Industry Vet ALAN NIVEN - Working With GUNS N' ROSES, GREAT WHITE In Exclusive BraveWords.com Interview
September 22, 2010, 6 years ago
If you’ve ever heard of the band GREAT WHITE or possibly the more obscure, GUNS N’ ROSES, you’ll probably have heard about Alan Niven. He was their everything (manager, producer, songwriter, friend) in their formative days. Today, Alan lives a quiet life in the hills of Arizona away from the drama and the underside of corporate rock n’ roll, but his passion for music has not ceased as he now champions the cause of up and coming artists COLD FUSION and the TOM HOLLISTER TRIO via his new Tru-B-Dor label.
BraveWords.com sat down with Alan recently to find out more about his new venture as well as poke around the history of two of rock’s most enduring franchises, Guns N' Roses and Great White.
BraveWords.com: Tell me about your new venture, Tru-B-Dor Records.
Alan Niven: “In any venture, you have to have a sense of fearlessness and courage, but you also must have sound and logical thinking. Rightly or wrongly, I and others, have the perspective that the fundamentals of the business have not been well tended to for a very long time. There has not been considered and consistent development of the artist. The record companies long ago became far too impatient in their compulsion to see black ink on a project. There used to be a formula back in the day if somebody was signed. If they reached a certain sales platform usually 100,000 units, they’d be given the opportunity to make a second record and if that made it to 300,000 units they’d get a shot at a third record. Hopefully by the third record they’d connect profoundly with the audience and, of course, through this process the artist has the opportunity to hone their craft and become better performers, better writers, to become more focused on what they are doing. It was a growing process that had both an artistic and commercial sense of purpose. This got thrown out a long time ago. Also, from the time we started issuing records in the CD format, we completely lost the plot when it comes to packaging. Everybody appreciates good packaging married to good music.”
BraveWords.com: The first CDs didn’t even come with a picture. It was a single sheet of paper with reduced album art. No lyrics, no information… nothing.
Alan Niven: “Even if you did have any print in there, you’d be required to get a magnifying glass to read it. I’m old enough to remember the pleasure of gatefold albums. So, we lost the plot on packaging and that’s detrimental to the public’s feeling that they are getting a sense of value for their dollar. If they’re buying a record by an artist that hasn’t had the time to hone their craft and there’s only one or two good songs on it and the packaging is not very good then you have to look at the third item which is pricing. It’s my perception that again the industry has got the wrong end of the stick. I don’t think that downloading is as detrimental as everybody says it is. I have suspicion that second hand sales in major retail outlets is more problematic, but mostly what I observe is that the film industry is selling more discs because their packaging is better, the content is more readily identified (you know what you are getting) and lastly their pricing is far more aggressive. If you can buy a decent movie for ten dollars, why would you speculate fifteen dollars on an audio release where you might not have complete confidence that it’s going to be a worthwhile record.”
BraveWords.com: Are you proposing a new model with Tru-B-Dor Records?
Alan Niven: “I don’t think there are many original ideas in the world, Mitch. What you have to do is take care of the fundamentals. You get quality artists, make quality records, put them in quality packaging and price them aggressively to compete with your main rival which is the film industry (for hard discs) and you utilize the digital domain as the promotional tool it can be.”
BraveWords.com: Have we reached the end of “physical” music (meaning CDs, vinyl, etc)?
Alan Niven: “No, I don’t believe so. Hard disc sales are bottoming out, but I believe if your content is good, you package right and your pricing is right; people will still buy them. Back in the day, we thought of retail sales as being 75% spontaneous. You need to support and maintain that opportunity. We’ve lost a lot of retail stores, but on the other hand when I was growing up, I bought my LED ZEPPELIN and JETHRO TULL records in the back of a hardware store. So, there will always be a way.”
BraveWords.com: Will you be signing any artist to your label as long as they’re good and you see the potential or must they be a “blues rock” or a “hard rock” band only?
Alan Niven: “The policy there is to be entirely eclectic and to be driven exclusively by the recognition of a talent. The idea is to maintain a standard of talent no matter how the talent expresses itself. There’s a band out of Arizona called STORM OF PERCEPTION and I hate to use comparatives, but I would describe them as Children Of Iron Metallica. There’s a band that we are looking at that I would describe as melodic punk. We’re looking at a blues-rock trio out of Wales with a nineteen-year-old guitarist and I think he’ll be the guitar star of the future and he has a vocalist with him that has an exceptional voice. Let the guy sing the phone book and you’ll be moved. The amount of quality material that finds its way to us is quite substantial and then it becomes a case of whether my partner, Heather, and I connect to it. It also has to meet our criteria of having quality. We don’t want to deal with things that are ugly. We don’t want to deal with things that are denigrating to women. We don’t want to deal with things that are malicious and we don’t want to deal with the insubstantial. We want a vestige of heart, a vestige of soul and a vestige of intelligence.”
