Rock ’n’ redo
After years of hard rocking, hard living and hard feelings, Guns N’ Roses hits the road, heads for Little Rock
I’ve been thinking lately of a world without Chinese Democracy. It was the first album of new music by Guns N’ Roses since 1991’s sprawling Use Your Illusion and II, and emerged after years of rumors, missed deadlines and $13 million spent on its production. Singer Axl Rose, by that time the only original member still in the band, was buried by doubt and presided over a revolving door of musicians and producers.
Originally set for a 1999 or 2000 release, it finally saw the light of day on Nov. 23, 2008, 11 years after recording began. It would eventually sell 2.6 million copies worldwide, but was considered a commercial failure.
What if Guns N’ Roses had taken some time off after releasing Use Your Illusion I and II, the separately released double album that sent the band on a draining and overindulgent tour that stretched from early 1991 to July 17, 1993?
What if the original members remaining by that time — Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan — had returned home to Los Angeles, took a few years away from each other, made a quiet solo album or two, stayed out of the white-hot light that had been shining on them since 1987 and regrouped, a little older, a little wiser?
The timing would have been perfect. Grunge, which had a hand in making the groupies-and-JackDaniels excesses of Guns N’ Roses look silly, had come and gone. What if GN’R stepped back into the ring with an album closer in tone to its feral debut, Appetite for Destruction? Oh! And maybe they could have coaxed co-founder and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin back into the fold.
This is all folly, of course. Chinese Democracy didn’t even break up the band; everyone but Rose had quit or been fired long before. No group as incendiary, as closely linked to danger and reckless disregard as Guns N’ Roses could last very long. The personalities were too big, their vices and issues too intractable.
This alternate-universe version where the band sticks together isn’t wistfulness for a time when raawwk ’n’ roollll ruled the earth. GN’R’s brand of high-octane hard rock had long been an anachronism even when they were at their peak, and as they faded into the background, kids yearning to rebel turned to gangsta rap — N.W.A.’s landmark Straight Outta Compton was released a year later — and nu metal.
It would have been interesting, though, to see what the band could have done had it stuck together.
Maybe a return to the ferociousness of Appetite … and then a general softening of its sound? Would there have been a Metallica-like Some Kind of Monster documentary? A tour every other summer of amphitheaters and a new album every few years? We’ll never know.
But welcome to the jungle, baby, as three-fifths of the original band — Rose, Slash and McKagan — are back together to perform Saturday at War Memorial Stadium during a stop on the Not in This Lifetime tour, a trek that began last summer and, according to Billboard, helped earn the band a cool $42.3 million in 2016.
This will be GN’R’s first appearance in Arkansas;
country singer Sturgill Simpson opens the show.
Bill Bailey grew up in Lafayette, Ind. His stepfather was a strict Christian and young Bill sang in the choir at church. By the time he was in his teens, though, he was growing his hair long, listening to rock music and getting into trouble with the law.
One of his friends, Jeff Isbell, played drums and they jammed together with a few classmates. When Isbell graduated from high school, he lit out for Los Angeles to be a rock star. Bailey dropped out of school and tracked down his buddy in California, leaving Indiana and a list of warrants for his arrest behind for good.
They lived rough, played in bands together and apart, and became known by new names. Bailey was Axl Rose. Isbell, who traded drums for guitar, was now Izzy Stradlin.
Saul Hudson was born in London and grew up in Los Angeles. His mother was a fashion designer who did work for John Lennon, The Pointer Sisters, David Bowie and others. His dad was an artist who created album covers for the likes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Saul raced BMX until he discovered the guitar in his early teens.
It was a mostly unsupervised childhood tinged with trouble and only-in-Hollywood weirdness, where minor celebrity and desperation often rubbed shoulders. He was given his nickname, Slash, by character actor Seymour Cassel, the father of a friend, because he was always in a rush and never sat still. One of his classmates was Lenny Kravitz.
Another friend and fellow high school dropout, Steven Adler, had started playing drums and he and Slash started a band called Road Crew.
Michael Andrew “Duff” McKagan spent his teens playing in punk rock bands around his hometown of Seattle before heading south to Los Angeles and eventually joining Slash and Adler in Road Crew. McKagan was the first of the Road Crew to join Rose and Stradlin in a new outfit called Guns N’ Roses. Adler and Slash soon followed.
Guns N’ Roses were the perfect embodiment of dirtbag, trouble-making Los Angeles rockers, the antithesis of anything polished or well-rounded. They fought and bonded and honed their sound — a familiar but angry mix of classic Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols — on the scuzzy streets of Hollywood, standing out from the glam-influenced hair metal of the time like gutter punks at a country club, openly doing (and dealing) drugs and living like wasted, pan-handling, oversexed goons with guitars and worn-out leather pants.
Their contemporaries in Motley Crue may have been just as wild, but the Crue’s spandex, teased hair and lite metal seemed quaint compared to GN’R’s rabid yawp. And Vince Neil, Motley Crue’s singer, was no Axl Rose, who looked like a biker gang prince and possessed a paranoia, fury and ambition that were rarely restrained.
