WEL­COME BACK TO THE JUN­GLE

25 years ago, when they were on the brink of fall­ing apart, the world-con­quer­ing rock band Guns N’ Roses came to Ire­land

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Ro­nan McGreevy

Twenty-five years ago, Guns N’ Roses were the big­gest band in the world. The mu­si­cians – waifs and strays who had emerged from the scuzzy Los An­ge­les hard rock scene – had con­quered the planet mu­si­cally in the pre­vi­ous five years. But by 1992 they were fall­ing apart. Their bril­liant de­but album, Ap­petite

for De­struc­tion, re­leased in 1987, took a year to reach the top of the Bill­board 200, pro­pelled there by the con­stant ro­ta­tion on MTV of the videos for Par­adise City and

Sweet Child O’ Mine. It would go on to be­come the best­selling de­but album of all time. The fol­low-up dou­ble album, Use Your Il

lu­sion I and II, re­leased in Septem­ber 1991, was a pro­tracted af­fair far re­moved from their in­cen­di­ary de­but. It was “ridicu­lously self- in­dul­gent”, con­fessed lead gui­tarist Slash many years later: the sound of a band try­ing too hard to recre­ate the sound and sense of des­per­a­tion that had made them spe­cial. Nev­er­the­less, it sold mil­lions of records, at a time when sales were still mea­sured in hard sales.

On May 14th, 1992, Guns N’ Roses ar­rived in Ire­land at the start of their Euro­pean tour. They came trail­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for un­pre­dictabil­ity. The “most danger­ous band in the world” tag was not just record com­pany hype.

Crushed to death

At Don­ing­ton Park in Bri­tain in 1988, two fans had been crushed to death dur­ing the band’s set; in 1991 singer Axl Rose had stopped a show in St Louis when he had dis­cov­ered a fan was film­ing the show. Fans had wrecked the venue; Rose had been charged with in­cit­ing the riot. A year later fans had trashed an arena in Mon­treal, af­ter Rose again stormed off stage.

Trou­ble fol­lowed Guns N’ Roses wher­ever they went. Rose’s ha­bit­ual late­ness for ev­ery con­cert tried the pa­tience of fans, and the band racked up huge fines from pro­mot­ers. When they did go on stage, the ever-com­bustible Rose was ca­pa­ble of any­thing. They were un­pre­dictable and ex­hil­a­rat­ing and al­most con­stantly drunk, stoned or both.

At Wem­b­ley, a month be­fore they ar­rived in Ire­land, bass player Duff McKa­gan was so drunk dur­ing a trib­ute con­cert to the late Fred­die Mer­cury, who had died the pre­vi­ous year, that he had to be car­ried on to the stage by El­ton John.

The con­cert at Slane had per­sonal res­o­nances for McKa­gan. His ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Jon Har­ring­ton was from Co Cork. McKa­gan was the first of his eight sib­lings to visit Ire­land. A re­cep­tion com­mit­tee of his Ir­ish rel­a­tives was on hand: 100 peo­ple who hosted a bar­be­cue in his hon­our. It was pre­ceded by a pub crawl in which his cousins tried to match the man whose gar­gan­tuan ap­petite for booze had earned him the moniker “Duff, the king of beers”.

McKa­gan knew he was in trou­ble when he re­alised he could drink more than they could. “I was around a bunch of Ir­ish rel­a­tives who were drink­ing a ton and then this old gal, a rel­a­tive, grabbed me by the cheeks and said, ‘ You’re drink­ing too much’,” he told The Ir­ish Times six years ago. “I looked around. All these f*** ers were drink­ing. I drink too much com­pared to these folks? Re­ally?”

Duff was drink­ing a half a gal­lon of vodka a day; at that stage Slash too was drink- ing heav­ily and in­gest­ing vast quan­ti­ties of co­caine, heroin and crack. Slash’s ver­dict on Slane? He told Hot Press years later: “I re­mem­ber the place, but not the per­for­mance, which is in­dica­tive of how blurred my life had be­come.” The cul­ture of ex­cess ex­tended to ev­ery as­pect of this now-in­fa­mous tour. The band didn’t even have suit­cases un­til their record com­pany, Gef­fen, bought them some with their first ad­vance.

In a few short years they had gone from trav­el­ling in a tran­sit van to a cus­tom-fit­ted Boe­ing 727 bor­rowed for this tour from the MGM casino in Las Ve­gas. Slash and McKa­gan be­gan by smok­ing crack in the toi­let be­fore it had even left the ground in Los An­ge­les.

As they watched the smoke curl up an air vent, McKa­gan re­called say­ing to him­self: “Of course we can smoke on here, it’s our plane.”

By the time of the Use Your Il­lu­sion tour, two orig­i­nal mem­bers of the band, gui­tarist Izzy Stradlin and drum­mer Steven Adler, were no longer with Gun N’ Roses. Adler had been fired in 1990 over heroin ad­dic­tion ( be­ing sacked for ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion was a sin­gu­lar feat within the band). Af­ter at­tain­ing so­bri­ety, Stradlin had left in 1991, later say­ing he was sick of the band’s an­tics.

Guns N’ Roses now had a horn sec­tion, a key­board player and back­ing singers, as Rose pur­sued his vi­sion of t urn­ing Guns N’ Roses into a hard-rock ver­sion of El­ton John.

