Bush Fire

If you’re in a rock band, you can indulge a wide variety of vices. And if you’re in the band Bush, with five hit singles and a quintuple-platinum debut album, you are given a set of keys to the vice supermarket and told to lock up after yourselves. On the way to a catered preshow dinner, Bush are trekking through a vast parking lot underneath the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Lead singer Gavin Rossdale points out a small yellow bulldozer, its plow encrusted with some white substance. “That’s what we use to shovel all the cocaine,” he informs me.

Unfortunately for the MedellĂ­n cartel’s bottom line, Gavin is joking; although he’d like to give the correct aura of decadence, Bush are a fairly abstemious lot. “I don’t understand why anyone uses cocaine,” Gavin admits. “Why would you want a drug that makes you more anxious? There’s nothing glamorous about sweaty lips.” Marijuana’s a different matter–he’s constantly rolling joints from a large, fragrant stash. “I don’t consider weed a drug. It’s a sauce, like having salt on your food.”

“Even Led Zeppelin could only tour America for two months at a time,” says drummer Robin Goodridge. “They couldn’t handle it.” To sustain their tour for the last year and a half, Bush have practiced moderation in all things. They have steady girlfriends back home, who sometimes join them for sojourns on the American highways. The road crew gets more action–pasted inside one roadie’s workcase I spot a useful article clipped from USA Today: STATUTORY RAPE: A LOOK AT LAWS STATE BY STATE.

The other week, a young woman approached Gavin with a provocative offer. She told him that she could give him a blow job that would make him see God. Gavin’s response? He shrugged, “I already have a pretty good relationship with God.”

The popular conception of Bush is that they are tea-bag grunge: slavish Nirvana imitators from England, as evidenced by the crashing chords of their single “Little Things,” their selection of In Utero producer Steve Albini to produce their next album, and Gavin’s public friendship (and rumored romance) with Courtney Love. Under this theory, it’s only a matter of time before Pat Smear joins the group and bassist Dave Parsons takes a field trip to Croatia.

Gavin freely confesses that seeing Nirvana play live in 1991 changed his life, but he hates the idea that Bush are a Xerox band. “If I wanted to sound like Nirvana, I could go way closer. It’d be terrible, though.” Still, when Gavin starts discussing his severe ulcer pain, I can’t help but flash back to Kurt Cobain complaining about the same thing; the irony is overwhelming. Describing his antibacterial medication, Gavin stops short and says, “I’m not a complete idiot. I know who else had stomach trouble.”

SOME FACTS ABOUT GAVIN: He didn’t speak until he was four years old–when he needed to communicate, he’d do it through his sister. He urgently misses his Hungarian sheepdog, Winston, and shows me the photographs he carries around of the little black furball–after checking to make sure there are no nude Polaroids among them. He grew up fairly well-off in central London, but when he was thirteen, angry and short on cash, he used to shoplift from stores all the time: That was how he’d do his Christmas shopping. He paints glitter on his stomach (in a short line, like a glam appendectomy scar) and blue nail polish on some of his fingers, an act of vanity for which he claims no responsibility; when asked, he claims it happened mysteriously while he slept. His last American Express bill was over $6,000: big-money items included a plane ticket to Florida, a trip to the dentist, and lots of flowers sent to England. He likes making videos–unlike say, Pearl Jam. It’s another act of vanity he won’t quite cop to: “Saying videos cheapen the music has a self-righteous ring to it. The people who are employed in the video industry, what should they do? Go on welfare?”

Gavin was born in London on October 30, 1967. His parents split up when he was young, so he was brought up by his father, a doctor. Gavin was nine years old when punk hit, and he worshiped Sid Vicious. He tried to dress like him, but didn’t have the clothes to do it properly. He would put egg white in his hair on Fridays to make it stiff; a few days later, he’d have acute dandruff.

