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SoulMonster

1990-11-DD - Interview with Axl

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1990-11-DD - Interview with Axl

Post by Soulmonster on Fri Jun 17, 2011 9:19 pm

AXL ROSE COMES CLEAN TO DANNY SUGERMAN

BAD TO THE BONE

Has Axl Rose lost his appetite for destruction?

DANNY SUGERMAN reports.

Bar-One isn’t the kind of club that’s known for its visiting rock royalty. An exclusive members-only club at the Beverly Hills end of Sunset Boulevard, the joint is known more for its actors than its rockers. On the crowded Friday night when I walked in the door, Charlie Sheen and Bruce Willis were there; Sylvester Stallone had just left.
 
So when I passed a table and heard my name called, I stopped, turned around, and did not look to see who was sitting at the full booth until it was too late. I was standing at the table, shaking hands with Josh, the young actor who had called me over. The guy hadn’t let go of my hand, but I let go of his when he said, “There’s someone I want you to meet. Axl Rose, this is...”
 
I wasn’t able to make a run for it. They didn’t have what anyone could describe as a “user-friendly” image, and from what I’d heard through the grapevine, no one in the band camp was too thrilled with the idea of my doing a book on them. But in writing about Guns N’ Roses, I wanted to find out for myself why the music I loved most seemed to be made by people who seemed destined to live the shortest lives. I wanted to know, ultimately, the answer to a question that’s been gnawing at me for more than a decade and that has never been satisfactorily answered: What’s so good about bad? What is this relationship between self-destruction and creativity? And what role does the audience play in this?
 
I could understand why they didn’t want a book, or anything for that matter, written about them. Every time they appeared in the press, it was bad news. But in my research, I’d read over three thousand pages of Axl Rose talking, and what I had yet to find was an interview with Rose where he went beyond the already known story. No one challenged him. Everybody kissed his ass. Everything I had read was safe. And Guns N’ Roses aren’t safe.
 
But I liked that they were weary of writers. It meant that this bad-boy image wasn’t all hype – just the opposite – they wanted to play it down.
 
And I also knew that Guns N’ Roses own this town – they rule the molten belly that is the heavy metal scene in L.A. – and I wasn’t looking forward to the night when I finally bumped into them at the Whisky or the Rainbow or the Roxy. They were gonna thump and slice me. Nevertheless, I had continued my travels into their turf, not pad and tape recorder in hand, waiting for the inevitable.
 
Since I hadn’t moved, they hadn’t either. Then I got a good look at them. First, Izzy’s pupils weren’t pinned from his smack habit, as I would have guessed. Nor were his pupils overtly dilated, indicating withdrawal. He must have been clean. The other thing that impressed me was that Axl seemed like a nice guy – though a little out of his element, with his Speedo pants revealing the shocking white legs indigenous to his fair-haired body. And he had a beard, red, matching his hair, and round wire-rimmed glasses. And even though Bar-One was noisy, Axl and Izzy both seemed subdued, content.
 
I was still standing there – at a loss of words – when Axl asked me if I wanted to sit down, asking his wife of two weeks, Erin Everly, Don Everly’s daughter, to make room for me. I sat next to Axl.
 
“We have a friend in common,” I said to Izzy.
 
I mentioned a onetime Iranian heroin connection. Izzy seemed to be having trouble recalling a face to go with the name.
 
“The guy with needle marks on his neck,” Axl prodded. We all nodded in agreement.
 
“I’m glad we finally got a chance to meet,” I lied.
 
Izzy was leaning over, trying to hear me and Axl above the music being blasted.
 
“On the other hand,” I said to Axl, “I was sort of dreading as well.”
 
“Well, that BAM article didn’t help.”
 
I knew what he was talking about. A writer quoted me talking about drugs and music in general, and then the editors  made it appear I was addressing Guns N’ Roses directly when I said, “It’s like Icarus – someday you have to learn. Those wings are made of wax, and they’re gonna burn.”
 
“Come on, Axl,” I pleaded, “surely you’ve been quoted out of context before.”
 
He nodded and seemed to accept my explanation.
 
“That’s it? That’s why you guys are so pissed off at me?” I asked, still unsure if that was all there was to it. It was important to me that he believed what I had told him, so I launched into a further explanation of what I really thought of the band and their mythology: “See, I told that writer that most people don’t remember that Icarus’s father didn’t follow his son’s stupid example; in fact, he had warned the son not to fly too close to the sun, which is a good metaphor for what parents tell their kids. The father, by flying low, made it across the water to the shore. Yet Icarus wanted that heat, that thrill; wanted to burn with what Oscar Wilde called ‘that hard gemlike flame.’ But like the moth that flies too close, mesmerized by the fire, he got consumed by it. By his own appetite for destruction.”
 
