Photo by Jack Lue

Marc Canter talks about new Guns N’ Roses video podcast “The First 50 Gigs”

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Having previously put out the book Reckless Road (2008), Marc Canter and Jason Porath further document Guns N’ Roses with a new video podcast series, The First 50 Gigs. Like the book, it carries the subtitle “Guns N’ Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction” and details the early years leading up to that groundbreaking album. Canter, the third-generation owner of the famous Canter’s Deli, grew up with Slash and photographed Guns N’ Roses’ first 50 performances. He has extensive first-hand knowledge and stories to tell, and the podcast also brings in interviews with many other people who were there. The result is a fascinating, in-depth documentary series detailing the formation of the band and the scene surrounding them. In the following interview, Canter discusses the origins of the project and shares a few interesting stories.

The First 50 Gigs” is available by subscription at first50gigs.com.

Could you discuss how “The First 50 Gigs” came about?

When we were doing Reckless Road, we videotaped most of the interviews, at least the ones in Los Angeles. Some of them we had to do by phone because they were out of state, and we didn’t have the budget to fly them in. But we videotaped it for a reason. We wanted to do a documentary of the book, and it just didn’t happen at that time. There were problems with our publisher, and there were financing issues, and it fell apart.

So, we always talked about doing it, and during the pandemic, Jason said, “Why don’t we pull this project together now, on Zoom?” And I said, “Yeah, okay. That sounds good.” We have the information, and there are some people that we couldn’t find before when we were doing the book. The internet wasn’t powerful enough to find these people like Rob Gardner, the original drummer of Guns N’ Roses before Steven. He was the drummer with Tracii Guns for LA Guns. I couldn’t find him at the time, but that’s one-fifth of the story right there.

There were a lot of people. We found Chris Weber [for the book], but he only briefly mentioned a few things for the book. [His interview] was in the 11th hour, and there wasn’t room to put everything he had to say. Now we could find these people and get in-depth interviews about every little detail. So we could paint the picture now. It’s a perfect documentary because you hear it right from their mouths, why they didn’t make the cut, or why they left the band. A lot of these bands intertwined a couple of times before it stuck. Everyone knows the music, but you don’t really know [the whole story]. If you’re looking at Reckless Road, the book I put out, you’re going to find the fliers and ticket stubs and a lot of great pictures and a lot of good stories. It’s a treasure trove.

But this is three-dimensional. There’s video footage. There’s audio. What they were saying between the songs, like Axl would say before, “Rocket Queen,” “This is the new one. It ain’t much, but it’s the best I could do. This song is for Barbi; this song’s called Rocket Queen.” You get goosebumps because you hear the first time it was played, and they’re testing it on the audience. And there’s just so much. Jason brought in Laurie Jacobson, and she did the history of the Sunset Strip from 1900 to 1965. So it’s very interesting, even though it has not much to do with Guns N’ Roses, it has to do with why Guns N’ Roses decided … why Axl Rose came here. What made Los Angeles the music capital of the world.

And it explains how the Sunset Strip got there. You don’t even have to be a fan of Guns N’ Roses to like this documentary because it’s powerful. You hear from the horse’s mouth. You’re hearing from band members. You hear from the roadies; you hear from the previous band members and how they came together. My story starts with Slash from 1976 when I met him. I was documenting him when we were riding bikes before he picked up a guitar because I knew he was superhuman. He was winning his races and doing outrageous tricks. And when he picked up the guitar, he just blew us away. You get chills watching him play.

And so we knew he was going to make his living out of the guitar one way or the other. And my job was to help him, show him off to the world, or help him get to the next level. Buy him a pack of guitar strings if he needed it, help him get a guitar he’s looking for in The Recycler. Drive him to Santa Ana to buy an amp or look at an amp or buy him a wah-wah pedal if that’s what he wanted. I supported him because I didn’t want him to give up. I don’t think he was going to give up, but I just wanted to make it easier for him to get the tools that he needed to get to the next level of the journey through the different garage bands until he finally made it to the Appetite for Destruction lineup.

You’re going to hear exactly how that happened and why things worked and why things didn’t work. I know all this information; I’ve known it for 35 years, 40 years in some cases. But watching back at the couple of episodes that I’ve seen already really impressed me. I was really happy with the work. I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out, and it’s great. I’m looking through it as a perspective, as a fan, because I am a fan of music. I grew up an Aerosmith fan, and I collected Aerosmith. I love those bands: Zeppelin, AC/DC, Queen, all the bands from the seventies and late sixties. I used to buy all those Circus and Hit Parader and Cream magazines.