Gavin spent his teen years skateboarding, wearing T-shirts and jeans like an American kid, and suffering in a fancy high school. “I was intimidated a lot and I would just sit in the back.” He dropped out at seventeen and left home to bum around London. A year later, he returned, sneaking his girlfriend in and out of the house. “My dad totally knew, but he was really cool. He’d just say, ‘Why does that girl keep scuttling up and down the stairs?'” In his early twenties, Gavin hung around the London club scene and had a few failed bands. He lived in Los Angeles for six months in 1991, and soon after returning to London decided that he needed to master the guitar if he wanted to write songs. Backstage at a gig, he met guitarist Nigel Pulsford; they got drunk, played some Neil Young covers, discovered they both loved the Pixies and the Breeders, and started a group.

After going through a few rhythm sections, they recruited bassist Dave Parsons, formerly of the British glam-punk act Transvision Vamp; drummer Robin Goodridge talked his way into the band after seeing them live. “I thought Gavin was a rock star but the drummer was shite,” he remembers. Their album Sixteen Stone came out in November 1994. “Everything Zen,” the first single, was a just-add-water hit–the band never looked back.

If you think Bush’s success seems disproportionate to their likable-yet-familiar music, they understand what you mean. Sometimes they sit around wondering who hasn’t bought the album yet. They began by thinking of themselves as an indie band that might, with luck, be as successful as Mudhoney. But on the strength of their aggressive tunefulness and Gavin’s unkempt good looks, they rocketed into the commercial stratosphere. “I understand why people are suspicious of us,” says Gavin. “I’d be suspicious of us.” He sighs, envying the critical respect that is elusive when the majority of your fans are teenage girls. “I should have only been in hardcore bands and screamed, and then graduated to melody.”

Bush are the beneficiaries of the unending appetite for fifty-seven varieties of grunge. Gavin’s gift lies not in his ability to mimic Seattle groups–even ambitious fourteen-year-olds can do that. It’s in the grace with which he accepts being a rock star. He doesn’t see any contradiction between wanting to make albums influenced by the Pixies and being an Apollonian figure of worship for hockey arenas full of teenagers. Even if you don’t love his music, you should admire how he’s intelligent enough to both glory in the limelight and recognize the absurdity of it.

Robin, the band’s resident cutup, has thought about the significance of having young female fans. “We’re their first band,” he says, “so we’ll take them hand in hand, write about their first boyfriend, their first heartbreak, the whole gamut of events.” He ponders the implications. “We’ll do it year by year, with exams, and then eventually, a graduation record. After that, we’ll have a rather directionless first-year-out-of-school album–that’ll be an ambient, underwater thing. Brian Eno can produce it.”

Gavin’s put towels at the foot of his hotel-room door to stop his marijuana smoke from filtering into the hallway. He sits on the unmade bed with his bare feet under the covers, wearing an orange t-shirt over a green t-shirt. He’s lit two candles. A battered copy of Jeanette Witterson’s Sexing the Cherry is on top of a pillow.

“I’m a single guy,” Gavin announces, and then he repeats it to see how it sounds. “I’m a single guy.” Although he’s putatively the young bachelor, his mind is very much on Jasmine, his girlfriend of four and a half years. He says that she recently broke up with him, but that he hasn’t quite gotten the message. “I need to convince her that I’m really good for her–despite the fact that I’m never around.” A few months ago, he offered to fly her out to America to join the tour, but she took a modeling job in Japan instead. He volunteered to pay her the same amount of money she would have earned in yen, but to no avail.

Did he really expect her to accept a payoff like that?

He grimaces. He didn’t think of it as a bribe, because the money didn’t mean anything to him. He found out that she had a different value system–perhaps one more sensitive to the power imbalances in relationships.

“I have a somewhat ambiguous love life,” Gavin concludes. Gavin has found himself as the object of other people’s fantasies and desires. But it pleases him to pretend his success just happened, just as it pleases him to affect nonchalance about his looks. Of late, he’s been romantically linked with No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani; he insists they’re just friends. He’s been repeatedly rumored to be schtupping Courtney Love–he vehemently denies it, as do other members of the band. “Anyone I ever hang out with, people think I’ve got to be sleeping with her.” There are also persistent stories of Gavin being gay or bisexual, fueled by Boy George’s claim in his autobiography that in the ’80s Gavin used to date Marilyn, the famed London drag queen (a claim Gavin has disputed). So I ask Gavin if he’s ever kissed a man.