Fortunately, Axl understood what I was talking about. “We heard about your book on us at a bad time,” he said quietly. “Everyone was on our case for everything we did. We couldn’t win. The way it looked was you were just someone else using our name to get some money.”
 
“The reason I wanted to do a book on you guys was to show that we need Guns N’ Roses,” I explained, “to show that even if everyone on the planet ‘just said no’ tomorrow, our culture, our society, would still need someone to celebrate and act out the great self-immolation trip. Society has always hired someone to do it. It’s as old as our civilization. It goes all the way back to Greek mythology....”
 
Izzy was staring at space, having given up on trying to hear the conversation. Axl seemed to be listening and hearing, and appreciating what was being said. I continued: “Pan loved music and girls, and would participate in these drunken orgies on high mountains, but sooner or later he was made to pay for his privileges with death.”
 
Axl asked me how I knew all of this and I dropped one word: Morrison.
 
He nodded.
 
“Yeah, well you know, Axl, people say the same thing about you, that they said about Jim Morrison: ‘Yeah, he’s great. Cater him if you can, before he does himself in.’”
 
It was a hard thing to say, but Morrison is dead; Axl is still alive.
 
“Yeah, I know,” Axl whispered,” I hate those comparisons. It’s just that I want to be true to myself the same way Morrison was true to his self.”
 
“But see, it’s that spirit – that’s exactly why people compare you two,” I told him. “Because you both insist on that right to be yourselves. I think that’s the most any role model can pass on to his fans – the freedom to be yourself.”
 
I really wanted to believe that Axl could succeed where Morrison had failed – that he could survive the abyss, the dark side that ultimately seduced and drew Jim in.
 
Jim always maintained that his journey into the dark side was based on his desire to reenter, ultimately, into the light. But the sad truth is that Jim got stuck there.
 
I was hoping the same thing wouldn’t happen to Axl. Axl was in the perfect position to be the first of the Too Fast to Live, Too Young to die set to avoid the early death which seems to be an occupational hazard of the artist whose sensitivity connects and enriches all who listen – yet eats away at the artist.
 
The Guns N’ Roses gig with the Rolling Stones at the L.A. Coliseum was a perfect example of that self-destruction.
 
The day before the first of four shows, warm-up act Living Colour’s lead guitarist Vernon Reid did a radio interview, and a caller asked about the controversial Guns N’ Roses song “One in a Million.” Reid, who is black, said he likes Guns N’ Roses but took exception to some of the words and sentiments in that song.
 
On the way to the stage for his band’s set, Axl Rose pressed his face close to Reid’s; “I heard on the radio that you guys got a problem with some of the things I got to say.”
 
Then Axl launched into his own defense, claiming he never thought of “you guys as niggers.”
 
When Axl hit the stage, he stepped to the microphone and said, “Before we start playing I want to say I’m sick of all this publicity about our song ‘One in a Million.’ I’m not a fucking racist...” He went on to state that not all niggers are niggers but if someone is “acting like a fucking nigger,” then he’ll call it as he sees it. And the same thing goes “for fucking faggots.” And then he said, “If you still want to call me a racist, you can shove it up your ass.”
 
Totally oblivious to the fact that these words offend. And that was just to start the set. Before it was over he said, “I don’t like to do this onstage, but unless certain people in this band start getting their act together, this is going to be the last Guns N’ Roses show.”
 
The crowd didn’t cheer. People didn’t clap, didn’t boo. They mumbled. Confused. Rose went on, “I’m sick and tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. Brownstone.”
 
At the second of four shows, Slash (the apparent target of Axl’s earlier anti-heroin wrath), wearing a Betty Ford Clinic T-shirt, stepped to the mike, before a note was struck, and said, “Smack isn’t what it’s all about. No one in this band advocates the use of heroin. That’s not what it’s all about, and we’re not going to be one of those weak bands that falls apart over it.”
 
After Slash’s address, Rose stepped forward and said, “I just don’t want to see any of my friends slip away.” They embraced as the band began “Patience.”
 
Slash must have been referring to a recent landmark decision, because ten minutes after the first show Axl Rose was overheard remarking to singer David Lee Roth that “three out of the four musicians in the band were smacked out of their minds for the show,” adding incredulously, “Everyone thinks I’m the junkie.”
 
