Toxic Tour: Guns N’ Roses Open for Aerosmith
Alan Niven does whatever it takes to get the band back on the road, even if it costs him his relationship with Axl. Slash passes out in a hotel lobby and hides his stash of Jack from Steven Tyler.
Guns N’ Roses started their North American tour last night. Let’s look back at their tour opening for Aerosmith in 1988. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from our just published Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses by Mick Wall.
Axl and Slash onstage (Getty Images)
More and more, Doug Goldstein was the man to keep everybody’s spirits up on the road. It was also while the band was off the road that summer, waiting for Axl’s voice to heal, that Goldstein found himself spending more time with Slash, while they were both holed up at the Hyatt. “Not only do we have not enough money for a Sunset-facing view, our rooms are so small you had to go out into the hallway to change your mind. So I’m in my room and all of a sudden I hear all of these sirens, so I look out the backdoor and some guy had taken a dive off the roof. Slash calls me and he’s crying, saying, ‘Did you look out the window?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Fuck, man. I’m so bummed.’ I go, ‘No, man. I hear you. What a horrible way to go. I tell you what, why don’t you come to my room and we’ll talk about it.’ He says, ‘Yeah, okay, give me, like, five minutes.’ So he walks in and then standing on the heater, which is, like, by the window, I have two signs in my hand: 9.0 and 9.5. He was like, ‘You’re fucking sick, man!’ I said, ‘Well, it wasn’t a bad dive.’”
The serious stuff was left to Alan Niven. Having seen GN’R bumped from both the AC/DC and David Lee Roth arena tours, and having been forced to withdraw from the Iron Maiden jaunt, but with an album, Appetite, and single, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” now looking like the biggest hits of the summer, he saw only one possible option left for the band to capitalize on their possibly once-in-a-lifetime position. “I went to Eddie Rosenblatt at Geffen and said, ‘Look, there’s only one other tour left. We have to have it. I need it. You need it!’ And that was the Aerosmith tour.”
With three hit singles in the US that year and their first million-selling album since the Seventies, Aerosmith were now approaching the apex of the same steady climb they had begun a year earlier when they cancelled their European tour, effectively dumping GN’R in the process. The difference in their respective fortunes between then and now, though, just 12 months later, was enormous. With sales of Appetite now overtaking those of Permanent Vacation, having both bands on the same bill guaranteed a sell-out wherever it alighted in America that year. The fact they were both on the same label made it, on paper at least, a no-brainer.
The only snag was that the five members of Aerosmith had now all been on the wagon for two years. While the five members of Guns N’ Roses didn’t actually appear to know what a wagon was. What Alan Niven was relying on was that, as he says, “Most people live in abject fear of David Geffen.” And that Tim Collins “was very compliant with the suggestions and wishes of David Geffen and Eddie Rosenblatt. He was extremely compliant. I think I might be one of the few that couldn’t be bothered. But, anyway, I went to Eddie and said we have to have it.”
Niven’s request was granted. “Eddie’s looking at me going, ‘Okay, kiddo. I hear you.’” On one condition: that nobody from the GN’R camp, including most of all the band themselves, would be allowed to be seen drinking or—God forbid—doing drugs anywhere on tour where the Aerosmith entourage might be within sight. Or, as Niven puts it now, chuckling darkly, “They had turned Aerosmith into candy-asses . . . there’s restrictions about who can come backstage. What they can drink . . . And they took out Guns N’ Roses as support?” He almost chokes with laughter. “Fucking un-fucking-believable. Are you kidding me? Poor Tim is sitting there going, ‘I’ve got to run a clean machine and take that fucking crew?’ But he does it.”
Then Niven hit on an idea that made him wheeze even more with laughter. To bond with Tim and try to reassure him that all will be well on tour and that his boys won’t corrupt Tim’s newly clean boys, Alan takes him to . . . his gun club! “I pull out my .44 Magnum and I say, ‘Try this. You’ll find it empowering.’ He took one shot with my .44, dropped it and stumbled back about four paces. Eventually he got a little more comfortable, enough to shoot my .25 Beretta that I used to keep in my pocket. So he’s shooting my little bip-bip-bip-bip-bip gun and he’s comfortable with that.” Alan had deliberately decided not to give Tim the little gun and allow him to work his way up. “I put the .44 Magnum in his hand. You want a little bit of symbolism? You gonna fuck with us? We’re Guns N’ Fucking Roses.” He laughs. “It’s no wonder people have negative things to say about me. I must have been a total shit.”