I was one of those guys who wanted to know the extra detail and see the pictures. Guns N’ Roses is a very exciting band because not only were they the five guys at the right place at the right time that fit, they had something to write about, because they were living in the studio or on the streets or the back of someone’s car and somebody’s chasing them. They owe someone money, blah, blah, blah. So they’re writing about … you’re literally hearing what’s going on in their life, in that record. But at the same time, it’s not only their writing and their music capabilities and Axl’s vocal ranges, and the songwriting and the guitar playing. There’s also an image. The first gig I saw with the “Appetite For Destruction” lineup just blew me away because there was image before then, but they brought it to new levels.

I just shot four rolls of film in less than 30 minutes. Just because everything I looked at made me want to pull the trigger. I’ve gone to many concerts and where I might shoot one roll. If it doesn’t look good, don’t take the picture. Every second looked good. They just had so much energy coming off of them, and right away, I knew that, wow, this is going to work. This time it’s going to work. I didn’t know how good it was going to be until all of a sudden they came up with ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ They debuted that at the Troubadour. It was July 20th, 1985. So here they are. They get together, that “Appetite for Destruction” lineup got together in the beginning of June. And a month later, they came out with ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ It was exactly the way you hear it on the record, right down to the guitar solo. It didn’t need any arranging or different producing; they had it. That was it. And I recorded that, and I listened. I heard it on stage the first time they played it, and I was taking pictures. But afterward I listened to it in my car, and I’m like, wow, this is, this is really, really a good song. And not that the rest weren’t, but that was, wow, where’d this come from? And then a couple months later, ‘Rocket Queen’ came out, and it was just like hearing it on the record, right down to the guitar solo. Slash ripped it out; it fit, bam. He didn’t have to listen to a tape to relearn it. He had it in his head. Then we put together a demo. And after that, ‘Paradise City’ showed up.

So, ‘Paradise City’ showed up on October 10th. Here you go; you’re getting something every two months, and there’s a new song. And there’s nothing that needs to be left on the cutting room floor. Every song they came up with made it on that record, or their next record. Most of them ended up on Appetite. I watched them come together, and in the December after ‘Paradise City’ they came up with ‘Night Train.’ They debuted that at the Music Machine, December 20th, 1985. Okay, so now I’m making compilation tapes of these songs. I’ve got them in my car, and I’m like, ‘oh my God, this is like Led Zeppelin. This is a band that can’t do wrong. ‘Every song, you’re not going to hit next because it’s just a good song. A week later, they came up with ‘My Michelle,’ and it was just like, ‘oh my God, a week later? They had just came up with ‘Night Train.’ The problems started when then they got signed; things started to fall the other way. They wanted to take these great songs they had and record them. And Tom Zutaut, who signed them and gave them the freedom, the control of how the songs are going to sound and everything, said, ‘well, I think you need one more.’ 

But the band, you know, they’d just got a handful of money. They got evicted from where they were living and they were going down a dark path. They were getting arrested, and the record company was like, “I don’t know about this.” They were that close to either getting arrested for good, dying, getting killed by somebody on the street or just simply getting dropped by the record company. And so it was like three or four dark months of nothing going on but chaos. And then they came out with ‘You’re Crazy,’ which was another good song to have, but Tom Zutaut wasn’t ready yet. And then, in August of ’86, in the same week, came ‘Brownstone’ and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ And then Tom Zutaut said, “Okay, you guys are ready to record.” Then they went into pre-production to speed it up a little bit so they wouldn’t waste studio time. And during pre-production, ‘It’s So Easy’ came out. So they just recorded that. Mike Clink was the producer, and he worked on ‘Strangers in the Night,’ the UFO record, and the live record. That’s one of my favorite records. That just sounds so good. And they thought that was probably going to be a good fit because they went through a couple of different producers. 

Mike Clink knew not only how to record them, but how to manage them as far as keeping them in line, making it to the studio on time, settling them down, and basically controlling them. He was the boss, but at the same time, he could come to their level and communicate with them. So they made a masterpiece from that. The only regret I have is I almost wished they waited, that Tom didn’t see them for three more months. And maybe in those three more months, we would have had a handful of songs written by accident. Not because someone’s telling them to, just naturally. They were writing songs for themselves. They grew up in the seventies, and they liked certain influences of music. And they knew, in 1985, that scene was done. And so they were creating music that they wanted to hear, from their influences – from the punk influence to the hard rock influence and the sixties influence—a little bit of everything. So, they were making music for themselves, and they were writing about what was going on in their lives. And they were exactly the right match of musicians. And they built off each other. Izzy would strum something that he came up with, and Slash would hear it and change it, but he couldn’t change it if Izzy didn’t start it.

