A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
Guns N’ Roses pulled a capacity crowd into the Troubadour on the first Saturday night of 1986. Along with a first-ever opportunity for fans to purchase Guns N’ Roses T-shirts, club goers also heard and felt the “My Michelle” debut. For months, Axl had wanted to use a particular segment from Scarface’s score for the band’s intro music, but he insisted it be high fidelity. The week before this show, he finally managed to get a Beta copy of Scarface and a hi-fi Betamax player at the same time, which he brought to my house so we could dub a cassette. Right before their set, when the Troubadour’s soundman pushed play, that piece of music set an eerily perfect mood of tension and foreboding excitement. Well done, Mr. Axl Rose.
The New Year also brought our city a new “Pure Rock” radio station, 105.5 KNAC. The broadcast signal beamed out from Long Beach – over a hill and far away – so it was hard to lock it in out in the San Fernando Valley. Fortunately, the rest of Los Angeles, and large swaths of Orange County, got their metal loud and clear from the station. Not long after KNAC went live, they began playing the demo’s version of “Welcome to the Jungle.” The airplay positively affected their draw, and within a few months, G N’ R packed two shows on a single night at The Roxy, and a week later turned people away from the Whiskey.
The number of contacts on G N’ R’s mailing list had blown up. With only snail mail back then, and stamps costing twenty-two cents each, it became cheaper, easier, and far more personal to send fans a newsletter with several shows listed. Some words to live by, written across the bottom of one newsletter, have stuck in my head all these years: “Take care, and steal beer!”
In mid-January, Vicky Hamilton promoted her first G N’ R show. I was able to get L.A. Guns onto the Roxy Theatre bill that also included Plain Jane, featuring a pre-Warrant Jani Lane. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Jani and I shared a birthday, and he didn’t realize that he would be dying on the thirty-first anniversary of me breaking my fucking neck. The show was well promoted, with ads and cool pro-style posters plastered throughout Hollywood. Word had it several A & R reps would attend, so G N’ R decided to play earlier than scheduled. It was their show, and so at sound check, when they told L.A. Guns to swap time slots, that’s what happened. I had never seen G N’ R play longer than forty minutes-ish, but the band rocked on for almost two hours, kicking ass and leaving the audience sweaty, drained, and semi-satiated.
L.A. Guns hit the stage in front of a hundred less people than the show’s peak audience. Going on hours later than planned, while drinking the whole time, and then playing to a crowd who had spent their energy on the previous act meant L.A. Guns’ set was laid-back, to say it nicely. But it soon devolved into downright goofy. On a recent Tijuana trip, Nickey returned with a whip and had taken to cracking it at random objects in a show of skill. Halfway through their set, Paul called upon an audience volunteer to participate in a “magic trick.” Nickey then instructed the selected girl to hold out a lighted cigarette so he could whip it from her hand. And she screamed like a Banshee when the whip’s popper struck the back of her hand with a crisp snap. That shit still cracks me up, and none of us could ever figure out why that pretty lil’ blond with a spectacular bubble butt actually let it whip.
After the Roxy show, at least three hundred people partied down at the Gardner studios. From that night forward, the place saw an increasing level of party-fueled debauchery. No show required, another weekend meant another party. All one need do was go see some bands, or drop by the Rainbow and tell folks, “Party at the studio later.” Dudes and dirty-dancing damsels would then come a-running for some drinking and drugging, before stumbling home sometime around sunrise on Sunset.
Before the studio’s parking lot became a regular party scene, the nearby Denny’s was completely dead in the middle of the night, with hardly a wait for our three a.m. low-budget biscuits and gravy fill-up. Those late-night, drunken crowds being drawn to the neighborhood eventually piled into that joint to make it a scene of their own. Thus, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Denny’s” was born, with its long waits for crappy service.
“This man, El Guapo, he’s not just famous, he’s IN-famous.” With the intrigue, excitement and sense of danger-mystery-fun engulfing the band, Guns N’ Roses also achieved a measure of infamy amongst the areas LAPD officers and County Sheriff’s Deputies. More than one rocker friend reported that, in their interaction with local law enforcement, an officer had asked what band they were in. Having a memorable name can cut both ways. Cops apparently heard Guns N’ Roses were trouble, and wondered if they had one in their grasps. After three months at Gardner Studio, the place was getting hotter than a super model singing torch songs in a kiln. With rent due, a growing number of the humped-dumped begging for more, plus a few too many psycho stalkers, the time felt right to get the fuck out of studio B. The guys scattered about Hollywood, or, as a last resort, hid away at Vicky’s apartment.
