“It’s such a cliché, but every book is a journey for me. I never start out thinking I know what the story is and I just need to kind of colour in the picture.”
Veteran British music journalist, radio and television presenter and author Mick Wall has been featured on Loud previously, and on each occasion it yields a lengthy, yet fascinating conversation.
That there’s always fresh subject matter to discuss is largely attributable to Wall’s prolific nature and willingness to dissect the careers of some of rock’s biggest and most enduring names.
This time around the primary topic at hand is Wall’s exhaustive and meticulously researched new biography, Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses. The author has a well-documented history with the band – a one-time confidant welcomed into their inner circle, turned nemesis who was name-checked directly in the infamous track “Get in the Ring”. However, Wall is adamant this book isn’t about settling old scores. During our chat, he discussed the group’s history and current “reunion” of three original members, as well as his memories of Lemmy and thoughts on the cancellation of the Vinyl television series.
Q: During one of our previous conversations you raised the example of Metallica, and the common belief that the band continued after Cliff Burton’s death “because that’s what Cliff would have wanted”. That’s a line been repeated ad nauseum for so long the remaining band members likely believe it by now, but you sought to not not merely echo that rhetoric and delve deeper. What types of “myths” surrounding the history of Guns N’ Roses did you aim to dispel with your latest book?
A: The big thing I think in the book for me is the way of looking at Axl Rose. Because of this extraordinary length of time it took for Chinese Democracy to emerge, because of the no-shows on-stage, or storming off. All the so-called “crazy” stuff. I myself wrote his biography ten years ago and was gunning for him. That’s the truth, I was gunning for him and I really wanted to kind of take him down a peg.
For me, this book, I hope anyway, demonstrates how stupid and awful those views are. That we’re not talking about an egomaniac or a crazy rock monster. We’re not talking about Ozzy Osbourne, we’re not even talking about Mick Jagger. We’re talking about an individual with a huge musical talent. A very bright, intelligent person, but from an absolute disaster of a background. His childhood would have been enough to finish off most people. His actual father sexually abused him as a tiny child. His stepfather was an utter crank, lunatic Pentecostal preacher who believed in the literal word of the Bible and speaking in tongues. I mean, the story in the book where they’re driving, going for a Sunday drive and Axl starts singing along to “Mandy” by Barry Manilow, and gets a smash in the face for it. I mean, fucking hell, what if he’d been listening to Lou Reed or Their Satanic Majesties Request? “Mandy” by Barry Manilow, it’s the work of the devil. And all this terrible shit they put into his head about these memories he had of his biological father and saying, ‘no, that’s just the devil talking to you inside’. Jesus Christ, that would fuck most people for good. And I think it has fucked him for good in a lot of ways, I mean, forever.
So for me it was a really important opportunity to try and have a real different kind of look at that. There’s a bit in the book where I talk about winding the movie back and playing it through Axl’s eyes, and seeing it how he must have been seeing it all these years. Of course it’s not unduly kind to him when it comes to telling a lot of the crazy stories, because those stories are real, they really happened and they really have affected peoples’ lives, mine included. But at the same time, the dedication in the book is ‘for Axl, you won’. And I see him now, I see him more like that now. I think this past year has shown us a different guy. A guy that we couldn’t have imagined two years ago when he was still touring the world with his own version of Guns N’ Roses. Those dates with AC/DC… I think we’ll look back on them in history and we’ll go, ‘Fuck me, did that actually happen?’ But I think it showed him in a way that we would never, ever have dreamed of, really up until now. A smile on his face, turning up on time. I don’t know if you saw it at all, but I saw them when they played in London and that’s the best AC/DC show I’ve seen since the days of Bon Scott. No offense to Brian Johnson, but ‘Johno’s been phoning (it) in, as have AC/DC for nearly 30 years. Axl comes with them and suddenly they’re doing songs they haven’t done since the ’70s. Suddenly Angus (Young) looks like he’s born again as a performer. And Axl looks like I’ve never, ever seen him or could ever have imagined him. Happy Axl- who’d have thought it?
