Velvet Revolver. Mail On Sunday Live Magazine 2008

words: Dan Gennoe

If there’s a definition of a rock star, Scott Weiland is it. The ever-present Aviator sunglasses; the hip-jutting swagger; the slow croak of an LA drawl are all clues. But it’s the unique, outlandish and often inspired sense of style that’s the real clincher. Weiland, with his taste for army surplus, fake fur and fine tailoring, is not a man who does inconspicuous. 

Who better then to lead the US hard rock phenomenon that is Velvet Revolver. Described by Van Halen legend Sammy Hagar as ‘the best rock’n’roll band left on the planet’, in the UK they’re still best known for the fact that guitarist Slash, bass player Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum were once the backbone of the 90 million album selling Guns N’ Roses. Meanwhile, singer Weiland – himself a refugee of 30 million selling stadium-grungers Stone Temple Pilots – is more notorious than famous this side of the Atlantic for his packed arrest record. 

Stateside, it’s a different story. Velvet Revolver have firmly put rock’n’roll back at the top of the agenda. Their 2005 debut album, Contraband, broke all first week sales records on its way to the top of the charts, selling 256,000 copies in four days, making it officially the ‘fastest selling debut album by a rock act in the US chart history’. Two incendiary tours and a Grammy confirmed their resurrection and with new album, the bigger, better, louder, Libertad, world domination may once again be theirs. Or it will just as soon as Weiland’s ready.

All day he’s been walking the corridors of Hyde Park’s regal, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, like they were a catwalk – striding between interviews and photo shoots in leather jackets, denim jackets, baker-boy caps, three-piece suits, scarves, ties and hats. Lots of hats. Now he’s back in his room, contemplating the starched white tea trolley, looking like a scarily thin Zorro in a black poncho and jauntily angled Fedora. It’s a look few could comfortably pull off, yet one which confirms his reputation for flamboyance and unpredictability; the shake in his hand as he pours a cup of coffee confirming that other rock star essential, a onetime Herculean drug habit.

It’s 5pm and Weiland should be getting ready. Tonight he’s due to present Alice Cooper with The Hero gong at the 2007 Mojo Awards, while his bandmates are scheduled to honour Iggy Pop with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The cars are booked for 6. The red carpet opens at 7 and the awards start at 8. Yet despite his assistant’s best attempts to move things along and disprove the theory that Scott Weiland is an unreliable, uncooperative law unto himself, and always late, he clearly has something else on his mind. 

‘You must know Pete Doherty, right?’ He ventures expectantly, while struggling to balance his cup on its saucer. Errr, not really. ‘Oh. Shame.’ He looks genuinely disappointed at the news, like he had a message to pass on. Is he a fan? ‘Oh yeah. Man, that guy’s a genius. Really, a genius. I wasn’t so into the Babyshambles album, but that last Libertines record. Man. Him and Carl [Barat], they need to get back together. They could be the new Lennon & McCartney. Not so great on their own, but together… I loved that record.’ He shakes his head as if considering a tragic waste, before adding, as one who knows, ‘and the drugs, he’s got to deal with that. That sh*t will kill you.’

An hour and a quarter later, the rest of Velvet Revolver are waiting in the lobby, getting suspicious looks from staff, business men and elderly tourists alike. Just as the YSL suits, Christian Dior shirts and Trilbies and Homburgs from London milliner Lock & Co, which littered Weiland’s room, characterise his taste for the designer and the dramatic, so too his bandmates’ attire leaves little doubt as to what they do for a living. 

Miraculously, given that he abused drink and drugs to the point where he had to be resuscitated three times, Slash hasn’t aged a day in the 20 years since Appetite For Destruction made Guns N’ Roses the biggest band on the planet. To prove it, he’s still wearing the same uniform of leather top hat, rock t-shirt (tonight it’s Johnny Cash) and black jeans with a bandana hanging out of the back pocket. 

McKagan’s ensemble on the other hand says that he’s done a lot of growing-up since the fateful day, May 10, 1994, when his 2 litres a-day Vodka intake caused his pancreas to explode. The Iggy Pop t-shirt assures his punk spirit’s intact, but the jeans are new and neatly pressed, and he certainly didn’t find the expensively weathered biker jacket in an LA thrift store. If the BlackBerry in his hand doesn’t confirm that times have changed for the once hard living bass player of GN’R, the fact that ‘I gotta put my reading glasses on to see the damn thing’ surely does.

The cars are outside and their drivers have sent word that the traffic tonight is murder. With guitarist Dave Kushner and drummer Matt Sorum present and looking suitably elder-statesmen-of-rock, only Weiland’s missing. Last anyone heard from him was an anguished cry coming from his room of ‘But I don’t know anything about Alice Cooper. Get Slash to do it. I want to give Iggy an award.’ 

Slash is getting restless and McKagan’s looking worried. At 6:45pm, an increasingly exasperated PR puts a call in to Weiland’s assistant, only to return looking like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘Apparently, Scott’s just got in the shower.’ They leave without him.

