It seemed like a good idea at the time--saying hello to his father's
dog chained there in the front yard. His affections enhanced by a
goodly portion of brew, Izzy Stradlin leaned over and bared his teeth
in a big smile. The dog in turn put his teeth through Izzy's face. It
was a bad omen for Stradlin's flight to Phoenix later that day. Sitting
in his airplane seat, with a hole through his nostril and another hole
through his eyebrow, he couldn't figure it out. He was playing rhythm
guitar for the world's biggest rock 'n' roll band, Guns N' Roses, who
were about to play Los Angeles with the former world's biggest rock 'n'
roll band, the Rolling Stones. No musician could hope for greater
And yet...his luck was growing inexplicably worse. He summoned the one proven method for dealing with such cruel irony: double Bacardi and Cokes, of which he downed several while smoking and enlightening the attendants with detailed critiques of their service. Days later, he would find himself wishing that someone had just hit him, adding a black eye to his mangled features, adding a little more throb in his skull. As it was, he answered the call of nature. Finding the lavator- ies occupied, he drained his nature in a trash bin in full view of a stewardess. Nothing was said at the time, so Stradlin returned to his seat where he passed out until touchdown. Exiting the plane, he was suddenly surrounded by 12 cops and arrested. Thus another set of head- lines for Guns N' Roses and another year of probation for Izzy Strad- lin, who'd pretty much had his fill of probation from a drug bust in the mid-80's.
A year later, in 1990, G N' R did another show with the Rolling Stones in Atlantic City. By this time, he had noticed a possible cor- relation between getting ripped and his luck going bad. It seemed a theory worthy of field investigation, and he had about a week of sob- riety when Keith Richards and Ron Wood beckoned with a bottle of Rebel Yell. It was an invitation his rock 'n' roll heart could not turn down. That was his last drink--certainly one of history's coolest last drinks--and thereafter he took the road less traveled by, or at least the road untraveled by Keith and Ronnie. It was also a road that took him straight out of Guns N' Roses.
"Yeah, getting sober played a part in my leaving," says Stradlin, his eyes glancing alternately at the floor and out his hotel room window at the rain clouds over Chicago. His long, dark hair is gradu- ally entangling itself into dreadlocks, and you have to search his glowing complexion for evidence of canine mastication. The overall im- pression is vibrant shyness. "I think you make more decisions when you're sober. And when you're fucked up, you're more likely to put up with things you wouldn't normally put up with. When I have something I wanna do, I gotta do it. I like _just_doing_it_. I didn't like the complications that became such a part of daily life in Guns N' Roses. Sometimes for the simplest things to happen would take days. Time was so slow, you sat around for days just to do a photo shoot. Schedule it, get a phone call, it's been delayed. Reschedule it, get a phone call, it's been delayed again. That pattern could stretch out for weeks. On _Illusion_, we did the basic tracks in about a month. Then there was a time lag of about a year before the vocals were finished. I went back to Indiana and painted the house. If you've got a group and people are focused, it just shouldn't take that long."
Why did Axl take so long?
"I never really knew, I guess. Just one of those things. On tour he had a real hard time finishing the sits. And he had a hard time getting onstage. So you're sitting there in the dressing room at a hockey rink and for, like, two hours the walls are vibrating while the audience is going, `Bullshit! Bullshit!' That time goes _slow_ when you're sober. And they have to send a helicopter to the hotel to get him. He would just `get ready,' and sometimes he would `get ready' for a long time. I don't know what goes on upstairs with him. To me it's simple. Get an alarm clock, ya know? There's a modern invention that seems to work for people. You set it, and then you wake up when you're supposed to."
It's almost like Johnny Thunders with a big following.
"We opened for him once in Long Beach during the early days. This was back when Axl used to wear those chaps with his ass hanging out and no underwear. I remember it was backstage, and Johnny Thunders said, `What are you, some kind of biker fag?' Axl goes, `I'll fuckin' kill you.' Really wanted to kick his ass. And Johnny just sat there smoking his joints and drinking his Budweisers. Great first impression."