But if Niven thought his problems were over, he was sorely mistaken. “So we got the Aerosmith tour,” he goes on. “Everybody’s happy—except Axl.” As the first date in Chicago, in July, came closer, “Axl locked himself in his apartment and wouldn’t communicate with anybody.” In desperation Niven told Izzy to go there and talk Axl down. “Get him to come. It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be cool.” Izzy did as his manager asked, but when he got there Axl wouldn’t even let him in. “They tried talking through the door and that wouldn’t work and Izzy came back and reported that to me.” Izzy told Alan: “He’s locked up in his bedroom and he won’t come to the door.” Alan asked if there was any way Izzy could talk to him in his bedroom and Izzy said, “Well, there’s a tree outside his fucking bedroom window.” Niven looked at him and said, “‘Go climb the fucking tree and talk to him!’ So Izzy goes off. He climbs the fucking tree and there’s Izzy hanging in the fucking tree, going, ‘Come on, dude, it’s Aerosmith, it’s gonna be cool. Let’s go. We all wanna go.’ And Axl’s like, ‘FUCK OFF! I DON’T WANNA DO IT!’ True story.”
What now? Sitting in his office, surrounded by his staff and other band members, waiting for his decision, he was faced with a stark choice. Doug was there, Izzy was there, as was Stephanie Fanning. Chitchatting, “trying to figure out what the fuck was going on.” Niven sighs deeply. “I had this general rule of thumb. That if Axl was yelling at me it was like, whatever. But when he spoke softly, quietly, my ears really opened and I became incredibly attentive to what he was saying. Because I knew I was hearing from the center of his consciousness.
“This was probably Wednesday. The first Aerosmith show was the Sunday evening. I had to push the button for the trucks to leave with the equipment the next morning if we’re gonna be there, and we were trying to evaluate what to do. Steph stuck her head into my office and she was pale. Very drawn. She looked at me and she said, ‘Axl’s on the line.’ I looked at her face and I went, ‘Oh fuck . . .’ I picked up the phone and this very soft voice said, ‘Niv, I – just – can’t – do – it. Cancel the tour.’ I said, ‘Okay, Ax,’ and I put the phone down.”
He told the others what Axl had just said. They all looked at him. “I sat there for a moment. Then I went, ‘You know what, I signed a contract for five fucking individuals. Five people applied their signature to my contract. Not one. The other four want to do this. The one we can’t go onstage without tells me he can’t do it.’ I felt in a complete and utter bind. And then, where these things come from, God alone knows. But I’m staring at the table and there are these two red dice staring back at me . . .”
Niven had just returned from a Great White show in Las Vegas. He had some dice on his desk, from the Aladdin, where they’d stayed. As he sat there wondering what the hell to do about the Aerosmith tour, he recalled reading Luke Rhinehart’s classic novel, The Dice Man, as a young man in the Seventies. “He thought all our neurosis came from the conflict of choice. Am I gonna be a gentleman or am I gonna stick it up her ass? If I let the dice decide I will not feel guilty or neurotic about what I do.”
Alan Niven rolled the dice. “I sat in front of everybody and said, ‘Here goes . . .’” He said he would give Axl “the weight of the odds. If I throw a ten or less we’re done. And I think it might be over. If I throw an eleven or a twelve, we’re all going. And we’ll be there. And if he’s not there then it’s entirely on him.”
He threw an 11. “I said, ‘That’s it. Send the trucks. Send the crew. We fly out. We’re going.’ And we all went.”
They didn’t even send Axl plane tickets for the trip to Chicago. “We just left a message saying we were going. That we would be there and he could join us if he wanted to. It was up to him to sort it.”
Alan Niven admits he “had no fucking idea” if Axl would call his bluff. The stress, he says, “was mountainous”. But Axl did arrive, on the morning of the show. Alan Niven was sitting eating breakfast at the hotel when he heard “the clank, clank, clank” of Axl’s jewellery. “He comes marching in, in his shorts and his forty-eight pounds of jewellery on him. So anonymous. So discreet. And he looks at me and I swear to God if looks could kill I’d have been vaporized. But he was there.”
Axl didn’t say a word, just glared at Niven, “then went to the far side of the room and sat at a table, then one or two people went to sit with him. Then he announced that he would not go onstage if I was there and I had to leave.”