BraveWords.com: Do you get a lot of submissions by bands that think “oh, he’s the Guns N' Roses guy and we’re the next Guns N' Roses”?
Alan Niven: “Yes, we’ve had our share of people who think they are the next Guns N' Roses except they don’t realize there is no ‘next Guns N' Roses’, but there might be a terrific new band of their own personality with its own character. Still, we’ve had a lot of very good things come our way. There’s a delightful serendipity in the way that you find or connect to musicians and bands.”
BraveWords.com: Let me ask you about Guns N' Roses. Everybody slags the new version of the band because Slash is not there… because Duff is not there… But then you have a band like WHITESNAKE that is essentially David Coverdale with a revolving door of musicians. You have FOREIGNER, which is Mick Jones and a new cast of characters. You have THIN LIZZY that changes line-up almost yearly. My questions is why do you think those bands get a pass, but Axl or Guns N' Roses get nothing but negative press?
Alan Niven: “I think it’s a matter of perception by the audience. You mentioned Thin Lizzy (Vivian Campbell is now in both Thin Lizzy and DEF LEPPARD), there’s a degree of acceptance in the audience that there’s a natural order of turnover. Vivian is a really cool guy and a great player and they’ll be accommodating to Vivian playing in Thin Lizzy. However, when you have a situation where quite obviously one individual has driven off the others, and furthermore, stated that he is ‘last man standing’ and that he alone represents the idea of Guns N' Roses and, by the way, Guns N' Roses doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned. Guns N' Roses as far as I’m concerned played their last show on April 7th 1990 in Indianapolis which was the last show live show at Farm Aid that the original line-up played. That’s my personal and particular viewpoint. But in this instance, we have a situation where the first thing Axl did after he fired me was to have the rest of the band sign over the rights to the name to him exclusively. I think we’re looking at coercion and unpleasantness and meanness of spirit that elicits a negative response when they see a ‘Guns N Roses’ banner over a crowd at Leeds which is exacerbated by a Slash look-a-like who is doing the same moves and wearing a top-hat. Where there is a guy who looks rather similar in haircut and body language to Izzy and plays a hollow body guitar and you look at the bass player and think ‘well, that’s the closest they could find to Duff. I think that’s a tremendous deceit on Axl’s part. I think it’s an incredible insult to the people who made Guns N' Roses what it was… to Izzy, to Steven, to Slash, to Duff and I think it’s very callous and arrogant. I think it’s foolish for Axl to do it and I think it’s foolish for an audience to accept it. Let me be clear, Axl has every right as an individual to perform whatever music he wishes with whomever he wishes. That is a right that is absolutely unquestioned, but what I cannot digest is that he states that he is Guns N' Roses because on his own – he is not.”
BraveWords.com: I see your point, but I also understand the importance of branding and if we hold Axl to a higher standard then we should hold all bands to the same standard.
Alan Niven: “Let me flip it for you. If I had to narrow the accolades to a single individual, I would say the greatest singer in rock n’ roll is PAUL RODGERS and I’m a huge FREE fan, but when Free ran its course – they didn’t call the new band ‘Freedom’. The new band is called BAD COMPANY. It’s something else. It had different players, although fronted by Paul. Led Zeppelin were originally the NEW YARDBIRDS until they woke up to the fact that this is not ‘new’ YARDBIRDS but something else. A new name…. a new identity… a new brand.”
BraveWords.com: Could it also be that the idea of branding wasn’t as strong back then?
Alan Niven: “To perceive something as branding is an excessive compulsion from a marketing point of view as opposed to an artistic or creative point of view. I think your integrity lies in your artistic creativity not in your imaging and if you’re going to change things substantially – then change the name. If somebody passes away then you have an option to continue by trying to find somebody to fill the position of the person who is no longer with you or you can recreate. I always take my hat off to Led Zeppelin for calling it quits after John Bonham died. Jimi Hendrix had a little peer pressure to play with more black musicians and he went from the JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE to BAND OF GYPSIES. It didn’t stop the music from being exceptional. It was different, but we shouldn’t demean our audience. I think they’re intelligent enough to know that Jimi played guitar in the Experience and Jimi’s playing guitar in Band Of Gypsies. I want to see Jimi play guitar and if I want a Jimi poster, I’ll go buy it. Ironically, the band that first established a sense of branding was THE GRATEFUL DEAD because they came out on the non-commercial counter-culture, but yet they brilliantly branded the band and once Jerry passed – they were done which is correct and honourable. Also, if you’re going to start something else… then start something else.”
BraveWords.com: It just seems unfair to me that people complain about Axl calling himself Guns N' Roses yet David Coverdale can stand onstage with his 80th guitar player and 23rd drummer and call himself Whitesnake and no one complains.
