|Axl Rose talks about the childhood frustrations that fuel his rage onstage and on record with Guns N' Roses. 'I know people are confused by a lot of what I do, but I am too sometimes,' he says, as the group launches a two-year world tour in support of two new albums.
July 21, 1991 | ROBERT HILBURN
TORONTO — It's nearly 4 in the morning and as calm as it gets these days in the embattled world of Axl Rose.
Still winding down in his Four Seasons hotel room after a concert before 21,000 fans at the outdoor CNE Grandstand, the lead singer of Guns N' Roses stares into the semidarkness. The drapes are tightly drawn, and the only flicker of light is from a single lamp.
Rose, 29, has been speaking slowly and thoughtfully for more than an hour, outlining the frustrations of his small-town Indiana childhood. It's those experiences, he feels, that contributed to the widely publicized aggression and rage in his stage shows and music.
Some of his words could be straight from a review of "Terminator 2," but Rose is referring to himself when he talks about "twisted mental circuitry," "demons," "violence" and "destructiveness."
Just a week before the shows here on the band's first tour in three years, Rose made news by going onstage in his "homecoming" concert in Indianapolis and decrying the forces--including parents and school--that he believes can rob young people of their individuality and aspirations.
Rose--who has become the hottest lightning rod for controversy and headlines in rock since Sinead O'Connor--went as far in the speech as suggesting that many young people in Indiana are akin to "prisoners in Auschwitz," the World War II concentration camp.
Elsewhere on the new tour, Rose went onstage nearly two hours late in Long Island, N.Y., on June 17 and then launched into a tirade against his record company. Two weeks later, he stormed off the stage in suburban St. Louis, complaining about inexperienced security after he leaped into the crowd to grab a camera from someone in the front row. When the band didn't return, a melee erupted, causing $200,000 in damages and injuring 60 people.
"I know people are confused by a lot of what I do, but I am too sometimes," he says, in his first extended interview since the group's Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum stand in 1989 with the Rolling Stones. "That's why I went into therapy (just before the current tour). I wanted to understand why Axl had been this volatile, crazy, whatever, for years."
The therapy consisted of intensive sessions five hours a day, five days a week, says Rose, who believes it helped him understand where a lot of his frustration and destructiveness come from.
"I was told that my mental circuity was all twisted . . . in terms of how I would deal with stress because of what happened to me back in Indiana," he says. "Basically I would overload with the stress of a situation . . . by smashing whatever was around me. . . .
"I used to think I was actually dealing with my problems, and now I know that's not dealing with it at all. I'm trying now to (channel) my energy in more positive ways . . . but it doesn't always work."
More than the combined 17 million in sales of the band's first two releases, the most significant thing about Guns N' Roses is that it is the first mainstream hard-rock group in years worth caring about.
Rock has been blessed with stirring punk and metal bands over the last decade, from Black Flag to Metallica, as well as brilliant idealistic rockers, from Bruce Springsteen to U2.
But mainstream hard rock--once the home of such spirited entries as the Rolling Stones and the Doors but dominated in recent years by your Poisons and Ratts--has been largely void of artistry and passion.
With their tattoos, frizzy hair and rebellious aura, the members of Guns N' Roses may look at first like yet another hard-rock cliche from "This Is Spinal Tap." But the Los Angeles-based group's best music is a provocative and affecting exploration of fast-lane temptations and consequences.
At the center, Rose is a charismatic performer with an exciting edge of spontaneity--the most compelling and combustible superstar in American hard rock since Jim Morrison.
Just as Morrison hit a nerve two decades ago with counterculture fans who were looking for new social directions, Rose--a high school dropout--mirrors much of the restless anxiety of working-class youths who are trying to resolve contradictory impulses in their own lives.
You sense in his music and manner a genuine tug of war between healthy and destructive urges--a contest that personalizes for the audience its own struggle over issues as fundamental, and often as paralyzing, as lifestyle, career and relationships.
The music is based upon the guitar-driven, blues-rock strains of the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, while its themes frequently combine the stormy edges of the Doors with the sometimes biting observation of the Eagles.
Reflecting in the hotel room on his Indianapolis speech, Rose echoes the classic underdog sentiments that have been a dominant theme in rock ever since James Dean, in "Rebel Without a Cause," articulated youthful anger and pain for the first generation of rockers.