In the mu­sic in­dus­try at that time, live tours were staged in or­der to sell al­bums (now it’s the other way around), and for a band as big as Guns N’ Roses, money was no ob­ject. Ev­ery night the band hosted themed par­ties: based on Ro­man baths, a Mex­i­can fiesta and hor­ror films. Even the band, in­cor­ri­gi­ble par­ty­go­ers that they were, grew bored by them. They booked out restau­rants and hired yachts. They went snorkelling in the Great Bar­rier Reef and booked out a bowling al­ley in Lon­don.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, Slash would ask him­self who was foot­ing the bill, but would think twice lest he dis­turb the al­ready-del­i­cate at­mos­phere. The an­swer was that he and the other wit­less band mem­bers were pay­ing for it them­selves. De­spite play­ing to seven mil­lion peo­ple over two and a half years, the tour barely broke even.

McKa­gan was so shocked by the profli­gacy that when he got sober later af­ter a near- death ex­pe­ri­ence, he went to busi­ness school and founded a wealth man­age­ment firm.

At Slane, Guns N’ Roses were sup­ported by My Lit­tle Fun­house and Faith No More. Slash, Duff McKa­gan and drum­mer Matt So­rum ar­rived early by he­li­copter and went fish­ing in the River Boyne be­hind the stage.

Rose was still in his ho­tel room in the Con­rad Ho­tel in central Dublin. There was noth­ing un­usual about this. At that stage his semi- de­tached re­la­tion­ship with the rest of the band was en­trenched.

Time ticked on. The restive au­di­ence started mak­ing hu­man pyra­mids, the top body moon­ing to an ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence. Com­pared with the at­mos­phere of men­ace in other venues – one Ger­man pro- moter locked the band into the arena fear­ing a riot – it was all very good-hu­moured.

But Slane Cas­tle owner Lord Henry Mountcharles was wor­ried. The band were sup­posed to be on stage. Where was Axl Rose? Slash didn’t know and pointed Mountcharles in the di­rec­tion of the band’s man­ager, Doug Gold­stein, who was blithely fish­ing in the Boyne. Rose was still in his ho­tel room when he was sup­posed to have been on stage. ( At least he could be found. In Stockholm he had been spot­ted watch­ing a fire­works dis­play as the band searched fran­ti­cally for him.)

Anx­ious mo­ments

De­nis Des­mond of MCD was the pro­moter – and is again for this year’s Slane con­cert. He ad­mits there were a “a cou­ple of anx­ious mo­ments” in 1992. “Those were the days be­fore mo­bile phones. We had to find a pay phone to call the ho­tel re­cep­tion.”

Rose was taken from the ho­tel by limou­sine to Dublin Air­port, and to Slane by Siko­rsky he­li­copter. Even­tu­ally the band went on stage two hours af­ter the ap­pointed time with­out an apol­ogy. Des­mond dis­putes that it was two hours later, as is of­ten re­ported. “Be­lieve me, he’s been later,” says Des­mond, re­fer­ring to a 2010 con­cert in the O2 venue, which ended in farce af­ter Axl Rose stormed off stage.

Was it worth the wait in 1992? “When they went on stage, they re­ally turned it on,” said Henry Mountcharles, re­call­ing the gig this year.

Re­view­ing the con­cert in The Ir­ish Times the next day, critic Dave Fan­ning was a lit­tle less com­pli­men­tary. “Guns N’ Roses gave ev­ery­thing they had but the prob­lem is that with only two or three al­bums on re­lease they don’t re­ally have a lot. They’re just a very fa­mous hard rock band who have five or six fine songs.”

Iron­i­cally, given what we know now, he wrote that Axl Rose had “worked the stage like a true pro­fes­sional”, but said that a long drum solo had been “lu­di­crous” and that Gun N’ Roses would “have to do bet­ter to make it on mu­si­cal mer­its”.

And the cracks were ev­i­dent. Pre­sciently, Fan­ning mused that the band were “in dan­ger of be­com­ing j ust an­other hard- noise out­fit on Rock’s lost high­way . . . 1992 may be seen in years to come as a pe­riod of tran­si­tion for Gun N’ Roses.”

If you want to make up your own mind about the gig, there is a shaky but watch­able video on YouTube. Sur­pris­ingly, in the days be­fore smart­phones, some­body filmed the whole con­cert.

Guns N’ Roses had blown all the lip­stick-pout­ing, span­dex-wear­ing hair-metal bands away with their in­cen­di­ary bril­liance, but in 1993, they in turn flamed out. The orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion of the band quit and Guns N’ Roses faded away. Their brand of hard rock ex­cess was re­placed by the plaid- wear­ing, mo­rose cheer­less­ness of grunge. We may never see their likes again, but we thought the same thing in 1992, and now they are back. Some 80,000 tick­ets sold out within a day last De­cem­ber for the band’s re­turn to Slane Cas­tle this week­end.

Core mem­bers Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKa­gan, and Dizzy Reed will take to the stage, along­side gui­tarist Richard For­tus, drum­mer Frank Fer­rer and key­boardist Melissa Reese.

Fans are ad­vised to get there early. Rose ap­par­ently turns up on time these days. “They’ve done 100 shows plus on this tour and have turned up on time ev­ery time,” says De­nis Des­mond.

The band didn’t even have suit­cases un­til their record com­pany, Gef­fen, bought them some with their first ad­vance. In a few short years they had gone from trav­el­ling in a tran­sit van to a cus­tom-fit­ted Boe­ing 727

Axl Rose, vo­cal­ist with Guns ‘N’ Roses, dur­ing the Slane con­cert in May 1992. Left, Slash per­form­ing at the Fred­die Mer­cury trib­ute con­cert, Far left, XXX ar­riv­ing at Dublin Air­port in 1992.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: MATT KA­VANAGH, MICK HUT­SON/REDFERNS, IR­ISH IN­DE­PEN­DENT

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