Alan Niven: “I think a line is crossed when you see look-a-likes with similar clothing and trademarks playing. I think then you feel manipulated and I think then you get a feeling that there’s an element of con to this. I think the majority of the fans that attended the recent Leeds and Reading shows would say that Axl sounded in pretty good voice for his years, oxygen tank and teleprompter. They were delighted to hear him get through the songs the best he could even though he was a little breathless here and there, but despite the fact that he’s obviously not 100% match fit; they heard some classic songs live that they’ve loved for years and they enjoyed the night out, but it wasn’t Guns N’ fucking Roses. It’s absolutely a cover band, Mitch. I just think it’s sad that it’s gotten to the point that you have people onstage aping the originals.”
BraveWords.com: You were there in the beginning of Guns N' Roses. Do you look back at the last twenty years and think about all the missed opportunities had they only been able to keep their shit together? Or is it more a case of them being so messed up that it has created a mystique that has kept them in the spotlight all this time.
Alan Niven: “It boils down to personalities and when that dissipated… obviously Axl has certain personality traits that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a group situation. It went as far as it could. It’s ironic to me to watch the BBC footage (of the Leeds & Reading shows) and hear him singing about love in his heart… I’m really hard put to remember a single act of selfless love that he committed that I witnessed. Unfortunately, I can say I witnessed a lot of negative actions on his part. This is a guy who lives alone and who has not been successful as a family man, for example, and to my knowledge has no children and he doesn’t have a family entity about him. I think those are all salient and indicative circumstances. Absolutely, I look back and I know that one of my major functions with the band was to hold things together as well as protect them the best I could from themselves and the interest of those that were associated with them. David Geffen once wanted a soundtrack from them for a movie that wasn’t very good. Somebody else wants Axl to be in Vogue because one of Geffen’s executive’s wives is an editor at Vogue. You have to keep all these things at bay and you have to keep the spirit of the band alive. My desire for them was for them to be thought of as a ROLLING STONES for their generation. Obviously, they had nowhere near the output of THE ROLLING STONES. I don’t think THE STONES have done anything really relevant since Tattoo You.”
BraveWords.com: Are you not up for the Harlem Shuffle?
Alan Niven: “Not much, but there again we’re talking about an incredible body of work THE STONES have put together over a long period of time that includes a run of three amazing albums (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers). I know the critics say it’s Exile On Main St., but I beg to differ. I believe all three albums before are superior. That run of three albums was an incredible creative apex.”
BraveWords.com: Let me ask you a few random questions. Steven Adler just wrote a book, he’s done Celebrity Rehab, and more. What are your feelings about Steven?
Alan Niven: “First and foremost my thoughts are for physical and mental health for Steven. I sincerely hope that he stays as physically and mentally healthy as he can. That’s my wish for him.”
BraveWords.com: Have you spoken to him recently?
Alan Niven: “No, the last time I spoke to him was probably four years ago.”
BraveWords.com: The reason I ask is that I get the impression that he is reaching out to all originally involved with Guns N' Roses and is seeking some kind of closure.
Alan Niven: “I don’t think Steven wants closure. I think Steven wants his youth back. I think Steven wants the magic of that moment and heyday to be recreated which, of course, is absolutely not going to happen. Everybody’s older and moved on and in the extraordinarily unlikely event in which the band actually did a reunion – it would be different. You cannot re-live the past and you should, at least in a creative endeavour, have one foot in the present. If Guns N' Roses were to re-unify, I personally would dearly hope that it would be substantiated by valid and new creativity in the studio with a new record and that it wouldn’t just live off the past.”
BraveWords.com: In the unlikely event that they did reunite – if they called you and said ‘hey Alan, you helped us out in the beginning. Can you help us out again.’ Would you consider it or would it simply be ‘no’?
Alan Niven: “I would only consider it after very long conversations with Axl Rose. It would hinge on that entirely and I don’t know if leopards can change their spots. There’s more in life than money and I would hate to think I was doing something just for the buck and not for the spirit, sense of adventure and not for the fun of it. If it was mean spirited and no fun, I wouldn’t want to do it.”
BraveWords.com: After the band fired you, you went ahead and worked with Izzy, Slash and eventually ‘the project’ (which would become VELVET REVOLVER).
Alan Niven: “Let me clarify that as far as ‘the project’ is concerned. I came into L.A. with my daughter and we had a dinner with Slash and Duff. Duff looked across the table and said ‘how about it Niv?’ I was very flattered to be asked, but it seemed to me that it wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t like the prospect of everybody, but Axl being involved. I thought that would raise an unfair bar and unreasonable expectations
for everybody, so that was something I felt very very nervous about.”
BraveWords.com: Is that why, in the end, you think Velvet Revolver failed (because everybody expected it to be Guns N' Roses)?
Alan Niven: “I don’t think you can consider Velvet Revolver as a complete failure.”
BraveWords.com: But they did fail…
Alan Niven: “Yes, but they did have a number one and sold over a million copies and that’s respectable. That was better than SLASH’S SNAKEPIT, for example. I think the weakness in Velvet Revolver was the material and writing. In that respect, I was really nervous about Scott Weiland too. I’m not sure what he’s got to contribute as a writer…”
BraveWords.com: Did that pick as a singer baffle you? You go from Axl Rose who’s a troubled singer to a guy with a reported heroin addiction who walked out on his band. Did it make any sense to you?