Yet the words reflect the intensity that underlies so many of the band's songs, which help summarize some of the conflicts of adolescence for a new generation of fans.
"You get a lot of teaching in high school about going after your dreams and being true to yourself, but at the same time (teachers and parents) are trying to beat you down," Rose says of the Indianapolis speech. "It was so strict in (our house) that everything you did was wrong. There was so much censorship, you weren't allowed to make any choices. Sex was bad, music was bad. I eventually left, but so many kids stay (in that environment). I wanted to tell them . . . that they can break away too."
Axl Rose made his own break around 1980 when he moved from Lafayette, Ind., and a trail of low-grade juvenile delinquency, to Los Angeles to join a rock band.
He was in and out of several L.A. groups before joining Guns N' Roses in 1985 with guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steve Adler, along with guitarist Izzy Stradlin, whom he had known back in Indiana.
The group--which kicks off a Southern California swing with a concert Thursday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre--struggled through some typically hard times, but a few early believers sensed that the band had stardom written all over it.
The macabre joke, in fact, was that Guns N' Roses could be the biggest band in the world--if the five members didn't kill themselves first.
Take all the things you've heard about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and multiply them by three, and you get an idea of the fast-lane excesses that the five reportedly went through.
Things were so volatile that when Guns N' Roses opened--four years and 15 million album sales later--for the Rolling Stones at the Coliseum, Rose threatened onstage to leave the band unless certain members of the group stopped destroying themselves with drugs.
Even though the band, by all accounts, has since toned down many of its vices, questions remain about its stability.
The fundamental one: Can the group survive another marathon tour?
More often than not, the questions center on Rose, whose problem apparently was never drugs, but his sometimes frightening, violent rage. He was once prescribed lithium to combat what were described as manic-depressive tendencies.
Those around Rose say he is calmer since beginning the therapy, but they don't think they've seen the end of the outbursts--such as the public one at the June 17 concert in New York when he lashed out at his record company for putting too much pressure on the band to complete the group's new albums, "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II."
About the more celebrated St. Louis affair, Rose said afterward, the reason he leaped into the audience was that he believed that the man with the unauthorized camera was part of a group of bikers who were intimidating other fans.
The new tour, expected to run two years, was at that point only 6 weeks old.
Though the Roses were already stars within hard-core rock circles when they opened for the Stones at the Coliseum in 1989, many in the stadium were seeing the group for the first time and figured it was the ultimate show-biz gimmick when Rose told the crowd that the show might be the group's last. He said he was tired of people in the band "dancing with 'Mr. Brownstone,' " a reference to a Guns N' Roses song about drug dealers.
Some of the doubters thought their suspicions that it was just a stunt were confirmed the next night when the band came out, declaring differences had been patched up.
But the drama at the Coliseum was real.
"I was watching my band mentally and physically fall apart," Rose says now. "It was a harsh move (talking about it) onstage, but we had tried everything else, and nobody would stop. It just kept getting worse and worse and worse.
"I remember bumping into (Geffen Records head) David Geffen when I walked onstage and he was all excited about us playing with the Stones and all the people there. I just looked at him and said, 'Well, then enjoy (the show) because it's the last (damn) one.' "
Slash wasn't the only member of the band heavily into drugs and alcohol by the time of the Coliseum show, but he was the main target of Rose's speech that night.
The guitarist--who'll be 26 on Tuesday--is frequently referred to as the Keith Richards of Guns N' Roses because he has the same gunslinger image onstage and he plays similar sweet, sensual blues-rock riffs. He was the one who came up with the seductive intro to "Sweet Child o' Mine," the band's most affecting single.
Slash--born Saul Hudson in England--grew up in Hollywood in a somewhat hippie-ish, show-biz environment. His mother, Ola, designed clothes for David Bowie and the Pointer Sisters, and his father, Anthony, designed album covers for such artists as Joni Mitchell.
Slash roamed the streets of Hollywood with gangs as a teen-ager and was so unruly that he was kicked out of three high schools--including Beverly Hills and Fairfax--before he quit school altogether to concentrate on being in a band.
Sitting on a couch backstage before the first of the band's two shows at the CNE Grandstand, Slash--whose long, curly black hair often covers his face--gazes idly at a closed-circuit monitor that allows band members to see the crowd file into the giant grandstand.