“I’m not sexually attracted to men, but I’m not uptight. The other night at this party, I kissed a male friend on the lips–a real smacker–and I laughed at it. Of course I’ve kissed a man. People should kiss.”

You mentioned the other day that you were currently in love with two women at once.

Did I? Oh my God, what kind of crap do I talk? I’ve only had three or four girlfriends, ever. And it’s impossible to tell when a long relationship ends. People can still love each other a lot and realize they don’t belong together. It’s sad when you’ve visualized a future together.

Are you a good boyfriend?

Apparently not. But I never go out drinking with my mates; I’m definitely the companion type. I grew up in the center of London. I was going out for years, doing stuff that most people want to be in bands to do. At this point, I’m not itchy to go out and take drugs all night long–I’m willing to stay in and do them.

What haven’t you done sexually that you would like to?

The two-girl fantasy is one I’ve been waiting for.

Gavin, you’d have no problem doing that tonight. Why don’t you?

Sex on tour–how empty can you get? At a certain point, what’s the difference between empty and dead?

Are you aware that you’re good-looking?

I suppose. You know, some people might like the band because of things that have less to do with the music, and that doesn’t flatter me. I was a musician for years, so if my appearance is all there is, then why wasn’t I successful with my other bands? Because they weren’t good enough.

Is there part of you that wants to give yourself an ugly haircut and wear heinous clothes?

God, no. Doubt runs through every vein of my body already. There are days when I just don’t feel good inside.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

A different person all the time. People always tell me I look exhausted. In hotel rooms, the light is always terrible in the bathroom. I just look quickly and get on with it.

Bush’s dressing room in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium lies behind a door with the stern message NO ADMISSION EXCEPT OFFICIALS BY ORDER OF NHL COMMISSIONER GARY BETTMAN. On the wall is a clock that the group carries from show to show. Two pieces of masking tape on its face indicate 9:30, the time Bush hit the stage every night. Somebody’s written on the tape: TIME TO MAKE THE DONUTS.

Gavin’s bandmates have gone back to the hotel, leaving him alone in the dressing room. He leans over the stereo, puts on the new Jesus Lizard CD, and straightens up. Despite his pixie haircut, Gavin’s a broad-shouldered six foot one. Gavin plugs his cherry-red Fender guitar into his amp and begins playing along with the Jesus Lizard. (He’s still excited that he got the disc a day early.)

This is how he relaxes before concerts: for an hour or two, he’ll jam, as if he were playing onstage with his favorite bands. Gavin’s been imagining rock stardom for so long that sometimes he seems unaware that he’s achieved it. Other CDs currently in rotation include the new Cure album, a Slint EP, Fred Schneider’s solo punk album, and a Breeders live bootleg. Gavin periodically stops playing to roll another joint, which he is a gentleman about sharing.

When Gavin first met Steve Albini, the rock star knew what the producer would look like, but not vice versa. Nevertheless, they hit it off, and Gavin has written twenty songs for Bush to take into the studio this summer. So this week, he’s compulsively brainstorming potential names for the record. He spots a snack pack on the catering table. “Peanut Butter and Cheese,” he says. “That’d be a good album title.” Other possibilities he’s considered recently: Clubfoot, Hi Kids, Thirteen Choruses, My Left Tit, Eat in the Garden of Sound, Spectacular Holistics, and Sunny Ringo. That last one is the name of a fan who sent him a letter–Gavin relished the idea of how cool it would be for her to go to the record store one day and discover that her favorite band had named an album after her.

“I was really sick during this tour; I saw nine doctors in twelve days. One doctor was trying to prescribe me Prozac–and I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to be blissfully happy.’ I think it’s much more interesting just to leave it all alone, keep it well fucked up, and put it in the music.”

