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Superfan Saga

The Search for Guns N’ Roses’ Lost Masterpiece

How a group of ride-or-die GN'R fans leaked 19 CDs of outtakes from one of the most notorious albums in history — with painful consequences for one of them
Illustration by Michelle Thompson

I n the parking lot of a Panera, just off I-95 in Stafford, Virginia, Rick Dunsford climbed into the passenger seat of a white Ford F-350 pick-up. Depending whose account you believe, he was holding either $12,000 or $15,000 in cash. It was late afternoon on a Friday in July 2019. Dunsford had been driving through the night, making stops along the way — in Charlotte, North Carolina, to pick up an associate, Madeline Rose; at his sister’s house in Virginia, to collect some of the money; and at a couple of different Wells-Fargo locations to get the rest of it. Madeline was in the back seat of the F-350. In the driver’s seat was Robert Bird, who’d brought what they’d come for.

Before Bird handed it over, he offered them a taste. He slipped a CD-R into the stereo, and out it came through the speakers: a spacey synth line, then a big guitar riff and a crash of drums, and finally, the unmistakable howl of Axl Rose.

The song, “Atlas Shrugged,” was recorded as part of the sprawling, chaotic sessions that would eventually birth Guns N’ Roses’ 2008 album, Chinese Democracy, but hadn’t made the final track list. It had never been played live or appeared on any of the bootlegs that zipped around the Guns N’ Roses fan community. For years, within that community, on message boards, Discord servers, and podcasts, “Atlas Shrugged” was a legend, a ghost, more rumor than fact. Some called it a lost masterpiece. Some doubted it even existed. Now, in just a few moments, Dunsford would have not only “Atlas Shrugged,” but a thumb drive that held 19 CDs’ worth of previously unreleased GN’R tracks.

As he sat in the truck listening, he choked back tears. “I was so happy,” he says. “I don’t think anything will top that feeling. I spent 20 years looking for this, so much time on these message boards, so much work, and I finally fucking found it.”

That joy faded quickly. The full complement of 124 tracks started leaking on the internet within a month. Dunsford would eventually be blamed for the leaks by GN’R’s management and legal teams, threatened with lawsuits, and banned from any future Guns N’ Roses shows. He was forced to file for bankruptcy and, he says, was forcibly dragged from a venue by GN’R security. He also became a target of scorn and violent threats from other die-hard fans of the band.

For Dunsford, there could not have been a much worse fate. He grew up an outcast in Mississippi, the target of ridicule, bullying, and at times, outright violence because he had long hair and a taste for hard rock. Guns N’ Roses saved him, and he became a hopelessly devoted fan. He even named his only son Axl. “It makes me angry the way things went because I know, deep down, I didn’t leak that music,” Dunsford said last February. “I was just an easy scapegoat.”

The story of how these 19 CD-Rs made their way onto the internet is a long and winding tale, with a cast of characters at least as interesting as the one Axl Rose assembled to record them. Among others, there’s Madeline Rose, a divisive figure among GN’R fans, who at various times has falsely claimed to other fans to work on behalf of the band’s management company to remove fan-generated content from the internet. There’s Jared St. Laurent, a.k.a. Mister Saint Laurent, or just “MSL,” a bombastic ex-professional wrestler whose great-grandfather was the prime minister of Canada. There’s Tom Zutaut, a legendary A&R executive responsible for signing both GN’R and Mötley Crüe — Pete Davidson played him in Netflix’s The Dirt — who currently works as a car salesman in North Georgia.

And then there’s a parade of GN’R superfans who seem only too eager to employ all manner of treachery, backstabbing, and deceit to get their hands on music deemed not good enough for an album widely dismissed as one of the biggest flops in rock history.

At the heart of the story is a parable about how fandom has changed in a digital age. The easy availability of millions upon millions of songs to anyone remotely curious to hear them — via subscription services, YouTube, SoundCloud, and whatnot — has made the scarce and the unattainable even more valuable. All the while, fan communities have become hothouse bubbles, susceptible to the same primal forces that radicalize all sorts of people online. It’s easy to see how perspective can get lost.

