Manipulating Mick Jagger: How Guns N’ Roses Came to Open for The Rolling Stones
“Of course we’re doing it for the money,” Mick Jagger once said. “We’ve always done it for the money.” Today we look back at the time Guns N’ Roses opened for their heroes, The Rolling Stones, at the LA Forum and how, unsurprisingly, it nearly didn’t happen, even as the crowd sat waiting for them to take the stage in this exclusive excerpt from our just published Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses by Mick Wall. And find out why Axl got upset with David Bowie.
Two weeks after Izzy’s arrest, on September 11, 1989, he and Axl appeared at the MTV VMA Awards at the Universal Amphitheater in LA. They accepted an award for “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and jammed with Tom Petty on his timeless “Free Fallin’” before closing out the show with a rocking version of “Heartbreak Hotel.” As Izzy walked off stage and handed his guitar to his tech, Mötley Crüe’s singer, Vince Neil, jumped out in front of him and punched him in the face, cutting his lip: retribution, Vince would claim, for an unwanted sexual advance from Izzy to the singer’s new wife, Sharise, a former mud wrestler from the Tropicana. Depending on whose version you believed, Izzy went down, Vince ran off, Axl chased Vince, Vince offered to fight Axl, Axl told Vince “to leave my band the fuck alone”—yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah and boys will be boys . . . Who knew what really went down? Yet the incident, minor though it was, would escalate into a situation that would drag many more people into the mire, me included . . .
Before that escalation began, however, Alan Niven found himself in a car with Bill Elson, Guns N’ Roses’ American booking agent. Elson was driving them from Manhattan to the Meadowlands, in New Jersey, to watch Metallica play. Although Metallica would soon be on an upward curve almost as steep as GN’R’s, neither man was particularly interested in the show. Instead, Elson’s plan was to “socialize” (in Niven’s description) with Metallica’s managers, Cliff Bernstein and Peter Mensch, who, aside from also looking after Metallica and Def Leppard, had been asked to “oversee” the monolithic stadium tour about to be undertaken by the Rolling Stones, still the world’s biggest-grossing live act almost three decades after they’d first come to stardom.
The weather was awful, and as Elson drove, he tried to convince Niven that Guns N’ Roses should be the support act for the Rolling Stones tour. The offer was $50,000 per show, including the chance to play at the vast, 77,000-capacity LA Coliseum, for which, Elson guessed, lifelong Stones fans like Izzy, Slash and Axl might be prepared to remove their right nuts. The offer had come directly from Mick Jagger’s office, Elson mentioned casually.
But if Elson expected Niven to bite his hand off, he was wrong. Niven knew what the band would say (and he was right: “We’ve gotta play with the Stones,” Slash and Izzy chorused), but he had a different view. Firstly, in his eyes, the Stones were now a heritage act. Their last tour, he said colorfully, had been “less than compelling, a sloppy stumble through the material from the obligatory but inconsequential album released for the tour, and a tired thrashing of old chestnuts . . .” while Guns N’ Roses were now “white hot.” Niven was also aware that the Stones had form in buying some relevance by appointing the band du jour as their support, a habit that read like a who’s who of rock, from Janis Joplin and Santana to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Peter Tosh. In recent times it had included Foreigner, Prince, Southside Johnny . . . happy to offer support spots to anybody with enough current-day cachet to help the Stones sell even more tickets.
Now it was the turn of the new kings of the road, Guns N’ Roses—something Alan Niven had no objection to, in principle: credibility by association worked both ways. Any move that helped broaden the public perception of Guns N’ Roses, away from the LA metal scene of Mötley Crüe and Poison and more towards the classic rock ’n’ roll status of the Stones, was most welcome, thank you very much. But at $50,000 a show, when Elson knew better than anyone that Guns N’ Roses could now make double that by headlining their own shows—what kind of bullshit was that?
Alan told Bill he’d think about it. Then dug around and discovered that the Stones had already announced two nights at the LA Coliseum and had a further four on hold. Two nights alone represented over 150,000 tickets—with an average seat going at $30, while the best seats were being offered around town by ticket brokers for up to $700 a ticket. Then there was the money that would be rolling in from merchandising sales alone, where as well as the standard $20 T-shirts were such upscale items as a $450 leather jacket and a $190 flight jacket. When a rumor—leaked by persons or parties unknown—that GN’R would support the Stones got out, Niven read the runes, saw what was happening and called Bill to tell him Guns N’ Roses would not be doing the shows. Elson was aghast. Nobody turned down the Stones! But when the LA Times rang Niven about the rumor, he told them the same thing, citing the age difference between the bands, and pointing to the fact that Guns N’ Roses were now the band with all the street credibility.
