It's 1985 and Guns'n'Roses begin to bring in the hoards
gig after gig. In mid-ruckus, a moment of dawning: Slash comes to the conclusion that on a stage like this, they won't
be able to get a decent manager worth his salt. With these five beasts making
the noise, that part of the bargain is taken care of. What we rock
thoroughbreds need is a professional guy we can mess with and who can make us
That guy was Alan Niven. But he wouldn't arrive on the scene for a few more months yet. When all was on the brink of being lost. Perfect timing.
Ever since he was little, Saul was predestined to learn languages, to communicate with the very essence of the things around him and talk with his soul. It might be down to the mixed blood in his veins or the contrast of the two shores on either side of the Atlantic, perhaps even growing up among an eclectic group of musicians, or even an adolescence cut short by his parents' separation. The acid trips and the alcohol might also have had something to do with it, as might rebelling against the traditional and authoritative structures that didn't fit well with this kid from the post-hippy generation. Maybe it was all of these things mixed together that gave rise to this rootless individual, a loner to the very core, looking to find his home.
Whatever the causes were, the fact is that the youngster could talk to you with his guitar even before he had something worthy of such a name to hold. With a beaten-up old classical, Saul turned up for private classes given by a man called Robert, who had arranged to teach him how to play bass. No sense there, then. Until he heard 'Brown Sugar' by the Stones and the swarthy adolescent knew in that moment that there lay his home. Not with Robert, but with the neck, fingerboard and frets.
He was still hacking away at Led Zeppelin's 'Dazed and Confused' with blackheads on his face and just the one string on his guitar (the sixth, holding together his old flamenco box, pulled out from his black grandmother's wardrobe) when the notes changed into letters, his fingers into a pen and within his mixed-up head there shone a bright light from which the beginnings of countless stories were born. The young Saul imagined himself seducing the girls with his talent and attracting a multitude of ecstatic fans waiting for him to tell his strange and magical tales. And so he left the streets, threw the bike he used to make his getaways from the cops, and locked himself in his room.
Today, that young boy understands music; back then, he could only feel it. Today, he separates each instrument when recording and knows exactly what he's about; back then, three decades ago, he contented himself by knowing that what he was learning was his real language and that one day he would be an academic in his field, able to investigate, develop and push its boundaries. All he needed was a band that could help him feel on the outside what he could conjure up with his guitar on the inside.
His cassette collection stolen from Walmart was infinite: Queen, Aerosmith, Hendrix, Mötley Crüe… and above all, Van Halen. "Jesus Christ, what is that?!" he exclaimed the day he first heard 'Eruption', with Eddie showing the world his impressionist talents on the guitar. In these cassettes, the young Saul found his maestros, and he worked hard at learning from them in the musical workshop that was his bedroom. He would version these geniuses' creations over and over again. And little by little, he learned how to speak the tongue of the six strings, manipulating them, experimenting with them, squeezing every drop of meaning from them. With his guitar, he learnt to be a ventriloquist of himself, using his newly acquired language. A language in which his name was Slash, the man that could speak in many tongues. He would keep them all safely hidden away underneath his top hat, while hanging on to his Les Paul replica, hooked on his amplifier of dreams.
He found his travelling companion quite by mistake and at the last minute. It stood out among the few examples on show, built be hand by the last of the Jim Foote dynasty at Music Works on Redondo Beach. Much same thing happened with his sound gear: a rented Marshall, discontinued and souped-up, the only one available in the shop next to the Take 1 studio, where Slash re-recorded all his parts on the 'Appetite'. Late and badly. Namely, when it would most ring out true. Perfect timing /
The time had come to choose whether to go on like this and almost surely die trying, or do nothing. There were not a lot of alternatives in Los Angeles back then: there were the drugs, the problems with the police, alcohol and the parties – which came to an end whenever the police turned up… And so he decided to go the whole hog because he didn't really have much of a choice.
There must have been a moment when the young Saul became Slash. Not just when on the guitar, but also in the street, in real life, with his jeans and sneakers. Out on the edge. That moment when you stop looking for a fight and just accept them as and when they come; when you become aware of what you are, your life without roots, and that, by having built a persona based on a tetris of drugs and crime, the result was more than satisfactory. This is me, you don't have to tell me who I am. Perhaps that is why he never really seemed to fit as a member of Guns'n'Roses, a group hell-bent on insulting people and saying 'fuck', 'bitch', 'jerk' and 'shit' as many times as possible.
Slash, the prodigious guitar player, no longer needed to reaffirm himself. He now had the status of being a gifted musician when it came to fingering the fretboard. If at school he failed everything except for music, despite having the dry, ineffectual and boring teacher as he did in all subjects, If he could idly listen to a riff just the once before reproducing it on his guitar, if while improvising he was capable of saying what his heart was feeling while his mind dictated… if this is how he had always been, all the paraphernalia that accompanied his mass success years later with Axl and the others was nothing more than pure decoration, quite superfluous for him. And when it all disappeared, he couldn't care less. Slash still had his guitar, ready to build up his new tetris, this time taking a career path away from all the limelight. Because the one still giving out all the energy was him. The redhead could keep the group's name, with its 'fuck', 'bitch', the odd 'jerk' and all its 'shit'.
The group's genesis had no chronological or semantic order. It was more a free-for-all in which youngsters would come and go, dropping by to party. No order, no logic, no concerts. Until, one late, late night in all this adolescent mayhem, five members found themselves washed up in the same room, with nowhere to go and nothing better to do than crack open the guitar case, crack open a few beers and roll out the dope. Parties bring people together, and of course, generate even more partying.
