Re: Who's Afraid of Axl Rose? - Icon Magazine, 10/97
Icon Magazine - October 1997
by Nick Kent
(transcribed by mrice at gnrunlimited.com)
Who's Afraid of Axl Rose?
"Yesterday's got nothing for me," sang Axl Rose on 1991's Use Your Illusion II. Six years later, Slash is out, Rose owns the Guns N' Roses name, and there's no smoking allowed in the Los Angeles studio where Rose is working on a new album and a way to keep himself from dropping into the pantheon of fallen stars.
"Whenever I hang out in Guns N' Roses' studio - it's in some big warehouse in Los Angeles - the atmosphere there is just so nice. Everyone involved really likes one another. There's no rancor and they're all totally clean-living young adults. As far as I can tell, they're all completely straight now. You're not even allowed to smoke in the studio!"
It is mid-July and Moby - DJ, techno pioneer, and hard-core punk singer - is describing the three or four preproduction sessions he's recently attended for the forthcoming Guns N' Roses release. It seems much has changed in the Guns N' Roses camp, particularly of late, and despite the hopes of an anxious record company, the product is slowly evolving. "The band's not set," says a source close to the band who prefers to remain anonymous. "I wouldn't feel comfortable describing the music at all. There's going to be a techno influence, but it will still be recognizable as GN'R. It's not Axl's intention to make some wholly new cloth."
Moby is more forthcoming, however. He says Rose is currently collaborating in the group's recording studio with a nucleus of supporting players, specifically Robin Finck, the former Nine Inch Nails guitarist, and another guitarist named Paul Huge whom Rose has known for years (they're both from Indiana). Keyboards player Dizzy Reed and bassist Duff McKagan are still on board, as well as longtime GN'R producer Mike Clink.
"They've asked me to be the producer," Moby says, "but I'm not sure I'm capable of doing that because, if nothing else, making this record is going to be a long, long process. The music they're working on has a very dramatic quality to it. They're using some modern technology. Axl's really excited about sampling. He loves the DJ Shadow record and Nine Inch Nails. The stuff I've heard is much more concise than, say, 'November Rain.' Not bombastic. Very stripped down. Very intense. It's not hard-rock music in the way that 'Welcome to the Jungle' was."
After 1993, which saw the end of the band's lengthy Use Your Illusion world tour and the release of Guns N' Roses' last record to date - an album of cover songs titled The Spaghetti Incident? - Axl Rose seemed to disappear (the last known published photo of him dates from January 1994). His nemesis, Courtney Love, has since accused Rose in the press of vanishing partly because he's supposed to be losing his hair. Moby can't confirm the hair situation because he says, "Axl's always worn a hat when I've been around him. I don't even know if he has long hair anymore. He has a beard that's clearly not been groomed. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn't stop and say, 'Oh, there goes one of the most successful rock stars on the planet.'
"The way I'd characterize him right now? He's really striving. He wants to make a great record. He wants to be a healthy, happy person. And he's certainly making very positive steps towards achieve those goals."
But according to ex-manager Alan Niven - who between 1986 and the early months of 1991 negotiated the key deals through which Rose which Rose went on to make his fortune - his former employer is guided by a very different motive. "The perception I have of what Axl's doing at the moment is that he's basically making a solo album but retaining the GN'R name so that he can get at the major contractual advance that's waiting at Geffen for a new Guns N' Roses-titled record. I can't give you the exact figure but I will tell you it's in the multi-million-dollar range. This renegotiation was effected just before I was fired.
"Also, it seems to me that he's deluded himself into foolishly thinking that he is Guns N' Roses and that the fans will buy that. Axl's just a very, very difficult guy to be around, and one day I think he's going to be painfully, pitifully lonely."
The man who legally changed his name to W. Axl Rose in the mid-1980's was born William Bruce Rose on February 6, 1962, to William and Sharon Rose of Lafayette, Indiana, where he grew up. His biological father has long since disappeared and Axl apparently believes he is dead. He also believes that his father raped him at the age of two. "I remember being sexually abused by this man," he confesses in one of his last major interviews, with Kim Neely of Rolling Stone in 1992. "And watching something terrible happening to my mother when she came to get me.... I got a lot of violent, abusive thoughts toward women out of watching my mom with this man.... She fed me and put clothes on my back, but she wasn't there for me."
In the late 60's, Sharon Rose married L. Stephen Bailey, a religious extremist by most accounts, who forced his stepson to duly adopt his surname. "I watched my father speak in tongues [at Pentecostal Church] and people interpret it," he'd later reminisce. "I had to go to church anywhere from three to eight times a week. I even taught Bible school while I was beaten and my sister was molested [by the stepfather]. We'd have television one week, then my stepdad would throw them out because they were satanic. I wasn't allowed to listen to music. Women were evil. Everything was evil. I had a really distorted view of sexuality and women."
