Sunday, August 9, 2009
August 1989 Interview With Axl Rose
20 years ago, Axl Rose gave one of his most quotable interviews ever to Rolling Stone magazine. The August '89 issue sat in my bedroom all Summer, as I read and re-read it, before signing up for a slew of business classes at school that Fall. I was 16.
The Rolling Stone Interview With Axl Rose
Rolling Stone, August 1989
by Del James
Sitting on a black Persian rug, chain-smoking Marlboros and sipping Corona beers, the singer welcomes any and all questions about the band. His onstage roar is replaced by a soft-spoken tone, but nonetheless he can be brutal in his honesty.
A few years ago you were a poor kid in a struggling rock band, and today you're in one of the most popular groups in the world. How have you adjusted to your success?
Trying to handle success is a pain in the ass. It's really strange and takes some getting used to. I've never had my own place to live before, never had to deal with the amount of money we've made and not get ripped off, never understood doing your taxes and all these things. I was hating it a few months ago, trying to get organized and trying to get a place to live and to get a grip on everything. But now things are coming together. I've wanted to be here my whole life.
Did you ever in your wildest dreams think your first album Appetite For Destruction would do as well as it did?
Thought about it a lot.
Besides dreaming about it, did you ever believe it had a real chance to sell 9 million copies?
No, but it was like this: I thought about trying to sell more records than Boston's first album. I always thought that and never let up. Everything was directed at trying to achieve the sales without sacrificing the credibility of our music. We worked real hard to sell this many records. The album wasn't just a fluke. Maybe Appetite will be the only good album we make, but it wasn't just a fluke.
Does the business end of rock & roll ever interfere with your creative attitude?
Not for us. This is music, this is art. It's definitely a good business, but that should be second to the art, not first. I was figuring it out, and I'm like the president of a company that's worth between $125 million and a quarter billion dollars. If you add up record sales based on the low figure and a certain price for T-shirts and royalties and publishing, you come up with at least $125 million, which I get less than two percent of.
I like being successful. I was always starving. On the other side. When it came to people with money, it was always "The rich? Fuck them!" But I left one group and joined another. I escaped from one group where I was looked down on for being a poor kid that doesn't know shit, and now I'm like, a rich, successful asshole. I don't like that. I'm still just me, and with a lot of people's help, the group was able to become a huge financial success. None of us were the popular kids in school - we were all outcasts who got together and pooled our talents.
Is there any lesson you've learned that you wish you knew a few years ago?
What I'd tell any kid in high school is "Take business classes." I don't care what else you're gonna do, if you're gonna do art or anything, take business classes. You can say, "Well, I don't want to get commercial," but if you do anything to make any money, you're doing something commercial. You can be flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, but you're a commercial burger flipper.
Now that the band is getting ready to work on the follow-up to Appetite and the GN'R Lies EP, what's your frame of mind?
As my friend Dave puts it, I'm jacking off [laughs]. We're trying to regroup. I'm ready to work. I'm creating, and finally I have an environment in which I can work. I haven't had that for a long time, since three years ago, when we all used to live in one room, sitting around writing songs. Until recently, I haven't had peace of mind. There were always distractions, but now it's like we can finally work on our songs.
Do you feel heavy pressure to sell as many copies with your next album as Appetite?
We have two records out, both of them in the Top Ten, and everybody wants another record immediately. They all say, "Let's milk this sucker." It'd be nice to outsell that album. A lot of groups are trying to outsell it. For a debut, it was the highest-selling album in the history of rock and roll. Definitely in America, but I'm not sure that's true worldwide. I read where Bon Jovi was saying nobody's out done their biggie, Slippery When Wet. He knew it was their biggie, and he didn't know if New Jersey would be as big. Of course, you're gonna want to outdo it. What I want to do is just grow as an artist and feel proud of these new songs.
Although you're only in the pre-production stages of the next album, how do you feel it will compare with the others?