As Dunsford put it, “When I tell people this story, they look at me like, ‘You expect me to believe this?’”

IN THE ANNALS OF ROCK HISTORY, Chinese Democracy is a punchline and a cautionary tale. Guns N’ Roses spent more than 14 years working on it. At the beginning of the process, they were still arguably the biggest rock band in the world. By the end, they were Axl Rose fronting a collection of musicians who could’ve staffed a rock & roll fantasy camp.

Backstage, 1986: Slash, Duff McKagan, Teresa Ensenat of Geffen Records, Tom Zutaut, Axl Rose (seated), Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin (from left) Marc S Canter/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Much of the band’s core when they began making the album — Slash, Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum, Gilby Clarke — either quit or were fired (or both) along the way. New members reportedly had to be approved by Rose’s spiritual adviser, an aura-reading psychic from Sedona named Sharon Maynard, who was often referred to as “Yoda.” At various points, the band’s lineup included ex-members of Nine Inch Nails, Primus, the Replacements, Devo, and the Psychedelic Furs. The list of musicians who auditioned, contributed, or visited the sessions includes Dave Navarro, Brian May, Sebastian Bach, Moby, and Shaquille O’Neal.

You could write an entire book about the tenure of avant-garde guitarist Buckethead, who communicated with bandmates through a hand puppet, and for whom a chicken coop was constructed in the studio, where, according to Zutaut, the guitarist would record his parts and watch porn. Zutaut also once claimed that, after Rose’s wolf puppy took a shit in said chicken coop, Buckethead resisted efforts to clean it up, claiming he loved the smell.

The entire project wasn’t only time consuming, it was wildly expensive, with costs reportedly running to a quarter of a million dollars per month at some stages, and a final tab of at least $13 million. The protracted recording process was a function of, among other things, Rose’s desperate effort to match the sound coming out of the speakers to the sound in his head. A less charitable reading was that he’d simply lost the plot, and without a strong creative counterweight — someone like Slash or Duff who was equally invested in the outcome — there was nobody to help him find it.

As the process dragged on, managers, label executives, producers, and friends were enlisted to help get Rose to finish the album. The band’s label, Interscope, would tease release dates only to scuttle them later. Even corporate America seemed to be trolling the band: In early 2008, Dr Pepper announced that if GN’R released the album that year, the soft-drink maker would give a free Dr Pepper to every person in America.

Dr Pepper had to make good on its offer. On Nov. 23, the album was finally released, although only via Best Buy, which reportedly paid $14 million to be the project’s exclusive retailer. But after debuting at Number Three on the Billboard 200, sales cratered. Reviews were middling. Chinese Democracy went down as an epic failure. The fact that Slash and Duff eventually returned to the GN’R fold in 2016 has only served to make the album seem like even more of a bizarro relic from some alternate rock & roll universe.

Within the insular confines of the GN’R fan community, though, there were devotees like Dunsford and Madeline, for whom Chinese Democracy wasn’t an embarrassing bomb from a megalomaniac who’d alienated his most important collaborators. It was an overlooked magnum opus by a misunderstood genius. If GN’R’s early albums bottled a certain amount of anti-social rebellion, Chinese Democracy represents a kind of counterrevolution, in which its relative unpopularity has only intensified the passion of its adherents.

Madeline told me that for years on GN’R forums, “85 to 95 percent of fans wanted nothing to do with Guns N’ Roses unless it was discussing the old lineup. Then you have people like me — we call ourselves five-percenters. All we cared about was Chinese Democracy.”  

I MET DUNSFORD IN FEBRUARY, outside his house in Blue Mountain, a speck of a town planted amid wide swaths of farmland in northern Mississippi. He’s a wiry guy with a reddish beard and the affable, excited demeanor of a new puppy. He was wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the figure of Chinese Democracy-era GN’R bassist Tommy Stinson, dark jeans, and a black ski hat. Sitting inside an unfinished building on his property, he rolled up his left sleeve to show me his “Guns N’ Roses arm.” He pointed to a tattoo extending down from his shoulder: a dragon with Chinese lettering and the GN’R logo.

