EXCLUSIVE: GUNS N’ ROSES’ FORMER MANAGER ALAN NIVEN TELLS ALL
By Gerry Gittelson
Metal Sludge contributor
PHOENIX -- Behind every great success in Rock is a great manager, a behind-the-scenes maestro who never gets to enjoy all the applause and adulation but whose dealings and ability to traverse through back-door politics is secretly as important as any shit-hot guitarist or mesmerizing lead singer.
The Beatles had Brian Epstein. Led Zeppelin had Peter Grant. The Eagles had Irving Azoff. Ozzy had Sharon Osborne (cough, cough).
And Guns N’ Roses had Alan Niven, who signed on in 1986 when hardly anyone in the world knew who Guns N’ Roses were, then five years later the Los Angeles rock band was the biggest in the world before Niven was shockingly fired just days before the release of “Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II.”
Niven, who says it took years to recover (physically, mentally and spiritually) after parting ways with the mega-successful band he helped build from scratch, has rarely uttered a word in the press about Guns N’ Roses over the past 20 years. But with Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan and Co. set to be inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame this coming April, Metal Sludge caught up with Alan Niven, and he was willing to totally open his heart in this utterly compelling interview.
If you’re a Guns N’ Roses fan, or a rock fan at all, this stuff is mesmerizing. So much so that Metal Sludge is dividing the Nevin exclusive into three parts – it gets better and better and better – so ready, set, go.
METAL SLUDGE: OK, take us back. How did you first become involved with Guns N’ Roses?
I had met the band through Tom Zutaut at Geffen, who had originally signed them. I had been managing Great White at the time, and my wife was Zutaut’s assistant. Tom asked me to take at look at Guns N’ Roses, and at the time I didn’t want to do it. I had just got Great White signed despite the band’s abysmal relationships with a lot people in Los Angeles, particularly at Capitol Records, and I thought by managing Guns N’ Roses, it would divert attention from what I was doing with Great White.
METAL SLUDGE: So this was in 1986, after Guns N’ Roses was signed but before they had done anything, right?
Yeah, no one wanted to manage Guns N’ Roses at the time, and Zutaut was getting desperate. A lot of managers had turned them down. They looked at Cliff Burnstein, they looked at Peter Mensch, they looked Tim Collins, who was Aerosmith’s manager. They looked at a guy who was managing Rod Stewart at the time, I think. I think they guy who was managing Rod Stewart was managing them but had let them go.
Tom came to me and said they just could not find a manager, and he kept asking me.
By then, I had done some research on Guns N’ Roses, and no surprise, they were a disaster. I knew what I was getting into: Half the band were smack addicts, and they had already gone through $75,000 in cash with no releasable master recordings. They should have had money but they were dead broke. Eddie Rosenblatt, the president of Geffen at the time, was going to drop the band.
Tom asked me a second time, and I said no. Then a third time. Tom said: “Look, as a friend, Alan, I am going to have egg on my face. This will end my career at Geffen. I’m desperate for help.” So at this point, as a friend, I said OK, I would take a look.
I remember Rod Stewart’s management, at the time, couldn’t wait to get rid of Guns N’ Roses. The band had rented a house up in the Hollywood hills, and they had devastated that place.
METAL SLUDGE: Do you remember your first meeting with the band?
Yes. I went up to this house. I don’t quite remember which street it was on, not Coldwater or Laurel but a little more east. The first thing I saw when I was coming up, a well-known stripper was just leaving. She passed right by me, and as I approached the front door, there was a broken toilet, a shitter, right by the front door. It was all in pieces.
Notes: A Sludge Insider says the following about that house:
"The house mentioned was on the top of Normandie in a nice area of Los Feliz, and they made the place unlivable within 2 months. There were a couple management companies that handled them between Vicki Hamilton and Niven."
METAL SLUDGE: Backing up for a second, how successful were you at this point? Were you a millionaire?
