Inside the Horrific Guns N’ Roses ‘Hell House’
How a one-room space on Sunset became ground zero for sex, drugs, depravity, and talent in the 1980s L.A. rock scene
By Mick Wall
Although it was Duff McKagan who had booked what Guns N’ Roses were already calling “the Hell tour” to Seattle, once they returned to L.A. in June of 1985, one thing was clear: with Tracii Guns out of the picture, the band had a leader, and that leader was W. Axl Rose. “Axl always had this kind of vision of where he wanted to be,” Slash would tell me. “What he wanted the band to be. He didn’t like people he thought were trying to hold him back.”
With Tracii now out of the way, and the other band members unready to challenge a guy so seemingly set in his own mind, Axl was ready to assume leadership. Sure, Duff was determined to keep pushing forward; like Axl, he wanted to rehearse regularly and get the show on the road as soon as possible, but he would yield to the singer in terms of writing. Slash and Izzy, who were more involved in the writing process, were so laidback (and increasingly strung-out) that they would often just leave him to it once things were up and running.
And they both owed him: Axl had sold himself and Izzy as a pair, even when Slash had visions of a one-guitarist band, and in turn Slash had already blown it with Axl once and couldn’t afford to lose a singer that good again. Only Steven seemed able to talk back to Axl, but then Steven really didn’t give a fuck — about anything.
Anyhow, it often helped if bands had a dominant personality: the Stones had Jagger, the Beatles had John Lennon, and so on through the history of rock. Sometimes, as with Metallica, the dominant business force (drummer Lars Ulrich) and the dominant musical force (singer-guitarist James Hetfield) were different but complementary. As Guns N’ Roses evolved, W. Axl Rose would become both. His desperate need for control, though, seemed to be of an entirely different order to that of most maniacal bandleaders. In the years to come, Axl would talk of the profound damage his dreadful childhood had done to him. And of his attempts, through various forms of therapy, to try to repair at least some of that damage. Right now, though, the other members of Guns N’ Roses only knew the bad-ass guy that didn’t take shit from nobody. Not even them. But the band would learn that his sudden and uncontrollable mood swings were there to be indulged — at least if they wanted a tolerable working atmosphere and the easy rock star life they’d always dreamed of. “We call him the Ayatollah,” Slash would tell me when we first met, every part of his face smiling except the eyes. “With Axl, it’s always been his way or the highway.”
After the Hell Tour came the Hell House. And like the creation of a star, the Hell House was to suck in a lot of dark matter before it emitted the white heat and light of the Guns N’ Roses who were ready to make their first records. There are always torrid tales that surround the creation of a rock & roll legend, but in the Hell House bad things happened, things that do not reflect well on anyone involved — however famous and lauded they were to become.
The building was located in West Hollywood, behind 7508 Sunset Boulevard near the junction of North Gardner Street, a one-room space of around 12 feet by 12 feet that was officially designated a “storage area” (it’s now behind a shop called the Russian Bookstore). Just over the road was the Guitar Center, and nearby the Mesa/Boogie amp showroom. It wasn’t a dwelling space at all: it had a roll-up aluminium door, no bathroom, kitchen or air conditioning, and until Izzy and a couple of friends found some lumber abandoned behind the unit and used it to build a rudimentary gallery that just about slept three if you lay very still, was entirely unrecognisable as one.
Anyone needing the toilet had to use the communal facility 50 yards up the street. It was a terrible place, one you’d only consider if you were young, broke and living day to day with some fucked-up dream in your head. Izzy described it as “a fucking living hell…” Slash, having lost a job working on a newsstand and its attendant chance to crash at the apartment of the stand’s manager, was forced to choose between the Hell House or homelessness and even then sometimes took the latter option, sleeping in the Tower Records parking lot rather than the squalid, overcrowded nightmare that the House became.
