RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, tomorrow, inducts a new batch of honorees, there will be one notable absence. Guns N' Roses' lead singer Axel Rose says he will not attend. It's just the latest example of the conflict among the founding members of the iconic L.A. rock band. Los Angeles was something of a music battleground at the time Guns N' Roses and another of this year's Rock Hall inductees, Red Hot Chili Peppers, were forming in the 1980s.
From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett reports.
DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: On one side was the raw, stripped down sound of such punk rock bands as Black Flag, Fear, and X who spun fast, hard stories for the city's street kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BARNETT: As a teenager, Michael Balzary was a big fan.
MICHAEL BALZARY: X was probably the one I loved the most. They really affected me powerfully, in an emotional way. I was in love with them. I saw them every chance I got.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS ANGELES")
JOHN DOE: (Singing) She had to leave
EXENE CERVENKA: Los Angeles...
BARNETT: The kid who would one day be known as Flea and play bass for the Red Hot Chili Peppers would never have listened to such sounds just a few years earlier. He'd been schooled in the more sophisticated structures of jazz and classical music. But, one day he had a revelation.
BALZARY: Wait, hold on. Like, it just doesn't matter how simple it is. It's the spirit and the emotional content. The feeling behind it is way more important, whether it's John Coltrane, Bach, or a two-chord punk rock band. And that changed everything for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE IT AWAY")
ANTHONY KIEDIS: (Singing) What I've got you've got to give it to your mamma. What I've got you've got to give it to your papa. What I've got you've got to give it to your daughter. You do a little dance and then you drink a little water...
BARNETT: Balzary's Fairfax High School classmate, Steven Adler, had his life-changing experience watching bands on the other side of the Los Angeles musical divide. These sounds were big and theatrical, with players sporting spandex, make-up, and lots of hair. The future Guns N' Roses drummer hung out by the stage doors of clubs along Hollywood's Sunset Strip, peeking inside at larger-than-life performers like Ratt, Motley Crue, and Van Halen's David Lee Roth.
STEVEN ADLER: Diamond Dave, he was the king of rock. That's when I really went: That's what I want to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AND THE CRADLE WILL ROCK")
DAVID LEE ROTH: (Singing) Well, they say it's kind of frightening how this younger generation swings. You know, it's more than just some new sensation. Well, the kid is into losing sleep and he don't come home for half the week. You know, it's more than just an aggravation...
BARNETT: The rise of the so-called hair metal bands dealt a major blow to the local punk music movement, according to Tequila Mockingbird. That's the stage name of an actress, singer and longtime observer of the Los Angeles music scene, who's now curator of the new L.A. Punk Rock Museum.
TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD: People wanted rock stars to come back. They had lost the rock star thing, because the punk scene had destroyed all stars. That's what that scene was about, like we are the common man artist. As opposed to, we are the rock stars, we are the gods.
BARNETT: Being a star was the last thing on Michael Balzary's mind when he got together with some friends to form the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
BALZARY: I really got into being, you know, a band for the people, by the people; relating. Like, when I was on stage, I just felt like I was at a party with everybody and we're all going crazy. And we just happened to have the amps and guitars and microphones.
BARNETT: You can hear that on the band's first demo tape...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT IN L.A.")
BARNETT: ...which features a manic tribute to the Chili Peppers' hometown, called "Out In L.A."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT IN L.A.")
KIEDIS: (Singing) Ow, L.A.'s the place, sets my mind ablaze. For me, it's a race through a cotton picking maze. For you, it's a chase but I lose you in the haze. And now you spend your days catching rain in your chaise - go out...
BARNETT: But on the glam rock side of L.A., Steven Adler says his childhood dream of being a rock star took a hit when the Sunset Strip started getting crowded with hair bands.
ADLER: We started out being a part of that whole glam thing, 'cause that's what was happening at the time. And that's what was cool at the time. But once it got to the point where it was just like every band was the same and started sounding the same, we didn't want to be a part of that.
BARNETT: And yet Adler, who speaks with a speech impediment as a result of a stroke, says GNR competed with those bands at every level.
Guns N' Roses had the attitude. We wanted to be a great band, and make great music and make a great record. And then, all of the girls and the drugs, that would just come naturally.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE")
W. AXL ROSE: (Singing) Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games We got everything you want. Honey, we know the names. We are the people that you find, whatever you may need. If you got the money, honey, we got your disease. In the jungle, welcome to the jungle. Watch it bring you to your na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees, knees...
BARNETT: Heavy substance abuse informed the music and the lives of both Guns N' Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Cocaine and heroin saturated the L.A. music scene of the 1980s. Tequila Mockingbird says it was devastating.
MOCKINGBIRD: Half this town is in AA, now. They're all in rehab. The whole town should be in rehab, but half of it is.
BARNETT: Rehab didn't come soon enough for Steven Adler, whose stroke came after a cocaine overdose - the result of a kid's illusions about fame in Hollywood.
ADLER: Because that's what I thought you did. When you're a musician, a rock star, that's what you do. All our idols - Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler, Keith Richards - those were people we looked up to and they did drugs.
BARNETT: Adler's high school classmate, Michael Balzary says doing drugs was part of his Hollywood life, too.
BALZARY: I started when I was 11. And basically smoked weed, most days, until I was 30. And we got into harder drugs when we were 16, something like that. You know, it was just on.
BARNETT: And it turns up in one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' hit songs, about the contrast between the real L.A. and the dreams it likes to peddle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNICATION")
KIEDIS: (Singing) It's the edge of the world and all of Western Civilization. The sun may rise in the east. At least it settles in a final location. It's understood that Hollywood sells Californication.
BARNETT: As kids, Michael Balzary and Steven Adler fell under that spell. Both musicians claim they are living sober lives now; a little older, a little wiser about the city that gave them their start.
For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNICATION")
KIEDIS: (Singing) Space may be the final frontier but it's made in a Hollywood basement...
MONTAGNE: And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.
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