What It’s Like to Play With (and Be Sued By) Axl Rose

Kevin Lawrence didn’t want to rename his band. He did want to release their work, along with the vocals of one Bill Bailey.
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Kevin Lawrence didn’t want to rename his band. He did want to release their work, along with the vocals of one Bill Bailey.
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Before reinventing himself as Axl Rose and becoming the biggest rock star on the planet, the future Guns N’ Roses frontman was Bill Bailey, a polite 20-year-old kid fresh off the bus from Indiana. In 1983, he arrived on the Sunset Strip and joined a local hard-rock band called RapidFire, led by guitarist Kevin Lawrence. Bailey recorded a five-song studio EP with Lawrence, played a couple gigs, then left the band, changed his name, and started welcoming people to the jungle. Lawrence went a different way, disbanding RapidFire and leaving the music industry to do something less exploitative, run porn websites.

“I gave myself until 25 to quote-unquote ‘make it,’” Lawrence says. “When I turned 25, I just kind of quit my own band.”

This week, Lawrence released “Ready to Rumble,” his old band’s EP—featuring the first-ever studio vocals by Rose. On the songs, the frontman sings in a lower range, but his trademark high-pitched squeal makes some brief appearances—snapshots of a rock star in the making. But what’s even more interesting is the EP’s backstory: the years of legal wrangling between Lawrence and Rose’s lawyers over its release, the singer’s early attempts to remake himself as a glam rocker, and the surprising revelation of his sole ambition in the music industry—to earn enough money to buy a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.

“We’d sit on the roof in Westwood, have a beer and a cigarette,” Lawrence recalls. “He said, ‘When I make it, I’m gonna get myself a pair of snakeskin boots. That’s all I care about.’ I’ll never forget that.”

How did you first meet Axl?

We used to hang out at Troubadour and Gazzarri’s all the time and I just met him. We used to see each other around the club and started chatting. I was the singer [of Rapidfire] before Axl, and I didn’t want to sing- I just wanted to play guitar. We were a three-piece, I was playing guitar and singing and I always hated singing.  Axl said he was a singer, and my first question was, “Do you have a P.A.?” He said he did, and I said “Come on out and audition.” His PA never left our studio until he quit the band.

He was still Bill Bailey then. Did he ever say anything to you that he was thinking of changing his name to Axl?

At one point, during his [time] in our band, he asked if we could change the name of the band to A-X-L. He didn’t say ‘Axl,’ he said ‘A-X-L.’ I said, ‘‘Axl?’ What does it mean?’ He said, ‘It’s just a word.’ I said, ‘Oh, let me think about it.’

How was he as a frontman?

I was with him his first time onstage. He wasn’t what he is now, now that he’s got bodyguards and confidence. He was nervous to go onstage, and he was a little stiff in the beginning but he loosened up eventually.

Was the Sunset Strip’s groupie scene in the 80’s as wild as everybody says it was?

It was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. There were so many women and cool looking guys, and this was even before the glam thing. Even Motley Crue wasn’t glam. On their first album, they’re all about leather and lighting themselves on fire. That’s the era that we emerged out of. We were already gigging, not doing this glam thing, and then it came along and took over the Strip. We were not a glam band.

When was your last gig with Axl?

He showed up to our gig on May 28th (we’d recorded May 25th), and he arrived at the last minute for the gig with his white jacket dyed pink, and his hair Aqua-Netted straight up and straight out, like in ‘Welcome To The Jungle.’ The whole band kind of looked at him and said, ‘What the fuck?!’ And I remembered [Rapidfire drummer] Chuck [Gordon] going, ‘You’re not going on stage like that!’ I said, ‘Just leave him alone.’ I said to [Axl], ‘Let’s do this gig and then kind of see how it goes, but this is not the vision that we have for this band.’ We were just kind of a guys rocking out as opposed to doing New York Dolls glam.

When could you tell that Axl was going to leave the band?

I had no idea until that gig. After the gig we both talked and Izzy was there. I didn’t know Slash back then, but I’ve been told he was there. And [Axl] came up into the dressing room and he and I talked and we said, ‘Maybe we should part ways.’ I don’t know if I said it or he said it - probably him. He wanted to play with Izzy because they came out from Indiana. We said best of luck to each other, and he invited me to the first Rose gig - before it was even Hollywood Rose, they called themselves Rose - and I went. It was me, our drummer Chuck, and two waitresses in the whole Troubadour.

