The backstory of Guns N’ Roses is, in many ways, the American dream. And by that, I mean a true Hollywood success story. A group of five ambitious boys left behind their past lives and names to reinvent themselves as rock royalty and become one of the world’s biggest bands in the 1980s.
Becoming rock royalty comes at a cost, though, and, in this case, it meant a lot of destruction. Compared with most prolific rock bands, Guns N’ Roses (GNR) only made six studio albums. It seemed as though they spent more time touring and creating memories that only an ‘80s rock band can claim. The story of this explosive band spans 30 years of sex, drugs, fights, near-death experiences, riots, mountain lions, and one dude with a KFC bucket on his head.
This is the story of Guns N’ Roses and some of the craziest things they’ve ever done.
The first ones to make it to Los Angeles were Steven Adler (whose real name is Michael Coletti) and Slash (whose real name is Saul Hudson) in the early 1970s. Adler made the move with his big brother and single mom, who was looking to start fresh after leaving her abusive husband in Cleveland, Ohio.
Slash came from London, but he had parents who had already put their artistic talents to use in the music industry in L.A. They were friends (and more) with some of the biggest names in the biz (at one point, his mom’s boyfriend was David Bowie). They also had house guests like the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood, so it only makes sense that Slash would begin his life of rock n’ roll at an early age.
Slash began drinking in his early teens and was unsupervised most of the time, which left him to his own resources. He began exploring the Hollywood nightlife while still going to high school. He and Adler crossed paths at Bancroft Junior High after Adler fell badly from his skateboard. They became fast friends, leading Adler to invite Slash over to check out his electric guitar and amp.
In 1979, he and Adler formed a band, which never materialized, but it prompted Slash to pick up a guitar. At the time, Adler designated himself as the guitarist, so Slash learned how to play bass by taking lessons with a one-string flamenco guitar his grandmother gave him. By the time Adler was in 10th grade, he had dropped out, with Slash following suit shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, there were two other future GNR members about to meet in another part of the country – a place much more conservative than the Wild West of L.A. Izzy Stradlin (whose real name is Jeffrey Isbell) and Axl Rose (born William Bruce Rose Jr.), a pair of students at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana, found common ground with their musical tastes, too.
Rose was raised in a strict Pentecostal household where he sang and played piano in church. Elton John was a huge early influence for him, and he and Stradlin bonded over their love for rock heavyweights like Led Zeppelin. It was the late ‘70s, and the emergence of punk energized them to make their own edgy music.
Coming from a conservative Midwestern community, Rose was already starting to rebel once he discovered that his real father was a man named William Rose. After getting involved in a band called Axl, Rose started calling himself W. Axl Rose. He soon dropped out of school and became targeted by the authorities for his frequent bouts of public intoxication and fighting.
Stradlin, the more level-headed of the pair, finished high school in 1980. He also wanted out of Lafayette and fled the city to pursue his musical ambitions in L.A. It didn’t take him long to find a gig, but it might not be what most people expect. He became the drummer of a cross-dressing band called Naughty Women.
Rose tracked down Stradlin when he came to visit L.A., eventually joining his pal in the sleezier parts of Hollywood in late 1982. The glam-metal scene was just emerging with bands like Mötley Crüe, and although he was somewhat of a misfit, Rose still impressed people with his unique, powerful voice.
After a brief time with a group called Rapidfire, Rose joined Stradlin and local guitarist Chris Weber to make their own original material. These efforts led to the song Reckless and other early GNR songs. The group went through a number of band names, starting with A.X.L., then Rose and then Hollywood Rose. They soon started gaining attention in the industry.
According to Weber, in those days Rose was recognized more for his intensity than the stage moves he later showed off as the GNR frontman. “Axl was so full of pent-up energy that he would shake, literally tremble, when he got up there,” Weber recalled. “He’d be letting this energy out, and I could see him just vibrating. It would actually be kind of scary seeing someone evoking all this power, energy, and emotion.”
By 1984, Slash and Adler, who were already familiar with the others, joined the Hollywood Rose lineup. Then the band split, and the members went separate ways; Stradlin joined the revival of the heavy metal group London, whereas Rose went with guitarist Tracii Guns’ group, L.A. Guns.
The final piece of the GNR puzzle came from Seattle in the form of a tall, lanky guy name Michael “Duff” McKagan in the fall of 1984. McKagan was the youngest child of a large, musical family. He grew up with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and later Iggy Pop as his influences. He was also making his way into the growing punk movement.