In a local Lafayette high school, another barely pubescent Hoosier named Jeff Isabelle - later known as Izzy Stradlin, GN'R's original rhythm guitarist - had his first eyeful of vision that would become all too common in his life. "The first thing I remember about Axl - this is before I knew him - is the first day of class, eighth or ninth grade, I'm sitting there and I hear this noise. I see these books flying, and I hear this yelling, and there's this scuffle and then I see him - Axl - and this teacher bouncing off a door jamb. Then he was gone down the hall, with a whole bunch of teachers running after him."
The young hellion Bill Bailey and the shy stoner Isabelle soon found themselves bonding as fellow outsiders from broken homes who liked to lose themselves in rock music and acts of wanton foolishness. "I have particularly vivid memories of the two of us together when we were 17, driving around those Indiana back roads all the time, fried on acid, and listening to a tape of Queen II. Straight after that I split for L.A.; Axl joined me one year later," says Stradlin.
Between 1982 and 1985 Rose and Stradlin struggled through various club-level glam-metal bands. Early on, they met Steven Adler, a young, spoiled, L.A. brat who played drums alongside his guitar-playing former school buddy, Saul "Slash" Hudson. Soon after, the foursome met Michael "Duff" McKagan, a Seattle-born, sweet-natured multi-musician who'd played bass in hometown punk bands as a youngster using the sobriquet Nick-O-Teen. Guns N' Roses - and amalgamation of previous group monikers Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns - was officially formed of June 6, 1985.
Amid the vacuous, hair-sprayed music scene, the outfit's raucous punk-metal sound was quickly picked up on in the L.A. clubs. But with instant acceptance came an awful lot of violence and aggression, most of it focused around the singer. Fights would flare up onstage between Rose and audience members, and the antics soon began to disturb the band. According to Steven Adler in a 1991 interview for Circus magazine, his forced departure from the group a year earlier had been hastened by the fact that he'd be the one to confront Axl because everybody else was scared. "He would leave the stage in the middle of almost every show we played," Adler said. "He would throw the microphone down, break it, and just leave. Or he wouldn't get there on time. I'd say, 'What are you doing?' and he would kick me in the balls, which he had done numerous times. The first week I knew Axl, he kicked me in the balls!"
One day in the summer of 1986, English-born Alan Niven, who was living in Los Angeles, received a phone call from Geffen A&R man, Tom Zutaut. He invited Niven to handle a new band, Guns N' Roses, who'd just been signed to the label. At one point, Niven claims Zutaut told him: "'The group is so out of control that there are serious mumblings within the company that maybe it would be cheaper to drop them now before we try and make a record.' So I said at that point, 'If you need help badly, I will do what I can.'
"From the very beginning my relationship with Axl was often strained. He couldn't stand the fact that I managed other acts apart from him and the group. His failure to show for the very first gig after signing a management contract rather set the tone. Axl didn't really change when the fame first happened for him. His more unpleasant character traits were just more powerfully amplified.
"Ultimately Axl Rose's basic agenda is one of megalomania and a certain amount of greed. I know he thinks he's moral but he has a very serious difficulty when it comes to trying to place himself in someone else's shoes. Meanwhile, Slash's attitude was, 'I will make the compromises I have to make as long I am financially secure.'"
As far as Moby is concerned, however, "the ruthlessness that these people attribute to Axl, I can't relate to it. I've never seen it in him. Since I've become involved with him, I've developed this weird sort of protective, paternal feeling with him."
From the outset Niven was confronting members who'd become addicted to hard drugs: "Oh it was horrific! It got totally out of hand. Izzy went through a period of appalling self-destruction with cocaine. He got himself into a mess, which scared me personally very much indeed. Steven Adler was the worst. He became quite tragic. I remember one time in San Francisco when Steven was rushed to the hospital for an overdose. Doug Goldstein was literally running up the streets with him on his shoulders!
"Slash will tell you this: We used to basically kidnap them every now and then and take them to Hawaii to clean up. We'd call Slash and say, 'Interview tomorrow with Guitar Magazine, 12 mid-day.' He'd arrive at the office, we'd put him in a car, drive him to the airport, and take him to the island. These were people I cared about and I just didn't want to see them destroyed."
