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.