What's it like when Axl Rose calls you out in a song?

‘Why?’ It’s such a little word, yet it asks such a lot. And seven years on from being accused by Axl Rose in Get In The Ring of, “rippin’ off the fuckin’ kids… printin’ lies, startin’ controversy…”, whenever anybody asks why my name ended up in that appallingly funny song, I never quite know what to say. It’s like being asked why you broke up with your girlfriend… like, how much time do you have?

I’ve heard the rumours, of course. So first off, let me begin by straightening out some of the most popular misconceptions.

  1. Axl threatening to kick my “bitchy little ass” was not because of his reaction to the book I wrote about the band, Guns N’ Roses: The Most Dangerous Band In the World. The song was recorded long before the book was published.
  2. Getting my name in a Guns N’ Roses song did not result in me losing my job on Kerrang!, the magazine that had printed many of my GN’R stories. I had already decided to leave some months before the Use Your Illusion II album was released, as friends and colleagues will confirm.
  3. Despite Axl’s assertions, I have never ripped off anybody’s children or deliberately told lies in anything I have written about Guns N’ Roses.

So what was it all about? Well, on one level, Get In The Ring is just a lot of LA puff about nothing; a big, teary, hair-pulling tantrum from an over-indulged child-star shouting and swearing because he can’t get his own way. So Guns N’ Roses got some bad write-ups in the press. So what? Name one band anybody’s ever heard of that didn’t. The accusation that certain members of the press had made things up is a more serious one, perhaps, but hardly new. Again, name one celebrity that hasn’t made that claim.

Did I make things up, though? Do me a favour. What for? The Gunners were the Oasis of their day, and the whole beauty of writing about them then was that there was always so much going on around them. The last thing you had to do was make anything up. Controversy and headlines followed them around like dogs snapping at their cowboy-booted heels. You simply had to be there to write it all down.

Slash and Duff were always the most amenable, a great double-act when ‘partying’, and the most accepting of the idea of success. They had their moments of confusion and despair, like anybody who lived in a goldfish bowl would, but on some deeper level they both understood that it was no less than they had expected. They didn’t get into bands not to be rock stars. This was what it was all about, dude! And we did a number of excellent interviews together between 1987 and 1990.

I’ve seen Axl around a fair bit, too, whenever I stayed in LA, which was most of the time by the late 80s, but we had never really got up close and talked. We both sort of knew we’d get around to doing something together one day. “You don’t need to talk to me yet anyway,” he had once remarked. “You’re doing a pretty good job getting it all from Slash.”

I left it at that. Part of my act back then was never to hassle anybody. Just let them know I was around and leave the 2+2 to them. It usually worked, too, and, as I was to discover, in some respects at least, Axl was no different to any other rock star.

Fast-forward to January 1990, and a phone call just as I’m getting ready to hit the sack. It’s Axl, wanting to know if I can come over to his place right now because he has something important to say.

At the time he was living in a small two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, and when I got there, he was raving. It was all about Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil, who he claimed had jumped Izzy from behind and roughed him up a couple of nights earlier. The argument was over Vince’s wife, who’d claimed Izzy had come onto her, while Axl now insisted it was the other way around and that it was Vince’s wife, a former mud-wrestler at The Tropicana, who had made a pass at Izzy…

Or something. It was a lot of nothing about nothing. But Axl was mad! He was going to make Vince pay! He began ranting about how he wanted to “kill that motherfucker”. He chundered on for a full 10 minutes before he finally calmed down long enough for me to set up the tape-recorder. He was saying crazy things, fantasising about what he was going to do to Vince once he got hold of him. So before the interview began, I sat on the couch and scribbled down some of the things he had said, so that I could throw them back at him in the interview, including some astonishing statements like, “Anyway you wanna go, guns or knives, motherfucker,” and a few other choice phrases.

He just laughed at me. “No, man,” he said. “I still stand by every fuckin’ word!”

Then we sat down and began taping. Once Axl had got his Vince spiel off his chest, not only did he end up giving me a full two-hour interview, but he also let me do a second more ‘staged’ interview for Capital Radio, where I used to present a Saturday night show. We did a sort of mini-Desert Island Discs together, where he got to pick some of the tracks that had affected him most as a child – D’yer Maker by Led Zeppelin and Bennie & The Jets by Elton John were two he picked. It was a great interview and afterwards he was in such a good mood that he even taped a couple of station IDs for me.