It started out as a rehearsal space. They had been getting by using a room in Silver Lake owned by Nicky Beat, a Strip-scene drummer who’d spent about ten minutes in LA Guns. “Nicky wasn’t necessarily seedy,” Slash recalled. “But he had a lot of seedy friends…” Guns N’ Roses connected with various of those — the “underbelly” as Slash called it — and some would follow them back to the Hell House. Their lives were chaotic and becoming more so, and yet the chaos fired them. In the Hell House they wrote and worked up most of the songs that would appear on Appetite for Destruction, plus a few that would hold over for Use Your Illusion, too. Izzy had the riffs for “Think About You” and “Out ta Get Me”; Slash had the opening chords and riff to “Welcome to the Jungle.” “That song, if anything,’ Slash explained, “was the first real tune that the band wrote together…”
Duff and Steven spent many hours jamming along to rock and funk, forging their groove, and the rhythm of “Rocket Queen” came from one of those extended jams. And they wrote quickly. “Out ta Get Me” and “Welcome to the Jungle” took little more than an afternoon to assemble. When they got to the Hell House, the fierce work ethic continued. “We rehearsed a lot of hours,” Duff recalled. In the small concrete space with their amps turned up, “our shitty gear sounded magical, clear and huge.”
They had no PA and played so loud Axl would have to scream lyrics and vocal melodies into his bandmates’ ears in order to get his ideas across. Axl and Slash were the first to become permanent residents in the garage. Izzy, Duff and Steven had girlfriends that they were living with, but they still spent most of their waking hours there. As the band began to establish itself as one of the best new acts on the Strip, they dragged others towards the Hell House too.
There was West Arkeen, a musician neighbour of Duff’s, cut from the same cloth as the band and ultimately close enough to Axl to co-write “Yesterdays,” “The Garden” and “Bad Obsession,” as well as “It’s So Easy”; Del James, a biker turned writer and a pal of West’s, who began to hang with Axl and wrote short stories that were adapted for various lyrics and ideas, most notably the video for “November Rain”; Todd Crew, who played bass in another Strip band called Jetboy; Robert John, a photographer and friend of Axl’s whose work would become synonymous with the band’s early years; Jack Lue, another photographer, closer to Slash; Slash’s friends Mark Manfield and Ron Schneider; Duff ’s Seattle pal Eddy, who quickly tapped into Izzy’s heroin supply and was exiled back to Washington State; Marc Canter, still a true Guns believer who was to have a key, if unsung, role in Guns’ development during the Hell House era; Vicky Hamilton, a promoter and would-be manager with an eye for talent — she had booked early shows for Mötley Crüe and Poison — and the key to those precious slots at the Troubadour that Guns had begun to covet while they schlepped their wares at Madam Wong's (a Chinese restaurant) and the Stardust Ballroom (miles from West Hollywood); plus a revolving cast of bands that got to know of Guns N’ Roses as the new noise on Sunset (literally — the rehearsals were audible from ten blocks away): musical misfits like Faster Pussycat, Redd Kross, London, the rest of Jetboy and a stack of others, followed of course by girls who liked guys in bands, and then guys who liked girls that liked guys in bands, an ever-growing scene that centred around the Hell House and a cheap, dark Mexican restaurant across Sunset called El Compadre, and the Seventh Veil strip club, where the band became friendly enough with the girls to start having them come and dance on stage with them.
The scene itself fuelled creativity, sparked songs: when the entire band went to visit Lizzie Grey, who lived on Palm Avenue, an infamous street that ran between Sunset and Santa Monica (Slash: “more than a few sleazy chicks lived there, a few junkie girls we knew lived there…”), Lizzie passed around a bottle of cheap fortified wine called Night Train, a formidably alcoholic brew known for its ability to get the very broke very blasted very quickly. They began screaming the words “I’m on the night train” as they walked up Palm Avenue, with Axl extemporising along. The next morning back at the Hell House, they nailed the entire thing, words and music.
