I, Axl - Part I

RIP
1992
by Del James

The phone rang. It was Blake, W. Axl Rose's personal assistant, asking if I'd be up for doing an interview with the elusive and controversial GNR vocalist. Even though I was deep into other projects, l was neither busy nor foolish enough to pass this gig up. Then Blake made an unusual request. Instead of chatting face to face, Axl wanted to do the interview over the phone. Unusual, but not a problem. A date and a time were set.

What follows is our marathon talk. Instead of a formal interview, it's more like you, the reader are being invited to listen in on a private conversation. l know Axl as well as anyone can know him. l proudly consider him a friend, but I'm not afraid to tell him what l feel or when l think he's being a jerk. No, l won't give you his number, but if you want to play along, sit by your phone for awhile tapping your foot (yes, he called late; love him or hate him, the man is consistent), imagine a ring and pick up the receiver...

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RIP: This is kind of awkward, doing an interview on the phone.

AXL: You know one reason why l want to do it this way? Sometimes you and l say a lot heavier things on the phone than we do in person. So l thought this would be cool, especially because I'm trying to be private right now. l can do this in my own space and just talk.

RIP: I've got five 100-minute tapes, so we can go till we burn.

AXL: Alright.

RIP: Even as well as l know you, l still pick up magazines to see what is said about Guns N' Roses and, in particular, you. The last interviews of any substance were Kim Neely's pieces in Rolling Stone, but you're still in every single magazine. I'll be reading something that has absolutely nothing to do with GNR, and you'll be compared to Adolf Hitler or some other evil just to add fire to the writer's article.

AXL: I think there's a great fear of the unknown, and my new thing is, "I am the unknown."

RIP: Sounds like something Stephen King would say. Why are you the unknown, and have you purposely made yourself that way?

AXL: Partially, yeah, trying not to be overexposed. Negativity sells, and the media knows that. "Axl Rose is rock 'n' roll's bad guy." There were a lot of people who felt that the Rolling Stones shouldn't exist, who talked crap about them. Now we're huge, and it seems the people who are most vocal are the ones who don't like us. They'll pick up any rock to throw at us. When I read that Guns N' Roses could be David Duke's house band, that's wrong, and it hurts me. I'm not for David Duke. l don't know anything about the guy except that he was in the Klan, and that's fucked. There's a lot of people who have chosen to use that song ("One in a Million"). However that song makes them feel, they think that must be what the song means. If they hate blacks, and they hear my lines and hate blacks even more, I'm sorry, but that's not how l meant it. Our songs affect people, and that scares a lot of people. l think that song, more than any other song in a long time, brought certain issues to the surface and brought up discussion as to how fucked things really are. But when read somewhere that l said something last night before we performed "One in a Million," it pisses me off. We don't perform "One in a Million." Another reason I've been laying low is that I've been trying to take the time to survive our success and assume responsibility for where we're at. l didn't have enough energy to stay in contact with the media. Instead of dealing with the media, l was trying to grow in my own space. I've needed to do that for the last couple of years. It took me years to rise above the success of Appetite and the people who liked it. l was like, "Why are they liking it? These are the same people who hated me?" There are a lot of people who are afraid of what they think l could be. They see the power in the music and the words. They see the reactions of people to our music, and the natural reaction is to lay everything on the people performing the music. I'm not necessarily responsible for the reactions l write, and the band plays, from the heart In our songs we show instances that were really fucked, but we've risen above those situations, and people get a real sense of surviving obstacles from us. l was watching this thing today about de-metalizing kids. All a parent knows is they see their kid listening to Ozzy Osbourne. The kid is doing acid and painting upside down crosses on his wall, and they don't know what happened to him or her, so it's Ozzy's fault.

RIP: So you're to blame for the next generation of fuck-ups?

AXL: According to parents or whoever. There's a lot of people who don't understand or know how to handle their children's rebellion.

RIP: Yeah. Taking responsibility for your own actions and, if you have a kid, responsibility for their actions, is really heavy.

AXL: Especially responsibility that a part of us never really wanted, but now have.

RIP: Why does the world have this misconception about you, especially about you being a drug addict?

AXL: Didn't Presidential candidate Bill Clinton catch a lot of shit for admitting that he tried pot once? That's bullshit. How many cool people do you know who survived and lived during the '6Os? GNR got to the top of a mountain by using every pile of shit that ever happened to us. We were living that way, living our songs, and it started killing us. It was either die or change. Certain people who see that we've gotten control over ourselves, control over our physical shapes and our lives, write that we're sedate and predictable. They say we don't live on the edge anymore. Actually, I'm living on the edge and learning how to ride it instead of being dragged down by it.

