Photo Credit: Jack Lue, marccanter.com
The Guns N’ Roses lineup that recorded the iconic “Appetite for Destruction” album (1987) and gained worldwide fame hadn’t been together even a week when the members set out on their first tour in June 1985. With only one show to their credit, the band — vocalist Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler — would soon get a crash course in patience, tolerance and relationships on what became known as the “Hell Tour.”
Though the quintet remained unknown outside Los Angeles, it managed to secure a series of West Coast dates thanks to McKagan’s valuable punk-rock experience. The Seattle native had already played with bands such as the Fastbacks, and was familiar with the network of clubs established by the likes of D.O.A. and Black Flag. Looking to expand beyond L.A.’s insular scene, McKagan also booked the trek to test the will of several band members. His intuition proved correct. The reality of the upcoming D.I.Y. outing prompted then-guitarist Tracii Guns and drummer Rob Gardner to quit in May. Enter Slash and Adler, followed by a short warm-up set performed at the Troubadour less than 48 hours before the start of the journey.
Photo Credit: Marc Canter, marccanter.com
Unable to afford the luxury of a van, the band crammed into the leg-cramping confines of a late ‘70s automobile. It belonged to Danny Birall, who came along with another friend to ferry the rock ‘n’ roll miscreants and tow a U-Haul trailer packed with their gear. Birall brought another benefit: A gas card he swiped from his mother to help foot the bill. He did not, however, possess a AAA membership, or the means or tools to make serious repairs.
A fraction of the way into the planned 1,100-mile-plus escapade to Seattle, the vehicle’s transmission gave out. Guns N’ Roses exited the sputtering metal heap and walked to a gas station before focusing their energy on a single goal: Getting to Seattle in time to play the scheduled concert. They canceled the shows they knew they couldn’t make, ditched all the equipment except for the guitars, told Birall to fix the car and meet up with them later, and tried their hand at hitchhiking. Rose used the same method a few years earlier to flee his native Indiana and head to California.
Stranded in the desert with less than $40 among them, the ragtag crew — a glam-meets-street-urchin parade of leather, trench coats, ratty shirts and long hair — finally thumbed their way into a 18-wheel semi steered by a sleep-deprived speed freak. En route, he stopped in Sacramento, Ca., asked the band to hop out and wait for his return. The group, which previously gave him money in return for a pledge to take them as far as Medford, Or., obliged. Guns N’ Roses sat broke, silent and expressionless on a curb amid a blazing heat wave. The driver made good on his promise, but not before rattling nerves with erratic behavior that intensified until they reached the agreed-upon mountain destination.
Battling hunger and, in Stradlin’s case, heroin withdrawal, the band resorted to eating onions and other vegetables it stole from nearby fields.
Again left to hitchhike, Guns N’ Roses located a pay phone and learned Birall wouldn’t arrive in time for the Seattle gig; he was still waiting on parts. They encountered a farmworker who invited them to squeeze into the back of his small Datsun pickup. But it went nowhere; their weight pressed the truck’s flatbed down on the tires and caused them to smoke. Battling hunger and, in Stradlin’s case, heroin withdrawal, the band resorted to eating onions and other vegetables it stole from nearby fields.
After more hours spent trudging along the highway, Guns N’ Roses found luck in the form of two hippies who remembered hitchhiking in the ‘70s. The women pulled over in a full-size pickup, bought the musicians food and chauffeured them to Portland. There, one of McKagan’s hometown friends met the band and drove the final stretch to Seattle, where he’d arranged a blow-out party and place to crash for his pal’s new group.
On what was very likely June 12, four days after departing L.A., Guns N’ Roses took the stage at Gorilla Gardens, a dank, filthy, cheap-beer dive that didn’t even last a year in its original spot. The band played with gear borrowed from McKagan’s old mates, the Fastbacks, who headlined. By most accounts, the show was sloppy and the crowd tiny. The club owner refused to pay the group, so it cornered and threatened him in an office before leaving. Entertaining the idea of burning down the venue to exact revenge, McKagan and Rose allegedly returned and threw lit matches into a garbage can filled with paper towels. No fire ensued. Guns N’ Roses also learned Birall bailed on any hope of reaching Seattle; they would need to bum another ride to get back to L.A.
Through it all, the band triumphed in the sense it achieved its aim of playing the gig. More importantly, an inextricable connection developed via determination, camaraderie and survival. As Slash explains in “What Drives Us,” the shared experience resulted in a “bonding thing that you don’t even realize is happening at the time.” For Guns N’ Roses, the road to Paradise City had started with a trip through hell.
Bob Gendron is the associate editorial director at The Coda Collection. He has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and former Director of Communications at Music Direct, he spent 11 years as the Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role for eight years at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.