Paradise City: Guns N’ Roses Become the Biggest Band in the World
As sales of Appetite for Destruction soar, the band embraces stardom, struggles to get clean and adjusts to a new reality at home in LA.
Let’s look back at Guns N’ Roses’ wild tour in 1988 and their struggle to cope with time off in 1989. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from our just published Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses by Mick Wall.
By the start of December 1988, Guns N’ Roses were back out on the road: five headline shows in Japan, held over from the summer, culminating in a sell-out show at the 14,000-capacity Budokan, in Tokyo. With the exception of Axl, the band were mostly drunk throughout this tour, as they knew they would be unable to score for drugs of any description once inside Japan. As Doug Goldstein says: “They knew they couldn’t take any heroin with them. So on the plane over Izzy takes a handful of sleeping pills and we literally have to carry him through customs—into the van and then up to his room.” Hours later, “Izzy wakes up and he has literally no fucking clue where in the world he is. So he calls Steven. ‘Hey, man, where are we?’ Steven goes, ‘We’re in fucking Japan.’ Izzy goes, ‘No we’re not.’ Steven goes, ‘I want you to go to the window right now and look outside and if you can see one head of blonde hair I’ll suck your dick!’”
“Another night, Steven’s sleepwalking cos he’s fucking drunk out of his mind. Cos that’s what they do when they can’t get any drugs, they drink their asses off. So Steven walks into his drum tech’s room, Tom Mayhew, and pisses in the heater. He thought it was the toilet. He’s lifting the seat up . . . oh my god!”
After Japan came three shows in Australia, followed by one in New Zealand. “Flying from Japan to Australia,” Doug relates, “Axl is sitting next to Alan Niven. Steven and Tom Mayhew are in the seats in front of them. I am sitting directly across from Steven. I could never sleep on flights so out of boredom I start flicking water onto Steven. It wakes Steven up, who then punches Tom Mayhew as hard as he can. He thought it was Axl. He thought Axl was doing it and he was punching Axl. He hit this poor kid so hard all you heard was eerrrgggghhhhh!! Tom couldn’t get his breath cos Steven had just pounded him in the chest.”
And then it was home. Finally. Jetting back to Paradise City five days before Christmas. Where the grass was now greener than ever and the girls so pretty no one could tell the difference anymore. “I think I prefer porn stars,” Slash told me when I passed on a request for a dinner date message from one of the year’s Playboy Playmates of the Month. “Less talking . . .”
It would be another two years before Guns N’ Roses would set out on tour again. Two years in which Appetite for Destruction became one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade, notching up sales worldwide of over 30 million. Two years in which Guns N’ Roses went from being everybody’s favorite underground band to becoming the biggest, most talked-about band in the world. Even their nearest rivals in the big-and-bad stakes, Metallica, now looked to them for their lead into the Nineties, hiring Mike Clink to make their next album (until it became obvious that they really couldn’t follow GN’R) and hanging out with them whenever they were in LA, to the point where Lars Ulrich even had a special white leather jacket made—just like the one Axl wore in the “Paradise City” video. Or, in the case of Metallica’s singer, James Hetfield, hanging out with Slash to score chicks. In his autobiography, Slash recalls “a girl James wanted to fuck and I let him take her into my bedroom. They were in there for a while and I had to get in there to get something, so I crept in quietly and saw James head-fucking her. He was standing on the bed, ramming her head against the wall, moaning in that thunderous voice of his, just slamming away, and bellowing, ‘That’ll be fine! That’ll be fine! Yes! That’ll be fine!’”
I was also now spending most of my time in LA and doing a fair bit of hanging out myself with Slash—and Duff and Axl. It was now that I first got a real sense of who each of them might actually be—and how different they all were from each other. Slash was the one I got to know best. A Hollywood sophisticate compared to the others—not least, Axl, whose small-town background was about as far removed from Slash’s formative years as it was possible to imagine—he was the most in-control, out-of-control person I’d ever known. Anthony Kiedis, singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would describe himself to me around this time as “the buffest junkie you ever saw!” But that said more about his swinging from one extreme to another than it did his ability to somehow “manage” his drug addiction. Slash seemed to be on a whole other, far more laid-back, worldly level. He hated confrontation, yes, something that would prove to be his downfall when it later came to standing up to Axl’s increasingly high-stakes demands. But there was something else about him, too. A kind of well-bred insouciance that allowed him to make shooting smack seem like the partaking of a delicacy. That transformed what seemed to the outside world a morbid fascination for handling killer snakes into a kind of benediction. A gypsy’s blessing; one for the road, perhaps. Until you or someone like you might show him something better. Should you, or someone like you, be foolish enough to try . . .
I recall going out for dinner with him one night after they’d finished the Aerosmith tour. Slash hunkered down in the dark of a corner booth at the El Compadre restaurant, the cheap Mexican place opposite the Hell House he’d now left far behind. Old habits and old haunts, it seemed, died hard. The shock of curls were the same, but behind them he looked tired, not just road-weary or stoned but bearing the weight of everything that had happened to him—to them—over the past 18 months.
