A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
Whatever Tracii Guns believed he had going on right after getting the boot from G N’ R never panned out. After a few months of sitting around twiddling his thumbs, one afternoon he dropped by my house to tell me he formed a new band with Nickey Alexander. Tracii asked if he could use the name L.A. Guns, and if I would manage the group. I told him it was fine with me, but was no longer interested in being anyone’s manager. I always liked the affable, eccentric, funny, and talented drummer Nickey, as well as the hippie-punk vibe of his studio, so I swung by to check out their new band, enjoy the jam, and have a few brews. Shortly after arrival, I met bass-playing Brit Mick Cripps, a very friendly, hip-looking, and instantly likeable guy. That evening, they were auditioning vocalists, and in walked Paul Black, the cool-funky, skinny, knobbie-kneed, long haired punk who happened to be one of my favorite local drummers. His unique jazzy-grooving-punk style was a big reason for my love of The Joneses.
I don’t know what Tracii told the guys, but everyone acted as if I were their manager. Yet I didn’t correct anyone before, during, or after. Within a few days, I was able to convince myself that Tracii had learned a lesson about loyalty and how to treat friends. Add to that, Tracii was talented and could be almost as likeable as he was persuasive. Figuring everyone deserved a second chance, I told him, “I’ll help you out however I can, but you don’t need a manager yet.”
Next thing I knew, we were having band meetings at my house, and I was booking some of their shows, as well as handling assorted band clerical tasks. I liked the guys but really didn’t think much of the new band. I preferred Paul Black far more as a drummer, mostly because I didn’t care for his voice. But with no skin in the game, all that mattered was his bandmates liked him.
About two weeks before the band’s first show, Tracii sought my counsel about a gig offer in New York City recording with a Penthouse model bankrolled by her sugar daddy. I told him he should “Go to New York, make some money, have fun, and come back in time for the show.” No need to break up his brand-new band.
He agreed to do just that, and set a return date for two days before the reformed L.A. Guns’ very first show. While Tracii was on the East Coast, his gonorrhea-distributing girlfriend ended up staying at my place, and the night before Tracii’s scheduled return, she told me, “Tracii said he’s going to stay there, and he wants me to move to New York.”
His flight was due in L.A. by early evening, and theoretically I would have picked him up in time for one more rehearsal before the debut show. Instead, I called the rest of the group over for a pizza-lunch band meeting at my place. Then I told them Tracii wasn’t coming back. So when he called from New York about an hour after his plane’s scheduled departure and said, “I missed my flight,” he was undoubtedly shocked by his bandmates confronting his lies on speakerphone. We all took turns telling him how fucked he was, and that he could still make it back in time for the next night’s show.
Instead, Tracii lashed out and yelled, “You guys are idiots wasting your time. The L.A. scene is dead.” Not only did Tracii Guns form a band only to quit before even doing a show, he flaked hard and belittled his bandmates to boot.
I believe Mick was the one who suggested Robert Stoddard, cofounder of Dogs d’Amour, as a last-minute fill-in. Robert saved the band by learning the songs and playing the very next night, Halloween, opening for Detox at Trooper Hall on the east side of Hollywood. Something amazing happened – they were great. Robert’s vocal harmonies complimented Paul’s voice to the point of me changing my opinion of his talent one hundred eighty degrees. Another startling discovery, Paul Black was a God damn cool motherfucker on stage. I liked the show so much that afterward, I told them I’d be willing to help them any way I could. Suddenly, I cared about managing bands again, but only to ensure that Tracii never got his grubby hands on the name L.A. Guns.
Mick, a great and energetic networker, worked at “Let It Rock” on Melrose. The shop sold shit-loads of imported English clothes and shoes to people who didn’t know the value of a dollar. Then there were, Nickey, Robert, and Paul, all well known, well liked, and respected around the scene. The heavily promoted name L.A. Guns was still fresh in local music fans’ minds, and at the same wrinkle in time, Guns N’ Roses was gaining popularity faster than Peruvian blow at a 70s disco. Plus, folks around town were well aware of G N’ R having evolutionary ties to L.A. Guns. All those factors combined to help L.A. Guns build a large following pretty quickly, and right out of the gate, the new band was well compensated for shows.
