by Gina Morris
He’s an ex-public schoolboy and proto-romo friend of Boy George and his ‘tranny’ pals. He’s ingested tons of drugs, relocated to America, come home to form Bush, sold 10 million records and dated Courtney Love – but Gavin Rossdale is still a lovely fella. How can it all add up? He sits awkwardly on a hard wooden bench in the basement of a West End members-only club, and calls for another “medicinal” Bloody Mary. Dressed in jeans flecked with grime and a jumper that gives off an over-worn odor, he knocks a stray ringlet from his face and steals another cigarette. His beloved mongrel Winston lies at his feet – a mass of black tangled dreadlocks and drool who just happens to have a three-million pound insurance policy. It’s mid afternoon on an average winter day in England, one of a few remaining countries in which a meeting with Gavin Rossdale falls into the bracket marked “just another interview”.
In the United States of America, of course, Gavin is placed alongside Billy Corgan, James Hetfield and Eddie Vedder in the alternative Rock hierarchy. His band have graced the front of every prestigious music magazine (Spin ran a rather ego pleasing cover line “Don’t hate them because he’s beautiful”). He’s dated Courtney Love, sold an inconceivable number of records, been hounded by legions of over-zealous fans and, in one week, shifted 2.5 million copies of their second album, ‘Razorblade Suitcase’. This, least we forget, is the leader of a band which completed a 15- month sell-out arena tour of the United States and grossed over 14 million dollars in gate receipts alone. Just another interview? A kid from Wyoming would view a few hours spent by a fake-log fire chatting with Gavin Rossdale- Rolling Stone’s “first certified teen grunge pin- up”- in mush the same way as a kid from Birmingham would feel about a week in a ski-lodge with Noel Gallegher. Bush cracked America for one simple reason: they understood the game. They took all the essential elements- a debut album that sufficiently ‘rocked’; live prowess; an angel- faced singer, and a blessing from Courtney- and toured till they dropped. They promoted their debut album ‘Sixteen Stone’ (current worldwide sales: 10 million) non-stop for a year and three months, losing Gavin his girlfriend of five years in the process.
While their Britishness no doubt added a quaint and novel element to all this, their music didn’t. Bush worked their for similar reasons that Oasis do here: both succeed in combining individualism with a pleasing familiarality. Both sound like 30 other bands, respectfully plagiarized and masterfully morphed into tunes you’ve doubtless heard before in songs you can effortlessly warm to. Oasis take from Brits, Bush mostly from the yanks: Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and- most glaringly of all- Nirvana. In the last 12 months, almost every British newspaper, magazine and industry journal has written about Bush. But far from celebrating their triumph, the reports were largely obdurate and dismissive. Meet Bush, went the sub-text – the hugely successful British export nobody trusts. It was no big surprise, for, by the time Britain became aware of Bush’s success, they’d already sold two million albums – so it was too late to play the chest-beating journey trick known as BeingAheadOfTheGame. Now that the cold shoulder mattered. For two years now, Bush have been the biggest British rock group in America. And Gavin Rossdale, a 29-year-old bloke from West London with an amazing life story, has absolutely no idea how it happened.
From across the room, Gavin Rossdale looks fairly unremarkable – an impression only furthered by his trampish attire. He’s not a man you’d pick out as a multi-platinum-selling, pin-up icon singer of a globally successful, arena-playing rock band whose been out with Kurt Cobain’s widow. He’s also remarkably unassuming, charming, polite, softly well spoken and respectful. And, over the next three hours, he only swears twice. “I was told by my manager to be positive” he smiles. “I was a bit rude in my last interview: I had a fever of 102 and I started ranting. I’m on my best behavior today. I promise.” Born In 1967, The son of a doctor, Gavin Rossdale grew up in Kilburn, North London. His parents got divorced when he was 11 years old, his mother moved away and he went to live with his aunt in a pub. From the ages of 12 through to 17 he attended West Minster School, the top-notch poshoid establishment that’s also the alma mater of Tony Benn and one of the senseless things.
