by Stephen Davis, 2008 Gotham Books
THE BEST GN'R TRIBUTE BAND IN THE WORLD
Success is not final, failure is not fatal:
it is the courage to continue that counts.
THE SOUND OF A BAND BREAKING UP
At the beginning of 1994, Guns N' Roses was still intact, but the fissures among the band's personalities were getting too wide to straddle. Axl was sequestered in his Malibu estate, almost completely reclusive. But in mid-January, he flew to New York for the induction of early inspirer Elton John into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Axl joined the celebrity jam late in the program, singing the Beatles' "Come Together" with Bruce Springsteen.
It was his last public appearance (except in courtrooms) for six years.
Geffen Records was panting for a new Guns N' Roses album. David Geffen had sold the label to MCA (Music Corporation of America) in 1990 for a billion dollars, and in 1994 had one year remaining on his employment contract. Geffen had offered Guns an album advance reported to be worth 10 million dollars.
So, in the spring of 1994, the crew set Guns up in a big room at The Complex, an L.A. studio, equipped with pool tables and a GN'R pinball machine. But the band almost never showed up, and the engineers—who were on call permanently—never had all six Gunners in the room at any one time.
It didn't matter, because Guns didn't really have any new songs, only some fragments, riffs, and barely sketched ideas. The expenses began to build up as the studio sat buzzing, ready, and usually empty.
Duff McKagan collapsed in April. Duff recalled, "The end of my drinking career came when my pancreas burst, which was not fun. It lets out the bile, which gives your stomach and intestines third-degree burns. Usually they slit you open to let some of the steam out, which relieves the pain before you die." Duff was in the hospital for ten days, scared shitless, upset not that he had lived fast and died young, but that his corpse would be less than exquisite. "I looked like bloated Elvis," he said.
The doctors explained that if he went home and drank vodka, he would die right away since his burst gland was still exposed. They had left his pancreas in place, and Duff was relieved he didn't have to become diabetic. "It may sound corny," he told an interviewer, "but my doctor said, 'There's a reason you're still alive. Make good use of it, because this doesn't happen all the time."
Duff retreated to Seattle to recover. Kurt Cobain was on the same flight, having checked himself out of a rehab program. The doctors put Duff on morphine for the pancreatic pain and other drugs to control delirium tremens from alcohol detoxification. Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, sending his fans and many in his generation into shock. "Then I was sober," Duff recalled, "and everything seemed like I was on acid, because it was so real."
Duff started to exercise and worked with a martial arts teacher. To keep busy, he began going through the band's financial statements, which he found impossible to understand. When he returned to L.A., a changed man, Duff started taking business classes at a community college downtown. Later, McKagan entered a Jesuit business college in Seattle and would eventually graduate with a degree in finance (with a minor in accounting).
June 1994. Guns was silent as Axl prepared to defend himself in court against the two abuse lawsuits filed by his former lovers. He reportedly had Erin Everly's graphic bondage scenes erased from Guns' unused "It's So Easy" video, and then the tape was burned.
Meanwhile, Gilby Clarke had been working hard on a solo album that featured Duff, Slash, and Axl along with some guest stars. Gilby's record was released (by Virgin Records) as Pawnshop Guitars in June (and is still considered by fans to be the strongest of the Guns-associated solo albums). It also got Gilby fired.
Actually, Gilby Clarke had been fired, and then rehired, three times in the early months of 1994. Then Clarke did interviews to promote his record, and some mild, faintly critical, supposedly off-the-record remarks Gilby made about Axl's control-freak issues were published in Kerrang! that month. Axl was furious.
"Axl fired Gilby without consulting anyone," Slash said later. "His rationale was that Gilby had always been a hired hand, and that he couldn't write with him."
Gilby went quietly. Then the royalty checks stopped. No one would return his calls. Reluctantly, Gilby sued Guns N' Roses. An undisclosed settlement was reached in 1995.
In the summer of 1994, Slash got more serious about a side project, a band originally conceived as SVO Snakepit. (SVO stood for Slash's Very Own.) This was Slash, Gilby, and members of other local bands working out some of the ideas Slash was trying to develop for the next Guns album.