He’d called to suggest dinner and then brought us out here: “I know this place is kind of sleazy and rundown, but I like it, I feel comfortable,” he said. He told me about the Hell House days and the girls that would give the band blowjobs from under the tables at the El Compadre. But he was in far from his usual hell-raising mood. We spoke about Donington and I asked if he felt in any way to blame. He said not, but talked for a long while about how he’d partition the crowd into separate, safer sections if the band ever played there again, and about how he was agonizing over whether or not he should write to the families of Landon Siggers and Alan Dick.
Appetite for Destruction had just passed sales of five million, so we talked about becoming rich and famous and what it meant. “I’m not gonna take it to the point where I let it have an effect on my personality,” he insisted. “I’m not going to let it turn me into one of those insecure rock star types who doesn’t actually know what the limits of what a fucking pop star means . . .” Yet already the strange kind of rootlessness that overwhelming success can bring was beginning to manifest itself. He was, by his own admission, burned out from touring so hard, and yet “already bored” by being off the road and back in LA. There were plans to go back into the studio to record a new album—he was recording songs on an eight-track machine at home, he said—which they wouldn’t, at least for another two years. There were the endless requests for phone interviews as Appetite began to take off across the world, and he was handling most of those because “Izzy doesn’t want to do it, he wants to stay in the shadows. Steven doesn’t do a lot of stuff because it’s never been his role. Duff likes to do stuff but right now he’s at a wedding . . .” And Axl? “He’s very emotional . . . It’s not any particular thing . . .”
When I told him that we had an annual sweep at the Kerrang! magazine office over which rock stars might snuff it in the forthcoming year and that he was currently top of the list, he laughed and said that Alan Niven had already packed him off to Hawaii once to clean up, “but I had a girl fly out . . .”
In fact, Niven, who understood that Slash “was not one for rehab” had, in his words, “been forced to get inventive when Slash’s habit began to completely own him and threaten his very existence”. The first time he put him in his spare bedroom to make him go cold turkey. “My wife and I took turns to watch over him, wipe the vomit from his mouth and carefully dispense the Valium to take the edge off the process. Sometimes that wasn’t enough. He’d refuse the invitation to come to the house.”
Hence the idea of getting Slash out to Hawaii to try to dry out in the sun. “Hey, Slash, be at the office at noon tomorrow, you’ve got an interview with Guitar Magazine and it’s a cover feature,” Niven had told him over the phone. “When he arrived he was hustled into a limo by Goldstein and driven straight to the LAX airport. There was no such interview scheduled. The two of them flew off to Hawaii . . . totally out of Slash’s element and far from his smack sources. He’d have to go cold turkey in the Islands.”
But then Slash had had his “girl fly out” and when he returned to LA he was as bad as ever. His only real concession to his health, he told me now, was that he’d switched to drinking vodka because the charcoal in Jack Daniel’s had begun to stain his tongue and teeth.
A Mexican band started playing loudly in the restaurant, and he got restless. Before we left, he said: “I’ve been drinking a lot for a long time and I’m only twenty-three years old and I know that, right? It’s not something I’m just so ignorant about that I’m going on this major blowout until all of a sudden something stops me physically. I’m more aware than that, but I’ll do it anyway. So if anything does happen, I won’t be complaining about it because, you know, I knew.”
We parted and I wouldn’t see him again for a few months. The momentum behind Appetite for Destruction was unstoppable, and began to separate the band from their contemporaries. Guns N’ Roses were selling more records than Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe and Poison combined. They would sell more than Bon Jovi, who had just released New Jersey, a follow-up to their squillion-selling breakthrough Slippery When Wet, from which they would ultimately have five hit singles. They would sell more than Def Leppard, whose two most recent albums had become the first consecutive albums in America to sell more than seven million copies each: Pyromania and Hysteria.
Guns N’ Roses were now entering a place that very few bands had ever visited, and no one had a map of this unknown territory. They were adjusting to new and different lives. They had received their first significant money: each had received a check for $850,000, and there was plenty more to come. Axl bought an apartment in Hollywood, on the twelfth floor of a condominium block called Shoreham Towers, behind the Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard, and a substantial plot of land in Wisconsin. He said he planned to buy a place in New York, too. He toggled between a hotel and the LA home with Erin, and spent some more of his money on a customized Corvette Sting Ray and a black BMW. The LA apartment was decorated in black, with mirrored walls and a display of his gold and platinum records.
Izzy was now holed up with his girlfriend, Desi, “in the shadows” as Slash put it. Duff was still married and alternately drinking, fighting and making up with his wife. Steven grew so restless he asked Alan Niven if he could go on the road with Great White (the answer was “no”). Slash had rented an apartment of his own and even, in a bow to his new domesticity, bought a microwave oven. He would soon find a larger house up in the Hills. They were struggling to get comfortable in their old-new city, seeing the other, moneyed side of LA for the first time. As Slash would tell Rolling Stone magazine in their cover story of November 1989, they felt “like tumbleweed.” And as Izzy would later tell me, summing up the months of limbo they were about to enter: “That was a real dark period for all of us. The drugs and stuff was a big part of the isolation but it was more than that. It was, like, self-imposed and it got worse . . .”