Gilby Clarke rides again

Former Guns N Roses guitarist plays first show after a serious motorcycle accident at Brixton Friday night. Photo by Sal Owens

Gilby Clarke picked up the phone one day in 1991 to find Slash on the other end. Guns N’ Roses needed a guitar player. Clarke quickly auditioned – he was the only guitarist asked – and suddenly found himself joining the biggest rock n’ roll band on Earth.

His first gig was in an arena in Boston. After years of club gigs, Clarke was about to plug into the massive machinery of a worldwide touring rock band. And so the night before the gig, he did what any self-respecting rocker would do. He got good and drunk.

“I ran into some friends of mine and we hung out and drank Jagermeister, all night long,” Clarke recalled in an interview this week. “What was great is it took the edge off the next day. I had worse problems than remembering the songs – I had a headache that was killing me.”

What struck him on stage that night was not fright. Clarke felt like he was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what he was built to do.

“What was cool for me is it was reassuring,” Clarke said. “You know, there are a lot of people in life, they have these dreams, and then when they get there the go, ‘Oh, something is wrong, something is not connecting.’ For me, it connected. I went, ‘Oh my god, this is what I am made for. This is what I want to do. I am very happy.’”

There are people in this world who are made for one thing and one thing only: playing no-frills, high octane, honest-to-god rock n’ roll guitar. They are fewer in number, this tribe, than you might think. If Keith Richards is the king and the Jack White the ascendant jestor, then Gilby Clarke is among the small number of dark knights roaming this world with this same singular purpose.

And so it will take more than some broken bones to keep Clarke from doing what he does. Clarke was the victim of a hit and run accident in Hollywood in January in which a car crashed into his motorcycle and left him for dead.

“Honestly, thank God I’m alive from this one,” Clarke said. “It could have been much worse…Some, excuse my language, but some dumbass made a left in front of me and knocked me down and then left the scene.”

He’s been rehabilitating with one goal in mind: to get back on stage. He’s gone from being in a wheelchair, to crutches, to a cane. And now he is standing back up. He plays his first gig this Friday night at Brixton.

“I mean, everyone says when you have an experience like that it helps put things in perspective,” Clarke said. “I basically have to get back to work. I mean, I am a guitar player. That is what I do for a living, and I’ve got to get back out there.”

Clarke’s rock n’ roll journey actually began in Redondo Beach. He and his family moved from Cleveland to Redondo in the early 1980s and Clarke attended school there for one year.

“I actually went to Aviation High School for about a year,” Clarke said. “But then I was a musician…I wasn’t good at school and stuff and eventually I moved to Hollywood and pretty quickly got into a band and got a record deal and started it from then.”

His career aspirations were actually launched when he was 12-years-old and first laid eyes on the greatest rock guitarist of all time.

“When I was a kid I saw a poster of Jimi Hendrix, and it was the Monterey Pop poster where he is playing his white Stratocaster in his blue outfit,” Clarke recalled. “And I thought he was the coolest looking human being I’d ever seen. ‘I don’t know what that guy is, but I want to be that guy – without the afro.’”

He scored some modest success upon arriving in Hollywood with a band called Candy and then formed his own band, Kill for Thrills. After the somewhat fluffier sounds of the 1980s began to subside, harder rock was once again finding its way to the fore; Clarke’s band was a forerunner. Kill for Thrills would lay down a sound that Clarke would continue to build upon for the next two decades.

“I’ve got to tell you, I really just call it rock n’ roll,” Clarke said. “I know it’s an extremely broad term at this point, but it really is just guitar rock. It’s from the basic blues that started everything, but that’s what I like and it is where I go. It goes through periods, obviously, where it is not fashionable, where people move to more modern music, but it does seem that it always comes around. I’ve been around long enough where I’ve seen it come around a few times.”

In late 80s, Guns N’ Roses blew up on the strength of their album Appetite for Destruction, which eventually sold 28 million copies and almost single-handedly brought harder rock back into vogue. And so it seemed a natural fit a few years later, after guitarist Izzy Stradlin abruptly quit and the band asked Clarke to join the massive Use Your Illusion tour.

He had always known he was a rock n’ roll lifer. But almost overnight he went from relative obscurity to rock star.

“It’s funny to talk about it now, but it was ridiculous,” Clarke said.  “I mean, the band was so big at that time. I actually just kind of had one of those talks with myself. I said, ‘Look this is everything that I always wanted in my life. This is what I was striving for, all that practicing, everything I worked for, this is where I wanted to be.’ I loved the band, we were selling records, selling out concerts, so I said to myself  ‘I want to enjoy this.’ I am going to be myself and I am going to play the way I play and I am going to enjoy this. If they don’t like me, that is for them to decide, but I am going just be myself and enjoy it. I tell you, it was a hell of a time.”

Slash publically credited Clarke with saving the band.  But mercurial lead singer Axl Rose disbanded the band three years later.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Clarke said. “Of course, I wish it would have lasted a lot longer, but it was what it was. You can’t have everything. Part of what made the band so great is also what made it deteriorate…You can’t have it all the time. Life doesn’t work that way. Heroin addicts end up dying. That is just the way it is.”

Clarke didn’t want to join another band. “It’s kind of like dating the most beautiful girl in the world then you break up and you go, ‘Ah, geez, it’s never going to measure up’,” he recalled. So instead he made a couple of unpretentious rock records that have moments that achieve that rough-hewn grace and groove and almost awkward beauty that Keith Richards pulls off on such unadorned Rolling Stone songs as “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run.”

He also had a moment back in the broader spotlight when he was asked to form a band with friends Tommy Lee (of Motley Crue) and Jason Newsted (of Metallica) that would audition singers for the reality TV show Rockstar: Supernova.

“For the longest time I was more of a purist, I didn’t want anything to do with TV,” Clarke said. “I mean, we have all written songs for movies and TV shows, but I didn’t want to be on TV. But then this opportunity came up and it was kind of interesting. Because basically I sat down with [the producer] and he asked me, ‘If you had to put a band together, pick your favorite guys.’ And Tommy and Jason are on that list…It was a great experience.”

Now, he’s back on his own, doing his thing, which is perhaps best summed up by his own song, “Good Enough For Rock N’ Roll.”

Gilby Clarke back on the road.

“To me, it just says it right there, that term,” Clarke said. “We used it in the studio a lot, you do a take and it might not be the perfect take, but we go, ‘Ah, it’s good enough for rock  n’ roll.’ To me, that is an attitude in life. It is not saying we are settling, we are just saying that is the way rock n’ roll is – it’s just being loose and being able to enjoy it. You don’t have to be so uptight in life. You just have to rock n’ roll it.”

Another song, “Skin ‘n’ Bones” was written a long time ago but sums up where Clarke is right now: “The last time I fell/ I left a piece of myself/ I was so broken up/ I should’ve stayed down…”

Clarke is getting back on his bike and back on the stage.

“No matter how people leave you, you know, you’ve got to have the guts to get back on,” he said. “Basically the situation I’m going through with this accident, I’ve been knocked down again, but I’m going to get back up and play my guitar. Most people would sit in a hospital bed for a year cracking Vicodin. But I’m going to play.”

Gilby Clarke plays Brixton May 28. See for ticket info and for more on Gilby.



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