A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
Six days after Axl Rose departed L.A. Guns, Ronald Regan earned a second presidential term with the largest electoral vote landslide victory in United States history. Maybe it just seemed like it because I was nineteen, but times were good in a proud and strong America. Well, except for the day all four of my car’s tires got flattened by a vandal’s ice pick through the sidewalls. Meaning them fucking hundred-fifty-bucks-each Goodyear Eagles could not be patched. Some remained convinced that Axl did it, but not me. I pointed out, “Axl wouldn’t slash my tires, smashing my car’s windows is more his style.” Plus, I really didn’t believe he cared enough about being in L.A. Guns to make the trip all the way across Hollywood to flatten my (car’s) tires.
Axl’s departure meant the band did not own even one complete original song. Tracii made an attempt to pen some lyrics, but no one liked his ideas. My fondness for booze and cocaine translated into stacks of notebooks filled with scribbled poems and clever wordplay. After initially declining my offer to muse something up, Tracii relented and provided me a noisy, distorted, all-guitar boombox-recorded cassette. Try as I might, I could not make anything fit into the “song’s” structure. So I offered a novice’s advice, “Maybe if you were to repeat this part three times, lose that part, and tie it all together with a bridge, I’d give it another shot.”
Tracii was unwilling to restructure his semi-cool riffs into a cohesive tune artfully crafted to make young girls shed knickers, and dismissed my suggestions outright. It made me think back to Axl’s collaboration frustrations, and Mike Jagosz’s complaints of Tracii’s unwillingness to work on anything other than his own ideas. Unable to get Tracii to accept his lack of composing talent, I recommended that he seek pointers from Izzy. But Tracii knew better and dismissed yet another of my helpful suggestions.
In my youth, the passing of time felt ultra-compressed, with all matters urgent. It seemed like forever had passed since Axl resigned, but it took less than two weeks for me to accept the fact he would not return. The band had shows booked, as well as a half-finished record with an advertised release date; something needed to get done. Tracii wanted to put out the word that L.A. Guns was looking for a singer, but I put my foot down. “There’s no time to audition singers and write songs.” Then the pragmatic-spiteful-stubborn Raz reared his ugly head and told Tracii, “We’re going to get Mike.”
Axl liked Mike Jagosz far less than Al Capone liked the IRS, so I got that wonderful rush of spiteful satisfaction by replacing him with Mike. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand the animosity between those two, but they both disliked each other equally and more than a lot. Eventually, I figured out why Mike didn’t like Axl. It could all be summed up by a mutual girl liking Axl better, plus Tracii, me, and music lovers worldwide preferring Axl over him. Axl’s problems with Mike were likely the result of always being called Bill, plus Mike would act smug, semi-friendly, and then talk mega shit behind Axl’s back.
Hiring Mike was a no-brainer. He and Tracii already had seven songs written and another dozen covers to pull out of their asses once they removed their thumbs. Tracii initially refused, threatening to quit. I laughed in his face and pointed to the door. “Fuck off then, I’ll find a guitar player, too.” I meant it, too. Guitar players were not in short supply. So once he realized I was dead serious, and with Ole and Robbie on my side, Mike Jagosz became L.A. Guns’ second singer. Yes, I said “second.” You see, when L.A. Guns formed, and soon after I came onboard as manager/investor, the band never had a singer until Axl Rose agreed to join the group. Most likely the reason Mike is wrongly referred to as the “original singer” is that he’s the voice on the EP.
You might remember a mention of Axl recording vocals for “Heartbreak Hotel,” leading one to wonder, “Where is that song with him singing?” Well, you see, within days of Mike coming onboard, Chuck arranged time in a studio near Mulholland and Valley Circle; Preferred Sound, I believe. There, Mike recorded vocals for “Don’t Love Me” and “When Dreams Don’t Follow Through.” Both tracks were previously recorded and waiting for Axl-penned lyrics, but Mike’s versions contained entirely different melodies and lyrics.
Over the next week, Mike rested his voice and Tracii added more guitars before adding even more guitars to “Heartbreak Hotel.” When Mike returned to the booth to perform the vocals, there were no available tracks, so I said, “Erase Axl’s vocals.”
Then Mike attempted a few takes, but couldn’t pull off anything less than awful compared to Axl’s version. When G N’ R blew up, Tracii asked me about Axl’s vocals on “Heartbreak Hotel.” I reminded him, “There were nine guitar tracks, so we erased Axl for Mike’s vocals.” I have no regrets. The fact those vocal tracks no longer existed likely helped me avoid costly legal entanglements.