A week after they fled Sunset and Gardner, on my twenty-first birthday, G N’ R played at the Timbers in Glendora. The club was nice enough to card me for the first time in years. As I thanked security for carding me, I saw Vicky Hamilton working the guest list and tabulating the head count to keep the club honest at pay time. As we chatted, I was very curious about her role and asked, “Are you managing G N’ R now?”
She smiled, like one aware that her answer would get back to the guys, and said, “No, I’m still trying to convince them that they need me.”
At the time, the way I understood their arrangement was that Vicky was only promoting shows and handling phone calls; so the band had a professional contact. A month and a half later, Guns N’ Roses signed with Geffen Records – I believe – without ever officially hiring Vicky as their manager. I don’t know if I can legally express my opinion that “Vicky is a liar.” So I won’t go there.
By the spring of 85, L.A. Guns were also drawing exceptional crowds. The word of mouth and great reviews of awesome performances, as well as the band members’ reputations and connections, saw them opening several shows for Johnny Thunders and Lords of the New Church, plus they headlined the Whisky a Go Go and sold that bitch out. Even though the band was only together for six months, some in the group wondered why they had yet to receive even a single offer from a major label. After experiencing the higher-level excitement from watching Slash’s incendiary shredding and passionate performances, Mick Cripps became convinced that L.A. Guns needed a “rock star” guitarist in the band. Even Robert Stoddard agreed the live show could use a boost of pizzazz.
I also thought a cool second guitarist would be a good addition, if they found the right guy. There were so many around town to choose from, but Mick’s narrow focus was Tracii Guns. It was a beyond-terrible idea, so I remained adamant against letting Tracii back into the band. So after a few weeks of Tracii bending Mick’s ear at Let It Rock and Mick continually sending feelers about the possibility, in hopes of settling the matter once and for all, I called a band meeting.
When Robert, Paul, Mick, Nickey, co-manager Alan Jones, and I huddled up at Mick’s apartment, unbelievably, it was not all of us against Mick. After much deliberation, we ended up with a split vote. I restated my case several times, pointing out how Tracii trashed everyone, flaked before even playing a show, and actually abandoned two different versions of L.A. Guns. leaving everyone high and dry, with me broke. When Mick promised they would keep him in line, I said, “His name is Tracii Guns. If he’s in the band, it automatically becomes his band. Then he’ll kick you all out one by one.”
Mick sought some wiggle room, allowing Tracii to play a song during the band’s encore, “just so we can see the crowd’s reaction.” I held my position, and departed Mick’s apartment believing everyone was in agreement that we would kill Tracii Guns and feed him to a pack of rabid jackals. Actually, when I left, it was a settled deal that Tracii was not welcome back in L.A. Guns. So imagine my surprise when a few nights later, during their encore, they called Tracii on stage as a “special guest.” When L.A. Guns launched into “Adam’s Apple,” I exited the Troubadour showroom in disgust and disbelief.
The next day, I called Alan Jones to let him know of my retirement from the artist management game, telling him that LA-Goons were all his to have and to hold. My first impulse was to sign over the name L.A. Guns to Paul, Robert, and Nickey so they could wield some power over Tracii once he began fucking everything up. Thankfully, I held onto my ownership until right around the time their first shitty record hit the racks, when I sold them their name back. I firmly believe that I interrupted Tracii’s future of playing in a first-rate Zeppelin or Crüe Las Vegas cover band. My tying him together with Axl Rose, through the associated act’s credibility, put him far above his deserved spot in the music world. On the other hand, I have absolutely zero doubt, even if I was never born, or ever rolled wheel into a Hollywood club, Guns N’ Roses would still be around with 99.9 percent of their current backstory.
The same week Tracii rejoined L.A. Guns, G N’ R played a show at Fenders Ballroom. The next morning, Joe reported rumblings of the band apparently all set to sign a record deal within days. Joe and Dinah were staying at my house, and for almost a week, we didn’t hear from any of the guys, all the while awaiting the good news. From the day they formed in my living room to the signing of a massive deal with a major label took a year, give or take a week. As soon as G N’ R signed on the dotted line, one of their first acts was to fire Joe. Even though he stressed me out so much that I couldn’t stand working with him, I was extremely pissed. But almost every band that gets signed immediately fires their crew. To be honest, I always expected it to play out the way it did.
The following weekend, I ran into Duff at the Troub, and he excitedly said, “Razzzzz! Let me buy you a beer.”
I declined free beer, while angrily telling him, “You guys work Joe’s ass off for a year, then fire him the minute you get signed.”
Duff appeared genuinely surprised, and sounded kind of bummed as he asked, “They fired Joe Joe?”
