Have a gander at this. I’m doing a gig this Xmas. I’ll tell you more about it shortly. It’s the first of a few. Details for now at this link.
Have a gander at this. I’m doing a gig this Xmas. I’ll tell you more about it shortly. It’s the first of a few. Details for now at this link.
This is the final extract from my new book, Last Of The Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses.
FLYING LIKE A SPACE BRAIN
The following interview was originally intended for broadcast on a show I used to present on Capital Radio in London. It captures the spirit of Guns N’ Roses in the late-late-show era of the big-haired 80s better than anything else I probably did with them back then. It’s not clever but it is funny. The interview between myself and Slash and Duff, was conducted in West Hollywood one drunken evening on the second day of January 1990, and was never eventually broadcast, for obvious reasons, as you will see. But it is presented here in its full, inglorious glory.
It begins with the sound of a very drunk Duff singing: ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer . . .’ Then my voice, in radio presenter mode, explaining to them that although we are prerecording the interview the show itself will go out live. ‘So you can say or do whatever you like, but . . .’
Slash: Can we say ‘fuck’ in it?
Mick: If you must, but try and keep it to a minimum, okay?
S: Oh, cool. Okay.
M: So, imagine it’s a Saturday night in London.
S: Is it raining? Most likely . . .
M: Just follow me, okay? I’m gonna start. Right. Slash. Duff.
Thank you both for coming on the show . . .
S: Well, thank you for letting us watch you come. [Much
M: [starting again]: Okay, here on Capital FM I’m talking to
Slash and Duff from Guns N’ Roses. It’s the day after New Year’s Day . . . Did you both have a good time over Christmas and New Year?
Duff: Oh, yes! Oh, yes!
S: Fucking wonderful . . .
D: Oh, yes! We’re gonna go and do our record pretty, uh . . . like, in two weeks.
S: Yeah, so anybody who’s been wondering, it will happen.
M: That’s good, because you know what people have been saying in England – that you’re never gonna make another record because you’re such bad boys you’ll never get it together . . .
D [blowing a huge raspberry]: AAHHH! PUUHHHSSSSTTTTT!! They’re WRONG!
M: Do you have anything to add to that, Slash?
S: Yeah! Fuck YOU . . . Ha, ha! No. We’re gonna make another record. We’ve just been through a lot of shit, you know. It’ll be fine. Just relax. It’s gonna be a really good one, too. It’s gonna be very . . .
D [interrupting]: Imagine, like, riding on the Tube. Getting, like, one of those Tube tickets and riding on the Tube and then, like, getting lost on the Piccadilly Tube, and then you go to the Thames Tube and then it’s like, you get on another Tube and you get lost and lost and lost . . .That’s what happened to our band, kind of, like, in the fucking . . . broad scale of things. And we ended up on the Thames River in the rain. That’s, basically, what happened . . .
M: . . . the band were on the River Thames in the rain and that’s why the new album didn’t get made last year?
S [nodding enthusiastically]: We were drunk, we were lost and we had nowhere to go . . . And my top hat got fucking ruined . . .
D: And now we’re back dry in the, er . . . somewhere dry.
S: No, no, the thing is, it’s not like we’re … um … I won’t mention any names. But we’re not like some bands who make records like jerking off . . .
S: No, no . . . It just means a lot to us, so we’re just taking our time with it and . . .
S: Sshhh . . .
D: BRITNEY FOX?
S [giggling]: It’ll come back to haunt you, I promise you.
D: No, I’m just kidding. No, what happened was . . . the album went wuuhhh! And then we went wuuhhh!
S: No one expected . . . I thought – no offence to Lemmy or any of those guys – but I thought it would be like a Motörhead album, it would just come out and, you know, no big deal . . . Yeah, right. D: We went through a lot of stuff and then, after that, it took us a while to recoup and deal with our own lives. S: You get places to live . . .
D: And deal with our own lives.
S: And girlfriends . . .
D: And deal with our own lives.
S: Oh! That’s true! We all broke up with our old ladies today. D: Divorce!
M: This is an official announcement, is it?
D: Okay, this is in England – that’s many area codes away, right? Well, I got divorced, girls . . .
M: Okay, before we get any further . . .
D: No, let’s get much further!
S: No, this is deep! This is deep!
M: We’re gonna go much further, but first we’re gonna play a Guns N’ Roses track. Which track shall we hear?
S: No! No, no, no, no, no, no, no . . . ‘You’re Crazy’.
D: You’re crazy . . .
S: I’m nuts, but no, play ‘You’re Crazy’ . . .
D: Okay, ‘You’re Crazy’.
S: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! Fuck, I can’t remember the name of it . . .
S: No! Everybody plays ‘Nightrain’ . . . Um . . . [starts snapping fingers] . . . um . . .
D: Are you going down?
S: No, no, no, no, no! Um . . .
D: We don’t even remember our own record . . . ‘It’s So Easy’? S: No, the one . . . ‘ . . . pulls up her skirt’. The song we never play any more? [Both start humming two completely different riffs loudly. The interview has already descended into full-blown Spinal Tap absurdity.]
D [looking at me]: You know the song we’re talking about . . . [starts humming again].
S: No, wait, wait! We have to figure this one out. [Both start singing and humming and clicking fingers etc.]
S: God, this is horrible . . . Um . . . ‘My way, you’re way . . .’ D: ‘ANYTHING GOES’!
S: ‘Anything Goes’!
M [ jolly radio voice]: Okay, this is ‘Anything Goes’ . . .
D: By us, yes!
[I back-announce the record and we get back into interview mode. Sort of.]
M: What were we talking about?
S: Nothing in particular . . . We got rid of our girlfriends, that was major.
D: That was major! And both on the same day! S: On the same day! It was serious . . .
M: Okay, let’s talk about the girlfriends . . .
D: No. Let’s talk about music.
S: Yeah, sure. It’d be more . . .
D: I don’t, uh . . . naw.
S: We already got good new ones!
D [whispering]: I can’t talk about this. I got lawsuits and
shit . . .
S: Yeah, okay, okay, okay, okay. All right, never mind. Yeah. No. I have a new girlfriend. He’s . . . he doesn’t really have a new girlfriend, because he’s still married . . .
D: No, I’m not! I just can’t talk about it . . . Mick, let’s talk about you for a second.
S: That’s a cool shirt.
D: What’s going on with you, back home? Do you have a girlfriend back there?
S [nudging him]: She’s here! Her name’s . . .
D: That’s right! Oh, she’s beautiful! You did good! You guys over in England, Mick is fucking happening. He’s got a fucking happening girlfriend . . .
M [fumbling]: That’s very nice of you to say so, but getting back to the interview . . .
D: Me and Slash both have Corvettes now. Can you believe that shit?
M: . . . the question everybody wants answered is, what have you been doing this year, why hasn’t your album come out, and when will it come out?
S [shaking his head]: We’ve been adjusting . . .
D: But we have thirty-five songs!
S: We have thirty-five new songs. But we’ve had to . . . Let me put it this way . . .
D: Put it some fucking way, please. I tried to earlier.
S: The first fucking time we . . . Can I say that?
D: Yeah, do.
S: . . .The first fucking time we came to England, we like, we were just like . . . like . . . just . . . here’s the plane ticket, everybody go, and we’re all wuh-ooh-uh! And we get drunk and fucked up and sick in the street and stuff. Things changed . . . [Both start talking at once.]
D: We just sat in the street across from the Marquee and just drank. We didn’t know. We thought we’d just be, like, some opening band and stuff, and we got there and the place was sold out!
S: We thought it was the greatest thing ever. Now we have homes . . .
D: But fuck that, England was like our homecoming ground .. .
S: No, no, no, but the changing thing, that’s what’s important.
D: That’s what’s been happening this year, yeah. But the transformation from England to, like, now is . . .
S: But we haven’t changed.
D: No, we haven’t changed.
M: Well, you’re still drunk, anyway.
S: It’s the day after New Year’s. YOU’RE drunk, too!
D [laughing]: Mick, are you going to be able to use this interview?
M: I’m gonna give it a shot.
S: We’re not built for rock star shit.
D: We aren’t! We aren’t! [Goes into long incoherent rant about a fight he got into at a club on New Year’s Eve] . . . and the guy was bigger than I was, but I just went CAH-BOOOM! And . . . his eyes crossed, like you see in the cartoons, like that? And he went down. And then everybody dragged him back and dragged me back, but they were dragging him past me and I fucking biffed him three more times in the head! They said I broke his jaw . . .
S: Nasty [Suicide – former Hanoi Rocks guitarist] stuck his arm in through the crowd and got one in there, too!
D: So we go through this shit all the time, people trying to fuck with us. I was telling you earlier, if anybody fucks with my homeboy here, Slash – and it’s happened before, like if a big guy was gonna hit him – I’ve stepped right in front of him.
S: Sure, and I can hide in the crook of his knee . . .
D: I beat up a guy for him once. And he’d do that for me.
S: But not to sound stupid, because we’re starting to sound stupid . . .
D: Because we’re drunk! We’re drunk! Of course we’re gonna sound stupid.
S: No, but we’re a fucking band . . .
D: Yeah . . . that’s what it comes down to.
M: All right, let’s play some more music. What this time? It doesn’t have to be Guns N’ Roses . . .
D: ‘SCARRED FOR LIFE’! ROSE TATTOO!
S: ‘Scarred for Life’. Rose Tattoo . . . [Duff goes into invisible guitar routine, singing at the top of his voice. We come back from the record.]
D: Oh, I fucked up . . .
S: We are intelligent, though.
D: We’re not right now, though. Mick, you got me drunk!
S: We just like to have fun. Go out there and jam. It’s like this, to put it bluntly, we go out there and we play, and we’re very conscientious about our music, and we’re sick of fucking talking about it.
D: Yeah, that’s a good point. S: It’s true.
D: That’s a good point.
S: It’s like, it’s old . . .
D: We don’t mind talking to you because you know what it’s all about. But most people go, ‘So what’s it like being – a – ROCK – STAR?’ Like, what? What is a rock star?
S: It’s a hard stone that shines. Ha ha ha!
M [deciding enough is enough]: So let’s clear it up for everybody . . .
S: In England? We love you guys.
D: We really do love you guys.
S: We fucking kicked ass in London, that first time. D: I love the Marquee. I love London.
S: We did suck in a couple of places, though . . .
D: When we go back we’re gonna do the Marquee . . . S: No, man, it’s gone.
D: Oh yeah, it’s that new place.
S: I think we’re gonna do Wembley.
D: No, let’s do that biker club! Let’s do that biker club! I don’t wanna do Donington again.
S: Not Donington, Wembley . . . [Much discussion ensues over the pros and cons of Wembley Stadium versus Donington Park, with everybody talking at once.]
S: Do two bands, that’s cool. Five bands on the bill, all day long . . . it’s just . . .
D: No way. No Donington.
M: Well, wherever it is, I know you’re both looking forward to playing live again as much as your fans are.
S [pulling face]: Man, we have to get out. When we get this record done, we’ll go.
D: Hear this? Hear this? Hear this? [Duff grabs the sides of the table and bangs his head with an audible thump against it.]
S [disdainfully]: What was that?
D: Oh, you do it, too? Okay, together . . . one, two, three, four! [Both lean over and, as one, head-butt the table together, making an even more audible THUMP on the tape.]
M [desperately trying to wrap it up now]: You heard it live and exclusive on Capital Radio . . . I’d like to thank Duff and Slash for joining me this evening . . . [Much braying of laughter in the background.]
S: Anybody who stayed tuned, thank you for listening . . . Ha ha ha!
D: Yeah! I thank you! Because, uh . . . hah . . .
M: What are we going out on? [Long pause.]
S: ‘We are the Road Crew’ by Motörhead?
D: YES! [Singing] We are the ROAD CREW . . . da-nah-nah-nah-nah-naaaawww . . .
S [above the noise]: We had a band called Road Crew once. ‘Rocket Queen’ came from that track . . .
D: Right! Lemmy, hi! From Duff and Slash! And the rest of you boys, ‘Philthy’ and all you guys . . .
D: Lemmy, you rock!
[We say our ‘radio’ goodbyes . . .]