Alan Niven: “I thought it was an unfortunate compromise to make. I felt that there was an aspect of marketing behind the idea that could have worked, but you have to look at the individuals themselves and when one of them is turning up semi-coherent at rehearsal with a ‘minder’ it’s quite obvious that they are still using. That’s another reason why I was less than thrilled at the idea of Velvet Revolver. The other thing was… that the heart of the soul of Guns N' Roses was Izzy and a lot of those songs work well because of his musical intelligence and his feel. He’s got a beautiful rock n’ roll sensibility about him that informed and influenced everybody’s writing and without Izzy being fully involved in Velvet Revolver I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. I’ll be blunt, I think Slash is one of the best guitar players that has ever lived. I love his soul. I love his note selection. I love the way he plays - but he’s not a great songwriter. Duff won’t appreciate me saying this, but on his own, Duff, is not a great songwriter - brilliant at bass parts and drum structure but not a great songwriter. You only have to look at his first solo album to note that. Guns N' Roses was an amazing collective and a chemistry that worked and any successful entity can be looked at with the analogy of the molecule. You can take out the smallest part of a molecule and that molecule will collapse and that’s Guns N' Roses.”
BraveWords.com: Did you listen to Chinese Democracy?
Alan Niven: “One of the people who has sought me out in recent years is a rabid Guns N' Roses fan who lives in Australia and who appears to have a normal respectable life, other than being a Guns N' Roses fan, but over the years I have found him interesting and engaging. He was extraordinarily adept at copying me on all the tracks that got leaked out on the web. I was pretty aware of Chinese Democracy a long time before it came out. There was so much stuff floating about. It wasn’t like Chinese Democracy was released and on that day I had the opportunity to decide whether or not I was going to sit through it and evaluate it. I was pretty aware of what it’s content was before it's release. Does that answer your question or does that bring up part two of the question – what did I think of it?”
BraveWords.com: “Well, yeah. Are you ‘allowed’ to say?
Alan Niven: “I thought it was complex and difficult to get through, but it was pretty Axl.”
BraveWords.com: For me, it was really more a question of is this what I waited fourteen years for? These songs could have been worked up in six months.
Alan Niven: “Here’s my pot shot about Chinese Democracy. Axl made two huge mistakes. One was releasing it and the other was Irving Azoff.”
BraveWords.com: Irving Azoff? Really? Why?
Alan Niven? “If I’d been in a responsible position to advise and counsel Axl, I would have done everything in my power to make sure that Chinese Democracy was something that people always talked about and wondered about, but never actually got to completely hear, that it would never be actually released. Recording went on for so long that there was no way in hell that the record he was putting together was going to meet expectations. The minute it was released Mitch it became just one more record. Before its release it was a myth. It was fascinating. People talked about it. People wanted to hear it. The third mistake was that he should have made sure to keep all his tapes and all his discs under his wing and under his lock and key, so, that there wouldn’t have been any leaks. Then he could have released the occasional track and he could have worked them 'live' for another ten years. That would have been more mysterious, more engaging, more fascinating…”
BraveWords.com: It has been said that the ‘anticipation is always greater than the get.’ That’s what Chinese Democracy was…
Alan Niven: “I would disagree. The "get" of my wife was much more than I could have anticipated.”
BraveWords.com: The Toronto Star interviewed me about Chinese Democracy’s release and my quote was that ‘Chinese Democracy – the myth would always be greater than the actual album’.
Alan Niven: “Absolutely and if Axl had gone out and toured when he needed to he could have played the occasional song from it live. There would have been a process there for him… the immediacy of performance really sharpens up a musical statement and releasing the whole album was a mistake. I think the release was done purely based on financial reasons. And Irving wanted to get it out of the way because he wanted the reunion. I doubt he was motivated to see it successful. He essentially got paid for it's release, not it's subsequent performance and the deal with Best Buy was set up that way. Going with Best Buy narrowed the market reach - Wal Mart would have been a better exclusive - they have a deeper reach into secondary and tertiary markets - but best of all would have been to let everyone have it. There is a sense that the deal was designed to maximize the immediate take - to grab that and run to the next point of agenda - a re-union. I don’t think Irving ever understood the unlikelihood of that reunion ever taking place and how deep feelings run.”
BraveWords.com: Irving has always been one to make things happen, to make reunions happen. Do you think there was an arrogance there that he would be able to make a reunion happen?
Alan Niven: “I couldn’t speak to whether Irving can be deemed arrogant, but I do suspect his middle name is Napoleon.”