Slash: "We booked ourselves a tour across the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia—clubs and theaters. We shot two videos and released a single, 'Beggars and Hangers On.' There was no drama. We booked gigs, showed up, got up there, and played. It helped me rediscover why I love what I do."
Gilby's dismissal left a huge hole in Guns N' Roses. Slash was unable to communicate with Axl. Izzy Stradlin had been the bridge between Axl and the rest of the band. Slash: "Izzy was the last one in the band able to get through to him, creatively." Slash said that neither he nor Duff had the social skills to get through Axl's wall of silence, which was a problem because the band had agreed to record a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" for the new Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt movie, Interview with the Vampire.
Then Axl hired Paul Huge to replace Gilby in Guns N' Roses.
Huge was Axl's old pal from Lafayette, and the cowriter of "Back Off Bitch," arguably Guns' worst song ever. The others were appalled. They all hated Paul Huge. Slash said that Huge had zero personality, no music skills, and was the least interesting guy holding a guitar Slash had ever met. They begged Axl, through Doug Goldstein, to reconsider, but Paul Huge was now in the band. They tried to work with him in Slash's home studio, but nothing came of it but toxic vibes and general negativity. Slash sent Axl tapes of songs he'd been working on, but never heard back. Slash didn't speak to Axl for a long time after that.
This version of Guns cut "Sympathy for the Devil" with Mike Clink at Rumbo Sound in the fall of 1994. Tom Zutaut had hoped this would get the band together in the studio again, jump-start the new Guns album, and give the Geffen-released sound track a shot at the sales charts. Slash, Duff, and Matt Sorum showed up for work every day. Axl stayed away, and recorded his vocals and Huge's rhythm guitar when the others had left.
Slash: "Axl never showed up, so everybody lost interest." Once Slash crashed one of the vocal sessions to try to speak with Axl. He waited for hours. When Axl finally arrived, they sat in the lounge. "He talked to me from behind a magazine," Slash said, "without looking me in the eye once." After fifteen minutes of disrespect, Slash could stand it no longer and took off.
When the tracks were done, Bill Price was flown in from London to mix them. They sent Slash a DAT of the new mix with the vocals, and he went into shock because there was another guitar laid on top of his, to make it sound more like Keith Richards's 1968 creation. Slash was angry. "Axl had gotten Paul Huge to double over me.... It was like really bad plagiarism."
The rest of Guns were embarrassed by their version of "Sympathy for the Devil," which was released as a Guns N' Roses single in December 1994. It was, according to Slash, "thoroughly average." It was also the last recording by the tattered remnants of the shambolic rebels of 1985. Slash, in his memoirs, said it was the final blow. "If you've ever wondered what a band sounds like when it's breaking up, listen to our cover of 'Sympathy for the Devil.'"
"NEVER LEAVE YOUR BAND"
It was the worst of times for W. Axl Rose in April 1995, as he listened in court to his two former lovers and their witnesses testify against him. Erin Everly said he had sodomized her against her will. She said that he put her in the hospital with injuries from beatings. An ex-girlfriend of Slash's testified that Axl had brutalized Erin and had smashed her things, and she bitterly called Axl a pig in front of the jury. All this got into the press, so it was a total disgrace. Stephanie Seymour said that Axl had dragged her, barefoot, through glass bottles he had broken. She said he had hit her in the face and kicked her in the abdomen. Hearing all this, with more testimony to come, Axl's lawyers called it a day and settled. (Maybe he shouldn't have sued a rich man's wife.)
Parade magazine reported that an insurance company paid Seymour $400,000. The amount of Erin Everly's settlement was undisclosed. Axl Rose refused any comment. His publicist said that Axl was concentrating on his work. He later said he wrote a new song during the trial called "Oklahoma," about the concurrent bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City in revenge for the FBI's siege of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, where everyone had died in a holocaust of snakepit religion and exploding ammunition.
February 1995. Slash's Snakepit released the album It's Five O'Clock Somewhere on Geffen Records, and carried the swing for Guns-style hard rock for the rest of the year. Gilby, Duff, and Matt Sorum played on the record and in the Snakepit lineup that played the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington in England that summer. Then the group broke up, pulled off the road by its record company after the album had sold a respectable two million units and recouped the label's costs.
