Beyond the fact that they both play guitar – and do so very, very well – Dave Navarro and Eric Gales wouldn’t seem to have much in common. But stick the Jane’s Addiction guitarist and the Memphis bluesman together in the penthouse of a swanky downtown Manhattan hotel and you’ll be amazed how quickly a shared history reveals itself.
“Damn, dude!” exclaims Navarro, just seconds after bursting through the door of Classic Rock’s three-bedroom, two-bath high-rise spread at the Dominick Hotel in SoHo. He plops himself down on an armchair and takes in the bird’s-eye view out of the floor-to-ceiling windows: the Hudson River and New Jersey (where later he’ll be heading to film an episode of tattooing competition reality TV show Ink Master) to the west, all of Manhattan clear up to Central Park to the north.
“Two junkies of the worst kind, and look where we’re sitting because of music.” He beams at Gales. “Top of the fuckin’ world!”
And there, it would seem, is our story – and it’s a story the pair will delve into in unflinching terms during the next hour’s conversation. But make no mistake, this is also just one of many tales that link Navarro and Gales. Another would be what brought these two together in the first place. For the answer, flash back a few years to when Navarro found himself, as most guitar-heads do from time to time, poking around on YouTube and “deep-diving on music”.
Which is when he came across a live clip of Gales, right-handed guitar flipped over lefty, eyes squeezed shut and fingers splayed across the fretboard, tearing it up on a club stage somewhere in America, just as he’s been doing for close to three decades now.
“I was like: ‘Where did this guy come from?’” Navarro says. “‘And how does the whole world not know about Eric Gales?’”
For a minute, the whole world almost did. Gales burst on to the scene in the early 90s as a teenage phenomenon – he was just 16 when his major-label debut, The Eric Gales Band, was released on Elektra in 1991. Almost immediately, his fiery blues-rock-on-steroids style brought comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and other untouchable guitar icons. And the praise was not without merit.
But Gales’s flameout came early. Blame it on a mix of youth, fame, record-label tensions, outsized pressures and expectations, just life itself. He never really stopped performing or recording, but he travelled down a dark road. “Twenty-plus years of some hard doping, pistols, prison, everything you could think about,” he says. “Folks dying in my arms, shooting at people, all that type of shit.”
Fast-forward to the present, and Gales’s bleak past is firmly behind him, as exemplified by his excellent new album The Bookends.
“It’s a whole other level,” he says of the record. This is music that is steeped in Gales’s blues and gospel roots, and studded with some of his most soulful singing and hot-wire guitar playing of his long career. “At my core I am a blues guitar player,” he says. “But there are also many other facets of my music. I am a blues guitar player-plus.”
Which is what led Navarro – a born-and-bred LA kid who, with Jane’s Addiction, erupted out of the mid-80s Sunset Strip scene playing an explosive musical cocktail of hard rock, punk, art-rock and psychedelia (with more than just a bit of Hendrix-style guitar flash thrown in for good measure) – to fall so hard for Gales’s playing in the first place, despite their decidedly dissimilar origins.
“It was just the craftsmanship and the honesty,” Navarro says. “And also the showmanship. I was watching Eric play and it was like, ‘Man, this guy can do anything.’ And then he also puts on a show like nobody’s ever seen.
“But then when I would ask people: ‘Who are your favourite guitarists?’ I would never hear them say: ‘Eric Gales’,” he continues. “So I want to spread awareness, you know? And in doing that, people can then hear Eric’s message. Because it’s not for me to tell them his message, it’s for him to tell. But I’ll happily show them where the message is.”
“You might have started an epidemic,” Gales says, “and I appreciate that.”
Navarro laughs. “Well, just make sure I get my percentage!”
Let’s quickly finish up the origin story between you two. Dave, after first discovering Eric on YouTube, you not only started talking to other people about him, you also sent out a tweet: “How Eric Gales isn’t the hugest name in rock guitar is a total mystery.”
Dave Navarro: I did. Because I watched that clip and I was like, ‘This is just the stupidest thing ever.’ And then I looked at Eric’s discography, and how extensive his career is and the artists he’s worked with, and I was just like, ‘What the fuck?’ And what’s crazy is I didn’t know him – and I’m a guitar player! You would think that with something as culturally important as Eric’s contribution is to music he would be known as one of the best.
Eric Gales: For me, the moment that tweet went out… I mean, it took like half a day before people were hitting me up from all over the world. And the funny thing is, when we finally met, I thought I had actually met Dave before, through this AA meeting. And I asked him: “Dude, have you ever been in a relationship with Janet Jackson?” Because at the time she was with a dude that I thought was him – same build, same look, same-style hat, same this, that and everything. I was like: “Yo, I thought that was you!”
DN: [Laughing] He was excited because he thought he had an ‘in’ to the Jackson family!
Eric, I remember seeing you perform with the Eric Gales Band on [US late-night talk show] The Arsenio Hall Show back in 1991, just as you were first taking off.
EG: I was on that show five times, as a matter of fact. And then Carlos Santana went on, and Arsenio asked him: “Who do you think is the baddest motherfucker?” And he said: “This sixteen-year-old kid out of Memphis, Tennessee.” And that just blew it up.
DN: Was that before you had a dark spell?
EG: It was. I would say shortly after, when I got around seventeen, eighteen-ish, I started to get into some things.
At this point, Gales turns towards a window, gestures to the Manhattan skyline and relates a story of how his troubles began right here in this city.
