Axl Rose still lives in the house that sits high above Malibu, where Latigo Canyon Road twists and narrows, and a perilous drop lies just feet from the wheels of approaching vehicles. A hidden gate with a camera-equipped call-box guards the entrance to a four-acre estate. It was here in October 2005, at the entrance to this prime piece of Southern California real estate, that Axl said his ex-Guns N’ Roses bandmate Slash arrived “unannounced at 5am” and made disparaging remarks about Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum and Scott Weiland, who were then his colleagues in Velvet Revolver.
It was the peak of an acrimonious fall-out that meant the ‘most dangerous band in the world’ were now communicating only via their lawyers. The reunion dreamed of by fans seemed as distant as Axl’s mountain-top house. Matters were seemingly put beyond doubt in 2009, when Axl called Slash “a cancer” in a rare interview with Billboard magazine. “What’s clear is that one of the two of us will die before a reunion,” said Axl.
Jump forward to the summer of 2014. Axl and Slash secretly formalise agreements that they will sign off on the mutually written material performed on their respective bands’ DVD releases. In February 2015, Slash tweets birthday greetings to Axl, which suggested a thaw in rock’s most high-profile cold war. The following May he tells the CBS This Morning programme: “A lot of the tension… has dissipated. Over time we all just got sick and tired of the black cloud. The biggest thing that happens when you have a break-up that is less than harmonious is you build up a bad energy because of the distance.” In August, Slash tells Swedish television that he and Axl have met and reconciled. “It was probably way overdue, you know. But it’s very cool at this point.”
As this happens, the Chinese Democracy-era line-up of Guns N’ Roses reaches a natural end with a second residency in Las Vegas. Latter-day members DJ Ashba, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and Tommy Stinson melt away. With both Axl and Slash on good terms with Duff McKagan, the road to a reunion is clearer than it has been for a decade.
On January 5, 2016 the news is confirmed in a statement: “Upholding a three-decade tradition of breaking ground, creating trends, and forever changing the face of rock’n’roll, Guns N’ Roses announce the most significant music event of this century. Founder Axl Rose and former members Slash and Duff McKagan will regroup to headline the Coachella Music & Arts Festival (April 15-17 & April 22-24). The performances will mark the first time since 1993 the Gunners will share the stage for what is certain to be an explosive event.”
It’s so easy, right? Like the old song says.
The Guns N’ Roses reunion was the worst-kept secret in the music industry. To anyone paying attention, Slash’s birthday tweet to Axl suggested a detente, while Duff made his peace with the singer years ago, even standing in for Tommy Stinson on a GN’R South American tour in 2014. But a speculative reunion took several steps closer to becoming reality in December 2014 when Slash announced his divorce from wife Perla Hudson – an unpopular figure in GN’R circles.
“There are lots of reasons to re-form now,” says Arlett Vereecke, the LA publicist who has been associated with the band since their early days. “Axl has been saying it for a couple of years, and basically the main reason is that Slash is available without the attachment of a bitchy wife. Axl has being saying for two years that this year he would put it back together. When that divorce was in the making, it went all forward really fast.”
There have been some near-misses in the past. In 2008, Scott Weiland revealed to Classic Rock that there was an aborted attempt to reunite the band around their 2004 Greatest Hits album. Black Star Riders/Thin Lizzy frontman Ricky Warwick suggested that Axl wasn’t averse to the idea as recently as 2012, when Lizzy supported GN’R in the UK. “Axl was quite realistic about the possibility of a reunion, saying: ‘Who knows?’,” Warwick tells Classic Rock. “He had fond memories of it. It was always a case of, we’ll see where the road takes us. It was never: ‘Over my dead body’.”
If the reunion was unsurprising, then the timing of it is more so. Alan Niven is the gregarious New Zealander who managed the band during their commercial peak in the late 1980s and early 90s.
“There is definitely a ‘Why now?’ factor to this,” he says. “Why not next year, when it is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Appetite? That’s the first question I’d ask. And there would be plenty of promoters asking that too. There are two Coachella shows, two Vegas [before Coachella], shows in Mexico City… But why not have that all in place before there is an announcement?”
Tom Zutaut, the A&R man who signed Guns N’ Roses to Geffen and who brought in Niven to manage them, feels that the chance to play at Coachella may explain the timing of the re-formation. “I can only speculate,’ he says. “You’d have to look at [promoters] Goldenvoice and AEG, sitting there with a festival that last year generated eighty million dollars in profits. When you have that kind of money to spend and your festival sells out regardless of whether you have Guns N’ Roses or not… given that those guys in GN’R might be looking back at filling out stadiums and selling out multiple nights in arenas, versus where their solo careers have taken them.