McKagan responded to a newspaper ad for a group called Road Crew and found himself sitting in L.A.’s famous Canter’s Deli with Slash and Adler. In his memoir, McKagan explained that while he was blown away by Slash’s skills on the guitar, he felt the other two guys were on a different page musically, so he took his bass guitar elsewhere.
Less than a year later, McKagan got an invite from his neighbor Stradlin to join a new band formed from the remaining members of both L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose. Rose was on vocals, Tracii Guns on lead guitar, Stradlin on rhythm guitar and Rob Gardner on drums. McKagan explained in his memoir that he wasn’t sure of Guns’ and Gardner’s willingness to put everything on the line for the group.
So, what he did was line up a “tour” of gigs along the West Coast to test everyone’s commitment. Not surprisingly, Guns and Gardner backed out, leaving the members of Road Crew to step in as their replacements. Guns N’ Roses were intact and ready to bang out some music of their own.
In June of 1985, Rose, Slash, Stradlin, McKagan and Adler entered the studio to rehearse all together for the first time. “From the moment the five of us leaned into our first song, we could all hear and feel that the fit was right,” recalled McKagan. “The chemistry was immediate, thunderous, and soulful. It was amazing and all of us recognized it instantly.”
A few days later, the rock quintet embarked on what was dubbed the “Hell Tour,” a journey that involved hitchhiking pretty much the entire 1,100-mile trip to Seattle. Why? Because their car broke down outside L.A. But as road trips tend to go, it brought them closer together, cementing their pact to take over the L.A. circuit.
The band’s first tour was aptly named. Only two hours out of Fresno, their 1977 Oldsmobile (equipped with a U-Haul) gave out with 40 more hours left to Seattle. As their hitchhiking journey was well on its way, they had to miss out on several shows, and when they finally hit Seattle, they were forced to borrow amps.
After that first tour, they got into a serious car accident on the way back to L.A. All five dudes were piled into Duff’s Toyota Celica when another car, going 60 mph, broadsided them at an intersection. Adler was left with a broken ankle, but it could have been way worse considering Duff’s car “was totaled and we could have been too,” Slash wrote in his autobiography. “That would have been a sick twist of fate: the band dying together after we’d just gotten together.”
According to author Stephen Davis, in “preparation” for their Troubadour performance to impress Geffen Records, all of the GNR band members (except Axl) got drunk and did all the drugs in the book. Regardless of the fact, Geffen rep Tom Zutaut was hooked. The band was signed a month later, and Slash blew almost all of his advance money on more drugs.
Known for his many tantrums, Rose had a fit on signing day with Geffen Records. He couldn’t find his contact lenses and stormed out of his house, believing that someone purposely misplaced them to sabotage him (as he wouldn’t be able to read the contract). Then, Slash and manager Vicky Hamilton found the contacts as well as Rose down the street, sitting cross-legged on top of Whisky a Go Go. The label waited patiently, and the band was eventually signed.
While Rose was asleep on the couch, Adler was either cleaning up glass bottles or swinging them at Rose. Either way, Rose threw a coffee table, and pushed Adler into a fire extinguisher. An hour later, the two were friends again. But brawls were becoming a frequent occurrence in the incendiary band.
On May 13th, at a Raji’s performance, the girlfriend of Bob Forrest, the lead singer of Thelonious Monster, was in the front row spraying beer in Rose’s face, which caused him to be shocked repeatedly by the electrical equipment. Rose pushed her away with the mic stand, prompting Forrest to swing a drum stand at him. But they also patched things up and played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers that Halloween.
GNR groupie Adriana Smith caught her boyfriend, Adler, cheating. Rose then invited the 19-year-old into the studio to add some last-minute overdubs on the track Rocket Queen. To get revenge, Smith added her voice moaning as loudly as possible while she and Rose had, um, intimate relations.
Rose repeatedly expressed his concern for the authenticity of her moaning during the “session,” saying things like, “Come on, Adriana, make it real. Stop faking!” Smith later admitted that she regretted participating in the stunt. She said the “guilt and shame” only contributed to her addiction. Don’t worry though; she’s now a drug and alcohol counselor.
It was apparent from the beginning of their commercial career that GNR had a knack for causing controversy. The original cover art of their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, features a painting of by artist Robert Williams (depicting a robot looming over a sexual assault victim before being attacked by a larger predator).