The problem that led to the Coliseum showdown, he says, wasn't the endless months on the road in 1987 and 1988, but the days and weeks after the tour ended in September, 1988--when the band members didn't have each other or their crews for support.
Like Axl and the others, he thought he had found a new family in Guns N' Roses and felt isolated when the band returned from the marathon tour and there was no support group.
"In the beginning, we were this little gang," he explains. "There was Duff and Steve and Izzy and Axl and me. We were these outcasts in Los Angeles, and we'd do anything to keep the band alive. I hate to say it, but we'd rip off money, we'd pawn this and that. There was so much rejection at first, and that made us even pull closer together. We were always there for each other . . . like brothers."
Though Slash vowed at the Coliseum to get off heroin, it took months before he followed through.
Duff McKagan, a Seattle native who moved to Los Angeles in the early '80s in search of rock dreams, knew it was time to draw back from the edge when he looked in a mirror a couple of months after the Coliseum show. He could barely recognize himself.
"I was like 20 pounds heavier than I am now . . . just from alcohol," he says, sitting backstage in a guitar-tuning room. "My face was all puffy and pale, and I said to myself, 'This is not me.' So I quit drinking and I poured all the alcohol in my house out, but I almost died from the withdrawals."
McKagan looks like the quintessential hard-rock musician--long blond hair, slim waist and leather pants. But there's little of the stereotypical macho swagger. Like the others in the band, he's surprisingly articulate--and aware, at least now, of rock 'n' roll limits.
"For a while, we were separated . . . we didn't have each other to talk to every day. We were on our own. I was drunk, Slash was doing smack. There was an adjustment period because we were used to living in (crap) around town, but all of a sudden, there was all this money and you'd go to a club, the Whisky or whatever, and people would mob you.
"It (messes) your head . . . and I wanted to escape. I didn't know how to deal with things. The easiest thing to do was go to the liquor store and get two half-gallons of vodka and drink it."
Izzy Stradlin--who was also reportedly heavily into drugs--also pulled himself together after the Coliseum show, but original drummer Steve Adler was dropped by the band, the other members maintain, because he didn't respond.
The Adler issue is a sensitive one for the group, which prides itself on loyalty. (One reason the band is more restrictive on newspaper and magazine photographers at its shows than most groups is to provide more opportunities for Robert John, a Los Angeles photographer and an early supporter.)
"Steven turned me onto the guitar," says Slash, who met Adler in their teens. "He'd crank up a KISS record and I'd just bang on the chords, and it felt great. We decided to start a band right then. . . . It was the hardest thing in the world having to (drop him) from the band. But we couldn't wait any longer. We had to make the new record."
Contacted by The Times, Adler--who is now putting together a new band--was bitter about being dropped from the group. He said he was no more of a problem because of drugs than other members of the band. He blamed his firing on Rose, whom Adler called the "most ruthless and meanest person" he's ever met.
Matt Sorum, a muscular Orange County native who toured with the Cult, was brought in early last year to replace Adler. He admits he was wary when the band approached him about going into the studio to record some tunes.
"I had heard all the horror stories," Sorum, 30, says with a smile. "I thought I was going to be walking into an opium den, but it wasn't like that at all. It blew me away how professional everybody was. We worked our asses off, rehearsing or recording every day--five days a week--for a month. . . . I think they knew that if they didn't do the album right then, it all might be over for them."
In addition, the band added a sixth member, keyboardist Dizzy Reed, who has known the group since the old club days, and severed ties with manager Alan Niven, replacing him with Doug Goldstein, who had been tour manager before becoming a partner in Niven's firm. (Niven had no comment about the separation when contacted by The Times.)
"I think that Axl and Alan had been drifting apart for a long time as individuals, even as far back as 'Appetite for Destruction,' " said someone who has worked with the band since that time, referring to the group's debut album and tour.
"In the end, I don't think Axl saw Alan as someone who was still fully on his side. He has a more comfortable relationship with Doug, whom he perceives as a friend as well as manager. Axl knew this was going to be a long tour, and he wanted to have everything in place before it started."
In his New York Times review of Guns N' Roses' June 17 concert at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, Peter Watrous concentrated on Rose's sense of rock 'n' roll drama.
