This was not an April Fool’s joke: On Friday, April 1, the reunited Guns N’ Roses played a warm-up show at the 500-capacity Hollywood club where it all began for them, the Troubadour. It was the first time that Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan had shared the stage in almost 23 years – and despite the band’s well-documented tumultuous past, by all accounts the show went off without a hitch and was a triumphant return to form.
However, the band is known for its backstage drama in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the interview below, the band’s former manager offers his personal recollection of more troubled times.
As Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose sings on the band’s 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, “It’s so easy when everybody’s tryin’ to please me.”
That’s not exactly true. For much of the band’s rocky career, bandmates, managers, record executives, promoters, and others have strived to placate the ever-irascible Rose, but despite their best efforts, the frontman’s behavior has always been unpredictable. From the beginning, Rose repeatedly has seesawed between avenging angel and suicide bomber, and during the process he has caused no small amount of turmoil. It’s so easy. Yeah, right.
Now, as the semi-reunited GNR lineup (featuring core members Rose, guitarist Slash, and bassist Duff McKagan) prepares for dates in Las Vegas, Coachella, and Mexico City, with a full tour to follow, everyone is wondering if everything will go off without a hitch – or if Rose’s appetite for destruction will remain insatiable. Among those wondering is the band’s former manager, Alan Niven, who speaks this week with Yahoo Music about GNR’s tumultuous past.
Niven first recalls one particularly notorious show early in the band’s career, which took place 28 years ago. Having already won over crowds in England, GNR were just starting to establish themselves with American audiences in the months following the release of Appetite, which came out in July 1987. They played high-profile shows with the Cult, Mötley Crüe, and Alice Cooper, and were offered arena gigs opening for David Lee Roth and AC/DC. But then Rose went from a Dr. Jekyll era to a Mr. Hyde phase.
Guns N’ Roses had scheduled two nights at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, on Feb. 12 and 13, 1988. The first show was well received, even though Rose exited the stage prematurely towards the end of “Night Train,” preventing the band from playing an encore. No one knew exactly what was wrong, but the situation went from bad to worse. The next afternoon, Rose barricaded himself in his hotel with his then-girlfriend Erin Everly and refused to leave.
“We tried everything to get him out,” says Niven. “We banged on the door and shouted, ‘C’mon, dude we got a gig. Come out!’ and he’d shout back, ‘F— off!’ I don’t know if Axl and Erin were fighting. That was probably something that happened more often than not, but he refused to come out no matter what we said.”
T.S.O.L. were opening for Guns N’ Roses that night, and after their 40-minute set they prepared to leave the stage, but Niven coaxed them back on while he prayed to the rock ‘n’ roll gods that Rose would eventually show up.
“I was trying to buy time,” Niven admits. “Finally, these poor guys in T.S.O.L. came offstage after playing Beatles covers. They looked at me mournfully and said, ‘We’ve played absolutely everything we know. We’re beat. Can we quit now?’ That was the moment I had to walk onstage and say, ‘Tonight’s performance by Guns N’ Roses, unfortunately, will not occur due to a medical emergency.’ Immediately, people started throwing s— at me and it got ugly fast. The crowd rioted and it spilled out into the parking lot, and at least one car was turned over and set on fire.”
This was, unfortunately for Niven, a sign of things to come. Guns N’ Roses already had developed a reputation for being subversive, ornery, and sometimes inebriated to the point of incoherence. The onstage volatility was part of the band’s appeal, but with the Phoenix incident burning up headlines, Guns had gone too far. David Lee Roth and AC/DC repealed their tour invitations. After some political maneuvering, Niven secured Guns N’ Roses slots opening for Iron Maiden and eventually Aerosmith, the latter of which served as a major career springboard.
But Rose always resented that he wasn’t able to play with AC/DC. So to those in the know, it’s especially strange to see recent photos of Rose leaving a rehearsal room with Aussie’s finest hard rockers, suggesting that the rumors that he will fill in for longtime AC/DC singer Brian Johnson are in fact true. (Johnson recently announced he is unable to continue touring with AC/DC, due to his severe hearing damage.) There has, as of this writing, been no official confirmation of the Axl-fronting-AC/DC gossip. But regardless of what happens, Rose must first convince fans that reuniting with McKagan – who left the band in 1997 but started playing one-offs with the revamped Guns in 2010 – and Slash (for the first time in 20 years) is a sound, stable move. And remember, if you look at Rose’s history, stability is, at best, an elusive state of mind.
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And if that Phoenix story gives any promoters of upcoming GNR concerts sleepless nights, then they should definitely try to forget the night that Guns opened for the Rolling Stones and Rose almost broke up the band.
It was Oct. 18, 1989, and Guns N’ Roses were at the peak of their career. The Stones, realizing that they needed a young band to provide additional firepower to their Steel Wheels trek, had offered GNR the opening slot for the entire tour for $50,000 a night.
“From a fiscal point of view, I was dubious about that, because at that point Guns could clearly sell out arenas on their own, which would more than double that take,” Niven tells Yahoo Music. “The other aspect was I didn’t consider the band to be in any condition, whatsoever, to be able to take on a tour of that length and magnitude. [Guitarist] Izzy [Stradlin, who is not participating in this current GNR reunion] had gone through a really, really bad cocaine period and was just getting out of it. Slash was using too much [heroin]. [Drummer] Steven [Adler] was using too much. Duff loved his cocaine and his vodka. They were in no condition to take on a venture like that. Much to the bemusement of the band’s agent, I passed. Think about that for a moment. Can you think of anybody who’d been offered to open for the Rolling Stones and said, ‘No, thank you?’ How f—ed up in particular is that?”