The next record will definitely be much more emotional. I try to write so the audience can understand what emotions I was feeling. Also, I think the songs are worded in a way that a great number of people will be able to relate to the experiences; it's not so personalized that it's only my weird, twisted point of view. We hope to make a very long record. It'd be nice to make one that's seventy-six minutes long, A seventy-six-minute CD, with varied styles.
The most important songs at this point are the ones with piano, the ballads, because we haven't really explored that side of the band yet. They're also the most difficult songs to do - not difficult to play, but to write and pull out of ourselves. The beautiful music is what really makes me feel like an artist. The other, heavier stuff also makes me feel like an artist and can be difficult to write. But it's harder to write about serious emotions, describing them as best as possible rather than trying to write a syrupy ballad just to sell records.
Any specific titles for the next album you can talk about?
Well, there's a song called "November Rain" and another one called "Breakdown." There's also a song tentatively titled "Without You." Last night, I wrote a whole new intro to that. It just appeared out of nowhere, like the verses - just little pieces that have come whole.
How do write complete songs from separate bits and pieces?
They'll just show up. I keep them on file in my brain and then add them together. Like, I'll be brushing my teeth and all of a sudden a prechorus will come, and I won't know why. Then a bridge came about a year ago. Six months ago another part came. Last night a whole intro came. When I was writing it, I wasn't planning on putting it with this song, but all of a sudden it just flowed.
The GN'R Lies EP surprised a lot of people because of it's emphasis on acoustic material. Aren't you afraid that some people may be turned off by the band straying from the sound that got them on top?
We're not getting away from hard rock. Our basic root is hard rock, a bit heavier than the Stones, more in a vein like Aerosmith, Draw the Line type stuff. We love loud guitars. George Michael was telling me he really loved our melodies and wondered why we covered so much of it up with loud guitars, and I said because we love that. I told him he should put some more loud guitars in his music. He has such beautiful melodies, and it'd be nice to hear some loud guitars in there. At the same time, I have my favorite symphony pieces, orchestra pieces if you will.
I've always looked at things in a versatile sense because of Queen, ELO, Elton John, especially early Elton John and groups like that. With Queen, I have my favorite: Queen II. Whenever their newest record would come out and have all these other kinds of music on it, at first I'd only like this song or that song. But after a period of time listening to it, it would open my mind up to so many different styles. I really appreciate them for that. That's something I've always wanted to be able to achieve. It's important to show people all forms of music, basically try to give people a broader point of view.
Speaking of versatility, you're known primarily as a singer, but you've been playing piano quite a bit lately.
I've been playing piano my whole life. I took lessons, but I only really played my lesson on the day of the lesson. All week long, I'd sit down at the piano and just make up stuff. To this day, I still can't really play other people's songs, only my own. I haven't had a piano for years. I couldn't afford one. I couldn't figure out where I was sleeping at night, let alone try to have a place for a piano. So I had to put it aside and have the dream that I'd get into it. Now I really want to bring the piano out.
So far the song that's inspired the most controversy in the band's short career has been "One in a Million." How did you come to write that song?
"One in a Million" was written while sitting in the apartment of my friend West Arkeen, who's like the sixth member of the band. I wrote it at his house, sitting around bored watching TV. I can't really play guitar too well, I only play the top two strings, and I would write a little piece at a time. I started writing about wanting to get out of LA , getting away for a little while. I'd been down to the downtown-LA Greyhound bus station. If you haven't been there, you can't say shit to me about what goes on and about my point of view. There are a large number of black men selling stolen jewelry, crack, heroin and pot, and most of the drugs are bogus. Rip-off artists selling parking spaces to parking lots that there's no charge for. Trying to misguide every kid that gets off the bus and doesn't quite know where he's at or where to go, trying to take the person for whatever they've got. That's how I hit town. The thing with "One in a Million" is, basically, we're all one in a million, we're all here on this earth. We're one fish in a sea. Let's quit fucking with each other, fucking with me.