Later though, when I came to write up the interview, I tried to give the full flavour of how menacing Axl had sounded during the early part of my visit, and included all the controversial comments he had made on tape, plus one or two of the things I had written down that he’d said when I first arrived and he was still on a roll. But when I read it back I realised how heavy some of the things that Axl had said actually looked in black and white. So I decided that, to be on the safe side, I should contact him, in case he had changed his mind or wanted to lighten it up a little.

We spoke on the phone and I explained my fears to him and asked if he wanted to retract any of the more inflammatory quotes. He just laughed at me. “No, man,” he said. “I still stand by every fuckin’ word!”

But when the interview ran as a cover story in April 1990, it immediately caused uproar in both the Mötley Crüe and Gunners camps, and suddenly it was nothing to do with Izzy anymore. Coming from the same town, the two bands ran in many of the same circles – Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx and Slash had once been big pals – and shared many of the same friends and business acquaintances. By making such a confrontational public statement, Axl may have briefly got to Vince Neil, but he’d also started something no one else in either band would have wanted: he had started a war.

And my feeling is that it was at that very moment that Axl realised what he’d done, that he first began to turn against me in his mind. Nothing was ever his fault. If something had gone wrong, it must have been someone else’s fuck-up. Or, in this case, mine.

The first intimation I had of the trouble brewing was when Axl got one of his flunkies to call and ask me to send them a copy of the interview tape so that the band could run it on their own special Guns N’ Roses telephone line in America. My suspicions were immediately aroused. Why on earth would they want to run that interview on a phone line?

When I asked what the number of the phone line was, there was a lot of spluttering and back-pedalling down the other end, and that’s when I knew that something was up. Axl didn’t want the tape so he could run it on a phone-line; he wanted it so he could listen to it, to see if he’d really said all the things I’d reported he’d said.

When I refused to send the tape and confronted one of Axl’s publicists with my views, she admitted that there was indeed “a problem”. Axl, she said, “just can’t believe he said some of those things. He doesn’t even think he would speak that way. He, er, thinks it’s kinda funny…”

‘Kinda funny?’ At first, I was gobsmacked. Later, the more I thought about it, the more completely outraged I became. For years, I had always done my damnedest to play fair with Guns N’ Roses. There had already been a great many unsavoury occurrences that I had been witness to over the years that had never come within a million miles of publication; personal problems that Slash had approached me for advice on; 3am confessions that Duff swore me to secrecy over. As far as I was concerned, I had proved myself. I was no stitch-up merchant; I was a friend. Now came this: Axl with his knickers in a twist because his big mouth had got him into trouble again.

But why the subterfuge? If he’d wanted to hear a copy of the tape, why hadn’t he just called and asked for one? Why did he have to get someone to call and invent some story? What did he have cooking? Axl on an ill-tempered bender was a crazy man, capable of almost anything. I played the tape back to myself and checked my notes. It was all there. I thought about making a copy of everything and sending it to him, but then I began to get paranoid. Surely, he wasn’t that far out he didn’t remember saying those things? But rock stars can convince themselves of almost anything; there’s always plenty of people around who will tell them they’re right, no matter what they say or do. And I wondered if he wanted a copy of the tape so that he could… well, doctor it in some way. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but there were a lot of ridiculous things and people surrounding Guns N’ Roses in those days, and I thought that anything might be possible.

Brooding on it, I admit now there was also a part of me that simply resented the implication of being asked for a copy of the tape. My word was no longer good enough. Further proof was required. Well, Axl could go fuck himself, I decided. If he had a problem, let him call me himself and tell me about it.

I relayed the message in no uncertain terms the very next day. Needless to say, Axl never did call back and that’s the way things stayed until we met up again nearly a year later. That meeting came at the Rock In Rio II festival, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in January 1991. The Rio shows were the Gunners’ first since they’d opened for The Rolling Stones at the giant outdoor LA Coliseum, in November 1989. Understandably, they were the focus of attention absolutely everywhere they went throughout their week-long stay.

But then, they had been the centre of attention wherever they went for nearly three years. What was different now was the way they went about it. The first time I saw Axl in Rio, he was walking into a club with about a dozen bodyguards. They were all huge and black and ominous and he looked like a little rag doll being dragged to the playground by a pack of ravenous Dobermans. As I approached, Axl gave no sign of recognition and two of the Dobermans bared their teeth at me and growled. I retreated quickly.

That night, I espied Slash across the room in the hotel bar. I waved hello but he just looked at me for a moment, before giving an almost imperceptible nod in my direction. Then he turned his back and began talking to someone else. This wasn’t the Slash that I used to know. As I tried to approach, a ring of Dobermans formed around him. He saw what was happening but pretended not to. I took the hint and split.