“I got this the day Chinese Democracy was released,” he says. “Then I got lyrics for the song ‘Better’ right there,” he says pointing to a line on his bicep that reads, “The melody inside of me still searches for solution.” He rotated his arm. “I got Axl’s signature right here. Slash ended up signing it in 2016, then Duff did as well.”

Dunsford speaks in an often-breathless Southern drawl. Words stumble out in a rush, each eager to overtake the one before it. As with other aspects of his life, his excitement can get the best of him. As Kevin Belasco, a friend of his from the GN’R community, says, “Rick’s a good guy, but he’s a little over the top. It reflects some unmet need in his life.”

Rick Dunsford near his home in Tupelo, May 2022 Andrea Morales for Rolling Stone

Dunsford, 36, is married, has three kids, and works in distribution for a big-box retailer. He grew up about 40 minutes down the road in Tupelo, a small city best known as Elvis Presley’s birthplace. From a young age, his two favorite bands were GN’R and Kiss. “It was hard growing up around here because this is the Bible Belt and the music I was into was considered devil-worshipping music.” In 1996, just before he was to go to a Kiss concert, his elementary school teacher and principal called his parents in for a conference. “They told them they don’t feel comfortable with me talking about going to see the devil,” says Dunsford. “I was nine.”

He was drawn to GN’R for some of the same reasons lots of people were. The band’s early music seemed to catalyze a host of dark, ugly emotions into a powerful yawp of defiance. “You listen to Appetite and it just kind of punches you in the face,” he says. “There’s just something about the band. I can just relate to everything with them.”

As Dunsford got older, his passion for music intensified, as did the problems it caused him: “I went through a lot of bullying and abuse. I got jumped in a locker room and got a busted eardrum because I had long hair and liked this kind of music. I was forced to drop out because of the violence.” (He later got his GED.)

Feeling like an outcast in his hometown, by the late Nineties, Dunsford had found a refuge of like-minded souls in the world of GN’R online forums — never mind that there was very little happening with the band itself. Between 1995 and the beginning of 2001, GN’R played exactly zero live shows and released one song. During this period, Rose retreated from public view like a latter-day Howard Hughes.

Amid this void, the less-dedicated fans lost interest, leaving a hardcore group who feasted on any scraps of information they could scrounge. Every paparazzi photo of Rose would be studied for clues to his mind state. Fans would discuss a stray quote from a band member with the dedication of Talmudic scholars.

This sense of scarcity was foundational to the fan community. Anyone with access to new music or information — or anyone perceived to — has cachet. Unreleased music is the most prized of all currencies.

GN’R fans who manage to procure unreleased tracks, or even snippets of them, fall into two basic categories: hoarders and leakers. Hoarders keep whatever they find for themselves or share only with a handful of trusted friends. Leakers distribute it to the rest of the fans. Within the community, hoarders are both despised and venerated. They’re viewed as anti-democratic elitists, but they’re insiders with something everyone wants. On occasion, a hoarder may sell unreleased material or trade it — and some make real money doing this — but they intuitively understand the scarcity principle. If they distribute music widely, it not only puts them at risk legally, it also erases the music’s value and endangers their heightened status.

Within some circles, prying music out of reluctant hoarders by lying, double-dealing, and other forms of subterfuge is considered noble work. “MSL,” the former pro wrestler, initially made a splash in 2007 by offering to pay thousands of dollars to anyone willing to send him unreleased Chinese Democracy tracks, then tricking another fan into sending him four unreleased songs and leaking them. “No money changed hands,” he told me. “It was just hustle and dumb luck.” Similar schemes have proliferated since. A certain level of treachery and malevolence has become commonplace.

“It’s a scary bunch,” says Chris Kooluris, who’s known on the forums as “Kaneda.” “I’ve been physically threatened. People have said they’re going to fly to New York and kick my ass. It’s toxic.” Kooluris works as a PR executive, and in fact was the one who cooked up the Dr Pepper giveaway. He thinks something about the band draws in the dysfunctional and the damaged. “When you look at the lyrics of Appetite, Axl is sort of reclusive, misogynistic, aggressive yet heartfelt, all mixed together. It attracts people that fall outside the mainstream. It’s music that allows you to tap into your inner anger, your inner insecurities.”