Have you ever been blissfully happy?

“Yeah. When I’ve been in the bath with someone I love.”

The Jesus Lizard album ends, and Gavin idly plays the riff to the Breeders’ “Cannonball,” which he wants to add to Bush’s repertoire of covers. He can’t quite get the fingering: “I’m just lazy,” he jokes.

We are joined by a blonde goddess: Gwen Stefani. Opening act No Doubt have just finished their half-hour set, and Gwen’s pleased with the intensity of the Buffalo crowd. “They’ll be burnt out by the time we get onstage. Thanks,” teases Gavin.

The rest of the band return from the hotel, and are soon discussing the newly purchased Slint EP. Gavin’s disappointed that it has only two songs and no vocals.

“It’s a statement about the redundancy of vocals,” suggests Nigel. “They’re not really music.”

“Good luck with the next album,” Gavin says with cheerful sarcasm, and slips out of the room with Gwen–they’re going to Bush’s bus to hang out in private.

Nigel plays some acoustic guitar: the Clash’s “Janie Jones” and Oasis’s “Wonderwall.” Robin and Dave relax on an extraordinarily ugly couch. “Another day, another million dollars,” says Robin. “It gets boring after the first couple of million, though. Throw it on the pile with the rest.” A local promoter comes in searching for Gwen. “Everything Gwen,” Robin quips. It’s a phrase the band have heard before.

“Do you know where Gwen is?”

“With Gavin.”

“Where’s Gavin?”

“With Gwen. We could have this conversation for a while.”

9:30 P.M.: Time to make the donuts. Onstage, Bush attack their songs anew, and album tracks like “Monkey” have an added kick. Gavin is the band’s hyperactive member, pogoing, leaping on top of amplifiers, encouraging the crowd to blow kisses at him. The show’s problem: Bush are performing for an hour and a half with one album of material, so nearly every song becomes obese with extended intros and guitar solos, where a more concise punk approach would serve them better. (Although Gavin does begin several songs by counting them off “One, two, fuck you.”) The encore is a knockout: “Glycerine” by Gavin, accompanied by his guitar and the 11,000 voices in the arena; a cover of Prince’s “The Cross”; and the ecstatic diatribe against America, “Everything Zen.” Gavin tells the crowd a whimsical story about a village of dwarves living in the tunnels below the stadium, but the short brunette girl standing behind me has something else on her mind. With all her might, she’s screaming, “I love you, Gavin!”

She pauses; Gavin doesn’t seem to be responding. Perhaps a less subtle approach is what’s needed. “I want you, dammit!”

Another dressing room, this time in Pittsburgh. For no apparent reason, there is a stage light with a violet gel parked in the corner. It gives off the most flattering light in the room–and whether by accident or design, Gavin has positioned himself directly in its glow. He’s curled around his guitar; every now and then he idly hits a few notes. “I’m so tired,” he says. “I need some coke.”

Nigel looks alarmed. “That’s probably not a good idea.”

“No. Some Coke Coke. Some Coca-Cola.”

You work awfully hard for someone who claims to be lazy, I tell him.

He grins. “I must be a total closet Calvinist.”

We talk for a while about “Glycerine,” the ballad that brought Bush to a mass American audience. Gavin’s lyrics can be a bit impressionistic, so I ask what inspired the song. He’s embarrassed to admit that it’s a love song–he thinks there are too many of them already–but defends himself by saying it’s about doomed love rather than “gooey romantic love.” More specifically, it’s about the estranged Jasmine. Gavin’s learning that his dreams can come true and he can still not get what he really wants.

And the title? “It’s nitroglycerine, as opposed to hand soap. I’m fascinated by the idea of an inanimate object that can cause so much destruction. It can sit there like a fat wad, and then it blows up….” Gavin’s voice trails off, and for a moment it’s hard to tell whether he’s talking about high explosives, his troubled love life, or his musical career.

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published in the July 1996 issue of Details (with a cover shared by Gavin Rossdale and Shirley Manson of Garbage).