BraveWords.com: You mentioned that you ‘sharpen your skills through performance.’ I think that’s what’s missing with artist development these days. You look at the early days of Kiss, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, and Cheap Trick… It was you make an album in January, tour through the summer and do the follow-up album in the fall coming off the road while you’re still in the pocket. Now, bands that are lucky enough to do a second album, tour for two years, take a six month break, then a six month vacation, then they start thinking about making the next album and then the next album is four years later. How can you capture a rock n’ roll spirit when for four years you’ve been sailing off the coast of Antigua?
Alan Niven: “It’s not very connected and it’s not very passionate. Rock n’ roll and management is not an occupation. It’s a way of life. For example, Great White got dropped off EMI after they got their first recording contract and nobody wanted to touch them after that and it took me a year and half to get them re-signed. After that, we were in a perpetual cycle of writing, pre-production, in the studio or on the road and when they got off the road the band was back to writing… This was a cycle that ran from 1986 to 1993. We were all living with knowledge and experience it could all go away quickly - so we kept moving. That perpetual motion, perpetual playing is what sustains you and that’s what makes you a real band. Whether they’re your cup of tea or not the one thing that is absolutely incontrovertible about Great White is in the day and at the height of their activity they were a really really great live band. They delivered and delivered. That came from having a simple work ethic and philosophy - what a band does is play. When you go out there and play three, four, five nights a week, for months on end, you become what you wish to be - a great band. The conundrum is the knowledge that the perfect gig is the one you play as if you know that it was going to be your last. You need to leave everything on the stage, but you can’t do that every night. What you can do though is raise a bar of competency. Everybody has bad nights, but the level of competency needs to be such that the audience still feels they got value for money even if everyone has a poor night. That it was still worth buying the ticket and that they would come back. If that’s your bottom line, and it is what we determined to establish with Great White, then the idea is that if one, two, or three of the band members have a good night then you have those moments of magic that you’ll never forget.”
BraveWords.com: Why do you think Great White never had that breakout success on the level of a DEF LEPPARD or BON JOVI? They were a perennial opening act. They never did their own big worldwide arena tour. Mark Kendall is a fantastic guitar player and some of the songs they’ve written are brilliant…
Alan Niven: “Thank you for saying that. I would make the comment that, of that era, he is the most under rated guitar player.”
BraveWords.com: Mark is fantastic…
Alan Niven: “Absolutely and his feel is tremendous. It may have taken a while to construct a solo in the studio, but once he got it he always put feel into it and he’s a terrific terrific player. Let me really throw down the gauntlet here; I think that Gene Simmons is similar to Nikki Sixx and Blackie Lawless and that they are possibly inter-related in that they are masters of the marketing of the idiom more than they are masters of their instruments. When people are gaga over KISS it’s the phenomenon of KISS that they are gaga about as opposed to what you’re going to find in the grooves. The stroke of genius with KISS was the KISS Army. It created that sense of brotherhood. I think that the fact that the band weren’t the musical geniuses was actually a point of pride for the KISS Army and KISS. This is us and we may not be as brilliant as that guy, but we’re us and we accept us for us and fuck it we’re having fun. Back to Great White and to answer your question, it was event and timing. This might be a bit disingenuous being a co-writer of most of their material, but pound for pound if you sit down and go through the catalogue; it’s broader and wider in style than just about any member of their peer group.”
BraveWords.com: Maybe a little cynical, but does it boil down to Jack Russell not being a pretty poster boy frontman?
Alan Niven: “That’s part of it, but worst is that Jack Russell is an absolute fiend to artificial euphorics and, for example, Great White were embarking on their first headline tour. It started out in San Bernardino, worked its way across Texas and was sold-out all across the northeast corridor. That was one of the hardest places to sell tickets. All the band had to do was show up, be credible, play and they would have established themselves as a headliner, but while they were crossing Texas… I had decided to take a day off to take my son to Disneyland and instead I got a call from Audie (the drummer) who was in Phoenix, not Texas, Phoenix. He informed me that Jack had just been thrown off a plane for being drunk and obnoxious and he was at the airport bar in Phoenix. So, I called a friend who lived there and I said get to that bar fast and get him before he gets arrested. This was Ray Brown, who used to make the stage clothes for everybody back then, and Ray gets to the airport, takes Jack to his place and I cancel my trip to Disneyland. I take the next flight from L.A. to Phoenix, get over to Ray’s house, knock on the door and I notice Ray’s got eyes as big a saucers.”
BraveWords.com: He’s got cartoon eyes…
Alan Niven: “Ray looks at me and says he’s out back. I get to the backyard and find Jack deep in conversation with a saguaro. I kid you not. I tap him on the shoulder and he looks up at me and beams ‘I have some ‘Shrooms for you too’. We got him into the car and on a flight back to L.A. where we had to start the process of putting him back together. The tour got cancelled and that’s basically where the momentum broke – right there at that moment and at that time. The promoters weren’t happy and they were a little iffy at the idea of supporting the band headlining again. Basically, Jack screwed the moment, but Jack had a propensity for screwing moments and it was usually connected to chemical indulgence.”