The lyrics have incited a lot of protest, so let's go over them line by line. Let's start with one of the verses, "Police and niggers, that's right/Get outta my way/Don't need to buy none/ Of your gold chains today."
I used words like police and niggers because you're not allowed to use the word nigger. Why can black people go up to each other and say, "Nigger," but when a white guy does it all of a sudden it's a big put-down. I don't like boundaries of any kind. I don't like being told what I can and what I can't say. I used the word nigger because it's a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. The word nigger doesn't necessarily mean black. Doesn't John Lennon have a song "Woman Is the Nigger of the World"? There's a rap group, N.W.A., Niggers with Attitude. I mean, they're proud of that word. More power to them. Guns N' Roses ain't bad ... N.W.A. is baad! Mr. Bob Goldthwait said the only reason we put these lyrics on the record was because it would cause controversy and we'd sell a million albums. Fuck him! Why'd he put us in his skit? We don't just do something to get the controversy, the press.
How about the next verse? Immigrants and faggots/They make no sense to me/ They come to our country/And think they'll do as they please/ Like start some mini-Iran or spread some fuckin' disease." Why that reference to immigrants?
When I use the word immigrants, what I'm talking about is going to a 7-11 or Village pantries - a lot of people from countries like Iran, Pakistan, China, Japan et cetera, get jobs in these convenience stores and gas stations. Then they treat you as if you don't belong here. I've been chased out of a store with Slash by a six-foot-tall Iranian with a butcher knife because he didn't like the way we were dressed. Scared me to death. All I could see in my mind was a picture of my arm on the ground, blood going everywhere. When I get scared, I get mad. I grabbed the top of one of these big orange garbage cans and went back at him with this shield, going, "Come on!" I didn't want to back down from this guy. Anyway that's why I wrote about immigrants. Maybe I should have been more specific and said, "Joe Schmoladoo at the 7-11 and faggots make no sense to me." That's ridiculous! I summed it up simply and said, "Immigrants."
How about the use of the word "faggots"?
I've had some very bad experiences with homosexuals. When I was first coming to Los Angeles, I was about eighteen or nineteen. On my first hitchhiking ride, this guy told me I could crash at his hotel. I went to sleep and woke up while this guy was trying to rape me. I threw him down on the floor. He came at me again. I went running for the door. He came at me. I pinned him between the door and the wall. I had a straight razor, and I pulled the razor and said, "Don't ever touch me! Don't ever think about touching me! Don't touch yourself and think about me! Nothing!" Then I grabbed my stuff and split with no place to go, no sleep, in the middle of nowhere outside of St. Louis. That's why I have the attitude I have.
Are you anti-homosexual then?
I'm pro-heterosexual. I can't get enough of women, and I don't see the same thing that other men can see in men. I'm not into gay or bisexual experiences. But that's hypocritical of me, because I'd rather see two women together than just about anything else. That happens to be my personal, favorite thing.
How about gay-bashing? Have you ever beaten up somebody simply because of their sexual preference?
No! I never have. The most I do is, like, on the way to the Troubadour in "Boystown," on Santa Monica Boulevard, I'll yell out the car window, "Why don't you guys like pussy?" 'Cause I'm confused. I don't understand it. Anti-homosexual? I'm not against them doing what they want to do as long as it's not hurting anybody else and they're not forcing it upon me. I don't need them in my face or, pardon the pun, up my ass about it.
The "One in a Million" lyrics about "faggots" who "spread some fuckin' disease" got GN'R bounced from an AIDS benefit in New York by the Gay Men's Health Crisis, one of the groups that was involved with putting on the show. How did you feel about that?
We're in no way associated with the Gay Men's Health Crisis, except that David Geffen is on the board of directors for the concert and he's the owner of our record company. We were asked to do this, and we wanted to contribute some money to help stop a deadly disease that's killing humans of all kinds. A friend of mine who's homosexual and was largely responsible for the record companies taking notice of us was upset about it because we didn't even get a chance to clear ourselves, to make good. AIDS is something very scary. The concert was something we wanted to do and felt it was important to do but we were denied the opportunity. We were even denied the opportunity to say anything about it. It was just publicly announced that we weren't allowed to do it because the Gay Men's Health Crisis wouldn't let us. I don't feel they have the right to deny the money and attention they would have gotten from us playing. It's pride, it's ignorant and it's childish.
