Guns N' Roses: Chinese Whispers
Orginall printed in Guitar World, October 2008.
Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy is the most expensive and eagerly awaited album of all time. In 2001, the man that signed GN'R their first record contract, Tom Zutaut, returned to the fold to help them finish it. He found a world ruled by physics, chicken men and wolf poop.
On October 12, 2001, a month after the September 11 attacks on America and five days after the first coalition bombs dropped on Afghanistan, a group of musicians sat in front of a television in a Los Angeles recording studio and watched the news. “Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Pakistan, Indonesia and Iran today,” the newscaster reported, “as the Islamic world continues to protest against the U.S.-led bombardment of Afghanistan.” The screen showed riot police firing tear gas, black smoke billowing out of burning cars, protesters hurling Molotov cocktails. “Thousands of Islamic militants fought with police in the Pakistani city of Karachi, setting fire to cars, buses and an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Let’s go over to our foreign affairs correspondent…”
As the screen lit up with images of the Karachi KFC, orange flames licking out of its windows, one of the musicians jumped to his feet. Buckethead, the shred guitarist known far and wide for wearing a KFC bucket as a hat both on- and offstage, was spitting mad.
“That’s fucking it!” he yelled. “They’ve gone too far now. I’m joining the fucking army. They are not going to hit KFC, no fucking way! I can’t record anymore—I’m joining the army! Now we really are at war!”
And with that, he grabbed his KFC bucket hat, collected some things from the chicken coop that had been specially built for him in the studio, and left. Some of the other musicians and hired hands stayed on a while. Little work was done that day, but no one seemed to care. After all, what’s one more day when the album you’re recording is already seven years in the making, two years past deadline and millions of dollars over budget?
Welcome to Chinese Democracy, Guns N’ Roses’ most anticipated album to date. The album is legendary for all that it is, and for what it is not: finished. Chinese Democracy has been in the works since 1994 and will be the sixth studio album from Guns N’ Roses when, and if, it is released. It has been worked on by at least six producers and featured numerous musicians during its countless session hours, including guitarists Dave Navarro and Brian May and Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach. Most infamous among its credits is its production costs, which the New York Times placed at $13 million—in 2005—making it, according to the paper, “probably the most expensive recording never released.”
By 2001, there was good reason to think its arrival was imminent. Guns N’ Roses kicked off the year in style. After years of lineup changes, they had settled into a semisolid formation around singer Axl Rose. In addition to Buckethead, the group featured guitarist Robin Finck and Paul Tobias, keyboardist Dizzy Reed (a Gunner since 1990), former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia. They played their first-ever gig on New Year’s Day at the House of Blues in Las Vegas. Two weeks later, the group played in front of some 200,000 people attending Rock in Rio III in Brazil. Doing press duties at that time, Axl Rose told a Chilean radio station, “Hopefully, we will put out a new single sometime this spring, and then the record’s gonna be done in June or shortly thereafter.”
For the first time since 1994—back when the band featured guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum—Guns N’ Roses appeared to be going somewhere. Slash had left in 1996, Duff and Sorum in ’97. Slash’s replacement, Robin Finck, left in 1999 to tour with his former band, Nine Inch Nails, and returned in late 2000, the same year that Sorum’s replacement, Josh Freese, left. Second keyboardist Chris Pittman joined in 1998. A steady line of producers—including Moby, Mike Clink, Youth and Sean Beavan—came and went. No one had managed to deliver a finished product.
But in January 2001—buoyed by the reception that his new three-guitar lineup had received in Brazil and Las Vegas, and thrilled with the group’s efforts in an L.A. studio with legendary Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker—Axl was talking hopefully about Guns N’ Roses’ future. Speaking to an Argentine radio station on January 22, he gave a detailed explanation for the record’s delay. “We hadn’t written songs or recorded for many years,” he said. “There were band changes, and there were many changes in the record company. People in the record company had many opinions and they wanted to make the best possible record. Every time that we thought that we had the correct songs, somebody thought that we could make it better. We started over. We continued adding songs, continued recording and recording. I think that when we do release the album, it’s gonna be something that I’m gonna be proud of and confident in.”
On March 12, Rose’s assistant, Elizabeth “Beta” Lebeis, told a Brazilian newspaper that the album “will be amazing. It will be released in June or July. They already have 48 songs, and the record company is selecting the material.”
