by Stephen Davis, 2008 Gotham Books
0n March 16, 1999, Guns N' Roses was presented with a Diamond Album award by the record industry's trade association, commemorating sales of fifteen million units of Appetite for Destruction. This award was accepted, in New York, by Steven Adler.
Jimmy immy Iovine made some headway with Axl in 1999. That summer, Guns N' Roses released their first new song in eight years. The industrial-sounding "Oh My God" was destined for the sound track of End of Days, another Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, and was even introduced by Axl on MTV. Hopes for Chinese Democracy rose in a flurry of publicity, but the song was boring, barely got on the radio, and was slagged in the press as another disappointment from a band that had let its fans, and itself, down.
Late in the year, Axl previewed a dozen Chinese Democracy tracks for Rolling Stone. The magazine was politely unmoved by early versions of new songs "I.R.S.," "Catcher in the Rye," and "The Blues." It duly reported that the new album was tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2000.
Guns N' Roses' much-anticipated live album came out in November 1999. Live Era '87—'93 was a double CD containing twenty-two tracks. Axl and the ex-Gunners mixed and overdubbed the old tracks separately, communicating through managers and staff. Cushioned with ambient South American stadium noise, a future distant echo of "Benny and the Jets," it leaned heavily on the Illusion tours —Guns' bombastic late period— and missed some of the frenetic violence of the young band in a sweaty club. (The art director tried to compensate for this with reproductions of 1985 GN'R street flyers.) Again, despite some blistering performances of the Appetite songs, there was no radio airplay, and reviews for Live Era were less than raving.
Axl had decreed that no ex-members of Guns could help promote the album, and he didn't bother to either, so sales in the crucial Christmas market totaled less than a million units, a shocking slap from their old fans. To many, it looked like the midnight hour had passed, and that the GN'R audience had moved on.
TREACHEROUS SEA OF HORRORS
In 2000, Sean Bevan quit trying to produce Chinese Democracy. Interscope got Axl to agree on Roy Thomas Baker, who had produced Queen's major albums. Baker had Guns rerecord everything of any significance with a new drummer, Brian Mantia, formerly of Primus. Then Axl hired Buckethead, the shy, virtuoso metal guitarist who appeared in public wearing a plastic mask and a commercial fried chicken bucket on his head. Axl had this version of Guns N' Roses re-record the tracks they had done for producer Baker.
Izzy Stradlin's Ju Ju Hounds and Slash's Snakepit both toured Japan and Europe in 2000, playing to audiences who yelled for the old Guns songs. Axl Rose performed in public for the first time in six years when he joined Gilby Clarke's Starfuckers at the Cathouse on June 22. The audience of maybe 300 erupted when Axl walked on stage, which spurred him to dance through renditions of "Wild Horses" and "Dead Flowers." Afterward, Axl seemed genuinely relieved that people still wanted to dig his serpentine act.
Guns N' Roses played the House of Blues in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve. Buckethead and Robin Finck fronted the band with Axl a few hours into 2001. Paul Huge played rhythm guitar. Chris Pittman contributed effects. Dizzy Reed anchored the whole thing. "I have traversed a treacherous sea of horrors to be with you here tonight," Axl told the audience. The band blasted into "Nightrain" and the whole building shook. They played a lot of Appetite, including "Think About You" for the first time since 1987. They played a bunch of new songs: "Oh My God," "Silkworms," "The Blues," and "Chinese Democracy," which Axl explained he had written after seeing the film Kundun. Buckethead had a big solo feature, and then threw roses from a Kentucky Fried Chicken container into the crowd. At the end of the show, Axl thanked the 1,800 delirious fans and wished them a happy new year.
Two weeks later, GN'R played for 200,000 at Rock in Rio III. After thousands of people had yelled for the absent Slash, Axl responded: "Yeah, yeah. All right. I know that you're disappointed that some of the people you know and love could not be with us tonight.... But, regardless of what you heard, my former friends have worked very hard ... to do everything they could ... so I wouldn't be here today! .. . And I say, FUCK THAT!"
