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Life on Planet Rock

From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, a Backstage Journey through Rock's Most Debauched Decade

Life on Planet Rock
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For the generation coming of age in the years from 1987 to 1994, RIP magazine was every bit as crucial as Rolling Stone. Life on Planet Rock describes how Friend, the editor of RIP, became the Zelig-like chronicler of the biggest musical moments of that time—from introducing Guns N’ Roses (in nothing but a top hat, underwear, and cowboy boots) to sitting in during the making of Metallica’s "Black Album." Life on Planet Rock provides revealing portraits of artists as varied as Kurt Cobain, Gene Simmons, Alice Cooper, Axl Rose, James Hetfield, Steven Tyler, and many more. Part oral history, part candid and humorous memoir, it is a wormhole back to a fast-moving time in music that saw tastes flash from new wave to hair metal to grunge, told as only someone who was there through it all could tell it.
Crown Publishing Group; November 2008
320 pages; ISBN 9780307487490
Download in EPUB
Excerpt
1

Welcome to My Jungle

"THERE IS NOTHING STABLE IN THE WORLD;
UPROAR'S YOUR ONLY MUSIC."

--John Keats


I've never had trouble making friends. Probably has something to do with the name I was born with. The moniker has been both a curse and blessing. When I was growing up, kids would tease me. "What's up, Lonn Enemy?" Preschool sticks and stones, but I was born sensitive so it hurt nonetheless. When my professional train started rollin', however, that's when my name started to take on deeper significance.

Running a rock magazine, I was everybody's friend. Friend to artist. Friend to executive. Friend to whoever shook my hand or dialed my number in need of connection, acceptance, favors, ink, respect, or whatever goods and services I could provide. But the simple fact is, I like people and my intention when meeting someone new has always been to extend my hand and make a connection. Bricklayer to rock star, everyone seeks contact. If authentic, that union can take you to the craziest places. It sure as hell took me.

I was in the Guns N' Roses dressing room while opening act Skid Row heated up the L.A. Forum. The only thing flowing harder and faster than the love was the Jack Daniel's. It was July 29, 1991, my thirty-fifth birthday. Band manager Doug Goldstein handed me a brand-new Yonex 200 driver (this golf club was the shit back in the early '90s). The media was out in force: there was no other show in town but this one, and pity another band trying to get attention.

"Hey, Lonn, you wanna bring us onstage tonight?" asked Slash, the group's mop-top lead guitarist.

"What, dude? Bring you onstage?" I replied, thinking I may have heard the wily rocker wrong. It took a nanosecond for me to grasp the magnitude of the situation.

"Let's rock!" I cried.

Slash smiled that perfect, disarming, drunken smile, sipped his Jack 'n' Coke and fired back, "Yeah, man! But listen, there's one catch. You have to do it in your underwear! And wear my hat and boots!"

Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin were on the sofa smoking cigarettes. "Do it, dude," they encouraged.

Stage manager Tom Mayhue grabbed me by the collar and planted me on a spot in the dark area off the stairs that led to the stage from the arena floor. All I heard besides the thumping in my chest was the roar of twenty thousand maniacal GN'R fans howling like hungry hyenas. Next thing I knew, the lights were still up and there I was, standing in front of the mike at the foot of the stage, staring down a sea of hair, boobs, tattoos, mascara, blood, sweat, and beers.

I think the audience was too shocked or too stoned to fully realize that a long-haired, bearded, overgrown child was standing in front of them in boxer shorts, black leather boots, and Slash's top hat. "I'm Lonn Friend from RIP magazine," I roared, the veins in my neck commencing to protrude, "and I'd do anything for this fucking band! Tonight, they're going to do everything for you. Coming out in a minute, the heaviest fucking band in the world, Gun N' Roses!"

As I cut through the curtain, lead singer Axl Rose flashed me a grin and said softly, "That was cool." The strawberry blond thunder from Lafayette, Indiana, proceeded to lay absolute waste to Angel City by conducting his band through a monstrous three-hour-plus set that delivered just about every track from the GN'R catalog and then some. This was rock's new jungle, and if you were a friend, you were welcomed in.

How did I get on an arena stage in my boxers introducing the most successful and disreputable rock group of the day? Professionally speaking, it started with a guy in a gold-plated wheelchair and his notorious wife. My introduction to the publishing kingdom of Larry and Althea Flynt resulted from the efforts of a college pal named Nancy Gottesman, who was an editor with the UCLA Daily Bruin, my alma mater's paper.