They literally created music together. And if you take Steven out and you try to hear ‘Rocket Queen’ with some other drummer, it’s not going to sound like that. So it needed those five guys at that time. ’85/’86 was really a very creative time. And the Sunset Strip was thriving. And those were the days that you put flyers on top of other people’s flyers. And you hung out at The Rainbow. And everybody looked like a rockstar. And nowadays, you know… I shouldn’t say nowadays, soon after that, it died. And now you have to pay 900 bucks to play The Whiskey, and you get a 40-minute set, maybe. And nobody’s there to see you other than those with the tickets that you made them buy.

So back then they would put like Guns N’ Roses, they’d match them with two other bands that are similar to what they were doing, or dress alike or look alike. And you’d go to the Troubadour to see three bands and yeah, sure, maybe one was better than the other two, but you still hung out the whole night. Now that’s just gone. The record companies are gone. And so if your’re influenced by Guns N’ Roses, or by anybody, and you want to, like, start a band, you might start a band because Jimmy Page influenced you, or Joe Perry or whatever, Slash, there’s nowhere to go with it. It used to be… Axl and Izzy moved here from Indiana to make it, to make something. Now, if you’re a band in Indiana or any other state, you’re not just going to move to Los Angeles. I don’t care how good you are, you’re not gonna, you’re not gonna make it because there’s no one to see you.

Guns N’ Roses is the last band that had stage presence. They can go out there and really shake you, really grab you.

I know you’ve been documenting them for a long time, and had shot interviews for the book. How big of a role do those play in The First 50 Gigs, versus new interviews?

Where they’re needed. I’m talking with Jason about a certain subject, and you can hear Slash come in or Duff or whomever. He’ll have a segment from that interview that fits that subject and feed that in. Yes, it’s important to have that, but a lot of it is just me narrating what I remember and what was going on at the time. Like they were late for a show because they got pulled over by the police and almost got arrested. And they said, ‘No, we have a gig a block away.’ A lot of people don’t know that stuff. And I remember it. So I have it. I know about it. So if there’s a way to get that in there… like this story, as strange as this may sound. In 1982 when Ace left Kiss for whatever reason, nobody knew that this had happened. Slash was working at a Hollywood music store, which is now a restaurant; it’s where Gangas Cohen is now on Fairfax and Melrose. The owner of that store was a Japanese guy named Hiro. And it wouldn’t take a genius to see that Slash could plug into an amp when nothing was going on and diddle around because he’s a great guitar player. And he got word out to Kiss that, hey, I know this kid who you might want to look at if you’re looking for a guitar player. So Paul Stanley called Slash, had an appointment to call him on the phone to interview him for Kiss. I was there, but I couldn’t hear Paul. I could only hear Slashes answers, but it turned out he was asking, would you be able to tour, could you record, are you good enough to do that?

Everything was going fine until he realized Slash was only 17. And he didn’t want to take on the liability of dealing with someone underage, or a minor is what you want to say. I mean, sure, there are minor rock stars, but it’s controlled really tightly by their parents or whomever. A band like Kiss, you know, there are girls backstage; they might not be dressed, you know. Who knows? They didn’t want that liability. But anyway, Paul never took a second look. And if Paul would have said, ‘Hey, learn these three Kiss songs; show up in the studio, and we’ll see,’ Slash would have probably gotten the job because he had the image. He certainly had the guitar playing skills, and you don’t have an interview with Slash and then don’t make something of it. I mean, everyone who sat down with Slash for five minutes, they ended up working together because you don’t pass that up.

So had that happened, Kiss would have been a better band. I don’t know how long Slash would have stayed because they probably wouldn’t have paid him well, but it would have been a good stepping stone. Guns N’ Roses might’ve not gotten out of Hollywood, who knows? There was talent there, but you kind of needed those five guys to make it all work. That’s just one story about Kiss. Nobody knows about that; it’s not in the book. It’s just a story. I’m just giving you one example. I know information because I was there every day, and these guys forgot half of that stuff. They had a million other things going on, and between the drug or alcohol use or whatever, it just kind of faded into a cloud and was forgotten about. You move on to the next thing. But I’m kind of a historian for this because I was there, and it was exciting for me.