One of the regular visitors to the Hell House, Slash’s childhood buddy Marc Canter, recalled seeing the band work on that early material. “A lot of the songs would start with some idea from Izzy like ‘My Michelle’ — the spooky intro part of ‘Michelle’ was total Izzy but without Slash we wouldn’t have gotten the harder riff that followed it. Axl would hear these unfinished songs and just know exactly how to work within them. Duff and Steven would then make the songs truly swing and really flesh them out with their ideas. You could say as some have that Axl was the most important, [but] if you took any one of those guys out of the equation it would have drastically changed all of those songs. It was truly a democracy in the beginning, at that time in 1985 or 1986 they were all on the exact same page.”
All of the lyrics came from real-life situations or people. “My Michelle” was named after Michelle Young, who went to school with Slash and Steven and was a friend of Slash’s first serious girlfriend, Melissa. Michelle had a brief fling with Axl, who then immortalised her early life in the brutal opening couplets: “Your daddy works in porno / Now your mummy’s not around / She used to love her heroin / But now she’s underground.”
The idea, ironically, had come from Michelle herself, who’d once remarked to Axl how wonderful it would be to have someone write a song about her, after listening to “Your Song” by Elton John with him. “We were driving to a show I think it was,” she described in 2014, “and that song came on and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s such a beautiful song! I wish someone would write a song like that about me.’ And then, lo and behold, came ‘My Song,’” she laughed.
It wasn’t so funny, though, she admitted, the first time she heard the lyrics. “I heard it when I was at my dad’s house. I was in my bedroom [when] Axl called. He would always call me and sing me new songs. He would play this drumbeat on his knee and sing and snap to me on the phone whenever he had a new song, he would call me and sing a little and ask my opinion of it.” This time, though, she didn’t know what to say. “I was so out of it at the time, I was always high back then so when I heard it and heard the lyrics I was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s cool… do whatever you want.’” She laughed again then added, “I didn’t really honestly think that the album was going to be that huge or even that that song was gonna be on their album for that matter.”
According to Slash, writing in his memoir, “Michelle loved the attention it brought her. Back then it was the best thing that had happened to her. But like so many of our friends that were drawn into the dark circle of Guns N’ Roses, she came in one way and went out another. Most of them ended up going to jail or rehab or both (or worse).” According to Michelle, though, “when the song came out I can say it was never a blessing, it was always a curse, let’s just say”
The reasons for some of the Hell House’s depravity were economic. The rent was 400 dollars a month. With only Duff working anything other than spasmodically, they learned to survive on next to nothing. “We could usually dig up a buck for a bottle of Night Train,” said Duff. “Which would fuck you up. For $5, we’d all be gone.” Slash had procured a hibachi grill on which they’d cook up hamburger meat. On Saturdays they’d line up with all of the other Hollywood waifs and strays for the Salvation Army Mission’s free food handout. They discovered the all-you-can-eat-for-a-dollar buffet at Rage, a well-known West Hollywood gay club. “We tried to live off $3.75 a day,” Axl told me in one of the first interviews we did. “Which was enough to buy gravy and biscuits at Denny’s diner for a buck and a quarter, and a bottle of Night Train for a buck and a quarter, or some Thunderbird. That was it. You survived.”
Or at least, you did at first… Once word got out that the alley behind the Hell House was deserted at night, a tiny urban black hole in the midst of West Hollywood, it became the place to go once the clubs closed for the evening. “Between us and the other bands, the alley began to attract a lot of drugs, booze, girls and other musicians. Strippers from the neighbourhood constantly came by, often bringing Quaaludes, Valium, coke or booze to share,” recounted Duff. Soon, from the early hours until daybreak, hundreds of people were gathered there to party. The band, seizing their chance as proprietors, began buying cheap beer and selling it at marked-up prices. Soon they were making enough to pay the rent for the month.
