Marc Canter is perhaps the only Guns N’ Roses fan who had Axl Rose tickle the ivories to the tune of “November Rain” while he and his bride walked down the aisle on their wedding day. And he’s perhaps the only fan who had Slash jam with his son at his bar mitzvah. He’s still schlepping to places like San Bernardino, as he did in 2006, family in tow, for KROQ’s Inland Invasion, where he successfully caught the mike that Axl threw to 65,000 other people. Canter can estimate how many copies Appetite for Destruction is still selling; tell you the first time Slash played a Les Paul; and even point out inaccuracies in Slash’s own recently published autobiography. And, yes, there is a new record out there; Rose personally plays it for him. Why? Because years after the classic lineup disintegrated, and years after people stopped asking about Chinese Democracy, Canter — a 42-year-old father of two and owner of Canter’s Deli — has been the sixth Guns N’ Roses member ever since Slash tried to steal his motorbike in the fifth grade.
In the restaurant’s Kibitz Room, where a poster of Guns N’ Roses opening for Aerosmith on their Permanent Vacation tour hangs above the stage, Canter reminisces about those musician buddies he used to feed free pastrami sandwiches before they went on to become, as he rightly puts it, the “last of the poster bands.” And as I listen to Canter, it’s clear he wasn’t merely the one with the car and steady job. It’s as if he attended every band meeting and never stopped recording the minutes, all of which are seemingly included in Canter’s book, Reckless Road: Guns N’ Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction, a gig-by-gig pictorial guide of Guns N’ Roses’ beginnings, from their first appearance as the Appetite incarnation at the Troubadour in 1985 to the day they became Geffen recording artists. The man behind the most popular local after-hours hangout writing about L.A.’s most legendary hard-rock band of the ’80s is as close to the source as if every Queens pizza-parlor owner wrote about the Ramones in the ’70s.
“I grew up with Slash, so I already knew his talents,” says Canter. “I knew he’d make it somehow, even if he was giving guitar lessons.
“When I went to that first rehearsal and saw them play ‘Anything Goes,’ I was blown away,” he remembers. “All of a sudden, there’s Axl giving it everything, and his sound, his range, the melody. It was like, ‘This is real music. This is Led Zeppelin.’ It was songwriting, it was image, it was style of playing, it was the sound they had. I noticed that about every three weeks, a new song would come that didn’t need any more arranging. I never saw them write a song and throw it out. Everything they came up with was gold. It was perfect. I had butterflies in my stomach before each show.”
Canter actually started the book in the early ’90s, after having spent years photographing and videotaping Slash and Rose back in their pre-GN’R groups. “I was gonna capture it even if they didn’t go anywhere,” says Canter. “I was taking these photos, recording these shows for myself, if nothing else.” He’s amassed a treasure-trove of memorabilia, as well: newspaper clippings, backstage passes, ticket stubs, club ads, and DIY fliers of the band opening for Johnny Thunders, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper. Canter even includes the lyrics to “My Michelle,” written on the back of a water-stained flier, and a $37,500 advance check from Geffen that has Slash's name misspelled as “Stash.”
Some of Reckless’ photographs were included in Rolling Stone’s 20th-anniversary-of-Appetite issue last summer, and indeed, they are eye-popping. A framed black-and-white picture of the group still hangs above the Canter’s booth where they had their first publicity shot taken, and the ones taken in the alley wound up on the back cover of their 1986 Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide EP. You’d have to look long and hard on YouTube to find Rose in a thong and chaps, or dancing with Hollywood strippers back when they used to be part of the show. And funny how groups like Poison were the mortal enemies of all serious hard-rock artists back in the day, yet there’s Guns in more early publicity shots dabbling in eye shadow and lipstick and eating spaghetti. Foreshadowing?