BraveWords.com: It’s got to be frustrating to have everything you’ve worked for thrown out because of somebody using…
Alan Niven: “Well, yeah…”
BraveWords.com: Does Jack miss the business acumen that say a Jon Bon Jovi has…
Alan Niven: “Oh, c’mon. There’s no comparison. Jon Bon Jovi IS business acumen. Richie Sambora is a better singer and guitar player, but Jon had a combination of having a shrewd business mind and a pretty face. In terms of talent, Richie is a more interesting individual to look at than Jon. Jack didn’t have a business acumen. He had a rock n’ roll attitude. There’s a big difference.”
BraveWords.com: Gene Simmons has the business mind…
Alan Niven: “Absolutely and he has no rock n’ roll attitude. He’s a very smart guy and he’s done very well for himself. He’s got the fat bank account. He seems to have a good and healthy family, so the only thing I can criticize is his music. The rest of it, I think he’s brilliant.”
BraveWords.com: Let me ask you about the Great White/ Station night-club tragedy… Do you think the band has done enough to repair, make amends with the fans in Rhode Island?
Alan Niven: “My single word answer to that question is absolutely – NO! I don’t think that Jack and the band have done enough. For the record, let me stated that Jack and the band walked into my house in 1995 and said they wanted to try something different. So from 1995 on, I’m no longer involved. The night it happened coincided with a very dark, deep and depressing period of my life. To sit in front of CNN and see Jack’s then bloated face in front of that scene was utterly horrific to me. It was incredibly depressing. It was incredibly tragic. Let me start off by saying that there was no malicious intent in such a tragedy, but it was a comedy of stupidity. You don’t take pyro into a club. That was a ridiculous thing to do and the people who ran the club did not have sufficient fabric in the club to make it safe for that kind of circumstance. That said, the band were onstage and it was their pyro… and there in of itself is a degree of responsibility. That required more of an effort on their part to atone, make amends and… Look, I spoke to Jack recently and tried to get him into a rehab. I’m concerned for his health. He’s done a lot of things to me in my life that a lot of people would take a gun and put a bullet between his eyes, but we created a lot of good music together. Had a lot of adventures together and he’s a part of my life. I cannot just dismiss him and I cannot avoid feeling concerned for his life and his health at the moment. I feel very bad for the circumstance he’s in at the moment. I hope he gets healthy. I hope that he attains his moment of redemption. I would hope that for anybody no matter what they’ve done, but do I think they’ve done enough? No, I don’t and part of wanting to get Jack into rehab… we had gotten him a slot on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s thing (Celebrity Rehab). The thinking I had was that one – he’d get treatment, two – he’d get paid and it wouldn’t come out of pocket and three – he’d have a stage to really open up and express the regret that he must feel for that night in a public forum where he could get some forgiveness and redemption. I thought that would be good for Jack. It would be good for the people in Rhode Island. It would be good for everyone, but he blew me off.”
BraveWords.com: He’s not interested?
Alan Niven: “His comment was ‘I’ve been in rehab a dozen times and it’s never worked for me.’ I would hate to be in Jack’s shoes and skin and I would hate to have to live with any connection of that night, but in an obtuse way I do have a connection and believe you me Mitch – I’ve had my nights where I have sat there and thought ‘if I had worked for the band that night perhaps a hundred souls would still be living.’ It’s crossed my mind in that way.”
BraveWords.com: That’s pretty heavy stuff…
Alan Niven: “A hundred people dying in a fire is horrific… Absolutely horrific. I’d wished they’d done more. Going on CNN and basically covering butt and then throwing the poor unfortunate tour manager under the bus… I thought was wrong all the way around. Simply put, it was a stupid and vain thing to do. What are you doing? Pretending that you are sauntering out on the stage at the (L.A.) Forum when in reality you’re playing a little club. Clubs are about one thing and one thing only – sweat and intimacy in your face. Pyrotechnics have their validity in the arena or stadium because you are trying to make more of a spectacle out of the performance and to reach those poor unfortunate people who are seated a hundred yards away. That’s why you have to make it more of a spectacle, but in a club it’s about the heart, the soul and the passion of the music. It’s about being right in the face of your audience. There’s no relevance to pyrotechnics there. It was a silly vanity and an absolute tragedy and it needn’t have happened. The band should have done more to rehabilitate…”
BraveWords.com: And may I add it’s still not too late. There’s still a chance for them to do something significant for the people of Rhode Island…
Alan Niven: “It takes an intelligence to deal with that and I’ve got to say that I don’t think it was the smartest and most sensitive of things Jack did in having a face lift on a reality show at the same time as there were burn victims who needed help with their skin condition. That was ill advised and thoughtless. I’ve said Jack has a rock n’ roll attitude, but sometimes a rock n’ roll attitude is mind numbingly stupid. And thoughtless.”