Q: Obviously you spent a lot of time with him at one point, but how difficult can it be to separate the myths and your own personal feelings from what actually happened?
A: Well, I didn’t find it difficult at all. I just had to take the time to sit and think about it long enough. Because up until now he’s been this two-dimensional rock caricature almost. And that’s not who he is, that’s not what he is. From my own point of view, an important part of this journey for me was having my youngest daughter, who is now 13, three years ago having her diagnosed as autistic. She’s not severely autistic; you’d never know she was autistic, she’s what they call a very high functioning autistic person. Which means that she’s a genius when it comes to drama, singing and dancing, but you try getting her to turn up on time for any fucking thing. You try telling her not to change her clothes five times a day. When she was 12, she pulled a knife on me.
I’m not saying Axl’s autistic, but for sure, I’m absolutely convinced that he’s a damaged individual and these issues with time and control… Autists are terrified of the world. They can’t look you in the eye. If I were to cuddle my daughter I have to kind of sidle up to her from the side. They find direct confrontation unbearable, it’s like setting them on fire. They will do anything to avoid it, including cutting off their nose to spite their face. I’ve had to do lots of courses and learn about this stuff for my daughter’s sake, and suddenly you realist there’s a whole world of pain out there. Einstein was autistic, some people say Mozart was. I don’t mean to harp on, because I have no proof that Axl Rose is autistic, but definitely he’s someone who I think has to control every situation, because whatever his psyche is, it cannot deal with social interaction and chaos in the way that you and I can.
Q: What’s your relationship like with the other original members these days, and how did that factor into the writing of Last of the Giants?
A: Whenever I do a book, I burn all my bridges. I don’t write the book to please the band, I write the book to please the reader. I’ve had a wonderful relationship with Slash that has carried on all through these years. I worked with him really closely on his two solo albums. We always hug, kiss and greet and all the rest of it whenever we see each other. I’ve always had a great relationship with Izzy (Stradlin), Duff (McKagan) and Steven (Adler). Matt Sorum and I were sending messages over Twitter at one point in the book. I have a wonderful relationship with all those people, but that counts for nothing when I come to write the books.
So, after my Led Zeppelin book, Jimmy Page would no longer have anything to do with me. After my Metallica book, James Hetfield will no longer have anything to do with me, although Lars (Ulrich) still remains in touch. Then Lars is a super shrewd, smart guy. So I don’t know what their reaction is and I don’t want to say I don’t care, because I care for those people. But it has absolutely no bearing on the way I look at the book or write the book. I write the book to try and tell the true story of Guns N’ Roses, not how I want to tell it so that I stay in their good books or anything like that.
Q: You do afford a unique perspective on their history though, especially as you’re part of it. Being name-checked in one of their songs surely only made you more famous (laughs).
A: Yeah, but you know what? I swear to God it’s… what is it, 25 years later? Twenty-five years and here we are again. It’s not a reflection on you, this comes up in every interview I do. It’s twenty-five years later, and it gets mentioned every time I do an interview, whatever book I’ve written. And it will carry on coming up until the day I die (laughs). It’s become so abstract and has absolutely no meaning for me.
I always think of the day Duff actually played me the song when it was called “Why Do You Look at Me When You Hate Me?” It was Duff’s song, he was going to sing it and it was New Year’s Eve at the place I was living in at the time in L.A. We were all drunk and he said, ‘Mick, Mick, I’ve got this song’, and he did this whole kind of Sid Vicious routine (mimics Duff channeling Sid). We were just laughing, and I thought, ‘yeah, it’s not very good, but who cares?’ It’s Duff and we were having a drink. Then nine months later it turns into “Get in the Ring”. Actually, probably like a year, probably 18 months, turns into this thing that Axl’s co-opted and turned into “Get in the Ring”.
I’m numb to the whole thing. The novelty wore off a long fucking time ago. And that’s why if you look in the book I don’t think it really makes much of a big deal about that. It just assumes that we know the song and really what more is there to say? I don’t really know what to add to that.
