Hello darkness, my old friend…
So what happened was the boss of my book publishing company, who was about to retire, came to me over a year ago and asked if the rumours were true: that Guns N’ Roses were about to reform. I told him, yes, but that it would only be three of them: Axl, Slash and Duff. And that the official announcement would not be until early 2016, when Coachella made their own announcement.
Then he asked if I would consider writing a book, one that finally told the truth. I hesitated. But not for long.
Contrary to appearances I have only previously written one book on GN’R: my 1991 expanded collection of early magazine interviews with them: The Most Dangerous Band In The World. Then, in 2006, I wrote a biography of W. Axl Rose, titled simply: W.A.R.
For those of you not paying attention, I have since publicly denounced the latter book, taking it out of circulation. Why? Because it was written with hate in what was left of my heart. And anger and betrayal and a number of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with Axl and everything to do with my own deeply troubled childhood and subsequent life.
Also, as I explained earlier this year, I wrote that book in the wake of a heart attack. A dark time during which I was ready to kill anything that moved. Thankfully, I no longer live that way, nor ever wish to again.
More to the point, the intervening 10 years have seen my family and I dealing with the fact that one of my children has been diagnosed with Aspergers and I now see the world in a whole new light. I am not suggesting Axl Rose has Aspergers, but it is clear to anyone who has even partially followed his story over the years that he came from a tremendously difficult family background and that it has informed his adult life in many profound ways, including his genius as a musical artist.
Or to put it more simply: Axl being obsessively late on stage, being obsessively controlling, appearing at several stages of his career to cut off his nose to spite his face – and of the huge personal despair this has caused him privately – is not the work of an unforgivably egotistic rock monster. But the signs of a troubled and sensitive individual trying to find his way in a world, as he once put it, “much too dark.” Darker indeed than any of his fans have ever understood.
So… this new biography of Guns N’ Roses that I have written – Last Of The Giants, the True Story of Guns N’ Roses – published in the UK this week – has been done with nothing but love in my heart. No, it is not a fan book. I don’t write those. And while you may be shocked by the many new revelations inside its blood-soaked pages, you will not find judgement. You will not find malice. You will, I fervently hope, find only love and understanding. Deeply cut. And raw. And, ultimately, full of hope.
Here then, is a short extract, don’t forget to let me know what you think.
Do You Know Where The Fuck You Are?
Los Angeles is full of ghosts. Take a drive through West Hollywood, along Sunset Boulevard and its many tributaries, and names and places from the past return, some urgent, some distant, all able to conjure those ghosts by their mere mention. Tower Records, bankrupt since 2006; The Hyatt on Sunset, once known and feared as the ‘Riot House’, now a sanitised boutique hotel called the Andaz West Hollywood; the Roxy, the Rainbow Bar and Grill, the Whisky A Go-Go, the Troubadour, all still standing, but existing on the fumes of their shared, impossible to replicate pasts; nasty joints like the Coconut Teaszer and Gazzarri’s, now long-gone; Sunset Strip Tattoo, relocated from its ramshackle shop opposite the Hyatt some way further down Sunset; the buildings that once housed the Starwood and the Tropicana and the Cathouse and the Seventh Veil now rebranded and reused; the 24-hour Ralphs supermarket that had so many aspiring musos walking its aisles it was known as ‘Rock’n’roll Ralphs’; the Capitol Records building, the Geffen Records building, each monuments to a vanished industry.
And the side streets with their stories: North Clark, where once both Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses lived in the cheap apartments that lined it; Alto Loma, where the ‘hidden oasis’ of the Sunset Marquis hotel lay – Hunter S. Thompson used to call that place ‘the Loser’s Hilton’, so many and varied were the touring bands and LA rich that partied in the cabanas by the rippling pool…
West Hollywood is a different place now, and ironically, given the turbo-charged, try-hard heterosexuality of the late 1980s, one of the city’s best-known LBTG districts. But for anyone who remembers its ghosts and who saw the place in its 1980s hey-day this is the town where anything that could happen did happen. Where everything was coooool baby, one minute. Then out of control the next.
Imagine arriving here, as W. Axl Rose and many thousands of others did, from the Greyhound Bus terminal in North Hollywood and seeing the Strip for the first time at night. The atmosphere of the place came at you like a bullet in the back, a supercharged mix of ambition and abandon, hedonism and desperation: it was like a permanent first night away from home, no responsibility, no tomorrow, no fucker telling you what to do or what to wear or where to go, a heady blast of freedom, intoxicating and scary.