During the third show, Axl felt compelled to make his point again: “I’m not a fucking racist. And don’t compare me to people that have been dead for 12 years. This is fucking art; this is how I feel. You don’t like it – don’t fuckin’ listen. It’s real easy.”
 
Then he added, “Fuck them, cause I’m on this stage tonight.” The band launched into “Nightrain” and kicked ass.
 
Clearly these guys are fuck-ups. Everything they’ve done gets written up in the press: aborted tours, arrests, no shows, broken bones, detox hospitals, urinating on airplanes, marriages, divorces, charges of racism, obscenity. Their perennial screw-ups prolonged their inability to record a follow-up album to Appetite for Destruction, making them failures even at success – which they’re not handling that well.
 
But the same thing that threatens to destroy them is what has made them so popular to begin with: the fact that they are authentic misfits and outcasts.
 
Appetite for Destruction, Guns N’ Roses’ first album, remained in the Top Ten for over a  year, has sold in excess of ten million copies around the world, and is the best-selling debut LP ever. A more recently issued EP, GN’R Lies, recorded before the LP but released months later, stormed up the charts as well; both stayed in the Top Ten for several months. In a typical week during this period, Guns N’ Roses sold in excess of 200,000 pieces of product. Not bad for five misspent youths who set out only to blow away all the other L.A. club bands; to show the posers and wanna-bes how it was really done.
 
To be entirely true – to do it up right – they should have then walked away, split up, or died. Like the Pistols. Instead they fought their way out of the trash heap of L.A.’s heavy-metal Sunset Boulevard scene to become the last authentic bad boys. And they are a band in the best sense of the word – a rock ‘n’ roll gang, a family that hangs together because, one suspects, without each other, they’d hang apart.
 
In some sort of confused, muddled way I was trying to tell Axl that I believed in him and the band, and saw that the future and the possibilities for them were fantastic – that there is a place to go that Morrison stopped short of. As Guns N’ Roses fight the battle of chemical dependency, so do millions of Americans. The band can grow and lead their audience into maturity with them, or they can cater to their fans by giving them more of the same.
 
I wanted to know which way Axl was headed, but how could I ask him if he intended to kill himself?
 
Fortunately Axl broached the subject himself. And then he picked up the ball and started running with it.
 
“You know, I went to Morrison’s grave site last year,” Axl said softly. “I know I could go the same way Jim did; that I could go down in flames; crucify myself on the altar of rock ‘n’ roll. Everyone’s always talking about me dying anyway, it would be easy to do.”
 
“Too easy,” I add, fearing what he was leading up to. “It’s easy to die. Living is the hard thing.”
 
“Tell me about it,” Axl said.
 
“Joseph Campbell wrote about how a hero’s grave site can be a place for a breakthrough; a point of meditation. Campbell said that when you sojourn to the grave of someone you revere it points to the impulse to imitate the deeds of that hero.”
 
“That’s what I did; that’s why I went there. I just sat down next to where he was lying, if he’s even there. I don’t know; it’s not even the point. I was just thinking. I don’t even remember how long I was there. It was one of those depressing gray days. Nobody recognized me, so I was left alone. And, you know, it was like a turning point. I just realized that I could sacrifice myself like Morrison did, if I wanted to. That was my turning point – that it was up to me. I could keep going the way I was going and end up like that.”
 
“The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” I said, echoing one of Morrison’s favorite quotes from William Blake.
 
“But not if you die. If you die, the path of excess leads to a dirt plot in a foreign land that people pour booze on and put out cigarettes on,” replied Axl.
 
That didn’t have to be Axl’s way. Yet, wasn’t that partly what Axl had wanted? To pack 80 years of living into as short a life as possible? Make as big an impact as possible with that life, so that after he says goodbye he’s remembered forever? To trans-sublimate the light and the energy that is life into the immortality of art? To burn to death in that spotlight? Isn’t that what he read and found attractive in that book about Morrison?
 
“Yeah,” he conceded, “it was – up to that point. That was the turning point.”
 
“What did you see there, Axl?”
 
“Death. And it wasn’t hip and it wasn’t glamorous. It was just a waste.”
 
And that, as they are fond of saying in circles of chemical dependency these days, was Axl Rose’s “moment of clarity.” To live for what Morrison stood for, not die from what he died from.
 
“I decided I was going to live for myself, not die for rock ‘n’ roll. I refuse to martyr myself on the altar of rock ‘n’ roll. Jim stood for being an individual, being true to himself. That’s the same thing I want. But I realized I want to be myself, not like him. That was his way; it didn’t have to be mine. I just saw I was lucky, I saw I had a choice before it was too late.”
 
