Music is an all-encompassing discipline. Taking their inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, musicians have given us songs that are concerned with themes that range from the most frivolous to the extreme. Look at the disparity between ‘Crazy Frog’ and the early Norweigan black metal scene, for instance.
In fact, there is a lot to be said for the arts and its penchant for covering topics that regard the darker elements of the human condition. Across the artistic world, there have been many iconic works that account for the worst parts of humanity. Dante’s Inferno and The Scream are the two that instantly come to mind.
If we switch back across to music, the number of songs/artists concerned with darker subjects is innumerable. As touched upon in the first paragraph, there are whole genres and subcultures that concern themselves solely with darkness to varying degrees. Back in 1991, audiences were treated to another entry into the darker recesses of the ideation, although it came from an unusual source, and the song itself upon first listen, you wouldn’t expect it.
Guns N’ Roses are the band, and their third album Use Your Illusion I, is where we get today’s story. A hit upon release, it features the band’s classic numbers such as ‘November Rain’, ‘Don’t Cry’ and that terrible cover of Wings’ 1973 classic, ‘Live and Let Die’. However, we are not talking about those and, instead, we’re focusing on a fan favourite, one that is obscure to laymen, track nine, ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’.
Not sung by frontman Axl Rose, but by rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin who also penned the track, the song is a surreal outing, and one even would argue that it is one of the hard-rockers best moments, particularly as it moves into the flamenco-esque final segment. It turns out the song’s infamous opening lyric, “Found a head and an arm in the garbage can”, was not some nihilistic Generation X, R.L. Stine riff, but that it was actually inspired by an actual, morbid event.
The band were recording both 1991 albums, Use Your Illusion parts I and II, across at various L.A. studios; however, the event that inspired ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’ came within the immediate vicinity of the iconic Studio 56, where the band found themselves on that particular day. In lead guitarist Slash’s 2007 autobiography, Slash, the guitarist remembered the experience vividly. He recalled: “One event that got everyone talking during the recording of Illusions I and II was the day there was a huge commotion in the alley”.
Detailing further, he revealed: “It turned out that the cops found a dismembered arm and a head in the dumpster behind the studio. All I know is that we didn’t do it, but Izzy turned the event into a lyric on ‘Double Talkin’ Jive.'”
The story then takes a seedier, more David Lynchian turn. Whilst no one is certain who the grisly remains belonged to, there exists a theory. On October 29, 1990, William Arnold Newton, a pornographic actor who used the pseudonym’s Billy London and Billy Porter, was murdered in Hollywood at the age of 25. According to his father, Richard Harriman, Newton’s remains were found near Santa Monica Boulevard, the same street to which Studio 56 was located at that point in time.
This has led to many believing Newton’s murder to be the inspiration for the song, although it has never been confirmed by the band. What it has done, though, is to gift the track an intriguing, grisly angle that has made it a fan favourite. The song, in truth, appeals to the consumerist bloodlust that is all too familiar in the modern world. Furthermore, drummer Matt Sorum’s discussion of repeatedly experiencing an otherworldly presence at the studio has also fed into the rumours, but that is a story for another day.
Ironically, after its release, the song became belligerent frontman Axl Rose’s primary weapon for dissing his enemies. Iconic actor and love rival Warren Beatty was one target, as was the song’s author, Izzy Stradlin.
Due to infighting and drug abuse and other things, Stradlin quit the band not long after the album’s releases in 1991 but returned in May 1993 to fill in for injured guitarist Gilby Clarke. However, relations had clearly not cooled between Rose and Stradlin at that point. Rose asked the crowd in Cologne: “You guys remember Izzy?”, who responded with thunderous applause. Rose retorted: “Good. Fuck Izzy. This is dedicated to Izzy. This is called ‘Double Talkin’ Jive,’ motherfucker.”
It’s peculiar how songs can take on lives of their own, so far apart from the original intent. ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’ went from a morbid, flamenco-infused track to a diss track weaponised by Axl Rose. Strange.