It’s the silver-spooned personal history that’s earned Gavin his American reputation as a rock star with no demons. He rarely discusses various elements of his life because he knows he can’t win – either he’s had it to easy or he’s trying to be another famous fuck-up. “Of course I’ve suffered” he shrugs. “Everyone’s suffered, but you don’t want to stand there going, ‘I’ve been through this and that happened to me,’ because it sounds like you’re desperately trying to be something” In actual fact, Gavin’s personal saga is pretty strange. As a kid, he rarely saw his father, and his mother left for Holland after the divorce. During the time he was living with his aunt, she was hit by a car and severely brain-damaged and now lives in a hospital in Edinburgh. He hated school and worse, everyone there hated him. “For three years I never spoke to anyone,” he explains, distractedly stirring his Bloody Mary. “I was a real aggressive little wanker. They tried to expel me when I was 14, but my dad talked them out of it. I tried to make amends and not be such a fucking horrible kid, but that took about two and a half years and then I left.” For the five years that he was at Westminster, he lived a strange life: public schoolboy by day, and footie casual – hanging around the crowd of tough, Irish Catholic bloaks – by night. One of his best friends was a postman, while another is still serving time for beating up and killing an 84-year-old woman.
He was like the Begbie character in Trainspotting,” he laughs. “Scary, I once called him a lucky bastard during a game of pool and he punched me in the face. I was in with the worst people, and then going to his really posh school. It was mad. So I’ve never known where I should belong and I’ve always had that problem.” Even more fascinating were the years that followed. In Boy George’s biography Take It like A Man, George refers to a girl called Lindsay Thurloe, “the girlfriend of Marilyn’s ex, Gavin Rossdale”. The backdrop to such intrigue was London in the mid ’80s, the ego-crazed epicenter of flamboyancy, glamorous drugs and celebrity cross-dressers. Gavin was 17, and Marilyn was Boy George’s best mate, a sometime chart pop star and smack head who modeled himself on Ms. Monroe.
“I wasn’t dating Marilyn,” he stresses. “We were, and still are, good friends. I don’t know why George even said that. Maybe he didn’t want to write other stuff about me, because a lot of it was to do with drugs. It was just a weird way of mentioning me, that’s all.” Of course, there had to be drugs. It was the ’80s – the time of the initial ecstasy boom, yuppiedom and club life, when everyone was loved-up and carefree- until someone turned up with some smack. It’s no secret that Boy George and Marilyn were, at the time, using heroin. Gavin admits that these were drug- fueling years. His friends could afford them, and would willingly share them: ecstasy, cocaine, even heroin… “…But not much.” His dog suddenly jumps up on the bench and squashes itself between us. “I’ve lived. I’ve survived. That’s what I find weird: I’ve lived twice, maybe even three times. But that was such a brilliant time. Gavin could easily have become a junkie: 17 years old, surrounded by money, success, false glamour, fickle fame and bitchy back-biting, with no responsibilities and nothing to lose. He either had more sense, or he simply didn’t like the stuff.
“Actually, I was just scared of it,” he confesses. “I tried it, but I never had a smack period. I had too many friends who’d gone that way: one of them died from an overdose and wasn’t found for five days. I’d seen what could happen.” He pauses and frowns. “I don’t actually think it’s cool for people to talk about drugs in interviews. But back then, I was mad for it. I lived on a diet of ecstasy and cocaine. As for heroine, I think it takes a certain personality to be a smack-head. And I always fantasized about being serious about what I was really into- the music- even if it wasn’t any good. I suppose it just fitted into the more romantic side of just being wasted.
“Sometimes I feel a bit jaded about the fact that I don’t do all that stuff now, but I’ve been through it already. Now I just have different perspectives.” His sausages arrive. “Unfortunately,” he sighs, unwrapping a fork and napkin, “I’m not a kid anymore. I’d love to be 19 again – but then I probably would be dead if I was.” Having experienced it second-hand, Gavin attempted to seek his own success. Within six months of forming his first band- Midnight- in 1986, he had a record deal with Epic. Naturally, the teen press loves him, but the band could only raise a few mid-chart singles and a year later they split. Still hugely ambitious and desperate to make it, he made several even less successful stabs at fame. By his mid-20s, he’d had enough of almost being someone and decided to move to New York. “Basically, I thought my life was too safe here. I could just go out and get wasted for free, cos the people I was with were doing well. I was the limping mate. I’d never lived away from London before, and a friend got me a plane ticket and I just went.”
He lived there for four months, on one floor of a deserted six-story brownstone, only furnished with a sofa bed and a fridge.
“I got in to living this mad life, reading loads of books and drinking Absolute vodka every day. I didn’t know anybody at all.” So he didn’t spend all his time studying grunge music like the cynics said?
“No!” he says, in surprisingly good humor. “But I did go see Mudhoney and Nirvana. They gave me a sense of future- that I could belong and continue doing what I was trying to do. But it’s not music you can study. Going to America yo study grunge is a mad idea.”