By July, the album still hadn’t appeared. Beta’s son Fernando, Axl’s friend and aide, gavean interview, commenting on reasons behind the album’s delay. “It’s like every time he tries to do something, [it] goes wrong,” he said. “Suddenly, the guy who’s responsible for some technical detail makes a mistake, for example. I can say it because [I’ve been] with [Rose] in the studio, and it’s unbelievable. It’s like something tries to [take] him away from this project.”
And yet, remarkably, by year’s end, Guns N’ Roses had a version of Chinese Democracy that was almost ready for release. This is the story of that year.
BACK TO THE JUNGLE
It’s February 2001 and, somewhere in New York City, Tom Zutaut’s phone is ringing. On the line is Jimmy Iovine, founder of Interscope and head of Geffen and A&M Records and he’s asking Tom—a man that Geffen had sacked two years previously—the most unlikeliest of questions: if he’ll come back to work.
For Guns N’ Roses.
“Look,” says Iovine, “since you left Geffen, no one has been able to get a record out of Guns N’ Roses. Not only did you get records out of them, but you got extra records that weren’t even part of the contract. No one can wrangle a fucking record out of ’em but you! Would you do it?”
As the A&R man who discovered GN’R, Zutaut (pronounced “Zoo-tot,” he is sometimes called “Zoot”) had steered the band through its pre-Democracy releases: the era-defining Appetite for Destruction, the sprawling Use Your Illusion albums, and the stop-gap releases: Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, GN’R Lies and The Spaghetti Incident? But as the band broke down, the relationship had soured. He’d gone to work for Polygram and had spent the last two years on gardening leave after a fallout with the label boss. He’d moved to New York, used the time to get to know his daughter, even volunteering to work on the PTA at her school
Things have changed, Zutaut tells Iovine. “I would do anything to help Axl,” he says, “but I’m not even sure he’ll speak to me. Plus, my family are in New York and being on Guns N’ Roses watch is 24/7. When you’re working with Axl there’s no time schedule. It’s starting at 6 A.M. or 3 A.M. or 2 A.M. It’ll probably rupture my marriage. I don’t know.”
The next day, Guns manager Doug Goldstein calls. “I hear you talked to Jimmy,” he says. “We don’t know what else to do. We can’t seem to get the record finished, and it’s great stuff. Would you be willing to come back?” The day after, he gets a conference call from Iovine and Goldstein. “How about you just come out and have a meeting with Axl?” they ask.
“Okay, just a meeting,” Zoot agrees. And so it was that Tom Zutaut found himself sucked back into the world of GN’R, sitting in an L.A. studio a couple of days later for a meeting with Axl Rose.
“He was sitting on a sofa in the studio, and I was sitting in a chair,” Tom recalls. “He looked at me, and the first thing he said was, ‘Before you and I can do anything, I have to know the truth about Erin Everly.’ ”
THE TRUTH ABOUT ERIN EVERLY
The daughter of the Everly Brothers’ Don Everly, Erin met Axl Rose in 1986. Soon after, Axl wrote his unusually tender and sentimental lyrics for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” about her (“She’s got eyes of the bluest skies/ As if they thought of rain/I hate to look into those eyes/And see an ounce of pain”). There was a whole heap of pain in the relationship. Both Axl and Erin had dysfunctional family backgrounds, and tensions between them spilled over into public arguments and violent spats. They were married in April 1990; Everly later claimed that she accepted Axl’s proposal only after he came to her house at 4 A.M., claiming he had a gun in his car and would kill himself if she didn’t marry him. The inevitable split came the following year, with Erin alleging that Axl severely abused her. She filed a lawsuit against him in 1994 and eventually settled out of court.
As Guns N’ Roses’ A&R man, confidant and fixer, Tom Zutaut was often dragged into Axl’s domestic disputes. “I’d get a phone call from Axl basically saying, ‘I need your help. You’ve gotta come over here right now!’ So I would go over there, and they’d be screaming at each other, and I would take Erin back to my house with my pregnant wife, and we would look after Erin. Chill ’em out. And a few hours later, or maybe the next day, Axl would ring and say, ‘Okay, I’m good now. Bring her back.’ Then I would take Erin back. This happened more times than you can imagine.”
In 1994, an anonymous friend of Rose told People magazine, “Erin portrays herself as a victim and him as the evil aggressor. From what I witnessed, she was the aggressor.” Zutaut agreed that sometimes Everly deliberately enraged Axl. Eventually, he decided to confront her about it.