D: SEE YA! We’ll see ya soon!
S: Mick, thank you for holding the mic for so long. I couldn’t even hold my dick that long . . .
D: I’ve seen you do it! Remember, when we were on the road, and I pretended I was, like, asleep and you talked to your girlfriend on the fucking phone and you’d have your little rag and you’d go, ‘Get the Coke bottle, baby.’ I was pretending to go to sleep and he’s there beating off, and shit.
M: And on that happy note . . .
D: . . . I’d be trying to get to sleep and he’d be like, ‘Oh, baby. I’m saving a load of come in my rag for you . . .’
TAPE ENDS ABRUPTLY.
A 60-minute special I just did on Last of the Giants for the XS Manchester radio station. Hope you enjoy.
This is from my new book, Last Of The Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses – out now. Just click the link on the right of this page.
In This Lifetime
With Axl informing the other members of the reconfigured GN’R line-up that the ‘calendar was empty’ after their final show sin 2014, there was now a much more seismic event on the horizon, though as with many things related to the on-going Guns N’ Roses soap opera, it was only obvious at the time if you were paying close attention.
On 30 December 2014, Slash filed for divorce from his wife of 13 years, Perla Hudson. The pair had split once before, in 2010, but had soon reconciled. This time it was to be permanent. According to legal documents, the pair had separated six months earlier. Soon afterwards, Slash had hooked up with a new girlfriend, Meegan Hodges – the same Meegan Hodges whom Slash had first fallen in love with as a teenager, but who had walked away for the sake of her own sanity when things began to take off in earnest with Guns N’ Roses, and the same Meegan Hodges who had been such a good friend to Erin Everly, and who was about to play a pivotal part in the future of both the guitarist and his old enemy, Axl Rose.
‘Meegan was his nineteen-year-old girlfriend in 1988,’ says former band manager Alan Niven. ‘But Meegan bailed on him because it was so fucking crazy. And well done Meegan, for having a sense of self-preservation and getting her ass out of there. Meegan coming back into his life now was sufficient for him to finally get out of a relationship that he was very unhappy with. By falling in love again with Meegan and having her support he could get out of the relationship.’
Coming back together with Meegan unlocked another door for Slash, suggests Niven. ‘So Meegan has a best friend who lives in Atlanta. And that best friend is called Erin Everly.’ Suddenly, ‘Erin and Axl are talking again. That was the seed for getting Axl and Slash back together. It was Erin and Meegan.’
The idea of Axl considering a reunion was also backed up by Ricky Warwick, the former Almighty singer who now fronted the resurrected Irish rockers Thin Lizzy. When Lizzy supported Guns N’ Roses in 2012, Ricky and Axl had become friends, Warwick told Classic Rock magazine. ‘Axl was quite realistic about the possibility of a reunion, saying: “Who knows?” He had fond memories of it. It was always a case of: “We’ll see where the road takes us.” It was never: “Over my dead body.”’
Unbeknown to the public, by the summer of 2015 Axl, Slash and Duff were already in communication – albeit via their lawyers and business managers. Though according to Alan Niven, who remains close to Slash, ‘Duff did most of the spadework at that stage’, a statement backed up by the band’s old friend Marc Canter, who said the bassist had acted as the main peacemaker. ‘Duff was a big part in getting them back together,’ Canter told The Mail. ‘He was working with Axl again and is a good middleman. There was no one else who communicated with Slash and Axl. When Axl was venting about Slash, Duff was able to help him see things through Slash’s eyes.’
At the same time, however, both the Axl-led GN’R and Slash’s solo band were set to release their own live DVDs. Both featured classic Guns N’ Roses songs that required the other party to sign off on ahead of release. Whereas in the past Axl would most likely never have allowed his old nemesis the privilege, this time he agreed to it seemingly without objection.
The thaw had started. But all that was going on in private. To the outside world, it was business as usual – that is, no business at all. At least it was until a single tweet set the alley cat amongst the pigeons. On 6 February 2015, Axl Rose celebrated his fifty-third birthday. Anyone watching his Twitter feed closely would have seen a string of birthday greetings from fans across the world, people the singer would have never met. But there was one tweet that stood out:
Happy Birthday @AxlRose iiii]; )’
The message was from the very man that Axl had spent the best part of 20 years disparaging and publicly maligning: Slash. The crudely rendered top-hat-and-winking-face ‘emoji’ suggested the message was light-hearted but entirely serious. After two decades of acrimony, could the most damaged friendship in rock’n’roll have finally been repaired? And if it had, what did that mean for the greatest rock’n’roll band of its era?
Slash himself wasn’t letting on, at least not in public. Interviewed on the US TV show CBS This Morning in early May, he played his cards close to his chest. Asked about the rumours that he and Axl had finally made up, he chose his words carefully. ‘Well, we haven’t really talked in a long time, but a lot of the tension has dissipated,’ he said. ‘We don’t have all those issues any more. It’s not a lot of controversy. It’s something that is more perpetuated by the media, more than anything.’
When he was asked directly if he wanted the classic Guns N’ Roses line-up to get back together, he was no less cagey. Though what he didn’t say said as much as what he did. ‘I got to be careful what I say here,’ he said quietly. ‘I mean, if everybody wanted to do it and do it for the right reasons, I think the fans would love it. I think it might be fun at some point to try and do that.’
His erstwhile bandmates were no more forthcoming. In June, Duff was asked for his thoughts on a potential reunion. ‘It could happen and it could not,’ the ever-diplomatic bassist told the US radio station WIND-FM. ‘And I think it would be wonderful, one day, if we reconciled, first and foremost. That alone would be cool.’
Amusingly, some members of the most recent Guns N’ Roses line-up were still holding out that there was a new record in the pipeline. ‘We’re going to be doing stuff next year,’ insisted Richard Fortus, the guitarist on Chinese Democracy, in June 2015. ‘We’re not going to have anything out this year. Next year it should be out and we’ll be touring.’
Whether Fortus was being disingenuous or just misguided wasn’t clear. But at least one of his colleagues had had enough. In July, DJ Ashba confirmed that he was no longer a member of Guns N’ Roses, citing family commitments as well as his renewed work with Mötley Crüe’s bassist, Nikki Sixx, in the latter’s Sixx:A.M. side project, as reasons for his departure.
‘It is with a very heavy heart and yet great pride that I announce that I’ve decided to close this chapter of my life and encapsulate the wonderful times that I’ve shared with Guns N’ Roses into fond memories,’ said Ashba in a suitably buttock-clenching press release, before losing control of himself completely.
‘I was blessed with the opportunity to not only work with one of the most talented bands but also to share the stage with a living legend and a truly gifted human being, Axl Rose. The amount of confidence and trust that Axl placed in me was genuinely heart-warming and truly career-defining.’
The same month, Bumblefoot also made it official. ‘That is the thing I am not prepared to elaborate on,’ he told journalist Gary Graff, when asked why he now wanted out. ‘I think there’s enough clues out there for you to figure out what I’m up to now . . .’
Everything pointed to the fact that ‘new’ Guns N’ Roses was falling apart, and that it left the door open for a reunion of the original incarnation – or at least some sort of credible version of it.
This is from my new book, Last Of The Giants, The True Story of Guns N’ Roses – out now, hardback, kindle, and discount from amazon, click to your right.
I had first met – and championed – Scott Weiland when the Stone Temple Pilots toured Britain in 1994. Every day of the tour I was told to get ready for my interview with him, but come the appointed hour, come the bullshit excuse from the band’s manager, Steve Stewart. Scott had a cold; Scott was busy; Scott’s head was ‘not in the right place’. What really made it weird, though, was that I was staying in the adjoining room to Weiland at one hotel and I could hear him through the walls, yelling and cursing, followed by what sounded like loud weeping. Jeez, I thought, what’s up with this guy?
Then, when we got back to London, I got a call at home asking me to meet up with Scott at his hotel. He was finally ready to talk, they said. Having been there so many times before, though, I turned up later that day with zero expectation that he would actually keep his word this time and sit down with me. Except he did. Turning up in an ankle-length black leather trench coat he told me he’d just bought that afternoon from Kensington Market, he added that he’d have to be ‘kinda quick’ as he was meeting his wife, who’d just flown in from LA, to take her to a movie. ‘Which movie?’ I asked nosily. ‘The new Quentin Tarantino,’ he said, ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Oh, I said, that’s cool. I heard it was quite good. ‘Yeah,’ he said.
So we sat together in the coffee shop of his hotel, where other nearby guests bothered us not at all. STP may have sold three million copies of their latest album, Purple, but that didn’t mean shit, daddy, in the UK. This, though, was something he seemed to enjoy. Weiland did not fetishise fame the way most rock stars did. Money was also not his deal. ‘Money isn’t really an issue; that’s all relative,’ he told me. ‘There’s security in the fact that we can own a home, but that’s it. I spend more money eating out than I used to, but I still buy pants and shirts for $1.25. There’s other elements of success that are far more confusing, like the idea of celebrity. That’s such a misconception. Unfortunately, people think that a public person is always a public person, and that you have these responsibilities to other people because you influence them. But the only thing we feel ultimately responsible to is music.’
A few days after our interview, Weiland shaved his head completely bald. Interesting, I thought. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe had just unveiled his own newly shaved pate in the then current ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?’ video. Three months later, I had also shaved my head completely bald. Like Stipe’s, my hair was already thinning, shaving it off was the only way I could see to keep some dignity. Unlike Michael and me, Scott shaved his off because he wanted to make some sort of statement. About what I could only guess – pressures of fame, insistence on private personal concerns over public perception and popularity? Just feeling, you know, fucked up? ‘I just, uh, felt like it,’ he told me when I asked. ‘So I did it.’
As a young man he’d been through the tragedy of seeing his younger brother die. ‘We thought [it] was an overdose,’ he said, ‘but it was cardiomyopathy, due to just years of substance abuse. But he died in his sleep and at such a young age. There’s a part of me that still grieves for him every day. He and I were so close, losing a person that’s your brother and your best friend – we were creative partners as well . . . it was just beyond anything . . . you never quite get over it.’
In 2011, he would write in his autobiography, Not Dead & Not for Sale, of being raped by ‘a big muscular guy, a high school senior’, an incident so traumatic he had suppressed it ‘until only a few years ago when, in rehab, it came flooding back’.
In a phone interview we did at the time, I asked him about that. ‘I’ve always been a very driven person and I kind of look at it like, every time you falter and fall you have to pick yourself back up again, and every time you do it just gives you a further sort of a belief that you don’t have to quit. Just take an experience that is bad and turn it into something positive. Take a good experience and turn it into something ever better. That’s sort of overall my philosophy.’
I asked if he had been able to bring that philosophy to bear when he’d been sentenced to jail for six months in 2009 after admitting to using heroin while on probation. ‘Yeah, definitely. I was in this part where everyone was a drug addict so we had groups every day and did a lot of work. It wasn’t pleasant at all being in jail. I don’t think the jailing of people that are just users is neces- sarily the right way to go. But at that time there was a programme within the system that allowed me to deal with the issues.’
He’d first heard about The Project when ‘I ran into Duff at the gym,’ Weiland later recalled in the Washington Post, ‘and he told me they were forming a new band and that I should check it out and see if it’s something I’d be into. They gave me two different CDs with about forty to fifty songs. The first CD was basically atrocious. It was stuff they’d also written with Izzy, and it sounded like Bad Company gone wrong. I told them I was busy and wasn’t really interested in the idea.’
In his autobiography, Duff relates how he’d been introduced by his wife, Susan, to Scott Weiland and his first wife, Mary, who was a friend of Susan’s. ‘Scott and Mary had kids, too, and our families had gotten together for dinner on a few occasions. Scott was having problems with his band, Stone Temple Pilots, and he had been through trouble with addiction – on those occasions when our families met up, we had a lot to talk about. But I didn’t consider him for the new band because he had a band.’
By 2003, The Project had leaked into the hive mind of social media and Guns N’ Roses fans were frothing at the mouth for a taste of that iconic Appetite-era sound, as Axl stood mired in the sludgy morass of writing Chinese Democracy. Slash announced that the band would release an album that year, yet while he boasted, ‘We got the baddest fucking be-all, end-all rock’n’roll band’, he confessed that the sort of vocalist they vaguely had in mind continued to elude them. ‘There are no rock’n’roll singers out there right now . . . except Billy Idol.’