But Geffen was dry, with few hit records, and the label needed Guns N' Roses back in the studio if it was going to survive. David Geffen had retired from the record business in 1995 and formed the multimedia empire Dreamworks SKG with two movie moguls. Geffen Records, somewhat reduced, now functioned as a semi-independent label under the aegis of the Universal Music Group, which had subsumed MCA. Then Universal was sold to Seagram, the Canadian liquor conglomerate.
As the corporate dust settled, and as Guns' back catalogue continued to bring in serious revenue amid the cultural doldrums of the mid-nineties, Axl Rose was left alone to record at his own pace.
The band actually rehearsed at the Complex a few times that year, but Axl wouldn't show up until two in the morning. He wanted to move the band in an industrial-techno direction to stay current. Slash didn't want to deny Guns' blues-rock roots. "We didn't spend a lot of time collaborating," Slash recalled. The band would play some things for Axl. Slash: "He'd sit back in the chair, watching a riff here, a riff there. But no one knew where it was going." The band then got bored or tired and went home, leaving Axl alone.
Back in 1986, they used to make fun of Axl and call him the Ayatollah, but now it really was a dictatorship. Axl and Doug Goldstein made all decisions for the band, who were later notified via fax or telephone. Then Axl presented Slash and Duff with a new band contract. Slash: "It stated that Axl retained rights to the band name and could start a new band called Guns N' Roses. Duff and I could be members, but only on his terms, which felt like we were defined as hired hands." Slash and Duff hesitated. Axl sent them a letter on August 31, 1995, informing them that he was leaving the band and taking over the brand. Slash and Duff capitulated, and signed Axl's new deal.
"I signed it and let it go," Slash said. He was worn down by all the bullshit, and the lawyers were making fortunes going to meetings about all this. "I wanted to move on, and see if we had anywhere left to go together."
When news of this leaked out, Slash and Duff were widely criticized for bending over for W. Axl Rose. Even Slash agreed. No one was more amazed than he that they "had allowed Axl the freedom, over all those years, to transform what we had into some morbid reality that existed only in his head."
Shannon Hoon's OD affected Axl Rose deeply. The Blind Melon singer was found dead in his tour bus, before a gig at the legendary New Orleans club Tipitina's on October 21, 1995. The parish coroner ruled the death a cocaine overdose. Shannon, whom everyone loved for his saucer-eyed innocence and angelic voice, was only twenty-eight years old. He left behind a baby daughter named Nico Blue.
Slash spent much of 1996 working on personal business. He played at James Brown's birthday party, and wrote more songs for his own band. His wife, Renee, left him.
Meanwhile, Duff and Matt Sorum joined Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Duran Duran bassist John Taylor in a (mostly) sober, one-off band, the Neurotic Outsiders, which cut a generic supergroup album (read: no good songs) for Madonna's Maverick Records.
All work on the next Guns album had stopped by September 1996. Axl Rose's mother, Sharon Bailey, died suddenly at the age of fifty-one. Fires fanned by California's devil winds burned through Malibu and threatened Axl's canyon. Slash put together a short-term band, Slash's Blues Ball, and said (in an online chat) that he and Axl were "deliberating over the future of our relationship."
The Rolling Stones were in L.A., working on the Bridges to Babylon album. Slash attended some of the sessions and noticed the atmosphere of mutual respect despite fairly intense personal differences. Slash told Keith Richards his problems, and Keith sternly advised Slash that it was a sacred trust never to leave your band. Others reminded him that Slash and Axl had created the greatest front-line collaboration of their era. This just made Slash's problems even worse.
Then there was a final, secret dinner between Axl and Slash in an Italian restaurant in Brentwood. Axl laid out his new plans for Guns, trying hard to draw Slash into his vision, a vision that Slash thought was totally whack.
Slash was tired of being manipulated. After a sleepless night of despair and suicidal thoughts, Slash called Doug Goldstein.
"That's it," Slash said. "I quit." Goldstein tried to respond, but Slash had already hung up.
Axl fought back, according to Slash. He called Slash's father, called his wife, called his bodyguard, called anyone who could get to the recalcitrant guitarist. Axl said that Slash was making the biggest mistake of his life, and that he was pissing away a fortune. Slash didn't care. He felt an immense burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He called Duff, Matt Sorum, and guitar tech Adam Day to tell them, and they all said they understood.