“Axl Rose has never done anything for money in his life,” Zutaut continues. “Nor has Slash or Duff. But when the entire music world is clamouring to see you, the rush of that experience is hard to resist, especially when AEG is waving all those large wads of money at you. Coachella is considered one of the biggest and most influential festivals in the world… Suddenly it might have felt right for all of them to test the waters”
The sums are giddying: the fee for Coachella has been widely reported at $7m per show, and a financial split of 50 per cent to Axl, 25 per cent each to Slash and Duff – although it remains speculative and unconfirmed – it must, along with the timing, have made for an enticing proposition.
Axl, Slash and Duff re-enter an industry much changed since they last played together. Back then the music business was driven by record sales. Now it is driven by ticket sales. And the sums that surround Guns N’ Roses’ return are extraordinary. Their fee for the two Coachella shows has been widely reported as $14m.
The Las Vegas shows, at the 20,000-capacity T-Mobile Arena on April 8 and 9, had tickets priced from a hefty $79.50 to an unbelieveable $2,500 for a ‘VIP Experience’ package. At the end of January, US industry magazine Billboard has reported that a stadium tour of around 25 dates was being negotiated with promoters, with market giants AEG and Live Nation apparently keen to have the tour. Here the figures become even more remarkable, with the band reportedly asking for a guaranteed $3m per night.
Veteran music industry manager Doc McGhee, who looked after the band for two years from 2010, feels that the success of selling a stadium tour depends on the early performances. “If it’s done right, it should do amazing,” he says. “If they have their shit together and go out there to kill, I think everybody comes to see them. If not they’ll have a tough time selling it.’
Other promoters are said by Billboard to be more reticent, given the reputation for unreliability and unpredictability that Axl got during the excesses of the Use Your Illusion years. “It’s incumbent on the artist to convey the message to the fan base: ‘We’re back, we’re taking this seriously, we’re in shape, I can sing these songs, and we’re going to create the magic we once had,” said one promoter, speaking anonymously. Another said: “I prefer not to take part in these kind of all-or-nothing bets myself.”
“The scepticism is two-fold,” says Alan Niven. “First of all, will they turn up? And second of all, what’s with the ticket prices?”
Guns N’ Roses have been managed at various points by Niven, Rod Smallwood, Irving Azoff and McGhee, who between them have decades of experience of multi-platinum artists and their requirements. Axl Rose has stayed with none of them, instead establishing an arrangement with Beta Lebeis and her son Fernando that appears to fall somewhere between conventional management and familial support.
Little is known about the Lebeises. A LinkedIn entry for a Beta Lebeis has the job title ‘Personal Manager at Guns N’ Roses’. A Los Angeles KCAL TV station reporting on bush fires in Malibu in November 2007 that threatened Axl’s property interviewed Lebeis, who confirmed that she was resident on Axl’s property.
In an undated online interview translated from Portuguese conducted in the city of Santos, Lebeis said that she had first met the singer after she began work as a nanny for the model Stephanie Seymour, who started a relationship with Rose soon after Lebeis’s appointment in 1990. After the couple split in February 1993, Lebeis remained with Axl. She confirmed that her son Fernando and a brother also worked for the singer. “I think Axl is very close to me and my children because he feels that we like him for what he really is, not for being a rock star,” she said.
In a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Axl told the paper that Lebeis and her children were managing him, and said that other managers had been too keen to reunite the original line-up of the band. “They get their commission and don’t care if it falls on its face,” he said.
The relationship between Axl and the Lebeises is shrouded in mystery. “I’m not going to speculate on that,” Arlett Vereecke says when asked about it. Tom Zutaut is also intrigued.
“I’ve heard that her son Fernando is managing the band. Maybe with this reunion she has gotten her name on it [the job]. I really don’t know,” he says. “But the woman [Beta] was Stephanie Seymour’s housekeeper and nanny… As to how someone grows a career from that to managing the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world, that’s something we could speculate upon. The only guess I can make is that she’s the type of person Axl needs in his life. When someone like Axl Rose walks the fine line between genius and insanity, she must facilitate that. A lot of great artists, such as Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler and Brain Wilson, had that type of interesting character in their lives.”
Given the uncertainty around the band, the early word coming out of Los Angeles is predictably mixed. They began work at their long-time LA base Mates, which has rehearsal space in north Hollywood and also a state-of-the-art facility just off the 405 freeway in the San Fernando Valley (in early February, sources said that Axl Rose had yet to attend any rehearsals).
The plan is to move into an aircraft hangar for full production rehearsals. There is little information on a set-list, although it’s believed that songs from Chinese Democracy, specifically the title track and Madagascar, are being rehearsed along with late-80s/early-90s material. “It’s certainly an amazing production,” says Arlett Vereecke.
But exactly who is in Guns N’ Roses in 2016, beyond the core three members is another matter entirely. The shutters came down almost immediately after the announcement was made, and requests for interviews with members of both the Appetite/Illusion and Chinese Democracy line-ups have either been ignored or politely declined.