In October, Slash sat in with LA’s rotating all-star cover band, Camp Freddy, featuring Matt Sorum and Dave Navarro. Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach joined in for ‘Time Warp’, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and ‘Paradise City’, also featuring Ronnie Wood. The club erupted and Slash began to wonder if the former Skid Row frontman might just be the guy The Project were looking for. Duff was less convinced. So Slash gave Bach five instrumental tracks, asking him to throw some vocals on top of them, but the collaboration ended there.
Early in 2003, seeking to capitalise on the cheap appeal of reality television, VH1 sent over a film crew to capture the process of the still unnamed band trying to find a singer, which they would later release as a documentary. Once again, for a group of musicians who had literally put their lives on the line to taste success to invite the distractions of a television crew, not to mention opening such a public window into band business, underscored how badly they lacked the internal force to push them ahead. If the guys grew frustrated with having nothing to show after a ten-month search, they missed the point; it wasn’t that the world lacked great vocalists, more that their selection process was bereft of real urgency. Accustomed to letting others pilot their ships, not one of them possessed the Jagger-like ambition to take control, to push others and to act decisively. Thrust into the roles of co-pilots, The Project were in danger of failing badly when Slash put in his call to Alan Niven. But Alan had other mountains to climb. He couldn’t afford to look back any more.
Meanwhile, audition tapes and CDs arrived by the hundreds; try-out invitations were extended to a broad spectrum of vocalists, seemingly without regard to genre, range or style. They auditioned Neurotica’s Kelly Schaefer and Josh Todd, though neither slipped smoothly into the chemistry generated by the other four. They would also audition Steve Ludwin, of Carrie and Little Hell, and Travis Meeks, the frontman from Days of the New, whose business partner, Jonathan Hay, was only too happy to publicly comment on the audition. In one of the most comically absurd displays of putting the cart before the horse, Hay declared, ‘Slash, Izzy, Duff and Matt have all been working on new material that I have been blessed with the opportunity to hear and witness . . . This is the best rock music I have heard since Appetite for Destruction. Guns N’ Roses fans and Days of the New fans will not be disappointed. They will be ecstatic! The new material has that vintage GN’R feel that millions craved and loved in the late- Eighties and early-Nineties. I can honestly say that as a witness, this band is back and better then ever [sic]. Travis Meeks and the remaining members sound completely natural, comfortable, and astoundingly incredible. Travis, like Axl [Rose], is from Indiana. Both diverged from their original bands. This is a match made among the stars with a sound that is out of this world.’
After such an appalling breach of band etiquette, nothing ever came of Meeks’s audition and his next brush with fame would be a tragic appearance on an addiction-centred American television show called Intervention, chronicling his grim spiral into meth addiction. He reportedly has since gotten clean.
A Canadian bassist, Todd Kerns, would also audition for the role, offering a substantially more grounded take on the process. The tall, good-natured musician, whose collaboration with Slash would eventually come about a few years later, remarked, ‘I was sent three songs to work on. Every singer on the planet has been sent three songs to work on. I am to write lyrics and record vocals to three instrumental tracks that the guys recorded . . . Appetite for Destruction is still in my Top 3 greatest rock records of all time, so I do find the entire thing amusingly surreal.’
The band took a pass. Ian Astbury of The Cult. Mike Patton of Faith No More and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge would also receive invitations to audition, but each would decline. Kennedy, like Kerns, would eventually secure a spot in a future Slash project, but it too would be a few years down the road. By April, just as the audition process appeared hopelessly stalled, word arrived that Scott Weiland had just split from Stone Temple Pilots.
‘What ended up happening was, my wife and I separated. She was with the kids in LA and I was living in our apartment in Hollywood, doing a lot of drugs. And those guys were clean at that time. I said that if I did get into this band, it might be an opportunity to hook up with some guys who aren’t using and had gone down the same sort of path that I had. Right around that time, their manager called me and said there were two soundtrack opportunities on the table for a lot of money. Do the songs, get a big pay-cheque and if you find out you work well together, just take it from there. I didn’t show up the first day because I was loaded and couldn’t make it. But I came the next day and we got together and started working out Pink Floyd’s “Money” and writing a new song, “Set Me Free”. And I joined.’
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.’
This is an exclusive extract from my new book, Last Of The Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses
Bought Me An Illusion
It’s tempting to interpret Axl entirely through his actions, to see him as some kind of ego-riddled tyrant dictating his terms of business to the world, placing himself and his needs above those of the band, the crew, the paying punters and everyone else with a stake in seeing Guns N’ Roses play live. Yet run the film backwards and watch it through Axl’s eyes and another reality suggests itself. Guns N’ Roses is his life’s work, his greatest achievement. He has just poured into it his best songs about the rawest and most difficult moments in his life. He’s immensely proud of what he has created and he wants to present it to the world in the best possible way.
Ranged against him are people in record companies, promoters, managers and a million other hangers-on, plus a band with whom he used to be tight but who now spend most of their time blasted out of their brains and failing to understand why he’s not having a good time, too. All of these people have agendas, be they business or personal, and they want something from him – time, money, something – and all of it in some way detracts from what he is trying to do. As a perfectionist, it drives him crazy, fuels the rage. He can see it, so why can’t they? So he controls whatever he can still control.
He was a sensitive, shy, angry guy, clever and misunderstood and living in circumstances very few people could imagine. All of the past-life regression and the various therapies and thinking and searching he’d done came back to one thing: his childhood; how it had been taken away from him; how his father’s abuse had left him marooned emotionally in his early years. ‘When they talk about Axl Rose being a screaming two-year-old, they’re right,’ he once said. Now he wasn’t medicating that pain but trying to express it artistically.
When the film was run that way, a lot of what Axl Rose did and how he did it made much more sense. There was no denying that, when it worked, the Guns N’ Roses of 1992 was the most spectacular event in rock: 250,000 watts of power, a maniacal fireworks display featuring 20 bangs, 28 sparkles, 15 airbursts, 20 flashes, 25 waterfalls and 32 fountains. Axl, now relying for parts of the set on a teleprompter for his lyrics, took to changing his stage outfits on almost every other song, from spandex shorts to leather kilt to Jesus/Bukowski/Manson T-shirts, to another that read: Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian. The highlight was always his beloved ‘November Rain’, which he sang his broken heart out to while seated at a grand piano that rose into the middle of the stage with the piano designed to look like a motorcycle seat.
Meanwhile, back in the so-called real world, Slash was planning his wedding to Renee Suran, although the relationship, which would be made official in October 1992, when the pair were finally hitched in Marina Del Rey, was by his own admission interrupted by various dalliances, including a fairly serious involvement with Perla Ferrar, who would later become his second wife. Duff married his second wife, Linda Johnson, a month before Slash married Renee.
The subject of Slash’s prenuptial agreement led to trouble soon after the Metallica dates had resumed. In San Francisco the couple got into a row about it, and Slash sloped off to score some dope from a pornstar friend of his and her boyfriend. The trio got loaded on crack and smack in Slash’s hotel suite, the guitarist taking it too far and briefly OD’ing. He was taken to hospital and when he got back to the hotel, a furious Doug Goldstein sent a bottle of Jack Daniel’s flying through the TV set in Slash’s room.
‘You know the Narcan scene in Pulp Fiction?’ band manager Goldstein asks, referring to the scene where the unconscious Uma Thurman character is jolted back to life after a heroin overdose by the drug dealer stabbing her in the chest with a syringe full of naloxone, a prescription medicine used by paramedics in emergency situations to reverse an opioid overdose. ‘We carried that,’ he says matter-of-factly.
‘I hit Slash with that on five different occasions. The fifth time that he went code blue, we were in San Francisco on the  Metallica tour. I got a call at three o’clock in the morning: Slash is dead outside the elevator. I ran outside with the Narcan. Hit him in the chest. The EMT showed up, took him away, and myself and a couple of the other guys, we kicked the shit out of the drug dealers.’
When Slash returned from the hospital early the next morning Doug was waiting for him in his suite, along with Earl Gabbidon, Axl’s personal security guy, John Reese, the tour manager, and Slash’s bodyguard, Ronnie, ‘who we used to call Slash on steroids. He looked just like Slash, identical, only very muscular,’ recalls Doug. ‘We’re sitting there and I said, “Slash, you’re done. You don’t do this any more.” And Ronnie his bodyguard’s crying. I saw that and I’d known Ronnie since I was seventeen years old, and I’d never seen him emote at all. I said, “Slash, look at Ronnie, you’re really gonna do this to your best friend?”
‘He says, “You know what? Fuck you! Fuck Ronnie! Fuck all you guys. Get the fuck out of my room. I’m gonna continue to do whatever the fuck I wanna do!” And some trigger snapped in my head and I started throwing shit and by the time I left I’d done $75,000 damage to the room. And I quit. I said, “You know what, I’m fucking out of here! Go fuck yourself! I’m not gonna watch my family kill themselves.” So I woke up my wife, put her in the car. We were off to the airport.
‘Then John Reese went to Axl and told him what happened, and Axl said, “Well, if Doug’s gone, I’m gone.” Then he went to Slash’s room and said, “Just wanna let you know, now that Doug’s quit, I’m quitting too. I suggest you try and make amends with Doug or I’m not gonna be at this Saturday’s show with Metallica at the Rose Bowl.”’
Back in LA the next day, Slash drove down to Doug Goldstein’s place in a limo. ‘He said, “What’s it gonna take?” I said, “Rehab. As soon as the Metallica tour’s over, you’re going straight in.”’
This is from my new book, Last Of The Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses
From Chapter Three
Chicken à la LSD
Alan Niven first met Tom Zutaut, then working as a junior talent scout for Elektra Records, at the 1982 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention at the Century Plaza hotel. ‘I had these Mötley Crüe posters in my booth,’ Niven relates, ‘and [Tom] said that he wanted to talk to me about the band. And I said, “Well, come and have dinner.”
Niven was living with his then wife in a little cottage in Palos Verdes, overlooking the ocean, out towards Catalina Island. Zutaut arrived for dinner one Friday evening – and didn’t leave until the following Monday. Niven laughs as he recalls the special meal he had prepared for them: ‘I cooked him my roast chicken à la LSD. My thinking at the time was, well, we’ll find out who this guy is pretty quickly . . .’
They both ate the chicken. Wild peacocks roamed the area near the cottage and Tom was convinced they were wearing diamond earrings. After that, Tom would go down to the cottage most weekends. ‘We spent a lot of time together. My then wife worked as an assistant to him for a while. You know, we were pals, we were friends. We had plans. One day we wanted to run a record label ourselves, together.’ When Niven helped Zutaut sign Mötley Crüe to Elektra, ‘That opened the door to the A&R department for him.’ Niven, meanwhile, had been a key player in the emergence of the Enigma label, which grew out of the independent distributors Greenworld, in 1982, signing Berlin, who would go on to major international success with ‘Take My Breath Away’, and had been instrumental again in helping Zutaut sign Dokken to Elektra, a band who would also go on to platinum success in the US in the mid-Eighties.
At the time Zoots began twisting Alan’s arm about managing Guns N’ Roses, though, via Niven’s Stravinski Brothers company, Alan was fully committed to Great White. ‘I was looking at it and going, this means I’ve got to fragment my time and energy. And I’m really, really scared to do that, because it took an awful lot to get Great White another record contract. It went against all conventional wisdom. You fuck up on your debut record, you’re done. And I’d got a sense of what needed to be done and how to do it.’
With Great White there was now a workable plan in place. With this raw new outfit from the streets, the only plan that suggested itself was to hope for the best. ‘I’m looking at GN’R and going, I don’t expect this band to be anything more than a really great underground band. It wasn’t going to be a radio-friendly band and it had so much attitude and was so raw, I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work. [But] I was the last desperate management throw by Zoots as [Geffen Records president Eddie] Rosenblatt was threatening to drop Guns without even recording an album.’ Tom told Alan later that when he signed on to be manager, Rosenblatt had warned him: ‘This guy gets this thing looking like it could be productive within three months or they’re gone.’
