Guns N' Roses 1988
By Mike Greenblatt
For one brief thrilling moment, the original five of Hollywood sleaze merchants Guns N’ Roses were primed as the saviors of American rock’n’roll. I’ll never forget sitting stage left at The Ritz and thinking Axl Rose was the first front man since Jim Morrison that exuded an onstage air of such unpredictability that anything was possible. You just didn’t know what was going to happen next. It added drama, a tangible edge to an unforgettable evening. Of course, it helped to have one of the greatest hard-rock debuts in history to tour with. Appetite For Destruction still sounds vital 32 years later.
It’s been all downhill since.
Consider this a snapshot from ’88. Shortly after they graciously welcomed me into their orbit, they became incredibly churlish to the press and almost impossible to deal with. These Musings have been cobbled together from the numerous magazine articles I ultimately wrote as they officially went mute to the press almost immediately. I got lucky. To interview all five for a teen magazine? The record company forced them into it. I had to ask teen-type questions like those in 16, Teen Beat or Tiger Beat. “What do you look for in a girlfriend?” Axl’s answer was not printed in the finished magazine and I will not repeat it here.
Vocalist Axl Rose is pissed. He’s sitting in his Canadian hotel room waiting for room service and screaming into the telephone. “We’re very fortunate that we’re getting any radio airplay at all! And there’s all kinds of fucking compromises that make you feel really small as a person. The thing that kills me is because it’s all down to some asshole being worried that if they play our song, will so-and-so buy my washers and dryers? Well, man, I could give a fuck about your washers and dryers.”
Guitarist Slash has a headache. He’s moaning and groaning and blaming it on the massive amount of Jack Daniels he consumed the night before. “Drink it all the time, man. Hey, at least I’m not a practicing drug addict anymore.” He burned his finger and he can’t remember how. And he wants to know who “left that fucking Poison magazine on the tourbus?”
Actually, it was me. I had given it to drummer Steven Adler and told him not to show anybody. When I admit this to Slash, he says, “hey, I don’t care, man. I’m no fucking baby. I just wanted to know where it came from.”
Lead guitarist Izzy Stradlin remembers the beginnings of this band. “Oh yeah, we hit it off alright. We rehearsed for three days and went right out on a club tour. We did a punk thing. Duff had booking connections in Seattle so off we went. We loaded all our stuff in this big car and only made it about 200 miles out of L.A. before the car broke down. We had hardly any money but we slung our guitars over our shoulders and hitch-hiked with all our stuff. Boy, what a road trip for our every first one! But the crowd response was good and that’s when we really took off. We were doing a little bit of everything from Elvis Presley tunes, blues, you name it! We didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. We just wanted to play.”
Drummer Steven Adler is reminiscing about the time he met Mr. T and Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons. He loves The Four Seasons. But he gets defensive when I ask him about a recent trashing of a hotel room. “So the fuck what? We broke stuff. Big shit. Too many drinks, man [laughs]. What of it? I personally have thrown everything I could out of my hotel room’s window. I got twisted, man! It’s the golden rule of rock: if you can get this far in the business, you can fuck up hotel rooms! In fact, you should! You have to break things. You have to throw everything out of your hotel window. I ended up in a Chicago jail once: we got into this big fight in the bar of the hotel, but I better not say anything about that.”
Bassist Duff McKagan stops reading The Ultimate Evil by Maury Terry for a minute to look up and say how truly scary the book is.
Everybody’s keeping an eye on the singer: his record label, his management, his road crew, his bandmates and his fans. Nobody wants to lose him. And he’s not exactly known for taking care of himself. Elvis Costello once wrote “I want to bite the hand that feeds me.” Axl does that every day. He doesn’t give a good goddamn. He doesn’t know it but he’s slowly sliding down the razor blade of corporate Music Biz America. They know it and they even joke about it. “See you in August,” Axl yelled to us at The Ritz, “if we don’t OD first!”
They started out in a grungy Hollywood studio filled with garbage, hot and cold running bugs and constant weirdos coming and going at all hours. One time they totally trashed the lady’s room at The Whiskey. Early interviews had them intimidating fearful journalists and even forcing most to run out and buy the band cheap wine and cigarettes (at the writer’s expense) before they’d talk. And then when they did talk, they made Jerry Lee Lewis look positively polite. One writer (Katherine Truman of Music Connection) wrote (Nov. 30-Dec. 13 1985 issue) that “interviewing Guns N’ Roses is like being the substitute teacher at a kindergarten in hell.”
A Guns N’ Roses concert is a Felini-esque journey through improv, rock’n’roll, Theater Of The Absurd and a carnival geek show. The crunch of human flesh at the lip of the stage is some sight: writhing, contorting bodies—all skinny, all male, all with no shirts on—with more than an occasional swan diver. Heads knocking against heads, drinks spilling, cigarettes barely missing human skin. At The Ritz, security had to rescue fan after fan who would get entangled in a sea of limbs. They’d fish him or her out from the front and hustle ‘em off through a stageside exit. Fans who stagedive without getting off the stage fast enough would be thrown by guards back into the melee before Axl could get his hands on ‘em.
Axl, Steven, Slash, Izzy and Duff get so crazy on their own music that it’s amazing they can keep in time with each other. The sense of expectancy and dread mingles with that great rock’n’roll exhilaration to produce a feeling hard to describe.
Drummer Steven Adler says it’s no big deal about his band’s propensity for committing various acts of violence upon inanimate objects. Adler’s a bright-eyed kid, obviously agog at the attention and the perks of rock stardom. He loves it. And this enthusiasm oozes out of every pore of his body. He’s clearly loving every minute of his newfound notoriety. He tells me he learned to drum from listening to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, two legends from the swing era. I ask him if he’s familiar with their Drum Battle. He says no. I make him a tape and give it to him backstage in New York. He could’ve just said thanks. Instead, he lets out a few war whoops and gives me a crunching bear hug. I would get phone calls from in the middle of the night to tell me how the tape has changed his life.
“I’m a better drummer for it.”
That’s why it’s so sad that Adler simply couldn’t hold his heroin. It polluted his mind and body so bad, he got kicked out the band who originally turned him on to it in the first place.
So they’re crude. So you wouldn’t want to bring them home to your parents. You’re not supposed to bring rock’n’roll home to your parents. All I know is, you look and look for years for a real one to come along and only every so often does one actually appear. Guns N’Roses may be scumbags to some…but they’re certainly living (and maybe dying) for their art. Rock’n’roll martyrs? Could be. That’s why this band seems to be the only one that matters in the here and now of 1988. And even if they never play another gig, they’ll have left an indelible piss-stain on rock.