“I said to her, ‘A lot of kids can’t help repeating what they grew up with. But we have to try and learn from our parents and do better. I’m not gonna sit here and have you blame everything on Axl anymore, because the truth is that if you wanted to get out of this cycle, you could. But it requires you to leave him, or it requires you to stop blaming him. I mean, you guys need to go into therapy or something.’ ”
Her reaction took Zutaut by surprise. “She got really mad at me,” he says. “So her response was to go back to Axl and claim that I hit on her.” Axl believed Everly. “It put this personal distrust between Axl and I,” Zutaut says.
Rose’s relationships, in general, were disintegrating. He was slowly drifting apart from the band members. Zutaut recalls that, during the making of Guns N’ Roses’ debut, Appetite for Destruction, “songwriting and recording was a collaborative process that involved everybody.” But beginning with the Use Your Illusion albums, recorded over 1990 and 1991, “the band did their stuff and then Axl came in and put the frosting on the cake,” he says. “He worked in his own time, and no one was really allowed to be in the studio when Axl was there.”
But when it came to finishing the records, Rose couldn’t do everything by himself. Zutaut was vacationing in Hawaii when he received a call from the singer requesting his help with the mixes for Use Your Illusion. “He actually apologized to me and said, ‘Look, in spite of this thing that happened with Erin—whether you did it or you didn’t—there’s no one I trust with the sound and the vibe of Guns N’ Roses more than you. Other than myself, no one gets it but you. I can’t finish this record without your help. I need you now.’ ”
Zutaut was touched and tried again to reassure Axl that he hadn’t propositioned his ex-wife. “And he was like, ‘I don’t know if I believe you. She’s a beautiful woman, and I think you probably did hit on her. But,’ he goes, ‘I don’t care. I’m not with her anymore, and I need your help.’ ”
Ten years on, in 2001, Axl once again needed Zutaut’s help to finish a project. But once again, nothing would happen until Zoot tried again to explain what had happened between him and Axl’s ex-wife.
“After I told him, he said, ‘Can I really truly believe that? Do you swear to God?’ And I said, ‘Axl, I swear to God.’ And he’s like, ‘I just can’t believe that fucking bitch lied to me.’
“He finally looked at me and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. Now we can move forward.’ ”
Having cleared the first hurdle, Zutaut then had to prove he could help in the studio. “Here was the Axl that I met in 1985 again,” he says, “a guy that had a vision and wanted to make the best record that had ever been made. And we talked, and he said, ‘I go to the studio, I tell ’em what I want, and they tell me that they’ve got what I want, and then when I listen to it I’m bummed out.’ He goes, ‘Nobody seems to understand my language.’ ”
The two men talked continuously for six hours as Axl brought Zutaut up to speed on the state of Chinese Democracy. Fully briefed, Zutaut entered the studio the next day without Axl and met with Roy Thomas Baker, with whom he had worked at Elektra Records. Axl had asked Zutaut to help with the drum sound for the album’s title track. The singer had told Baker that he wanted the same drum sound as Dave Grohl on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the breakthrough hit from the group’s album Nevermind. Baker and his production crew claimed they had it, but Axl was not satisfied.
After hearing the track for himself, Zutaut agreed with Axl. He took a break and went to the local Tower Records, where he bought a copy of Nevermind. Back in the studio, he and Baker set to work matching the drum sounds. “I guess maybe they heard the Nirvana hits on the radio and they just thought that they knew the sound,” Zutaut says. “But none of them had thought to just go buy the album and listen to it.”
They sent the finished recording to the Axl, who called Zutaut straight away. “I’ve only been asking for that for, like, six fucking months!” he said. “I wish I’d called you a couple of years ago. Can you come out here and do this?” Zutaut said he’d talk to Interscope/Geffen about it. He would, after all, be working for the label, not Axl.
A week later, the two parties were still trying to agree on a fee when Axl telephoned Zutaut. “He said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about the money. Whatever it takes. I just know I need you here to move forward, ’cause I’ve been spinning my wheels for at least six months. I’m gonna tell ’em they have to give you the money if they want the record.’ ”
Zutaut got what he wanted with one compromise: he agreed to make part of his fee contingent upon completing the album by the
label’s deadline. It was, in essence, a wager. “Which, of course, I lost.
“But back then, I felt that I could get it done no problem. It was like Use Your Illusion and Appetite all over again. I know what Axl wants, I can get it out of the crew that are in there now. RTB [Roy Thomas Baker] and I worked at Elektra Records for two years so, you know, no problem! By deferring some of the money to a trigger date on delivery of the record, Interscope saved some money and they got my services, and everybody was happy.”