RIP: l see what you're saying, but that doesn't answer my question about you.

AXL: Okay, first off, I'm on very specific, high-tuned vitamins. My body needs these vitamins. I'm also involved in extensive emotional work to reach certain heights with myself that doing hard drugs would interfere with. I'm doing several detoxing programs to release trapped toxins that are there because of trauma. Doing a lot of coke would get in the way of my work. Doing dope would definitely get in the way of what I'm trying to accomplish. Some pot doesn't really get in the way too much. If gets in the way of the work for, like, the next day, but sometimes it's a grounding thing. It I'm flipping out in the middle of Idaho, then a little bit of pot helps me be sedate. Also, coming off stage, going from such high energy into a very sedate world, is heavy -- I don't care how many strippers you have. It's like going off a cliff in a car, and that's when I can use some smoke.

RIP: You don't even smoke that much anymore.

AXL: I know. About a year ago, while we were recording the records, I smoked a lot of pot. I was in a lot of pain, and that was the only way I could keep myself together enough to work. It was the only thing that could take my mind off my problems, so I could stay focused and record. It helped keep me together. Now it would interfere with things.

RIP: Remember when you actually moved into The Record Plant and set up camp?

AXL: There was no heat in that room. It was a cold, lonely place, but it was the only place I could stay to keep myself in the work. It was cool looking, but it was dark, cold and weird. It got to the point that certain people could tell just by the way I was talking, the tone of my voice, that l wasn't right. A friend brought by some Christmas presents. Another flew out unannounced and stayed with me Christmas Day, because they were very worried that I wasn't going to make it through. I couldn't leave the studio, but I couldn't go back to my condo because of my neighbor. That was a nightmare. It was also wild, because these people didn't know anything about the Christmas before, when was driving to your house, trying to find someone with dope on the way because l wanted to OD. I could always relate to the Hanoi Rocks song "Dead by Christmas." It's been two Christmases since then, though, and this past one was probably the nicest I've had in 29 years.

RIP: Did Robert (John, GNR's photographer) ever take any photos of you there?

AXL: No.

RIP: That's a drag

AXL: Yeah, it's a shame.

RIP: That would've been a great photo. That, and the time you threw your piano out the sliding-glass windows of your house.

AXL: Those were two major things that didn't get on film that should've. John Lennon wasn't nearly as self-conscious as l am. He could keep a camera rolling at all times.

RIP: l remember being backstage at San Diego, and you were late. People were seriously tense. Half of the concern is the job itself, but the other half is concern for you. It's not a case of, "Oh my god, my check's going out the window," it's, "Is Axl alright?"

AXL: I've never been in a position before where I've been responsible for the income and livelihood of at least 60 people, like our road crew and such. That's hard for me to deal with. If we didn't have an album out right now, l wouldn't be on tour; l wouldn't have chosen to take on that particular responsibility at this time. But I didn't really have a choice, especially if I want to keep my career going. I would've liked to be more together emotionally and mentally before this tour. Part of the job of being in Guns N' Roses is coming onstage and being superhuman. We're supposed to rise above the energy in the crowd, rise above whatever bad may have happened that day, rise above whatever is in your head, while at the same time trying to rise above the damage in your own life. When l say GNR are striving to rise above, I mean we're doing our best to survive, not like, "Hey, look at us, we're better than you." I don't mean rising by being power-hungry and vicious to people. We're just trying to rise above and be healthy and secure with ourselves, and trying to spread some of that around. That's what I'm working on.

RIP: Everyone seems to be harping on your tardiness to gigs.

AXL: I addressed the crowd in Phoenix and explained, "Maybe I was just too fuckin' bummed out to get my ass up here any quicker." They loved that. Maybe l couldn't move any faster than I was because it was a bitch. l don't mean to inconvenience the crowd by being late. Maybe by reading this interview they can understand a little of what go through regularly. Sometime it's really hard getting onstage, because l feel like I just can't rise above and win. I don't want to get onstage unless I know l can win and give the people their money's worth. I'm fighting for my own mental health, survival and peace. I'm doing a lot of self-help work and, fortunately, I can afford the people I work with. People say that I'm just spoiled. Yeah, I am; but the work I'm doing is so l can do my job. I've learned that when certain traumas happen to you, your brain releases chemicals that get trapped in the muscles where the trauma occurred. They stay there for your whole life. Then, when you're 50 years old, you've got bad legs or a bent back. When you're old, it's too hard to carry the weight of the world that you've kept trapped inside your body. I've been working on releasing this stuff, but as soon as we release one thing and that damage is gone, some new muscle hurts. That's not a new injury; it's a very old injury that, in order to survive, I've buried. When l get a massage, it's not a relaxing thing; it's like a football player getting worked on. I've had work done on me -- muscle therapy, kinesiology, acupuncture almost every day that we've been on the road.