The group's superbly venemous debut album Appetite For Destruction loped slowly but surely to the U.S. number-one album chart position in 1988, but the GN'R phenomenon truly exploded in 1989, when the group released a follow-up mini-album titled GN'R Lies that included "One In A Million," an Axl Rose-penned ode to his arrival in Los Angeles that featured derogatory references to "niggers" and "faggots." A huge ruckus was raised both in the black and gay communities and considerable pressure placed on David Geffen to censor or drop the group. Geffen, however, stood firmly by the band. Shortly after the controversy had started to die down, Geffen admitted his own homosexuality. Some sources have intimated that Geffen and Rose are friends but, according to Niven, who had to negotiate between both parties: "David Geffen and Axl Rose? Oh, just ships in the night. Geffen is a very smart business man. He had no illusions whatsoever about Axl. Did he ever want to hang out with Axl? Oh, good God, no! Geffen is far too intelligent to care about sustaining some kind of rock credibility for himself by socializing with Axl Rose. There was one lovely moment on the first night of the debacle with the Rolling Stones when Axl was bounding up the steps of the Oakland Coliseum after coming directly offstage. Geffen was also on the steps. He looks down and says, 'Great show, Axl.' Axl screams back, 'Hope you fuckin' liked it. It's the last one!' But Geffen's response to that was no response. 'Let him go. Let him cool off. And then let me deal with him.'"
For a man publicly nailed as a homophobe, Rose has curious musical tastes. The openly gay Elton John and Freddie Mercury are big heroes - Rose has said that he first "had a vision" of standing onstage as a rock star while listening to John's "Bennie and the Jets." At the height of the "One In A Million" controversy, Rose went out of his way to get photographed standing alongside the Pet Shop Boys after a concert they'd performed.
It was during this period that Rose decided it was time to oust Niven: "Axl wanted total control, while my commitment was to Guns N' Roses. My assessment was that the dynamic of the five original individuals involved was what created the character and overall personality that ultimately proved so successful. Axl was a part of that - a very important part - but I had too much of a problem with this 'It's my ball and if you don't play the game by my rules then I'm taking it home, dude' attitude of his."
According to a coworker from that time: "It was very clear that Alan didn't like Axl. I mean how would you feel if you knew - positively without a shadow of a doubt - that your manager really didn't like you?"
Nevertheless, Niven contends that Axl's controlling attitude is part of what drives his creativity. "Axl has a capacity to really focus and analyze circumstances and situations, which is part of what makes him a gifted lyric writer. However, a major element of the frustration of being involved with him was that while everyone else was basically being gregarious and dealing with a normal life, Axl was shutting himself away in his room and thinking about one thing and one thing only for days or weeks on end. It was as though he was picking something up and looking at it from this angle, then that angle, then another over and over again. That minute focus of Axl's is both a curse and a gift."
Rose's choice for Niven's replacement was a young security guy named Doug Goldstein, described by Izzy Stradlin as "the guy who got to go over to Axl's at six in the morning when his piano was hanging out the window of his house. Axl smashed his $50,000 grand piano out the fuckin' picture window of his new house. Dougie took care of all that."
Surprisingly enough - given the contagious manner in which multitudes find themselves instigating lawsuits against the singer - Niven never wanted to take Rose to court. "He does sometimes try to exercise a sense of honor. With the separation, my desire was to get a one-time payment because I didn't want to get involved with him and with Goldstein - I just wanted out. And Axl honored that."
Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II were released in the autumn of 1991, but it was to be the season of their downfall. Despite stellar sales (2 million by November '91; 7 million as of July '97), the Illusion package was quickly eclipsed by Nirvana's Nevermind in its impact on the industry and the public. This was sweet revenge for Kurt Cobain, who'd been viciously putting down Guns N' Roses, and Axl in particular, to his audiences. But it was clear that Rose and Cobain had an awful lot in common - connections with drugs, love of guns, and volatile relationships with women being just the tip of the iceberg. as Cobain himself admitted to his biographer Michael Azerrad: "We come from small towns and we've been surrounded by a lot of sexism and racism most of our lives. But out internal struggles are pretty different. I feel like I've allowed myself to open my mind to a lot more things than he has. His role has been played for years. Ever since the beginning of rock 'n' roll, there's been an Axl Rose. And it's just totally boring to me.
The alternative rock cognoscenti have always been incredibly snooty about Rose and the Gunners anyway. Peter Buck once casually informed a U.K. magazine that he owned a special Guns N' Roses doormat. "I wouldn't wipe my feet on anything else," he added. At the same time, one of the few during this period who had supportive words for Rose was U2's Bono, who met Axl several times during the band's Achtung Baby tour. "I can see why people like his music so much. There isn't much editing done in his conversation or, obviously, in his work. It's a direct line with his gut. That's what I like about it."