A half hour later, I saw Duff and Joe in the front bar enjoying cocktails while chumming it up like old pals. I felt like an idiot. If Joe would have said the word, I would have never spoken to them again or gone to another show. Thankfully he didn’t, or I would have missed out on Guns N’ Roses’ rocket ship to the big-time.
I ran into Axl the next night and didn’t even bring up Joe’s dismissal. You all know what it’s like when something needing to be said isn’t even mentioned? So there it hung in the air, almost stifling in its own absence. After me offering congratulations and getting brought up to speed on business dealings, Axl said, “About Joe Joe.”
During the brief pause, while he considered his next words, I shrugged and said, “If he don’t care, I don’t care.”
Axl then told me, “I’m going to make it up to him.”
And I believe if you asked Joe, it’s likely he’d say that over the next several years, Axl and the guys hooked him up real good. After splitting up their signing bonus, the formerly starving artists went on a spending spree. As part of making sure the money would not burn a hole in his pocket, when Axl got his “Victory or Death” tattoo, he also bought one for Joe.
The couch tours were forever over, so we went with Axl to see the band’s new luxury apartment. Those sweet digs sat right on the corner of La Cienega and Fountain. It was a huge but sparsely furnished place, plus a couple of practice amps way off in the corner where Slash and Izzy remained in a world of their own, bouncing riffs off one another while barely acknowledging our arrival. After a quick tour, we camped out in Axl’s four-hundred-square-foot bathroom to slam a few shots. He was quite proud of the space, and we joked about how we never would have argued if my house had that bathroom.
Axl became preoccupied when a smoking-hot Brazilian chick showed up, so we split. As we drove away, I said, “Looks like Slash picked up Izzy’s model train hobby.” Joe got very angry with me, telling me I was an asshole for talking shit. He swore Slash hated Lionel trains.
Right after G N’ R moved out of studio B, Ole Beich’s new band, Forgotten Child, moved into the room. The always-ready-to-make-it-go, party-loving guys of The Wild had not let the late-night celebrations fade away into the rose-colored past. So as usual, just after two, a few dozen folks showed up in search of the latest party. As they milled about, a couple of the dudes from Forgotten Child returned from their quarter-to-two beer run, clutching a twelve-pack they had no desire to share. Next thing I knew, people began outbidding each other for a beer. Five bucks was the sweet spot, and the owners of the twelve-pack realized a hefty profit by parting with six beers.
The entrepreneurial light bulb went on for me. The next weekend, I bought ten cases of beer, loaded the trunk of my 65 Mustang with ice and beer, and before my night’s club hop, I parked it a few doors down from The Wild’s studio. I also made flyers to hand out at the Troub and Rainbow. My after-hours club promotion got off to a shaky start, when shortly after midnight, a torrential downpour began and then lasted through Sunday afternoon. By the next weekend, more than half the beer was gone. After all of the hassle and investment, I barely broke even and decided to end my foray into the black-market booze biz.
Fast forward to the spring, Guns N’ Roses had a record deal, but still played about a gig a month
With their after-parties at The Wild’s studio. Their draw and reputation of an anything-goes group of loveable degenerates had only grown. Plus, with The Wild never turning away a party, it seemed like there was a crowd back there most weekends. At the same time, I was tired of Joe living at my house, so I suggested he do an after-hours beer business to make money for an apartment. The plan all came together once Joe and I came up with a bit of a scam, which eventually produced almost a thousand cases of free Budweiser. Free beer made selling them for two bucks a can all profit. The Troubadour’s doormen, Mike and Rickie, watched Joe’s back as he slung beer from the trunk of my Mustang. If shit went down – like cops or assholes with thieving on their minds – Joe slammed the trunk shut and blended in with the crowd.
At three in the morning, two bucks a beer is a spectacular bargain, so that shit got super humongous and then lasted for months. Every couple of weeks, we’d pester The Wild into playing a quick set. But hands down, the best show at “Joe Joe’s Gardner After-Hours Club” was when semi-regular guest David Lee Roth sat on the hood of my Mustang, playing acoustic guitar while belting out a few tunes. It was pretty awesome seeing the world’s biggest rock star perform “Ice Cream Man” from three feet away. That summer, Roth released his excellent solo debut Eat ’Em and Smile, and Dinah threw a BBQ at her family home so we could watch our buddy, who wouldn’t recognize us on the street, premiere his album on MTV.