Having returned home to England with new optimism, he meet guitarist Nigel Pulsford. Together the recruited bassist Dave Parsons (a refugee from ’80s glam-pop lamefest Transvision Vamp) and drummer Robin Goodrich and formed Bush. Not without reason, he felt less ambitious about this band than any of his others. The timing, after all, was abysmal. Gavin had formed a grunge-esque guitar band just as the country was starting to seek an antidote to the influx of US guitar music. In the UK, we were gaily swimming in a lake of pie, mash, Fuller’s London Pride and love-duck-pop. Angst-splattered catharto-rock was almost at the end of it’s shelf life. “I knew it would be difficult to do our music in England, so I signed with a small American label and it just snowballed. And for two and a half years now, it’s not stopped snowballing.”
And so, Not entirely unreasonably, Gavin Rossdale is shoved in the direction of one crushingly obvious point: why, if America has made him so rich and feted, does he give a flying fig about Pontefract, Pontypride and Peckham? Well? “It’s so important!” he squeals. “I’m English! It’s frustrating when you see the bands that some people champion over here. I mean, all credit to them- it’s just that we get so overlooked sometimes.”
This really seems to bother him. He must, select ventures, have spent many a night in a hotel room attempting to fathom out why, in his own home country, he’s thus far inspired a foul-tasting mixture of hatred and indifference.
“I think it just got out of control,” he rationalizes. “We sold too many records and so we ceased to be human. You know, we don’t walk around feeling full of it. We feel very lucky. But the problem is that everyone thinks you’re fair game and nothing anyone says affects you. How could it? Your loaded.”
Towards the tail-end of Bush’s last tour, prior to the US release of the new album, Gavin finally crumbled under the pressure of his loved/reviled position. It’s surprising it took him so long, but more so is the person that he turned to for support. In the middle of a severe crisis, overworked, in demand and on tour, Gavin found a stability- that’s right :stability- in Courtney Love.
Since they became friends almost two years ago, Gavin has spoken to Courtney almost everyday (their ‘dating’, such as it was, never took them into the bedroom). She is, he patiently explains, a woman who’s experienced the worst of it, and if you feel your brain is combusting, there are few better people to ask for advice.
“I was really having a hard time of it,” he says. “I wasn’t sleeping, I’s come back at 2am and not even bother taking my clothes off for bed. I’d sit there and wait until the morning, smoking 20 cigarettes and getting jittery. “Then you start taking sleeping tablets,” he continues. “You know, I was in a real state. I think that I’d be better expected anyway, cos it’s not a normal situation to be in. No one tells you how to deal with it. So yes, Courtney was the best friend I could have: the fact that she said just relax, let it go and you’ll feel better. When bad things are written about you, it’s like every word is five inches big. She knows all about that.” People have said and written some pretty mean things about Gavin Rossdale – even in America. When he adorned Rolling Stone, they asked “Why wont anyone take Gavin Rossdale Seriously?” He has it mounted and framed, but he’s blanked the words.
“The thing is,” He begins, frowning, “no one has ever been really rude about me to my face. If they were then they’d see a different side of me. In all this time I’ve never had anyone come up to me and say your band sucks. Not once.” On it’s recent release in the UK, ‘Razorblade Suitcase’ entering the chart at number four: 38 places higher than the debut. The spate of gigs that followed in its wake were recurrently upgraded to bigger venues. The British mind, it seems, has come round to an album that’s more personal, emotive, abrasive and ambitious than its predecessor. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Steve Albini produced it.
“I thought Albini would tell me to fuck off,” he admits. “But after we met, he sent a really nice fax to my manager. I nearly memorized it, because I’m that sad. Basically he said I was, you know, alright.
The door to the basement is suddenly flung open. It’s bush’s press officer. “You really do have to come and do the photo shoot now,” she says politely. “You’ve had an hour longer than we accounted for. Is that OK?” “We’re having a nice time!” shouts Gavin, as she closes the door behind her.
Finally, he relents, pausing to offer some kind of conclusion. “I feel like the tide is beginning to turn for us in England,” he enthuses. “Something’s happening. I can just feel it.”
He gently tugs his dog off the bench. “Alright, girl?” he coos. One last thing, select ventures. Isn’t it a bit Hollywood Pets to insure your dog for three million pounds?
“No.” He pulls on his black wooly binman’s hat, scoops up his dribbling beast and carries it off upstairs. “It only costs 75 pounds a year. Anyone can do it.”