Some of the women were ruthlessly exploited. If one of the band was having sex with her, another would be stealing her money. “There was a lot of indoor and outdoor sex,” said Axl. “I used to fuck girls just so I could go stay at their place,” admitted Slash. “We sold girls,” said Izzy. “If one of the guys was fucking a girl in our sleeping loft, we’d ransack the girl’s purse while he was doing her. We managed.”
“We’d talk girls into climbing into the loft,” said Axl, “and someone would hit the lights and go, ‘All right! Everyone in the loft either get naked or leave…’”
Heroin, the subject of another of Axl’s salutary lessons in how not to live, “Mr Brownstone,” had now arrived and was about to cut a swathe through the band. Izzy was not only using but openly dealing, another source of income. He claimed that Joe Perry had once come by to score, just before he cleaned up and Aerosmith began their commercial resurrection. Slash noticed that Steven “seemed like he was drunk,” when he showed up at rehearsals, despite not having been drinking. It transpired that a girl he was sleeping with, in an apartment further up on Gardner Street, and her roommate had got Steven into smack, and once Slash started dating the roommate, he was soon doing it as well. In addition to heroin and all of the pills and booze, a creepy crack dealer named Philippe also became a fixture.
The squalor was overwhelming. “At one point we had the band and four other women living in this one room,” said Axl. “The nearest bathroom [the communal facility in the alley] had been destroyed by people throwing up. I used to shit in a box and throw it in the trash, because the bathroom was so disgusting.”
The depravity spilled over. They would get horribly fucked up at shows. Slash threw up behind his amplifier at a gig at Raji’s. Axl started a fight with someone in the crowd. He also got barred briefly from the Rainbow — some achievement — and the band earned a reputation for drunken obnoxiousness, bumming drinks, starting fights, aggressively panhandling at their own gigs. The West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department became aware of the parties in the Gardner Street alley, and heard the tales of drug dealing and other anti-social behavior.
Then, in December 1985, came a dark and serious incident that signalled the end of the Hell House era. A 15-year-old girl named Michelle entered the rehearsal space one day, and, according to an interview Axl later gave to the LA Weekly, “started fucking with our equipment.” There was some kind of scuffle and the girl ended up running naked along Sunset Boulevard. Michelle was known to the band. She’d hung around the Hell House periodically, along with lots of others, and had found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Axl’s version of events was that “this hippy chick wandered in and started fucking with our equipment trying to break stuff… So eventually she wound up running down Sunset naked, all dingy, and didn’t even know her own name.”
Slash, in his autobiography, published, of course, many years later, offers: “My memory of the events is hazy but from what I remember she had sex with Axl up in the loft. Towards the end of the night, maybe as the drugs and booze wore off, she lost her mind and freaked out intensely. Axl told her to leave and tried throwing her out. I attempted to help mediate the situation to get her out quietly, but that wasn’t happening.”
A naked, underage girl running away from adult men along one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles was not going to go unnoticed, and within hours the LAPD were back at the Hell House with the girl, looking to ID her assailants. Everyone in the house was brought outside except for Axl, who hid behind some equipment along with another girl. “While the cops are out there harassing everybody, asking their stupid questions, I’m with this girl behind the amp and we start going at it,” he later boasted. “That was the rush! I got away with it! It was really exciting.”
The police left, warning the band that Axl needed to turn himself in. Within a few days the garage had been raided and searched. The band was told that the girl and her parents were pressing charges of statutory rape (a minor is considered by law as incapable of giving consent to sexual intercourse) against Axl and Slash. There were rumours that the garage was under surveillance from undercover officers, and also the LAPD vice squad. Despite Axl’s bravado, he and Slash quickly skipped the scene when reality — and the possibility of a mandatory five-year jail sentence — hit home. Slash retreated to an apartment Steven was sharing with a new girlfriend, Monica, who was a stripper at the Seventh Veil — and who Slash later claimed he and Steven had “awesome threesomes” with — while Axl slept rough in West Hollywood, making use of the Tower Records parking lot and bathrooms in gas stations and cheap restaurants.