In the spring of 1982, I paid the rent by working as a publisher's assistant at Gambling Times magazine. Nancy called me up and said that her boyfriend, Ed Dwyer, executive editor of Gentlemen's Companion, had an opening for an associate editor. "Gentlemen's Companion? Never heard of it," I said.

"It's a Flynt publication," she replied. "You know, Hustler! Well, do you want an interview?"

I thought about it for ten seconds and said, "Yeah! Set me up!" I had no clue what a magazine editor did, but I was twenty-five years old, single, a pathological flirt, and not offended by pornography.

On April 19, 1982, I exited the elevator on the thirty-eighth floor of 2029 Century Park East (the towers featured on the cover of Yes's Going for the One LP). As fate would have it, the associate editor of Hustler had just been fired, so when Dwyer and I had concluded our interview, he sent me over to the other side of the building to meet the "big boys," Hustler managing editor Kelly Garrett, executive editor Don Evans, and Flynt editorial director Bruce David.

Garrett was superintelligent and loved music. We connected instantly. Evans was a laid-back, old-school vet of the publishing wars who lived for happy hour. We hit it off, too. David was the toughest. Loud and confident, he intimidated me, but I cracked a couple jokes and acted like I knew what the fuck I was talking about. Whatever I said or did worked because after two hours, both magazines wanted to hire me. I accepted the Hustler offer, of course. Why fly coach when there's an open seat in first class?

My debut year in the company, I never saw Larry. He rarely made an appearance in the building. Instead, his wife, Althea, would pop in, usually unannounced, and make David's life as miserable as possible by ordering him to push the content envelope as far as the law would allow. Althea wanted the photo spreads to be more anatomically revealing than Penthouse (Hustler's motto was "Think Pink") and insisted on unexpurgated feature stories with psychopaths, murderers, political activists, and four-letter stand-up comics--in other words, fascinating people.

I was given the "Mail Order Feedback" column to edit, where it was my job to assess the quality of X-rated 8-mm films (known as "loops") and other sexually oriented products available for purchase through advertisements in the back of the magazine. Larry refused to take ad dollars from tobacco and alcohol companies, opting instead to turn the last thirty pages of each issue into an erotic catalog. Fly-by-night companies that sold everything from dildos to penis enlargers were now under my scrutiny. If one of our readers got ripped off, I'd get the product, evaluate it (never mind), and expose the sleazy outfit in print.

I was also tasked to do brief but penetrating (sorry) Q&A's for Hustler's sister publication Chic as editor of the "Close Up" section. I interviewed two convicted killers, a child molester (thankfully, these were done by mail), the first phone-sex proprietor in America, the infamous Atlanta madam Dolores French, and a fledgling filthy stand-up comic named Robert Schimmel, whose jokes tore my colon apart. I was making about $400 a week and having a great time. Life on planet cock was not half bad.

Then one summer afternoon in '83 the mysterious Mrs. Flynt emerged from her red-velvet executive enclave to pay a visit to the grunts in the editorial department. I just happened to have Mötley Crüe's new record, Shout at the Devil, blaring from my boom box, not for my own listening pleasure but because it was being reviewed for a new monthly column I was writing for Chic called "Music Notes."

"I love the Crüe!" shouted Althea, marching into my workspace like Nefretiri visiting Moses in the mud pits. She was decked out in full glam regalia--red leather skirt, black fishnets, crimson pumps, and a nose ring dangling from her right nostril that quivered when she spoke. "Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee are so sexy! Do you like W.A.S.P.?" We talked for an hour while the execs at the end of the hall muttered beneath their breath, "What's Althea doing in there with that punk Lonn Friend?" That afternoon I'd met my first true metal maven, and a bizarre friendship ensued.

Althea gave me the feature assignment that would foreshadow my future high-volume tenure at RIP. In April 1985, Hustler published "Rock's Outer Limits: The Loud and 'Lude World of Heavy Metal," my baptismal blast of metallic reporting. For the article, I interviewed Blackie Lawless from W.A.S.P.--an early graduate of Alice Cooper's shock-rock school of theatrics--who'd cultivated a nice following around Hollywood by humiliating and torturing sexy women onstage while his band cranked out the speed-metal background music. I spent an entire evening at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset culling the most heinous tales of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll abuse I'd ever heard.

Researching that story proved that I was either entering Hell myself--falling deeper into the pit of prurient reportage and the debauched culture that nurtured it--or I was in divine route to my true, journalistic calling. Either way, the winds blowing me forward (or downward) were getting warmer.

