's Axl gonna do next?'"

"Listen, I know that life is unpredictable, and that things do happen that are completely out of your control, and out of the control of the people around you, that's OK. But when you've got a transvestite limo driver showing up an hour late, in a limousine with no air conditioning, and it's something you paid for, then I can see being pissed off. Like our show in Phoenix, I was the only one who went! I was late, of course, but the taxi didn't show up. They had canceled the show, but I didn't know it. I went anyway, and I saw kids thrashing cars and cops everywhere. That was a serious thing. We did have the biggest TV in our limo -- transvestite, that is, with fake tits, long fingernails, and the whole bit. I'm not complaining about having a limousine, and all that. It was just kind of amusing."

Because of Axl's, uh, temperament, you'd think he would avoid people as much as possible. Well, funny enough, he enjoys his solitude, and tries to go off on his own whenever he can. "I like a lot of solitude," he reflects. "But then every now and then, I get claustrophobic with that and I want to be around a large group of people. After I've had a lot of solitude, I tend to get very vulnerable. It's like, when you go outside and start dealing with a lot of stuff which there doesn't seem to be a way to slow things down -- it's like, if you get out of the scene for a while, and are taking care of business, then when you get back out in the club scene it all comes caving down on you. And I find myself pretty vulnerable, like a little kid, out in the world he hasn't seen before. It really takes a while to get your grips back on that again."

"I don't really go out to clubs anymore -- although I used to love to," he continues. "I don't really drink that much either cause I try to keep my voice in shape, I'm using it a lot, you know. If I go out to clubs, I have to talk to so many people about so many different things that have who knows what to do with, and I'll end up having a few drinks or something. I kinda miss it, but that's fame for you, that's show biz."

So, then I guess he does realize that he's famous; he's one of the 'in' crowd. But how does he keep a lid on it? What prevents Axl from really being an asshole (of the egotistical nature)?

"You see, I have a certain close group of friends that..." he answers. "When I got back to L.A. last time, I spent a lot of time with people I had known back there, just touching base with them, going back over problems we had a long time ago, and just working everything out. I also did this with people I had known back in Indiana, since I was a little kid, and then out here with people I had known in the last seven years, who I still know. I tried to feel out who was real and who wasn't. There's a few real people in our group who've just faded out this year. They've made some dramatic changes in their life and you can tell that an act of God is the only thing that's gonna bring them back to reality. But I really got my feet on the ground with who my friends are and who's not."

"Whenever there's a problem, like... Guns N' Roses is always on the brink of some kind of disaster. Whenever there's a major problem, it's amazing that I get a few phone calls from some of these people, lending support. See, I'm not trying to fuck anybody over purposely, and so I've got to establish trust with somebody. These people help keep me in perspective of myself. The only reasons that conflicts arise and certain things result is, it's not so much of not wanting to have anything to do with some people that want to talk to you, it's just the fact like -- one day you've got ten people that call you on the phone; and that might have been hectic, depending on what you were doing. Then the next day you have 200, and it's not necessarily meant as 'I don't like you, you're an asshole.' It's like man, I just can't spread myself so thin,' and especially when I'm a person who likes a lot of solitude."

"You know, when we hit a city, I usually don't go out with any member of a band. I've got things I want to go by, or I want to go see, and I don't even usually take a security person with me, unless I'm out going clubbing. I like to go out alone and meet new people and do whatever by myself. See what's happening outside the world of Axl Rose."

But what about inside? What's inside this guy? A lot of people have been left to form their own opinions solely on the basis of one encounter with him, and if he was having a bad day... well then, you know what they're thinking. But who cares? No, I think Axl really does cares, and now that their immediate reknown has slapped them in the face, they can start to settle comfortably within it, relax, and enjoy themselves. It's a time for reflection, and introspection, as well as new creativity to be born. Axl analyzes the core.

"Right now, I don't really know how I see myself," he reveals openly. "Basically, right now I'm just trying to get myself together. I know I'm seen in a lot of different ways. Without being humorous, it's like I have multiple personalities -- schizophrenic. It depends on the situation and the mood I'm in. Basically, I like to be in a situation where I can just do whatever I want to do, how I feel like doing it, and a lot of times that doesn't work out. Then in those situations you find out other things about yourself that maybe you didn't already know. Right now, I don't want to close the door and say that I'm this kind of person. I find myself having a tendency of wanting to get set in my ways, but at the same time it's like I keep finding obstacles and saying, 'Yeah, you get set in your ways, then you lose this and you lose this.' So, I haven't really figured out what I am yet. I'm just as confused as the next guy."

Benevolence does live within Axl Rose, however deep beneath the surface, it's there.



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©Copyright Alan Hylands 2001