Q: The intriguing aspect of the band’s story is this “reunion” of three-fifths of the classic line-up. It’s been rumoured for so long and is now a reality. I would read comments like it must have been reassuring to know they were one of the few bands who could reform and instantly know they’d be selling out stadiums. It affords an epitaph to the story that you probably couldn’t have predicted if this book was written five or ten years ago.
A: Well, that’s true. Because of Axl’s entirely unique take on the business they were the one band that you thought, ‘well, they really should get back together’. They’ve been talking about it for over eight years. And the sticking point has always been, this comes from Duff, the businessman who went back to college and all that stuff. That was the minute there’s a no-show or the minute we go over time and we’re fined $100,000 because we broke curfew, or the minute there’s a riot and we get sued for $200,000, the minute anything like that happens because Axl is being Axl, okay, Axl has to pay for it. That was the only sticking point that stopped them getting back together back in 2008 for example. And Axl wouldn’t have it, because he will only engage with unconditional acceptance, that’s the only thing he can work with without feeling paranoid and that people are out to get him.
The fact that they’re back together, if you look in the book it explains in the final chapter that a lot of it had to do with Slash getting back together with Meegan (Hodges), who was Erin’s (Everly) best friend. And Erin and Axl had a kind of reconciliation about 18 months, two years ago, led by Meegan getting back together with Slash. And although Erin and Axl aren’t back together, a lot of healing went on there. Because of that, Axl and Slash through those circumstances ended up talking to each other again.
Another big reveal in the book is the fact that all these years of Axl, like at one point Axl said he hoped Slash got cancer. I remember a show in England over ten years ago, and someone in the audience shouted, ‘Where’s Slash?’ And Axl said, ‘Up my fucking ass’. All that kind of bravado, anger and bitter refutation of Slash, and as he used to call it, ‘the old line-up’. The book shows you what bollocks that was. In reality, as (former manager) Doug Goldstein reveals in the book, Axl was devastated when Slash left. Slash was suicidal at that point; actually, when I say suicidal, wanted to commit suicide. And Doug Goldstein talks about endless nights for months and years where he’d be called to Axl’s place at three in the morning, and Axl would be lying in bed, sobbing, with a gun in his hand.
Them getting back together was far more likely than I ever realised. Axl just had to feel that Slash wasn’t going to have some kind of hold over him, or advantage over him, or that Slash could be as tender and caring as Axl needs people to be around him. There’s also one other issue of course, and in fairness this never turned Axl’s head before. But it’s a fact. In 2014, the last shows Axl did with his band, his version of the band, the highest guarantee they got on that tour was $400,000 a night. Some nights it was considerably less. And when it came to the US they were still doing things like the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas. They weren’t doing stadiums, that’s for sure. And on this tour, two years later with Slash and Duff back in the band, their guarantee went up to $2.6 million a night. And in fact what happened was, they were clearing over $5 million a night on that tour. Axl gets the lion’s share of that money, Slash gets the next biggest share and Duff gets the third biggest share. And all of them are making more money now than they ever made in their lives before. Because as the book makes clear, on the Use Your Illusion tour nobody really made the money they should have done on that tour, because they were still in their crazy phase and just pissed money away like there was no tomorrow.
So there’s practical reasons. These guys, their next major birthday is going to be 60, and there’s also talk behind the scenes (that) the book touches on about Axl talking about retiring after this, and this actually being the last throw of the dice. There’s a lot of stuff gone on, and as ever, none of it’s simple. It’s all complicated, intertwined and bizarre. They’re the most bizarre band that ever lived I think in that respect. ‘Cause everybody else, other bands, they hate each other but they get back together for the money. This band love each other, and hate each other, and have spent two-and-a-half decades not being together. And what’s happened? They’re back together. They just can’t… It’s not even a case of they can’t leave it alone, it won’t leave them alone.
Q: Interesting. Shifting topics, another of your recent projects was the Lemmy biography. You spent plenty of time with him over the years. Do you have a favourite memory of him?