Unlike the glorified high school garage-metal band that recorded the L.A. Guns’ EP, the new members were driven professionals who actually benefited from having a part-time manager. I would handle business calls to pass messages along as needed, let them use gear, and float a couple of bucks for flyers or renting a U-Haul. After a show, they’d pay me back and give a cut of their take. They even paid to replace my van’s blown-up engine.
Something entirely new to me – but as it should be – fresh material usually showed up to rehearsal as a complete song on demos that Robert and/or Paul created on a four-track recorder. Then, as Mick would say, “We messy them up a bit into an L.A. Guns’ song.” My favorites were “Roll the Dice,” “One More Reason to Die,” “Wired and Wide Awake,” “L.A.P.D.,” as well as some great cover versions of “Rather Go to Jail,” “Adam’s Apple,” and “Fortunate Son.” Besides the Axl-Rose-fronted lineup, of all the two hundred thirty-six subsequent iterations, this was my favorite version of L.A. Guns.
If they are even slightly worth a listen, up-and-coming bands attract a lot of people offering various forms of support. In this world, there are many talented and dedicated folks willing to donate time and creative energy solely for love of new music. Chris Amoroux was one of those, who right from the beginning helped immeasurably by snapping several excellent band photos and creating graphics for flyers, as well as tons of other supportive stuff.
About two months into the band’s re-existence, the owner of Let It Rock, Alan Jones, came on as co-manager and financial backer. I actually tried diplomatically to explain to him L.A. Guns did not need capital at that point. But he was into the whole investing-in-a-band thing and began hooking them up with stage clothes, buying magazine ads, and other expenses requiring pocketfuls of dollars. I understood his desire to spend his way into the rock word, because I had paid the same tuition less than a year earlier. I recall thinking Alan lucky to have me around so he wouldn’t bankrupt himself as I had.
Within a month of quitting L.A. Guns II, Tracii’s New York gig fell through. Soon after returning to L.A., he and Robbie Gardner broke into my house and stole a portable filing box containing much of my financial records. I didn’t get confirmation it was those two until much later, when Robbie’s ex-girlfriend told me all the details of the heist. According to her version of events, Robbie just tagged along with Tracii, who wanted to pawn my guitar that he was in possession of, and was removing proof of ownership from my files. My theory was that Tracii sought the legal documents and contracts pertaining to L.A. Guns. Luckily, I had the foresight to store my legal paperwork off premises.
Two weeks before the Tracii-less L.A. Guns played their debut gig, by chance, Izzy and me were stuck door-to-door in gridlock traffic on the Highland off-ramp of the 101 Freeway. He was returning home from sound check at the Country Club, and over the course of fifteen minutes, we shouted car-to-car and got caught up on shit. Izzy told me about G N’ R getting switched to the show’s headliner instead of opening for Jetboy. I was stoked to hear about their move to top billing, and when he put me on the guest list, I attended my first Guns N’ Roses show since early summer.
It was Glam Night at the ultimate San Fernando Valley metal club, and my first Jetboy show, where they lived up to the hype by delivering an awesome performance to an overflow crowd. Both G N’ R and Jetboy practiced at Nickey’s Love Palace and had become close, supportive friends. Jetboy even let G N’ R send out flyers to everyone on their massive mailing list. During the four months since I last saw the guys, they wrote two great new songs, “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Paradise City.” Upon hearing “Paradise City” for the first time, I distinctly recall it being so fucking good I thought it was a cover song.