By the time of Chinese Democracy’s official release, most of its songs had already leaked, occasionally in dramatic fashion — including one, bizarrely, when then-New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza brought a CD-R of unreleased songs to Eddie Trunk’s radio show. The album’s anti-climactic arrival fed the fans’ thirst for more music. Suggestions from Rose and others that the album was intended as part of a trilogy, and that there was enough music to fill several albums, convinced some fans there was a lost classic just gathering dust in the band’s vault.

In light of this, many fans have come to resent GN’R’s secrecy and stinginess with new music. “The band should’ve figured out a way to manage their community online in a more positive way, instead of keeping them in the dark for so many years,” says Kooluris. “They’ve created all these monsters who just want to pillage, steal, and grab whatever they can get because they don’t feel like they’ve ever been appreciated by the band.… It’s like Stockholm syndrome. They’re chained up in the basement, they haven’t been outside for years, so they act in unhealthy ways.

“It’s more than the music,” he continues. “These people are looking for belonging.… But these guys invest so much that it distracts them from being happy. Because you’re not going to be happy if you’re all in on GN’R.”

IN EARLY MARCH 2019, two storage units went up for auction at a CubeSmart in Culpepper, Virginia. Both had belonged to Tom Zutaut, the former A&R executive who’d originally signed GN’R. In 2001, when the band was working on Chinese Democracy, Zutaut was brought in for about nine months, one of many who tried and failed to bring the project to a happy conclusion. By 2016, he was living in Virginia and had declared bankruptcy. In 2019, shortly before he relocated, this time to Chattanooga, Tennessee, the fees went unpaid on the storage units. (Zutaut declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Sheri Gaines, a nurse in Virginia who buys and sells the contents of storage units as a sideline, got one of the units, paying $750. In it, she found mostly Use Your Illusion-era GN’R recordings and memorabilia, along with items from other bands Zutaut worked with. She sold the most valuable stuff on eBay. “I didn’t have to worry about a semester at college for one of my kids,” she says. “This was the holy grail of storage units in my world.”

Robert Bird bought the other unit. Bird is an engineer who, like Gaines, flips storage lockers as an occasionally profitable hobby. He declined to speak on the record for this story, but in a podcast he posted and later deleted, he explained that he found about 40 different gold records in the unit, along with CDs, tapes, photographs, and memorabilia. At first, he didn’t even notice the CD-Rs of unreleased GN’R material. “It was days later, after I started researching everything, that I realized … they were copied, burned discs,” he said in the podcast. “Some of them had a label on the inside that said they were from a music studio in Hollywood.”

Two of the CDs from the Village Recorder sessions that leaked.
Courtesy of Rick Dunsford

The studio was Village Recorder, the legendary birthplace of Steely Dan’s Aja, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. GN’R moved their base of operations there in 2000. Nineteen of the CD-Rs Bird found in the locker were rough mixes from the 2000-01 Village sessions. They included complete songs, instrumentals, rehearsals, and alternate versions of previously released material. The sessions were legendary among fans. Nothing had ever leaked from them. This, they believed, was where they’d find their lost classic.

Bird posted some items on eBay. According to his podcast, he was contacted by a lawyer from New York who was a hardcore GN’R collector. The lawyer, who Dunsford later identified in his legal settlement with GN’R as Levi Lipton, is an occasional presence on GN’R forums as “levisnuts.” He didn’t respond to emails, texts, and calls about this story. As Bird recalled in his podcast, Lipton drove to Virginia and bought the 19 CD-Rs, along with DVDs and tapes of live GN’R performances and a few other items for a sum that many in the GN’R community peg to be in the low five-figures. “He said it was for himself,” said Bird on his podcast. “He was never going to release them … just stick them in a safe and enjoy them for the rest of his life.”