Chuck’s love of Mike’s voice and stationary inclination meant those two got along great. Chuck became reenergized with the project, and we soon bounced from Preferred Sound into a kick-ass high-dollar studio, Westwind, located in Thousand Oaks. Mike never could get into the groove of “Heartbreak Hotel,” so Robbie moved Vinnie Appice’s drums aside and set up his own kit and then the boys laid down basic tracks for “It’s Not True” and “Something Heavy.”
Over the next few weeks, at least fifty hours were spent completing all the tracks. All the while, I ran around town making an EP come to life. Los Angeles was the hub of the music industry, with plenty of support businesses to choose from when one decided to light stacks of money on fire. I’ve heard it said, “The fastest way to make a million dollars in the music business: start with ten million dollars.” The shit I knock out nowadays with Photoshop in a few hours required a professional graphics person in 1984. Even the simplest artwork took thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and expensive collections of fonts. So I hired Tommy at Magnolia Press in Burbank, the same guy who did our T-shirts, flyers, posters, and stickers, to produce the EP’s camera-ready artwork. The record sleeves were ordered before recording finished, so they mistakenly list “Heartbreak Hotel” and leave out “It’s Not True” and “Something Heavy.”
We did the mastering at Quadtech in Hollywood. Chuck took the lead, but Tracii had enough input to get the guitars pushed to the point of ruining a decent mix out of the studio. Next, stampers were made then sent off with the labels and jackets to Alberti Records in Monterey Park. Tracii was busy in the studio, or I neglected to show him the artwork until it was approved, but he didn’t like that I had made Raz so prominent and oft repeated on the packaging and labels of Collector’s Edition No. 1. Mike, Robbie, and Ole were cool with it, and one of them said, “He deserves to have his name as big as ours.” After much legwork, with all the pieces ready for assembly, it was time to hurry up and wait for records to be pressed.
Recording was one thing, but the stage show needed lots of work.
Though vocally talented, Mike lacked any semblance of charisma or emotion on stage. Though he could hold his own aesthetically with the prettiest of L.A.’s frontmen, his pretentious, lackluster persona screamed, “I’m way cooler than you’ll ever be.” When he did move, it was stiff and unrelated to the song’s rhythm.
His was the polar opposite of Axl’s connection to the band, audience, and “Let’s burn this motherfucker down” attitude. Tracii, Ole, Robbie, and me, spoiled by Axl’s otherworldly, aggressive, dynamic, and passionate stage persona, all relentlessly piled onto Mike to not be such a dead fish under the spotlight. Before hiring Mike into the group, I actually made him promise to work on stage presence. Despite the commitment, once he was in the band, he did as he pleased.
After several rehearsals, with him frozen to the floor behind the microphone stand, I reminded Mike of his agreement to rock out more and try to be a better frontman. He gave me a dismissive, “I’ll do it at the show.” Then we squabbled a bit about either someone’s got it or they don’t, and it’s not a switch to be turned on or off.
At the next rehearsal, I began goading him the moment he walked through the studio door. “Show the world that you’re a rock star, Mike.” Up for the challenge, he then gave by far his best performance I ever saw. From the band’s first note, he rocked out, shredded his air guitar, headbanged, and ran around like a wild man, delivering powerful, spot-on vocals until thoroughly drenched in sweat.
After the set, we all enthusiastically heaped deserved praise upon Mike. He looked up from the couch he had sprawled across, huffed and puffed and barely eked out, “See? I can rock out anytime I want.”
Mike Jagosz never repeated anything near that evening’s performance, or he quite possibly would have become the rock star he ogled so often in the mirror.
Unlike the borderline professionalism required of me on show night, promoting was ultra-fun. I loved hanging out at clubs and drinking far too many cocktails amongst the scantily clad girls swarming in from throughout the world on their quest for love, drugs, and knobbins for bobbin. My preferred haunt was the legendary Troubadour, where the decade before, one of my all-time favorite artists, Elton John, first wowed the American music press.
The pantheon of rock’s royalty at one time or another performed on that fabled stage, or at the very least caught a friend’s hot ticket show at the club. For a few years, I saw most of the worth-seeing groups, as well as far too many giant piles of steaming feces with expensive gear. Those mid-80s were glamorous nights at The Troub. But I’m a jeans-and-T-shirt, whiskey rock ‘n’ roller, so at first, I didn’t get why dudes like Poison, Ruby Slippers, or Kerry Doll dressed up like girls. But it was what was going on all around, so it all soon became quite normal to me. Plus, them pretty-boys drew tons of toe and played some ear-pleasing, heavy rock ‘n’ roll.
