Sometimes the Lion
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.
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."
Of course, Guns N' Roses cracked at their height. By 1997, Reese had had enough and left to start his own company, Freeze Artist Management, where he would represent the likes of Candlebox, Danzig and the Used, and become U.S. consultant for the Cure. He was also instrumental in getting My Chemical Romance, Slipknot and Limp Bizkit signed to record deals, though he's less than enthused about that last one.
"[Lead singer] Fred Durst is the biggest asshole in the world," he says. "A horrible, miserable human being."
Still, he says, while being a jerk is never a good quality, a little or a lot of psychosis is the price of brilliance in the biz.
"I have never worked with a huge artist who didn't have some serious psychosis. Axl, Kurt [Cobain], any of them [he does not mention Durst], they were all brilliant and all completely fucked up in the head. But that's the way it has to be. You've heard nice guys finish last. Well, that's the truth in the music business," says the man who lived alone in a trailer, grew up to manage the biggest rock band in the world, started his own company, and once challenged Godsmack's crew to a no-holds barred ultimate fight—broadcast by KROQ—because they had pushed around one of his bands. (The crew declined.)
The quicksilver implosion of Guns N' Roses taught Reese to diversify his band portfolio. Any band, no matter how big, can go bust—there are just too many drugs, girls and egos out there—and so one must always be looking for the next big thing, "working the fields," and "maintaining your farm system."
It's never easy, of course. Some bands that seem like they can't miss do most of the time.
"Ninety-five percent of the bands you work with will never make any real money," he says. "But that's the business."
Of course, since that is the business, and since burgeoning technology seems to be threatening every facet of it, he has diversified his business. He not only represents bands, but also promotes tours—Warped and Taste of Chaos, both of which were conceived by Kevin Lyman—and has started a mobile phone service, a TV production company and, with his wife Elenie, given birth to LiL Punk clothing, which makes tanks and T-shirts for babies and toddlers with things like "Anarchy in the Pre-K" and "God Save the Milk" silk-screened on them.
"You can't just have one thing you depend on these days," he says. "You have to be able to go a few different directions. Because it can go that quick. I've seen it, and when it happens, you're either going to be able to adapt or be destroyed."
He walks you out to the curb after he digs from his BMW a six-song CD from Evaline, a band he's trying to get signed and is having over for a barbecue this evening. The man who once threw Billy Corgan to one side during a backstage fight offers you his neutered right hand and couldn't be more pleasant. You compliment his home again and say you'd expect the CEO of a golf company to own it. "Thanks," he says, a little puzzled. You ask him if the other people in the neighborhood—the doctors, lawyers, CEOs and broadband billionaires—know how he makes his living.
"Oh yeah," he says. "They all know. So do their kids. I'd say I get about 100 packages left at my door every year. Everyone's in a band."
Of course, none of them have any idea what is really required to make it. Very few of them, one surmises, have spent as much as one night alone in a trailer next to a cemetery 20 miles from the Mexican border.
"I love failure," he says. "Without failure there is no success. You got to get your ass knocked around," says the former 12-year-old bachelor who grew up to be Axl Rose's defender and Henry Nicholas' neighbor. "All part of the roller coaster. I love the roller coaster."
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