This month, Saul ‘Slash’ Hudson will play in the UAE with the band Velvet Revolver. He’s not only the most recognisable guitarist on earth, but one who’s written some of the best and most memorable riffs since the Rolling Stones stopped being any good. He spoke to Time Out about cheating death, not being let into Guns N’ Roses gigs, becoming a dad and why grunge never overtook hard rock. Interview Matt Pomroy
‘There are no second acts in American lives.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald
‘Hard drugs have killed me a dozen times,
but doctors keep resuscitating me.’
The man talking to me now should, by rights, be dead. In fact, he should have probably have hit the coroner’s slab more than a few times, but somehow he’s stayed off the Reaper’s list. This isn’t just his second act, it’s his 13th. Lucky for some?
‘Oh yeah, there are moments when I stop and think of that, I definitely feel like I’m blessed because I’m still here,’ Slash says, and then adds with a deep chuckle, ‘and I really had every reason to not be.’
He has no idea how he managed to beat those odds: ‘Either someone’s been looking out for me or it’s just sheer luck, but because of that I decided that I should probably stop taking it for granted. That I should put my nose to the grindstone and do what my whole purpose for being here is.’ He laughs again. His laugh sounds just like the late comedian Bill Hicks, and his voice is clear, lucid and sharp. He’s no mumbling Ozzy Osbourne, which is surprising, all things considered. But this is a story of redemption. This is a tale of a man who is outrageously talented, but for years he seemed to have, well, an appetite for destruction. Yet somehow he lived through it all and is now one of the few living rock icons, rather than one of the many dead ones. It started back in the decade that hard rock almost forgot.
In the mid 80s the music scene was frankly a disgrace. It was a world where Wham! roamed free and Australian soap actors with recording contracts were respected by people young enough to know better. Rock was largely reduced to the glamandrogyny of bands like Poison, W.A.S.P, Twister Sister and so on. But Guns N’ Roses was different. They were the real deal, insofar as their scuzzieness wasn’t put on for effect, that’s just how they were. They never seemed to fit in with the LA scene, not just because none of the band were originally from Los Angeles, but because they were better than that – at least musically.
Along LA’s Sunset Strip, lots of bands were (often literally) in the gutter but one of them was looking like stars. ‘As soon as the 80s started there was not a lot going on to be influenced by,’ Slash says, recalling the time. ‘Everything that inspired me was the stuff I listened to while growing up, and there was a dramatic shift in the 80s – Guns N’ Roses was a proponent of change. We were a result of what the 80s was all about and the antitheses of it.’ They formed in 1985, and by the end of the ’88 they were American rock’s officially sanctioned public enemy number one.
Politically incorrect, sleazy, debauched, toxic, liberal-baiting, hated by parents and all the other things that make a perfect rock band. And there behind a Gibson Les Paul, under a top hat and a mop of black curls stood a somewhat bemused guitarist, who had become the coolest member of the coolest band on earth. That’s pretty cool.
‘We got to a point where it was really huge and it was fun in lots of ways, and in a lot of ways it was very overwhelming. But I enjoyed it, especially given where we all came from, which was basically nothing, to becoming this huge band on a global level.’ 1987 debut album ‘Appetite For Destruction’ sold a staggering 20 million copies. Released 21 years ago, it still sells a stunning 9,000 copies per week worldwide and is one of the greatest albums ever made. On the back of the album came the huge tours and the wild living. The tales of debauchery are enough to fill a book.So he did, and his book – simply titled Slash – is a litany of rock and roll living that would make most of the bands today look like The Tweenies.
Along with the rooms of women, parties and class-A substances, Slash reportedly drank a bottle of Jack Daniels every night for 1,825 days in a row, until eventually his tongue rotted and turned black, remaining that way for over two years. He was known to head off so he could ‘unwind’ and would just disappear. Friends used to leave notes in his pocket with a phone number so that, when he passed out, (almost always ‘when’, rarely ‘if’), the person who found Slash could call this number and someone will go and collect him.
‘It had its moments where it became a little excessive,’ he says chuckling at the knowing understatement. ‘Luckily there was always some semblance of clarity which basically won out in the end. When I was working I never felt as destructive as when I wasn’t working, and that was my problem – I figured that one out over the years.’
In 2001 his heart became inflamed from the abuse and doctors gave him 12 weeks to live, so a change was needed – he cut down to just one bottle of wine a day. These days, he’s totally clean and doesn’t even drink, but he can’t pinpoint a moment of clarity that led to quitting everything about two years ago: ‘It was a lot of things. Having kids was a lot to do with it, and also it was just getting old and dull. And there was this drive to continue making music and that sometimes gets clouded by some of the, y’know, extra curricular activities.’
That drive to make the music sometimes got lost in the perception of the band among all the wild living, and by extension, the man. ‘That was always my first and foremost love when it came down to it,’ he states, and that was one of the reason behind his decision to quit Guns N’ Roses in 1996.
‘It was a huge relief when I made that decision. From the early ’90s onwards it was a very stressful situation, so I relieved myself of that burden, but then it was a hell of a lot of work to keep that all going, because from then I was out on my own. It’s a tough business, I learned a lot about it, and I learned that without the umbrella of the whole Guns N’ Roses name, I needed to be a bit more alert on a regular basis to stay afloat – it was slow learning.’