Women seem to be one of the more popular subjects with Guns N' Roses. Are you a romantic kind of guy?
I'm a person that has a lot of different relationships. It's really hard to maintain a one-on-one relationship if the other person is not going to allow me to be with other people. I have a real open, hedonistic, sexual attitude. Just 'cause you're not totally in love with a person doesn't mean you don't like them. You can think they're attractive, and you want to touch them, have a great time with them. Maybe at that moment you are in love. I think love and lust go hand in hand, like good and evil. One without the other is not complete, But I don't tell someone I'm in love with them if I'm not. I never have.
You'd describe yourself as promiscuous then?
I have sex as often as possible.
Don't you ever think of contracting AIDS?
Yeah, but I also live in a city that's supposed to get the big quake any day. You can get killed on the freeway in drive-by shooting, the foods irradiated, there's a million ways to go out. A lot of times, sexual situations are very spontaneous, but I try not to be overly careless.
So you practice safe sex?
Practicing safe sex ... I like the word practice. It means keep doing it, keep repeating the process, get it right. Practice makes perfect. I don't know if it'll get perfect. But you can get a lot better. Just keep practicing.
What about drugs? Everyone and their mother seems to have a GN'R story involving junkie debauchery ...
I'm not and never have been a junkie. The last interview in RIP Magazine got taken out of context about me talking openly about my drug use. That was over two years ago and was only for a few weeks when there was nothing to do. I was also very safe about it. That doesn't mean that at some point I won't get really sick of life and choose to OD. Then people will go, "He was always a junkie." That's not the case, but you can believe what you want, I don't give a fuck. No one's really gonna believe anything I say anyway as far as what I do or don't do with drugs, 'cause it's such a taboo subject. Lately I've been drinking champagne for fun, a few beers, you know. Right now drugs get in the way of my dreams and goals. I really don't want drugs around me now, I'm not necessarily against the use of drugs, they just don't fit in my life right now. Then again, I could be out on tour for six months and a blast might be what cheers me up that night.
Do you ever think these excesses might hurt other members of the group?
I don't want to see drugs tear up this band. I'm against when it goes too far. Right now, for me, a line of coke is too far. A line of coke puts my voice out of commission for a week. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I did a lot of stuff before. Maybe it's guilt and it's relocated in my throat. All I know is it's not healthy for me right now. And if somebody goes, "Oh, man, he's not a partyer anymore," hey, fuck you! Do you want a record or not?
With all the misconceptions floating around about G N'R, the biggest misconceptions seem to come from magazine interviews you've granted.
That's just a lot of sensationalism. People out there don't know what's real or not. Things are always going to get changed or taken out of context, but some magazines will make up an interview just to sell issues. One's written that Slash said I run over dogs. I think it sucks when a kid has three bucks and he buys a candy bar, a soda and a magazine because he's really into Guns N' Roses, and he gets bad photos and an interview that's not true. It's not fair. Unfortunately, it probably will never change.
Some schools have banned GN'R t-shirts, and organizations like the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) have objected to what they feel is the band's glorification of a degenerate lifestyle. When you sing to a younger audience, do you think you have any responsibility as their idol?
It's just a record. . . . I don't know. You have to go through your own changes sand growth. I'm not trying to influence anybody in a negative way. Also, I'm not raising your kid. You're the parent. The PRMC? Who are they? A TV show, like AM/PM?
If you had a young son, say Axl Rose II, how would you feel if he brought home an album with lyrics about "niggers" and "faggots"?
