Is Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose nothing but a galaxy class ego with no thoughts for his long-suffering fans? Or a rather more complex character with big strengths as well as flaws? Classic Metal Hawk has heard plenty of prima donna stories, but not so many of the opposite flavour. Let’s digs in a bit further and see what we find.
A Classic Case Study
What’s that you ask? Another psychology-based blog post on Classic Metal Hawk? Well, yes and no. Look, Classic Metal Hawk loves to read and share all those stories about Classic Heavy Metal bands behaving like prima donnas and dicks – usually the frontmen for some reason. The Hawk has already done Dave Mustaine, and next cab off the rank is Axl Rose.
As regular readers will know, though, The Hawk always tries to present a balanced view, looking at other sides to the story. Were things as bad as the they were made out in the press? What were the mitigating factors?
Boy oh boy, Axl Rose is quite the case study when it comes to debauchery, though. For this article, we’ll be focussing on the infamous Use Your Illusion tour, though that was selected almost at random from all the possibilities on offer. But first, let’s run quickly over the band back story.
Guns n Roses was basically formed by a merger of 2 existing bands playing on the LA club scene – Hollywood Rose, named for its founding member Axl Rose; and LA Guns for its guitarist Tracii Guns. This was in 1985 – and Tracii Guns himself walked out of the new outfit within a matter of weeks after a row with Axl Rose. A sign of things to come.
The band’s ‘classic’ line up soon came together though, with Rose, Slash and Izzy Stradlin on lead and rhythm guitars respectively, Duff Mckagan on bass and Steven Adler on Drums. From there on, they were a regular presence playing gigs on the club scene in LA, which led to a record deal with Geffen and a $75,000 advance to make a record. (Interestingly, they turned down a much higher offer from another label, Chrysalis, in order to take advantage of the full artistic freedom that only the Geffen deal was offering. They didn’t want any ‘outside’ interference in their musical direction.)
Deal signed, they released a stop-gap EP, ‘Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide’ and hit the studio.
First Is Best?
Guns n Roses’ first album was ‘Appetite for Destruction’. Can you believe that? Most bands take at least an album or 2 to find their feet, but for Classic Metal Hawk’s money, ‘Appetite for Destruction’ was not only the band’s first album, but also their standout best. The combination of that blues-y groove, aggressive attitude of the lyrics and vocal delivery, and spiky guitars is fabulous, starting from the off with all that delay and reverb on the intro to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’.
Already setting the trend for the band, the album took longer than expected to record, mainly because of Rose’s insistence on recording his vocals only one line at a time – quite the perfectionist even at the beginning.
Perhaps surprisingly, after ‘Appetite for Destruction’ was released in July 1987, sales were disappointing for the first year, only really taking off after ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ was released as a single. Hated with a passion by Slash, it nonetheless topped the chart in the US, and remains their biggest ever selling single to this day. After that, things duly exploded, with the album running all the way to #1 in the US Billboard 200. Guns n’ Roses were firmly establishing themselves as the next big thing, perhaps best illustrated by an incident on tour. Interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine whilst supporting established giants Aerosmith, they ended up usurping their supposed betters on the magazine’s cover.
(If you want a more music oriented Guns N Roses post, head on over to The Hawk’s detailed write up on ‘Appetite for Destruction’ here.)
Ramping up the Controversy
There were still no major controversies blowing up around the band at this stage – some complaints about swearing in the album’s lyrics from the usual suspects, but nothing truly infamous yet.
Unhappy with this state of affairs, the band decided to ramp things up on their next album, ‘GnR Lies’ in 1988 – most obviously with the inclusion of ‘One in a Million’, that charming ditty featuring ‘niggers and faggots’ in the subject matter. The following tour saw plenty of trouble. In Atlanta, Axl Rose assaulted security guards at a venue and was arrested, leaving a roadie to fill in on lead vocals. Riots almost started in New York.
It all culminated with the deaths of 2 fans at the Monsters of Rock festival in the UK during the Guns n Roses set. (Not that Guns n Roses bore any responsibility, but it did rather cement their reputation as a group that acted like a magnet for trouble and bad press). Drug abuse was rife in the band at the time, to the point where Rose announced to the whole crowd during a gig in LA that if his so-called colleagues didn’t get their act together, and stay off the drugs, this show would be the band’s last.
They were now firmly establishing themselves as ‘The World’s most Dangerous Band’ ™.
Illusions and Realities
So, that’s the background – now onto the main course in our story of GnR attitude. So, Guns n Roses hit the studio in 1990 to record a new album (or 2 albums as it would turn out) – and after their incident-packed Lies tour, tensions were running high from the outset. This was apparent when one of their first acts was to fire drummer Steven Adler for drug use. It’s amazing, the number of musicians fired from Classic Heavy Metal bands over the years for drug taking – hypocrisy doesn’t even come close. Usually, the tipping point is where drug use is claimed to impair performance, though again, some musicians seem to get away with plenty more than others. Ozzy. Steven Tyler. Axl Rose.