Various social media posts and stories from those close to the band have the second guitarist as either former Velvet Revolver man Dave Kushner, or Richard Fortus who was a member of the last incarnation of Guns N’ Roses and who recently quit his other band, The Dead Daisies. It’s likely Dizzy Reed will play keyboards. In January, Chinese Democracy-era guitarist/keyboard player/percussionist Chris Pitman tweeted: “We are playing at Coachella 2016 look out!”, only to remove the tweet shortly afterwards.
Of course, much of the criticism of the reunited Guns N’ Roses comes from the fact that, as of mid-February, only three members of the classic line-up are involved. Original drummer Steven Adler has made no secret of his desire to be involved, but that will surely be militated against by his health problems and the difficult relationship that he has had with Axl over the years. His replacement, Matt Sorum, effectively ruled himself out due to an unspecified issue with Axl.
And then there’s Izzy Stradlin, the man who many see as embodying Guns N’ Roses’ original rebel spirit. The guitarist was the first to walk away from the band, in November 1991, saying: “Once I quit drugs, I couldn’t help looking around and asking myself: ‘Is this all there is?’ I was just tired of it; I needed to get out.”
He subsequently returned to guest with the band in 1993, 2006 and 2012. Whether the publicity-shy Stradlin wants to fully step back into the three-ring circus isn’t clear, although there is an unconfirmed rumour that he has been made a financial offer to appear with the band for at least part of the Coachella set.
I think Izzy will definitely show up [somewhere on the tour],” says Arlett Vereecke. “He likes to play but he doesn’t like to walk the line. He likes to live his own life. Him and Axl have been good friends and have never really had a problem. He doesn’t have a problem with anyone. He will show up. Steven would love to do it. I don’t think they will take him on tour. Him and Axl are not the best combination and never were. It depends what Axl is comfortable with. I know Duff and Slash certainly have no problem with him.”
Tom Zutaut agrees that an appearance, perhaps fleeting, by the original five could happen. “I do keep hearing rumblings of a Mick Taylor scenario with the Stones, where Mick came out and did a couple of songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Izzy rolled out Mr Brownstone.
But on the other hand, this is GN’R – I would be just as unsurprised if it didn’t happen. But this is the most volatile band in the world. It might happen on the day of the show – Steven gets himself inside [the backstage inner sanctum] and they invite him for a song. Or ten hours before the show the three of them will say: ‘This isn’t right without the other two.’”
There is one major factor in the new Guns N’ Roses dynamic: sobriety. “It’s going to be a much different tour than it used to be,” says Vereecke, who feels that some of the distance between Axl and the rest of the original band was down to alcohol and drugs. “Axl was totally sober as a front person, and the rest were just party-hardy for days on end.
That causes problems. Axl was not part of their entourage of partiers most of the time, so that was not a fun thing for him, I would assume. I think they’re waiting it out to see how they get along. They are going to see how it works out. It’s going to be a totally different situation this time because everybody is sober. Axl is still having a drink here and there, but Axl was never a big drinker before. Duff and Slash are totally sober. It’s going to be interesting to see how long they can actually get along, all being sober.”
“Sobriety brings more clarity, that’s for sure,” says Zutaut. “Better decisions are made, though Axl has been pretty much sober – not on drugs or alcohol – since the late 1980s.”
Alan Niven adds: ‘People have said to me privately: ‘Niv, how do you see this going?’ I say well, from 1986 to 1991 I couldn’t be certain of anything. How can I be certain of anything now? They are maddeningly spontaneous, and I’ve always said that my definition of management is delivering spontaneity on demand.”
“Axl will not let this fail,” concludes Vereecke. “He’s been working for too long. I think it will be a good show.”
There is one other tantalising detail to this story. A hint that, if true, would change the complexion of the reunion. The prospect of a new album, or at the very least, some new material.
“I know they’re doing some recording,” says Vereecke. “They’re definitely doing something there in the studio. Axl hasn’t been there, but Slash is definitely in there and it’s not for anyone else [other than Guns N’ Roses].”
“I hope they’ve done it already [begun recording],” says Niven. “Duff and Izzy were in the studio before Christmas doing stuff. At a casual glance I think they’ve got at least a couple of tracks down. There has to be an element of creativity. Guns N’ Roses is about a spirit, about individuality. It can’t just be purely fiscal. It must be about legacy. After all, you don’t see many hearses with luggage racks.”
GN’R’s old A&R man Tom Zutaut is hopeful too. “Maybe being in each other’s presence, playing that great music again, will heal the past and restore those friendships. And I believe that all of them are hoping they’ll be able to move forward and do some new things, other than go out there and play the hits.”
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 221.