As a result, Niven was not there for the first three weeks of the Aerosmith tour. He later had the red dice put into Perspex. He still has them today.
As Aerosmith’s guitarist, Joe Perry, later recalled, “Guns N’ Roses were different. They had dug down a little deeper into rock’s roots. I heard a lot of Aerosmith in them, which meant I also heard a lot of bands that came before us. And I remember being a little jealous, because they were really hitting the nail on the head . . . Part of the thrill was wondering what [Axl] was going to do next.”
Certainly, the supposed ban on the band’s “bad boy behavior” only applied to the actual tour venues, and even then, as Slash told me at the time, “We still do what we do, we just stick the booze in plastic cups so it looks like water.” When he came into his dressing room one night after a show, though, and found Aerosmith’s singer, Steven Tyler, examining the near-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table, he admitted he was embarrassed. “Steven looked at me kind of pityingly and said, “Did you drink all this before you went onstage?” I had to kind of hide the other bottle of Jack I’d taken onstage with me.”
Doug Goldstein remembers the tour as “no different to any of the others in terms of having to deal with Axl and Slash.” He describes arriving at one hotel and being told the band’s rooms had all been cancelled. “I told them. ‘Look, no problem. Just call Vanessa’—the name of the hotel manager—’and tell her we’re gonna be pulling the bus up to her house and that twelve of us are going to be sharing her bed with her.’ So this old gal goes into the back and this big, heavy, Italian-looking guy with a moustache and a tie comes out, and says, ‘Which one’s Goldstein?’
“I’m like, ‘Wow, we’re really going there?’ He leans over the counter, he goes, ‘Look, you’re gonna get in your room at three o’clock. You gotta fucking problem with that?’ I don’t know what it is about my head but when I snap, I snap. So I grab the guy by the tie and I pull him halfway over the counter. He tries to reach for the phone so I tighten up his tie and he’s turning purple on me. I go, ‘You’re gonna fucking die before you get a hold of the cops. I suggest you get your fat Guido ass back there and get me my goddamn keys.’”
Turning to one of the band’s security team, Todd, Doug told him: “‘Go put Slash on a luggage trolley and get him up here now.’ He goes, ‘What?’ I go, ‘Just fucking do what I said!’ So he goes downstairs and he brings Slash, who’s obviously passed out, he’s literally upside down in that his head’s on the luggage bottom and his legs are dangling over the top. But he still has the bottle of Jack in his hand. So Todd rolls him up next to me at the front desk, and there’s, like, fifty people waiting to get into their rooms. The general manager of the hotel comes out and he goes, ‘Hey, he’s got to get out of here.’ I go, ‘You know what, he’s gonna get out of here the second I have a fucking room to put him in. Until then he’s your new furniture.’ Needless to say, I had the keys in about two minutes.
“So I put Slash over my shoulder and we go to the elevator and I’m riding up with about eight guys in business suits and Slash starts urinating down my back. I was like, motherfucker! I drop him on the ground and this guy’s laughing at me. I turned round and I go, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Look, I don’t want you to get pissed off at me but I’ve been watching you since you walked into the hotel. I don’t know what they’re paying you but it can’t even be remotely enough for what the hell you have to put up with!’ The elevator doors open up and I go, ‘Yeah, thanks for the observation.’ I’m literally pulling Slash down the hallway by his hair cos I don’t want to have to pick him up by his peed pants.”
Kept abreast of the antics of their support act, but also acutely aware of how many tickets they were helping them sell, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry—the Axl and Slash of Aerosmith, with a shared history of alcohol and drug abuse that far outweighed anything Guns N’ Roses had yet come up with—were smart enough to let the circus carry on. One night, Joe came to Slash and told him how “awesome” his guitar solo in “Sweet Child” had been that night. When the tour was over, Steven gifted Axl a complete set of specially made silver Halliburton travel cases, costing thousands of dollars. Months later, Steven would also go out of his way to help the band through their drug problems, though only Izzy actually took him up on his offer.
Aerosmith also displayed their class by not causing a scene when Rolling Stone arrived on the tour ostensibly to cover both bands and ended up choosing Guns N’ Roses for their cover. The Geffen promotional staff were thrilled at the outcome. David Geffen bought Tom Zutaut a Range Rover as a reward for both his hard work—and sheer persistence. Meanwhile, Appetite for Destruction officially became America’s Number 1 album on August 6, 1988.