Anyway, the band agreed to take Adler back on condition that he signed a new contract promising not to use the hard drugs any more (with a $2,000 fine payable per offence!!). But then on finding that he was too messed up by drugs up to perform in any capacity, sometimes needing 20 or 30 takes to lay down a drum track, they fired him again, this time for good.
They also kicked out their manager, Alan Niven, whilst recording was still in progress – rumour had it that Rose instigated that sacking and faced down protests by his bandmates by refusing to complete the project unless he got his way.
All these shenanigans caused inevitable delays – fans began to wonder whether to give up the ghost completely. But in September 1991, massively behind schedule, the whole thing was finally complete and the twin albums ‘Use Your Illusion I’ and ‘Use Your Illusion II were released.
Both ‘Use Your Illusions’ went on to be huge commercial successes, but Guns and Roses didn’t have time to dwell on that. Having already been booked on a tour to support the album starting in January 1991, a full 9 months before the eventual twin release, they were already on the road. And what a tour they had planned. Spanning fully 2 and a half years from January 1991 to July 1993, it eventually took in 194 shows, 27 countries, 4 continents and 7 million tickets sold. As well as the band, there was a plethora of supporting musicians (including a brass section) and over 30 other acts joining them as support for some portion on proceedings.
The most famous of the other acts being, infamously, Metallica.
The Metallica leg of the tour would be the culmination of everything that went before, but first, things had to get warmed up.
Already pissed at bottles being thrown on stage by drunken fans in Riverport, Missouri, Axl Rose was further enraged at the sight of a fan recording their show on a home movie camera (and by the lack of action by venue security to stop him). Rose leapt from stage, confronted the fan and assaulted him. Dragged away by crew members, he stormed off stage, refusing to carry on playing (parting shot to the crowd: ‘Thanks to your lame ass security, I’m going home’).
The ensuing riot caused injuries to 60 fans and had police planning to arrest Rose for incitement. They couldn’t, because by the time they got their act together, the band had already set off for the European leg of the tour. Over a year later, a judge belatedly convicted Rose of property damage and assault, slapping him with a $50,000 fine and probation.
Back on the road, Guns n Roses would often turn up late on stage, with fans having to suffer hours of delays.
Newly sober guitarist Izzy Stradlin walked out on the band mid tour, after another near riot in Germany, unable to cope with the constant stress alongside watching the on-going addictions of others.
There was an ongoing feud with the press. Unhappy with Kerrang!! Journalist Mick Wall’s suggestion that success had gone to their head (heaven forbid), Rose retaliated with the song ‘Get in the Ring,’ a tirade about perceived lies being printed about him, which was included on ‘Use Yor Illusion II’ and rolled out at gigs with relish. Wall even gets a mention in the song’s lyrics, which is a rare badge of honour for a writer. (Nobody’s ever likely to write a song about The Hawk, but if they do, it will hopefully be just as edgy as this one, which racks up the swearing count to record setting levels).
Controversy heightened still further when Guns n Roses were invited to perform at the tribute concert to Queen legend Freddie Mercury in April 1992. Recalling the ‘faggots’ tirade in ‘One in A Million’, Queen fans and gay rights activists felt that, to put it mildly, they were not an appropriate choice. Amazingly, the set passed off trouble free on that occasion, with the whole concert going down as a triumph.
The Main Course
Some people felt that it was asking for trouble pairing Metallica with Guns n’ Roses for a tour. All the egos. The booze, drugs and partying (in both camps). In fact, egos were put to one side, at least for planning purposes. A famously punctual band, Metallica were aghast at the thought of waiting backstage for notorious latecomers Guns n Roses to finish, so were happy to go on first every night. Axl Rose also had some kind of strange bromance going on with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Ulrich had a Rose-style white leather jacket made for him and was regularly seen sporting it on tour. Rose, for his part, seemed to want to impress Metallica and threw lavish after show parties for them (of which more later).
Rose’s volatility was still a constant menace to tour harmony though, and money was thrown with abandon at tackling the problem. The Axl Rose retinue swelled to include a chiropractor, voice coach, bodyguard, driver, PA, psychotherapist, and finally a Psychic with a speciality line of channelling past lives and communicating with extra-terrestrials.
So, people tried. Really, they did. But trouble just seemed to follow Rose around. In New Jersey, a fan threw a cigarette lighter, hitting him in the testicles. He threw down the mike and his hat, and stormed off, cancelling not just the rest of that show but also the next 3. The management claimed ‘severe vocal chord damage’ as the official excuse. Fans wondered about the credibility of this claim – vocal chord damage caused by a lighter to the balls??.