A European tour was then announced and tickets for some shows sold out with no promotion; but the tour was then canceled without explanation. A planned DVD of the Las Vegas show was also shelved. Later that year, the rescheduled Euro tour was canceled again.
March 2001. Interscope brought in Tom Zutaut to try to get Chinese Democracy finished. Zutaut was the only recording executive ever to get any original music out of Guns N' Roses, and he was offered a major bonus if the album was ready by the end of 2001. CDs of alternate instrumental takes were driven to Axl almost every day. Buckethead then threatened to quit, and had to be coddled.
He made Axl take him to Disneyland, and then demanded that the studio build a chicken wire coop, in which Buckethead then recorded his solos. Producer Greg Wattenberg was hired to work on Axl's vocal tracks, which seemed to be Chinese Democracy's final stumbling block. Greg Wattenberg waited six excruciating weeks to meet Axl, and then was granted only a twenty-minute interview in the studio, at four in the morning. Wattenberg went home. The World Trade Center towers were knocked down, and everything changed, but there was no cracking the carapace of isolation surrounding W. Axl Rose. Both Tom Zutaut and Roy Thomas Baker were out of the picture by Christmas.
Guns N' Roses played two Las Vegas shows at the end of 2001. Axl: "We're doing four or five of the new songs, but we're holding our big guns back." Slash and his new wife, Perla Ferrar, tried to see the New Year's Eve show but were rudely stopped at the backstage door — a serious affront. Doug Goldstein was quoted about this in the press: "We didn't know what [Slash's] intentions were. It would have been a distraction. Axl was really nervous about these shows, and we decided not to take any risks." There were sound monitor problems during these shows, and Axl kept leaving the stage. When everything was working, "Uncle Axl" (as he introduced himself) would crouch at the side of the stage and watch his band work through the old songs, like an invisible spectator.
In early 2002, Axl had the band rerecord all the new songs — again. Paul Huge left the band and was replaced by guitarist Richard Fortus. That summer, Guns N' Roses played sold-out (and well-received) shows in Japan and Europe. Forty-year-old Axl Rose appeared onstage in sports jerseys and a cornrow hairdo under a bandanna. He looked younger than forty, and rumors were published that he'd had plastic surgery on his face, as well as hair transplants. At the Leeds Festival in England on August 23, Axl protested an early curfew:
"I didn't fucking come all the way to fucking England to be told to go back fuckin' home by some fuckin' asshole. [Big cheer] All I've got for the last eight years is shit after shit after shit in the fuckin' press — Axl's this,' and Axl's that' So if you wanna stay, and if I wanna stay, we'll see what happens. Everybody ... Hey, nobody try to get in trouble or anything. Try and have a good time!"
During "Patience," Axl saw someone wearing a Where Is Slash? T-shirt. "He's in my ass," Axl yelled. "That's where Slash is! Fuckhead! Go home!"
They finished the tour at London's Wembley Arena, with Weezer opening, completely sold out. Uncle Axl told the audience that Guns had two new albums, ready to go. He ranted for a while and then asked Tommy Stinson if his remarks qualified as a rant. Then he felt too sick to continue, so Sebastian Bach took his place for "Nightrain" and "Paradise City" and finished the show.
On August 29, 2002, Guns N' Roses made a surprise appearance at MTV's Video Music Awards. After "Jungle," the band premiered the new song "Madagascar" and closed with "Paradise City." Axl finished the mini-set with closed eyes and lifted hands, described in the press as a messianic stance. He did a short interview with MTV's Kurt Loder, and left the building.
Robert John had been taking photographs of Guns N' Roses since the beginning of the band, but now he started getting complaints from Axl. "He wasn't happy with the way he looked in the pictures," Robert said. "But his looks had changed. People get older, right? He'd put on a few pounds. He criticized the brightness of the shots, but I wasn't lighting the shows. He'd already fired Gene Kirkland, a terrific photographer who'd been shooting Guns almost as long as I had.