On October 30, 1996, Slash announced via his publicist that he had left Guns N' Roses. Axl shot off a fax to MTV News claiming that Slash hadn't been in the band since 1995, and that there would be a new Guns N' Roses album soon.
A 1997, Geffen executive Todd Sullivan was given the job of prying the next Guns N' Roses album out of the clutches of the band's sole owner, W. Axl Rose. The label thought that fresh ears might help, and they wanted to team Guns with a new producer. So Sullivan sent Axl a box of CDs by different producers to see if anyone appealed to him. A few days later Sullivan learned that Axl had thrown the CDs in his driveway, without listening to them, and then ran over them with his car until they were just bits of crushed plastic. Todd Sullivan then met with Axl, who played him some of the sketches the band had been trying to develop. Sullivan responded with enthusiasm, and suggested that Axl try to bear down and complete some of these songs. Axl stared at Sullivan and then said, "Hmmm, bear down and complete some of these songs." The following day, Sullivan got a call from Geffen chairman Eddie Rosenblatt, informing him he was no longer working with Guns N' Roses.
In February, Axl flew to Arizona to visit his spiritual advisors in Sedona. On February 11, he was arrested at the Phoenix airport and charged with threatening a security worker searching his luggage. He later pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and was fined and given a day in jail.
The new album now at least had a title, Chinese Democracy, which was Axl's flip acknowledgment that Guns was indeed a dictatorship. Axl brought in turntable guy Moby to audit some tracks and maybe add some techno-style production. Moby wasn't there for long. He said later that Axl seemed reserved and suspicious—"like a beaten dog." It was impossible to discover any logical pattern to the song sketches Axl had on tape. Axl became defensive when Moby asked him about the vocals. "He just said he was going to get to them eventually." Moby walked out, and later said he would be surprised if Chinese Democracy ever came out at all.
Then the sessions stopped for a long time. West Arkeen, who had helped write some of Guns' best songs, died in May 1997 of a heroin overdose, at age thirty-six. Then Duff McKagan, unable to justify the band's existence any longer, quit Guns N' Roses in August, which left Axl as the sole remaining original member.
In early 1998 the Democracy sessions moved to Rumbo Sound, where the crew installed tapestries, colored lights, and the usual rock star amenities. Matt Sorum was fired and replaced by drummer josh Freese. Slash's replacement was Robin Finck, late of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. Dizzy Reed and Paul Huge stayed in the band. Duff was replaced by Tommy Stinson, late of the Replacements, on bass guitar. The new producer was Youth (Martin Glover). Geffen was desperate for a hit record, as the label was about to be fed into the corporate meat grinder. They told Axl that their jobs were at stake, and then advanced him a million dollars, with the promise of another million as a bonus if the album was finished by March 1999.
They promised Youth bonus royalties also, which was unusual, but none of this got Axl into Rumbo Sound. Youth would visit Axl in Latigo Canyon, would notice the complete isolation in which he lived, would be told by Axl that he wasn't really ready to make an album right now. So Youth walked out, and was replaced by Sean Bevan, who'd done Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.
He began working with the band, trying to build sketches and fragments into coherent instrumental tracks. Operating expenses were stratospheric as they bought or rented every new computer system on the market. Five days a week, couriers ferried DATs containing new mixes of the various songs to Axl in Malibu, where they were mostly received without comment. Weeks sometimes passed by with no studio activity at all. But by the end of the year, they had more than a thousand DATs and CDs of recorded music, all carefully labeled.
The pressure on the Geffen execs intensified. Universal Music Group chairman Edgar Bronfman was calling Geffen executives every other week and was getting more and more annoyed at being told the label had no release date for an album they'd already spent millions on. Doug Goldstein suggested that Geffen put out a live Guns N' Roses album to release some of the pressure on Axl. A lot of energy now went into sifting through concert tapes as far back as the London club shows of 1986.
This wasn't enough to save more than a hundred Geffen employees, who were fired in January 1999 when Universal folded Geffen Records into Interscope Records, whose president, Jimmy Iovine, then took charge of Guns' recorded output. Axl Rose was reportedly upset by the mass exodus of people he had worked with at Geffen for ten years and more, and he stayed away from the recording studio in mute protest. The March 1999 delivery deadline for Chinese Democracy passed without much notice.