Weekly Roundup: In Which The Author Is Revealed To Have Missed Yet Another Slim Chance To Join Guns N’ Roses Edition

True story: The man who would eventually call himself W. Axl Rose really, really, really admired Stephen Pearcy. You know, the guy who founded Ratt. Axl desperately wanted to emulate Pearcy, and he wanted his bands to sound like Ratt. Thankfully, he didn’t get his wish. Appetite For Destruction is to Ratt’s Invasion Of Your Privacy as A Love Supreme is to Sammy Davis Jr. Sings The Big Ones For Young Lovers, and I don’t just say that because the G n’ R debut LP is personally important to me. Which is not to say that there isn’t an obvious line to be drawn through the various glam-rock bands to Appetite. One benefit of hindsight is that you can see overarching trends which were overshadowed in period by the differences between the works in question. Almost nothing is really sui generis, particularly in music.

I imagine that people will still be listening to G n’R long after they forget about Ratt, the same way we’ve long since discarded the most popular jazz and rock musicians of the Fifties and Sixties in exchange for a relatively small “curated” selection of work. Led Zeppelin is a much bigger part of Seventies Rock(tm) today than they ever were in the Seventies; go read a Billboard chart if you don’t believe me. This slimming-down of Eighties Rock has already happened to some degree, which is why W. Axl can pack a stadium with almost any group of people he cares to name “Guns N’ Roses” while Stephen Pearcy is playing sports bars during the day. Legally and to some extent practically, G n” R is whatever Axl says it is.

Which leads to a question: Other than Axl, who is the longest-serving member of Guns N’ Roses? Hint, albeit a horribly obscure one: that’s his guitar pictured above.

That’s right, the most experienced side-Gunner is… shaky, studio-corrected Steven Adler drumroll Richard Fortus! I wouldn’t blame you if you said “Who?” But it’s the truth. He’s been with the band since 2002 and was retained to play Izzy Stradlin’s parts even during the time that Slash came back. In fact, he and Slash are reasonably close and as you can see below, Slash has hired Fortus as well, for his solo gigs:

Probably the kindest and most accurate description of Richard Fortus is: technically flawless, reasonably creative, great bandmate, first-rate human being. Note that W. Axl is none of those things, by the way. Mr. Fortus is a hard-working person who doesn’t skip gigs or phone it in. I suspect that every single Guns N’ Roses gig he has played is better for him having been a part of it, which apparently was not always the case with Izzy Stradlin. There’s an odd musical category you could call “Rock Journeymen” for people like Fortus, Myles Kennedy, Dave Grohl, and fifty other dudes I can’t immediately recall. To be a Rock Journeyman you need to be a mostly ego-free person who likes to work hard and make the fans happy. You also need to make peace with the idea that you’ll never be a Rock Star, because Rock Stars are generally loathsome people who make everyone around them miserable and who have no redeeming qualities other than their ability to make unforgettable records. W. Axl is a rock star. When Pink Floyd split up, we all learned that David Gilmour was the Journeyman and Roger Waters was the Star. Sammy Hagar is a Journeyman, while David Lee Roth is a Star.

(Discussion topic: Was McCartney the Journeyman and Lennon the Star, or vice versa?)

Another redeeming quality Richard Fortus possesses is his abiding personal interest in Electra guitars. (If you’re new here, search the archives; I own well over 100 Electras, mostly from the 1980-1986 Matsumoku era but reaching back to the mid-Seventies MPC Lesters.) In fact, Fortus worked for St. Louis Music at the time that Electra impresario Tom Presley was giving Fender and Gibson a hell of a black eye across the country using nothing but his own prototype workshop and a thorough knowledge of Japanese musical-instrument sub-contractors.

In 1978, Presley came up with the guitar pictured above as a prototype. He says that he settled on Kasuga as the factory to make it. (Matsumoku would get a chance later on, with the Electra X149/X150 and the Skylarks.) Fortus was twelve years old and summer-subbing in the SLM warehouse. He earned $300 and used it to buy this one-off guitar. Later on, he sold it — but this week, he was able to find it and buy it back. Having never let go of my first guitar, which was also an Electra, I can only imagine how happy he is right now.

Now here’s the interesting part. This wasn’t the only guitar Presley had made to this spec. There was a second one, which was sold to Gary Wolf who ran “The String Shoppe” in… Columbus, Ohio! Wolf talked my father into buying me a 1982 Electra X-130 at the end of 1983. He was a huge booster of St. Louis Music products in general and Electras in particular. (Sidebar: Wolf also supplied Electra guitars to Columbus almost-made-it-band The Godz. I have an Electra MPC that was pawned by the lead singer at one point, here in Columbus.) The fact that I got a nearly up-to-date Electra from Wolf was just a roll of the dice. It could just as easily have been one of five hundred other Electras he had. One of them could have been that other 1978 Kasuga prototype guitar.