Williams even suggested that the band consider his other work and pick something else, knowing that that particular image would cause trouble. And, of course, due to the gruesome imagery, a number of retailers refused to sell the album. The artwork was then moved to inside the album’s packaging. The cover was replaced by the cross and skull tattoo designed by Billy White Jr.
If there was anything Axl Rose enjoyed more than singing onstage, it was jumping offstage. During a show in Atlanta, Rose saw a security guard shove a friend of his, after which he leaped into the crowd and grabbed the guard and punched him in the face. He naively thought he could just go on with the show, but the police hauled him off instead.
Then there was a show in December during which Rose started another brawl after someone told him that he looked like Bon Jovi. Insulted, Rose responded with his fist, which started a full-on brawl in a Chicago hotel lobby. The next night, while opening for Alice Cooper, Rose shared his true feelings on stage: “Bon Jovi can s**k my d***!”
Adler, Slash, and his girlfriend at the time were doing the usual (taking drugs) with Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx at the Franklin Plaza a couple days before Christmas. As described in Adler’s memoir, the drummer left the room, and when he came back, the door wouldn’t budge. And that’s because Sixx’s purple, unconscious body was blocking it.
Despite Adler’s arm still being in a cast, he shouldered his way in to see that Sixx was all alone. He dragged the musician with one arm into the shower. When the cold water didn’t revive him, Adler started hitting him in the face with his cast, essentially slapping him back to life. The following day, in the hospital, Sixx asked Adler, “Stevie, what the f*** happened to me last night? My face is killing me.”
GNR’s gig at the now-defunct Ritz in New York City, which was also taped for MTV, captured the band on one of its wildest nights. No performance was more dangerous than when they played Paradise City. Rose dove headfirst into a sloppy sea of fans – a sort of human quicksand – that required three stagehands to pull the singer out.
When Rose finally emerged, he was without his shirt, his jewelry was missing, and his left wrist was scratched up. MTV managed to catch the live version of the decadent anthem, where you can see Duff screeching out harmony vocals and Slash playing a frantic solo sprawled flat on his back. Ah, those were the days.
Rumor had it that the title of GNR’s 1993 cover album was a reference to a food fight between Rose and Adler. But McKagan told writer Gavin Edwards that the title actually refers to a stopover in Chicago in 1989, where Adler stored his coke in a refrigerator next to their Italian takeout boxes.
According to McKagan, his code word for his stash was “spaghetti” – a piece of information McKagan also mentioned in his statement for Adler’s 1993 lawsuit against GNR, when the drummer claimed that his drug problems which precipitated his removal were actually the band’s fault. With a straight face, the lawyer asked McKagan to “tell us about the spaghetti incident.” Amused by the question, the bassist found the title of their upcoming album.
Tipper Gore, Boy George, and Arsenio Hall were among the many musicians who condemned the song One in a Million. Everyone except Sean Penn defended it. Sure, the lyrics were nasty: Rose used the N word as well as the F word (the homophobic one). But Rose had a way of explaining his most offensive moments by being even more offensive. In other words, he was “sorry, not sorry.”
He didn’t show any remorse for his vocals. In fact, he justified them. He said, “I’ve had some very bad experiences with homosexuals… I’m not against them doing what they do as long as they’re not forcing it upon me.” The cover of their second album, GNR Lies, stated: “This song is very simple and extremely generic or generalized, my apologies to those who may take offense.”
After GNR’s VMA performance with Tom Petty of Heartbreak Hotel, Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil sprang out of the crowd to try to punch Izzy Stradlin in the face. When Neil challenged the guys to a public fight, Rose responded to the press: “Vince, whichever way you want it, man. Guns, knives or fists, whatever you want to do.”
By October 1989, Rose’s short fuse was making him plenty of enemies. However, even after he punched Bowie, he managed to make a friend. Bowie came to the video set of It’s So Easy, and apparently paid too much attention to Rose’s girlfriend Erin Everly. You know what happened next: He punched Bowie, again, and threw him off the set. Bowie apologized, and the two hung out during a long night of boozing at the China Club.
On October 18, during the first of four dates opening for the Rolling Stones at the L.A. Coliseum, Rose aired some of the band’s dirty laundry. “I hate to do this on stage,” the singer announced, “but I tried every other f***ing way. And unless certain people in this band get their shit together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses show you’ll… ever see.”
The way he put it, he was tired of too many people “dancing with Mr. Goddamn Brownstone.” Slash, who was one of his primary targets, later told VH1, “I knew it was directed at me, because I was real strung out at the time. But it was probably one of the things that made me hate Axl more than anything.”