THE RETURN OF BUCKETHEAD
Buckethead had already joined and quit Guns N’ Roses by the time Zutaut signed onto Chinese Democracy. One of the producer’s first tasks was to get the guitarist back.
Born Brian Carroll in 1969, Buckethead began to demonstrate his guitar virtuosity as a young teenager after taking lessons for a year from future Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. By the time Buckethead joined Guns N’ Roses in 2000, he had released five solo albums of dysfunctional funk metal and scorching shred guitar and built up a sizeable cult following, particularly among guitar players. With his blank white mask and signature KFC bucket hat, Buckethead was the anti Slash, a quality that made him an inspired replacement. (GN’R fans briefly flirted with rumors that Buckethead was Slash in disguise. To this day Paul Gilbert gets asked if he’s Buckethead.)
Zutaut arranged to meet privately with the guitarist at a Los Angeles deli. There, Buckethead poured out his numerous complaints. Chief among them were an incompatibility with Roy Thomas Baker and frustration with coming to the studio every day, even when Axl was not present, and playing the same parts repeatedly. Axl, he explained, is his hero, but after a year in the studio, Buckethead was convinced Chinese Democracy would never come out. He just wanted to get on with his life.
When Buckethead was finished speaking, Zutaut began laying out his case. “Look,” he said, “I got almost six albums out of GN’R. I’m talking to Axl every day. I feel pretty good. I think I can get the record finished.”
He also had plenty of praise for the guitarist. “You’re a genius,” Zutaut told him, “I’d love to work with you. You’re one of the few people that can be in GN’R and make GN’R special the way Slash made it special. I promise you that I will be in the studio with you every day, and I will help you get what you want done, and I won’t tell you to be Slash.”
What, Zutaut asked, could he do to make the recording experience better for him? Suddenly, says Zutaut, “he went into Buckethead mode. I was talking to Brian, who was confiding in me, and suddenly he was Buckethead, and he was telling me some story about how his mum was a hen and his dad was a rooster. I couldn’t tell whether it was fantasy or reality or who I was even talking to. But he believed it!
“Then it’s like Brian comes back and he’s kinda saying, ‘You know I’d really like to make a movie of my life story and how I was raised in a chicken coop. It’s the only place where I really feel comfortable.’ ”
Zutaut had a brainstorm. “I said, ‘What if we built you a chicken coop in the studio for you to record your guitar parts?’ His jaw dropped. He said, ‘Would you really do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s my job to find out whatever it is that will help you get the best creativity out of yourself.’ Buckethead said, ‘If I could have my own chicken coop in the studio, my own world to live in, I could play a lot better.’ ”
Two days later, the coop was built. “It’s like an apartment within the studio that’s a chicken coop,” Zutaut explains. “He’s got his chair and a little sofa in there, and there’s, like, a rubber chicken with its head cut off hanging from the ceiling, and body parts. It’s totally Buckethead’s world. He brought in all his props and toys and put straw on the floor! You could almost smell the chickens.”
Aside from assistant engineers who would adjust microphones, no one but Buckethead was allowed in the coop. “You could not destroy the spirit and karmic vibe of the coop, his personal retreat,” Zutaut says. “You could stand outside and talk, looking through, but nobody was allowed in there.”
Beta Lebeis stresses that the coop was just a bit of fun. “In every band, people have their own ways of being creative—their own things that are personal to them,” she says, “and Buckethead loved chicken coops. And he loved cemeteries. He just loved that shit. So it was just a fun thing to do.
“And [the coop] didn’t cost money or anything. People say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s part of the money we spent on the album.’ It has nothing to do with that. It’s something you do in three or four hours just for fun, to play a joke on somebody.”
As the weeks went by, the joke started to wear thin. “There was a bit of creative tension with Roy Thomas Baker,” Zutaut says. “Not because Roy is doing anything wrong or isn’t a great producer or anything like that. But you know, some people have friction. It’s like oil and water. It might have been cultural differences.”
If the coop seemed an extreme accommodation to artistic stimulation, it didn’t compare to Buckethead’s next request: a TV setup so he can watch porn movies while recording. “And that seemed to really inspire him to record some great stuff,” Zutaut says.