If I had gotten the same guitar as Richard Fortus, would I be playing in Guns N’ Roses nowadays? Of course not. Fortus had more musical talent than I ever will, and he’s also worked like a dog from the time he was twelve to this morning at being a musician. Something to think about the next time you hear someone getting all misty-eyed about a Steve McQueen watch or a celebrity-owned car or whatever: almost without exception, there’s no magic in an object. Without Excalibur, King Arthur might not have been a king — but without Arthur, Excalibur was just another rusty piece of metal. Someone out there got their start with the same guitar as Richard Fortus. You won’t see them at a stadium near you.

* * *

This week, for Hagerty, I wrote about an untrustworthy German car and an even more untrustworthy German man.

25 Replies to “Weekly Roundup: In Which The Author Is Revealed To Have Missed Yet Another Slim Chance To Join Guns N’ Roses Edition”

  1. AvatarJohn C.

    Gosh from Japanese musical instrument subcontractors to leaky Karmann Chrysler Lasers we learn from Jack how picking the wrong team can really screw a good person. Glad Mr. Fortus eventually found GNR and Sally found a Camaro.

    Reply
    • AvatarOne Leg at a Time

      It makes me feel horrible to agree with that.

      (I am glad for the anonymity of the internet. “One leg at a time” will admit it, but ‘person who I actually am’ never would.)

      Reply
    • AvatarDisinterested-Observer

      I would say John was the “star” just by virtue of being an insufferable abusive prick. I would also say you are underrating George somewhat.

      Speaking of British icons from the 60s and 70s there was a fascinating profile of God aka Eric Clapton on AXS tv the other day. Apparently despite his legions of fans thinking he was a frontman, he did not, although he had the heroin and alcohol problems to go with it. Despite being of the age where “classic rock” was pretty much forced down everyone’s throat I had never even heard of the band Delaney and Bonnie and Friends where he spent much of the early 70s.

      Reply
        • AvatarDisinterested-Observer

          I think the former is more interesting in a way than the latter. Moon didn’t write any of the songs, but he was a big part of their image. Without him, could the others have talked someone like Ginger Baker or Ringo into smashing his drumset? Probably, assuming they could afford to buy a replacement. So how different would the Who have been with a different drummer?

          As far as Barrett, I would say that, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, a front-man needs to be a little like Hitler. Just grounded enough to accomplish his insane goals, which Barrett was not. I have read things about some solo acts and I know someone who has toured with moderately successful artist-i.e. you have definitely heard of this person, and they are bonkers. Like they couldn’t work at a McDonalds with their attitude. Yet unlike Barrett from 196? to his death in ’06 they were still working, so they must have had some grasp on reality.

          All that being said, I dislike “classic rock” intensely and I hate The Who, Pink Floyd, and especially Rush, with the burning fire of a 1000 suns, so I might be the wrong person to weigh in on this.

          Reply
          • Avatardejal

            Is it hate for them, or hate for the small rotation of songs played by them? If prefer to think of those 3 bands as “Pretentious Rock”. Never understood Rush.

    • AvatarRyan C

      I think the Beatles’ story is easyish: the first, second, third, and sixth Beatles are the definitive lineup, and as a quartet their music eclipsed any of their post-breakup work.

      With that said, while reasonable people may differ, Paul had eminently successful second and third acts in music and kept writing great tunes. John, so help me, was utterly talentless post-Beatles, and I claim his biggest hits show this (I have made it clear to my bride that if, for any reason, someone tries to play “Imagine” at any part of my funeral services, the attempt must be met with violence).

      George Harrison is widely credited with the single best post-Beatles album, but he himself, in so many words, said this was because he only got to put in one song per Beatles album, so he was saving up good songs all those years. (Ringo, for all his charms, did not have an album’s worth of good songs.)

      Reply
  2. AvatarDisinterested-Observer

    re: the Hagerty article I’d just say that it is difficult to tread the line between being hard on yourself and being honest with yourself. With any relationship it might be that as Dave Mason said (we) just disagree. That being said only a dumb-ass would let somebody buy a Crossfire.

    Reply
  3. AvatarDuong Ngyuen

    I remember when the Chrysler dealer I worked at got an SRT-6 Crossfire in and the desk manager slapped a 50k dealer markup on it lol

    One day the dealer principal saw the markup and promptly tore the sticker out and ripped the manager a new one.

    Pretty sure it ended up being on the lot for over a year.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Yeah those cars were the definition of a tough sell… on the other hand, nowadays they make for a pretty vicious BMW M3 alternative at trackdays, at something like one-half the price for equal age and condition.