I knew that it took a lot more than just saying you wanted to choose life. Finding out how to live was the hard part. As I sat listening to Axl’s confession I thought of the night backstage after the Guns N’ Roses show, before the Stones began their set, when I asked Mick Jagger about Guns N’ Roses’ chances of surviving. He seemed like the guy who’d know, since the danger level that Guns N’ Roses possess has brought on comparisons between them and the early Rolling Stones.
 
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Jagger said. “They’re much more heavy metal.”
 
He laughed, not as if he couldn’t bother to take their threat seriously, but as if he’d simply grown beyond caring about such matters. The bottom line is that he’s Mick Jagger, and Axl Rose has a long way to go. I got the feeling that going the distance was the only yardstick Jagger was going to judge this band by. And since it was too early to tell, the question was irrelevant. The implication was threat and danger are fine elements for a band to possess, but without a sense of survival, it all goes to waste.
 
“It’s like the Clash, isn’t it?” said Jagger. Or the Sex Pistols. Not the music, but that other thing, like, they’re set on self-destruct.”
 
“A self-fulfilling doom prophecy,” I said.
 
“Exactly, Jagger smiled, “A built-in obsolescence. They can’t last like that. There are other ways to be self-destructive---“
 
“Chemically?” I suggest.
 
“Yeah, but is that a symptom or the cause?” Jagger asked back, with a devilish grin.
 
Sitting back at the table with Axl, we toasted to our reconciliation, and as I was leaving the table I felt I had his blessing. And I was rooting for him. Axl was demonstrating clear signs that things were looking up. For one, with the drummer problem solved and Matt Sorum from the Cult replacing Steven Adler, recording for their forthcoming and long-delayed second LP was recently completed. Early word is that it’s brilliant, possessing a progress and growth beyond Appetite for Destruction. The new album contains “November Rain,” a song Axl has wanted to record since before the release of the first LP. “If I don’t record this song before I go, I’m gonna be pissed,” he told an interviewer two-and-a-half years ago. Now it’s done and the word is it’s Guns N’ Roses epic verse, their “Stairway to Heaven,” Axl’s very own “The End.”
 
Also included in the package is a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” On one hand, it is a McCartney song; on the other hand, it’s also custom-made for Guns N’ Roses and the band bring to their cover version the same heart and soul that John Lennon once brought to the “McCartney +” equation.
 
As my manuscript for the book on Guns N’ Roses was about to be turned in, a news item on Axl landed on my desk. Axl filed a complaint against his neighborhood police following what he felt to be an unwarranted raid. He claimed he was the victim of police harassment and heavy-handed intimidation. The same guy who in the song “One in a Million” wrote, “Police and niggers, stay out of my way,” is now going to the police. The cops might not have changed in that time, but Axl has.
 
The cops were allegedly responding to a complaint regarding loud music and excessive noise emanating from Rose’s apartment. Axl said: “My wife, my friend [Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach, no slouch when it comes to authority provocation himself], and I were sitting there on the balcony, having dinner, and my wife suddenly saw about seven to nine police cars pulling up below. She thought someone had been killed. It took 13 or 14 cops about 40 minutes to organize themselves downstairs. They thought they were pulling some big sneak attack. My wife couldn’t see through the eyehole who was knocking, and they didn’t identify themselves, so she opened the door, and there they were, and they said to me, ‘Step out,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, alright.’ This cop shoved my wife, walked into my place, and is now claiming I invited him in. He’s lying. That’s assault and trespassing and I want an investigation. I don’t know if they’re out to get me, but they hate my guts and I don’t know why.”
 
But Axl has a theory: “Maybe it’s because if you’re working the [Sunset] Strip, and saw these long-haired guys with earrings who have no socially redeeming qualities going out with these girls you wished you had, it might tend to piss you off after a few years.”
 
Axl and Erin have been apart and together three times in the few months they’ve been married. Now Axl is able to say, “Our marriage is good when we’re communicating. Then it opens up a lot of doors and things of hope that I really didn’t see or believe in before and just read about in books. Being married is more a part of me now. The institution of marriage itself is mumbo-jumbo paperwork, but the union of two people when you get involved just blows me away.”
 
Axl can even imagine a future including children. “I’m looking forward to it. We already have the children named. We want to have a boy named Shiloh Blue and a girl named Willow Amelia.”
 
Excerpts of this article will appear in the forthcoming book, Appetite for Destruction: The Days of Guns N’ Roses by Danny Sugerman, to be published by St. Martin’s Press, Spring 1991.

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