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’.