Things eventually came to a head in Montreal, Canada. An accident with an on stage pyrotechnic left Metallica frontman James Hetfield with serious burns, and he had to be rushed to hospital part way through their set. (In the middle of ‘Fade to Black’ as well).
SOS For Axl
An SOS call went out to Guns n Roses to dash in from their hotel and come on for their own set earlier. The band apparently agreed, but after waiting for Axl to finish dithering, ended up starting 3 hours late anyway. Then, the performance was plagued by technical issues, with the band unable to hear themselves. That and Axl’s ongoing vocal chord problems caused them to storm off stage early yet again – though conveniently just after the specified ‘minimum set time’ in the tickets’ terms and conditions after which no refunds would be considered had passed.
Another riot ensued (in Canada of all places!!), this time leaving injuries to 10 fans and 3 police, and at least a dozen arrests. Rose himself was oblivious to this, as he rested his vocal chords backstage with a drink and a cigarette.
There are multiple sides to every story, but Metallica weren’t impressed.
Backstage was anyway the best place to be on the GnR / Metallica the tour. It wasn’t uncommon for $100,000 to be blown on after show parties. Greek nights with muscle bound, greased up ‘slaves’ carrying in a whole pig. Sixties themes with psychedelic lightshows. Always pinball machines, pool tables and hot tubs. Strippers – sometimes in greater numbers than road crew. And lashings of intoxicants.
Hetfield got sick of the ostentatious party routine before long, happy to drink beer and tequila and shoot pool, but the others, especially Ulrich were in their element.
Guns n Roses bassist Duff Mckagan later claimed that the whole ‘Use Your Illusion’ tour was in the red until 1993, by which time it had been running for over 2 years playing to packed arenas and raking in millions. But when you hear spending stories like this, it’s certainly plausible.
But now look. Describing all those tales of G n R debauchery (and it was really only a fraction of the total number of stories on offer) has caused Classic Metal Hawk to go over his normal word count for a blog post. I hope you’re bearing with me.
So, what are we to make of Axl Rose’s antics? Total dick, disrespecting the fans who helped put him where he is? Or misunderstood artist trying and too often failing to reach impossible standards of perfection that he set for himself? As always with these stories, it’s almost certainly the combination of things.
You look at everything – the retinue, the late shows, the fights, the walk-offs and think ‘what an idiot.’
On the other hand, some of the fans got shows beyond their wildest expectations. There was the extended musical ensemble. The blow-your-mind stage show (and a ‘Crew of the Year’ accolade in 1991 for the long-suffering road crew according to the trade magazine Performance.)
The sets were long and varied – a typical show would cover 18 – 20 songs, and a good mixture of new material and classics. On 3 August 1991, the band celebrated the end to mixing the albums by playing a marathon set in LA covering 30 songs and lasting an incredible 3 and a half hours.
And all against the backdrop of constant drink and drugs binges. Izzy Stradlin re-joined the band for a few shows in 1993, filling in for his own replacement Gilby Clarke who had suffered an injury, and was unimpressed with what he saw.
It was weird. We toured Greece, Istanbul, London. I liked that side of it – seeing some places I’d never seen. But at the end I didn’t actually say ‘See you’, cos they were all f***ed up… It was like playing with zombies.‘izzy Stradlin
Axl Rose was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which he would have been batting at the time in addition to his addictions.
Rose and Slash followed Stradlin in sobering up, and the band have continued to turn out new music and tour over the years, and a reunion of Rose, Slash and McKagan eventually followed in 2016.
So, taking everything into consideration – the perfectionism, pressure to perform, tendencies towards addiction and bi-polar, it’s perhaps no wonder that Axl Rose went off the rails at times. Honestly, Classic Metal Hawk can’t even begin to imagine.
Lars Ulrich himself pointed to the contradictions, commenting that Rose was
‘2 different people. You were truly left wondering what the f*** was going to happen next. When he was in a good mood, he was the sweetest guy, and when he decided to go off, he was some kind of freak. He was the last person I’ve ever seen though, besides Bill Clinton, that when he walked into a room, every single person was drawn to him That’s a rare thing.‘Lars Ulrich
And in spite of their seemingly close relationship on tour, Ulrich and Rose would not meet again for 15 years afterwards. Let’s cut Axl Rose a bit of slack and remember why we put up with it.
The Hawk seems to spend quite a bit of time writing about flawed geniuses on this blog, and Axl Rose seems to be right up there. What’s your view of his antics over the years? Does his charisma as a live performer make up for any flaws.
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.