Like her notorious significant other, Althea lived to fuck with the system. She once posed a naked woman on the cover of Hustler in an arched-over position so her ass would resemble the head of a penis. Another time, she got it in her craw to give Billy Idol--soaring high on the charts with "White Wedding"--her gold-trimmed '59 Cadillac once owned by Elvis Presley. She thought Billy was a postmodern rock reincarnation of the King and would be blown away by the gift.

Of course, it was I who received the assignment to deliver the car. But the day I was scheduled to drive the block-long beast to the Sunset Marquis Hotel, where Billy and his manager, Bill Aucoin, were staying, the damn thing wouldn't start! I ended up spending the entire afternoon having the Caddie towed out of the office-building basement to the dealership five miles away.

The Ohio stripper turned millionaire Mrs. had talked Larry into starting a rock magazine the previous fall, but the company's CEO, Jim Kohls, Larry's tightfisted right hand in all things concerning the business of Flynt Publications, didn't peg me to take the reins out of the box.

I'd been promoted several times in the previous five years and was near the top of the Hustler/Chic editorial food chain. I'd gotten to know Larry since he returned to the editorial saddle after radical surgery at Duke University. He dug my weird sense of humor and involved me in all manner of content decisions. He even invited me up to the Bel Air mansion one night to be a shill at a poker game he was hosting for Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, handing me a thousand dollars to fill the seat and help keep the banter lively.

Joyce Combs was a graphic artist for Hustler who had graduated from Chico State (voted Playboy's Number One Party School in America numerous times) and had relocated to Los Angeles in 1984 with hopes of working for a magazine. She was tall and sexy. I flirted with all the girls on the floor, but one day, I up and asked Joyce out. "Sure!" she said. I told her to meet me at my apartment in West Hollywood that evening. She was late so my friend Lee and I left without her. I put a note on the mailbox telling her that I was at the Palace in Hollywood and, if she still wanted to rock, to meet me there. I had tickets to see the festive salsa rock ensemble Kid Creole and the Coconuts. She showed up two hours later with a girlfriend from work. Lee hooked up with her and Joyce came home with me. We dated for a year before she moved in with me, and we got married on June 8, 1986, at the Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes.

Joyce wasn't bothered by porn or designing layout badges like "Mandy: Cum Fly Me." She wasn't into watching the films with me, but some of the subculture's more animated characters amused her. Joyce met Ron Jeremy--the pudgy New York porn actor with the homely face and ten-inch penis nicknamed the Hedgehog--during a party we attended at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "You know, your gal is pretty hot, Lonn," he said with a chuckle. "Mind if I take her for a spin?" She rolled her eyes and responded, "No thanks--Hedgehog!"

At heart, Joyce was a homebody, a gardener, and would someday be the perfect devoted mother. She was raised on the Stones, Rod Stewart, the New York Dolls, and Tom Waits. When rumblings about a possible new gig for me with a rock magazine began, she was supportive and excited. I wasn't really thinking about changing positions at this time, but I was obviously curious about the new publication in the building.

Illustrating both a lack of early commitment to Althea's vision and typical corporate conservatism, Kohls (whom Joyce privately referred to as "His Cheapness") opted instead to promote a low-salaried copy editor named Michael Levine to man the RIP helm. While his intentions were noble and his knowledge of hardcore and punk laudable, he had virtually no personality and even less leadership ability. The magazine struggled the first few months to find its voice and niche as Levine championed fringe acts like the Mentors and Black Flag. There was something huge happening right underneath everyone's nose called the Sunset Strip, but Levine and RIP were deaf to the strains flying off Mick Mars's motley guitar.

Althea died of AIDS-related complications on June 27, 1987. She was thirty-three, same age Jesus was when he was crucified, but that's where the similarities end. Her profligate lifestyle and bathtub demise were brilliantly captured in Milos Forman's 1996 biopic, The People vs. Larry Flynt. I saw her two weeks before she passed away. She weighed less than a hundred pounds but remained feisty till the end, calling in her opinions on magazine content when she could barely muster enough volume in her voice for the editors gathered around the speaker phone to hear her.

Althea's funeral took place on July 25 at the Church of the Hills in the Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn Memorial-Park. I was nervous and sad. Few people in the company connected with or understood Larry's peculiar other half as well as I did. She once took me and a mailroom clerk named Michael DiGregorio (who resembled Pacino's Michael Corleone from The Godfather) out clubbing. I was living in a $375-a-month one-bedroom shack on Robertson Boulevard. The limo that picked me up was longer than my entire building. When the chariot door swung open, there was Althea, smiling, ready to rock.


From the Trade Paperback edition.