      Reply
  4. AvatarGraham

    “One benefit of hindsight is that you can see overarching trends which were overshadowed in period by the differences between the works in question.” Exquisitely put, as always.

    It’s akin to how, at the time and for many, many years thereafter, 1976 or 1977 was regarded as some sort of Year Zero because the punks disavowed most of what came before them. I always liked a lot of stuff on both sides of that divide and thought it was all silly, but it was a very real “with us or against us” sort of thing. Just as I remember drawing howls of disapproval from a couple fan-friends of my “alternative” band when I played the riff to LZ’s Heartbreaker at practice (circa 1986), I also remember winning over a very tough biker crowd who was ready to kill a subsequent (and, overall, substantially less masculine) alternative band until the three of us who knew it rammed into Sabbath’s Paranoid (circa 1991). It took grunge (preceded by the Replacements and a couple others) to eliminate those divisions for the most part. Anyways, I always chuckle now when I hear Talking Heads, the Clash, et al being played on a “classic rock” station.

    Also thanks for giving props to STL hometown hero Rich Fortus, who himself embodies this theme – after all, he was the lead guitarist for STL alternative band – and Atlantic Records recording artist – Pale Divine before linking up with Richard Butler from Psychedelic Furs to form Love Spit Love in the early 90s – and recently he produced an LP by the Furs. Today, that all seems very unremarkable . . . but in 1987 the thought of a GN’R/Furs crossover would have been kind of insane. Indeed, the perceived gulf between the Furs and GN’R positively dwarfed that of Ratt and G’NR at the time.

    Reply
  5. AvatarDougD

    Interesting, never heard of Electra guitars or Richard Fortus so I learned two things today and it’s not even 8:00 yet.

    My first thought was “the second longest serving member of GnR was Jerry Garcia?” but then I checked and the Electra doesn’t look that much like Garcia’s Wolf guitar.

    And geez, how do you keep up with the string changes? Our family has an even dozen guitars in the house and that’s bad enough.

    Reply
  6. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    Where would rock ‘n roll be without businessman like Leo Fender, Nat Daniels (Danelectro), and Gene Kornblum (St Louis Music)? None of them were musicians. Or, for the matter, the music shops on London’s Denmark street, or guys like Leonard Chess? The business side of the music industry is as critical to its success, financially and culturally, as the art is, maybe more so.

    Marshall amps exist because a drummer realized he could make and sell Bassman clones more profitably in the UK than importing them from Fender. Danelectro guitars sound the way they do because Nat Daniels figured out that laminting masonite to a hardwood center block was cheaper than making solid bodies the way Fender did, making it possible for him to hit Sears’ (his biggest customer) price point. Jack White’s Airline guitar exists because the folks at Valco (who supplied Montgmery Wards, Sears’ biggest competitor) must have thought it was cheaper to replace Daniel’s masonite with fiberglass.

    Reply
  7. AvatarCJinSD

    As far as I’m concerned, my one-time neighbor David Lee Roth wasn’t the personality-bereft member of Van Halen. The problem was the brothers, and they committed a crime against humanity by not getting over themselves and keeping Diamond Dave as their front man. That being said, Sammy Hagar seems like a decent enough guy, and I feel bad about the vitriol he received that should have had a bead on Alex and Eddie.

    Axl Rose is the only person I’ve ever been star-struck by, unless you count a bit of difficulty I experienced coming up with a snappy retort for Ana Farris when she told me that the funny smell was her because she’d farted. He’s a dwarf and an imbecile, but he definitely was a rock star.

    Reply
  8. Avatardejal

    “Alex and Eddie”. Well, that kind of happens when you name the group after yourselves. They seemed to hate the fact that everyone else had a name and personality that they couldn’t control. You were an employee who wasn’t supposed to outshine the owners.

    Reply
  9. Avatarjc

    A hundred guitars? Really?

    Might be worth some serious thought on what’s going on there, psychologically.

    I once read, “never mess with a man who owns only one gun, because he probably knows how to use it.”

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I don’t know how much psychological complexity there is to it. I started playing with a Matsumoku-built Electra. I collect certain variants of these guitars. In particular, I am the world’s foremost collector of Anniversary Edition Electras — they made approximately 400 of them, an unknown number remain, 104 are accounted for by the fellow who has made it his personal life mission to track them, I have 16 of those.

      There are people who own one guitar who can play me out of my socks. Saul “Slash” Hudson didn’t own any guitars when he recorded Appetite — he’d pawned them all for drug money and was playing a borrowed axe.

      My hope is that some day there will be some kind of museum or mega-collection centered around the Japanese rock guitar and I’ll be able to provide a few historically important, well-preserved examples.

      Reply

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