In the year since he left G N'R, Stradlin has assembled a new band and recorded a new album, both called Ju Ju Hounds. Ju Ju Hounds con- sists of Izzy on rhythm guitar, Rick Richards (ex Georgia Satellites) on lead and slide, Jimmy Ashurst (ex-Broken Homes) on bass and Charlie Quintana (has backed Bob Dylan) on drums. You might also have noticed Ashurst and Quintana backing Charlie Sexton in the movie _Thelma_and_ _Louise_. _Ju_Ju_Hounds_ the album could have been called _Rolling_ _Ramones_. Izzy's a barre-chorder in the Johnny Ramone tradition, and Rick Richards plays rollicking slide guitar over a rhythm section that knows where to find the backbeat. Besides his physical resemblance to a younger, healthier Keith Richards, Stradlin sings a lot like him too. Ron Wood even makes a guest appearance on the cover of his song "Take a Look at the Guy." Ian McLagen and Nicky Hopkins contribute keyboards as well. It's a true rock 'n' roll band, they'll be touring, and you can bet they'll get onstage at the appointed hour. But how's it feel to be your own front man?
"Ah...it...it's okay. I've known other bands, and they always talk about, `We looked st this singer but his hair was too short,' or his hair was too long, or he didn't dress right. Oh fuck it, ya know? After being in Guns N' Roses and Axl being the singer, who the fuck could I get that would even approach him? I can't, but I figured I can sing enough."
Born Jeff Isbell, Stradlin grew up in Lafayette, Indiana. His father was an engraver, his mother worked for the phone company. They divorced when he was in third grade. Like a lot of artistic children, he didn't take well to school. Another artistic child who didn't take to it was his friend Bill Bailey, later to become Axl Rose. But where Axl protec- ted himself by lashing out at every perceived threat, Izzy withdrew. He built a wall of fog around himself with marijuana and managed to gradu- ate in 1979 with a D average. The gurgling sound at the beginning of "Train Track" on _Ju_Ju_Hounds_ is a bong hit, and the lyric a remin- iscence of the place kids hid out to smoke. His one dream then was to be in a band, and that clearly wasn't happening around Lafayette, so he packed up his drums and moved to Los Angeles.
Working a variety of odd jobs he soon wrangled his way into a band, mostly on the basis of his owning a PA system. They rehearsed for a week in the opulent, Orange County home of the bassist's parents and then played a gig in downtown L.A. "I was straight outta the Midwest and I didn't have a clue, but I noticed there was something strange about the audience. They didn't have any hair. And we all had long hair. We were sort of a punk drag band like the New York Dolls, and the singer was this really ugly guy wearing a pink Spandex jumpsuit, a tanktop and lots of makeup. And the rest of us were dressed the same way.
"So these guys with no hair turned out to be skinheads, and they hated us. They threw beer bottles and spit. They got onstage and broke the guitar player's finger, trashed the amps, beat the shit out of the sing- er. That was my first gig. We were called the Naughty Women. At the time I thought they must have it together because they had buisiness cards."
Los Angeles offered a lot of interisting sights for an impressionable young Hoosier. The seed for the song "Pretty Tied Up," one of the few humorous moments on _Use_Your_Illusion_II_, came one afternoon when Izzy was about 19. "My Mexican friend Tony took me to meet this woman named Margot at her house. She gave us some tequila or something and she goes in the bedroom and we walk in and there's this big fat naked guy with an onion in his mouth. He's wearing women's underwear and high heels and he's tied up with duct tape against the wall. Me and Tony were like, What the fuck is going on here? Cracking up laughing. She was this dominatrix chick. We sat around her living room for the rest of the afternoon, listening to records, and she'd go in the bedroom and do her thing. At the end of the day she turned him loose and he paid her all this money. She took us out to eat. There was this whole scene of domin- atrix chicks who worked in the S&M clubs. They'd beat on guys and after work, they'd take a musician out to dinner, let you stay at their place sometimes."
By 1984 or so, Izzy was living with a guy who was smoking powdered Persian heroin. Izzy would sit there practicing his guitar, the guy would take a hit off his pipe, and three hours later the guy hadn't moved. This piqued his curiosity. "I had a couple of hits and it felt great. But it was just like they say: You kinda dabble in something and the next thing you know you got a habit." Eventually he got busted, cheated by a lawyer and went cold turkey. When Guns N' Roses got signed to Geffen in 1986, he was using again but managed to confine himself to alcohol during the recording of _Appetite_for_Destruction_, which surprised everyone by selling 14 million copies. When he got off tour in 1988, he had the habit again and figured out he was going to die if he didn't quit. A doctor wrote a prescription for Valium and codeine which he used to taper off during a harrowing drive back to Indiana with his brother.