Niven went to meet the band for the first time, at their new home, a house in Laughlin Park, in the plush Los Feliz area of LA, which Rod Stewart’s manager, Arnold Stiefel, had rented for them before getting cold feet. ‘A well-known Sunset stripper was leaving as I arrived,’ Niven recalls. ‘Izzy was there and Slash. But no one else. Iz nodded off. Slash showed me his fucking snake. I hate fucking snakes. As I expected, it was a somewhat haphazard circumstance.’
When Niven arranged to go and see the band play, Axl didn’t show up for the first gig – or the second gig. As he explains: ‘Having signed a contract to work with the band in September of 1986, the very next show that the band were to perform was to open for Alice Cooper at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara. Alice was to perform a minor market one-off show as a conclusion to his pre-production for a tour. He needed someone to open and it was a good opportunity to get Guns on a decent-size stage; they had only played the LA clubs to this point.
‘I rented a big old Lincoln car to drive everyone the hundred miles out to Santa Barbara. When I went to pick up Axl he said he’d rather travel with the photographer, Robert John, and follow the band caravan out to the show. “No worries,” I thought. “Now the car will have a little more space.” How foolish of me. Set time drew near and there was no Axl. The band were anxious. I thought he was merely running late. Ten minutes before show time there was still no singer. At that point I left my “waiting for Axl” watch in the parking lot behind the theatre and went to the band dressing room. Everyone was miserable.
‘“We can’t play,” said Slash. Izzy just stared at his feet. “I don’t give a damn,” Niven told them. “We’re booked to play and play we will. You sort out who is going to sing what, but you fuckers are going on.” The band dejectedly traipsed onto the stage and Duff and Izzy did their best to carry the vocal load. ‘I may be wrong but I think even Slash took a go at one of the microphones. All in all it was probably the very worst gig the band ever did. As I stood in the audience I could hear the muttering of punters making negative comments – “I heard there was a buzz on this band. Man, they suck.” Maybe so, but at that moment Slash, Izzy, Duff and Steven won my heart for their effort in a ridiculous situation.’
The development of that commitment was sorely tested on the very next gig. Booked to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the UCLA campus, only 12 people turned up. ‘Twelve! I counted them. I’m thinking, this is great. What the fuck have I got myself into with Tom Zutaut and his fucking band? Either the singer doesn’t turn up or the fucking audience doesn’t turn up.’
Over time, says Niven, Izzy became ‘the one I could always count on for timely and pertinent input. When I wanted to know what somebody from the band felt about a particular situation, he was the one I talked to more than anybody else. It was him and Duff that caught my eye over both Slash and Axl, when I first went to see them. Because they had an amazing . . . they just exuded this incredible sense of cool when they were onstage. They weren’t working it. I was riveted with that confidence and insouciance.’
There was never any doubt, however, over who the leader of the band was, its main focus and truth-giver. Axl, says Niven, ‘really did have his moment of incredible androgynous beauty. Most people look at me like I’m barmy. But most people when we’re having a conversation about Guns, where appropriate I’ll go, “Well, you fucking tell me. What did Guns N’ Roses stand for?” And they look at me like, “They stood for something, you know, apart from appetites and indulgences?” And I go, “Fucking right they did! That’s why I connected to it, and if you don’t understand that then you’ve missed the point.”’
He describes the night Tom Zutaut came to him at his beach- side cottage and virtually begged him to take the band on. ‘I’ll never forget it . . . He sat by the window and he looked at me and said, “Niv, this is gonna be the end of my career. I desperately need help.” Well, what did that tell me? Obviously, in huge fucking neon letters that these people are legitimately, authentically anti-authoritarian. If you know a little bit about me, that’s just like, okay, I’m in.’ Niven simply ‘believed that if I could keep some kind of discipline in place, we could sell half a million records’.
An exclusive extract from my new book, out this weekend, Last Of The Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses.
In This Lifetime
After 30 years, many millions of words have been written about Guns N’ Roses, old line-up, new line-up, whichever one you might be thinking of most. But the fact is none of them ever really got to the truth. Which is this: Guns N’ Roses has always been a band out of time, the Last of the Giants. That solid gold, easy-action thing that every rock band since the Rolling Stones has purported to and nearly always failed to be: dangerous. Looking- for-trouble creatures from another realm, here to steal our souls, suck our blood. Fuck us.
They’ve never denied it. Not even in the 1980s, when they were just starting out, these watch-yourself, flash-ass, tattooed love boys from the LA strip that said ‘fuck’ in their very first single. These neon-addicted freaks who refused to play by the rules. You had to look twice because you couldn’t quite believe your eyes. That at a time when smiling, MTV-friendly, safe-sex, just-say-no Bon Jovi was the biggest band in the world, here was a band that seemed to have leapt straight out of the blood-spiked, coke-smothered pages of the original, golden-age, late-sixties rock scene; a time when magical-mystical-musical acts like Led Zeppelin, The Doors and the Stones were writing their own rules, drawing maps to a world of weird dreams and forbidden fantasies. It didn’t seem possible but nothing about Axl Rose, Slash, Duff and Izzy (where did they even get those names?) seemed possible. Which is why, in the end, we fell for them so hard. And why we so want them to bring that feeling back again now – when we need it even more.
A mission statement more direct than crystal meth: Guns N’ Roses weren’t looking for a career. They weren’t begging for your love. They didn’t need to become rock stars first to have heroin habits, didn’t require the consent of the rock press to piss up your leg. Weren’t asking for permission, fuck you very much.
And then the most wonderfully startling thing of all: the music. Axl and Slash and Duff and the gang may have looked like Mötley Crüe, but they always sounded like something else. Like Elton John meets the New York Dolls. Like Queen sharing a ride with Iggy and The Stooges. You heard ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and you knew you’d just turned a wrong corner into the very worst part of the neighbourhood. ‘We got everything you want,’ wheezed Axl as Slash flicked open his guitar like a switchblade, ‘Honey we know the names . . .’ And you shuddered to think of it, knowing it was true. Then you heard ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, with that Disney-esque, carnival riff, Axl sweet-talking you suddenly, chillingly, felling you with pure poetry: ‘Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I’d hide’, and you’d think: holy shit, Axl was once a child? Which means that all this is somehow . . . real?
Yes. Hard to believe but… yes. It was all true.
And that’s what this book has been about. Nothing to do with me, nothing to do with that song, though it is still one of the great- est putdown songs of all time, right next to ‘Positively Fourth Street’ by Bob Dylan and ‘How Do You Sleep?’ by John Lennon. But you know that. That is old news.
What this book has been about is what happened when a gang of no-plan-B kids who would do anything not to be part of the so-called real world got together and, at no surprise at all to them, overnight became the biggest, greatest rock band of them all. A one-way ticket back to those times before heavy metal, before punk, before any of the pure stuff had been divvied up and stepped on and sold back to us as so-called good-time rock. The kind that made us sick to our boots in the Eighties, and has left us trembling feebly with withdrawal symptoms ever since.
Most of all, Guns N’ Roses mattered because at a time when it looked like it was over for this kind of devil-don’t-care, sure-thing deal, along came this utterly impossible band that stood for the kind of no-prisoners revolution in the head we hadn’t known since 1969. Guns N’ Roses brought the bad times back again and for that they won the black hearts of the entire bad-boy, cool-chick world. Even the straights loved Guns N’ Roses, knew there was something real going on, even as it felt the bruises.
So this book is something new. Written with the clear head that 25 years later brings you, if you can just live long enough; the same deep mindfulness that now sees Axl and Slash and Duff – and Steven and, who knows, later maybe even Izzy – back together. One last time, before the glory daze effects finally wear off. Before it’s just too fucked up and too fucking late, dude. And while it can still be told with mad love and deep affection, with peace, love and understanding, no invisible strings attached.
Because when Guns N’ Roses do finally go, so will the golden age of rock, gone for ever, no encores. When they go so will we, those generations of us that rejoiced in allowing our lives to become identified with this music, this message, this meaning. Those of us that recognise, finally, when all is said and done, that Axl Rose really is that thing we so desperately want him to be: the last of the truly extraordinary, all-time great, no-apologies, no- explanations, no-quarter-given rock stars. The last of his kind.
I hope he turns up late for every show on the rest of the reun- ion tour. I hope he gives everyone hell with every big-deal step he takes. Because that’s who he is, the Great I Am. And that’s why people love him more than ever. The authenticity, the risk taking, the sheer guts. Few ever really had it even in the 1960s. No one else has it now.
This ain’t Mick Jagger, there’s no growing old gracefully for Axl Rose. And Guns N’ Roses is not Metallica, the corporate franchise skilfully plotting their next move. And this certainly isn’t Black Sabbath, a tinker toy idea wound up by a big key in the back. A piggy bank.
This is Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses, baby. And, like the song says, they will never, ever come down.
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.
This is from the last chapter of my new book, Prince: Purple Reign.
It seemed the mystery that always surrounded his life would only deepen with his death. The only thing that seemed to be certain was that Prince, for the final years of his life at least, had been guarding a secret. A study of the facts produces a disturbing portrait of a man whose woeful death belied his avowed mission always to celebrate life, through music, through sex, through God.
The first signs of something not being as it was supposed to seem occurred in the early 2000s, when his half-brother, Duane, reportedly informed his lawyer that Prince was addicted to cocaine and Percocet – the latter a ferociously strong painkiller often prescribed by doctors to someone who has recently undergone major surgery.
The first the world got wind of anything being really wrong with Prince, though, came when his private plane was forced to make an emergency landing on 15 April 2016, as Prince and his entourage flew home from a concert in Atlanta, the plane descending 45,000 feet in just seventeen minutes after an ‘unresponsive male’ was reported on board, with the fire department and paramedics alerted of the incoming patient.
At the time, Prince’s official management sources put out a press release explaining that Prince simply had a bad case of flu. It has since emerged, however, that an unconscious Prince was carried off the plane by his bodyguard, straight into a limo which sped to nearby Moline hospital, where the Emergency Medical Services team hurriedly administered a ‘save shot’ – medical slang for an injection of the anti-overdose medication Narcan, given to victims of drug overdoses in life-threatening conditions. (See the infamous scene in Pulp Fiction where the Uma Thurman character is administered the shot.) The doctors at the hospital were so concerned they insisted that Prince stay in for the next twenty-four hours. But Prince shrugged off the suggestion, ordering his team to take him back to his plane just three hours later, and get him home again.
The story was widely reported around the world but any suspicions that this was anything more than the ‘severe flu’ were somewhat allayed when Prince was seen bicycling around the Paisley Park compound the next day. That night he also held an impromptu concert at Paisley Park, showing off a new purple piano and assuring the crowd of fan club members, family and friends they should ‘Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.’
Two nights before his death Prince was seen attending a performance by the jazz singer Lizz Wright at a local club called the Dakota. The following day though, Prince met with Michael Schulenberg, a family-medicine doctor, who issued an ‘unidentified prescription’, his second in a few weeks from the same doctor. Later that day, Prince was photographed outside a local Walgreens [pharmacy]. It was later that night, Rolling Stone reported, that ‘Someone in Prince’s camp reached out to Howard Kornfeld, a Mill Valley, California, doctor who runs an outpatient clinic that specializes in treating addictions.’
According to the report, Kornfeld’s son Andrew took an overnight flight to Minneapolis, but by the time he arrived at Paisley Park the following morning Prince was dead. His body had been found slumped in one of the building’s elevators. Reports later suggested that police on the scene recovered paraphernalia and paperwork to indicate that Prince had been taking doses of Percocet, along with other possible substances.
Most damning of all was a story run in the online edition of the Mail, forty-eight hours after Prince’s death, purporting to be an interview with Prince’s main drug dealer, who wished to be identified only as Doctor D. Whoever this was, he claimed that Prince usually paid him, sometimes $40,000 a time, in exchange for six-month medical supplies of Dilaudid pills and Fentanyl patches – both in the same category at Percocet as grade-A super-strength opioid painkillers.