BraveWords.com: I fully agree. When you have someone in a hospital bed that needs a skin graph… and then you have a guy who just doesn’t want to see a wrinkle when he looks at himself in the mirror.
Alan Niven: “What if Jack had taken the situation and turned it in to a positive? Instead of ‘me’ getting a face lift. Let’s make the reality show about this particular plastic surgeon and pairing them with somebody from Rhode Island…”
BraveWords.com: That would have been genius…
Alan Niven: “No, not genius. That would have been sensitive and sensible. It would have been the right thing to do. Obviously, nobody is thinking over there.”
BraveWords.com: Looking back are you prouder to have been involved with GUNS ‘N ROSES or Great White?
Alan Niven: “It’s an incredibly complex range of emotions that I have about both entities. They run deep, profound and personal, but ultimately you judge a band by its music. I think that both of them… Obviously, with Appetite, which is the biggest debut rock n’ roll album ever… seventeen million copies sold in the US alone. The numbers make a statement there as it is.”
BraveWords.com: When you were in the studio working on those songs – did you think ‘wow, we’ve got a seventeen million seller on our hands’ or do you think ‘well, we’ve got a few good songs here and hopefully we’ll do better on the second album.’
Alan Niven: “I’ll tell you what I thought and bare in mind that with Great White I was co-writer and producer. If you had said to me Mitch, you’ll be hearing Rock Me on the radio in twenty years. I would have said I want some of whatever you are taking Mitch. In that moment, I’m entirely into the music that is being recorded, the performance and invested in the moment and not looking forward because you cannot ever speculate who your audience is going to be or how long it’s going to be there and how deeply they are going to take you to heart. You have to concentrate on ‘is this song moving me’, ‘does it have a vitality’, ‘does it have a presence’, ‘does that guitar solo get me off’… That’s the only way you can create things that have longevity. So no, I didn’t anticipate hearing those songs on the radio today. I hear them throughout the week. Classic radio plays them all the time. With Guns N' Roses, I was very aware of what I was taking on. Tom Zutaut asked me three times separate times to come talk to the band and I turned him down twice. I had done some research on the band and my attitude towards Tom was ‘good luck. You’ve got a disaster on your hand with this crew’ and then he came to me and said ‘Alan, I’ve got a disaster on my hands. Eddie Rosenblatt is threatening to drop the band and I’m going to lose my job. I’ve got egg all over my face and this will be the end of my career. Please see if you can help.” I knew I was taking on something that was going to be very difficult. What I didn’t know at the time was that Eddie Rosenblatt had given Tom Zutaut a dictum that I had three months to turn the situation around and had to make it look professionally productive or the band was going to be dropped. That, Tom, did not tell me and my sense when the record was done was that they were not going to get airplay because they were too raw for what was on the airways at that time. It wasn’t that much before that that Great White were considered edgy and here’s Guns N' Roses. I thought that if I kept a minimalistic professional environment around the band… If I was able to keep them touring long enough around the first record then I thought there might be just a slight chance that they would reach the gold standard of 500 000 units sold. And that was a big ‘if’ to me. When we left on the first tour supporting THE CULT, those who knew the band all figured they wouldn’t last ten days on the road and they’d want to come home to be close to their dealers again. That was the perception that everybody had of GNR at the time and they’d earned that perception. Did I think it would be a huge album? It never crossed my mind. I thought they’d be hard work and only through hard work that we’d be able to move them through a quasi-underground state and slowly build them up. If anything, I had my eye on how METALLICA were developing and I thought ‘hmmm, if I can maybe keep this moving… maybe we’ll get lucky. We might be able to get this first record to gold and build from there. I had no idea it was going to explode like it did in 1988.”
BraveWords.com: When you heard the final product. Did you think ‘these are all great songs’ or was it a case of we have three good songs and we’ll see what happens’?
Alan Niven: “I thought we had a very consistent and very good record. I love to fuck with people when I hear them discussing Guns N' Roses; I’ll mumble under my breath, but loud enough for everybody to hear, ‘it’s an over-rated album’.”
BraveWords.com: You may have a point. The album is more myth at this point and let me tell you my experience with Appetite. I read in Metal Edge’s ‘Rock on The Rise’ section that Guns N' Roses was going to be the band that defines the ‘90s. So, I picked up the album and I hated it. I thought it was noise, but sometime later Sweet Child Of Mine was released as a video and then I saw the band open up for AEROSMITH in Saratoga Springs, NY. The band became ubiquitous and somehow got into my system and I was hooked. Now, I think the album is an absolute classic, but there was a time that I thought I had wasted my money and that it was terrible. I thought the singer ‘sucked’ and the songs were poorly written and weren’t that good…
Alan Niven: “Mitch, don’t feel bad about that because most of the industry and radio concurred. The majority of the industry and especially album radio agreed with you. Flip your mind back and remember how that raw intense record was set up in terms of its peer group at the time. You have Aerosmith making ear candy for John Kalodner. I love Aerosmith to death, but after the first three or so albums they got kind of lost… well, you know to me that’s Aerosmith.”
