This is from my new book, out now, Last Of The Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses
Beautiful And F***ed-Up
Suddenly everything had changed, and not just for Axl Rose. Duff McKagen had put another side project together, called Neurotic Outsiders, along with Matt Sorum, the former Sex Pistols guitarist, Steve Jones, and Duran Duran’s bassist, John Taylor. Duff would later admit to feeling left behind by the Seattle grunge bands that so dominated the rock scene in the first half of the Nineties. Although Neurotic Outsiders were based in LA, with half their line-up coming from England, a newly sober Duff, still crawling from the emotional wreckage of the past ten years, was determined to make up for lost time. He cut his hair short – as did Matt Sorum – and appeared onstage with the band at the Viper Room in LA shirtless, pogoing up and down to what for all the world sounded like a cross between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana – though lacking the key elements of both, in a frontman to rival Johnny Rotten or Kurt Cobain. Instead, a paunchy Jones took lead vocals and the result, epitomised by the bish-bash-bosh single, ‘Jerk’, sounded like what it was: a grunge wannabe; an after-the-fact-vanity release. There was one self-titled album, released on Madonna’s Maverick label in 1996, followed by short tours of Europe and the US. Before everything fell away again.
Meanwhile, over at The Complex, the west LA studios, where a massive soundstage was now on 24/7 hire to Guns N’ Roses, it was as if time had stood still. By 1996, convinced that the next album had to be more forward thinking than the Use Your Illusion sets, Axl had ordered in a huge barrage of new equipment – and staff. Along with the pinball machines, pool tables and catering facilities, he now had a full-time computer expert tutoring him in the ways of new technology. Newly smitten by the outré electronica of Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy and Moby – and still struggling with the fall from grace he had suffered in the wake of what he saw as the disrespectful grunge generation – Axl was desperate to reposition Guns N’ Roses as far into the future as he could. He had cringed when he’d listened to Slash’s ideas for the next album: the kind of substandard bad-boy boogie that even Duff had privately dismissed as ‘Southern rock’. He had winced just as much when he heard Duff’s late-to-the-party faux-grunge with the Neurotic Outsiders.
Most excruciating of all for Axl, though, was the fact that they and Matt seemed to wilfully disregard his latest attempts to keep Guns N’ Roses on the bleeding edge of rock, shrugging off his imprecations to find something ‘new’ to say with their music as just the latest expression of an ego now completely out of control. This last was not helped by the fact that both Slash and Duff were now bitterly regretting the papers they had signed in 1993 handing over the rights to the Guns N’ Roses name: the deal that effectively left Axl as their leader.
This, though, was a typically squint-eyed way of looking at things. Both Slash and Izzy had been complaining about Axl’s ‘interference’ in their music since the Illusion sessions. Slash claimed he had a tape of an early, rough mix of the Illusion material that was much more ‘strong and powerful’ than the recordings overseen by Axl that eventually emerged – ‘before the keyboards and horns and backing vocals got added’. Izzy, too, had bemoaned the fact that Axl always wanted to take the demos he brought in and turn them into big production numbers. As Axl had told Rolling Stone in 1992: ‘When Izzy had ’em on a four- track, they were done. I mean, I like tapes like that, but we’d just get destroyed if we came out with a garage tape. People want a high-quality album. And it was really hard to get Izzy to do that, even on his own material.’ In the end, said Axl, ‘Izzy’s songs were on the record because I wanted them on the record, not because Izzy gave a shit either way.’
As Doug Goldstein says now: ‘The rest of the band, they were happy being AC/DC or the Rolling Stones, where every album is primarily the same. And Axl wanted to be The Beatles. He wanted every album to evolve. He didn’t want to put out Appetite for Destruction again. But the band, they were totally fine putting together songs that were simplistic, to the point, concise, easy to do. They just wanted to go fucking tour again.’
But while Axl was dreaming of building the same-sized musical cathedrals as previous studio perfectionists like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, Slash and Duff and the rest of the world were still hung up on the fact that Guns N’ Roses had come crawling out of the same Hollywood sewers as Poison and Mötley Crüe. Nobody was even asking for anything more than that from him. And that riled the boy who had grown up studying Queen and Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel, to the point where he was damned if he was going to let what he saw as the short-sighted stupidity of the others get in his way.
For Slash, who’d grown up loving David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, as well as Aerosmith and the Stones, attempting to take Guns N’ Roses to a new level musically was definitely not out of his field of vision. That wasn’t the problem, as he saw it, though. It wasn’t even the creatively stifling presence of Paul Huge. The main problem, said Slash, was that Axl was now openly acting as self-anointed leader. ‘It seemed like a dictatorship. We didn’t spend a lot of time collaborating. He’d sit back in the chair, watching. There’d be a riff here, a riff there. But I didn’t know where it was going.’
Finally, in September 1996, Slash told Axl he’d had enough. ‘There’s a certain personal side to it, too,’ he told me. ‘I can’t relate to Axl. Maybe I never could. I mean, Axl came with Izzy, I came with Steven, and then we all hooked up with Duff.’ Now though, ‘I realised I was out alone, and that meant me and Axl had to come to terms with . . . not our animosity, but having a different opinion about everything. And, I mean, you know, Axl works as hard as anybody else but only on what he wants to work on, and I . . . I just lost interest.’
Ultimately, he said, ‘It all comes down to this: if I hadn’t quit, I would have died, hanging round with nothing to do, no mutual artistic relationship, nothing. I mean, I tried to hang on in there, but it was like a big, revolving door, from really hi-tech equipment, guitar players, all kinds of shit going on . . . I was just waiting for the dust to clear. Eventually, I thought, we’ll never be able to put this on the right path.’
When Slash told Axl he was leaving, the singer braved it out in public. No announcement was made. No private arrangements made to bring in an immediate replacement. As with his painful breakup with Stephanie Seymour, there was a part of Axl that secretly hoped Slash would come running back. Axl knew that without Slash there could be no Guns N’ Roses. Not one that would be instantly recognisable to the world at large. He decided to keep the news quiet until he could figure out what to do.
When, though, in October 1996, Slash did an online interview where he admitted that ‘right now, Axl and I are deliberating over the future of our relationship’, Axl felt angry, hurt and utterly betrayed. He rushed to get his side of the story out, sending a fax to MTV on 30 October in which he suggested it was his decision that Slash should leave, one he had actually made as far back as 1995. He could no longer work with him, he said, because the guitarist had lost his ‘dive in and find the monkey’ attitude. Privately, however, Axl felt more alone than he ever had before. First Steven, then Izzy . . . now Slash? What was happening to him? In the most fragile moment of the night, he blamed himself. That’s when Doug would get the calls from Beta, begging him to come over and talk Axl down. Up to face the day, though, Axl would know again that it wasn’t him it was them. Fuck ’em all!
‘Axl had a vision that GN’R should change and Slash had an attitude that Guns N’ Roses was Guns N’ Fucking Roses and that’s who they were,’ recalled [Geffen A&R exec] Tom Zutaut. ‘I don’t think they could get over their breakdown in communication. It wasn’t announced publicly [initially] because nobody wanted to say the band had broken up.’