And it was exciting to watch them get to that level. I knew they’d get signed, but I didn’t know that ‘Appetite’ would end up being so big. And I think MTV kind of really helped get that music to the world. I think if MTV were around when Zeppelin broke, they would have been ten times bigger than they even were just because it’s such a powerful tool to get your music out and show your image. I was at the “Paradise City” [shoot] at Giants Stadium when they filmed that. Then to watch it come to video … there they are, they did it, they made it, now everyone knows who they are. So I was really proud that they were able to really stay alive and make it ten times bigger.

I thought they’d be a band like Nazareth. That would be kind of everyone knows who they are; they have maybe a gold record or maybe one hit. I knew it was good. I knew it was that good, but that doesn’t mean it was going to sell. There’s a lot of bands that are good, that just never really made it mainstream like that. But Guns N’ Roses just catapulted right through that and became a stadium band and a radio band. 300 years from now, when we’re all gone, they’ll still be playing ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ at sporting events. You know, when the closing pitcher comes out, or something in a football game. This stuff is relevant. So there are only probably like 20 bands that will make it; that will be really, really, really relevant. Many years from now, Guns N’ Roses, I believe, will be one of them. So, I feel it’s important to get this stuff put down properly, where it can be accessed at some point. I mean, I’m not the only one that knows this. There are a couple of other people, but I’m the only one that seems to be interested in and understanding the importance of getting this documented properly or in the best way we can anyway.

You mentioned this as well, but watching this, it struck me that you don’t need to be a Guns N’ Roses fan to appreciate it. What went into your thought process regarding how it would be structured?

That had to do with Jason. He can make videos; he knows sound. He knows how all that technical stuffs works. But he also knows a lot of the story from interviewing a lot of people. And so he knows how to pool that. He knows how to get me talking. He could ask me a question. If you just leave me alone, I might know some things, but he could steer me in the direction he wants me to. And he could steer the guests that we bring on. ‘How did this make you feel when .. blah, blah, blah.’ So, what’s in the episodes? At first, we were trying to map it out; how are they going to be structured?

And we took a few different stabs at it. We actually had episode one done three or four different times, and none of them were bad. They just keep changing because we were changing the structure of how we’re doing this. But I can tell you this, the first season ends right when the Appetite for Destruction lineup gets together. They play their gig at the Troubadour and they go off to Seattle to do that tour. That became the Hell tour. And it ends just as they get back to Los Angeles. That’s when season one ends. What are we going to do for season two? It’s very simple. We’re going to go to the very next gig that came after that, which was a Stardust Ballroom.

It was June 28th, and they were the bottom of four bands, so we’re going to get into what was going on to get to that gig and what happened. What was different at that gig? They debuted “Mama Kin”; they didn’t write it, but they decided to do it, but there’s the news. But what was going on? Slash was working at Centerfold Newstand, and he actually got fired for promoting that gig. Because he was on the phone all day long, calling people, trying to sell them tickets to go to that gig, and the manager got mad and basically fired him for doing band business on company time. You’re going to find out what happened. We’re going to go through to the next gig and then sometimes talk about a song that might have been written or, you know, recording their demo tape.

We’re just going to go through the history in order. And that’s how we’re going to determine things. When does season two end? How many episodes should there be? How long are the episodes going to be? So, we’re going to record them and then divide them and figure out. We’re going to bring on different people, and we still interviewed a lot of people for the book. Some of those people have passed away, actually. We still have the audio. So we’re going to make bonus episodes of them talking about certain subjects. And we could kind of structure it that way.

But anyway, it’s a good question. And we’re going to go as long as we can, but we don’t need to go past the history of once they get Appetite out/once the album comes out, and they take off on tour with The Cult, my job’s over. The rest has been documented. The world knows everything because that’s all documented; they were already relevant. My job is to get how it became, how this band, how these five members found each other. And what open doors and closing doors they went through and then what finally made it work. And then how we got to the record, how we got the record out. After that, it doesn’t really matter unless there’s one or two cool stories that come, that might’ve happened later, that we might want to throw in there. Or maybe we’ll come across a special guest who has something to say that we weren’t aware of. I don’t know everything.

Then there’s also some people we bring on who might have bad information. Not that they’re lying, just because they remember something a little differently than it really happened. I kind of have a sort of photographic memory for certain things. So I know exactly certain things. If I know it, it happened that way, but that doesn’t mean I was there every minute. I can’t tell you every story. I didn’t sleep in the same house with them. Some of it is none of my business. My business is to basically report what I saw and get that information out and then try to bring in some people that also were somewhat involved, whether it was the drummer from Slash’s first band, or Adam Greenberg, or whatever. People who give you some more structure. It’s all interesting. You don’t have to be a fan of the band. It’s an interesting story. It’s a good documentary of how this band came together and wrote music together and struggled and got their music out. And that’s basically what we’re trying to achieve here.