A 27-year-old superfan named Mario, who asked to withhold his last name, says that Lipton shared news of his score with him. Mario revealed what he’d learned about this music to Dunsford. The year before, Dunsford had become a mover in this community when he’d gotten his hands on a long-coveted item: a professionally shot video of the first post-Slash GN’R show, featuring the new lineup at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, from 2001. How he got the video is a convoluted tale involving Madeline, MSL, $2,000, and the specter of an FBI cybercrime investigation. At one point, Dunsford stopped taking MSL’s calls, then got a text from Madeline: “msl says if you care about your kids to get on the phone right now.”

Dunsford took this as a genuine threat. MSL says it was a misunderstanding. He thought Dunsford planned to leak the video and was advising against it. “What I said was, ‘I’ve been in similar circumstances, and I don’t want this guy to end up in jail,’” says MSL. It wasn’t the only time someone in GN’R-land felt threatened by MSL, who’s currently COO of Major League Wrestling and used to host the upstart wrestling outfit’s televised and live events. “A lot of that is wrestling shtick,” he says. “I was a wrestling villain for decades, so that sometimes blurs the line of how people look at me.”

GN’R superfan, former wrestling villain and current COO of Major League Wrestling Jared St. Laurent, a.k.a. Mister Saint Laurent, or just “MSL” (right)
Courtesy of MLW

When Mario told Dunsford about the Village sessions music, Dunsford sprang into action. He tracked down Bird and offered him $20,000 for the tracks. Bird wasn’t interested. A frustrated Dunsford messaged GN’R’s manager, Fernando Lebeis, informing him that this material had been auctioned from Zutaut’s locker and that Lipton had bought it. “This is to pass onto who ever handles this,” Dunsford wrote. “Don’t want to see this stuff leaking until band is ready for us to hear it.” Lebeis had previously maintained a friendly rapport with Dunsford but didn’t immediately respond; he did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

Dunsford then posted the information about the music and who had it on the MyGNR.com forum under his username, “axlrosefan4life.” The fan community quickly went into full meltdown over the possibility the Village sessions might be heard. But Dunsford says he couldn’t get either Bird or Lipton to make a deal. Then he had an idea: He texted Bird and told him Lipton had sold the music to at least two others.

“Wtf he lied to me,” Bird replied, taking Dunsford at his word. “I turned down 30k from a guy in Dallas because levi made some bleeding heart about being a collector.” The ploy seemed to sway Bird. “Levi wasn’t making a deal,” Dunsford says. “I had to twist the story a bit … but that’s the game you had to play with [Bird] to get this. That’s kind of wrong on my part.”

Dunsford had begun collecting money from investors in the fan community on the promise he’d share the music with them, but only had about $12,000. Bird had agreed in principle to $15,000, but factoring in last-minute airfare, Dunsford offered him $10,500. Bird declined, noting in a text that now that word was out, “people are offering me stupid money for it.”

Dunsford said he’d raise more. “Thanks, but I think we are through here,” Bird wrote.

Dunsford replied: “Wait my brother just got with me. I’ve got the 15K.” (He didn’t.)

“If your here tomorrow text or call, but that is all I can do at this point,” Bird wrote.

That was all the encouragement Dunsford needed. His wife — who’d just given birth to their son, Axl, three weeks earlier — packed him a meal, and he set off in their Dodge minivan. He had a day to get to Virginia and raise the rest of the money. Hence the stop in Charlotte to pick up Madeline, who, according to Dunsford, promised to kick in $2,000 but only brought about $500.

Dunsford insists he got the remainder and arrived at the Panera with $15,000. In his podcast, Bird said he brought only $12,000. The deal went through regardless. Dunsford drove to his sister’s house to spend the night before starting the trip home. He sent two tracks, “Hard Skool” and “Atlas Shrugged,” to his investors, promising the rest once he got back to Blue Mountain. According to Dunsford, that night he found Madeline at a computer with the thumb drive and worried she was trying to send tracks to MSL, who hadn’t invested. Dunsford snatched the thumb drive and slept with it under his pillow. (In an interview, Madeline claimed, “I wasn’t really involved in any of that stuff.” Shortly after, she ended that call.)