The sign out front said, “Doug Weston’s Troubadour.” In reality, a Lebanese cat, co-owner Eddy, ran the place. When he found out I was a fellow Lebby, he treated me like a long-lost cousin. If I wanted to go into the showroom to see an act, he’d tell Mike at the door to let me pass. Once inside, the showroom spotters looked away as bartenders overpoured my cocktails. A cool dude, Dimo, ran the grill behind the bar and never charged me for a meal. We’d smoke a bowl or two and then shoot the shit while evaluating the talent milling about.
In the front bar was my all-time favorite bartender, Stuart, “The Captain.” On any given night, I’d be drinking alongside some big-time artist or wasted has-been unaware of their lost stature. Top-of-the-rock-world David Lee Roth dropped in often to visit Stuart, have a few drinks, and then take some fine young filly into the toilet for an extended private party while a behemoth bodyguard blocked the door. It’d piss folks off, me included, when the only nearby bathroom became unavailable. But part of me had much respect for the rock star being a rock star.
A month after Axl Rose left the band, Mike’s first live show as L.A. Guns’ singer went down at the Troubadour at nine o’clock on a Tuesday. Flyers billed the event as a “RELEASE PARTY in Celebration of the Debut Release on Raz Records.” But our discs were not yet in hand, so we passed out IOUs handwritten on the back of my business card. For a weeknight, at such an early timeslot, the club was packed. Well over a hundred and fifty folks, but not quite enough for the club to remove tables and chairs from the showroom. We got paid about a hundred bucks. About a hundred more than most local Tuesday-night bands made.
Ole had a cute ‘n’ thick blonde girlfriend, with tits so massive they resembled two bald guys sitting next to each other. On stage, she introduced the band, wearing only skin-tight pants and a strategically placed L.A. Guns bumper sticker binding them jumbo jiggling jugs together. The set included the EP’s four songs, “Something Heavy,” “Don’t Love Me,” “It All Comes Back,” and “It’s Not True,” as well as “Make Your Stand,” “Too Many Times,” “Time Has Come Today,” and Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” We switched the after-party location to the Holiday Inn near Highland and Hollywood, so folks had to attend the show to know where the party was. Unlike the Tropicana Motel ragers, LAPD broke up our party within an hour of kickoff, and officers kindly escorted us all out of the building.
Two weeks later, Razzle of Hanoi Rocks died doing what lots of us frequently enjoyed: riding along with a drunken buddy. And that weekend, L.A. Guns performed the same set list at the Timbers Ballroom in Glendora. The packed crowd also received IOUs for a free EP. With the venue’s great PA, decent lights, and awesome acoustics, the band rocked the energetic crowd like FWB’s.
The next performance of those same songs was at Radio City, three days before Christmas, so the flyer urged attendees to “Start Your Christmas Binge.” The EP finally in hand, I was happy we sold more than we gave away. The club was only half full, but the band put on a great show. As usual, Mars treated us well enough for me to look forward to my next trip to Orange County. No small feat. Although he expressed props for Mike, after the show, Mars pulled me aside and said, “Your other singer was way better.” I nodded the affirmative and shrugged.
L.A. Guns became far more metal with Mike singing, which was fine with me. He had gotten me into groups like Accept, Rainbow, and UFO, but also really dug local metal bands like Warrior, Steeler, and Armored Saint. We were friends, pot buddies, and partners in crime. Mike was a wild child, always down for some drunken brawling, felonious adventure, or a road race back to the arcade, where we’d gamble on pinball or video football. We hadn’t really spoken since our falling-out months before, and once he joined the band, I was actually happy to repair our friendship. But hanging out with Mike was like having sex with four girls simultaneously. No matter how fun it sounds, sooner, rather than later, you will desperately need a break. As the weeks passed, unless absolutely necessary for band stuff, I began going out of my way to avoid him.
Tracii and I stopped by Sunset Tattoo to have ink maestro Robert Benedetti work on a design for Tracii. When I saw that Robert had tattooed and signed Ozzy’s chest, I was star-struck. Tracii dared me to get the L.A. Guns logo tattooed on my arm and, having wanted to get my second tat for some time, I took the dare. Robert did me a solid by suggesting that instead of the block-letter L.A. Guns logo, a Japanese character would be the more stylistic choice. The character actually translates to “big gun.” Japanese girls giggle when they see it. Robert hooked me up for forty bucks and, when done, told Tracii, “If you want one, too, it’s on the house.” So Tracii copied me. For several reasons – timing, money, and body art’s mainstreaming – it was my last tattoo.