No, I wasn’t a millionaire. Let’s bare in mind, a lot of times success is a figment of an envious mind. To some people, I guess I was doing quite well. I had basically taken Great White, which had been dropped from EMI, and I had financed and promoted and put out a new record all by myself, the band was in heavy rotation on KLOS and KMET, which was something that was not common for a band like that, and Hollywood noticed. They noticed how I had managed to get that done. If you have quality, quality always works. I’m referring to music and performance.
I had had a certain amount of success. I handled Motley Crue for a company called Greenworld, and we put the first record out as an indy.
METAL SLUDGE: Oh my god, I love that first record.
It’s a delightful trainwreck.
METAL SLUDGE: Are you kidding? Every song is good.
Well, I will say this: The one song, “Piece of Your Action,” that was enough for me to commit. Everyone thought they were the biggest joke in town, but I thought Motley Crue was a rather nifty rock and roll band.
I had signed and managed Berlin, with their first record, then I managed Great White. I had learned with all three that’s a good idea to do an indy release prior to major-label release, to set up a platform.
METAL SLUDGE: OK, so you’re walking through the front door to meet Guns N’ Roses for the first time. Take it from there, Alan.
It was actually a really nice house, but it wasn’t being treated well. But first of all, for my first meeting, I had scheduled a meeting with the whole band, and all of two of them were there.
METAL SLUDGE: Which two? Was Axl there?
No, Izzy and Slash. Izzy proceeded to nod out, and Slash spent the afternoon trying to entertain me by feeding little white rabbits to this big snake. I think he sensed I have a pathological fear of snakes. Slash was fucking with me.
METAL SLUDGE: So you really are scared of snakes?
I am. Anyway, we all ended up spending a little time together right away because they were in the studio working on demos, so I went over there and ended up helping them mix them. These were the tracks for the “Live Like a Suicide” record. They were signed to Geffen, but it hadn’t come out yet.
METAL SLUDGE: So how did all the success eventually start. What was the course you took?
Well, obviously we were doing preproduction on the material for “Appetite For Destruction”. But you’ve got remember, doing an indy release first, that creates a platform for the major-label release. Once the band got signed, they could have just made an LP, but that way, the label has to spend time trying to market you from a standing start. I always liked to do as much as possible before relying on the good graces of a major label, so hence the strategy of “Live Like a Suicide.”
I sold the entire pressing of that record. I took the check, it was $42,000, and went back to Geffen Records, and I put the check in the hand of Eddie Rosenblatt. I said: “Here, I’m giving you this check. Let’s use every penny to go to the UK.
I wanted to start generating a relationship with the press and an audience in England.
METAL SLUDGE: No commission?
I didn’t see my first commission check for a year and a half. Everything went into the band and the strategy. In those days, the English press was very influential. They had free weeklies like Melody Maker, Sounds and New Music Express, and magazines like Kerrang were very influential. I wanted to connect with the English press and the English audiences to raise the band’s profile as quick as possible. That’s a start a lot of bands had. When I was growing up in England, I saw Jimi Hendrix, J.J. Cale, all of them got their career started in Europe. So that was my conviction with Guns N’ Roses, and we definitely got a response in Europe. I proved to be right on that one.
METAL SLUDGE: What were your thoughts. How good did you think Guns N’ Roses was going to be?
My initial impression of the band was they were very powerful, a very impressive underground rock and roll band. I had doubts about radio airplay because they were so powerful and raw. You’ve got to remember, things like Bad Company, that was on the airwaves. I mean, Great White in those days looked edgy. So with Guns N’ Roses, to make this work we needed to do so through touring and press. I didn’t think we’d get much help from radio, and again, that proved accurate.
METAL SLUDGE: What about the band’s personalities?
I think their personalities are well known and evident. The only comment I can make on that is that money and success magnify your personal traits. Axl was always Axl. The only one whose personality changed was Duff. When I first got to know him, he was very much a fan of punk, but he is actually very soft once you know him. But Duff was one of those guys, if I ever got into trouble with a guy at a bar, I would want him at my shoulder.