Axl seemed happy to see me, and gave me a copy of their brand-new demo tape. At some point during the evening, one of the guys asked if they could give my copy to some record company exec. Unfortunately, I never got another one. Axl was in great spirits as he spoke about renting a rehearsal studio at Gardner and Sunset. It had gotten almost impossible to get in at Nickey’s, because L.A. Guns got first dibs on the best times. With G N’ R achieving local headliner status, while getting paid more and more, renting their own twenty-four-hour lockout was a no-brainer. They moved into studio B within days of that Country Club gig, right next door to The Wild. It then took several years for the corner of Sunset and Gardner to revert to its former boring glory.
At the Country Club gig, I made up with my brother Joe. He had a new girlfriend, Dinah Cancer, legendary and groundbreaking singer for 45 Grave. She was a cool chick, and probably my all-time favorite of his girlfriends. Not because she kept Joe in check, or that she was willing to take my side in arguments if I established the more reasonable position. It was because she was very smart, talented, and super fun to party with. With a name like Dinah Cancer, one could never be a buzz-kill.
That same Halloween night, when L.A. re-Guns played their first show, G N’ R jammed at Radio City in Anaheim and were already moved into their studio at Sunset and Gardner. It was a small space, about twelve by twenty feet, barely enough room to pass out drunk. So Slash and Joe went shopping at “midnight lumber supply” to procure enough timber to build a scary-rickety loft, slightly bigger than a king-sized bed. Whenever there were three or four naked chicks up there rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’, doing things with not-so-nice boys they hope their grandkids never try, I’d make a hasty exit, lest love come tumbling down on me. Paradise by the tube-amp light; “It was long ago and far away.”
Duff worked a day job and lived in an apartment not far from the studio. One day after work, Joe and I went over there to watch the World Series. When Duff’s lady came home, we headed next door to West Arkeen’s place to drink and watch the rest of the game. It was hard to not instantly like West, the ultimate wild ‘n’ crazy guy with an easy, bleary-eyed smile and super fun to get hammered with. I had only recently discovered the great Tommy Bolin, who, along with Jimi Hendrix, West would often cite as his favorite guitarists and songwriters. Many think of West as merely an outstanding songwriter, but oh boy could that boy play guitar. I loved his precise yet unruly style, creative tunings, and the dangerous, low-down, and dirty-mean tones he could force out of even the crappiest practice amp. “It’s all in the fingers” really applied to him.
One of the coolest things about a twenty-four-hour lockout rehearsal studio was that it provided an ability to practice at the most convenient time for everyone’s schedule. Then, if the spirit moves you, groove till the wee hours. The guys were freed from the constraints of a three-hour block a few times a week, plus gear remained set up, ready to be rocked. Lots of bands rented lockout studios, but most were located deep in the valley, downtown, or way the fuck further out in the hinterlands. That spot right off Sunset Boulevard sat stumbling distance from where most of the guys stayed. It was also ultra-convenient for friends, and zip codes’ worth of young lustful ladies, whenever they got a hankering to party harder than my ancient self can imagine.
Certain life events had persuaded Izzy to keep mind, body, and soul pure-ish for a clearly defined period of time. During this stretch, aside from the occasional twenty beers, he mostly lived life on the straight and narrow. Izzy was one of those dudes who always had guitar in hand, and would hang out at the studio to play for hours on end. If one of the guys wanted the room, Izzy moved to a chair out front to continue his perpetual strumming. The great location meant when Duff got off work, he could tighten up with Steven, who would bang on his drums anytime the room was available. Slash could work on his guitar sound, wah-wah technique, practice voice box, or tweak other equipment whenever he got the urge. Most nights, around seven or eight, the band practiced as a complete unit. Well, except for Axl. The little studio didn’t have a PA.
Bands typically won’t acknowledge singers don’t really need to practice once they have the song down, so it’s often a source of conflict in the pursuit of fairness. I did wish the studio had a PA, but only because I wanted to hear Axl sing some of the new songs not yet in the set. I loved one unfinished tune in particular, which I referred to as “that AC/DC song.” Axl said it was called “My Michelle,” then passed me a notebook with the lyrics so I could give him props on his way with words. During rehearsal that night, when the band started working on the song, Axl stood at my side and belted “My Michelle” straight into my ear as Guns N’ Roses played about two feet from us. See? No PA needed.