Right now I don't want to have a child, because I can't give it enough time. But I'd want him to talk about what he listened to with me, and have him show me new things, and me show him new things. He could play me the Screaming Banshees From Hell, and I could play him Jimi Hendrix or something. We could talk about the music. We'd talk about things together. I think it's a parents job to raise their child. My father likes "Welcome to the Jungle." Ten years ago, if a song like that was caught in our house, man, it was over. But I can't hold how he once felt against him.
Let's go back to your childhood. Were you a bad student?
No. On the placement tests in school, I was always in the top three percent. I dropped out in the eleventh grade, went back as a senior, then dropped out again.
Why did you drop out?
'Cause I couldn't make school work for me. I was having to read books, sing songs, draw pictures of things that didn't stimulate or excite me. It just didn't do anything for me. So I dropped out and started drawing and painting at home and spending a lot of my time in the library. Basically I started putting myself through Axl's school of subjects that I wanted to learn about.
You grew up in Lafayette, Indiana. What influence do you thing your small town had in shaping you?
It made me despise people with closed minds. It made me want to break out.
What about small-town values?
That's a load of shit.
Were you in trouble a lot?
Me and my friends were always in trouble. We got in trouble for fun. It finally reached a point where I realized I was gonna end up in jail, 'cause I kept fucking with the system. This guy and I got into a fight. We became friends afterwards, and he dropped charges against me, but the state kept on pressing charges. Those charges didn't work, so they tried other ones. I spent three months in jail and finally got out. But once you've pissed off a detective, it's a vengeance rap back there. They tried everything. They busted me illegally in my own back yard for drinking. They tried to get me as a habitual criminal, which can mean a life in prison. My lawyer got the case thrown out of court. I left and came to California. They told me not to leave, but I left anyway. My lawyer took care of it. I didn't go back for a long time. Now when I go back to see my family, I avoid the police there. I try to avoid all police in general.
What happens when you go back now as a celebrity instead of an outcast?
It gets a little bit out of hand. I can't really go any where. I just go to my friends' houses, but people I don't know show up wanting autographs. People that I used to go to school with, people that used to hate my guts, want me to invest money in this and that. People say shit like "Axl thinks he's too cool to party with us." But those people never wanted to party with me before, The people who are offended by this comment are the ones who should be.
How do you explain your volatile nature?
When I get stressed, I get violent and take it out on myself. I've pulled razor blades on myself but then realized that having a scar is more detrimental than not having a stereo. I'd rather kick my stereo in than go punch somebody in the face. When I get mad or upset or emotional, sometimes I'll walk over and play my piano.
Your own music has been diluted somewhat by radio stations that play different, shorter versions of GN'R songs. How do you feel when you music is cut to suit the airwaves?
Not that any of our songs compare, but if you hear a short version of "Layla," I think you're gonna be pissed off, especially if you're planning on hearing the big piano part at the end. I hate the edit of "Sweet Child o' Mine." Radio stations said, "Well, your vocals aren't cut." My favorite part of the song is Slash's slow solo; it's the heaviest part for me. There's no reason for it to be missing except to create more space for commercials, so the radio-station owners can get more advertising dollars. When you get the chopped version of "Paradise City" or half of "Sweet Child" and "Patience" cut, you're getting screwed.
What kind of music and bands do you enjoy?
That's always the hardest question. Lately I've been listening to Derek and the Dominos, the Bar-Kays. I really like the first Patti Smith. I'm just starting to discover the Cure. I keep trying to find things to open myself up to. I enjoy Soundgarden. The singer just buries me. The guy sings so great. On the club circuit, I like Saigon Saloon a lot.
Today, my favorite record is Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything . I just got turned on to it. I've still got my favorites and things like the Pistols, ELO and Queen. The two records I always buy if there's a cassette deck around and I don't have the tapes in my bag are Never Mind the Bollocks and Queen II . I think I'd be in a bind to figure out which one I'd want if I was stranded on a desert island. I might go with the Pistols, because maybe a boat would hear me if I played it.