 

In 2004, the five rock exiles of Velvet Revolver did the impossible. They got a second chance. Dismissed as trying to recapture past glories by some, mockingly labelled Guns N’ Roses without Axl by others, initial expectations weren’t high for the band of ex-junkie alcoholics. It didn’t help that the junkie part wasn’t quite so ‘ex’ in Weiland’s case – he was allowed out of his court ordered residential rehab for only four hours a day to record Contraband. Three and half million copies later though, there’s little doubt that the ex-junkie alcoholics, who between them defined the look, feel and sound of a generation of rock, are back to do it again.

‘At first everyone thought we were just doing it for a quick cheque,’ laughs Slash, looking remarkably fresh after presenting Alice Cooper with his award last night. He lights a Gitanes, takes a manly lungful and exhales, instantly filling the hotel room with thick, blue, toxic smoke. ‘But trust me, getting this band off the ground required ultimate sacrifice and commitment. We toured Contraband for 19 months, playing five shows a week in every country we could get into. It was never for the money. I can’t even say it was for the girls. Really, it was a music thing.’ 

‘Money’s never dictated me,’ adds McKagan as he wrestles with the seal on a tube on antacids. ‘I came up at the time of punk. People like Iggy And The Stooges were my heroes. They were never about the money. They never sat down and said “Hey, let’s be rock stars” they were just like “F**k You”, and that’s always stayed with me. When the three of us, me, Slash and Matt, played the benefit gig for Randy Castillo [Ozzy Osbourne’s drummer who died of cancer in 2002], it was the first time we’d played together for maybe eight years. And it just felt right. We knew we’d get the “Guns N’ Roses without Axl” cr*p, but it was too good to let go.’

He pauses, having finally got the lid off the antacids. ‘And then we just needed to find a singer.’ He lets out a knowing chuckle as he starts to chew. ‘And everyone was saying, “Oh these guys will never find a singer” and then when we got Scott it was like, “Oh great, they got a junkie for a singer”.’

Anyone looking to take a popshot at the band for Weiland’s appointment wouldn’t have had far to look for ammunition. Just days after being officially made singer, on the occasion of his 36th birthday, October 27, 2003, he was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and for possession of heroin and crack cocaine. It was his fourth bust in eight years.

Weiland, who by all accounts arrived two thirds of the way through last night’s awards, barely making it in time to do the honours for Iggy, swishes the ice in his glass of Scotch while contemplating those turbulent first months.

‘We were kind of like Evel Knievel,’ he says lighting a Camel and adding to the suite’s blue fog. ‘You know, people didn’t go to see Evel Knievel make those jumps, they went to see him wipe out and break every bone in his body. That’s what it was like for people to go see us. Initially people were less interested in seeing if we were any good, than seeing us self-combust. But then they realised it was the real thing.’

With the best will in the world though, the rest of the band must have had reservations about getting involved with someone who was still wrestling the demons they’d already vanquished.

‘I’m just not that judgemental,’ says Slash with a shrug. ‘Look, I’m one of the biggest f**k-ups I ever met. So all things considered, how am I going to pass judgment on this guy? I don’t know one brilliantly talented individual in this business that doesn’t have a burial ground worth of skeletons in their closet. 

‘It was a given that Scott had this baggage that he’d been dealing with for years. He said he wanted to get clean and we could all relate. So we rallied for him. We had to jump a lot of hurdles, but it was worth it. Scott’s got a great rock’n’roll voice and charisma. Had we not taken those chances, we wouldn’t have the band we do.’

He’s got a point. Of all of them, Weiland must get most of the credit for making good their second stab at a credible career. It was his raging angst which made Contraband an exciting riot of a record, and gave the band its danger. Meanwhile, the record’s staggering sales and the respect and attention being afforded their new album, are as much down to his on-the-edge persona as they are Slash’s sleazy guitars or McKagan’s driving bass. 

If Contraband was an angry, clenched fist, desperate to prove its worth, Libertad – the title, Freedom in Spanish, and artwork of a woman breaking the chains of bondage, were both inspired by a post-revolution Chilean coin Slash was given – is the triumphal return. Made for stadiums, it’s big and unmistakably positive.

‘There’s good reason for that,’ smiles Scott while reluctantly putting his cigarette out in a finger bowl on his room service tray. ‘It’s the first record I’ve made in years where I haven’t been shooting dope or smoking crack. I wasn’t purging my soul or focusing on how miserable I am. A whole new world of subjects opened up to me. I’m not just telling my story anymore.’

There were dark moments though. Drummer Matt Sorum’s younger brother died from brain cancer during recording, and the bitter anthem For A Brother was inspired by the death of Scott’s brother Michael, from a heroin overdose the same week. ‘That was all pretty f**kin’ tragic,’ assures McKagan, ‘we really had to come together for each other. Matt’s brother had been a long battle, but Michael Weiland OD-ing was really out of nowhere.’ ‘He just couldn’t stop,’ is Scott’s only comment.

 

One thing Guns N’ Roses and Stone Temple Pilots will never be accused of is not living the rock’n’roll life to the fullest. Both bands ravenously devoured every page of the hard rock manual and then added a few comically debauched chapters of their own. Their combined histories are full of myths and legends, and every one of them’s true.

