As rhythm guitarist with fabled bad boys Guns N' Roses, Gilby Clarke has little to do on stage but stand around strumming inconspicuously, as the more notorious, higher-profiled Axl Rose and Slash soak up the fan and media attention.
But that's OK with him.
Clarke has a team player's mind-set and musical philosophy that would never threaten the twin egos; nor would the soft-spoken musician ever command the current, groomed-on-shock-value rock world's attention with his less-than-outrageous personality in any case.
But with the recent release of his first solo album, "Pawn Shop Guitars" (Virgin Records), Clarke, who performs tonight at the Coach House, proves that he's much more than a second banana to his calculatedly offensive band-mates, although Rose, Slash and company (currently on hiatus as a group) do guest turns on the album.
The album features nine strong originals plus covers of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" and the Clash's "Jail Guitar Doors" with Clarke's excellent guitar work and surprisingly solid vocals conveying real enthusiasm and fun.
A lively, eclectic and at times nostalgic affair that features lilting pop melodies and unusual instrumentation (when was the last time anyone used a Mellotron ?) along with the expected electric thunder, "Pawn Shop Guitars" comes off like a battle royal between GNR and the Beatles for control of Clarke's rock 'n' roll soul--with Keith Richards acting as referee.
During a recent interview from Buenos Aires, where he was finishing up a South American tour, Clarke chuckled at the analogy.
"That's good; you should use that," he said. "It makes sense because my favorite two bands are the Beatles and the Stones. I love playing guitar in that rootsy kind of rock thing that the Stones do. The records I grew up with were the records from the '70s. In those days, people didn't put out an album unless they had 10 great hit songs. That's what I grew up on; that's what I was after.
"Like, if you listen to (David Bowie's) 'Ziggy Stardust,' you go 'That's a great record.' From cut one to 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide,' it's a great record. I'm not putting myself in the same category, but that's what I was after.
"I found my niche; I found what I like in music," he continued. "A lot of people hit a trend and go, 'That's what I like,' but I'm still into the same stuff I've been into for 20 years, and nothing has made me change my mind yet. It's not a matter of copying other bands; it's like, you find the kind of music you enjoy and then create your own. But obviously, your influences are going to come out. I wanted to make an album that I would enjoy listening to as well as making and playing. This is my favorite kind of music."
Clarke, 32, grew up in Cleveland and moved with his family to Los Angeles at age 16. He was inspired to play guitar when, as a teen-ager, he saw a poster of Jimi Hendrix.
"Before I even heard his music, that poster made me want to play," he said. "It looked so cool, I said 'That's what I want to do, right there.' "
Clarke eventually hooked up with Los Angeles music figure Kim Fowley, who put him to work as a studio guitarist. He went on to play with the group Candy, which recorded an album for Mercury Records, and to front Kills for Thrills, which recorded an album and an EP for MCA.
In 1991, his big break came when longtime friend Izzy Stradlin quit his rhythm guitar post with Guns N' Roses and set Clarke up with an audition to replace him. After Clarke memorized 50 songs in less than a week and fit Stradlin's post to perfection, no other guitarists were even considered by the band. Clarke handled the high-stress situation with characteristic aplomb, taking full advantage of the opportunity while keeping his feet firmly planted.
"There was a lot of pressure, but I never accepted it," he explained. "The cool thing was that I already knew the guys--I didn't know them real well; the guy I knew best was Izzy--but they made me feel comfortable. That band is so big and out of control that the only thing you can do is walk in and go, 'OK, I'm just going to be myself.' I know that the people aren't screaming for me; they're screaming for Axl and Slash. I try to keep my head about it."
More recently, things perhaps haven't gone as smoothly. Clarke hedges when asked whether the real personalities of Slash and Rose are as difficult as their public personae.
"I always just tell people that some of the guys are OK," he said. "In fact, some of them are my best friends in the world."
Clarke expressed weariness at the hype that goes along with being a member of Guns N' Roses and seems to be refreshed and more at home musically fronting his own group. Joined by guitarist Ryan Roxie, bassist Will Effertz and drummer Marc Danzeisen--all of whom appear on States since "Pawn Shop's" July release. His passion for the project remains undampened.
"Even though I do enjoy GNR, there's a lot of bull that goes along with it, the media and whatever," he said. "When I'm doing this, it's just back to being in a rock 'n' roll band. I don't have to prove anything to anybody. I just play songs that I wrote and I enjoy with people that I really care about, and the rest doesn't matter."
So would Clarke, like Stradlin before him, go so far as to leave arguably the biggest group in rock today to concentrate on a smaller but more rewarding solo career?
"I'd do it in a heartbeat," he replied without hesitation. "I'm very serious about it. I've been touring since July, and we're booked through springtime, with a chance of being booked through next summer. I've already spoken to everybody in GNR and said, 'Look, I'm doing this until it's done, and if you need to make a record in between, you make a record without me.'
"To me, music isn't about money and all that stuff; it's about what I write and what I like to do. And I like what I'm doing right now."
Gilby Clarke, Nico & the Garbagemen and Vesuvius appear tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8930. Hear Gilby Clarke
- To hear a sample of the album "Pawn Shop Guitars," call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press 5560.
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