The EP needed promoting, so I shifted into full-on “let’s sell product” mode, but immediately became sorely disappointed by the guys’ laziness when it came to hyping their own damn record. Mike apparently felt his work complete once he stepped from the vocal booth. Strangely, Tracii also had no interest in going along with me to local record stores, DJs, or wherever a record could be played by scene-making movers and shakers. Robbie helped to actively promote the disc whenever he could, but lived a car-less existence out in the valley. So if there was no rehearsal or show, he remained camped out over the hill.
Ole was the exact opposite. He realized the EP was a first baby step toward achieving his bright-light dreams in the big city, so remained ever-ready and willing to do the hard work required. If I conjured a plan or angle to promote that wax, Ole never said no. He’d pop on his gay-ass pink leather biker jacket and off we’d speed in my turbo Pontiac.
When we dropped by an independent record distributor’s house to deliver a few boxes of discs, I learned we got paid per song. So it sucked there were only three listed. Ole and me got on well with the dude and, during an informative multi-hour visit, he offered to put in a good word to national club promoters and hook me up with an independent promoter for airplay. Wish I remembered more about that dude, not to get those EPs back, but because he was a very cool and helpful music lover with a massive LP collection. Sometimes, when I see a sealed Collector’s Edition No. 1 selling online for a ridiculously high price, I hope it’s him moving them one at a time as to not crash the market.
One night, while hanging around the Raz Productions’ office snapping bong hits, and with hopes of getting the EP radio airplay, I decided to banzai over to nearby KMET FM studios. Its rotation skewed far heavier than KLOS, so it sub-branded itself K-METAL. With plans to sneak back to the booth and hold a DJ hostage until he played the entire EP ten times, Ole and I entered the station’s lobby in full stealth mode. Actually, we merely approached the guard in the lobby and said, “We’re here to see Jack,” the DJ currently on the air. The guard made a call, and a few minutes later, Jackson B. Snyder came out to chat. He was a friendly dude, and even invited us to visit the DJ booth. I gave him an EP, along with a request to play a song or two, and believed him when he said, “I would have in the old days, but everything is corporate now.”
Until that night in the KMET studios, I imagined being a radio DJ as a cool, fun gig.
But my opinion changed upon realizing the job required sitting all alone for four hours in a stuffy booth, playing someone else’s shitty playlist. It surely was no WKRP, Dr. Johnny Fever fun-time-turkeys-dropping-from-helicopters stuff.
Ole’s former band, Mercyful Fate, was in town opening for Motörhead at the Palladium. I had met Ole’s Danish cohorts a few months earlier, when they headlined the Country Club. We never got into that show, because it was way oversold and the fire marshal put a halt to new arrivals. But a few of the band members came outside to hang with us. Even though they were super friendly, happy to see Ole, and promised to get us into the Palladium show when they returned, I felt we had been blown off and the next time it would happen again. I was wrong; when we got to the Palladium’s will call, Ole was on the list with passes for two. Despite my inability to get into the King Diamond groove, ever, that was one awesome band and a great metal show. We ended up giving out several L.A. Guns discs backstage, while drinking lots of free Heinekens.
Even though L.A. Guns drew well to their previous Troubadour show, it only earned them a Sunday night booking, headlining New Year’s Eve-Eve. The club was jam-packed full, up until Guns’ fans cleared the joint after the announcement of a huge party at the Tropicana Motel. Shortly after midnight, a bassist named Don Costa showed up to the Tropicana looking for Tracii. Don was a great-looking wild man and extremely talented musician, somewhat of a local legend from bands such as Dante Fox, Great White, and ever so briefly a member of Ozzy Osbourne’s band.
It wasn’t said explicitly, but Don was there to recruit Tracii for his newest band. So when he told Tracii, “You’re way better than Jake (E. Lee),” I didn’t think anything of it. Lots of people wanted Tracii in their band, but I figured he would never leave a band named after him, that weeks earlier released an EP of his songs.
I soon realized that Tracii was no longer interested in L.A. Guns. The praise he received from other musicians, music biz folks, and fans only reinforced his belief that he was God’s gift to God. But in reality, he was merely a baby rock star within a five-square-mile box. He wasn’t alone in the arrogance department. With the release of the “Collector’s Edition No. 1” and less than a handful of shows, Mike also strutted around Hollywood as if he were the biggest rock star ever to grace the world’s stage.
About a week into 1985, I arrived to the studio to find Tracii and Mike yelling and screaming at one another. A piss-drunk Mike had pawned Tracii’s bookshelf speakers to buy more cocktails. Tracii was in the process of firing him over it. But I managed to persuade Tracii to wait until after the next show, in hopes of cooler heads prevailing once Mike retrieved those crappy speakers from hock.
As Tracii stormed away, Mike yelled, “If you do that guns and roses thing, I’m going to quit.”
