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I write about popular music from a management perspective using research on management and entrepreneurship. I show a different side of musicians by taking them seriously as navigators of their own careers, as leaders of small businesses, and as part of self-managed creative teams. I have a Ph.D. in Management and Organizations from the University of Michigan. I am writing a book about concert industry professionals.

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The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Leadership 36,276 views

How Being Late And Volatile Was Axl Rose's Contribution To The Guns N' Roses Brand

If you were one of the millions of people who saw Guns N’ Roses perform on the Use Your Illusion Tour in the early 1990s, you are well familiar with the sense of danger that made the show so exciting. You were in for a rock n’ roll concert and possibly much more.

For example, at a show in Stockholm, the band didn’t take the stage until after 11:00 p.m. Then singer Axl Rose insulted the audience. “If you’re bored,” he told them, “You should’ve saved your money and gone and seen the fireworks tonight.” Which is where he had been instead of at the show. A few days later in Copenhagen, he stopped the show for 15 minutes because an audience member had thrown a firecracker onto the stage. At a show in St. Louis, Rose got worked up about a fan with a video camera, threw his microphone down, and stomped off the stage. The crowd rioted and tore the building apart, racking up more than $200,000 in damages.

According to Craig Duswalt, who was Axl Rose’s personal assistant during the Use Your Illusion tour, that sense of danger verged on panic behind the scenes. “There was a sense of urgency at every show. Is Axl going to come? Is he going to be on time? What time are we getting there?” Duswalt recalls. Duswalt is the author of a new memoir, Welcome to My Jungle: An Unauthorized Account of How a Regular Guy Like Me Survived Years of Touring with Guns N’ Roses, Pet Wallabies, Crazed Groupies, Axl Rose’s Moth Extermination System, and Other Perils on the Road with One of the Greatest Rock Bands of All Time.

Axl Rose, lead vocalist of Guns N' Roses performing during their concert in Bangalore, India. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, file)

Axl Rose, lead vocalist of Guns N’ Roses performing during their concert in Bangalore, India. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, file)

Duswalt claims that Rose’s behavior was never caused by disrespect to the fans. “The myth is that they’re always late, they don’t care about their audiences, their fans, because they go on late,” Duswalt told me. “But the reality is they do care about their fans, so much so that Axl wanted to put on the best show possible. That’s why sometimes he was late because he was not ready to go at the drop of a hat. He had to prepare and sometimes it took longer for him to get into the mindset to put on what he feels is the best show.”

The mindset that Rose had to get into was in fact a state of frenzy, because he carried the weight of delivering the Gun N’ Roses experience on stage. And that experience was all about intensity, danger, violence and mayhem. It was what the fans came for. Axl Rose told journalist Mick Wall in 1990, referencing prize fighter Mike Tyson’s biography Bad Intentions, “I relate what I do to what Tyson says about when he punches someone in the head. He says he imagines hitting ‘em so hard his fist knocks their nose bone right back into their brains. He says when he goes in the ring he does it with bad intentions. Well, that’s like me getting ready to start something, like going onstage. And you gotta make sure when you knock ‘em down they stay down.” Turning the rage on or off was not always easy.

Another myth that Duswalt confronts in his book is that Guns N’ Roses partied all the time. “Don’t get me wrong, they partied,” he says. “But, before a show, Axl would warm up for an hour in the shower doing vocal exercises. He would get a massage, he would get adjusted by a chiropractor. He would tape up his ankles because he ran around so much. He prepared for two-and-a-half to three hours before a show. And then after each show he would go back into the shower and warm down his voice for a half hour.” Not surprisingly, a recent study revealed that Axl Rose has the widest vocal range of any popular music singer, wider even than Adele or Mariah Carey.

Duswalt now conducts seminars and workshops for entrepreneurs and small business owners. One of the lessons he teaches them from his days with Guns N’ Roses is that no matter how successful they are, they have to maintain and update their skills and they have to be extremely disciplined. “These rock stars are at the top of their game and they still do the basics every single day. That’s what we have to do as business people as well.”

Axl Rose’s lateness and onstage volatility wasn’t just about him entering his onstage character. It was also about maintaining the brand. “Guns N’ Roses were known as the bad boys in rock n’ roll,” Duswalt says, “And a great marketing thing is that they were very good at being the bad boys in rock ‘n’ roll.” In his workshops, Duswalt uses Guns N’ Roses to teach the importance of writing a mission statement and sticking to it. “They said, ‘We’re just going to be the baddest boys in rock n’ roll,’ and they certainly acted like it. And that’s what attracted people. Even if you didn’t like Guns N’ Roses, people came to their concerts to see what was going to happen because so many things went wrong at the concerts. Is Axl going to do the whole show. Is he going to stay on stage? Is he going to run off stage and leave? Is there going to be a riot tonight? People wanted to see the spectacle of it as well.”

For business owners, amping up the sense of excitement may be a way to differentiate themselves from competitors.  You may not want to be as radical as Gun N’ Roses, but perhaps you can be more exciting and interesting than your competitors.

For more about the intersection of rock n’ roll and business hit “follow” on the top of this page.

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  • Rita Trehan Rita Trehan 1 year ago

    Well worth reading – how many of the best leaders do you know that have some sense of “quirkiness,” unreasonableness? The power in this article it’s on focus on two key messages “discipline and a clear vision”

  • Ruth Blatt Ruth Blatt, Contributor 1 year ago

    Great point, thank you for your comment!

  • As a friend and client of Craig Duswalt, I can attest to the amazing transition he has made from hard core R & R to the business world. He has taken many of the things he learned on the road and teaches us how to stand out from the competition – and he doesn’t just teach tactics and strategies, but most importantly, he teaches heart. Thanks for this feature article.

  • Bruce Legg Bruce Legg 11 months ago

    Hi Ruth… thanks for the article. Was the correlation of these events stronger with their success or demise? I’m basing this skepticism on my understanding of the band’s creative output and lifespan.

  • Ruth Blatt Ruth Blatt, Contributor 11 months ago

    That’s a good question. You’d think that during a period of success the band could get away with being late more so than when they are not. But I’m not sure that’s actually been the case!