"Then I started working with Marilyn Manson, and Axl was like, `The only reason Marilyn is working with you is, he's taking my energy through you' You see, it always had to be about Axl, no matter what. It started getting on my nerves. Axl's entire world was having his employees lick his ass up and down, and tell him he was right. But I wasn't paid by him, so I could tell Axl what I felt. And I told him that the guy with the chicken bucket looked fucking weird, and that I just didn't see any chemistry in this band. They just played the old songs, almost note for note.
"Plus, now I was getting messages from Axl through his housekeeper. `We want this. We want that' She was the maid, the housekeeper, whatever. I didn't remember her being part of the organization. I remembered her being his ex-girlfriend's nanny. She never gave him my messages either.
"At one point that year , I didn't see Axl for six months, and he'd changed. He looked different. People weren't being treated right. He had a bunch of psychics telling him what to do. Sharon from Sedona was putting hexes on things so they couldn't drain Axl's precious energy. It was all so weird."
Robert John made a deal with Axl to sell him all his photographs—thousands of images dating to 1984. Robert took the archives to Axl's house and then waited for the check. It never came, and eventually Robert John had to sue Axl Rose to get paid for his years of work with Guns N' Roses.
November 7, 2002. Guns N' Roses' first North American tour in ten years started with a riot in Vancouver when Axl's plane was late and the promoter canceled the first show. The kids smashed some windows, and the riot cops arrived with dogs and beat the crap out of people. Buckethead was upset seeing kids getting their teeth knocked out.
But the rest of the month went well, despite some sparse crowds at smaller venues, and the band played a letter-perfect show at sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York on December 5. Afterward, Axl went out with an entourage, but he was rudely turned away from ultra-chic, model-ridden nightclub Spa because he was wearing a fur jacket and the club had a strict no-fur policy. Humiliated, mad as hell, he stormed back to his hotel.
Instead of playing in Philadelphia the next day, he stayed in and watched a basketball game on television. After both opening bands had played, with Axl still in Manhattan, the Philadelphia show was canceled at eleven P.M. Chairs flew through the air. Trash fires were set. The riot cops arrived. The rest of the tour was canceled by the promoter.
In 2003, Slash, Duff McKagan, and Matt Sorum began rehearsing a new band they were calling Reloaded. They asked Sebastian Bach if he wanted to sing, but Bas declined. In May, Scott Weiland, former Stone Temple Pilot, was confirmed as the group's singer. In June, guitarist Dave Kushner was added, and the band was renamed Velvet Revolver. They played their first show in L.A. with a snarling set of covers that blew people away. Duff McKagan said Velvet Revolver was the band he'd always wanted to be in.
That summer Geffen Records told Axl Rose it was releasing a Guns N' Roses greatest hits album. Axl didn't want this to happen and got Doug Goldstein to promise them Chinese Democracy by the end of the year if they held off. The label agreed, but they still didn't get the new record. In February 2004, Geffen finally pulled the plug on the band's studio sessions. The Chinese Democracy recording budget was reported to have ballooned to more than $11 million.
Buckethead quit the band.
In March 2004, Geffen released Greatest Hits over Axl's heated objections and despite a court challenge that was dismissed by the judge. Guns' final album shocked everyone by quickly selling two million copies. It got to number one in England and many European markets, and entered the Billboard chart at number three. Sales of Appetite for Destruction also picked up, as well as the single-disc Use Your Illusion compilation Geffen had released in 1998. (This version deleted all the cursing so it could be sold at Wal-Mart and other conservative retail outlets.)
A LONG AND INCOMPREHENSIBLE JOURNEY
Velvet Revolver's first album, Contraband, came out in the spring of 2004 and the new band started touring, putting on club-level rock concerts that started on time. The music on Contraband (and its successor, Libertad, three years later) was unremittingly grim, perhaps reflecting the tenuous physical and mental health of ex-junkies and alcoholics now in their forties — heavily compromised musicians whose big fun was years behind them and wasn't coming back.