Once everything calmed down, I asked, “What was that you said earlier, ‘guns and roses’?”
Mike sneered, “Tracii wants to do a jam band with Bill and call it ‘Guns and Roses.’”
Like thousands of millions of people to come, I said, “That’s a great name!”
That next L.A. Guns gig was a weekend, co-headlining the Country Club. With its expansive stage, great acoustics, awesome PA, and fabulous lights, the club was far and away the best heavy metal venue in town. And it was well worth the drive to see great groups like Malice, Wrathchild America, Brooklyn Brats, Odin, and so many others. We weren’t required to prove a draw. The promoter, Jenifer Perry, merely gave us a hundred tickets to sell. Though printed at eight bucks face value, she only wanted four bucks per ticket. In theory, we could make a tidy profit by selling all of them, or break even by selling half.
I thought it was a no-brainer, but Tracii refused to sell any. He scoffed, “You don’t see Richie Blackmore outside the Forum saying, ‘Yo, dude, wanna buy some Purple tickets?’” While Tracii Guns was busy believing himself on Blackmore’s level, Mike, Ole, and Robbie were stoked to play the prestigious, go-to venue for local, national, and international heavy metal acts.
Despite their expressed gusto for the show, the guys put zero effort into selling tickets. At sound check, I gave Jennifer some money and returned the unsold tickets. She actually let it slide. So on with the show. Independent club promoters soon realized that if they wanted bands to sell their own tickets, get the money up front. That’s where “Pay to Play” got its name.
I really liked Jenifer, a tough broad who was always beyond nice and ultra-helpful to friends as well as bands she dug. If there were more like her, I’d probably still be in the music business. In the following months, I’d often enjoy cocktails with Jenifer and her good friend, Vicky Hamilton, who at the time managed Poison. We’d sit in a corner of the Troubadour’s front bar, engaged in useless chatter about the scene’s goings on and bands we liked, or me talking shit and mocking the far too many shitty bands.
That Country Club show also featured another excellent band, Black Sheep. Willie Basse, the bass-playing vocalist and local metal legend, was ultra-talented, respected, and well-liked by most who met him. His rhythm partner, Todd, on drums, was a mind-blowing, skin-slamming metronome. Willie’s stellar ear for talent gave start to many a legendary musician. That night, Paul Gilbert played guitar for Black Sheep, but departed soon after to form Racer X. While watching Black Sheep, Tracii actually said to me, “That dude’s better than me.” It shocked me he actually noticed, then said it out loud.
Willie threw a hell of an after-party at his Wilpower Studios, located in an industrial park on the border of North Hollywood and Sun Valley. With no neighbors to complain about noise or drunks, it raged until the kegs ran dry. Thanks to him, L.A. Guns didn’t miss a beat when it came to great after-show celebrations. Robbie told me years later that at the party, Paul Gilbert asked him to be the drummer for a new band he was starting. Robbie shot him down with, “I’m in L.A. Guns.”
Before that party, there was a show with an audience of around two hundred. Due to the Country Club’s cavernous dimensions, the crowd appeared sparse. Plus, the band’s Hollywood fans had remained on their side of the hill to avoid a long, drunken drive back from deep within the San Fernando Valley wastelands. Once the rocking commenced, all the cool kids sat at the back of class. Only a few people wandered down front to the stage while L.A. Guns played. Mike had twenty EPs to hand out, so the six or seven folks nearby all received one.
Toward the end of the set, Mike bellowed into the microphone, “Who wants an L.A. Guns record?” Some dude sitting at a table at least fifty feet away stuck his hand up and yelled. Like a Frisbee, an EP went hurling in the general direction of the request. Then Mike began sending flying EPs toward random people seated at far away tables; each with a little more zip than the prior disc. People quickly realized it was time to duck, dodge, or get whapped. Which I found hilarious, but Tracii not so much. Because within minutes of the curtain dropping, Tracii Guns said, “I’ll never go on stage with Mike again.”
L.A. Guns, in the market for a new singer, was forced to cancel upcoming gigs. But the Troubadour would not allow cancelations. If a band missed a show, they could never play there again. I tried convincing Tracii to change his mind for at least the one Troubadour show in March. I argued that L.A. Guns’ name would be useless if they couldn’t play the Troub, and any talented – or shitty – singer is going to be difficult most times.
All the while, I secretly lobbied Mike to play it cool for a few days till Tracii calmed down. But, as customary, Mike remained a complete asshole about the whole thing. The ingrate even demanded severance pay for all his hard work and effort. I switched to Tracii’s side rather quickly and began pondering ways to do the Troubadour gig as to not devalue a band name I had spent at least ten grand promoting.