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The Rolling Stone Interview: Axl Rose

What I'd tell any kid in school is "Take business classes, whatever else you do"

August 10, 1989
Axl Rose on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Axl Rose on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Robert John

One guitar has been destroyed, a mirrored wall shattered, several platinum albums broken beyond repair and the telephone dropped off a twelfth-story balcony. Apparently, W. Axl Rose had to get something out of his system.

Just two weeks ago, everything in Rose's posh condo in West Hollywood, California, was in order. The mirror was intact, reflecting a space in which almost everything – including the refrigerator – is black. The platinum albums, along with dozens of plaques and awards, hung neatly on the wall.

So what happened? On the surface, one would think that the twenty-seven-year-old singer for the hard-rock phenomenon Guns n' Roses has it made. After all, there's a new BMW, a new condo, a parcel of land in Wisconsin on which he plans to build his dream house and, of course, the adoration of millions. One would think that life for Rose is pure rock & roll bliss. But one would be wrong.

Rose doesn't want to discuss exactly what set him off and made him destroy his belongings. But it becomes clear as he talks that a lot of it has to do with suddenly being famous. "When I was growing up, I was never really popular," he says. "Now everybody wants to be my friend. I like my privacy, to live alone in my own little world. I live in a security building, and all my calls are screened. I don't even know my own phone number." Tucked tightly behind a couch is an Uzi semiautomatic machine gun; nearby is a 9-mm pistol. "I'm not paranoid," he says, explaining his fondness for weapons. "This is how I choose to live. This is comfortable."

He wasn't always quite so comfortable. The eldest of three children raised in Lafayette, Indiana, Rose hitchhiked to Los Angeles, hoping to hook up with guitarist Izzy Stradlin, a longtime friend, and form a band. The two struggled on the L.A. club circuit for years. Eventually, the duo met guitarist Slash and drummer Steven Adler. Later, Duff McKagan responded to a classified ad for a bassist, and Guns n' Roses were born.

The band's early gigs were tough going. Only two people showed up for the group's first "official" L.A. performance. Over the following months, a series of frenzied, violent shows landed the Gunners on the shit list of everyone, including club owners, rival bands and the press – everyone but the fans, who grew in number with each passing gig. After playing together for about a year and building a strong following, Guns n' Roses were signed to Geffen Records in March 1986 by A&R man Tom Zutaut.

The band's debut, Appetite for Destruction, and its quickly released follow-up record, the extended EP G n' R Lies, have put Guns n' Roses at the top of the hard-rock heap. The records have sold upward of 12 million copies combined, as well as simultaneously charting in Billboard's Top Five – a feat no one else has accomplished in the last decade.

Sitting on a black Persian rug, chain-smoking Marlboros and sipping Corona beers, the singer welcomes any and all questions about the band. His onstage roar is replaced by a soft-spoken tone, but nonetheless he can be brutal in his honesty.

A few years ago you were a poor kid in a struggling rock band, and today you're in one of the most popular groups in the world. How have you adjusted to your success?
Trying to handle success is a pain in the ass. It's really strange and takes some getting used to. I've never had my place to live before, never had to deal with the amount of money we've made and not get ripped off, never understood doing your taxes and all these things. I was hating it a few months ago, trying to get organized and trying to get a place to live and to get a grip on everything. But now things are coming together. I've wanted to be here my whole life.

Did you ever in your wildest dreams think your first album, Appetite for Destruction, would do as well as it did?
Thought about it a lot.

Besides dreaming about it, did you ever believe it had a real chance to sell 9 million copies?
No, but it was like this: I thought about trying to sell more records than Boston's first album. I always thought that and never let up. Everything was directed at trying to achieve the sales without sacrificing the credibility of our music. We worked real hard to sell this many records. The album wasn't just a fluke. Maybe Appetite will be the only good album we make, but it wasn't just a fluke.

Does the business end of rock & roll ever interfere with your creative attitude?
Not for us. This is music, this is art. It's definitely a good business, but that should be second to the art, not first. I was figuring it out, and I'm like the president of a company that's worth between $125 million and a quarter billion dollars. If you add up record sales based on the low figure and a certain price for T-shirts and royalties and publishing, you come up with at least $125 million, which I get less than two percent of.

I like being successful. I was always starving. On the other side. When it came to people with money, it was always "The rich? Fuck them!" But I left one group and joined another. I escaped from one group where I was looked down on for being a poor kid that doesn't know shit, and now I'm, like, a rich, successful asshole. I don't like that. I'm still just me and, with a lot of people's help, the group was able to become a huge financial success. None of us were the popular kids in school – we were all outcasts who got together and pooled our talents.

Is there any one lesson you've learned that you wish you knew a few years ago?
What I'd tell any kid in high school is "Take business classes." I don't care what else you're gonna do, if you're gonna do art or anything, take business classes. You can say, "Well, I don't want to get commercial," but if you do anything to make any money, you're doing something commercial. You can be flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, but you're a commercial burger flipper.

Now the band is getting ready to work on the followup to Appetite and the G n' R Lies EP. What's your frame of mind?
As my friend Dave puts it, I'm jacking off. [Laughs] We're trying to regroup. I'm ready to work. I'm creating, and finally I have an environment in which I can work. I haven't had that for a long time, since three years ago, when we all used to live in one room, sitting around writing songs. Until recently, I haven't had peace of mind. There were always distractions, but now it's like we can finally work on our songs.

Do you feel heavy pressure to sell as many copies with your next album as Appetite?
We have two records out, both of them in the Top Ten, and everybody wants another record immediately. They all say, "Let's milk this sucker." It'd be nice to outsell that album. A lot of groups are trying to outsell it. For a debut, it was the highest-selling album in the history of rock & roll. Definitely in America, but I'm not sure that's true worldwide. I read where Bon Jovi was saying nobody's outdone their biggie, Slippery When Wet. He knew it was their biggie, and he didn't know if New Jersey would be as big. Of course, you're gonna want to outdo it. What I want to do is just grow as an artist and feel proud of these new songs.

Although you're only in the preproduction stages of the next album, how do you feel it will compare with the others?
The next record will definitely be much more emotional. I try to write so the audience can understand what emotions I was feeling. Also, I think the songs are worded in a way that a great number of people will be able to relate to the experiences; it's not so personalized that it's only my weird, twisted points of view. We hope to make a very long record. It'd be nice to make one that's seventy-six minutes long, a seventy-six-minute CD, with varied styles.

The most important songs at this point are the ones with piano, the ballads, because we haven't really explored that side of the band yet. They're also the most difficult songs to do – not difficult to play, but to write and pull out of ourselves. The beautiful music is what really makes me feel like an artist. The other, heavier stuff also makes me feel like an artist and can be difficult to write. But it's harder to write about serious emotions, describing them as best as possible rather than trying to write a syrupy ballad just to sell records.

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