WHILE DUNSFORD WAS DRIVING back to Mississippi, he recorded a 77-second cell-phone video of his car stereo playing “Atlas Shrugged,” and shared it with another fan, who converted it into an audio clip, which leaked. A 22-second clip of “Hard Skool” also leaked around this time. Before he’d even gotten home, Dunsford got an email from Lebeis, GN’R’s manager. “So I keep hearing your name involved with the leaks,” Lebeis wrote. “I hope them not to be true, as I have always been friendly to you and others.”

Dunsford told Lebeis what had transpired and agreed to cooperate in helping to stop further leaks of the music. In a legal settlement Dunsford signed in early August with GN’R, he agreed to surrender all copies of the unreleased music, not to share it, and to provide names and contact information of anyone he’d already sent tracks to. In return, GN’R would reimburse Dunsford the $15,000 he told them he’d paid for the thumb drive so he could make his investors whole. They also promised him a VIP ticket for two GN’R shows that November in Las Vegas.

Rose in 2002 Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

For days, the GN’R community had been intently following Dunsford’s quest for this music via the message boards. At Lebeis’ urging, though, Dunsford stopped posting. “I go quiet, and these fans were furious because they think I led them on,” says Dunsford. “They were posting information about my mother, my children, pictures of my family, messaging my wife, talking about breaking into my house.”

On Aug. 24, shortly after Dunsford received the $15,000 from GN’R and reimbursed his investors, “Hard Skool” leaked in full. In the days that followed there was a steady drip of further releases, mostly alternate versions of songs from Chinese Democracy. They became known as the “Numbers leaks” because they were posted to a forum by an email address that was a series of numbers.

In early September, Dunsford got a letter from Doug Mark, an attorney representing GN’R, which accused him of breaching the earlier settlement. Dunsford had informed Lebeis about sending “Hard Skool” and “Atlas Shrugged” prior to the settlement, but the agreement Dunsford signed didn’t reflect that information. The letter demanded repayment of the $15,000 and informed Dunsford he’d be on the hook for further damages as well.

In mid-September, the contents of entire CD-Rs from Zutaut’s locker started to leak. Each leak was accompanied by a poem credited to “The Chairman.” The poems name-checked well-known GN’R fans, cracked inside jokes, and took swipes at the hoarders. “By the way, so you know, tonight this is solo/Your patience is appreciated, as more hoarders say ‘Oh no!’” goes the stanza of one. “Oh for the record, don’t include Rick/He may not be perfect, but he’s not really a dick.”

These so-called “Chairman leaks” gradually dumped nearly all of the music from Zutaut’s locker onto the internet. On Oct. 7, Dunsford flew to Wichita, Kansas, to see GN’R perform. As he waited in line at the arena, he received an email from Mark informing him he’d “not be permitted to enter any venue where my client is performing.” He was yanked from the line and refused entry. As he sat outside the venue during the show, the 19th and final CD-R leaked.

Four days later, Dunsford got a letter from Donald Zakarin, a lawyer representing the Universal Music Group, Interscope’s parent company. It blamed Dunsford for posting the recordings, as well as selling them. It also accused him of breaching his earlier settlement. It notified him that should UMG commence legal action, they’d seek $150,000 per leaked track — upward of $18 million. Under the threat of costly litigation, Dunsford filed for bankruptcy. To date, there’s been no legal action against Dunsford by GN’R or UMG, but the concert ban is real.

In September 2021, Dunsford traveled to Chicago to see GN’R at Wrigley Field. He wore a hat, sunglasses, and a mask. (Many of the concertgoers were masked due to Covid.) Just before the show began, Dunsford noticed Lebeis onstage peering into the crowd. A moment later, GN’R’s security chief, Gio Gasparetti, came striding through the crowd toward him. Dunsford immediately whipped out his phone and started streaming on Facebook Live.

“He comes and just swings at me, hits my arm, and is twisting my arm,” says Dunsford. “Then he’s swinging around to get my phone out of my hand. When he did that, he hit me, and I got a black eye from it. He didn’t ask me once to leave.”