Steven Adler revived his own band, Adler's Appetite, and toured in Europe. Steven Adler lived in Las Vegas, his speech slurred by a cocaine-induced stroke. He admitted (to the Metal Sludge fan Web site) in 2005 that he still sometimes smoked crack but was trying to stop, and was living comfortably on his GN'R royalties.
Izzy Stradlin was living in Indiana, to the surprise of those who remembered the contempt with which he used to describe his home state.
Slash lived with his wife, Perla, and their two kids (London and Cash) in the San Fernando Valley. After years of addiction, Slash had serious heart problems, and a pacemaker-like device was installed in his chest in 2000 to keep him alive.
Duff McKagan lived in Los Angeles with his wife, Susan Holmes, and their two daughters. The rigors of the Velvet Revolver tours sent both Slash and Duff back into drug dependency — Matt Sorum also went to rehab with Duff — but then they got clean again.
In January 2005, Axl Rose announced he had moved GN'R's song publishing business to Sanctuary Records, a recent contender for Industry Heavy status. Sanctuary executive Merck Mercuriades was also managing Guns, since Doug Goldstein had resigned or been fired by Axl for reasons unknown. Eight months later, Slash and Duff McKagan sued Axl after they stopped receiving royalty payments from Guns N' Roses. Axl's lawyers claimed it was all a mistake, and Axl countersued Slash.
Guns N' Roses of the twenty-first century played a week of blazing shows in New York in May 2005—intense theater-size concerts that were hailed by both critics and fans.
The band played "Madagascar" and other new songs, but mostly stuck to carbon copies of the old records. Axl made newspaper headlines in New York when he got punched at a downtown nightclub by fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
In early 2006, a bunch of Chinese Democracy songs were leaked onto the Internet via a fan club Web site. The new songs — featuring drones, robotic rhythms, organlike keyboard variations — sounded tense, grandiose, and unfinished. "Better" was the best of these, although some radio stations downloaded "I.R.S." and began playing it in February — until the band's management put a stop to it. None of the songs matched the greatness of the early band, and people began to understand why the new Guns album was taking so long.
The feud among the original band members continued to simmer in 2006. After Slash paid a contentious nocturnal visit to Axl's house, Axl had his attorney release a public statement claiming that Slash had admitted that Axl had been right about everything over the years. This statement also claimed that Slash had told Axl that Duff McKagan was a wimp, and that Scott Weiland wasn't happening. A furious Scott Weiland in turn attacked Axl on Velvet Revolver's Web site: "Get a new wig, motherfucker! ... Oh shit, here it comes—you fat, Botox-faced, wig-wearing fuck."
May 2006. Guns N' Roses announced a world tour, beginning with four warm-up shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York (formerly the Ritz, where Guns had often played). These four shows-16,000 seats—sold out in three minutes. The opening-night crowd learned that Guns now had three guitar players, for Buckethead had been replaced by Bumblefoot, aka Ron Thal, who joined Robin Finck and Richard Fortus. Axl opened the evening with "Welcome to the Jungle," wearing a leather shirt and a large silver cross, his hair in cornrows and pulled back. His red beard and moustache made him look fierce, like an Irish warlord. The crowd roared the lyrics with him, word for word.
They roared again when he brought out Izzy Stradlin for five songs. Izzy had short hair under a bandanna, and he seemed as amazed as anyone else that he was standing onstage with Axl Rose again. The people in the crush down front saw that Izzy seemed to have tears in his eyes as the band launched into "It's So Easy." The whole crowd sang along to every familiar song, described in The New York Times as "an astonishing spectacle."
They listened carefully to the new songs, trying to figure out "Madagascar" and "The Blues." Later on in the show, Axl brought out Sebastian Bach, who then functioned as a second lead singer, taking over the vocal on "My Michelle" when Axl left the stage. Axl thanked Bas onstage for persuading him to tour again. From then on, Bach often stayed with Guns N' Roses on the road, serving as an adjutant or relief rock star, filling in whenever needed.
