SLASH: GUNS N' ROSES GUITARIST CUTS RIGHT TO THE HEART
- Gary Graff, The Detroit Free Press, 4.12.92
It's a Friday night in Houston, about 90 minutes before Guns N' Roses is due onstage, and Slash, the group's guitarist, has just finished a chat with his good buddy Michael Jackson.
The relationship seems implausible. Jackson is pop music's ultimate manipulator of flash and hype, and he professes the values of God, family and clean living. Guns N' Roses boasts of raw-street credibility as it waves the banner of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and rebellion, a philosophy that's made it the most volatile and closely watched band in the world.
Even Slash says he was skeptical when Jackson invited him to play on his new "Dangerous" album, in the introduction to "Black and White" and the solo for "Give in to Me."
"Going into it, I had no idea what to expect," says the 26- year-old hard rocker, whose real name is Saul Hudson and whose parents both worked in the music industry. "I went in blindly and figured whatever happens, happens."
And what happened was a friendship that still seems to amaze Slash, who recently received the gift of a big-screen TV from Jackson.
"He turned out to be very down to earth, very sincere," says Slash. "And he worked really hard, which is something I always respect.
"Working with him was humbling in a way, too. You think about the amount of attention that's been thrown at us all the time. Working with Michael, whoa -- that was definitely a heavy-duty glamour situation. It went way beyond what we do."
What the members of Guns N' Roses do is sell enormous numbers of records -- more than 7 million copies of the new "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II" albums -- while remaining bad boys with an equally bad attitude and a knack for courting controversy, whether it's the often post-midnight starting times of its concerts to Slash's role as a vodka spokesman (see story at right). The group is part of a rock lineage that includes such celebrated mayhem mongers as Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and the Sex Pistols, but Guns N' Roses sidesteps -- or perhaps uses -- the controversy to survive and succeed.
Since blasting into the mass audience spotlight with the aptly titled anthem "Welcome to the Jungle," the Gunners have left a trail of nasty deeds -- arrests, drug addictions, fights; songs that are racist, sexist and homophobic; drunken misconduct at the 1989 American Music Awards; a concert riot last summer in St. Louis and the bitter departures of two founding members.
But recently things have been decidedly less thorny, Slash says, even after the acrimonious departure of guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who along with Rose and Slash wrote the bulk of the group's songs.
"He didn't want to do any of the work involved," Slash says. "The partnership was no longer equal, and that wasn't right. . . .
"It's OK, though. Steven (Adler, the group's former drummer) didn't come back, and it made us that much stronger to be able to get rid of him. The Izzy situation made us stronger, too. In order to survive those major changes, you have to be really dedicated, really strong to say, 'OK, we have to keep going.'
"This is how into it we are -- to have so many obstacles thrown in our path and to manage to get through it. We're gonna stay here. It always looks like tomorrow is not going to happen, but as long as you hang out there for the rest of the night, you can make it."
In fact, Slash hopes the controversies will start to wane so the group can focus on its music. Savvy enough to know that their problems have only helped sell more records and concert tickets, Slash has nonetheless tired of the incessant criticism and analysis of the Guns N' Roses phenomenon.
The way he sees it, the group simply came along at the right time, a time when pop lacked performers with such a strident attitude and the dark tinge of danger.
"One of the reasons we're so popular is that we express stuff in our lyrics that people have to deal with on a day-to- day basis but can't express," he said. "Because of their work or their career or whatever, they don't have an arena to do that -- unless they go on Oprah Winfrey or something.
"See, we never set out to intentionally disrupt the whole rock 'n' roll business by being as controversial as we possibly could. It's never a conscious effort. We write our songs and really don't think about what the reaction will be.
"I don't think anything we do is all that major except being totally honest, which people have problems with."
It's that combination of magic and danger that fosters ambivalence about Guns N' Roses -- in the most recent Rolling Stone magazine critics' and readers' polls, the band placed high in such opposing categories as Best Band/Worst Band and Best Al bum/Worst Album. One can be put off by the group's cocky swagger and its erratic behavior, and by the controversial elements of some of its songs, like the sexism of "Back Off Bitch," the racism and homophobia of "One in a Million" and the simple mean spirit of "Get in the Ring."
But their sentiments are sincere, and that infuses the group's other songs with higher meaning, from the gut-wrenching romanticism of "November Rain" to the harrowing drug odyssey of "Coma." And in these days of namby-pamby hit-making, any group that doesn't pull its punches merits attention.
"We go out and we rock and we play what comes from our heart," says bassist Duff McKagan.
Then there's the music. Led by Slash's guitar heroics and the group's laudable sense of songcraft -- with a vocabulary that encompasses vintage Stones attitude, Led Zeppelin crunch and punk-rock urgency -- it's a furious sound. Its propulsive tone of yearning and desperation rolls over the listener in waves.
That's the part Slash feels has been lost in the band's notoriety. "It's an accepted thing -- people just view us as Guns N' Roses, 'that rebellious hard-rock band,' " he says.
But Slash is looking for nothing less than a communion with his audience, the same kind of unity of attitude and purpose he got from his favorite bands.
Guns N' Roses is a group of musicians, not entertainers, he says, and that's why they still get upset over bad shows, still make a fuss when the barriers are placed too far in front of the stage, still are affected by the things they see during their performances. It's the same kind of genuineness that's felt in their music, and while it's not always savory, the balance inevitably tips in Guns' favor.
"A lot of bands fake it every night for a week, but we take it really seriously," Slash says. "It's about a lot of things. If I feel weird when I got up today, if I saw something weird in the crowd today, it affects my day. People think we're bigger than life; they forget how human we are, that what we do in the entertainment business is strictly emotional.
"A lot of it goes with the territory. The band is a vehicle for everyone in it to be able to do what they love the most, which is play. I guess you've got to pay for that somewhere, and I guess we do with all the controversies and everything.
"But that's the magic thing about rock 'n' roll -- there's no point you can't get past. And then there's always something to reach for."
ON STAGE: Guns N' Roses and Smashing Pumpkins will perform at 8:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Palace, Lapeer Road and I- 75, Auburn Hills.