In an email, Gasparetti says, “Nothing of the sort happened. Mr. Dunsford is out for attention.” The video of the interaction is inconclusive beyond showing Dunsford being escorted from the stadium. He shared photos of his black eye, along with a report from an urgent-care facility in Mississippi where he was treated for a contusion and back pain he attributed to the altercation. He also filed a report with Chicago police, claiming simple battery. No arrest was made, but the incident shook Dunsford.

“Chicago did something different to me,” he says. “They really are out for blood.”

Fans have now been waiting nearly as long for a Chinese Democracy follow-up as they waited for Chinese Democracy. Whispers swirl about the imminent arrival of a new full-length culled from this batch of leaked material. But is this stuff any good?

Dunsford with some memorabilia Andrea Morale for Rolling Stone

Within the GN’R community, views diverge. “There’s plenty of material that could really be a legendary album,” says Dunsford. Kooluris is less sanguine: “These fans think Axl’s got another ‘Paradise City’ or ‘November Rain’ in the vault, and he fucking doesn’t.” There’s widespread enthusiasm for the raw, guitar-driven “Hard Skool,” which was released as a single in 2021 and hearkens back to pre-Chinese Democracy GN’R. It’s a particular curiosity because many fans interpret the lyrics (“You had to play it cool, had to do it your way/Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away”) as a shot at Slash, who rejoined the band with Duff in 2016, and ultimately contributed guitar parts to the finished song.

Many of the leaked songs aren’t hard to find online. Listening to them, it’s easy to convince yourself that with a little polish, “Atlas Shrugged,” the tense, dramatic “Perhaps,” and “State of Grace,” an industrial-tinged midtempo creeper, could’ve anchored another classic GN’R album. Other tracks feel half-baked. But judging these songs based on rough mixes feels unfair. Exploring ideas that never get fully fleshed out and trying things that don’t succeed is how the creative process is supposed to work. This, of course, underscores the moral argument against leaking unreleased music. “Ultimately, there’s only one truth,” says Kooluris. “It’s stolen music. These guys try to rationalize it, but it’s not theirs.”

THROUGH MONTHS OF CONVERSATIONS and emails, Dunsford insisted he didn’t leak the music. At the time the music began leaking, there were multiple others who had access to it including Lipton, Bird, MSL, and, possibly, Madeline. In his podcast, Bird admitted to selling the material. There’s also speculation in the GN’R community as to whether Zutaut might somehow have benefited. Yet the only one who seems to have faced real consequences is Dunsford.

According to two copyright experts I spoke to, the legal landscape here is a bit opaque. By buying the storage unit, Bird owned its physical contents — the actual CD-Rs, tapes, and whatnot — but certainly not the underlying intellectual property they contained. So, while the purchase at auction was perfectly legal, once Bird started copying the music and selling those copies, he was in violation of the U.S. Copyright Act, according to these copyright experts. Anyone who makes further copies and/or distributes them is too. 

Even assuming Zutaut did nothing other than fail to pay the bill for his storage units, Dina LaPolt, an entertainment and copyright attorney, believes he, and by extension, Interscope, may have some liability. “If he’s an employee of that record company, was since fired, and was continuing to pay the storage fees himself, I’d claim the record company was grossly negligent by not checking if this A&R person was in possession of any unreleased intellectual property,” says LaPolt. “If I was a lawyer for Guns N’ Roses, I’d be like, ‘If we want to go after the deep pockets, go after the record company where the guy was employed.’”

Kooluris told me that MSL tried to sell him the storage-locker music for $10,000. When I confronted MSL about that, he insisted he was just trying to throw Kooluris off the scent because Dunsford didn’t want anyone to know he’d given MSL this music
for free. “So I just led him on a wild goose hunt,” MSL says.

Throughout the reporting of this story, I got a steady stream of messages from members of the GN’R community. Some wanted to share their part in this story, some wanted to share other, related stories, and some offered what seemed like disinformation. Oftentimes the email address or social media account wouldn’t match with the name the person claimed to be. In the end, I discarded most of these messages.

But one caught my attention, from a guy named Kyle B, who posts on GN’R forums under the handle “Dadud” and asked to withhold his last name. In his email, he immediately confessed his role in the most consequential of the leaks: the Chairman leaks. He said he’d started a Discord server that was the hub of these leaks and received links to MP3s from Dunsford and another GN’R die-hard, “darknemus.”

