Guns N' Roses: Chinese Whispers
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.’ ”
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