Guns played in Europe next, beginning in Spain. In June they played a sold-out show in Stockholm, after which Axl partied with a bunch of leather-wearing blondes at the Café Opera. Back at the Hotel Bern, really drunk at three A.M., he got into a shouting match with a young woman. A security guard tried to intervene. Axl smashed a mirror, then bit the guard on the leg. The police dragged him off to jail.
International headlines followed the next day, along with a $5,000 fine.
The seven-piece Guns played a successful North American tour beginning in September 2006. Rap-rockers Papa Roach opened many of the shows. Drummer Brian Mantia was replaced by Frank Ferrer. The tour was undertaken to raise cash to finish the album and keep the band alive, since their label refused to renegotiate or discuss marketing and video treatments until they had the master tapes of Chinese Democracy in hand.
The L.A. show (actually in San Bernardino) in September was their first in fourteen years. They sold out the venue and earned respectful if somewhat bemused reviews, as if they were the best Guns N' Roses tribute band in the world. Afterward, Axl threw a lavish party at his Malibu compound and played the full Chinese Democracy album for guests in his billiards room. He said that veteran engineer Andy Wallace, who had mixed Nirvana's Nevermind, was working on the Guns album in New York.
Merck Mercuriades told Rolling Stone that the record would be out by the end of 2006. The following month, Axl told Mercuriades that he was out instead. Chinese Democracy stayed in the can.
Tower Records closed at the end of the year, bankrupt because kids didn't pay for records anymore, preferring to download or copy them instead. Axl was shocked by this, and wondered if there would be any stores left to sell Chinese Democracy — if he ever let it out. Late in 2006, in an open letter to Guns fans on the band's Web site, Axl wrote: "To say the making of this album has been an unbearably long and incomprehensible journey would be an understatement." He also hinted it would be released in March 2007.
It didn't happen. Two months after that, more tracks were "leaked" on the Internet.
Most were remixes of previously downloadable music, and the critics yawned. Guns spent that summer playing shows in Mexico, Australia, and Japan. Axl worked with Sebastian Bach on his solo album, Angel Down, which came out late in 2007. The three duets Axl performed with Bas were his first recordings in years.
Late in the year, as the Santa Ana winds roared from the east, Axl manned a garden hose as his Malibu mansion narrowly missed being consumed by wildfires that scorched thousands of acres in southern California. Part of the roof burned, but the house, and its wily and ruthlessly determined owner, survived to fight again another day.
In the spring of 2008, Velvet Revolver imploded when Scott Weiland — out on $40,000 bail after a drug arrest on a freeway ramp — left the band to return to Stone Temple Pilots. Weiland and Matt Sorum had been publicly feuding, and Slash released a statement that they were fed up with Weiland's "erratic onstage behavior and personal problems." No replacement was announced, and tongues began to feverishly wag that Axl Rose, who was rumored to have serious cash-flow issues, would re-form the original Guns N' Roses for one final stupendous tour.
The press wanted to speak with Axl about this possibility, but they couldn't find him, and no one returned their calls.
To many, Axl Rose remained an enigma. Almost anything he did made headlines in American newspapers. Others saw him as a poster child for narcissism and neurotic deliberation. His obsessive tinkering with Chinese Democracy left some convinced it would never come out.
Some longtime Guns fans - those left emotionally exhausted after hearing Appetite for Destruction for the first time — expressed the fervent desire that the Democracy album not appear, on the theory that it was better just to let a great band die with some measure of dignity.
Others didn't see it that way. To them, Axl was a heroic artist, uninterested in money or fame, aiming for musical perfection at any cost. Tom Zutaut publicly defended Axl against his critics, maintaining that Axl Rose's artistic decisions were, and always had been, "motivated by a pure desire to make every recording count as a true reflection of his own high standards."
Everyone who had ever loved Guns N' Roses waited to see what would happen next.