When I got on Zoom with Kyle B, I asked him why he was telling me this. His issue mostly seemed to be that Dunsford wasn’t giving him any credit. “It’s something I’m proud of a little bit,” Kyle says.

Feeling a bit like a detective who’d spent months trying to solve a case only to have a random dude walk in the police station and confess, I was wary. I reached out to darknemus, who was responsible for helping spread some of the earliest Chinese Democracy leaks between 2003 and 2007. He agreed to talk on the condition that I only identify him by his first name, Craig. He emphasized that with any leaks he’s been involved with, the tracks “had already been out there, they just hadn’t been out there with a large group of people. It’s not like I stole it from a studio.”

He confirmed his role in the Chairman leaks. “Rick reached out to me going, ‘I have all this. What do I do?’” Craig helped devise a method of distributing the music that would be difficult to trace. He also wrote the poems. “Yes, that was my atrocious poetry,” he told me, laughing. “I was like, ‘If you’re going to do this, have fun with it.’”

One of his long-running motivations around leaking music has been to stick it to “the hoarding putzes,” though he recognizes the biggest hoarder of all is Rose himself. “He doesn’t owe anybody anything, but sometimes he teases like he’s going to do something, then nothing happens, and people get frustrated,” Craig says. “It’s almost like drug addicts.… You’re so desperate for a fix you’ll do things not within the norm to get your fix. All these kids are acting like they’re members of a spy ring.… You don’t see that with Metallica or Faith No More.”

When I finally confronted Dunsford about his role in the Chairman leaks, he dodged and weaved a bit before owning up. He maintains the early leaks up through the Numbers leaks weren’t his doing. In fact, he says, at that point he was trying to help Lebeis and GN’R quash those leaks. “I felt like I did everything I could to help them and was stabbed in the back by Fernando. It was after that, when they took away the VIP tickets and decided to pursue me for the money, that’s when I started getting with Craig about it.”

Dunsford felt squeezed on multiple fronts. “Another thing was the constant attacks from the fan base,” he says. “I had GN’R coming at me, then the fan base was so pissed at me because they wanted the music.” Leaking would at least alleviate that pressure. He told me he hadn’t initially been forthcoming because he didn’t want to burn Craig, which may be true, but clearly he was covering his own ass, too.

Even though he’s consistently played fast and loose with the truth, I find it hard to dislike Dunsford. He’s a guy who has essentially been getting his ass kicked since he was a kid because of his inability to moderate his zeal. Of all the reasons Dunsford gave for leaking the music, it seemed like the one that animated him most was losing those VIP tickets to see GN’R. He mentioned it to me three separate times.

It’s possible he’s lying about how much he paid Bird for the thumb drive and that GN’R reimbursed him $3,000 more than he spent. But to put that in context, GN’R grossed more than $584 million from the reunion tour with Slash and Duff, which wrapped up the same year they wrote Dunsford a check for $15,000. He’s not getting rich off GN’R. He’s no master criminal. He’s a fan desperate to hear new music from a band that often seems desperate not to release any. Something had to give. Even MSL, with whom Dunsford has frequently feuded, can’t quite bring himself to hate Dunsford. “I think, deep down, he’s a really nice guy who just gets too excited,” he said.

Being a music fan has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Collecting an artist’s every release was once the sign of a true die-hard. Now, we all have that for nearly every artist in existence for the price of a monthly subscription fee.

So, in this time of instant access and overwhelming abundance, what defines real fandom? How do you prove it? Well, if you’re Rick Dunsford, you do whatever it takes to get your hands on the music nobody else has. When being a fan is easy, you do what’s hard. These GN’R fans — not just Dunsford, but the whole collection of crazies — understand that.

Toward the end of the day I spent with Dunsford in Blue Mountain, I asked him whether he had any regrets about the way this all had played out. He said he’s pretty much at peace with the whole thing.

“All I ever wanted was to hear this music,” he says, then pauses before shaking his head. “I wouldn’t change anything about this story for nothing.”

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