Niven wasn’t only worried about the mental and physical health of Guns N’ Roses; he had been underwhelmed by the last worldwide Stones tour, and thought the new tour might not be a wise career move.
“I was like, ‘The Stones are touring again? F—ing hell!” Niven recalls. “They always sell tickets, but as far as I was concerned, my boys were now the standard bearers of excessive glories of rock ‘n’ roll. Why should they open for a bunch of landed gentry and English financiers? So, conceptually, for me, it didn’t sit very well.
The Rolling Stones came back with a second offer: four nights at the L.A. Coliseum for $500,000. Though intrigued, Niven still wasn’t entirely convinced by the offer. “My thought was this,” Niven says. “You’ve got 77,000 tickets to sell in the L.A. Coliseum. I can see the Stones doing that twice, but four times? I think that’s pushing it, even for the Stones – unless they’ve got someone with them who is going to push it over the edge. And knowing that they had two confirmed and were holding two more shows that they wanted to do, I rather felt that that described the circumstance. So I went back and said, ‘We’d be delighted to accept the offer for a million dollars.’ The Stones’ people just about choked on that, but guess what? Jagger came back and accepted, because he knew he needed Guns N’ Roses to get the four nights. He’s a businessman, and he figured out the formula.”
Everything seemed to be going in Guns N’ Roses’ favor, but neither Niven nor anyone else in the organization expected Rose to pull one of the most ulcer-inducing acts of self-destruction of the band’s career.
The night of the first show, first opening band Living Colour was 30 minutes from set time, and Rose was nowhere in sight. Panicked, the production manager approached Niven. “Your guy’s not here. Tell me what I’m supposed to do – call the LAPD and warn them we may have a riot with 77,000 people?”
Earning his stripes as a fast-acting band manager, Niven asked the production manager if he had a contact in the LAPD who was an “absolutely no-questions-asked guy.” When his wishes were confirmed and the cop arrived, Niven gave him the address where Rose was staying and said, “I want you to send two uniforms to this address and have them get the occupants out any which way they can and bring them here right away, in handcuffs, if necessary.”
Within 20 minutes, the police coerced Rose to leave the apartment and let them escort him to the venue. Minutes later, Guns N’ Roses took the stage to the delight of the 77,000 members of the crowd, which had no idea how close they had come to missing Guns perform.
“They were playing in front of a huge hometown crowd that was going nuts, and the band was warming up to the fact that it was tearing it up,” Niven recalls. “I was standing in the backstage area feeling pretty damn clever. And that was the moment that Axl announced that this was going to be the last show and he was going to retire. My heart just went straight to my boots and I was going, ‘Oh, f—. Lord, tell me, how am I gonna get through this one?’”
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Rose complained that he couldn’t continue in an “organization” whose members were “dancing with Mr. Goddamn Brownstone.” When he left the stage, he was determined to make good on his threat. As Geffen Records founder David Geffen walked down the steps at the back of the Coliseum, he bumped into Rose. Delighted by the show, Geffen, congratulated Rose, who shot back, “’Well, I hope you liked it, f—er, because it’s the last f—ing one!’” Niven says. “You should have seen Geffen’s face. I was, like, 15 paces behind, trying to keep up, and I’m waving my hands at Geffen, like, ‘Leave him alone! Leave him alone! Get out of the way! Don’t stop him now!’ And then Axl shut himself off and then went back to his apartment.”
It could have been an abrupt end to a turbulent career, except Niven had a gift for getting Rose to see reason – or at least recognize when a situation was in his best interest. The band’s manager headed to Rose’s apartment at 10 a.m. the next day and sat on the rocker’s bed, trying to talk some sense into him.
“I brought a very big bag of donuts with me, and as I sat and listened and listened and listened, and as he complained about everybody and everything, I just kept feeding him donuts,” Niven recalls. “Eventually, he started to get a little bit of a sugar rush, and in the throes of the sugar rush, he conceded that if I could get Slash to humiliate himself by apologizing to him live onstage, then maybe he might possibly think about doing that night’s show. So I got on the phone with Slash and said, ‘Whatever you have to do, do it. You’re gonna have to grovel. You’re going to have to bite the bullet. Just do what he says – that’s the only way we’re going to get him onstage.’ And obviously, reluctant Slash agreed to do it and, bless him, he took a bullet for everybody, and was publically humiliated onstage and apologized to Axl live onstage that night.”
For Niven, who ceased managing the band in 1991, getting Guns N’ Roses through the rocky seas that defined their first concert with the Rolling Stones was the highwater mark of his tenure with the band. “By the fourth night with the Stones, Axl was in Nirvana. He was just loving playing in front of 77,000 people every night,” Niven says. “Looking back, for my own personal disposition, that’s kind of like moment of triumph. Despite it all, Guns N’ Roses shared the stage with the Rolling Stones and triumphed.”
We will soon find out how triumphant GNR’s comeback gigs will be. The first “official” reunion shows are slated for April 8 and 9 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, with a special Troubadour show taking place tonight, April 1.