Axl Rose changed the course of my life. Actually, it wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that he did that in several different ways, but the one that always meant the most to me occurred in 1988, when I was 26 years old.
My early-to-mid twenties were a dark time. On the surface, it didn’t make sense. I loved New York; I had a great job at Rolling Stone right in the middle of the action, where I had always wanted to be, and I was surrounded by interesting and inspiring people. I should have been itemizing my blessings and congratulating myself on how lucky I was, but instead, I’d felt unstable and unsettled for several years. I couldn’t sleep. My behavior was often combative and I found myself grappling with serious anger issues. Social anxiety was beginning to plague me in certain situations, and while I’d always been an enthusiastic drinker, now I had developed the habit of knocking back a few shots before I would leave my house for a social event. Worst of all were the deep blues, baffling periods of despondency that sapped my energy, derailed my productivity and were wreaking havoc on my work and relationships.
When Appetite for Destruction was released, I was still an editorial assistant at the magazine, and in the fall of 1988 when writer Rob Tannenbaum did our first cover story on Guns n’ Roses, I happened to be the underling who was elected to transcribe Tannenbaum’s interview tapes. During those interviews, Axl Rose spoke about his already notorious mood swings; he had recently been diagnosed with bipolar illness, but displayed a healthy skepticism about the diagnosis and whether the prescribed lithium treatment was actually helping him. I remember him saying that the main benefit of the drug seemed to be that because the people around him knew he was taking it, they stayed off his ass. He was struggling to balance his artistic vision and the demands of the band’s skyrocketing popularity with his emotional highs and lows.
Axl was about my age, but on those tapes he sounded defeated and almost resigned, like he’d been fighting tiny battles against the rest of the world for many years. At one point, he asked Tannenbaum if he’d seen Frances, the film about Seattle actress Frances Farmer, whose emotional outbursts and rebellion against the Hollywood studio system in the Thirties ultimately caused her to be involuntarily committed and, the film alleged, lobotomized. Clearly, Axl identified with Farmer, who had always insisted that just wanting to be left alone to live life on her own terms didn’t make her crazy. “I always wonder if somebody’s gonna slide the knife underneath my eye and give me the lobotomy,” Axl said. “I think about that a lot.”
His remarks during that conversation resonated with me deeply. During a telephone conversation with my mother around that time, I mentioned the tapes I had been transcribing at work. “I feel sorry for this guy,” she says I told her. When she asked why, I said, “because he’s the only person I’ve ever heard who sounds like he feels exactly the same way I do.”
My mother filed that comment away mentally. In November 1988 when Tannenbaum’s cover story on Guns n’ Roses was published, she read the article — not, she says, because she was interested in the band, but because she was hoping to find out more about what was going on with me. When she got to the mention of Axl’s bipolar diagnosis and remembered my earlier remark about how much I identified with what he had to say, a bell went off in her head and she called me.
“There might not be anything to this,” she said, “but I think your grandfather was diagnosed manic depressive not long ago.” She went on to tell me that the disorder was hereditary and often skipped generations, and that she thought I should talk to my grandfather and also consider getting a professional evaluation.
I had never gotten to know my maternal grandfather. I was still a toddler the only time I had ever met him, and during my upbringing he was absent. Something of a hellraiser, he was always off on some adventure or other. A handsome, gregarious World War II Army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Grandpa Fats was at the center of a number of colorful stories that were passed around my family over the years. Comically often during his military service, he earned stripes for bravery in battle only to be stripped of them again for some infraction the very next time he took a weekend pass. In his postwar years he was said to have been in and out of trouble, involving himself in a number of shady moneymaking ventures — gun-running in Northern Ireland, trafficking in stolen paintings, a bootleg record operation in South Africa.
During a brief stretch in the early Eighties when he had not yet found his way to diagnosis or treatment, he was homeless, living on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Family members eventually found him there and took him to the VA hospital, where he finally got some help and was able to begin rebuilding his fractured home life. He had been stable for a number of years by the time my mother put me in touch with him in November 1988.
That first phone conversation with my grandfather was a mindblower. I had always felt a little like an alien in my family; no other family member had ever shared my impulsiveness and love of risk-taking, my bluster, my rebelliousness, my affection for the fighters, lost souls and rabblerousers of the world. Grandpa did. We recognized each other as kindred spirits right away, and it was incredibly validating to know, finally, where I had come from. He gave me as much detail as he could about the symptoms of depression he had experienced and I was able to compare them with my own. Before we hung up, Grandpa gave me the name of the drug that had helped him turn things around, and I promised him I would see a doctor as soon as I could manage it.
Within a few weeks, I had been evaluated and diagnosed with chronic depression. Not long after that, I began therapy with trazodone — the same drug that had helped my grandfather — and by the time a month had passed, there was a new lightness to the way I carried myself and the way I viewed the world. My insomnia had vanished. I was enjoying a clarity of thought that I had not experienced in years. I was no longer given to fits of unreasonable anger over minor setbacks or annoyances. I was still me and I could still feel — but the black cloud and the inexplicable feelings of hopelessness that had been following me around since my early twenties were gone. To me, it felt like a miracle.
I had come very close to losing a job that meant everything to me. I’d never made it a secret during my tenure as an editorial assistant that I longed to write for the magazine, but less than a year earlier, during a come-to-Jesus talk about my chronic tardiness and the large chip that was often visible on my shoulder, my supervisor, Mary MacDonald, had told me that I would never write for Rolling Stone — I was support staff, period, and I needed to pare down my unrealistic ambitions and focus on the job I already had.
Now that I was a bit more pleasant to be around, though, I found that my co-workers were forgiving of my past moodiness and happy to help me work toward my dreams. The extracurricular writing I had been doing for local music newspapers prompted the editors at Rolling Stone to offer me a few assignments for record reviews and small feature articles, and as 1988 faded into 1989, I was promoted by the magazine to a full-time writing position.
I didn’t know it at the time, but some of the best writing I would do would be about Axl.