10 Things I Now Know About Guns ‘N Roses

February 6, 2010

I’ve just finished reading Watch Me Bleed, Stephen Davis’s biography of Guns ‘N Roses, and while at first I thought it offered up nothing new, as I think about it I realize it was filled with revelations.

As an early adopter of GnR, I have always assumed I had a pretty good handle on the early years of the band. I first heard their name around the time Metallica was emerging from the California haze, so by the time GnR was touring as the openers for The Cult (a tour I caught in Toronto in 1987) I knew a fair bit about them.

After that show, I bought their Appetite for Destruction LP and a cassette bootleg of their first indie release Live Like A Piece Of Badly Recorded Drunken Crap.

Like my cronies, multi-influenced children of punk and metal and classic rock and blues, I ate up Appetite in huge bites. But that was it for my Guns love … Patience came along later, and sounded too much like the Poison Guns professed to hate so much. Later, the Use Your Illusion discs, so eagerly awaited, sounded to me like a bad mashup of Elton John and late-80s Alice Cooper. I gave up caring, and wisely so — aside from that stupid covers album, it would be almost two decades before something calling itself Guns ‘N Roses would appear in music stores again.

So I read this book with a mix of nostalgia for a few brief, furious years of slum-rock glory and disgust for promise gone wrong. And I learned a few things …

  1. At one point, while the band members were sharing a Los Angeles house, they ripped out all the toilets and started using the sinks instead, leaving unpleasant surprises for the record label rep assigned to babysit them.
  2. Founding guitarist Izzy Stradlin bore the bulk of responsibility for the band’s sound and even its genesis. He was its stable element and driving force for years, until the aftermath of a drug addiction and Rose’s rising egomania forced him out.
  3. Duff McKagen avoided the heroin speedtrap that sucked in some of his bandmates and invested a good-sized chunk of his initial Geffen Records advance. A brother-in-law recommended two companies, and Duff listened; years later, he cashed out his Starbucks and Microsoft stocks and remains a very, very wealthy man even without his music.
  4. Slash tried out for Poison and was rejected only because C.C. Deville looked better in drag.
  5. Axl Rose rarely touched drugs and wasn’t even much of a drinker. He was, Davis claims, severely bipolar and suffered from a host of other mental illnesses, all of them exacerbated by an army of holistic hangers-0n. One of these would routinely measure the stage for magnetic interference.
  6. Founding drummer Steven Adler was demoted to salaried performer, then fired, over his drug use. He later sued and won a sizeable settlement that included publishing royalties, which continue to support him to this day.
  7. Gilby Clarke was drafted to replace Izzy Stradlin mainly because Slash didn’t want Rose’s first pick, Dave Navarro, anywhere near the band. Slash didn’t want another flashy lead player onstage with him.
  8. Almost every element of Use Your Illusion’s recordings and touring — the overblown production, the live horn section, backup singers, keyboards, lights, fireworks, etc. — is a direct result of Axl Rose watching Mick Jagger run a similarly overblown Steel Wheels show at a Stones concert in 1989.
  9. In the years between Use Your Illusion and his departure from the band, Duff McKagan went to college and earned a degree in business.
  10. Sebastian Bach, a longtime protege of Axl Rose, said no to Duff when Velvet Revolver was coming together. So did Izzy Stradlin, which kept the band from becoming a 4/5 GnR clone.

After I read the book, I listened to Appetite twice through for the first time in ages, and loved almost every moment of it. I made it three songs into Use Your Illusion II, and couldn’t bring myself to touch Chinese Democracy.

The saddest part? Appetite came out nearly a quarter-century ago. It’s an oldie, and so am I.



  1. I’ll have to admit I never got into GnR and know little about it’s history or discography. In your last paragraph you touch on going back and listening to the music after reading the book. Are you saying that GnR only had 3 albums, the last of which was total crap?

  2. Yes. Their complete discography includes a hard-to-find early EP, Appetite For Destruction (1987), the Lies EP (1988) Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II (a double album released separately, because it was stupid) in 1991, a covers album in 1994 and a live album somewhere in the late 90s. Poopy Chinese Democracy began recording in 1993 and came out in 2008. That’s three actual albums over 25 years.

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