COMING NEXT - GUNS N’ ROSES SPECIAL PART TWO: Guns N’ Roses, and Niven, make it big
Gerry Gittelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last edited by Soulmonster on Wed Feb 15, 2012 4:27 am; edited 1 time in total
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PHOENIX -- With Guns N’ Roses closing in on a Hall of Fame induction, Metal Sludge is doing a special series looking back at the legendary Los Angeles band. We really got off to a bang in our exclusive interview with former manager Alan Niven, who so far is holding no punches with his memoirs – the good, the bad, the ugly.
We left off in Part One (HERE) with Guns N’ Roses on the brink of stardom – especially dramatic considering the hard-living, talented but troubled fivesome was such a long shot.
Here’s part TWO of our three-part series with Niven, and if you think the first part was gnarly, hold onto your seat. Like a guitar amplifier, we’re just gettin’ warmed up.
METAL SLUDGE: You mentioned Izzy was nodding out at the first band meeting. Never a good sign, Alan. You didn’t consider turning your back on Guns N’ Roses because of drug use?
Let’s take a look at Eric Clapton. He lost years to alcohol, he almost killed himself on heroin. Does that make him any less of a talent? He got through it. Gerry, I could tell Guns N’ Roses was a real rock and roll band. I thought if I could just institute a minimal sense of professionalism …. I don’t know. My wife watches Steven Adler on “Celebrity Rehab” and asks me, “Was Steven like that at the time?” Yeah, but guess what? Jack Russell was worse than all of them.
I mean, look at the Rolling Stones.
METAL SLUDGE: They survived.
Absolutely. I grew up in a time when artificial euphoria was taken in the interest of conscious expansion. I can see where that has a place, being an artist. My rule is this: Never let anything own you.
METAL SLUDGE: All right, so we left off last time. The band was just trying to make it, and you took them to England.
We went over there, and it was a three-step process. We went over there to play the Marquee three nights as headliners one weekend, waiting for the press cycle to report on it. Then we did two shows the following weekend, and everyone turned out to see what the journalists were writing about, so it worked out well. Then a bit later, we got a tour opening in England for Aerosmith, and that’s when it got interesting.
METAL SLUDGE: Oh?
Yes, because Aerosmith pulled out of doing the tour, not the first time they’ve done that by the way, and that left my strategy high and dry. A very sharp agent, John Jackson, I got a late-night phone call from him, and he had a preposterous idea: Why not come back to England and headline? That was totally ridiculous because I think we’d sold 5,000 copies of (Appetite For Destruction).
We had come to England for the first time in the spring of ’87, the album was released in July of 87, and we were supposed to support Aerosmith. So like I said, I thought about it overnight, and I called him back and said, “You know what? If you think we can do a short headline tour, you tell me, and he came up with a five-date tour with a date at Hammersmith Odeon, 3300 seats. On the back of selling 5,000 to 7,000 units of the record, we went for this headline tour -- and we pulled it off. Hammersmith had 3,300 tickets, and we came within 100 tickets. We sold 3,200 tickets.
METAL SLUDGE: Do you remember how much you got paid that night? Metal Sludge is interested in stuff like that.
A reasonable amount for a venue that size. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you. I know the finances are critical, but my focus was always on career development.
METAL SLUDGE: So tell me when Guns N’ Roses really started to take off.
Well, the first thing, we book our first national tour in America opening for the Cult. Everyone in Los Angeles said we wouldn’t last 10 days on the road, that they’d be back home with their tails between their legs, looking for their drug dealers. Surprise, surprise.
METAL SLUDGE: So you were out on the road with them or working from L.A.?
I would do both. As much as possible I’d be on the road, then I’d get back to office. I split my time between the road and the office.
METAL SLUDGE: Did you feel like a babysitter?
That was the responsibility of the tour manager, but I was always aware of the conditions. In the past, I’ve hired a lot of people to watch over them.
METAL SLUDGE: Did their behavior freak you out?