The levels of bullshit and testosterone were off the charts. Everyone was in a band, or starting a band or thinking about it, or else they were a budding promoter or a DJ or a VJ or a manager. In a pre-internet age, cheap photocopied flyers were the best form of communicating who you were and when you were playing – by the end of the night, discarded A5s would be blowing down Sunset like tumbleweed. Bands formed and broke up and reformed again with this guy replacing that guy, this name instead of that one, one crazy dude after another. Loose collectives looking for the magic formula, the glory moment at which the touch paper would ignite and they could begin their climb from a paid-for slot on the bottom of the bill.
It could happen, and it did: look around and you could even see the people that it had happened to – David Lee Roth, singer with LA’s biggest home grown band Van Halen, ligging with his manager Pete Angelus in the Rainbow; Vince Neil, a Mexican kid from the wrong side of town now somehow singing his way to platinum heaven with Mötley Cruüe, dragging the mud-wrestling girls from the Tropicana back to his house to party; Robbin Crosby, Ratt’s blond bombshell of a guitarist, propping up the bar at the Troubadour, surrounded by chicks and chicks-with-dicks… and until the gods pointed their finger and decided that this was your fate, there was an itinerant life of cheap places to crash, sofas to surf, rehearsal space to find.
There was some movie doing the rounds saying ‘lunch is for wimps’… well, so were breakfast and dinner out in Hollyweird, California. Any spare dollars – and who had those? – were allocated to booze, partying and flyers long before loose change was scraped up for fast food or whatever cheap shit was left on the shelves after midnight at Ralphs. The true Hollywood vampires knew girls that would buy their groceries and offer up their beds while they were busy trying to climb the greasy KY pole…
This was a very particular life in a very particular time and place and it was being projected outwards from these few neon streets to the rest of the world. Rock rags like Hit Parader, Circus, RIP, Spin and Kerrang! helped build the myth. Video clips that began on Headbanger’s Ball then crept onto mainstream, daytime MTV. Radio stations like KNAC – blasting out Poison, W.A.S.P., Ozzy Osbourne – saw their playlists picked up across America. People saw and people heard and they came in their thousands to be part of it. Axl stayed only a few weeks, freaked out by the place and its people, walking around with “a can of mace in one hand, a piece of steel in the other” like the hayseed Indiana boy he was, but somehow he knew that he had to come back…
Young Bill Bailey, just turned eighteen years old and not yet W. Axl Rose, was a smalltown cop’s nightmare. In Lafayette Indiana in the late 1970s, most of the teenage troublemakers were of the usual sort: bored, drunk, pumped full of hormones and not particularly bright. It didn’t take the FBI to catch them. Bill Bailey was different. He was bright – very, in fact – and his rebellion had both a root and a reason. It wasn’t that they couldn’t arrest him. It was that they couldn’t stop him, couldn’t make him respect their authority, or anyone else’s.
He ran up twenty arrests by his estimate (“I was guilty on five”), although Tippecanoe County Court records state that he spent a total of 10 days in County Jail as an adult over a period from July 1980 through September 1982, on charges of battery, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, public intoxication, criminal trespass, and mischief. When he finally hitchhiked out of town, back to LA and away from the torture of his early years, he was technically skipping judge’s bail. He would not return for a very long time.
If Axl Rose is the last great rock star, then Bill Bailey is the sad, sweet, clever, abused and angry child that Axl left behind in Lafayette. Yet he lives in every on-stage meltdown and backstage bust-up, in every act of intransigence and temper. And he surfaces in the untold moments of kindness and vulnerability, in the love songs with which he lays himself open and protects so fiercely. He’s there in the lyric to ‘One In A Million’ – ‘Police and niggers that’s right/Get out of my way’ – and to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ – ‘She’s got a smile that it seems to me/Reminds me of childhood memories…’.
He’s there in his choice to cover a Charles Manson song on The Spaghetti Incident? album, and he’s there again in his need to emulate the sophisticated songwriting of Elton John and Freddie Mercury. He’s there in the desire to control every element of Guns N’ Roses, from the ownership of the name to the safeguarding of the musical legacy. It’s easy enough to make the link between a young Bill Bailey dreaming of one day having the freedom to sing somewhere other than the bathroom of his family home out of earshot of his religious zealot father, and the glistening edifice of Chinese Democracy, a record so singular and out of time that it could only have been the work of a reclusive rock star taking the chance to offer his version of a perfectly realised artwork to the world, uninterrupted by anyone.