So if the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom what was the one thing, Slash learned from his time in the biggest band on earth? ‘The one thing I learned? To take charge of everything to do with my career… and really not to trust anybody.’
He formed his sideproject, The Snakepit, playing a handful of dates, and then became an in-demand session guitarist. An (ex)Gun for hire, playing with people ranging from Alice Cooper and Insane Clown Posse, to Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and even Michael Jackson – one of the only men more allegedly crazy and demanding than his former lead singer.
Despite the acrimony and stress at the end of the Guns N’ Roses days, it’s still a band he rightfully defends. The perceived wisdom is that Nirvana and the Seattle grunge scene overtook hard rock (and bands like Guns N’ Roses) in the early 90s, but Slash laughs incredulously when I suggest this: ‘That’s pretty much a line of bullshit right there, that never happened. Basically the band broke up right around the time that all that was happening, and a lot of the grunge bands – who are majorly influenced by Guns N’ Roses – all of a sudden thought they’d taken over. But we just broke up and it had nothing to do with what was going on [with grunge], because in 1994 we were still the biggest stadium band, so it didn’t really have any effect on us.’
Guns N’ Roses carried on with only singer Axl Rose remaining from the original line-up. Slash says he has little interest in following the band now although he did try to go and watch them play just out of interest: ‘But they wouldn’t let me in, the whole Guns N’ Roses management and whatnot.’ It wouldn’t matter, because ironically he went one better and teamed up with former Guns bassist Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum, (who had joined Guns N’ Roses in 1991) and formed a new band, Velvet Revolver. They recruited former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland and ex-Danzig and Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Dave Kushner to complete the group. Their first album Contaband (2004) topped the Bilboard 100, and they won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock performers.
A second album came out last year (Libertad) to acclaimed reviews, and they’re now one of the best touring bands to see live. But how does touring now compare to the days of intoxication, other than the obvious?
‘It’s not that much of a change,’ says Slash. ‘Some things have changed, but y’know the basics of it stay the same. Sure, there were some great times in the 80s too, but I just enjoy what I do – it’s a very rock and roll family, so it kind of reminds me of my childhood.’ Until he was seven years old, Slash lived in England. His father was an artist who designed album covers for the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, while his mother was a costume designer who made outfits for the David Bowie film The Man Who Fell To Earth. After his parent split up, his mum dated Bowie, so The Thin White Duke briefly raised Slash.
Slash is now a father himself. ‘Having kids is kind of a cool thing. I’ve got two boys and it feels like an extension of my youth. And growing up in the kind of environment that I provide is going to be an interesting experience for them.’
Future lead guitarists? ‘We’ll see when the time comes. I’m not concerned with teaching them how to play at this point, but if they want to know how to play I’ll give them the best support I can possibly give.’
After finishing the American leg of the world tour last month, Velvet Revolver were scheduled to play in Australia before coming to Dubai, but singer Scott went into rehab. It’s something that Slash and Duff (a man whose pancreas eventually exploded in 1994 after reportedly drinking an average of 20 bottles of wine a day) can relate to. ‘He’s in rehab so I think he’s doing OK,’ Slash says. ‘We helped him in the very early days, and we are always there if he needs support, but at this moment he’s being taken care of.’ He’ll be ready and fresh for Desert Rock, although Slash admits he knows little of Dubai.
‘I know of a lot of people going over to Dubai, but my wife and I were talking about it last night, and we didn’t even know that rock was popular over there.’ He soon will do. And what will we get from Velvet Revolver? ‘It’s just a really great f***ing rock and roll band go. It’s kinda old school and it brings that kind of music into an age when nobody really tries to do that, or at least do it with any integrity or sincerity. Realistically there’s not that much rock going on these days. As far as rock bands, The White Stripes are good, so are the Foo Fighters and The Queens Of The Stone Age. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others here, but there’s not a hell of a lot of new ones.’
Perhaps he’s right about the lack of great new rock bands, perhaps not, but the fact remains that the interest in classic rock like Guns N’ Roses never diminished. When a greatest hits album, (that actually had fewer great songs than Appetite For Destruction) was released in 2004, it went triple-platinum and spent 138 weeks in the Billboard charts. Axl chose the tracklist and Slash has said, like most fans, it’s not the songs he would have chosen.
Velvet Revolver have played Guns songs in the past, will we have some at Desert Rock? ‘Yeah, that sounds about right, there’ll be a couple of Guns’ songs, a couple of STP songs and a lot of Velvet Revolver.’ Last year in Los Angeles Time Out sat at the bar at The Chateau Marmont and someone promptly told us it was where Slash once threw up, like there should have been a plaque there. It was now a landmark just because he’d blown chunks at the famously debauched hotel on Sunset Strip. John Belushi died there; Led Zeppelin rode their motorcycles through the lobby, Jim Morrison fell out of a window, the list goes on, and now Slash is also ingrained in the folklore of the LA Sunset Strip scene. But he’s more than that now, he’s a living legend and an near inexplicable survivor.
On his suicide note, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young and claimed it was ‘better to burn out than fade away’, but Slash did neither. The only thing more incredible than the sound Slash makes on a guitar is the fact he’s still around to make one. He should be dead, but he’s not, and that’s the greatest reason to keep clean and keep playing. Don’t miss your chance to see him and Velvet Revolver at Desert Rock – the cat in the hat is as loud and as good as ever.
For Time Out Magazine, March 2008