Held in Rose’s home state of Indiana, GNR gave the first taste of the Use Your Illusion albums at Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid IV. Their curious performance should have made it seem that the band was alive and kicking, but that was far from what occurred. Instead, they gave the audience a snapshot of what a group looks like when they’re falling apart at the seams.
Adler’s various addictions were mainly to blame. After face-planting on his drum, it was his last gig with the band. Regardless, the group seized the moment and showed off their punk roots, banging out jams like a cover of the UK Subs’ Down on the Farm and, as usual, flipping off network censors with Rose bidding the audience “good f***’n night!” on live TV.
Rose’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend Erin Everly came to a boiling point when the two married in Las Vegas at Cupid’s Inn Chapel in April of 1990. Everly, who was the singer’s inspiration for Sweet Child of Mine, wanted an annulment within 48 hours of the ceremony. The marriage officially ended 10 months later.
The two apparently didn’t treat each other very well. “Sometimes we treated each other great,” Rose said, “because the children in us were best friends. But then there were other times when we just f***ed up each other’s lives completely.” The tumultuous relationship was apparent to their friends but became a public display when Great White used a recording of the two fighting.
When a band like GNR fires one of their members for drug abuse, then it’s clearly a serious problem. By May of 1990, Adler’s inability to control his drug habits brought the band to a tipping point. Adler was briefly fired but was reinstated after he signed a contract in which he vowed to stop abusing drugs.
But addicts don’t just quit because they sign a paper. During the recording session of the track Civil War, Adler couldn’t perform well, causing the band to do nearly 30 takes. Adler claimed he was sick from opiate blockers which he took to help with the addiction. He was fired, again, on July 11, 1990. When he took the band to court, he sued them for $26 million claiming they were the ones who introduced him to drugs in the first place.
90 minutes into GNR’s show at the St. Louis-adjacent Riverport Amphitheater, Rose was enraged when he saw an unauthorized photographer in the front row. When the security guards ignored his call to confiscate the camera, Rose yelled out, “I’ll take it, goddammit!” and dove into the crowd to beat up the photographer before returning to the stage.
“Thanks to the lame-a$$ security, I’m going home!” He slammed his microphone and stormed off, never to return. A riot ensued and dozens of fans were injured, resulting in the band being banned from St. Louis for life. Rose was also charged with four counts of misdemeanor assault as well as one count of property damage, resulting in a fine of $50,000.
This was the night that Metallica’s James Hetfield suffered the notorious pyrotechnics accident, forcing his band to unexpectedly shorten their set at the Olympic Stadium. With the opportunity to save the night, GNR planned on taking the stage. They waited over two hours, then bailed after playing only nine songs due to sound problems as well as Rose’s sore throat,.
And yet another riot ensued, this time over 2,000 fans caused around $400,000 in damage to the stadium. They then spilled into the streets to smash windows, loot stores, start fires and turn over several cars before finally being stopped by hundreds of policemen using batons and tear gas. It wasn’t a pretty scene.
Warren Beatty is “so vain,” he probably thought GNR’s Double Talkin’ Jive was about him. Well, on one night in Paris, it was. Rose dedicated the song, written by Stradlin, to Beatty, whom he called “a man who likes to play games… a parasite… an old man who likes to live his life vicariously through young people and suck up all their life because he has none of his own.” Ouch.
Who knows, it might be because Beatty had briefly dated Rose’s ex, Stephanie Seymour, before he went on to marry Annette Bening. Rose, however, believed Warren was still playing around with Seymour. I could go ahead and quote Rose’s remarks on stage, but they’re a bit too vulgar.
If there are any two rock stars that shouldn’t be allowed in the same room, at least back in the early ‘90s, it would be Axl Rose and Courtney Love. Both Rose and Kurt Cobain had already exchanged less than flattering words about and to each other, even before the famed incident backstage at the 1992 VMAs.
That night, Love spotted Rose and mockingly asked him to be her child’s godfather. Cobain later recalled that Rose snarled at him, “You better keep your wife shut, or I’m going to take you to the pavement.” Cobain then turned to Courtney and sarcastically barked at her to shut up. After Nirvana’s performance, drummer Dave Grohl provoked Rose even more by repeatedly saying “Hi Axl!”
For some reason, Rose has always displayed a strange affinity for America’s most notorious psychopath, Charles Manson. He would wear a “Charlie Don’t Surf” t-shirt with Manson’s face on it during the Use Your Illusion Tour. But it was when he added a hidden track of a 1967 Manson song to The Spaghetti Incident covers album that he really ignited the fire.