RIP: It always seems like a crapshoot as to which Axl is going to show up at the gig. Why is that?

AXL: Part of it is because GNR is like a living organism. It's not an act. Even if I'm doing the same jump during the same part of a particular song, it's not an act. That's the best way for me to express myself at that point. l get there, and l let it out. Certain ways l move, like during "Brownstone," is the way to get the best out of myself. It's like, how can l give the most at that moment without giving up my life? How can l give life and still walk away with it? We don't go onstage like Guns N' Roses used to, or like a punk band -- and I'm not knocking punk bands --thinking that if we don't make it to tomorrow, that's okay. Now there's a lot of things depending on tomorrow and GNR. It's like, how can we give the most and turn around tomorrow and give that much again? It takes a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of maintenance. When l went onstage in San Diego, l got on thanks to Nirvana. l used their music to inspire me. I took their attitude and got up in jeans and a T-shirt I never do that. l got out there and told Slash that didn't know what was going to happen. I thought was going to go out there and quit. If l go out there and can't do it because l have no energy, then l have to walk away. When l got out there, the crowd was very giving with their energy towards us, and it actually fueled me. There's energy in the crowd that, unless you've seen and felt it, there's no way to describe. It's fuckin' scary. Darby Crash (lead singer of the L A. punk band the Germs) was scared to death of that energy, and his only way of rising above it was by getting wasted, acting like it didn't exist and showing that he could do more damage to himself than the crowd could. That's how he rose above it, but it finally killed him.

RIP: That's so weird you brought him up. Yesterday we were talking about how great the Germs record is.

AXL: Today l was watching The Decline of Western Civilization. l really liked this guy, and l felt bad.

RIP: You know. someone's gonna read this, see you say "living on the edge," and assume you mean drugs and rowdiness and all the other Hollywood cliches.

AXL: Well, that used to be. A lot of those were ways of dealing with pain. It was a survival mechanism. When see someone famous saying, "The road to success was not the drugs, blah, blah, blah,' I'm like. "Hey, they kept you alive during that time, didn't they? If you didn't have those things, you might not have made it." There's a lot of things that none of us were taught when we were kids. There is a lot of pain built up over the years. You're taught to believe that it's normal to get smacked in the head if you don't eat your food. By the lime you're in your teens, you're like, "Gimme a beer. Life's a bitch." I could never see myself trying to take away anyone else's emotional suppressants, especially if that's what helps keep them going and surviving. I would like to show people that you can get past these things and not need them anymore. I'm not about escaping through drugs and sex anymore, because I've reached a point where l can't escape. There is no escape. l have to deal with and face my life l was one of many people that didn't think l was gonna live to see next week, let alone 21. I felt that the world was so fucked up and that l was so underneath it all that just getting successful was not rising above it. That was rising above a couple things, like financial things, but then you had to learn how to handle the money, or you could get buried by it all over again and be even more depressed.

RIP: I know what you mean.

AXL: It you're operating out of fear that you're not going to live past a certain point anyway, then the attitude is, "Fuck it." In certain respects we've gotten lucky, those of us who are still alive, that we did get past that. There's a lot of people involved in rock 'n' roll who were running from something. They got involved with drugs and alcohol to help ease their pain. A large portion -- probably the majority -- of rockers and metal fans are damaged people who are trying to find some way to express themselves. They can relate to the anger, the pain, the frustration of the band that's performing.... Can l call you back in. like, half an hour?

RIP: Yeah. What's up?

AXL: l just want to get something to eat.

You can't have a music conversation without W. Axl Rose's name popping up. Rock n' roll's favorite enigma, he conjures many images. Everything from Damien Thorn (you know the antiChrist kid from "The Omen") in a kilt to a mixed-up misogynist come to mind.

He has certain qualities women love to mother but if you rub him the wrong way, he can be a real motherfucker. If there's one thing I'd like the world to know about Axl, it's that he truly cares about his people. What few understand, however is that we are ALL his people. That's why he shares his pain in his songs; that's why he performs when he feels like shit. On the days regular folks call in sick, he has to entertain 20,000 fans. If he didn't care about them, he'd shine them.

When the riots were going down in L.A., Axl invited me and my family, as well as many of his other friends, up to the safer environs of his house. He was in constant communication with us throughout the crisis, when he could just as easily have kept himself locked in or split the scene entirely -- but that's not his style.

Even though his manners seem unorthodox at times, he does care. Maybe that's one of the reasons he's such an easy target for detractors. Cynics can't deal with sincerity.



Read part II