"Where bands on this sort of elevated pop level can coast through the concert ritual, Mr. Rose loves to get angry and rant. Unpredictable and contradictory, his rants have enough aggression to fuel a few more wars." Watrous called the outburst a masterful performance, "provincial demagoguery at its best, fascinating in entertainment, terrifying in politics."
The worst thing that can happen to Rose is to start believing that the rage onstage is as important as the music--or that the ranting is essential to a good show. If he begins to feel obligated to "blow up" at every performance, he will become boring unless he can up the intensity, and that could be dangerous emotionally.
There was no tirade at either of the two Toronto shows, yet the second night--a nearly three-hour affair that included such material as Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die"--was dazzling.
The songs themselves contain all the tension and drama required of great rock 'n' roll. To hear more than 20,000 fans scream along with Rose as he sings "Welcome to the Jungle" in a growl right out of "The Exorcist" can be almost frightening.
Sample lyrics from the tale about fast-lane seduction:
Welcome to the jungle . . .
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need.
If you got the money honey
We got your disease.
But he also counters in the show with the tenderness and beauty of "Sweet Child o' Mine," the most endearing song from a hard-rock band since the Stones' "Wild Horses":
She's got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I stared too long
I'd probably break down and cry.
Rose said "Jungle" grew out of the culture shock of moving from Indiana to Los Angeles and becoming part of the sometimes decadent rock scene. "Sweet Child" is a love song inspired by Erin Everly, daughter of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Don Everly. The couple's April, 1990, marriage was annulled in January.
"The 'blue sky' line actually was one of my first childhood memories--looking at the blue sky and wishing I could disappear in it because it was so beautiful," he says when asked about the song.
It's one of the only things he mentions in the interview that was beautiful about his childhood.
The very name Axl Rose is a reflection of the singer's alienation from his family as a teen-ager. Until he was 17, he was known around Lafayette as Bill Bailey, using the surname of his stepfather.
But in a declaration of independence, he changed his last name to Rose, the name of his real father, whom he has never met. At the same time, he adopted the name Axl.
Rose says he was raised in such a strict Pentecostal family environment that for years he couldn't even listen to rock 'n' roll on the radio, much less buy rock records. So the music became a secret ally.
"Music was my best friend," he says, lighting a cigarette during the hotel interview. "It was everything, so I'd find ways to listen to it. I remember once my friend Dave called me and played Supertramp over the phone. I just acted like I was talking to him so no one would know."
About the rebellion that got him in trouble in school and with the police, he adds: "I think a lot of it started because it was a way to strike back at my (stepfather). Whenever I got into any situation with any form of authority, if I thought it was wrong or something, I wouldn't take one inch of it. I wouldn't work on communicating or working anything out, and I think they sensed all that hatred, which probably only made the (situation) worse."
During the interview, Tom Zutaut, the young artists-and-repertoire executive at Geffen Records who signed Guns N' Roses, arrives from Los Angeles with the tracks for the band's two new albums, which are now tentatively due in September. Rose still needs to put the final vocal on one selection--and a studio was booked in Toronto for the next night.
After taking a phone call from his girlfriend, model Stephanie Seymour, Rose leans back in the chair and dabbles at a room-service sandwich as he listens to some of the songs. The CD is being played at a volume that would surely bring complaints to the front desk if Guns N' Roses had not taken over the whole floor.
The arrangements on the new album tend to be more complex than those on "Appetite for Destruction" or the 1988 mini-album "GN'R Lies," but the songs have the same range of emotion as the earlier works--from the tender, evocative "November Rain" to a series of scorching rockers.
There is, however, no song that is likely to renew the charges that surrounded "One in a Million," a song on "Lies." The song was widely attacked by critics and others who objected to the use of certain slur words to refer to blacks and homosexuals--charges expanded by some to suggest that Rose is bigoted.
However, there is nothing else in any of Guns N' Roses' songs to suggest a pattern of racism or prejudice. Rose himself now sees how the words can be seen as objectionable, but says he didn't mean them in a negative or inflammatory sense. Rose says they were meant to describe his hostility and fear when, fresh from Indiana, he was pretty much living on some of the mean streets of Los Angeles.
Still, Rose doesn't expect to do the song live on the tour, believing there's no need to make the song the focal point of a continuing debate that distracts from the heart of the band's music and direction.
