Sometimes the Lion

Band manager John Reese fought his way to the top

And there's John Reese, standing in the middle of the road in his Nellie Gail neighborhood, standing in front of his very nice home with two very nice cars in the driveway—another very nice one in the garage—standing near the horse trail amidst the manicured lawns and large homes—billionaire Henry Nicholas is a neighbor—waving you in.

You had trouble finding the place and called Reese, and instead of risking his directions being misunderstood, he told you simply to keep driving and he'd stop you with his body. It's a big body—sure, it's a 45-year-old body, but it's still 6-foot-2, 245 pounds—a body that can be very direct when it needs to be. The guy you're presently holding in a headlock begins to bite off your finger? Insert fingers into nose and pull, real hard, until nose eventually "gives way" and "pulls apart." Problem solved, except the part where he bites off a third of your middle finger and swallows it.

Of course there are other times, other problems, that require more nuance: the phone calls at 3 a.m. about girlfriends or bandmates—what's the difference? Calls that have never stopped for the near 20 years he's been a tour and band manager, calls that come with such regularity that his heavy lids announce a man who's made peace with being perpetually tired. Being a rock manager means being able to do just about anything asked or required—what's the difference? Getting things done is the only order, whether it's getting a band signed or avoiding a riot and the drug cartel in Bogota.

When he's asked what could have possibly prepared him to do that job, a job he estimates less than 100 people in the world do full-time for any significant length of service, he says it has nothing to do with his music background because he has no music background.

"None whatsoever."

What he has are the ages 11, 12 and 13 when he lived alone in a trailer next to a cemetery 20 miles from the Mexico border in a town called Tubac, Arizona. His mother and father, having split up and remarried, found their spouses uninterested in raising a child, so he took up residence in transit.

"I grew up dirt poor, lived in about 20 different homes. I lived in the trailer by myself. My mom would visit me, but I slept there alone. It taught me independence, a strong will, self-reliance. You need that in this business. You have to be a chameleon, to be able to adapt to whatever the situation. Sometimes you're the lamb, sometimes the lion."

Indeed, a man needs significant strength, and stomach, to pull another man's nose off while having his finger digested. Legend tells us that Reese—Henry Nicholas' neighbor—lost the finger in a bar fight in which he was defending Axl Rose, front man/flesh-eating virus of a little band called Guns N' Roses that Reese managed. He didn't. Reese defended Rose plenty of times, but this particular fight occurred years before the band formed, when Reese ran an Arizona security company that provided support at rock shows. That led to arranging and maintaining security on the road for touring bands and, eventually, an offer to be tour manager of Guns N' Roses, then the biggest rock band in the world.

He says his years on the road with the band provided him with everything he ever needed to know about the music business. The groupies, the drugs, the egos, the psychosis and, with as big and dysfunctional a band as Guns N' Roses, the near riots and real riots. You learn fast when your band's equipment gets held up in Venezuela because that country has just had a coup and now the gig in Bogota—brought to you by your good friends at the Cali drug cartel—changes from a two-day concert with 70,000 expected attendees each day to a one-day, 140,000-person show that no one cleared with you. And it begins to rain and a riot breaks out, and you're pretty sure you would have died if it wasn't for the armored truck that scooped you up. And the next day a government official—brought to you by your good friends at the Cali drug cartel—says he'd like you to visit, and you decide it's better to go Three Wise Men on him and flee on your private DC-8.

His years on the road with Guns N' Roses convinced Reese of a few things: it can all end like that, and any artist worth caring about is probably crazy—certifiable. Finally, the road convinced Reese that he really, really liked his job: the crises, the fights, the near-death experiences and/or moments of transcendence.

"I remember in 1990 at the Rock in Rio concert, looking out from the stage and there are 240,000 people cheering. I'm 27 years old and I'm thinking, 'I can't believe this is my job.' I never wanted to do anything else."

In 1992, he became Guns N' Roses' co-manager, the difference between that and a tour manager being that the latter involves "getting them weed and wiping their asses," while the former is "involved in every facet of the band. You're the embryo for the yolk."

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