A: God, Lemmy, so many stories. Every encounter was a story. I remember going to visit him, this was years before he went to Los Angeles. I went to visit him at this house he lived in at Ladbroke Grove, which is a very kind of boho, downtown part of London. And he came to the door in a fright mask, like a big monster’s head that you pull over your head. That was interesting. He sat with that on for about an hour (laughs) while we did the so-called interview, except he kept saying, ‘don’t turn the tape recorder on yet’. I think we had a bottle of whiskey, about two grams of speed and God knows how many brilliant stories he wouldn’t let me record. Before he took the fucking mask off we actually sat down and did some sort of interview, but it kept getting broken up with him telling me to turn the machine off while he played me… I don’t know if it ever came out, everything comes out these days on box sets and things so maybe it’s out there. But he played me this incredible version of “Wild Thing” he’d recorded with Jeff Beck on guitar. It was just like incredible, obviously (played at) awesome volume as well after all this drugs and booze. I said, ‘Why the fuck don’t you release it?’ And he said, ‘Jeff won’t let me’. I said, ‘So you’ve done this thing with Jeff?’ And he said, ‘No, Jeff’s into his kind of jazz-rock’.
But anyway, two days later I was still there. I didn’t turn up thinking I’d be there for two days, I thought I’d be there for two hours at the max. Two days later I’m still there; haven’t slept, haven’t changed, haven’t really moved from the fucking spot I’d been sitting in for 48 hours. By the time I got the tape recorder home a couple days after that I think we only had about 40 minutes of conversation on there. So that was a great occasion, a fantastic occasion. I can’t remember too much about it, but it was a fantastic occasion.
Q: (Laughs) What other projects do you have in the works?
A: I’m going to be doing this huge book on Jimi Hendrix, and it’s going to come out in 2018. It’s a project that’s been kind of been going on for a couple of years now, because it has to be good. There’s been so many wonderful books written about Jimi Hendrix. If I’m going to do it, if anybody’s going to do another one it has to be worth it, there has to be a reason to do it. So I’ve been getting deep, really deep into that.
And I’m working with a co-writer on a ten-part TV series which we’re talking about doing for Netflix. It’s about a band, but as I’ve always hated every TV or film fictonalised story of bands in the music business; they’ve always been rotten, usually anyway. (So I’m) doing my best to make this the fucking exception. I think we’re on to our 18th draft of the pilot script at the moment. The basic premise, I can’t go into it but it’s a good one, people really like it. We just have to try and write the shit out of it now if we can.
Q: What were your thoughts on HBO’s now cancelled Vinyl program?
A: I really liked it. I mean, I cringed all through the pilot episode. I saw the New York Dolls in 1973 and I can tell you no one really gave a fuck. I did love the Dolls, but it wasn’t anything like it was depicted. And also when he snorts the coke and he seems to go to fucking heaven. That doesn’t happen. People snort coke very discreetly; they don’t go (screams and yells) turn from Jekyll and Hyde. I found all that really like, oh, please. But I love that era and I thought it evoked the era very, very well. I thought there were some great… Not that episode, the other episodes I thought were good and it really started to build up a momentum. So when I heard they cancelled it I was stricken. I really wanted to see at least another four or five series’ of that.
There were terribly cringy moments. There’s a bit where they’ve got a guy playing Peter Grant. Peter Grant was six-foot-five and weighed 300 pounds, and this guy looked like the fucking Hobbit. Or some guy playing David Bowie and you just want to shoot yourself in the fucking head because it’s so obviously an American actor trying to be Bowie in the ’70s. You just get a little bit of sick in your mouth watching it. But other than that (laughs) I really liked a lot of the other stuff, I thought it was great.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: (Adopts mock solemn tone) Please buy the book. My children are poor and hungry, and I need self-validation because I have such low self-esteem and am such a pathetic character. If you don’t buy this book, I’ll cry.
Q: Well, if that’s not a selling point, I don’t know what is (laughs).
A: (Laughs) Bring back Vinyl; those are my final words.