What was it like when GNR first blew up? Was it shocking?

I didn’t think they’d get as big as fast as they did. And they did. I’m happy for him; he’s a talented guy. But people, they always ask me, ‘What’s Axl like? What’s Axl like?’ And I’m sick of answering. My answer to that has become, ‘I don’t know Axl Rose. I know Bill Bailey.’

Why wait so long to release the EP, and what’s been the major hurdle in releasing it?

With the Hollywood Rose album, claiming to be the first ever Axl Rose recordings, I got a little pissed. I was like, ‘That’s not true, that’s bullshit. These are the original recordings.’ And so I scoured the country for somebody who had an old 8-track reel-to-reel machine that could run it into a computer and digitize it for me, and it took me all over the place. Finally I found Jack Endino, who was Nirvana’s first producer, and he referred me to another guy who had all the equipment. I shipped out the tapes to him and he digitized it and sent it back. I put up a little website, just one page with a picture, and it just got slammed. And then all of a sudden came the lawyer letters.

Do you think Axl cares about the EP’s release or do you think it was just a lawyer thing?

My attorney thinks it’s a lawyer thing. He said, ‘You all parted on completely amicable terms. The last time you saw each other you had a good chat. I don’t even think he would care.’ But his lawyers sure did, and they were sending me some of the nastiest, most threatening letters: ‘You have to return Axl’s property and master recordings or’- I was living in Canada- ‘we’ll have the RCMP seize them from your home.’ The Canadian lawyer told me I was holding Axl Rose’s property and they wanted a list of all the people who have copies of it. It was just ridiculous. My brother Joshua, who was my lawyer, just laughed and wrote them back letters just catching them on all their mistakes. ‘Hey really? Here’s the copyright registration and serial numbers that shows Kevin owns everything.’ Another lawyer would go after me, then another. They were trying to scare me, and I just don’t scare easily.

What did you do after you got out of music?

In the late nineties, I got into the Internet business. I created an Internet porn company, which did extremely well and moved to Canada with my wife and three dogs. It was great. It was inordinate money. It was silly it was so much money. But with the Internet boom came the Internet bust: We all lost our asses and our houses and our wives. Down goes the money, down goes the lovin’.

In 2013, on 30th anniversary of the EP being recorded, [my brother] Joshua sent me a little email that said ‘Happy Birthday.’ I was like, ‘It’s not my birthday....’ It was a link to a snippet of “Ready To Rumble” and it got a lot of hits. Axl’s lawyers filed a copyright infringement, and you’re not allowed to do that unless it’s your copyright. All we had to do was respond to YouTube with the copyright information, which is all mine.

Then Josh killed himself and I just lost it. I said, ‘Over my dead body will this album not come out in 2014, regardless of the consequences.’ We mixed it, had it remastered, had a little artwork done for the front, and put it out there. And I haven’t heard a word. They know they have no case. Josh was very clear in his letters that they have no say in my music, just because some unknown named Bill Bailey was on it and now he’s a star.

When was the last time you saw Axl?

It was in the mid-to-late nineties. I don’t know what album they were on, but I’m pretty sure it was still the time when Slash was in the band, and they were the original. We just ran into each other on the Third Street promenade in Santa Monica, and just started chatting. We were both in a shoe store. He said, ‘Let’s take this outside,’ because people in the store were like, ‘Is that Axl? Is that Axl?’ So we went outside and we were chatting for awhile, and he actually asked me, ‘Do you have a copy of that demo? I never got a copy.’ I said, ‘Give me a phone number and an address and I’ll get you one.’ He gave me a phone number, I called and he never called me back so he never got one. If he’s heard it, he’s heard it since it’s been released. 

Does it get old talking about your time with Axl?

It’s kind of old-hat by now, but since the album’s come out it’s sort of reinvigorated my resolve to really get it out there. Especially since it’s getting great [reviews] and people want CDs and vinyl, which we’re going to run at the beginning of the year.

I don’t live with that yearning, or beating myself up, because I didn’t make it with Axl. [He] just had a new band that he ran, that’s what he always wanted. He’s the boss. Slash is a fantastic guitar player, so that didn’t disturb me…. It would’ve been cool if he’d said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this new band. Do you want to play rhythm guitar?’ But Izzy was doing that. You know, whatever.

Photos by Aijaz Rahi / AP