Being tight with The Wild and my buddies G N’ R right next door, it became my favorite spot to pre-buzz before the clubs. And then re-buzz after. I’d drop by several times a week, often finding at least one person happy that I was there with a fat joint. Even though I had known Izzy for a few years and been a fan for as long, until the studio we hadn’t really hung out much. I had recently really gotten into the Stones, and I’d go hang out with Izzy and we’d listen to Mick-Taylor-era Stones while he plunked away. I had all kinds of Stones questions, and when I asked Izzy which album “Angie” was on, he perked up like he remembered something of utter importance. “Goats Head Soup,” he said as he sprang to his feet and then asked if I wanted any Thai food.
I told him to get me a beef satay. An hour later, he returned with Goats Head Soup, beef satay, and my first-ever Thai iced tea. If you have never tasted one, put this book down immediately and go get yourself a large Thai iced tea. Even better yet, feed your soul with some Goats Head Soup while enjoying your heavenly Thai beverage.
It seemed like a lifetime of change occurred during the few months I boycotted Guns N’ Roses. Their very first weekend gig at the Troub, but not as headliner, went down just days after Axl and Joe moved from my house. In a blink of quickly past summer, they headlined and drew near-capacity crowds to that club. During the same period, “Jungle” and “Paradise” were added to their catalog. But for their next three months at the Gardner Studio, they seemingly wrote a new great song every few days, or reworked and transformed an older, good tune into a masterpiece.
I’m not sure why those months were so exceptionally creative; might be the interesting times of youthful freedom and being part of something they knew was special. Or maybe it was the unencumbered creative outlet a lockout studio provided, combined with meeting the great songwriter West Arkeen and hearing daily the skillful songcraft of Johnny X as he worked out his tunes right next door with The Wild. Influence is a two-way street, and The Wild and West became much more aggressive and musically streetwise after crossing paths with G N’ R, thus making the whole rock exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.
Besides all those positive aspects provided by a lockout studio, there were two people who made a huge impact in spreading the G N’ R gospel. DJ Joseph, a trendsetter with great taste in new and vintage music, rocked the turntables at some of Hollywood’s best underground clubs. He played great stuff many people never heard before or had forgotten about when tastes changed. Once Joseph got his mitts on the G N’ R demo, he played it as often as a club’s theme permitted, and as many times as he wanted.
Another key rung added to Guns N’ Roses’ ladder of success was photographer Robert John, simply a great artist who couldn’t take a bad picture even if he tried. Robert made the guys look like rock gods, while consistently capturing Axl Rose’s inner sex symbol. Unlike DJ Joseph, Robert was part of G N’ R’s inner circle. He lived close by the studio and often pitched ideas for new photo shoots or just hung around with his buddies. He was a great resource and, like the band, just waiting to be discovered by the world.
Even though G N’ R could pack the Troub, they accepted an opening slot for Kix on their Midnite Dynamite tour. With the “Cold Shower” video in near heavy rotation on MTV, it was smart strategy to branch out and get exposed to fans of a national touring act. Kix was a great band, and I was eager to see them. Right from the start, Brian Damage, the cool, grooving shredder, impressed everyone with his warm-smoky-noble guitar tone, setting the mood for Chris Whiteman, a powerful vocalist and entertaining frontman. Along with the rest of the band, they rocked a stellar show to a packed house. But the way-too-cool-for-Hollywood crowd, standing around motionless despite an outstanding high-energy performance, prompted Whiteman to sarcastically tell the audience, “Ya’ll need to get your thumbs outta your asses and start clapping.”