According to Doctor D, Prince was ‘majorly addicted’ and first bought drugs from him as far back as 1984, remaining in touch until around 2008.
‘I first met Prince in 1984 while he was filming the movie Purple Rain,’ he told the Mail. ‘I didn’t hook him on drugs, he was already a really heavy user. In the beginning he would buy speed as well as Dilaudid. He would use that as a counter-balance to get back up again from taking opiates. That lasted for a couple of years then he would just buy Dilaudid, which is a heroin-based opiate.’
Doctor D insisted he’d never known Prince to take street heroin, ‘as that would leave you out of it for days whereas Dilaudid gives you an energy buzz as well as making you feel relaxed, so he preferred it’. He added a horribly plausible detail. Prince craved the drugs, he said, ‘because he was so nervous. He could be nervous in a room with just five people in it. He was scared to go out in public, he was scared to talk to people, and didn’t like to go on stage …’
According to Doctor D, Prince’s dependence on the drugs he was supplying grew to the extent where he was taking double or triple the recommended medial dose. This included the wearing of Fentanyl patches, a synthetic opioid approximately 40–50 times more potent than heroin, which police and paramedics were reported to have found on Prince’s dead body. ‘They come in boxes of five and I would sell Prince 20 boxes at a time.’
Because Prince was such a private, even secretive person, it’s not difficult to understand how this sort of behaviour might have gone on for years without those close to him suspecting anything. The fact that he always made such a big deal over what food he ate, what beverages he let pass his lips – no alcohol, not even any tea or coffee – again, it’s easy to see why no one would have looked twice at the idea that he might secretly be taking drugs. Doctor D recalled how, once, Prince was ‘eating a salad and a skinless chicken breast with no dressing and I commented about how healthy he was. He turned to me and said, “If I didn’t watch my food I probably wouldn’t last that long.” I think it was his way of counteracting all the drugs he was taking.’
The dealer also recalled how Prince would often invite him to Jehovah’s Witness Bible study groups. ‘He often used to preach about God to me. Maybe it was a form of guilt … He’d say, “You know there’s only one God and we’re all here for a reason, to serve God.” And he’d say, “We have to be good people, it’s important that we try to be good people.” He had a thing about being a good person.’
Yes, he did. And we should hold on to that knowledge now we start to hear about those sides of Prince he was too ashamed to ever let the world see while he was alive. A philanderer on the scale of Casanova, a musical genius as close to God as Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, Prince was also a conduit for acceptance and understanding for races and creeds from all corners of the world, no matter what their sexuality, age, background or talents. It was all there in his multi-coloured, multicultural music, all roads leading to the same destination.
That was certainly the larger message being given out in the days that followed his death. A week after he died, Prince had no fewer than five albums in the US Top 10, including the No. 1 and No. 2 spots with The Very Best of Prince and Purple Rain, respectively. Prince’s overall catalogue of albums sold 256,000 copies that week, reported Billboard, an increase of 5,298 per cent compared to the previous week’s estimated sales of around 5,000. The same week, in Britain, Prince held all five of the Top 5 positions in the albums chart, plus four in the Top 5 of the singles chart, with ‘Purple Rain’ at No. 1, ‘When Doves Cry’ at No. 2, ‘Kiss’ at No. 4 and ‘1999’ in fifth position.
In New York, the filmmaker Spike Lee threw a street party in honour of Prince for around 1,000 people at his Brooklyn headquarters. The crowd danced and sang along to ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’. Dressed in a purple T-shirt, Lee also led the crowd through an encore of ‘Purple Rain’. Many other stars paid tribute, Mike Tyson tweeting a weird picture of himself with his face transposed with Prince’s. Mariah Carey stopped her show in Paris and gave tribute.
More poignantly, Mayte Garcia, who had been mother to Prince’s only child, wept as she told reporters, ‘I can’t even think of the words of what I’m feeling. This man was my everything. We had a family. I am beyond deeply saddened and devastated.’ She sobbed as she added, ‘I loved him then, I love him now and will love him eternally. He’s with our son now.’ Sheila E tweeted: ‘My heart is broken. There are no words. I love you!’
Invited to reflect, briefly, in 2004, on the vicissitudes of getting older, of peering forward towards that endless night that awaits us all, Prince pursed his lips into that inscrutable smile that seemed to say I-know-something-you-don’t. Then said, simply, ‘I don’t look at time that way, and I don’t believe in age. When you wake up, each day looks the same, so each day should be a new beginning. I don’t have an expiration date.’
And he doesn’t. You can grab your phone and listen to one of his immortal tunes right now. Or turn to a computer and pull up a million-and-one of his one-in-a-million performances.
Or as he once sang it so sweetly on that song the whole world now knows, ‘I only wanted to see you bathing in the purple rain …’
Catch U there.
This is from Chapter Nine, S-L-A-V-E, of my new book, Prince: Purple Reign.
Prince as ever seemed to take a perverse delight in confusing the public, even when it was obviously in fun. Interviewed on the cable TV show The Sunday Show, in March 1995, Prince appeared in a hat, his face completely hidden behind an ornately bejewelled scarf. He had agreed to be interviewed, the presenter Veronica Webb explained, on two conditions: that he would not speak or show his face. Instead Mayte Garcia, seated next to him, would be his ‘interpreter’. It was a bizarre spectacle that was highly amusing but, frustratingly, maddeningly short on explanations as to why he no longer wished to be called Prince – or even show his face on what was his first TV interview for ten years.
Webb began by asking: ‘Now what’s the reason to give an interview and not speak?’
Prince held up a newspaper, with the headline, which she read out:
‘Prince is dead – Long live rock’s tiny sex symbol.’
He nodded. She went on: ‘So Prince has nothing to say, and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is for ever in silence, which I suppose is golden. But don’t you think you’re blowing your chance for people to understand what your case is, why you won’t speak?’
Prince whispered something to Mayte. She passed it on: ‘He never blows chances.’
Veronica Webb: ‘Well, there you go. That’s incredible confidence, but how do you expect people to be sympathetic to what’s going on with you if they can’t understand your situation?’
More whispering. Mayte: ‘Next question.’
And so it went. Eventually, in less spangled contexts, Prince would be more serious. ‘Once Warner’s refused to sell me my masters, I was faced with a problem,’ he told USA Today. ‘But “pro” is the prefix of problem, so I decided to do something about it.’
In an in-depth interview with Details, when asked what was wrong with being on Warner’s, he laid it all on the line at last. ‘I like to go with my intuition. Something hits me and I need to get the track down before I can move on. It’s like there’s another person inside me, talking to me, and I’m learning to listen to that voice.’
He added: ‘It’s a way of cutting the chaos off, cutting off the outside voices. I heard “Prince is crazy” so much that it had an effect on me. So one day I said, “Let me just check out.” Here [at Paisley Park] there is solitude, silence – I like to stay in this controlled environment. People say I’m out of touch, but I’ll do 25 or 30 more albums – I’m gonna catch up with Sinatra – so you tell me who’s out of touch. One thing I ain’t gonna run out of is music.’
He still had a hard time convincing anyone, though, that he was anybody’s ‘slave’. If Prince had been a figure of fun to a certain degree at the height of his fame, just as Elvis, The Beatles and David Bowie had before him, by the mid-nineties it was open season on Prince. Who did he think he was? What was it he was supposed to be achieving? What was his name again?
There were exceptions, of course. New Prince music that was simply too good, too undeniable, for anyone to care who it was supposed to be by. When he released a new single, in 1994, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’, it became Prince’s first and only No. 1 single in the UK, and a huge hit around the world. A lush, almost too-delicate-to-touch ballad written for the new love of Prince’s life, Mayte (pronounced my-tie) Garcia, twenty years old and the star dancer in Prince’s latest live show. It showed once again just how incredibly talented Prince was – and, even more importantly to him, how he could still have massive hit records even without a name. The ads for the single still maintained the façade that ‘Prince’ was no more, The Artist pictured lounging in a chair with a hat pulled down over his face, and Garcia standing sylph-like next to his chair.
When he turned up at the 1995 BRIT awards to receive the award for Best International Male Artist he did so with the word S-L-A-V-E stencilled on the right of his face. There to promote his latest album, The Gold Experience, though we didn’t know it then his last that would reach the Top 10 in Britain or America for nearly a decade, Prince stood at the podium in yellow suit and black shades, and viewed the audience thoughtfully. When he spoke, he did so only in coded messages. ‘Prince … the best?’ He cocked his head quizzically. ‘The Gold Experience … In concert, perfectly free … On record – slave.’ He smiled then became serious again. ‘Get wild. Come. Peace. Thank you.’ Then a quick wave and he was gone, to screams.
When Blur went up to receive one of the four awards they received that night, their drummer, Dave Rowntree, had taken a felt-tip pin and drawn the word D-A-V-E on his face. Prince looked on from his table stony-faced. But many industry insiders present made it clear they found the joke hilarious. Prince, though, held firm. Two years later when he returned to the BRITS to perform live, he no longer had ‘slave’ on his face but he was still insisting he be known only as The Artist. But by then people had given up even trying to understand what the hell was going on there.
For Prince, though, it wasn’t the viewing audience back home he was aiming his message to, but the bigwigs in the room. As he explained to the Icon magazine writer Touré, ‘Imagine yourself sitting in a room with the biggest of the big in the recording industry, and you have “Slave” written on your face. That changes the entire conversation. They said, “It makes it real hard to talk to you with that on your face.” I said, “Why?” And it got real quiet. Adding that language into the conversation worked perfectly. It changed the dynamic.’
The trouble was the folks back home were watching on TV and did have an opinion, and not always a very flattering one. In fact, a great many black Americans found nothing funny at all about the sight of one of their leading black entertainers walking around with the word ‘slave’ on his face. Prince’s lawyer at the time, and the man who would eventually help Prince get out of his Warner’s contract, L. Londell McMillan, talked in 1998 about how he himself was deeply offended by the word ‘slave’ being on anybody’s face, let alone someone with such a huge profile as Prince.
‘The reference is traumatic to African-Americans,’ he explained in an interview with Q magazine in 1998. ‘In one of my first conversations with him I said, “Take the ‘Slave’ off your face.” He said, “Get me free of this contract and I will.” It became clear that he was a desperate man.’
This is from my new tribute book to Prince, Purple Reign.
If the 1980s had belonged to Prince, the 1990s threatened to get away from him almost from the start. Having ended the decade with two albums of shiny pop simplicity in Lovesexy (1988) and the soundtrack to Batman (1989), both of which gave him his first No. 1 albums in the UK, it seemed as though Prince had now positioned himself firmly in the mainstream. It wasn’t just about pulling The Black Album from the schedules because of its ‘negativity’, even the social comment of Sign o’ the Times was now only hinted at in passing on otherwise cartoonish tracks like ‘Dance On’, which mentioned Uzis the way others might mention lollipops. No more songs about the big disease with a little name or gangs’ of ‘disciples’ out of their minds on crack and shooting guns. Lovesexy came with an all-white cover with a naked Prince depicted like a sylph shyly concealing his breasts with his hands. The only thing missing was a halo. That and any real hit singles. ‘Alphabet Street’ was a neat Top 10 hit but nothing else released from the album stuck.
The accompanying tour was a hit, though. No longer bending over backwards trying to fill stadiums, Prince shrewdly gained more column inches for the multiple nights of sell-out arena shows he laid on in London (seven nights at Wembley), Paris (four nights at the Bercy), four nights in Milan, two nights each in Los Angeles and New York. The stage show was so elaborate though, the stage in two moveable tiers, the props complicated and expensive – including a fountain, a basketball hoop, white trellis fences and a full-size replica of the singer’s Ford Thunderbird – that the tour only finally went into the black financially when it reached the final seven-show leg of the tour in Japan.
Prince affected not to care. Why should he? His next project was even more lightweight, the soundtrack to the Tim Burton reboot of the Batman movie franchise, starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger. The movie was the hot ticket of the summer in the US, where its opening-weekend gross of $46.3 million beat that of the previous record holder, Ghostbusters. But purists argued about the plotline, many couldn’t understand the Prince soundtrack, and even Burton later admitted, ‘The whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.’