Most embarrassing of all, though, was a few nights later when Duff and I ran into each other backstage at the Maracana Stadium, where the festival was being staged. “Hi,” I said. “How are you?” “Uh, yeah, OK,” he mumbled, then swept past me down the hall as fast as his gangly legs could carry him. Were they all under instruction not to speak to me, I wondered?

He repeated his threat: “I don’t care what kind of book it is, whether it says we’re a great band or whatever: if it has our name on it, I will track you down, I will find you and…”

Apparently so. By not submitting to the master’s will and handing over the tape to Axl the moment he’d snapped his fingers, I had broken the unwritten code of the road: I had snubbed the singer. And in so doing, I had crossed the boundary between ‘trusted confidante’ and ‘bad news’, and now found myself somewhere in ‘asshole’ territory. Well, if I was gonna be treated like an asshole, I might as well act like one, I thought. I decided not to pull any punches in the feature I wrote about the event. If I couldn’t introduce the readers to the band anymore, at least I could let them meet the bodyguards.

Before the article appeared, however, I was in LA one evening when I received an unexpected phone call. It was Axl. “We need to talk,” he said, and I agreed to meet him at a nearby bar. When I got there, he had three other people with him; they all looked very serious. A great cloud of thunder appeared to be hanging over them. I sat down next to Axl and asked him what was up, but he couldn’t bring himself to look me in the eye. Instead, he spoke to me in profile. He began by issuing a warning. (For the record, I didn’t have a tape-recorder with me at this meeting, but I wrote down as much of what was said as I could remember when I got back later.)

“I’ve heard you’re writing a book about the band and I just want to let you know that, if you do, I will track you down,” Axl said. “I will track you down and kill you.” The other three all leaned in and did their best to look mean. One of them began a long, involved story about the time someone else crossed him and what they did to him. It was like something out of a movie. A very bad movie. But even bad movies can have scary endings and I decided there and then that there would be no Guns N’ Roses book from me. Axl was only half-right. I hadn’t actually been writing a book about Guns N’ Roses; I had merely been planning to publish a compilation of all the various interviews I had done with them, all together under one cover. I tried to explain this, but it only seemed to make him more agitated. In retrospect, I can’t help believing it was the thought of the Vince Neil quotes being reproduced again that Axl was really put out about.

He repeated his threat: “I don’t care what kind of book it is, whether it says we’re a great band or whatever: if it has our name on it, I will track you down, I will find you and…” I knew it was mostly a show of bravado but, in truth, I was rattled. Then, when my Rio article appeared a few days later, it all erupted again. I got the phone call at about 2am. “Hey, Mick, this is Axl. I just wanna say, I’m sitting here reading the new Kerrang!, and I just wanted to say one thing: see you in court, buddy!” Then he hung up.

And that was when I’d decided I’d had enough. Had enough of being pushed around and threatened by someone I knew I could probably take out with one punch, if only he had the balls to lose the bodyguards and the publicists and all the other little munchkins he surrounded himself with, and come and met me man-to-man sometime. What was my crime, anyway?

Writing things down as I saw them? Let’s see, Axl could write about “niggers” and “faggots” in One In A Million, but I couldn’t write about Guns N’ Roses being surrounded by bodyguards and treating people with contempt?

Yes, I was angry. The first thing I did was ring my publishers and tell them I’d changed my mind again, and wanted to go through with the book after all, but that I wanted to re-do it, so that it wasn’t just a collection of old interviews, but contained lots of new, previously unpublished stuff, too. They loved the idea, I wasn’t so pissed off that I was going to put anything in there that I’d previously promised Slash or anybody else I wouldn’t. But I was going to write a book. I’d consulted some lawyer friends and some other music business hard-cases I trusted and they all assured me that what Axl was doing was not only morally suspect but possibly even illegal.

And the rest is history. My book came out at about the same time as both the Use Your Illusion albums were released, in the summer of 1991. When people heard Get In The Ring, they merely assumed the song was in reaction to the book. But in my opinion, it had nothing to do with the book. I still believe it goes back to that ill-fated interview of January 1990.

Looking back, it all seems so tame compared to some of the antics bands like Nirvana and Marilyn Manson got up to subsequently. But it meant so much at the time, to Axl and me both. The truth is, we were both famously prone to tantrums in those days, and if anything I’m sorry we never got a chance to speak about it personally. To sort it out like grown men, not stupid boys. Ah, but those were different times, man…

Meanwhile, if you’re reading this, Axl, I’d love to get in the ring with you again. Only this time, I’ll be throwing hugs, not punches, and I’ll be carrying a single red rose.

To remind us of the good times…

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.