In short, after recording the second Eric Gales Band album, Picture Of A Thousand Faces, his label Elektra brought him and his band into a meeting and rejected it, sending them back into the studio to re-do some of the tracks. Gales was 17 at the time.
“Being a kid, that devastation is quadrupled,” he says. This led Eric – and, consequently, also leads our conversation – down a very particular path.
EG: I went back home to Memphis devastated. And you know, Memphis is known for its rap culture, all that stuff like [hip-hop group] Three 6 Mafia, who I’m very good friends with. So here’s another side of life that people don’t know: I was heavily involved with the rap world, and I started putting out mix tapes and stuff under another name.
DN: I know that name. It was… Don’t tell me… It was something kind of alarming, right?
EG: Raw Dawg.
DN: That’s right! Raw Dawg! But let me ask you: did ‘raw dawg’ mean then what it means now?
DN: Good for you! I would imagine for a guy like you a regular condom’s a little suffocating [laughs].
EG: Bro, I mean, I was born in the seventies but I still say I haven’t used a condom since the late sixties. And it’s the truth! I’m very fortunate that I haven’t wound up with a bunch of kids or any debilitating diseases or anything like that. Cos I went raw all my life. Like, straight raw. I mean, I’m raw dawg as in: “This is who you’re getting, butt-naked, personality-wise, no sugarcoating. This is me.” When I was doing cocaine, my whole motto was: “Look, I do blow. I don’t give a fuck whether you like it or not. And if you don’t like it, you can roll. I’m going to sit here and get high as a motherfucker.”
DN: I feel you. Because I was like that too. When you’re in that state it’s so easy to justify anything you want to do. Because it’s like: “Hey, man, if you can’t accept me, that’s on you.” But back to the rap stuff…
EG: I was glamourising and promoting nothing but getting high as hell; talking about doing a half ounce of blow with a full table of Xanax with a gallon of cough syrup. And that helped my downward spiral even more.
DN: Going back to what you were saying earlier about being devastated, I get it. I went down that road with one of my records, where all these hands from the label got on it and pushed back on me. And all of a sudden it’s getting remixed and this guy’s coming in and that guy’s coming in… I know what that pain is, to pour your heart and soul and everything you have into what you believe in, and then have someone come in and tell you it’s not good enough.
And that’s real good ammunition to go and be self-destructive. You’re like: “Hey, man, I revealed myself with all my purest intentions and I got abandoned. Now what do I do?”
Both of you went through some heavy drug periods, but you never stopped playing music. How would your substance abuse affect your on-stage performance during those times?
DN: Well, there were nights that I thought I was on… and then I heard the tape back [laughs].
EG: The same for me. Those would be the times that I would be really hard on myself after the show. Then I’d get depressed and I’d go get high even more.
DN: I learned a secret from Billy Corgan years ago: when you have that kind of night, just tell yourself it was an ‘art show’.
EG: Yeah, well it got to the point where I was having way too many ‘art shows’!
These days Navarro and Gales are both staunchly sober. Over coffee and sparkling water, the two discuss the ups and downs of rehab, with Navarro joking about an idea he had earlier that day for a “rehab punch card,” with the tenth stay free. “You’d sell a million of ’em in Hollywood!” he says. This leads to a discussion about music and performing, and a statement Gales made in the past that when he’s on stage it’s as if he’s “spontaneously combusting”.
EG: That’s how it feels. When I’m playing it’s a vast emotion of everything – of shit that I’ve been through, of shit I’ve overcome. It’s power that’s coming through me. I’m just the conduit, and I believe that the big man upstairs has chosen me as one of the vessels to relay the message in human-being form: “This is what music can do”.
Eric, what was the turning point for you in getting sober?
EG: Winding up with the right person. My wife [LaDonna Gales, who also performs as a backing singer with Eric and acts as his manager] showed me that everybody in this world can love you, but it don’t mean a damn thing if you don’t love yourself. And that’s very, very powerful. That resonated with me.
DN: And if you go all the way back to the beginning, to when he was a kid and had been wronged and had been hurt by people that he had put his trust in, now he has a person who sees him for who he is.
Wow, you’re good, Dave. You. Are. Good.
DN: [laughing] I’m gonna have this straightened out by the time we’re done here. [Turns to Gales] You’ll be cured!
You guys have such an easy rapport. What’s at the core of your relationship?
DN: There are certain guys – and Eric’s one of them – where there’s just an authenticity. His music is authentic because there’s a real story that’s being channelled through it. And then there’s the fact that he’s been through his stuff and I’ve been through my own darkness. We have the shared history of our lifestyles. And I can say that what saved me is what we share in common: our passion for music. So we just connect on this very deep level. I don’t even know if he’s familiar with my work, to be honest.
EG: The truth? I hadn’t even heard any of Dave’s music when I first saw him, but I was like: “This is a cool-looking dude!” [Turns to Navarro] I’m very secure in my manhood, but I just want you to know that [laughs].
DN: Maybe that’s the connection. Because I think he’s a good-looking dude. And I think the reason we think that about each other is because he’s basically a black Dave Navarro and I’m basically a white Eric Gales.
EG: Even down to the hats. It’s perfect.
I see a buddy-cop movie in your futures.
DN: I do too! We could take down crime in this city, make it right, finally. You know what keeps me going, Eric? Doing the job. Every day. Day after day. Week after week. Just doing the job.
The Bookends is out now via Provogue/Mascot (opens in new tab).