Prince fans lapped up the album, though, thrilled by the video for the lead-off single, ‘Batdance’, which featured several Bat Girls in skintight costumes and bat ears and Prince himself as a strange good–evil hybrid of the white-faced, green-haired Joker and the heroic, black-faced Batman figure, pointy black cape flapping as he dances around, the whole set bathed in – you guessed it – a fluorescent purple light, and was directed, interestingly, by Albert Magnoli, the first time the two had worked together since the Purple Rain movie.
The single went to No. 1 in America and No. 2 in the UK, and the following summer, his commercial fortunes transformed seemingly overnight, Prince embarked on his biggest, most successful tour yet, three months of mainly stadium shows in Britain and Europe, where he had struggled just the year before. Dubbed the Nude tour, it took in sold-out football stadiums across Europe before landing in London for twelve nights at Wembley Arena. Gone were the surreal costumes and over the top paraphernalia of the Lovesexy tour, replaced by a leaner, meaner greatest-hits show built as a crowd-pleaser of epic proportions.
With his commercial star back in the ascendancy, Prince decided the time was right to try his hand again at being a movie star. Under the Cherry Moon may have bombed, but with his name attached to Batman it was a good time to parlay a new film deal. To sweeten the deal still further he came up with the ultimate movie producer bait – a proper sequel to Purple Rain, no less, along with the return of Morris Day and The Time, plus cameos from Mavis Staples and George Clinton – and, of course, a beautiful new starlet named Ingrid Chavez to play The Kid’s love interest, Aura.
Written and directed by Prince, if he’d been hoping that lightning would strike twice, he was sorely mistaken. Instead, the film, titled Graffiti Bridge, and shot over the early weeks of 1990, was based on a reed-thin plot essentially just a vehicle to get Prince and his onscreen rivals The Time fighting for musical superiority in a club and moral superiority in Prince’s and Morris Day’s inevitable squabble over a girl – spoiler alert: the good guy, i.e. Prince, gets the girl and defeats the baddy, Morris, with a song.
Released in November 1990 it was a face-shaming flop that made less than half the meagre money Under the Cherry Tree had. Prince would never make a film again. The seventeen-track CD soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge, released four months ahead of the film, also struggled to make an impact, its only hit single, ‘Thieves in the Temples’, which reached the Top 10 in Britain and America, dragging the album to the upper reaches of the world’s charts in its wake.
As had happened before, Prince took this setback the only way he knew how – by making damn sure whatever he did next was a success. 1990 was also the year when Sinéad O’Connor took her even-better-than-the-real-thing version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ to the world in a way not even Prince had imagined possible. O’Connor had reconfigured the lyrics away from a simple breakup song towards a deeper meditation on loss, the singer dedicating the song to her mother, who passed away the same year. It went to No. 1 in America and Britain, and fifteen other countries around the word. It was also nominated for three Grammy awards. Prince, who rarely commented on the success other artists had with his songs, was ecstatic. ‘I love it, it’s great!’ he said happily. ‘I look for cosmic meaning in everything. I think we just took that song as far as we could, then someone else was supposed to come along and pick it up.’
Fascinated by the Grammy award-winning video that O’Connor filmed to go with it – a remarkable one-shot of O’Connor’s face, as she emotes her way through the song, anger, devastation, shock and simple heartbreak all registering like forked lightning across the surface of her moon-shaped face, the sort of deep-contact, bare-bones experience Prince had never achieved on film or video – he invited the famously uncompromising Irish singer to Paisley Park. Prince had always worked so well with female artists, went the thinking, perhaps he had another song he wanted Sinéad to sing, or some other form of collaboration?
But things started to go wrong almost immediately, O’Connor later claimed. ‘I did meet him a couple of times. We didn’t get on at all. In fact we had a punch-up.’ She explained: ‘He summoned me to his house after “Nothing Compares 2 U”. I made it without him. I’d never met him. He summoned me to his house – and it’s foolish to do this to an Irish woman – he said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. So I told him to fuck off.’ After which, she said, Prince became ‘quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at five in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine.’
It became a story O’Connor told more than once in media interviews over the years, though Prince always denied anything like she described took place. Speaking to the Irish music paper Hot Press, she said she and Prince had actually had a fist fight. “He’s a very frightening person. His windows are covered in tin foil because he doesn’t like light.” Finally, though, in a TV interview with chat show host Graham Norton, O’Connor insisted the story was ‘much exaggerated by the press’ and referred to Prince instead as ‘a sweet guy’.
From Chapter Six of my new Prince biography, Purple Reign, out now.
Up until 1984, the history of rock stars starring in movies had been chequered, to put it mildly. Elvis Presley made 32 movies of which at least 30 were considered duds. The Beatles made five movies during their lifespan as a group, all highly entertaining to Beatles fans but of limited interest to serious moviegoers. Bob Dylan had taken a minor role in Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, and been scorned for it. Everyone else – from The Monkees to Kiss, to Marc Bolan and Pink Floyd – had been largely eviscerated for their efforts. There were some great ‘rock movies’ – The Girl Can’t Help It, Easy Rider, Jubilee – and some immersive documentaries – Woodstock, The Concert For Bangladesh, The Last Waltz. The only movies made though featuring a major rock star in the lead role that received serious and sustained critical attention had been Performance, starring Mick Jagger, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie.
What on earth did 25-year-old Prince think he could bring to the table with his movie that would place him in the latter, more exulted category? The answer was simple: Prince would bring himself! What could possibly be more interesting than that?
He was in for a rude awakening though when he first met the movie’s 23-year-old director, Albert Magnoli. When Prince asked Magnoli what he thought of the script, which Prince had written himself, Magnoli told him simply: “I think it sucks.” Still new to the business – he had only graduated from the Film School at the University of Southern California two years earlier – Magnoli had immediately identified the chief weakness of Prince’s initial script: although it was essentially an autobiographical story about his life as ‘The Kid’, it was too internalised. It failed to address “the musical culture of Minneapolis — Prince and the Revolution, The Time, that whole scene.” There was a movie to be made here but saddled with that script it would “not work in a million years.”
Requesting a video compilation of Prince’s performances, to try and see a way around the problem, Magnoli was even more downcast. “The video was depressing. He was so unpolished. I thought about calling it off. On the way to the airport I asked the limo driver, a young black guy, if he knew Prince and what he thought of him. ‘Isn’t he a fag?’ he said. So now I’ve got that on my back too.”
Eventually, in the early hours in the morning, Prince drove Magnoli out to spot “in the middle of nowhere, where I thought he might kill me.” Instead, he looked at Magnoli and asked him why he was so sure about the changes he wanted to make to the movie.
Magnoli recalled: “I said, ‘Let me ask you, if I have the father punch you in the face in the first five minutes of the movie, is that okay?’ He asked why, and I said, ‘Everyone on the planet wants to punch a rock star in the face.’ He laughed, saying, ‘Yep, I understand that’, and I said, ‘Let’s go make a movie.’”
The next step was to help Prince choose which of over 100 songs he had written for the movie would work best. Together, they eventually picked 12, partly based on the music – Prince – partly based on how the lyrics could help form parts of the dialogue or help different scenes segue into the narrative. It was this process that brought ‘When Doves Cry’ to the forefront – a track not everyone had been convinced by as it came without a bass line. In Magnoli’s hands, though, it would form part of one of the most impressive montages in the film.
The only track not from the original 100 songs Prince submitted for consideration was the one that would provide both the starburst climax to the movie – and which Prince wrung every drop of emotion from his guitar – and gives the film its enigmatic title, ‘Purple Rain’. Magnoli had first heard Prince play it during a benefit show for his friend Loyce Holton who ran the Minnesota Dance Theatre, held at First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis nightclub where so many scenes in the movie would later be filmed.
By then Magnoli had become Prince’s shadow, following him around trying to get a better idea of the real scene Prince now inhabited, at least in his hometown – the very thing that would give the finished film its air of authenticity, of reality. Decades before the advent of what we now know as ‘reality TV’, Purple Rain would invite its audience in to see every different side of the real-life Prince as Magnoli could capture on film. The fact that Prince’s ‘fictionalised’ celluloid version of his story also happened to be so glamourous – and downright sexy – as he rode around town on his purple motorcycle, actually reflected only a portion of the real-life adventures the principal star was now having, both in front of and a million miles away from the cameras. The fact was Prince was always on. The movie just emphasised how much so.
The end result, released in July 1984, was an instant, worldwide success, shooing Ghostbusters from No. 1 at the American box-office and sending Prince’s star into the stratosphere. Certainly it was the most fun, go-see movie in America that summer: ideal for dating couples to get their groove on to; perfect for single males and females to whirl and twirl to as they fantasised about escaping into their own parallel purple universes.
My new book, Prince: Purple Reign is published tomorrow, but available right now via Amazon. Here is an exclusive extract from Chapter One.
Purple is the most special of all the major colours, the one that appears the least frequently in nature. A synthesis of red and blue – male and female, fire and water, yin and yang – purple is always the colour that attracts the most attention.
In China, purple represents the harmony of the universe, spiritual awareness, a red purple symbolising fame and great fortune. In Japan, purple symbolises privilege and wealth – aristocracy. In Europe and America, for centuries the colour purple has been associated with vanity, extravagance, and individualism, with magic and mystery. In parapsychology, people with purple auras are said to have a love of ritual and ceremony.
Now since 1984, purple has become the colour symbolising the greatest musician of his generation, Prince, an artist for whom all of the above meanings would apply… 100 million records sold; seven Grammy awards; an Oscar; a multitude of BRITS, MTV and American Music Awards. A musical innovator on a par with David Bowie; a guitarist to rival Jimi Hendrix; a better dancer than James Brown; and a singer with more than one voice and many more ways than one of expressing it. Prince achieved more in his four-decade career than other artists achieve in a lifetime.
And then there were the women… A renowned lover of women who married and divorced twice, Prince was also linked with some of the most beautiful, glamourous and in many cases famous women on the planet, including Madonna, Kim Basinger, Carmen Electra, Nona Gaye (Marvin Gaye’s daughter), Twin Peaks’ star Sherilyn Fenn, Playboy centerfold Devin DeVasquez, and almost all of the women he worked with professionally… Sheena Easton, Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs, former backing singer Vanity, Apollonia who played Prince’s love interest in the movie Purple Rain, Sheila E, another protégé. Even his two wives, Mayte Garcia, a former dancer, and Manuela Testolini, who worked for his charitable foundation, Love4OneAnother, were involved in Prince’s work first.
His greatest love, though, as he was never shy of reminding us, was for God. Born into a family of Seventh Day Adventists, testifying was something he grew up doing, first in church, then later and for the rest of his life through his music. When, in later life, Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness, it surprised everyone except those who’d known him since he was a boy. Prince could be playful, full of fun, but he took his God and his music – one and the same to him – very seriously.
All wrapped up in the most stunning and provocative fashions ever seen on any music star, Lady Ga Ga eat your heart out. Prince’s look was as vari-focussed as his music, raunchy yet androgynous; struttingly male yet teasingly feminine: silk, ruffles, pinks, lavish purples and red, topped off with beads, crucifixes, bippity-boppity hats, huge frilly cuffs and bared nipples – thongs!
Music, love, spirituality, sex, fame, God, clothes… This was the Prince his millions of fans around the world had come to know and love over the years. Yet at the time he died suddenly, tragically on April 21, 2016, it seemed like the best of Prince’s life and career was already over. His last worldwide hit single, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’, had been in 1994, his last multi-million selling album, a Very Best Of compilation from 2001.
Friends say he had money worries, personal issues, his last stage appearances – the ‘Piano & A Microphone tour’, in which he performed alone in mid-size theatres – a far cry from the days when he filled London’s 20,000-capacity O2 arena for 21 nights, with a full-scale show that featured over a dozen different musicians, singers and dancers – weirdly truncated performances attended by the ghosts of his and his audience’s shared, mixed-up, funked-out, purple pasts.
Then came the next day, as news of his passing rolled across the media landscapes of the world like a great tsunami of tears. First disbelief then shock, then grief, then wonder – then celebration and commemoration. In an era where social media gobbles up all the biggest stories and turns them into feather-light tweets, and a year when we have already seen so many celebrity deaths we have lost count (David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Harper Lee, Johan Cryuff, Alan Rickman, on and on…) news of Prince’s death eclipsed them all. Not since the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon has one star’s passing had such a huge global impact.