The touring ended in 1993, which was when the lawsuits really started. Rose had already been brought to court and fined for a 1991 riot in St. Louis and a similar incident in Canada in 1992. Then Adler staggered into court with his list of grievances. At first, the drummer's lawyers asked for an out-of-court settlement of $350,000. Rose and Goldstein decided to fight it and wound up coughing up 2.5 million in a humiliating public settlement. Simultaneous to this, Rose was involved in litigation with ex-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour Brandt, the Victoria's Secret supermodel. It was he who first sued her, claiming she "kicked and grabbed him" during a Christmas party as his Malibu home. She retaliated with a countersuit claiming he "punched, slapped, and kicked" her down a flight of stairs. She ended up winning - according to Parade magazine - a $400,000 out-of-court settlement. Worse yet, Seymour had located Erin Everly, Rose's wife for a few months in 1990. Everly also sued Rose for charges centered around emotional and physical abuse. Niven remembers: "It was a very volatile relationship, but it takes two to tango. I think she contributed in certain ways, too. She definitely had a way of pushing his buttons."
In a 1995 interview for a TV show in Paris, Slash spoke at length about how there was a pretty severe communication breakdown between him and Rose, and how he couldn't stomach working with Paul Huge, the rhythm guitarist Axl had just brought in to replace Izzy Stradlin. "The main trouble with Axl is that he always thinks a Guns N' Roses album is automatically a solo album for him," he remarked at one point. A year later, in September 1996, Duff McKagan - newly clean and sober - and Matt Sorum were also facing the same TV cameras. "Guns has been rehearsing for five weeks," claimed Sorum. "Axl's been very nice. Very easy to get along with, lately. It's scaring me (he laughs)."
"All lead singers are egomaniacs," said Duff. "But hey, you need 'em. What more can I say?"
In one of the few significant interviews he's granted in 1997, Slash admitted: "Axl and I have just not been able to have a meeting of the minds of such that we can actually work together. My basic plan is to wait, let the smoke clear, and maybe we can talk about it later.... Axl's whole visionary style - as far as input in Guns N' Roses - is completely different from mine. I just like to play guitar, as opposed to presenting an image."
Meanwhile, with Axl free to explore his own musical vision, the new album is slowly taking shape. "There's a huge closet filled with DAT tapes, but there isn't one final song for the record," notes someone close to the band. "Everybody brings their sketches, but the person who is most concerned with refining things is Axl. But he wants other people to bring a lot to the table too - he loves the fact that Dizzy is down there every night working with him. Axl gets agitated when people don't show up and contribute." According to this source, there has always been an overweening ambition behind Rose's creative madness: "Axl used to sit around and talk about world domination. From the very beginning he has always gone for the big ring."
Unfortunately for Axl, his talk of world denomination could well be a concept better suited to the past. Malcolm Dome, editor of Kerrang! - a former bastion of Guns mania - sees the Axl-Slash split as "total bloody suicide. Axl's new band could very easily come out and die the death. From what I can tell you, from our readers' reaction, they just don't care that much about Axl anymore." A promoter in France notes, "In 1992 Guns played to 30,000 people on Paris, in '93 to less than half that number. If Slash were still in the band, he'd book them into a 60,000 seater."
"In his years away from the stage, Axl Rose's thunder has been stolen by younger performers," an American promoter points out. "If the kids want a bad-ass hellion to admire, Phil Anselmo of Pantera, Jonathan Davis of Korn, and the singer from Tool do the whole 'I'm a fucked-up child and now you're going to suffer' routine. And if you want the beer-swilling drug-taking hooligan with charisma who sometimes doesn't turn up to gigs - look no further that Oasis's Liam Gallagher.
Still, there is little doubt that Axl has the potential to pull it off. Over and over again - throughout the industry - it's being stated: "Axl can come back and be successful only if he delivers a truly great album." Even Niven agrees: "I still say he has a remarkable voice, and he has an intense analytical focus that allows him to write with insight. I think him quite capable of creative excellence. His problem was always balance and self-editorial. If he can effect some balance, he could produce a good record. At the same time, I tend to think of Sly Stone, of how he self-destructed and compromised his creativity. Maybe Axl requires hate to drive his muse. David Bowie once told him that this drove his creativity, and the comment made a big impression on Axl. Maybe now he needs a new source of inspiration."
But why doesn't he make this project a solo album and keep Guns N' Roses as a specific collective endeavor? "I don't think this new music is just a vehicle for him as a solo performer. He wants this to be a band where everyone contributes," says Moby. "On the music I've heard, you can hear everyone's distinctive voice coming through. Honestly, they're the nicest bunch of people I've ever worked with.
"You were talking about the way Axl tarnished his image. I think it's consistently the more interesting figures in music, or in cultural in general - they tend to be ambiguous. They're creative people who want to explore other elements of themselves. Sometimes they make mistakes. But I'd much rather a public figure make mistakes than just end up making Phil Collins-type records one after another."
Asked to disclose a release date for the record, the anonymous source laughs. "That's the funniest thing I ever heard. They've been hoping to release this record every quarter for the last few years. So it could be a couple more years. Anything's possible when it comes to Axl."