Firing Axl: An Excerpt from Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses
Littlefinger told Sansa that “Chaos is a ladder.” It’s easy to imagine Axl Rose relating to that sentiment. Welcome back to our celebration of 30 years of Appetite for Destruction. Today, we look back at the night Guns N’ Roses tried to fire Axl as his antics pushed the band to the brink and how that set the tone for the future of the band in an excerpt from our just published Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses by Mick Wall. It’s “the most detailed portrait yet of the band” according to Uproxx and “an absolutely enthralling read,” says Classic Rock Revisited.
1988 would be the year that the lives of everyone connected to Guns N’ Roses would be changed forever.
The year had begun in the studio. Eddie Rosenblatt had urged Alan Niven to make another record, something the manager had forcefully resisted, taking the view that they’d sold almost 250,000 albums without a proper single, video or marketing campaign, and—not unreasonably—asked Rosenblatt what he thought they might sell should they get one? Instead, with Mike Clink, the band cut some acoustic songs for a prospective stop-gap EP or a bunch of B-sides: a sweet ballad of Axl’s called “Patience;” a blackly comic tune they’d debuted at the UK shows, “Used to Love Her” (“. . . but I had to kill her!,” a lyric inspired by Axl’s fondness for “shock comic” Sam Kinison); and “One in a Million,” an obnoxious Rose rant that also began in Kinisonesque humor but quickly descended into something far less funny, storing up trouble for the band later on). They also recorded a rangy acoustic, much longer and doubly vitriolic version of “You’re Crazy” that Clink liked as much as the electric version on Appetite.
Between times there were one-off shows. They opened for Great White at KNAC’s second anniversary show, where Cinderella’s drummer, Fred Coury, sat in for Steven Adler, who’d broken his hand in a barroom brawl following a show opening for Alice Cooper in Minneapolis a week before Christmas. Then there was an unannounced “secret” show billed as the Drunk Fux, which featured the five-man band plus Axl acolytes Del James and West Arkeen, performing an impromptu set of covers—including a first public performance of a new song, “Yesterdays,” a ragtag blues shuffle Axl had recently banged together with Del and West and another street kid, named Billy McCloud, and which Axl announced he and the band would be recording the following week. (They didn’t.) There was also a hurriedly arranged Thursday night gig at the Cathouse on January 21—Steven’s first full gig back behind the drums, essentially a glorified rehearsal for three shows in Scandinavia supporting Mötley Crüe.
Essentially, though, the band was treading water. Again Eddie Rosenblatt urged Niven and Zutaut to consider getting another album ready to go, based on the latest session with Clink. “No way, this record’s just beginning,” Zoots told Eddie. “We haven’t even scratched the surface yet. There’s a Number One single that is buried on the second side of the album. The promotion people have not even listened to it!” Zutaut was referring to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” but by then neither Rosenblatt nor anyone else at the company was prepared to listen.
Exasperated, Zutaut appealed directly to David Geffen, who asked simply: “What is the one thing that I could do to help you?” Zutaut replied, “It would help if you could get the ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ video played on MTV.” Geffen said he would do what he could and put a call through to MTV’s chief executive, Tom Freston, an old friend who owed him a favor. Freston accordingly agreed to air “Welcome to the Jungle.” Just one proviso: MTV would play it only once, at 3 a.m. on the East Coast, midnight on the West Coast. After that, all bets were off. However, within minutes of the video airing for the first time a week later, the phones began to light up at the network as their switchboard became overloaded with calls for repeat plays from overexcited fans. Within a month, “Welcome to the Jungle” had officially become one of the most-requested videos on MTV that year.
At the same time, in another weird example of the kind of synchronicity that seemed to bless their professional relationship, Alan Niven had managed to wangle Guns N’ Roses into a live appearance on MTV. Originally the station had approached Niven about filming Great White live at The Ritz in New York for an MTV Special that would also be broadcast live across several radio stations. It seemed like a no-brainer. Great White’s Once Bitten album had just gone gold in America and MTV wanted to get in on the ride. Alan said yes on one condition. “My other band opens, okay?” The MTV producers agreed.
In the weeks leading up to the show in February, however, “Welcome to the Jungle” had begun its own heavy rotation, moving the needle on the dial of the Appetite album, too, which was also now approaching gold status for over 500,000 sales. Suddenly Alan Niven was presented with the unique situation of having two hot ’n’ heavy acts steaming up the US charts. On the eve of the show, he decided the “smart call” was “to flip the bill order.” He goes on: “Guns had just gone white hot. I went to Great White and said, ‘What’s the fucking rule? Be a hard act to follow before you follow a hard act.’” So they switched places and Great White opened the MTV Special instead. Both bands played the same length of time but there was no doubting afterwards who the stars of The Ritz were that night.