This wasn’t just the weeping and wailing of indiscriminate fandom, as with Michael Jackson, this was about a major cultural event. This wasn’t just about somebody’s music. Not just somebody’s death. This was about all of our lives, whatever the colour. Lives lit purple. The one thing – after music, sex and God – Purple never tired of.
Did he ever really know, though, how deeply loved he was by his fans, by his followers, by the people that just adored the very idea of him? Prince, for all his shocking bravado, was also a deeply insecure person. As one former friend commented in the days after his death, “’It’s like he was afraid of the fame but then when it was gone he’d miss it and crave it.”
One minute up the next minute down. It was this basic humanity this perceived frailty that lay at the heart of his popularity. Prince didn’t parade his victories like modern rappers; he hid behind masks, retreated from the press. The beautiful women in Prince’s stage show and videos were not treated like hos, but as goddesses. Could anyone but Prince have written something as genuinely soulful and touching as ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’?
At a time when Michael Jackson was busy proclaiming himself to be the King of Pop, Prince smiled that secret smile and said: “I don’t want to be king of anything. My name is Prince and I’m a normal person.” Then he abandoned his own name and insisted he simply become known by a symbol – the ‘love symbol’ as it became known. Inspired by a lengthy contract dispute with his record label, even after Prince was freed from his contarct with Warner Bros he incorporated the symbol into his iconography: microphones in the same shape, even his purple guitar.
Prince’s so-called ‘love symbol’ was in reality a pop representation of The Ankh, or the Crux Ansata – two interlaced triangles making a circle surmounting the Tau Cross (the type of cross which follows the shape of the letter ‘T’). The Ankh is an Egyptian symbol of great antiquity and it portrays the resurrection of the spirit out of its encasement of matter, otherwise expressed as the triumph of life over death, of spirit over matter, of good over evil. The message of love Prince was sending then, long before his death, was that of eternity, or heaven, of a life beyond death.
And you can hear that message in every significant musical work he created. As Prince sang on one of his best-known hits, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, life was the ‘electric word’ and it meant forever. ‘But I’m here to tell you there’s something else,’ he sang in the same song, ‘The afterworld…’
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson — the other giants of 80s music – Prince was the only one that never relied on producers and regular co-writers to help conceive his art. As soon as he became famous he didn’t flee his home and make a run for New York or LA. He stayed where he was and built his palace of dreams – Paisley Park – where he could still breathe the same air he’d grown up on.
There were no rules for Prince, no maps for him to follow drawn by other people. Just the steps up that ladder, he so famously preached about, that he chose for himself. He was, as the American writer Bob Lefsetz pointed out in the days following Prince’s death, ‘about the power of music. Especially when made by someone who seemed beholden to the sound as opposed to the adulation, to the music as opposed to the money, to the song as opposed to the stardom.’
And that’s what this book is about. The life, yes, the death, of course, but mainly that ‘something else’ Prince sang about and believed in – which he helped us to believe in, perhaps even more now he’s gone.
Mick- I thoroughly enjoyed Getcha Rocks off. After the first mention in the book of Thin Lizzy- I said to my wife…….here will be a test of Mick’s bona fides.
If he mentions Don’t Believe A Word and the unique guitar solo……he is the real deal.
My wife said ‘whatever’. Then sure enough you delivered a couple of pages later. My wife couldn’t believe it. I had chills for about an hour.
Hi Mick, just a few words to the latest addition to my Mick Wall collection the Lemmy book.
As ever you never disappoint with your insights into the lives of these amazing figures from Rock and Roll and the Lemmy book is no different.
I haven’t quite finished it but only have a few pages to the end and wanted to thank you for once again writing a book that grips the reader and pulls them into this world that we usually only read about in magazines etc. From start to finish the book gave amazing insights to the person Ian Frazer Kilminister aka Lemmy.
Once again thank you for yet another amazing book about one of our music heroes a pleasure to read from start to almost finish.
I just wanted to say how interesting it was listening to you talk about Lemmy last night at Blackwell’s in Oxford, and how it would have been great to hear more of your thoughts had it not been for the guy in the front row who was a little worse for wear! Hey ho, that’s life I guess and you more than anybody I’m sure, knows what a diverse bunch rock fans are?! I dare say Lemmy himself would have laughed that guy off!
Anyway, thanks for letting my mate Darek take a pic of me with you and thanks very much for the comment you wrote in my copy of your book, my good lady will love that!
Motorhead were the first band I saw live when I was 15 or 16 in the early 80’s at Newcastle City Hall and just remember being absolutely blown away by Lemmy’s stage presence and the sheer power of the band. It was such a shame to first lose Phil, but then Lemmy, so sad, I always thought he would live for ever!!
I think so often, rock stars and guys like Lemmy are stereotyped by those who are not interested in this genre of music, as being soulless and “thick”, for want of a better word, but Lemmy was such an intelligent guy and had an opinion on everything so I hope that your book sells well and reaches a wider audience and helps to dispel some of these stereotypes, and I myself look forward to reading it.
It sounds like you had a pretty wild time with him and the various Motorhead line ups, you must consider yourself to be lucky to have known him? Anyway, I guess that you are a busy man so shall sign off now, but just wanted to say thanks again and hope you don’t mind me emailing you.
Just finished reading ‘Lemmy’ and wanted to congratulate you on the book, it’s an excellent piece of writing.
I had the good fortune to meet him a couple of times, once when I was out with the Georgia Satellites on their second British tour and again in Bournemouth where I live.
Well done and keep up the good work.
I am almost through with your Jim Morrison Biography. I have read a couple of them over the years, but none so revealing as your work which is masterfully written.
It would appear everyone who ever knew him, has written a piece about him except Mary Francis Werbelow. Simply too many books to read.
In any case, I had long suspected Jim was a homosexual, or at least bi-sexual and at that time as we know, it would have been suicide to “come out” as it were. There were too many clues in his songs that alluded to the fact.
I also suspected his mother was abusive, and his father basically non existent. Such was life back then in a military family that moved dozens of times over the years. Military mom’s as I knew them were very stoic, conservative, and demanded excellence of their children. They wanted nothing that remotely embarrassed the family and if one had a child like Morrison who was possibly homosexual, Bi-Polar or other wise “defective” it did not bode well with the family dynamic.
It would almost seem a artist like Jim would be so different from his family, one would wonder how they would even be related genetically?
Having had two fathers that were stricken with alcoholism, one my natural father I never met, and the second my adoptive father, I can relate to the horrors of the disease and certainly some of the scenes described in the book are of no surprise.
I have always related to Jim for many reasons. Although I am 20 years younger than Jim, thus not coming of age until the late 1970’s as I am 53, I knew we had some sort of kinship in the sense we are both artists; myself a drummer, poet, and writer, and I never knew my natural family, and I don’t thin Jim really ever knew his, nor did they have an interest in him. My natural parents kept one child and gave up three. I have always felt abandoned and lonely. Jim’s poetry and songs enabled me to somehow cope with it all. I am nothing like my adoptive family. We have nothing in common.
What did surprise me in the book is how callous and selfish the other Doors were. I was shocked at how judgmental they were, and how self serving they were. I am not surprised at Paul’s cocaine addiction, yet the Doors put up with that but in my opinion they did not lift a finger to make an effort to help Jim.
I am also not too surprised at how materialistic Jac Holzman became in only seeing the Doors as product instead of art. I am surprised how he held back songs. There were enough at the time to create a 7th studio album, yet they were held off the press for decades.
Jim is an example of a far too often tragedy on how American society treats it’s artists.(I just read Michael Starr’s book on Ringo Starr, and the similarities between Ringo and Jim were pretty amazing.) We use them and throw them away when the next best thing comes along. I would suspect that every person Jim came in contact with bears some responsibility for his demise. The abusive women in his life, the unnamed men in his life, his UCLA buddies, and certainly his father and siblings.
You do not let such incredible genius destroy himself while you watch. You coddle, comfort, and otherwise use compassion with someone with such a gift. Yet, in American society, we have let so many over the years destroy themselves while we sit and watch because it’s entertaining, and most of the time, it gives us a sense of superiority, and a delusion that we are better than they are because our flaws are so readily hidden, and theirs are so readily available for public display.
In any case, thanks for the great book. It gives an insight with more depth about the man an his alcoholism, of which the Doors seems to have no interest in helping their bandmate.
I recently finished reading your biography on Lemmy. It was a powerful, well written book and I honestly feel I know the man far better now than I ever thought I would.
I started listening to Motörhead in the ’90s, stealing my father’s old LPs and listening over and over again. I always loved No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, without realising it was such a big hit in this country. The way you wrote the book made it seem as though Lemmy’s life off the stage was pure mayhem, constantly full of drugs and booze, and that his life, his happiest life, was the one that we saw, up there performing. But it also became clear that in his twilight years he enjoyed the life he settled into in LA, living quietly and peacefully, secure in his status as a legend. I hope those things are true- it sounds like, for all the hell raising, he brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people that knew him (yourself included), in addition to all of us who didn’t.
I just wanted to thank you for writing such an in-depth, brilliantly constructed piece which made me feel a lot closer to the man I idolised without ever knowing anything about.
Tomorrow evening – Thursday 9 June – I will be appearing in the withering flesh at Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford – the finest emporium of its kind in the world, no less – giving what may euphemistically be described (I suppose, if we must) as a ‘talk’ on Lemmy.
Will I be reading from my book? Not sure. Do you want me to? Wouldn’t you rather just have me avail you with some of the stories that were too torrid to put in there? I knew Lemmy a long good-bad time. He was my favourite rock star to hang with for most of the near-40 years I knew him, he was also the guy I would sometimes avoid if I didn’t feel quite up to my fighting weight. This more and more in latter years when, let’s face it, neither of us was exactly what we used to be, even if we had become in many ways better, if worse off physically, versions of ourselves.
But the stories… For this of you that have already read the book, you’ll have an inkling as to what I’m talking about. Laughs? You may shit, dear reader. Tears? I’m afraid so, yes. But mainly laughs. And a lot of shit. As anyone who has talked to me recently will attest.
I very much hope you can make it. Or else, right?
Here is an article from the New Yorker, published this month. I think it says it all about the incoming President Trump.
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, / As, to be hated, needs but to be seen,” the poet Alexander Pope wrote, in lines that were once, as they said back in the day, imprinted on the mind of every schoolboy. Pope continued, “Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, / we first endure, then pity, then embrace.” The three-part process by which the gross becomes the taken for granted has been on matchlessly grim view this past week in the ascent of Donald Trump. First merely endured by those in the Republican Party, with pained grimaces and faint bleats of reluctance, bare toleration passed quickly over into blind, partisan allegiance—he’s going to be the nominee, after all, and so is our boy. Then a weird kind of pity arose, directed not so much at him (he supplies his own self-pity) as at his supporters, on the premise that their existence somehow makes him a champion for the dispossessed, although the evidence indicates that his followers are mostly stirred by familiar racial and cultural resentments, of which Trump has been a single-minded spokesperson.
Now for the embrace. One by one, people who had not merely resisted him before but called him by his proper name—who, until a month ago, were determined to oppose a man they rightly described as a con artist and a pathological liar—are suddenly getting on board. Columnists and magazines that a month ago were saying #NeverTrump are now vibrating with the frisson of his audacity, fawning over him or at least thrilling to his rising poll numbers and telling one another, “We can control him.”
No, you can’t. One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is. He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day. It is articulated in his insistence on the rightness of torture and the acceptable murder of noncombatants. It is self-evident in the threats he makes daily to destroy his political enemies, made only worse by the frivolity and transience of the tone of those threats. He makes his enmity to American values clear when he suggests that the Presidency holds absolute power, through which he will be able to end opposition—whether by questioning the ownership of newspapers or talking about changing libel laws or threatening to take away F.C.C. licenses. To say “Well, he would not really have the power to accomplish that” is to misunderstand the nature of thin-skinned authoritarians in power. They do not arrive in office and discover, as constitutionalists do, that their capabilities are more limited than they imagined. They arrive, and then make their power as large as they can.