Even though Joe raked in several hundred bucks every weekend, he never managed to save enough money to rent an apartment. I finally got fed up having a house that no one but me paid for, so I began searching for an apartment of my own. Luckily, Joe had a very cool 1968 Plymouth Fury III convertible – that I had given him to job search – and sold it for enough money to get a place of his own. Had I’ve known that was what he’d do with it, I would have sold it myself, and then used the money to hire some goons to break his legs. I got over it pretty quickly, after he moved the fuck out of my house. Joe still had more than sixty cases of Budweiser remaining, so for a time, his new place had a couch made from stacked beer cases. With West Arkeen, as well as recent New York transplants Del James and Red Ed, living in the same building, Joe was soon forced to get a real couch. And clean his bathroom.
While many friends were digging new acts like Cinderella, Poison, Tesla, and Black ‘N Blue, I wasn’t feeling it. I remained mostly into older stuff, country-fried rock and manlier metal. So when a buddy invited along me to see The Cult at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, in support of their Love album, I said, “I’m tired of seeing shitty, over-hyped Limey bands.” Months later, upon seeing the band play on Saturday Night Live, I realized my mistake. From the first wobbly psychedelic chord, I loved Love and went on a mission to get as many of my friends into The Cult as possible. So when I ran into Axl in the Rainbow’s parking lot, I was able to give him a dubbed Cult Love cassette, while guaranteeing it very cool. I even sang a few lines to prove my point. Next time our paths crossed, Axl told me he had listened to Love almost nonstop for a week. Do yourselves a favor and get Love. While you’re at it, pick up Georgia Satellites. You’re welcome!
At times, I get an urge to make mention of every early G N’ R show, but all that historical stuff is well documented, mostly accurate, and redundancy bores the shit out of me. But a show a few months after they signed to Geffen, at Gazzarri’s under the name Fargin Bastiges, is notable for a few tidbits. As I recall, some label honcho was afraid the band would lose their buzz about town and advised them to refrain from playing clubs until finishing an album. I believe that’s why G N’ R did the show under the pseudonym inspired by Johnny Dangerously. The show’s rendition of “Move to the City” marked the debut of the “Suicide Horns”: Duff’s brother, Matt, along with Leif Cole and no fucking idea who the other horn blowers were. For a moment in time, Kiss frontman Paul Stanley appeared eager to work with Guns N’ Roses, so they road-tested him by having Mr. Stanley do the Gazzarri’s sound mix. And it was awful. Not one of my favorite shows. But from the feedback I heard, the powers that be at the label loved it.
Even though my music biz days were in the past, it didn’t stop me from getting into all the huge shows around town. Plus, those after-hours parties my brother ran also kept me in the loop. So I thought it was awesome when I wrangled my way onto the guest list for Mötley Crüe at The Roxy. Instead, it made me realize how much I hated crowds. They hadn’t gotten as huge as they were to get, but Crüe were definitely an arena headliner. Meaning, The Roxy packed in twice as many people as could comfortably fit. After getting stepped on far too many times, all the while sitting eyeball to leather-clad man-ass for an hour longer than I should have, I took my broken footrest and got the fuck out of that “for two bucks a head, the fire marshal will look the other way” sweatbox. If I listed for ya’ll the star-studded shows I declined in later years, due to expected crowd density, you’d think me not much of a live music fan. Might be accurate?
Most bands’ goal was merely getting a record deal, but scores who rang that bell had no clue how to take the next step. Many first-time contracted bands tended to just take others’ word – record execs, managers, producers, and so on – about what they needed to do next. There were plenty of bands who scored a major-label deal, listened to powers that be, hurried a product to market, and then nothing really ever came of them after being branded as failures.
For several months after G N’ R signed their contract, whenever I ran into one of them, I’d ask how their album was coming along. The answer was never definitive. I probably wasn’t the only one beginning to wonder if they might not actually get ’er done. But hindsight is a twenty-twenty motherfucker, and it’s now obvious there was some methodical madness going on. G N’ R were aware enough to see the massive festering piles of failure littering their industry’s landscape, and apparently realized the getting signed was the relatively easy part, akin to the long hike to the base of a mountain. So they followed their instincts and made their own plan for scaling Everest. If they were to crash and burn, it would not be due to seeking counsel from idiots or compromising principals.
By December 1986, G N’ R had product: Live Like a Suicide. I remember when Axl first told me about how they made the obviously fake audience noise intentionally cheesy. I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets, but I have seen it referred to as a “live record.” Live, dead, it matters not, because they threw a record-release party and played an acoustic set at The Cathouse Club, along with Faster Pussycat and the shitty L.A. Guns. Even though I arrived early, there weren’t any more EPs to be had, but people were walking around with them. So I kept my eyes peeled for an unattended disc. After the guys played, I saw an EP leaning against the stool Duff had sat upon while performing. Score! Later, I heard him telling a fan who was requesting an EP, “I don’t even have one. Someone took it.” I still got it, Duff. If you want it back, just say the word and it’s yours.