You are also a Rolling Stones fan. There were some rumors floating around about G n' R possibly opening for them on their upcoming tour. What happened?
No formal offer has been made. I'd love to open for the Stones, but at the same time I really want to do my own record. We'll probably go back on the road sometime next year. I don't know exactly when.
Do you consider yourself the leader of the band?
That's a good question. I'm gonna do what I want to do. That may be selfish, but it's the best way for the most to come out of me. When we write a song, nobody in this band plays anything they don't really want to. When we write a song, the bass player plays his line and it ends up being what he wants to do on bass. It ends up working that way and fitting, so we end up with a set of songs that everybody likes. I couldn't say I'm the leader, like "We're gone do what I say." It doesn't work that way.
Earlier you touched on the rock-star image and people falling into the music just because it adheres to a certain attitude and look. What about Axl Rose's longhaired, tattooed, pierced-nipple image?
What about it?
Is it just an image?
It's part of me. When I put on my clothes or do a photo session, I want to look the best I can. If you're going on a date, you want to look good for that person or for yourself. I've got enough money now to buy a suit I like and wear it the way I want. I don't wear suits every damn day now. Maybe I'm gonna shave and wear makeup and do my hair fuckin' way up. We're definitely image conscious. I think if Izzy came wearing a clown suit to a photo session, we'd want to know how he could validate his presence in a clown suit [Laughs]. But if he could back it up and convince us there was a reason, then it would be cool. Otherwise, it wouldn't be. Steven has his own way of dressing, in the latest commercial-rock fashions. Steven enjoys the hell out of the clothes he wears, whereas Slash and I wouldn't be caught dead in either. It's just different personalities. If we're gonna do a show, I wear a headband because my hair gets in my face. When we do a photo session, a lot of the time I'll wear a headband because that's how I am onstage. If I feel real dominant and decadent, I'm gonna be wearing my jack-boots and stuff like that. I try to express myself through my clothes. It's another form of the art. I'm not afraid of what people think about different ways I look. I'm gonna do what I want to do.
Do you really get hassled much when you go out locally in LA?
I really only go to clubs where I know the people who work there, so I can have some privacy and hang out. It's hard when you go to a club with 600 people and you end up having to talk to 400 people. You have no time of your own to have fun. Maybe if I haven't gone out for a week, I'll go to the Cathouse, because I know some friends are gonna be there. I just want to be around my friends, even if we don't talk about anything. I just need it. You have all these people asking you for an autograph, and it gets kind of embarrassing. I don't want to be a prick to people and go, "Get away from me." But I don't enjoy going someplace and just signing autographs all the time. It comes with the fame, but sometimes it gets out of hand and people can be very rude and obnoxious about it. I've had people break into my hotel room with cameras, waking me up and taking photos. People find out where I live and show up at my building. I've never asked anyone for an autograph.
Having to deal with autographs doesn't seem like it's the worst thing in the world. At this point in your life, what's your biggest regret?
That I didn't talk to Todd Crew before he went to New York. [Crew, the bassist in the band Jetboy, was a close friend of the band's who died due to an alcohol-related overdose.] I felt a massive need to talk to him out of concern for his well-being. But I wasn't aware enough to realize I didn't have the time I thought I did. I thought I'd have time later ...
You seem to have an exceptionally strong bond with your friends. Do you think your values have changed any since you've become a rich rock star?
I saw a guy last night, a homeless guy on the beach. I hate panhandlers 'cause I've never done that. I just couldn't, it would have felt too weird. I walked past the man and realized I had some money in my pocket. It's not that I give everybody I see money. I don't at all. But I handed him twenty bucks and he was like "Thanks, man, I appreciate it." He can have breakfast tomorrow. I could have just walked away, but I could tell in my heart that the guy could really use the money. He wasn't trying to scam. He looked like he was gonna get up tomorrow and look for a job or something to survive. I felt good about that, and I'm wondering if he's all right now. I don't know. The next day I was hoping he didn't go buy crack with it.
posted 12:01 AM