At the height of GN’R’s late ’80s and early ’90s fame, Slash really did have four hotel rooms so he didn’t have to restrict himself to just one groupie a night. Similarly the story of his collapse in the corridor of a San Francisco hotel after ingesting everything his drug dealer could offer is endorsed by the man himself, as is the epilogue: he checked himself out of the hospital the next day to play a gig.

Similarly, McKagan swears that his 2 litres of vodka a day was no exaggeration. ‘I’d fill-up to there with Vodka,’ he says pointing to an inch below the top of a tall glass on the table next to him, ‘then I’d top it off with cranberry. That’d be a cocktail for me. But my tolerance was so high, it’d be like you drinking a quarter of a beer. I wouldn’t be drunk, I just wouldn’t be shaking anymore. Plus I’d do cocaine because it keeps you awake, so you can drink more.’ 

His heavily lined face displays a genuine horror at what he’s saying. ‘Ninety-one through ’93, my memory is pretty blank. I want to write a book called All The Shit I Don’t Remember. I’ll go around and talk to all the people who were there at the time and ask them what I did. I saw Brian May a couple years ago and I said, “Remember that time we went to Ibiza together?” He replied, “No”. Which was embarrassing. So there’s stuff I don’t remember and other things which I think I remember but might have imagined.’

Legendary, comic and, at times, heroic as the countless tales of excess are, Weiland’s got a few that are anything but fun. And while McKagan contests that Weiland’s habit was no worse than anyone else’s – ‘he’s just been busted more’ – as he recounts the darkest of his drug days, his earlier concern for Pete Doherty takes on a new resonance.

‘Most rock stars have someone who’ll deliver to them,’ he says matter of factly. ‘But I always liked to go cop on the streets. There was just something about it. I had dealers, but if they weren’t home, and I was jonesin’, I’d go cop on the street and then fix behind a building somewhere. 

‘The last year of my using…’ he shakes his head and his voice trails off. ‘I was suicidal. I wanted to kill myself. My wife kicked me out. I’d barely seen my two kids. I’d missed birthdays, Christmas, Easter. I wanted to stop, I just couldn’t. I’d go into detox, clean up and go fix again as soon as I got out. I ended-up hanging out in the Hollywood hills with these two middle-aged lesbians who were horrible junkies, but they had dealers who would deliver and I knew if I was arrested again I’d go to prison. They were my only friends, but only because I was financing their habit. It was just horrible.’

The sunglasses make it hard to see exactly what he’s thinking, but the catch in his voice says talking about it still isn’t easy. ‘And you know, I couldn’t even get high anymore because all my veins had collapsed. It took about half an hour to find a good one. So when you can’t get high, but you can’t get clean, your options start to run out. I said to a friend, “I think I’d be doing my kids a favour if I just ended it”. He said “Do you realise how selfish that really is? Every time someone asks about their father, they’ll have to say, My father passed away, he committed suicide”. That flipped a switch for me, and then I got arrested for the last time.

‘I’d just shot up,’ he makes a syringing gesture in the direction of his groin, ‘and a cop car comes round the corner. It was right outside my studio which is in a warehouse district of LA. There are never cops there. So it was like God showing up in the form of a black and white, did me a favour I couldn’t do myself. I thought I was going to prison, but I ended up getting this new programme, Proposition 36, which involves long term rehab, six months as an inpatient and four months of sober living. It was there that I realised what I really wanted: to be a man and stop running away from myself.’

Weiland’s gratitude for the strict lockdown programme is understandable. With it came a reunion with his wife and kids, and that second chance at a music career.

‘I’ve had so many chances,’ he laughs. ‘I feel like a skinned cat. I’m afraid of stepping off the kerb anymore I’ve had so many chances.’ McKagan: ‘It’s true. My second chance was not dying when my pancreas finally went. I was in hospital and my mom came to visit me, her youngest son, I had tubes running from everywhere and I thought, “This is wrong”. You know I floated above the bed, the whole near death thing. That was life changing. Then I met a woman, we had our first baby and all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, this is what life’s about, all that other sh*t was just rock’n’roll”.’

Yet while fatherhood may have mellowed them – McKagan and Slash, like Weiland both have two children under 10 – they’re not quite model citizens yet. ‘We’re not this AA sober band,’ McKagan points out as Weiland finishes his Scotch. Indeed, Slash suffered a brief relapse following the gruelling 19 month Contraband tour. ‘That’s what happens when we’re left to our own devices for a minute,’ he says with a resigned grin. “When people used to ask about Scott I used to say it could be anyone of us. I guess I just proved it.’

Momentary weaknesses aside, all three agree that they wouldn’t swap their current ‘manageable’ success and clean living for the excesses and phenomenon of their previous incarnations. 

‘It’s great now,’ assures Slash, lighting another Gitanes. ‘Don’t get me wrong. Back in the day it was great too. You’d finish the set and have the booze in the back and the chicks and a couple of lines and the days just went on and on like that. But now, for me, it’s sort of old hat. I just don’t get the same thing out of it.’ He tips his head back, exhales a thick toxic plume of Gitane smoke and laughs. ‘Trust me, I’ve gone back and experimented and it just doesn’t have the same kick.’


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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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