And Trump announces his enmity in the choice of his companions. The Murdoch media conglomerate has been ordered to acquiesce; it’s no surprise that it has. But Trump’s other fellow-travellers include Roger Stone, the Republican political operative and dirty-tricks maven, while his venues have included the broadcasts of Alex Jones, a ranting conspiracy theorist who believes in a Globalist plot wherein “an alien force not of this world is attacking humanity”—not to mention Jones’s marketing of the theory that Michelle Obama is a transvestite who murdered Joan Rivers. These are not harmless oddballs Trump is flirting with. This is not the lunatic fringe. These are the lunatics.
Ted Cruz called Trump a pathological liar, the kind who does not know the difference between lies and truth. Whatever the clinical diagnosis, we do appear to be getting, in place of the once famous Big Lie of the nineteen-thirties, a sordid blizzard of lies. The Big Lie was fit for a time of processionals and nighttime rallies, and films that featured them. The blizzard of lies is made for Twitter and the quick hit of an impulse culture. Trump’s lies arrive with such rapidity that before one can be refuted a new one comes to take its place. It wasn’t his voice on that tape of pitiful self-promotion. O.K., it was—but he never mocked the handicapped reporter, he was merely imitating an obsequious one. The media eventually moves on, shrugging helplessly, to the next lie. Then the next lie, and the next. If the lies are bizarre enough and frequent enough, they provoke little more than a nervous giggle and a cry of “Well, guess he’s changed the rules!”
He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn’t so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.
There is a difference between major and minor issues, and between primary and secondary values. Many of us think that it would be terrible if the radical-revisionist reading of the Second Amendment created by the Heller decision eight years ago was kept in place in a constitutional court; many on the other side think it would be terrible if that other radical decision, Roe v. Wade, continued to be found to be compatible with the constitutional order. What we all should agree on is that the one thing worse would be to have no constitutional order left to argue about.
If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate. Before those famous schoolroom lines, Pope made another observation, which was that even as you recognize that the world is a mixed-up place, you still can’t fool yourself about the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable: “Fools! who from hence into the notion fall / That vice or virtue there is none at all,” he wrote. “Is there no black or white? / Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain; / ’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.” The pain of not seeing that black is black soon enough will be ours, and the time to recognize this is now.
I said the last extract would be the last but I changed my mind, after too many emails telling me too keep going. So anyway, this is from my book Lemmy: The Definitive Biography, out now. This is from Chapter Seven: Nobody’s Perfect
Robbo, as he came to be known, was a 26-year-old firebrand who’d grown up in Glasgow, where belying his tough guy image he’d spent eight years studying cello and classical piano before switching in his teens to guitar and drums, gigging around town with local Dream Police, who later evolved into the Average White Band. Robbo was 18 when he caught the train to London to audition as a one of two new guitarists in Irish rock band Thin Lizzy. Over the next four years Robbo’s brilliantly swaggering lead guitar helped transform Thin Lizzy from a one-hit-wonder novelty act (their only hit previously had been an electric of an old Irish folk tune, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’) into one of the coolest, most successful rock bands of the seventies with a string of hits like ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’.
Alongside singer and bassist Phil Lynott, Robbo was the star of the show in Lizzy. He was also, as Lynott once out it to me, “a right fucking pain in the arse, with his fighting and his big fucking mouth.” The former had cost Robbo his job in Lizzy – an nearly his career as a musician – when a brawl involving Frankie Miller at the Speakeasy in 1976 resulted in Robbo blocking a broken glass to Miller’s face, severing a tendon in his left hand. But Robbo taught himself to play again and was back in the band six months later. It was the latter that finally got him kicked out for good a year after that.
Forming a new band, Wild Horses, with former Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain on lead vocals I had come to know Robbo when the PR firm I then worked for were hired to promote them. Robbo was a brilliant player, far smarter than your average bear when it came to performing and recording, but as Thin Lizzy could attest, he could also be his own worse enemy. He was charismatic, but almost always either drunk or coked out when you saw him. Usually both. He also dabbled in smack. But then he also dabbled in quadruple tequilas, Mandrax, strong black hash and staying up for days at a time. Everybody loved Robbo, until you hated him. Or more likely simply grew bored with his constant growling, his endlessly confrontational conversation. Nobody knew more about music, or indeed anything, than Robbo. In that respect, he reminded me a lot of Lemmy. Except Lemmy was genuinely funnier. When he was in the mood, anyway.
When after two albums that barely scratched the UK charts Wild Horses turned into a power struggle between him and Bain, Robbo walked out. Having sunk all his earnings from Thin Lizzy into the band he was broke and, by his own admission, “pretty desperate for a gig,” when he got the call from Doug inviting him to join up with Motörhead.
Speaking now from the small apartment he lives in alone, above a pub in Essex, Robbo, who still calls Phil Taylor “one of my best friends ever,” says he first met Lemmy when he was in Lizzy. “We all used to go to the same clubs, drinking together and taking drugs together, whatever. Him and Philthy were close to me way before I joined. They were big fans of Lizzy.”
Yet when he was first approached to join Motörhead, he says, “I told them to fuck off.” Because, “I was totally ill. I’d just split up from my wife. I was seven-and-a-half stone. I had double pneumonia and pleurisy. I was a fucking mess. I thought, naw. Physically, I can’t do this. I was a skinny little shit. But I was desperate for a gig. I wanted to go back on the road.”
So he flew out to New York. Where Lemmy was shocked to discover that the long brown hair Robbo had worn in Thin Lizzy was now a short, curly orange mop. Says Doug, “The first day in New York I said, ‘Look, here’s a hundred bucks. Can you please go and buy some like black jeans and black T-shirts, and a black leather jacket. Cos a hundred bucks would do that in those days. ‘Ah, fuck that!’ Robbo says. ‘I’m not doing what I’m told! I don’t wear those clothes.’ I said, ‘This is Motörhead, man. You’ve just got to be part of the image.’ But he wouldn’t do it.”
It was a harbinger for things to come. The first time he got up and played with them though, any doubts Lemmy and Phil had vanished. “He was fucking great for those first few shows,” recalled Lemmy. “It was only later, once he go comfortable about his place in the band, the trouble started.”
At their first gig was in Calgary, says Robbo, “I jumped on that stage. I thought, I’ve had 16 hours of rehearsals. I’ve had speed stuck up my nose. I haven’t a fucking clue what the hell’s going on. What am I gonna do? Just jump on the stage and play E. They didn’t tell me about the fucking lighting rig coming down! And the flash bombs! So I got my bollocks burned off. Then the Bomber came down and I’m going, ‘Oh shit!’ I had to keep moving back until I was at my stacks, and I’m thinking, fuck me!” When someone in the crowd began heckling, shouting for Eddie, Robbo jumped off the stage and went for him. “I took off my guitar, gave it to the roadie, then jumped over the monitors and just nutted him. Then the roadies grabbed me by the arms and brought me back up. Lemmy was still singing and playing so there was no interruption…”
Suddenly there was a whole new dynamic to the band. As a player, technically Robbo was on another level to Eddie. Phil Taylor, in particular, became extremely excited over what he saw as a new, much better phase for the band. For all their success and notoriety over the past few years, Motörhead had never been taken very seriously as musicians. For all their dark, biker glamour, they were still seen as the runt of the litter compared to bands like… well, Thin Lizzy. Even Lemmy became sold on the idea. Robbo was a handful all right, but his energy was bringing new life to old material and suddenly things were becoming fun again. Returning to London to start making their first album together, at the start of 1983, hopes were high that something very new and very exciting was about to happen for Motörhead.
This is from my new book, Lemmy: The Definitive Biography. Chapter Ten: I Have Never Drunk Milk
On Christmas Eve, 2014, the old, now-ailing warrior turned 69. His plans were the same as they had been for the last few years: to head off to Las Vegas for a few days, play the slot machines and check out the chicks. Some things, though, were now different. Having swapped Jack Daniel’s and coke for vodka and orange, he was now dutifully doing his best to stick to wine. Of course it would have been much better for Lemmy to drink nothing at all, but as he’d joked in the past with me, “I don’t mind living longer. I just don’t want it to seem longer.” Somehow the thought of going through a day and night without at least something to help him on his way he considered intolerable and, more, grossly unfair. Nevertheless, he’d been spending less and less time in the Rainbow recently, sometimes only twice a week.
The rest of the world might still preferred to think of Lemmy as somehow immortal, but the man himself knew he wasn’t. Fast approaching his eighth decade, and beset by aches, pains and more serious ailments, he knew he had to make some serious lifestyle changes, however grudgingly. “Getting old is the worst thing that can happen to anybody,” he told Metal Hammer. “I don’t recommend it. It’s no fun waking up in hospital.”
The very last time I spoke to Lemmy, during a fleeting promotional visit to London, the mood was reflective, sombre. He was flying back to LA the next morning. “I’ve got to water my plants, man. Cos they never get watered enough. I might have a dead vine, who knows?” I asked if, as he got older, his relationship to God had changed at all. He looked at me, was I taking the piss? No. I meant in a spiritual sense, not a religious one. He puffed out his cheeks. “They say God moves in mysterious ways. Well, it’s too fucking mysterious for me, buddy. How about solving a few of them fucking mysteries for once. Oh, we have to take what God says… WHY?” he shouted. “I don’t like him! I think he’s a sadistic fucking maniac! How’s that? Or he’s out of the office whenever we call, you know? God, you know, big deal. Spelled backwards is dog.”
He had always been a loner. At this time of his life though did he ever think he might prefer to have someone share his bed on a more permanent basis? I expected another look. But this time he was more thoughtful.
“Well, it didn’t work out that way for me, you know. Cos I always felt…” Pause. “A set, a concert, lasts for an hour and a half. Sex is what, half an hour at most. The concert won. And also, I’ve never been able to find a girl that would stop me chasing all the others. If I do, I would be only too happy to stop chasing girls. But I never found it, yeah? And I’m not gonna get married and lie. And then run around. Cos I’m an honest man. If I get married to somebody I will never chase another woman. But I haven’t found it yet.
“These guys get married then run around on the day of their wedding, for Christ’s sake, don’t they, some of them. Fuck that, what’s that? It’s just poor. Or to be politically correct and have a wife of a certain age so she can stand next to you and welcome the fucking guests. Balls, I’d rather hire a hooker. ‘Hello, baby, dress up good and come on over. We gotta welcome some guests!’”
I asked him which of the many Motörhead albums he would play to anyone who had never heard his music and being Lemmy he immediately named his newest few. No mention of Overkill or Bomber. He was still professing the superiority of the final Campbell-Dee line-up over the classic Clarke-Taylor line-up, even though Motörhead still ended their shows with ‘Ace Of Spades’ each night. Still elicited the greatest reaction from their faithful audiences for all the ‘classics’.
At the end of the day, he said, he liked “brutal” music. And the current band was simply faster, more full on. He said.
“I’m not a brutal man but I like brutal music. It’s good for you, it helps to take you out of that safe cocoon you’ve got for yourself, you know. What do you want safe rock’n’roll for, man? What the fuck is it for? Rock’n’roll was supposed to be rebellion with no apparent goal. It’s just rebellion for the sake of it, because it pisses your parents off. If your mother says she likes it there’s something wrong with it, it’s not rock’n’roll. It’s true, though, isn’t it? Who the fuck wants your mother to come and listen to it with you? ‘Oh, I like them harmonies!’ Let me play you this one, mum. ‘Oh, that’s a terrible noise!’ You know?
“The trouble with now is everybody’s hip. Everybody’s hip. The delivery boy, the fucking green grocer, everybody’s hip now. Cos they’ve all been through some sort of rock’n’roll lifestyle. But it’s easily penetrable, isn’t it? Say, ‘How about this?’ They go, ‘Oh! It’s too loud!’ Traitor! Counter revolutionary! String him up! The guillotine! The Inquisition, the Voice of Christ. We’ll kill your immortal soul. Why? In order to make you live in heaven we’ve got to burn you at the stake now. ‘Oh, that sounds good, yeah. It’s a fair cop…’”