I would say it might have freaked a few people out, but me? Nah. I grew up where the Rolling Stones would piss on the wall of a gas station and they would go, “Hey you can’t do that.” And the Stones would say, “Yes, we can, because we’re the Rolling Stones.”
METAL-SLUDGE: Well, looking back now, 20 years later, would you say you had a good time? I mean, you were the manager of Guns N’ Roses, the biggest rock band in the world.
That’s an interesting question. I guess it has been 20 years. It was an incredible privilege to get to the top of your profession, the top of the mountain. But I found out the mountain is actually a myth, an illusion. I mean, being No. 1 in Billboard, what is that going to do for you spiritually or emotionally?
METAL SLUDGE: Did you have peace? Did you have serenity?
I was delighted to be as active as I was, but activity of this kind brings considerable levels of stress. I know moments back in the day, I was very, very stressed. You care for the people you work with. It’s not cut and dry like a typical (business) relationship. It’s more emotional than that. You care about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with.
METAL SLUDGE: OK, go on.
We toured with the Cult, we toured with Motley Crue, we toured with Alice Cooper. At the end of 1987, we actually had sold more than 200,000 units, and that’s when Eddie Rosenbatt, the president of Geffen, called me up and took me to lunch. He said thank you for a job well done, Alan. He said he thought it was going to be a disaster, but Geffen was in black ink, and then he said it was time to bring the band home to record a second record.
That was going to be it.
I was fucking stunned. I told him, “You mean we’ve sold almost a quarter of a million LPs with no airplay and no MTV, and now you want to throw in the towel on ‘Appetite For Destruction’?” He eventually agreed to keep working on it, and it took all of us to get on MTV. Me, Eddie, David Geffen himself. We took another run at trying to get on MTV. I went to the people at MTV, and I was like, “What the fuck? The band is obviously connecting with people. Why keep doing the easy Euro pop and why not give these guys a chance?”
So MTV put the band on overnight, when you had to use an alarm clock to see the videos. But even in overnight, “Welcome to the Jungle” got a reaction, so MTV started moving it up. By March of ’88, it had gone gold. Then on April 7, 1988, it went platinum. Ironically, that same day, Great White went platinum, and they were playing the Forum that night with Whitesnake. It was my birthday, as well, and that makes that day easy to remember. It was a good day.
Eventually, I had managed Guns N’ Roses from Ground Zero to selling out Wembley Stadium. But don’t forget there were a lot others at Geffen who did great work. He had a really good agent in Europe and the United States, a really good agent.
METAL SLUDGE: I thought I remember Guns N’ Roses touring with Aerosmith, that tour was a key turning point for the band. That’s when they really got big.
Axl actually wanted to cancel that tour. He did not want to do it. By that time, it was very evident he had a form of stage fright. He’s a singer, and singers who have to go out there three, four or five times a week, they invest their spirit in what they’re singing. The guitar players have something in their hands. They’re not naked. The singer is out there naked, and sometimes that’s hard to do. Obviously, Axl still has problems with it because he’s still late.
METAL SLUDGE: So what happened?
Well, I empathized with him, but I told Axl, “Look, I signed five individuals collectively as Guns N’ Roses. My responsibility is to the entity, not the individual,” but he called back again and said he just could not do it.
Now, even though there were some days when Axl would scream at me, that kind of stuff would usually just go in one ear and out the other. But this time, he was very quiet and reasoned. He just couldn’t do it.
So this is what I did: I had been in Vegas for a Great White show the previous weekend, and I brought some dice home from the Aladdin. You know, the big red and white dice. I had been reading this novel, and the main character had this neurosis about making decisions, and the way he surrendered to the decision was to literally throw the dice. So I remembered that book, and I pulled out the dice, and I gathered everyone in the office together, and I said, “Look, I’m going to throw these dice. I’m going to weight it in Axl’s favor, so a one-through-10, he does not do the tour and we cancel.
I threw an 11.
So the next thing I did, I had the rest of the band fly out to Detroit for the first date, all our gear, everything. Axl had no choice, he had to do it. He was really mad at me. He didn’t talk to me for a long time after that.
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