The guitarist was deep into it one evening when Rose turned up. “Axl sees that Bucket is running this porn,” Zutaut recalls. “And it is pretty hardcore stuff. It’s not soft porn by any stretch of the imagination. And Axl is really disturbed by it.” Zutaut explained the situation to Rose, but the singer was not moved. “He said music is about energy and we are transferring a creative spirit and vibe within the music,” Zutaut says. “He said, ‘I really can’t have the vibe of dirty depraved porn being a part of my record. It is really not what this record is about, you know?’ ”
The story sheds much light on Rose’s philosophy about the creative process. “Axl is a firm believer that the energy, or soul, of everyone involved in the process comes through in the final artistic piece,” Zutaut explains. “So he works really hard to make sure what comes in and goes out is pure and right for his vision. Which is why Axl was always very disturbed about the former Gunners’ heroin use and what effect it had on their creativity.”
Rose spoke with Buckethead and explained his position. “Then Axl left, and Bucket was pretty despondent,” Zutaut says. “He disappeared for a few days because he was pretty torn up about it. Not because he was angry or because he thought he should be able to watch what he wants. I think it was more because of the emotional implications that Axl brought up to him: that it wasn’t right to be inspired by shit like that.”
If that wasn’t weird enough, there was also an occasion where Buckethead appeared to be inspired by shit itself. One of Rose’s wolfdogs— a hybrid that is three-quarters timber wolf and one-quarter dog—had recently given birth, and the singer had offered one of the pups to Zutaut’s daughter, who had recently lost her own dog. A few days afterward, he brought in the puppy. “And it’s the cutest little thing,” says Zutaut, “but it goes into the chicken coop and takes a dump. And because no one is allowed in there, we wait for Bucket to come in so that we can get his permission to clean it up. So Bucket shows up later to work on his parts, and he is miked up so he can record and we hear through the speaker, ‘Oh, I love the smell of dog poop…’
Zutaut recalls that Baker or one of his engineers offered to have the mess cleaned up. “And Bucket says, ‘Don’t take it away. I love the smell of dog poop..’ Three days later, the studio stinks to high heaven of dog poop, and finally the studio could not bear it and had it cleaned up. When Bucket came in the next day, he was like ‘Where is my dog poop, man? I told them not to clean it up,’ and was generally bummed out that it had been cleaned up. And in the meantime, the wolf puppy poop had inspired him for a few days to do some great work.”
NEW EYEBALLS IN A SECRET CLUB
Zutaut settled into the day-to-day work of trying to get the album made. Feeling like “the new eyeballs in a secret club,” he saw how money and time were being squandered.
“One of the things that Interscope wanted me to do was have a look at the budget and try to figure out where all of this money was going.” He noticed “an astronomical amount” being spent on rented gear that was not being used. “It’s a bit of a luxury to have a ’59 Les Paul at however many thousands of dollars a month when it isn’t even being used. Maybe one day three years ago they needed this piece of gear, but now the track it was used on isn’t even still being considered. We’d paid enough in rental for it that we could have bought it.” In the end, he recalls that he reduced the monthly costs by $75,000 in rental equipment alone.
Axl Rose’s irregular time keeping was also causing its own problems. “He’d come to the studio once or twice a week,” Zutaut says, “and then we might be there for two weeks because he stays to work on stuff. Or he might come at four in the afternoon and work ’til midnight the next day. It didn’t bother me, because this was how GN’R had always operated. Whether it’s Axl, Duff, Slash or Izzy or whoever, when these guys want to record, you record ’em. This is not a nine-to-five job for them.”
However, several nine-to-fivers were being employed on the sessions, even on days when nothing was happening. “Musicians, engineers, Pro Tools guys, assistant engineers—in all honesty, these fucking people are getting paid shitloads of money, and they’re sitting on their ass doing nothing because Axl’s not coming to the studio and they can’t get him on the phone. So you’ve got all these people sucking money out of him doing nothing, spinning their wheels. They’re inventing ways to stay busy.”
Apart from the administrative work, 95 percent of Zutaut’s job was to listen to all the songs. “There were probably 50 or 60 songs on four or five CDs with 12 to 15 songs a piece,” he recalls. “I had to go through those songs and then sit with Axl and work with him directly to pick and choose which songs would be worth finishing.”
A nocturnal worker, Rose would spend the night listening to tracks Zutaut and Baker had worked on that day. At two or three in the afternoon, he would wake up, call the studio and tell what he liked and didn’t. Slowly, the album was coming together.