"I kicked at my mom's place," he remembers. "I probably weighed about 115 pounds. I was obviously very sick and she let me stay there. That was a pretty traumatic experience, kicking in the house I grew up in. Lying there thinking, `I fucked up somewhere. What was it? What brought me back here?'"
It's wierd how you and Steven Adler, G N'R's original drummer, took opposite routes out of the band. You got straight and had to leave. He couldn't quit and got fired. And now he's suing on the grounds that he was encouraged to use heroin.
"I talked to him about a month ago. The lawyers said don't because of the lawsuit, but I'd heard he was in a bad way. He said he was having a hard time stretching it for more than a day or two. Really scared me. I know how I'd feel if he did himself in and I didn't make an effort to help him. I said if he cleaned up, I'd like to cut a couple of reggae tracks with him next summer. I know he's really bitter about the whole situation. He needs to start thinking forward."
Replacing him with Matt Sorum for the recording of _Use_Your_Illusion_ _I_ and _II_ changed Guns N' Roses from a rock 'n' roll band into a heavy metal band. Adler's drumming made the band swing. Sorum hits hard but he plods.
"Yeah, a big musical difference. The first time I realized what Steve did for the band was when he broke his hand in Michigan. Tried to punch through a wall and busted his hand. So we had Fred Coury come in from Cinderella for the Houston show. Fred played technically good and stea- dy, but the songs sounded just awful. They were written with Steve playing the drums and his sense of swing was the push and pull that give the songs their feel. When that was gone, it was just...unbeliev- able, weird. Nothing worked. I would have preferred to continue with Steve, but we'd had two years off and we couldn't wait any longer. It just didn't work for Slash to be telling Steve to straighten out. He wasn't ready to clean up."
What was your relationship to Slash?
"I don't think he really wanted another guitar player, but it was kind of a package deal, Axl and I. We had periods where we actually wrote songs together and worked out our parts. There was a little bit more interplay on _Appetite_ than _Illusion_. He was like a brother, but a brother who really wanted to be out on his own.
"On _Illusion_ I did the basic tracks, then he did his tracks, like a month or two by himself. Then came Axl's vocal parts. I went back to Indiana. I'd been around for rehearsals, learning the songs and all that stuff. I didn't really listen to the record until it was out. When I finally did hear it, it was what I expected: The guitars were basic- ally buried."
Slash has accused you of turning in sloppily made demo tapes.
"That's not Slash talking. That's Axl talking and Slash repeating it. Axl did say the tapes weren't up to G N'R standards. Well, in the beginning nobody owned an eight-track. All our tapes were made on a cassette player. Whatever, I'm credited with just about everything I wrote. I will say that Slash was much better at keeping tapes in order. He always labeled stuff."
Does it bother you when Axl bad raps you from the stage?
"I've heard he's still slinging mud. I can't take it personally, because if it wasn't me, it would just be somebody else. Somebody's gonna get it in every city. There's nothing I can do about it. When I left the band, he got real pissed off, told me to get off his property. When I talked to him a couple weeks later, he said he wasn't still mad, but who knows? I've left him all my phone numbers since December, and he still hasn't called. When he's ready, he'll call and we'll talk." What about Duff McKagan? His face has gone the way of Jimmy Page in the sense that he used to be beautiful and now he's lost his chin to toxic bloat.
"The doctors talked to him two years ago," Izzy sighs. "They said your liver is supposed to be this big." He holds his hands in the shape of a hardball. "They said his liver was this big." He holds his hands in the shape of a softball. "And when his liver gets this big, it's all over." He holds his hands in the shape of a canteloupe.
Another complaint that the remaining Gunners have is that you left the band even before you left the band. You traveled to gigs by your- self and they never knew where you were.
"I did prefer to travel at my own pace. They had a jumbo jet and most of the gigs were 200 miles apart. When a gig was over, my girlfriend and my dog and I would get on the tour bus. I didn't need to go out and get laid. I had to pass on the booze. There just wasn't much for me to do backstage. Toward the end of the tour we even dumped the bus and took a van or a motorcycle. My dog Treader loved being on tour. I got him when I got sober and he's helped me keep my perspective, see life through a dog's eyes. You're doing all right if you've got food, a place to sleep and someone to pet you."