By this time Slash and Izzy were almost apoplectic. “Niv, it’s the fucking Stones! We’ve got to do it!” urged Izzy. But Niven stood firm. Finally, Elson called him again.
Said he’d received another call from Mick Jagger’s office. There was a new offer: four nights at the LA Coliseum for $500,000. Niven countered that the band’s price was now a round million dollars. “We’ve already sold him [Jagger] a shitload of tickets,” he told Elson. Once again, Bill was forced to go back to the Stones with bad news. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. It was a gamble, Niven knew, but one worth taking. If the Stones paid up, then Guns N’ Roses would earn almost as much for four shows as they would have for an entire tour at $50,000 per night—as well as saving themselves all of the usual costs associated with touring.
There was another element to Niven’s thinking, though, that he was not prepared to share with the Stones or anyone else for now but was crucial to his thinking. The fact was, after nearly a year off the road during which all five of them had splintered off into different, sometimes frightening worlds, Guns N’ Roses as a working band were in no fit state to go on the road—at least not until four-fifths of them had cleaned up. Apart from the audacity of countering Mick Jagger, whose love of a dollar bill was legendary, it was one of the few cards Niven had to play. When Niven went to watch the Stones play in St. Louis he got worried all over again. The show was still a revue, but the Stones were hot again, Keef oozing cool, revivified by a successful solo record and tour, Mick still impossibly athletic and vital. Guns, by contrast, looked near death.
Nevertheless, Niven’s gamble had worked. Guns N’ Roses would receive a million dollars for their four shows opening for the Rolling Stones, appearing between the opening act, Living Colour, the all-black rock band also then hot-as-a-pistol following the success of their double-platinum debut album, Vivid, and the headliners. Now all they had to do was turn up on time. But with a couple of hours to go before the first Stones gig, with 77,000 people already in the venue, Axl Rose was a no-show. The problems had begun a week or so before, at a video shoot for the Appetite track “It’s So Easy” at the Cathouse, directed once again by Nigel Dick. “We always wanted to do a video for that song,” Axl told me. “We’re gonna have a home video at some point, so we wanted to do some videos that were, like, completely no-holds-barred, uncensored type of things. Just live shooting, instead of worrying about whether MTV is gonna play it. Just go out there and do a fucking blown-out live, real risky video.”
The video, which featured sadomasochistic scenes involving Erin, was never officially released. Alan Niven saw to that. “I get a call from Nigel Dick saying Axl had called Nigel direct, saying, ‘I want to shoot some footage for this.’ Nigel’s going, ‘You are going to go fucking ballistic when you see this stuff.’ He’s got her hung from the doorway and slapping her ass, the mouth-gag and so on . . . Lots of fun [but] you don’t put it in a fucking video that represents the entire band and put it out there for the whole world to see.” The upshot was that Niven “wouldn’t let the final edit be done and I got the offline copies. The reason for that was I knew he was committing suicide with that bondage shit with Erin. And lo and behold he got divorced. So you know what they would have done with that? I protected the little fuck.”
As if to compound a night of negative energy, David Bowie had shown up to see Slash, and had started talking to Erin Everly, who was appearing in the video. Axl had taken one look at that and started throwing punches Bowie’s way before having him thrown off the set. “Bowie and I had our differences,” Axl shrugged when I asked him about it. “And then we went out for dinner and talked and went to the China Club and stuff, you know, and when we left I was like, ‘I wanna thank you. You’re the first person that’s ever come up and said I’m sorry about the situation.’ And then I open up Rolling Stone the next day and there’s a story in there saying I’ve got no respect for the Godfather of Glam even though I wear make-up and all this bullshit. It’s laughable.”
Axl wasn’t laughing though when, at the warm-up for the Coliseum shows, a club gig promoted as an RIP magazine party, he told Izzy he didn’t want to play with the Rolling Stones. Izzy was taken aback but not hugely concerned. Axl was always worried about things to a ludicrous extent. He hadn’t wanted to do the Aerosmith tour, then looked back on it as the highlight of the year. Whatever happened, Niv would handle it. Then, at 6 a.m. on October 18, the morning of the first show, Axl rang Izzy and told him he was quitting Guns N’ Roses. Again, however, Izzy was unsure how seriously to take the claim. Axl, by his own admission, “quit the band every three days,” as he’d told Howard Stern in a radio interview just a few weeks before.
