It was a time when the Valley lingered somewhere between Frank Zappa's ramblings and a real life version of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. A mix of agriculture, dust, white wagon wheels, diners, car dealerships, suburban sprawl, new housing developments, and swimming pools, it was held together by all those long streets and lazy vowels. Here, in this world of shopping malls and classic rock, Guns N' Roses came to lay down the tracks for Appetite for Destruction. As Slash was quoted in Stephen Davis's Guns N' Roses biography Watch You Bleed, “After terrorizing Hollywood all night, we'd still, somehow, have to get up and be at the studio by twelve noon. And mostly we did it.”
The place was Canoga Park's Rumbo Sound, a studio that producer Mike Clink chose for its physical distance from the Hollywood scene, leaving the notoriously rambunctious and destructive Guns N' Roses less likely to wander away into the street and into trouble.
According to the studio's website, “Rumbo was initially designed and built in 1979 by Daryl Dragon, also known as the 'Captain' of Captain & Tennille. Comfort along with a 'no pressure' creative environment in a studio was always the motto that Daryl believes enhanced he & his wife's (Toni Tennille) success in the music industry, and with the successful track records of countless other successful producers / engineers / artists that had since completed projects at Rumbo for more than two decades, the above described creative environment obviously contributed to the immense musical outflow from Rumbo.”
Aside from that slightly banal description, Rumbo, in its heyday — that breezy, gauzy, sunset colored witching hour between 1979 and 1989 — saw the likes of Kiss, Captain and Tennille, Tom Petty, Ringo Starr and others record some of their most famous albums.
And it's to that Valley, that dusty, flat, expanse, that Axl brought young Adriana Smith to lay down with him for his first bleeding-heart epic.
“Rocket Queen” is the final kiss-off on the behemoth known as Appetite For Destruction; it is the last track on the 12-song LP and hardly the album's most popular (that honor goes to such radio friendly classics as “Sweet Child Of Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City”). “Rocket Queen” is something different and far more intricate in its complexities. It was never destined to become the crowd favorite, and after hundreds of listens it's apparent that Axl Rose never intended it to be. He had bigger things in mind for the song; a giant middle finger to all the critics who had written Guns N' Roses off as empty-headed hair metal brahs clogging up the Sunset Strip.
Content-wise, Axl's lyrics speak to a deeper level of pain than that expressed in the misogynistic rage of the songs that precede it. Its self-awareness simultaneously enrages and softens Axl's humanity to us. If this person who has such tender insights and emotional intelligence can still release a song like “It's So Easy” (“Turn around bitch I got a use for you/Besides you ain't got nothin' better to do/And I'm bored), then what sort of man are we dealing with?
As if to drive the moral home Axl decided that the song needed an extra oomph, an extra kick in the emotional gut. The song needed the sound of fucking. Not just sex, but getting fucked. In Watch You Bleed, Axl explained: “It was a sexual song, and it was a wild night in the studio.”
“Rocket Queen”'s brilliance is the song's transition from the hateful taunting and scolding that climaxes with Slash's solo to the eventual post coital depression in which we enter “part two” where Axl speaks openly and honestly with as much tenderness as he can muster to his broken, abused paramour. And who among us has not felt that imminent sadness after sex? There is a reason the French refer to the orgasm as “le petite mort,”- the little death. The climatic moment before this confession we hear the tape-recorded sounds of Axl screwing a young Adriana Smith, drummer Steven Adler's on-and-off 19-year-old stripper girlfriend at the time.
It's the song's understanding of its protagonist's turmoil and its heightened attention to its narrator's vulnerability that define it. “I see you standing/Standing on your own/It's such a lonely place for you/ For you to be.” Coupled with the lacerating sound of Slash's grinding and slithering guitar, the song Jekyll-and-Hydes between tenderness and rage. Even when Axl offers his shoulder and devotion to the song's heroine the band pushes on, raising the ante on the situation despite Axl's best efforts to sooth us.
And then there is the rub; there is no comfort on these cold Hollywood streets, there is only pain and worry.
In Watch You Bleed, a former Geffen employee recounts to Davis, “Axl fucked two or three girls at least two or three times at Rumbo Sound, without being satisfied with the results.” One of these girls, the one who made the cut, was Adriana. Davis writes of the recording session: “As the tape was rolling, Axl barked at her: 'C'mon, Adriana! Stop faking — make it real!'”
A recent visit to the former Rumbo Studios in a quest to exhume those haunted moans yielded only a closed gate and crumbling façade. Two giant elephant statues adorn the once gleaming entryway, and the tattered blue awnings above the boarded windows, flap in the breeze. Newish shiny cars sat parked behind a beat down, empty tour van that looks as if it's been sitting in the same place decaying since the early 1990s. The creeping tendrils of one persistent bougainvillea vine swallow it back into the jungle.
The website had said that Rumbi had been sold in 2003 and that it was now being rented out for weddings and bat mitzvahs, but the broken down palace showed no signs of celebration, and in fact carried the aura of heavy sadness. Many buzzes of the intercom finally yielded one middle-aged man.
“May I come in?”
“No, no,” he stammered, I smiled at him but he was not charmed. “You must go.” He shouted.
“But I've come to look around, I'm from the LA Weekly,” I flashed my license, hoping he might mistake it for an ID.
“No, I am so sorry, you may not come in.”
“But I'm writing about Appetite For Destruction. It was recorded here.”
He stopped, brought a hand to his chin and smiled, “Guns N' Roses?”
“Yes” I shouted, nodding my head enthusiastically, “Guns N' Roses, yes!”
“I like Guns N' Roses,” he said, smiling, his demeanor changing all together. “Was that recorded here?”
“Yes,” I answered, practically breaking down in grateful tears.
“Well, you may not come in.”
“Because” he shrugged, “There is nothing inside.” And then he turned around and walked back into the darkened shadows of the building.
It's been 22 years since the release of Appetite For Destruction, and probably close to 23 since young Adriana Smith gave her contribution to the albums mastery. In a recent interview she was quoted as saying “For years, I drank and used drugs out of shame over it,” embarrassed by her musical legacy. But in truth, over two decades later it is her vulnerability, it is her moment of pleasure amongst the snarling hatchet of “Rocket Queen”'s blaring sonic tunnel that adds the humanity so desperately needed to bring its emotional gravity, it's tragic uselessness and hopefulness, home.