“We were finishing tracks,” Zutaut confirms. “Doing overdubs with Buckethead and Robin Finck and some stuff with Tommy Stinson. I felt we had a well-finished version of ‘The Blues,’ ‘Madagascar’ and ‘Chinese Democracy.’ ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was pretty good.” Though Josh Freese had laid down the original drum tracks, he was no longer in the band. “And because of Axl’s belief that the record is supposed to be the energy of the people involved in creating it, we had to replace Josh Freese’s drumming,” Zutaut explains. “And his drumming was spectacular.” The task fell to Brian “Brain” Mantia. “I would not have wanted to be in Brain’s shoes,” Zutaut says. “Basically we were saying to him, ‘We have got a brilliant performance of this and now we need you to recreate it.’ ”
BLACK HAWK DOWN
Problems between Zutaut and Rose began to surface around the same time that mixes were being finished. Direct Ridley Scott had requested permission to use “Welcome to the Jungle” in his movie Black Hawk Down, and negotiations had begun to see if he would accept a remade version featuring the new Guns N’ Roses lineup.
Rose and Zutaut disagreed on the wisdom of remaking the track. According to Beta Lebeis, Axl felt it would be too difficult to recut the track in the middle of finishing Chinese Democracy. She recalls that he told Zutaut, “ ‘Listen, we’re making the album. Now we have to stop and do this?” But Zutaut claims that the band had already rerecorded the song. “Part of Axl’s induction process for his new band was that they rerecorded every song off of Appetite,” he says. “We just had to spend a day mixing it.”
To resolve the matter, Rose and Zutaut requested a private screening of the movie. When Axl showed up, he was shocked to find a group of strangers in the theater. Certain that Zutaut had misled him about the screening in order to gain an advantage, Rose turned on the producer. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you lied to me about this,” Zutaut says. “You told me it was a private screening! You’re fired!’ ”
Zutaut believes he was set up by someone looking to discredit him, though Rose’s camp denies the accusation. Whatever the truth, Zutaut was off the album. A few months later, so was Roy Thomas Baker. Buckethead hung on until 2004. When he left, the band issued the following statement: “During his tenure with the band, Buckethead has been inconsistent and erratic in both his behavior and his commitment, despite being under contract, creating uncertainty and confusion and making it virtually impossible to move forward with recording, rehearsals, and live plans with confidence. His transient lifestyle has made it near impossible for even his closest friends to have nearly any form of communications with him whatsoever.”
Here, in the middle of 2008, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to suggest that Chinese Democracy, by its very title alone, is intended to be a never-ending project—an impossibility that, from time to time, seems convincingly within reach. Zutaut dismisses the notion. He points out that not only did Rose demonstrate a clear intention to finish the album but the vast majority had been finished while he worked on it. “By the time I left, I felt that there were probably 11 or 12 tracks that just needed need final mixes. We could have had a record out for September 2002. I don’t think it would have been an issue. I would have given it another three months for a few more overdubs and three for mixing and, worst-case scenario, [it would have been] out spring of ’03.”
In February 2004, after yet another missed deadline, Geffen wrote to GN’R’s management: “Having exceeded all budgeted and approved recording costs by millions of dollars,” the label wrote, “it is Mr. Rose’s obligation to fund and complete the album, not Geffen’s.”
At the time of writing, U.S. rock DJ Eddie Trunk—one of the few people to have interviewed Axl Rose in recent years—has claimed that now the delay is coming from “not the band…but the label. There is so much money tied up in this record that in today’s business it will be virtually impossible [for it] to be profitable, meaning the label might want to sell it off but can not find a buyer since nobody buys CDs anymore. Problem might not be Axl this time around and [it] might keep this CD in limbo for more years to come.”
Beta Lebeis scoffs at the idea. “The album was finished before Christmas,” she says, “but everyone knows that. We’re in negotiations now with the record company.”
“Negotiations” could include the release date or something more novel. In an age that sees Radiohead giving albums away online, is it enough to launch an album like Chinese Democracy in the “traditional” manner? And even if they wanted to, does the album have the hit single it would need to get global airplay? “It’s a great GN’R record,” Zutaut contends, “but is there a hit single? Because without the hit, you can’t sell 20 million.”
Perhaps Chinese Democracy is a victim of its own excessive promises. Expectations for the album were running high long before Zutaut entered into its history, in 2001. Today, anything less than the second coming would disappoint all but the most die-hard Axl Rose devotees.
Perhaps Rose himself knows that is true. In a press release dated August 14, 2002, he offered some advice to fans anticipating the album’s release: “If you’re waiting…don’t. Live your life. That’s your responsibility not mine. If it were not to happen you won’t have missed a thing. If in fact it does you might get something that works for you—in the end you could win on this either way. But if you’re really into waiting, try holding your breath for Jesus ’cause I hear the payoff may be that much greater."