BraveWords.com: I’m a little kinder. I’ll give Aerosmith up to 1985 and the Done With Mirrors album and then after that it’s been well… not good.
Alan Niven: “You go up to Rocks and that’s it as far as I’m concerned. I think John Kalodner was bullying the band into making ear candy. You had Whitesnake out there. You had Journey out there.”
BraveWords.com: Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Poison… Kalodoner really got onto Aerosmith at the lowest point of their career and decided to craft them into an MTV bubble gum pop band or they could choose to go back to sleeping on park benches.
Alan Niven: “Exactly. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of John going into the studio and listening to what they were recording and going ‘ah, this sounds like THE ROLLING STONES. It sucks. I’m making them re-record.’
BraveWords.com: I’ve had a chance to hear some unreleased demos from the Permanent Vacation sessions and there are a lot of songs that sound like THE STONES or better yet classic Aerosmith, but instead we got Dude Looks Like A Lady and Angel. It makes you wonder why they weren’t released and then you realize that to John, it’s because those songs didn’t sound like Bon Jovi. Having said that Permanent Vacation is their last ‘listenable’ album everything after that is terrible.
Alan Niven: “'Love In An Elevator' – c’mon give me a break.”
BraveWords.com: I’ll take that over 'Pink' and 'Jaded' any day.
Alan Niven: “Let me be clear on a couple of points. That was a tremendous tour and I’m absolutely forever in debt and grateful for their hospitality on that tour and I really enjoyed my interaction with the band members on that tour. They were really really cool guys. They were all trying to be sober and Geffen had bullied GUNS N ROSES on to the bill. That was the only tour GNR could get on that they hadn’t screwed up or compromised. To get back to your question, Appetite was a very raw sounding record for that moment in time. That was deliberate. One of my responsibilities was to let the band be the band and to protect them from the John Kalodner and David Geffen mindset and to let them be who they were. One of the reasons Duff decided that I would be ok as a manager was because I had a SEX PISTOLS silver single on my wall from when I was working at Virgin. The one thing Mike Clink did brilliantly was record the band as they were.”
BraveWords.com: That’s the problem with Chinese Democracy. It’s been Pro-Tooled to death.
Alan Niven: “Pro-Tools is the devil and with Chinese Democracy there are so many guitar parts and players on there that it’s my understanding that the people who played on the album are not quite sure who played what. I always lived by the ‘don’t read your own press’ rule, but there was one Great White review that I do remember that said ‘this band’s studio album is more live than some band’s live record.’ And my response to that was ‘yes! That’s exactly the point.’
BraveWords.com: Which reminds me – Guns N' Roses Live Like A Suicide album was not recorded live. It’s a studio album with crowd noise mixed in, right?
Alan Niven: “Absolutely. It was done at Pasha. I mixed it with Hans Peter Huber.”
BraveWords.com: It’s hilarious to know that Axl’s doing all this stage banter on the album, but he was actually standing in a vocal booth in downtown L.A.”
Alan Niven: “It is hilarious and there’s even a funnier twist than that. I had done an independent EP with Great White, which was the platform to them getting their first record contract. I did an independent full album with them, Shot In The Dark. Berlin’s first record was an independent. MÖTLEY CRÜE’s first album was done independently… I had learned the point and purpose of doing an independent release to provide a platform for your first release on a major label, so with Live Like A Suicide it was put out as an indie record and there were 25,000 units of it pressed up. I told Eddie Rosenblatt that there can not be a single Geffen Records’ marking on it nor can there be a single Warner’s marking on it. It has to look like it’s a total indie release. But it wasn’t - the band was already signed to Geffen. And yet, I got to put out my ‘indie record’ of Guns N' Roses and nobody seemed to notice.”
BraveWords.com: It’s a total swindle (laughs)…
Alan Niven: “Yes, a total swindle. I’m fond of those tracks. There’s some good playing on those, but it’s a complete and utter rock n’ roll swindle!”
BraveWords.com: Final question – Do you have any anger left at Axl Rose or Jack Russell?
Alan Niven: “There was a time not so long ago, I would have willingly beaten the living crap out of Jack. Today, I’m really really worried about his health and I’m really concerned for his condition. With Axl, I’m simply disappointed. Not surprised, just disappointed. He seems to have gotten stuck in a time capsule. It seems like his muse still depends on anger and confrontation and he’s still going on about the cops, the promoters, the managers and everybody is ruining his life. I would have liked to see him develop. When he did Civil War, I thought he was going to become a statesman of rock n’ roll, but instead he became the court jester.”
BraveWords.com: At least he’s still in the palace…
Alan Niven: “He’s still in the palace and it’s his palace and everybody else just has to bend a knee in it.”
BraveWords.com would like to thank Alan for this rare and exclusive interview and for giving us a small glimpse into rock’s greatest narcissist, Axl Rose, and the dysfunctional family that is Great White.