There were a lot of exits and arrivals, backstabbing and treachery, accusations of infidelity both musical and carnal. Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns were two imperfect bands with hidden talents that could only come to the fore thanks to this personal, artistic and musical warfare. None of those that survived it out of the many musicians that didn't make the cut had happy-go-lucky personalities. Eccentric, timid, aggressive, deranged, ambitious, selfish, egotist and egocentric minds – it was all there. From this chaos, only the best managed to stay on, until one day in 1984, after having managed to cut all the dead wood loose, one Rob Gardner, together with Duff from Seattle, an totally unfazed Izzy and the explosive Axl, did their thing in a Silverlake bar. The energy created was uncontainable, and so this had to be his band, this was the language he spoke, this was the same feeling that he felt. Each member not renouncing what he was in his core, each one adding to the unstable, explosive chemistry that made the band what it was. They all knew that if glory was to be had by real, authentic people, then the sound they were making would also be glorious. Perhaps short-lived, but brutal, unstoppable, sparkling and infectious. Reactive.
Seven months passed between when Geffen signing them and Slash seeing the light up on the stage of that strip club, realising that what they needed was a good manager who would find them a decent producer. A seven-month hangover on the look out for affection and heroin, for a bed to fall into after a bout with the whisky bottle. And then Mike Clink appeared, the last of the producers that Alan Niven could find for them. And there was a coming together, a communion. Clink took in their brutal energy and captured it on tape perfectly. He was the man for the job, arriving in the nick of time, just when it had all reached critical mass. Perfect timing /
There is no sense of order in the world of the young, nothing that is governed by predictable rules or tradition. That is why we have more than probably missed many chances to listen to great artists, breath-taking performances by sublime talent for not being in the right place at the right time. Either them or us, or both together. And so it occurred that this group of lost causes of pure, raw talent, by pure chance, complemented each other perfectly. An example of this is the birth of 'Welcome to the Jungle', the result a jam session at a home studio that lasted no more than three hours, in which Slash made use of an old riff on Axl's request and little by little, lines, rhythms and melodies were sewn together. "Even the final touches which went out were virtually the same as the ones we made up there", Slash recalls in his autobiography.
And we didn't lose them.
The mayhem, with guitars the source of all the energy at its epicentre, was still going on strong and GNR wanted to get it onto their albums. That's the way they were. And so that image of anti-everything-that-exists-out-there rebelliousness was evident in many of their best tracks. A lot of discipline is needed to appear so undisciplined and Guns'n'Roses couldn't afford to let their fans see the hours of studio time, the endless takes and the multi-layered recordings that went into their creations, all the work that went into making their songs seem to be tiny symphonies dedicated to the unholy, excessive and downright out of order. And so give me a wild public so out of their heads that there is not time to stop and think, no time to hear the whistling so that a fan might consider jeering at us as we do them. I'll hide my three voices on the guitar together with the three belonging to Axl under the deafening, rhythmic roar of the cheering masses.
Nobody can know that my private collection of Les Pauls, Explorers, Doublenecks, Telecasters and Flying Vs amounts to over a hundred, and I choose one or the other depending on the way the wind is blowing today, the colour of the studio walls and what side of bed I got out of this morning. Nobody must see that behind this façade there hides a virtuoso, a perfectionist, a rock academic… It must never be revealed how much hard work goes into what we do; we're having fun here, nobody must realise the network of hairclips underneath my top hat, keeping it all together.
That was in the times of glory, because before them, in the beginnings of Guns'n'Roses, it was all much simpler, much more direct, we'll play in any dive and at any time, throwing on the first clothes to be found in the nearest wardrobe. New songs in front of a new public, thrashing away at the guitar and let's see what comes of it: if they're headbanging away, things are looking good, if a fight breaks out, even better. With this wild attitude, no concessions and no polishing of edges, the glory they found was legitimately theirs, their authenticity both manager and producer-proof. This was the sound that they made every single day, this was their bed and breakfast. So much so that their disciples would follow them to the gates of hell if necessary, roaring and spitting, bent on satiating their appetite for destruction. The same appetite as the band's. Bon appetite.
Destruction, lies and illusion, that was Guns'n'Roses. That's about as far as the eternal flame of purity got, because what had flung them together – that rootlessness, rebelliousness, the bitches, the fuck, the jerks and all that shit, both real and every day, had given way to a home by the fireside, servants waiting in the wings, the shit had transformed into really good shit, hard times into cushy ones. The artistic explosion that was 'Use your Illusion' was their zenith. Perfect melodies, complex and precise production, a direct, powerful and polished sound… it was all there. So much so that it really wasn't them any more. It wasn't the same band that exploded onto the scene six years before. Those guys that preferred a fight just for the hell of it without stopping to think what they were doing it for. Those guys with their dirty sincerity, down and outs out just for one thing in mind: to get their hands on anything that would make for a good show. Some mates with a van and a sandwich to spare, cuffed old boots and worn out jeans, because that's all there was, this was no fashion statement.
The wild days were gone and the contracts with their obligations had come. The times when they would sit around their cast aside gear on a Sunset Bvd. sidewalk, sipping whisky, an improvised riff followed by a made-up melody, the notes at first being hummed or whistled out. And the night would not be over until two or three hours later, a new rock song had been born. Those times were now gone.
And when the party was finally over, each one went their separate ways. Time to reckon up and move on out. And that's what happened at the very end, when they were at the top of their mountain. Another example of perfect timing /
(All images: ©CordonPress)