By Ian Fortnam
Bol.com - Mar. 2001
Shaking the notoriety gained following six years on the road with Guns N' Roses was never going to be the easiest of tasks. But Izzy Stradlin, who formed the legendary L.A. miscreant combo way back in 1985 with his high school buddy W. Axl Rose, is doing his level best to finally put the seemingly unshakeable ex-Gunners’ mantle behind him.
Izzy originally left the band in September 1991, and aside from deputizing with his old sparring partners in ’93, has steadily set about building a solo career - initially with Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds and latterly in his own right – but, to many, he’ll always be known as ‘Izzy Stradlin, formerly of Guns N' Roses’.
With his latest studio collection River ready to reintroduce the world to Izzy’s decidedly Stones-esque rock ‘n’ roll muse, the 39-year old former Jeffrey Isbell is comfortably ensconced in a Knightsbridge hotel suite and good-naturedly deconstructing his singularly lurid past.
JEFF ISBELL was brought up in the heavily industrialized Indiana city of Lafayette, where "Rock ‘n’ roll was the only ticket out" and was introduced to music at an early age by his grandmother, who played drums in her very own dance band. "She was a big inspiration to me," remembers Izzy. "Plus she had a drum-kit."
More for convenience than anything else, Izzy decided to take up the drums and set about forming his very own grade school garage band. After years of thrashing around tunelessly and changing the words to Three Dog Night songs, Izzy finally decided to take things a little more seriously and recruited one Bill Bailey as the band’s vocalist. So what was it about the fledgling Axl Rose that appealed?
"Fucked if I know," laughs Stradlin with a shake of the head. "I keep asking myself that. I remember the first day of school I heard this fucking commotion out in the hallway, books flying everywhere and this guy ran past the door with teachers chasing him. I found out later that was Bill, Axl. I ended up with him in driver’s education class – he’s a fucking horrible driver – but that’s how I remember meeting him. So I figured this guy would probably be a good singer, he doesn’t care, he’s obviously a fucking nut, so he seemed like the perfect singer. We tried some different line-ups back in Indiana, but of course there was nowhere to play."
Frustrated with Indiana stasis, Jeff decamped to Los Angeles, where he almost immediately joined a band. Unfortunately, it was a band called the Naughty Women.
"What a bunch of fucking wankers they were," Izzy cackles. "I had no idea these guys came out in drag at the first gig. They didn’t tell me that bit; when I met them and we were rehearsing in Orange County they were all wearing street clothes. Then at the first gig they all came out in pink spandex, fucking Afros and make-up. I was like, ‘Holy shit, what’s this?’ The crowd threw bottles at us and beat the hell out of the singer. So that was my initiation into Los Angeles rock."
Soon after, Izzy switched from drums to guitar – "it was the lightest, cheapest and easiest to get hold of" – and hooked up once more with Axl to form Guns N' Roses. Pretty soon the pair had also secured the single most rock ‘n’ roll job in history: they became professional cigarette smokers for UCLA.
"One day I’m going through the paper and there’s an ad that says ‘Smokers needed, $10 an hour’, so I said, ‘Fuck, this seems like easy work. That’s all we do anyway’. And so we called this place and they said, ‘Yeah, come on down’. Of course, Axl couldn’t even do that, he quit."
Stradlin still looks back on the Guns ‘N Roses years with some affection, even though they’re something of a blur.
"It was madness, really, it wasn’t so much work as a fucking great adventure and we were getting paid. Nobody knew if we were ever going to make a fucking dime, but it just kind of exploded. In the book Me, Aliceby Alice Cooper there’s a chapter where he says, ‘No matter what you do in your life there’s nothing that can prepare you for the huge success that can happen when you have a record that goes number one’.
"I read that in 1980, and I was living in my car at the time, but I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll keep that in mind if it ever happens’. Then nine years went by and I caught myself sitting in this apartment one day with a 9mm pistol on my desk, a pile of coke, smoking heroin, and I was like, ‘This is fucked up, I’m definitely not prepared for this’."
Izzy was truly living the high life, even being arrested for urinating in the cabin of a US Air flight. "Since I quit drinking," muses Stradlin, "I haven’t been in jail once. I think there may be a connection."
So was his decision to quit the Gunners symptomatic of the fact that he’d quit drugs and drinking?
"I quit the year before I left, and I worked with that band for a whole year and watched everybody killing themselves. They were my friends, and I watched my friends killing themselves using drugs and alcohol. The music had taken a back seat and it had just become a circus show. It wasn’t any fun for me at all, so I decided it was time to do something else. I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I knew I was tired of doing that."
Was there a single defining moment that finally convinced you to clean up?
"Yeah. Phoenix County Jail was a good inspiration."
AFTER LEAVING the Gunners, Izzy returned to the relative calm of Lafayette, but after eighteen months of chilling with old school friends re-emerged with the Ju Ju Hounds. There have been occasional calls to reform the original Guns N' Roses line-up over the course of the intervening years, but nothing truly solid. So how does Izzy feel about Axl’s much-touted "new" Guns N' Roses?
"I’ll believe it when I see it," he shrugs, "but I’d go and see him if I was around."
Do you think you’ll go to your grave being referred to as ‘Izzy Stradlin out of Guns N' Roses’?
"Either that or ‘That asshole from Indiana’... and it doesn’t bother me a bit. In Indiana all my friends know me as Jeff, the guy who took off after school and made a bunch of money before coming home to fuck it away on bikes, toys and the same stupid shit that they’d have done if they had the money. 99.9% of the time I don’t even get recognised, it’s like, ‘No really, I am him’... ‘Get to the back’."
And finally, is Izzy’s ultimate intention to grow old gracefully or disgracefully?
"Just to grow old would be fine by me."