Ironically, Look at Your Game, Girl was one of the album’s least offensive tracks and even one of the more laid-back ones. Rose sang over a campfire acoustic with minimal percussion. Rose later claimed that he thought the song was penned by the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. He even made a statement that he would donate money made off the track to an environmental charity.
In his attempt to make himself a “quieter” life, Slash bought a home in L.A. and filled it all kinds of things, like venomous snakes, lizards, eight cats and, yes, a mountain lion cub he named Curtis. “I installed a full-on reptile zoo over there,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Just a gazillion snakes and all kinds of stuff.”
Then, when the Northridge earthquake hit, his home was majorly damaged. Thankfully, though, all of his animals survived. Slash retreated to the Marina Del Rey’s Four Seasons where he secretly stayed in his room with his buddy Curtis (the mountain lion).
Slash officially quit the band in 1996, after clashes with Rose. Much later, in 2000, in a bid to find someone who could match Slash’s voice and headgear, Rose hired Brian Patrick Carroll. Some may know him as the mask and KFC bucket-wearing cult guitarist Buckethead. The guitarist insisted on recording his parts for the track Chinese Democracy in a custom-built chicken coop embellished with rubber chicken parts.
One time, Rose’s pet wolf puppy went number two in Buckethead’s coop, yet the guitarist refused to let anyone remove it. The odd fellow claimed he loved the scent. For a while, Buckethead kept a TV monitor which constantly streamed adult films in his coop, too. That part apparently offended Rose more than the puppy poop.
Of all the swings and throws in Ax Rose’s career, this one might be the silliest. The singer got knocked out by fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger — a man 11 years his senior — at New York City’s Plumm nightclub. It was during a birthday party for actress Rosario Dawson of all people. Hilfiger wasn’t happy about Rose moving his girlfriend’s drink without asking, so the designer decided to solve the issue in a way that Rose typically would.
He pummeled the singer repeatedly before security eventually pulled them apart. “He had a huge ring on,” Hilfiger recalled. “He wears all this jewelry. I’m thinking, if I get hit, it’s over. No teeth, no eye. So, I hit him before he hit me. It was self-protection. Now we’re friends.”
In early 2010, the then-48-year-old forever pissed off rocker became a frequent presence on the Manhattan nightlife scene. “For the last three weeks, the singer has been on an epic bender in New York, tearing through the city’s nightclubs and bars like he’s still a stick-thin 25-year-old,” as reported by the New York Post’s Page Six.
The piece called Rose “New York’s hottest party boy.” Rose was in town to play a few invite-only concerts, in what Page Six called “a one-man stimulus package during the scene’s winter doldrums.” His shows drew the likes of Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke. He even squared off with Scarlett Johannson in a match of ping-pong at Spin.
Many people think November Rain is one of the best rock ballads in history. Even though it took until September 1991 to be released (on Use Your Illusion I), November Rain had been in Rose’s arsenal for nearly a decade. Tracii Guns recalled Rose working on the song back in 1983. A 10-minute piano demo was captured at the 1986 Sound City sessions.
Built on only piano and vocals, the demo is totally recognisable as the track the world would come to know and love. The track was also tried out as a much shorter acoustic guitar version, with the demo lasting five minutes. These early versions were performed at their premature GNR gigs.
On September 17, 1991, five years and multiple painstaking recording sessions later, November Rain finally saw the light of day. On February 18, 1992, the track was released as Use Your Illusion I’s third and final single. It reached No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and No. 4 in the UK, marking it as the band’s highest-charting single since Sweet Child O’ Mine.
The nearly nine-minute-song was also the longest song ever to enter the Hot 100 and sat on the Australian Top 10 for a total of 22 weeks. Rose’s delivery is among the finest of his career. The song’s video seemed more like a short film than a music promo.
The video stars supermodel Stephanie Seymour, who was then Rose’s girlfriend. With a budget of $1 million, the November Rain video ranks as one of the most expensive music videos ever made. Although it didn’t have the same career-boosting impact as the Welcome to the Jungle video, it still became MTV’s most-requested video of all time.
Then, on July 14, 2018, the song officially hit one billion views on YouTube. The video, an essential part of the song’s history, helped the song not just become one of GNR’s definitive achievements but arguably the best rock ballad in history.
There you have it folks. A timeline of Guns N’ Roses wildness. Have a wild day!