“There’s a couple of moments in [the Great White] set that still give me goosebumps when I play back the tapes,” insists Niven. “To the point where Slash ran into the dressing room after they played and said, ‘You fuckers! How do we follow that?’” But not only did GN’R follow that, “To a lot of people that is the apex of watching Guns N’ Roses. Imagine all the fucking faces, cognoscenti and industry fuckers that were there at the show. I’m not the greatest at the social bit but I’m having to work the room and be nice to everybody and try to remember who fucking everybody is.” Next thing, he got a tap on the shoulder. “Goldstein panicking saying Axl can’t find his bandana. ‘He wants you to go into the crowd and find him one.’ So I did. I went into the crowd and found one. He didn’t like that one so I went and found another one. Second one was okay. Slash is aware of all this. So what would your state of mind be when you went out on stage? Good god, half the fucking time each was seething at the other. And The Ritz was the classic example. Yet most people think that’s the apex of GN’R live on film. Yet not everybody was happy with Axl at that moment. But what’s his muse? His muse is confrontation. His muse is conflict. He’s a power tripper.”
Whatever the background, the results were dynamite, and can still be seen on YouTube today. Niven is right. This was Guns N’ Roses, at their earliest, now classic best. When Slash dived into the audience at the climax of “Rocket Queen,” you could almost touch the heat from the crowd, escaping, hissing like bad gas from the manholes of New York City.
With his star rising fast, instead of making him feel more at ease, Axl Rose’s on and offstage behavior was becoming increasingly erratic. He became more difficult and demanding, attempting to control every situation, even those involving large crowds, by losing his temper: he would walk offstage if something offended him and have to be coaxed back. A fortnight before the end of the tour, he didn’t take the stage at all. It happened at the second of two shows they were to headline, February 12 and 13, at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix. The first show had ended prematurely when Axl walked off at the end of “Nightrain” and refused to come back out for an encore. No one knew quite why, putting it down to another of Axl’s weird head-trips.
The following afternoon, however, he barricaded himself in his hotel room with his then-girlfriend, Erin Everly, and refused to come out. “We tried everything to get him out,” says Niven. “We banged on the door and shouted, ‘Come on, dude, we got a gig. Come out!’ and he’d shout back, ‘Fuck off!’ I don’t know if Axl and Erin were fighting. That was probably something that happened more often than not, but he refused to come out no matter what we said.”
As opening band, T.S.O.L.—a Californian punk-metal band signed to Niven’s former label, Enigma—completed their 40-minute set, Niven pushed them back onstage to try to buy some time. “Finally, these poor guys in T.S.O.L. came offstage after playing Beatles covers. They looked at me mournfully and said, ‘We’ve played absolutely everything we know. We’re beat. Can we quit now?’ That was the moment I had to walk onstage and say, ‘Tonight’s performance by Guns N’ Roses, unfortunately, will not occur due to a medical emergency.’ Immediately, people started throwing shit at me and it got ugly fast. The crowd rioted and it spilled out into the parking lot, and at least one car was turned over and set on fire.”
When they got back to the hotel, led by a seething Steven Adler, they told Axl he was fired, to which he responded with the classic “You can’t fire me, I was leaving anyway . . .” Then he called the band’s bluff, took a car to the airport and left them to stew. “For about three days, it really did look like the band was over,” says Alan Niven. But the tactic worked. He and Slash talked on the phone a few days later and Axl was back, but the pattern was set. Axl had asserted his authority, established his indispensability, and clearly demonstrated his willingness to exercise his power over and emotional control of the band. Steven Adler would later reflect, “It was the greatest time of my life, but one of the guys—I don’t need to name him—made it so difficult for us all. Quite often he made the best and most exciting times I’ll ever experience feel like a complete pain in the ass. Besides the loneliness and sadness I felt when I was excluded, the worst thing was to play in front of [thousands of] people and have the guy storm offstage in the middle of the first song. With no warning, he’d throw the microphone to the floor, then leave. And not come back. Quite rightly, the audience would boo, and it was an awful feeling to know there was nothing the rest of the band could do about the situation. You’d go backstage and get in a fight with the guy. He’d say, ‘Fuck you’ and get on a plane and you’d have to cancel a lot of other shows. It’s all coming back to him now because he’s the one who looks bad. But at the time it reflected badly on all of us.”
So much so it almost holed the GN’R bandwagon beneath the waterline. Says Niven: “I lost what I had just had to compete with our own fucking agent for, which was the opening slot for AC/DC. I’d got AC/DC to agree to do that. [But] that invitation was rescinded when they heard about the Phoenix riot.”
As ever, Axl felt his actions were entirely justifiable. “I guess I get mad because of some form of fear about my own weaknesses,” he once said in a moment of deep clarity. “Everybody has theirs, and mine happen to be in what I do. And what I do is sing and run and get my picture taken. I’ve always needed high maintenance to keep my act together. Nothing really comes naturally to me except the desire to sing. I used to jump ship every three days. And I wasn’t crying wolf. It would usually come down to, I was leaving but there was no place to go. What am I gonna do, go to Paris, do poetry? Look at art museums and hope that not going after what I set out to do didn’t eat me alive? Go pump gas? I was leaving to pump gas a few times, and ready for it. Then, I don’t know, something in me would go, ‘You can deal with this now.’ It just took time to be able to deal with it. A lot of my anger came from people not understanding that I needed that time.”