They were now afraid to play live in case Axl or Slash or both were arrested at the gig. They cancelled a show at the Music Machine, and did not take any further bookings. Growing desperate, Slash rang Vicky Hamilton, their sometime promoter/manager, and begged her to take Axl in for a few days. Hamilton had a one-bed apartment at 1114 North Clark Street that she’d secured with settlement money she’d received for relinquishing an interest in the management of Poison, who were now in the process of breaking big. She was sharing with a friend in need, Jennifer Perry, and working as an agent for Silver Lining Entertainment as well as helping Guns N’ Roses out on an ad hoc basis. (Even before Guns headed out on the Hell Tour, Hamilton had “made myself available for the band 24/7. They would often come by my apartment to check in.”) That arrangement became more solid as soon as Axl showed up as a fugitive from the LAPD.
“I got a call from Slash,” she elaborated, “asking if Axl could stay and I asked why. Slash had replied: ‘Well, it’s kind of important… the cops are looking for him.’ ‘Why are the cops looking for him?’ ‘He had a girl up in the loft, and I guess they had sex, but then he got mad at her and locked her outside without her clothes and she went to the cops and said that he raped her.’ I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. Slash sort of begged so I said, ‘Okay, for a few days.’ Minutes later Axl walks through the door carrying a plastic garbage bag and a little suitcase full of all his worldly possessions.
“‘Oh, my God.. Thank you so much, Vicky, you have saved my life,’ he said. I asked him what happened and he said very little, other than ‘It was stupid, involving a girl… It won’t happen again,’ Axl promised. He didn’t give me any more information. Everything I heard about the incident from that point on was hearsay.”
The Hell House era was done. Over the next few months, Hamilton’s tiny one-bedroom apartment became the de facto crashpad/center of operations for Guns N’ Roses, with the fugitive Axl and Slash in semi-permanent residence in the tiny lounge (at least when Axl wasn’t ghosting around the darkened booths at the Rainbow, where his ban had been rescinded) and the rest of the band dropping by constantly for councils of war. Hamilton even found Axl a lawyer to represent him on the rape charge.
After a few months of this, she wrote in her illuminating memoir, Appetite for Dysfunction, “my apartment looked like a cyclone had hit it. There were McDonald’s cartons, cigarette butts, cigarette burns, and empty alcohol bottles everywhere. There was a jar of mayonnaise on the windowsill in the kitchen, as I still hadn’t got around to buying a refrigerator. One of my neighbors had posted a note on the window saying, ‘Kids, don’t use that mayonnaise. It will make you sick. It needs to be refrigerated.’
“I would wake up in the morning and step over bodies in sleeping bags to get a drink of water. Most of the time, I could tell that they had company in their sleeping bags as I could hear them having sex. The bathroom was the worst of it. The walls had caught all the blue/black hair dye from Slash and Izzy’s dye jobs. The bathtub had an indefinable scum on the inside surface. You couldn’t sandblast that stuff off. I got in the habit of taking a trash bag to the shower with me to stand on while showering.”
Although Hamilton recalls several visits from the police and many, many lawyers’ phone calls, the rape charges were withdrawn at some point during this period. The case against Slash was given a court date but later dropped. Axl did have to find a suit and appear at a court hearing, but his case was also dropped through a lack of hard evidence. Instead, when word of the incident swept along the Strip, instead of damaging them, it seemed to fuel Guns N’ Roses’ reputation as rock & roll outlaws, the real, no-fucks-given kind of deal that so many other bands were just throwing shapes pretending to be. A wild rumour circulated that the charges had been dropped after Axl slept with the mother of the girl concerned. No one seemed bothered that a 15-year-old had been through a harrowing experience, whatever the detail. Instead, the toxic edge of the Hell House simply generated more heat. Once the threat of prison time began to recede, they even played on it, producing a flyer with the words, “Send donations to Guns N’ Roses — Keep us out of jail fund” along the bottom.