Though it has been four years since "Appetite," Rose doesn't believe it was possible to do a formal follow-up to the album any faster.
"I keep reading about delays in getting the record out," he says, "but as far as the band is concerned, there really have been no delays. The only (rule) we had was to make the best record we could, regardless of how long it took.
"But we had people at the record company come up with deadlines on when they wanted the record out and we'd go, 'OK, we'll do our best (to meet the deadline),' and we tried. But we were not going to give anybody the record until we felt it was done."
(By not having the albums finished in time for the tour, the band may have weakened itself at the box office, some industry observers feel. The group has been doing good business--averaging almost 25,000 fans and a $605,000 gross per show, according to Pollstar, an industry trade publication. With extensive radio airplay from the new albums, the same sources say, the band might have been able to do more multiple-night engagements in various cities.)
Rather than worry about industry timetables, the band members spent most of 1989 trying to adjust to life at home. They made some abortive attempts before the Coliseum concert at getting back together in the studio, but it wasn't until May, 1990--when Sorum came in--that the project, which features both new songs and tunes dating back before "Appetite," started jelling.
The main issue was the personal problems.
"Everybody has done a lot of growing," Rose says. "I'm not saying that we have reached some great plateau, but it's like recycling. You do what you can. If all you can do at first is throw your Coke can in a bag, at least you are doing something."
Added McKagan in a separate interview: "We're still not angels by any means. We still do whatever . . . that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll thing. But it's not our lifestyle any more. We know how to choose what and where and when. We're not going to let it destroy the band . . . or kill us."
After listening to almost a dozen songs from the new albums, Rose notices that it's nearly 6 a.m. He stands up, stretches, walks over to the hotel room window and opens the drapes--the morning sunlight fills the room, and you can feel a slight tension grip him. The daylight signals it's soon time for another show, and that's always a step into the unknown.
On the chartered jet two days later to Albany, N.Y., for the group's next concert, Rose looks tired, even a bit melancholy, as he sits in a rear compartment and stares out the window.
The recording session had lasted until 7:30 that morning, and Rose, according to someone who was there, was in one of "those moods"--code words for another tirade. The song itself is an angry attack at publications, chiefly metal magazines, that Rose and the band claim sometimes make up phony stories so they can have another excuse to put the band on the cover.
Most of his public and private blowups, those around him say, are usually the result of the tensions associated with performing--either recording sessions or concerts.
Though he is only one member of the band, Rose is clearly the jewel in the Guns N' Roses crown, and it's easy when observing him for a few days to see how much pressure is on him. You understand why Rose saw Oliver Stone's movie "The Doors" three times and why he is intrigued by the battle of the Doors' Jim Morrison against his own demons.
As with Morrison, there's a restlessness about Rose--as if he is still searching for a direction home.
Just before the Indianapolis concert, he visited some land in the Alpine Valley resort area of Wisconsin that he bought with money from the "Appetite" album and tour. It was his link to the Midwest, and he planned to live there some day.
But Rose, after the therapy and the hours he has spent examining his childhood, says he no longer feels the connection to the region. After walking around the property for a few minutes, he turned to someone with him and said flatly, "Sell it."
At the same time, Rose has sold his condo in West Hollywood (it is being given away in an MTV contest) and he has put on the market the Hollywood Hills house where he had planned to live with Erin Everly. He never even moved in. Before the tour, he was living in hotel rooms around Los Angeles.
Unlike Morrison for most of his time with the Doors, however, Rose doesn't see any glamour in sacrificing himself for his music.
Earlier in the Toronto hotel room, Geffen executive Zutaut, who sees hundreds of new groups each year, says one of the things that first interested him in Rose and the band was that they were serious about music--that they had a strong inner drive.
Zutaut puts new bands into two categories. "There are the singers, drummers, guitarists and bass players who sit around trying to figure out how to write songs so they can get (sex) every night," he explains, " . . . and there are artists who create what is inside of them, and they put it out because they have to get it out. That's the way Guns N' Roses seemed from the beginning."
Nearby, Rose stepped back from the sunlight and paused in the hotel room.
"You know, it's strange," he says. "In some ways I hate the way I was raised . . . the lack of support for anything I was into or good at. But in some ways I can't hate it because it gave me this sense of drive . . . this mission to do something with my life."