Canter includes some audio samples of the shows on the book’s Web site, Recklessroad.com. But he almost didn’t have to bother. If Guns N’ Roses were L.A. to the bone, Reckless functions as a sort of before-they-were-stars map taking you through every Sunset Strip joint and beyond, sweat, smoke and all. Every one of the approximately 50 gigs is broken down by set list and the stage banter of beer-and-cigarette calls. You can practically hear Rose tell the Roxy one night, “This is the ‘Fuck the L.A. Weekly’ show,” and the Whisky on another, “I would like the L.A. Weekly, and the Music Connection, and BAM magazine, and the Reader to feel this one right between the legs.” And you can feel the spit too. “The Street Scene has gotta be my favorite,” says Canter, referring to the 1985 free outdoor festival, or, as Slash called it, the “loogie fest,” where the guys were met with a spitting reception from the punk fans of Social Distortion, which followed them.
But Canter doesn’t walk down memory lane alone. Slash, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler, as well as groupies, failed producers, and former managers and bandmates, all contributed to the book. Adler talks about splitting a cheeseburger five ways; McKagan recalls playing a UCLA frat party for beer and 30 bucks; and Slash remembers trading for smack a pair of leather pants his mom made. And by now, almost everything about the making of Appetite is part of rock & roll legend: “Nightrain” was an ode to cheap wine, “My Michelle” was about a junior-high friend of Slash’s whose father worked in the porn industry, etc. But if you need to hear it straight from the stripper’s mouth, Adriana Smith-Durgan, then a teen dancer at the Seventh Veil and Adler’s girlfriend, opens up about her contribution to the album: having sex with Rose in the studio for the moaning effects on “Rocket Queen.” Even funnier is Tom Zutaut, the A&R man who signed Mötley Crüe to Elektra, recalling how the Geffen deal came through: After a record-company bidding war, Guns N’ Roses originally wanted to go with Chrysalis, but only if its A&R woman agreed to walk naked down Sunset Boulevard. She obviously didn’t.
After being pressed into naming his favorite tracks, Canter, not surprisingly, admits, “Oh, that’s a hard one. Every song means something else to me. ‘Sweet Child’ is my favorite because the lead gives me chills. ‘Nightrain’ is just a fun song, like you’re on a conveyor belt and you’re just going. ‘Mr. Brownstone’ — Slash’s wah-wah pedal grabs me in a certain way. ‘So Easy’ — that’s the epitome of Duff.”
Canter was never on the band’s payroll, which is why he’s remained friends with all of them. “Slash, I’ve been friends with since the fifth grade. If he ever plays a gig anywhere he knows I’m at, he always calls me the next day to get a report of how he sounded. Axl, I’ve always been close with. If he’s in my neighborhood, he’ll stop by my house unannounced. All of a sudden, the doorbell rings and it’s Axl. ‘C’mon, let’s go.’ And he’ll put me in his car and drive me to the studio. And he’ll say, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’ll play a really cool song he just wrote. He knows I’ll give him an honest opinion.”
So a guy who rides around with Axl Rose has to have the answers, right? Except after nearly 15 years and so little activity, the questions have gone from where and when to why even carry on as Guns N’ Roses. “Everyone’s heard the songs,” says Canter. “He plays them live. They’re all over the Internet. I myself have heard the record — and there is a record. And it’s excellent. I’m proud to hear it. Is it right that he’s calling it Guns N’ Roses? What else is he gonna call it? The Axl Rose Project? Axl’s been writing with these people for the last decade, and recording and experimenting. Axl can do it. He’s not gonna just throw in the towel and say, ‘Oh, well, Slash is gone.’ He’s gonna make it work somehow. And he has. He’s created a new band out of it. As long as you still have Axl, you still have Guns N’ Roses. The singer is really the most important part in a band sometimes. Axl feels that he is the voice of Guns N’ Roses. If you were Axl, would you give up that name?
“At the worst, you’re seeing Beatlemania with Paul McCartney. And at the best, you’re seeing some of the old stuff and what Axl has to offer to the future.”
RECKLESS ROAD: Guns N’ Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction | By MARC CANTER with JASON PORATH and additional photographs by JACK LUE | Shoot Hip Press | 348 pages | $29.95 softcover