Even though I was in no way working with the band in a professional capacity, I still loaned them gear or helped out upon request. At times, I’d drive Axl around to run errands, and then get him to shows “on time.” As we flew from place to place jamming tunes and running errands, Axl seemed to enjoy the combination of a thrilling chariot experience and my conscious effort to not create any unneeded stress while he got into character for the night’s performance. If his band was due on stage in five minutes and he told me, “I need to go to my box to get some mail,” I would speed off in the direction of the mail place. Not my show.
I don’t know if it was part of a brilliant strategy, but Axl often arrived at the club far past his band’s scheduled start, mere minutes before the following band’s scheduled timeslot. Guns N’ Roses would then only have the okay to play for ten minutes, so they’d rip through three or four “we’re all super pissed off,” powerful, in-your-face tunes to whip the amassed crowd into a frenzy. Then it was over. The fans needed more, much more. And they would get it if they went to the next show. What’s more important, showing up on time or being in the proper state of mind that allows for the best possible performance? Don’t think too long, just skip ahead for the answer.
Sometimes, after an above-average, beyond-exceptional show, Axl would storm off stage super pissed, apparently believing G N’ R’s performance had been sub-standard. After a show like that, I’d try convincing him how excellent the rock ‘n’ roll was on that particular late evening. But he’d never buy what I was selling. He must’ve thought I was lying just to calm him down. I told the truth. But in those extremely rare instances – three times tops – when G N’ R whipped up a shit storm and sounded like a thousand Soviet-era car horns being smashed by a million jack-hammers on stage, I’d disappear instead of offering an answer to the inevitable “How was it?”
The band was knocking out great tunes so regularly that when inspiration hit, location didn’t matter. G N’ R did a gig at the Music Machine in West L.A., alongside local cow-punk favorites, Tex and the Horseheads. While Tex’s band sound-checked, Axl, Joe, and I headed out to the back alley to do some drinking exercises. The guys had recently gotten into cheap wine, Night Train Express, and when Joe returned from a nearby liquor store with two bottles of that crap, Axl cracked open a bottle, took a big swig, smiled like a spectacular sunset over the glimmering ocean, and said, “This stuff is the best. We should do a song about it.”
He whipped out his harmonica and tooted, “dant da na-na dant-dah,” then proceeded to scribble into his notebook at warp speed. A few minutes later, he sang us his latest musing. I really thought he was kidding around, but no one should ever underestimate the power of cheap wine consumed in an alley. Within the hour, Guns N’ Roses was working the song out during their sound check. “Night Train” made it into the set that very evening, and for a period of time seemed to be their unofficial theme song.
As 1985 neared its end, artist managers were in a constant swarm around the Gardner Studios, all seeking to ink G N’ R to a management deal. They would schmooze, bring booze and grub, then pitch the band as to why they should sign with a particular company. Vicky Hamilton was one of many who wanted those guys bad. She promised to land them a record deal, all the while offering to promote G N’ R shows with good guaranteed paydays, plus pay for full-page ads, posters, and flyers. The guys were into making more than twice as much as they had for playing the same local clubs, without the expense of promotional costs. When she left after making her pitch, I told them about how ironic it was that six months earlier, Vicky had laughed like it was a big fucking joke when I suggested she manage them, and there she was, almost begging.
The entertainment industry is notorious for shutting down for the holidays, and from Thanksgiving to January, nothing at all can get done. With Christmas coming up, the guys held a band meeting to decide on which manager to hire, so that everything would be in place once business got cranked back up in the coming year. Me, Joe, and Robert John crammed into studio B as the band discussed amongst themselves various pros and cons of each managerial candidate. When someone asked me who I liked, I said, “If you sign with a manager, you’ll owe them part of your entire record deal.”
Izzy perked up. “Say that again, Raz.”
I said, “If you guys sign with a manager and get a record deal the very next day, you’ll owe that manager their percentage of the entire deal, even if you fire them before the ink dries on your recording contract.” I added, “If all these vultures are circling, it means that everyone knows you’re going to get a deal soon, with or without their help.”
The guys chewed on that info for a few minutes and ultimately decided their interests would be better served if they sought legal advice before signing any contracts.