In putting this together, are you thinking about the different audiences, the different generations of fans? Obviously, Guns N’ Roses have long-time fans, but many others have discovered their music over the years. 

There are different generations of fans and many of those fans, even the older ones, don’t even know about Reckless Road or this project. So with the way information travels through the internet now, we have a better vehicle. The internet is a good vehicle to get this information out there to people. The podcast is not something you could just go on Amazon and buy and then you have it, you have to sign up for it and subscribe to it. We printed a hundred thousand copies of “Reckless Road” because we thought it would just be gone in five minutes.

But we didn’t have the tools to get that information out to the fans. The very hardcore fans on the right chat boards at the right time who learned about it bought it instantly. And now people still pick it up when they find out about it. But I’m basically sitting on 50,000 copies, which should have been gone, you know, 12 years ago. Once it’s out of print, it’s out of print, but right now I’ve got 50,000 copies. That is a treasure trove. We sell them at Canter’s and I see people while they’re paying their check… they didn’t come there to buy Reckless Road. They came there to eat deli and they’re thumbing through it while they’re waiting in line. And every time someone picks it up and starts fumbling through it, they usually buy it. And I ask them, are you a Guns N’ Roses fan? “No, I’m buying it for my nephew” or, “I’m buying it for…”. There are ticket stubs. It’s fun. It looks like a fun scrapbook. And there’s just a lot of information and there are 900 images in there. So my goal, first and foremost, is to get this information out. But this new platform… the book is great because you have it, you can look at it, you could read it at your leisure. It’s a coffee table book, but the podcast is going to give you more information than the book has, and there are visuals and there’s audio. It’s more of a documentary.

When you see a good music documentary, you’re glued to it. I just saw the Linda Ronstadt one a little while back. And I couldn’t turn it off. It was really great. When [a] music [documentary] is done properly and you get this information that nobody knew, it’s interesting, and you don’t have to be a fan of the band. But, of course, the goal is to get this information to the fans. Whether they’re old hard-core fans or they like the record, they’ll say it’s one of their top five records, and now they get some more information about it. You know, anyone that’s going to go to a concert and pay a few hundred dollars … a lot of people even travel these days to go to concerts. They’re going to go see a concert for two hours to see that live band which you could see on YouTube if you wanted to. Why wouldn’t they want to know a little bit more about what drove them. The reason why they went to the concert was that they really liked the music. So why not give them an opportunity to find out more about how this music was put together. And it’s just interesting, that’s all. The hotel, you know, gave me a little bit of a, like, I liked that place. So it’s cool. I mean, like I said, it’s just images from the book that get that, that maybe we’ll get the interest of, uh, people to write about the podcast. Cause that’s all it is [is] to promote the project that we’re working on.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

I’ll throw in one little story. They played the Street Scene on September 28th, 1985. Slash had just got[ten] his Les Paul three days before that gig. So it’s the first gig he debuted the Les Paul, but this time they’re playing in front of like 2000 people. Before that, they played in front of 50 people, 80 people, a hundred people, maybe 250 people. But those people all knew who Guns N’ Roses were. Now you’re playing at a free concert on the downtown streets of LA, and they’re opening for Social Distortion, a well-known band in LA at that time. And the show was running three hours late. So, the band before them got off, and the roadies are setting up the stage, and then the people think their band is coming on.

And it’s GNR. It’s like ‘Who? What?’ And they’re like shaking the stage, and they’re throwing bottles at them. And they’re spitting at them and throwing hamburger pieces at them. And I’m watching this, and the band is just all over it. The band is just rocking it out. And they had that crowd eating out of their hands by the second or third song. I shot it from behind the drums [on] the side of the stage. And I was all over the place. What I saw was insane. It was like being at Woodstock. And I realized at that time … of course, I knew they were a great band, but now I realized that they’re more than a great band. They’re a stadium band – even though that wasn’t really a stadium. But [it] showed me that they handled that crowd as if they were Led Zeppelin in 1971 at some festival. They just handled it, and they didn’t cave in. Instead of like dodging the food, they’d let the food, they let the spit hit them. They were like, ‘We’re here to show you what we got. We think we have something you’ll like; check it out.’ So that was one of my favorite gigs.

The First 50 Gigs” is available by subscription at first50gigs.com.

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