This time, though, it was different. With controversy over “One in a Million” still raging, Living Colour’s vocalist, Vernon Reid, had voiced strong concerns in the press. In order to avoid any possible clash at the Coliseum shows, Axl and the band had been allotted their own separate area backstage, on the opposite side from Living Colour’s dressing rooms. According to Colleen Combs, Axl’s personal assistant, he was already so “paranoid” about the reaction his first major appearance on stage since the controversy over “One in a Million” started would provoke, “he really thought someone was going to take him out. He thought someone was going to kill him.”
When Izzy arrived at the Coliseum that afternoon, he passed the news along to Alan Niven. “It’s gonna be a long four days . . .” he said. Niven, who’d been there before, knew it could go either way: Axl hadn’t actually told anyone else he was quitting, just Izzy. Maybe he’d wake up feeling differently. Or he just wouldn’t show up and Niven would face the worst day of his professional career. As the hours till show time dragged by, and Axl still failed to arrive, backstage the tension in the GN’R dressing room was such that Doug Goldstein was almost in tears. When Living Colour took to the stage, Niven knew it was time for desperate measures. Once again, he didn’t flinch from taking them.
As he says now, Axl not turning up for a show “was not an altogether novel circumstance and it did not necessarily mean he wouldn’t eventually come.” However, his nonappearance at the show in Phoenix the previous year had produced a minor riot with considerable property damage. Now, though, they were playing for much bigger stakes. “A riot by 77,000 disappointed stadium stoners was quite probable in the event Axl did fail to show. The consequences could be genuinely catastrophic. The tragedy at Donington still haunted my consciousness.”
Niven turned to Stones’ production chief Brian Ahern and asked him, “Brian, do you have a real solid contact in the LAPD? A genuine ‘no questions’ kind of a guy?” Ahern answered, ‘I’ll send him in.’ Without another word, Ahern made the call. “Cool and completely without confusion or stress, Brian is an exceptional individual and I will for ever appreciate his calm and his confidence,” says Niven. “I spoke with his contact. Within minutes a ‘black and white,’ containing a reliable pair of uniformed cops, pulled up at the Shoreham Towers.” The uniformed cops raced up to the twelfth floor and began banging on Axl’s front door. “The startled occupants were herded down to the cruiser. Sirens wailing and all lights ablaze, the police car sliced through the evening traffic.” The car drew up at the very foot of the steps leading to the stage. It was in this manner that Axl arrived in the Coliseum to appear before 77,000 LA-generates, a mere 25 minutes behind schedule.
As Axl stepped out of the police car he had a face like thunder. When he was then told that Vernon Reid, speaking from the stage, had given a short speech halfway through Living Colour’s set, to the effect that anybody who called somebody else a nigger was promoting racism and bigotry, no matter how hard they tried to explain it away, he was apoplectic. When he was then told that large sections of the Coliseum crowd had stood on their seats and applauded loudly, whistling and cheering their approval, he was ready to kill somebody. “We went out with a mission,” Reid later explained. “I made a statement about ‘One in a Million’ onstage, and I remember afterward Keith Richards made it a point to come over to the dressing room and shake my hand.” Ultimately, he says, “When I heard that song, I was probably more disappointed than anything, because I liked the band. [But] I thought the objectification was wack, like I’m somehow standing in the way of this guy.”
When word got back to the GN’R dressing rooms about Reid’s putdown—and that it had received a standing ovation—concern over how Axl might react was such that no one could bear to make eye contact with him. Guns N’ Roses took the stage just before 8 p.m. The band was still tuning up, getting ready to blast off, when Axl grabbed the mic and told the audience, “Before we start playing, [I want to say] I’m sick of all this publicity about our song.” He then denied he was a racist, but insisted that certain words—against groups of people who offend you—was acceptable, in an artistic context. “If you still want to call me a racist,” he bellowed, “you can . . . shove it . . .”
The band cranked into gear and Axl began his manic perambulations around the stage. Now, though, a moment of black comedy was added to the spidery farce. Axl, who had refused to come and view the construction of the Stone’s massive stage ahead of the show, found himself blinded by several follow-spots as he attempted to race back from one side of the stage. He ran clear off the stage and plunged into the photographer’s pit. “I stopped breathing,” says Niven. Then slowly a hand holding a microphone emerged from the darkness as, slowly, two security men hoisted Axl back onto the stage. Now, with embarrassment added to his anger and frustration, he went for broke. The second song of the set was “Mr Brownstone.” Axl stomped to the lip of the stage and told the crowd: “I just want to say . . . I hate to do this onstage, but I tried it every other fucking way. And unless certain people in this band get their shit together, this will be the last Guns N’ Roses show you ever see . . .”