Onstage, he was a snakehipped cross of Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop with a voice he could manipulate from a screech and a nasal croon to a baritone growl, sometimes within a single song. He was no heartthrob like Jon Bon Jovi or Bret Michaels of Poison (the much-despised band for which Slash once auditioned and regularly hurled abuse at during interviews), but volatile and tense. He had a temper and an attitude and could be violent and scary, the kind of guy who wouldn’t just kick a vending machine that ate his dollar, but would beat it with a sledgehammer, set it on fire and then go looking for the person who owned it to punch him in the nose and get his money back, plus interest.
When GN’R signed to Geffen Records, they were all in their early 20s, some were using heroin, one was already a bona-fide alcoholic and one was perceived as a raging monster. It took months to find a producer willing to work with them and they made being hard-rocking, drug-addled degenerates look like a good career move.
There were stories of Slash, trademark top hat on his head and his face hidden behind a veil of dark curls, literally being propped up at photo shoots because he was so out of it; of rhythm guitarist Stradlin, who looked like the second coming of Keith Richards, selling heroin to his hero, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, back when GN’R was living in a storage shed. Rose, soberest of the bunch, was danger in a smirk while McKagan seemed pleasantly bombed and Adler was the happy-go-lucky drummer out for a good time.
For a while, they were the world’s biggest, baddest band. And they may have unwittingly been the last of the old-school groups to hammer down hard rock and live out every lunkheaded, excessive fantasy that big money rock ’n’ roll had to offer at the end of the ’80s and early ’90s, a kind of excess reserved now for a select few hip-hop stars and pop singers.
Their first full-length album, Appetite for Destruction, released 30 years ago, sold more copies than any other debut album in American history. To date, it has moved a staggering 30 million units
Tracks like “Paradise City,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Mr. Brownstone,” — hard rockers with an undeniable groove thanks to Adler and McKagan — tireless touring and a constant presence on MTV and in music magazines broke the band wide open. Their stoned, drunken antics would keep them in the public eye and burrowed into the imaginations of bored kids everywhere looking for inspiration.
GN’R Lies was the 1988 followup, a decent placeholder of previously released material and acoustic songs that was marred by two tracks — Rose’s dumb “One in a Million,” which prompted accusations of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, and the casual misogyny and violence of “Used to Love Her.”
Adler’s drug use eventually got him booted from the band in 1990. He was replaced by Cult drummer Matt Sorum. Stradlin left not long after the Use Your Illusion albums were released, moving back to Lafayette.
The first Illusion album was perhaps better, while the second was hampered by Rose’s full-on persecution complex, and releasing them within a week of each other reeked of corporate rock excess. With Rose uninterested in a second helping of Appetite’s sound, both Illusion albums pivoted a bit from the grittiness of the debut toward production that was bigger and cleaner, though at times still furious.
Troubles — no surprise — followed the band. There were riots at shows in St. Louis and Montreal; Rose bickered with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain at an MTV awards show; concerts were often late because he would refuse to go onstage on time.
By 1997 all of the original members were gone, except for Rose, who retained ownership of the Guns N’ Roses name.
Slash recorded solo material, toured and eventually formed Velvet Revolver with McKagan, Sorum and Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland. A memoir, Slash, was published in 2007.
McKagan moved back to Seattle. Before sobering up and getting healthy, he drank so much his pancreas burst, nearly killing him. He has written two books, It’s So Easy (And Other Lies) and How to Be A Man (And Other Illusions). He also played a few dates with Rose’s new version of the band. In 2011, he founded Meridian Rock, a wealth management firm for musicians.
Adler struggled with drug abuse post-Guns. He had a drug-induced stroke in 1996 and later became almost as famous for appearing on rehab-related reality shows as he was for being GN’R’s drummer. He has played songs at a few dates since the reunion.
Stradlin has kept a low profile, quietly releasing a steady stream of strippeddown, rock-leaning solo albums. He has played a few GN’R shows, even before the classic lineup reunion, but recently told consequenceofsound.net that he’s not a part of the current tour because “they didn’t want to split the loot equally.”
Rose spent more than a decade tinkering with Chinese Democracy and toured with the new lineup that featured former Replacement Tommy Stinson on bass and, among others, Brian Patrick Carroll, an arty guitarist who performs under the name Buckethead, and who plays while wearing a mask and a bucket on his head.
In 2012, GN’R were inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Rose declined to attend the ceremony.
In late 2015, word spread that Rose and Slash were speaking to each other after nearly two decades of silence. An unannounced reunion show went off in 2016 at the Troubadour in Hollywood, where Rose broke his foot. There was the obligatory Coachella appearance and the tour machine got underway in earnest last summer. This year’s trek kicked off July 12 at Nijmegen, Netherlands.
Revitalized with most of the classic lineup, 30 years after their massively influential debut, Guns N’ Roses is back pounding out those furious songs from the jungle, the hits and deep cuts that made them famous, the ones that absolutely rip, that were once so thrilling.
And, fine, one or two from Chinese Democracy.
Guns N’ Roses core members Duff McKagan (from left), Slash and Axl Rose, shown around the time of the 1987 release of Appetite for Destruction, have reunited for the Not in This Lifetime Tour, which hits War Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Guns N’ Roses — rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus (from left), keyboardist Dizzy Reed, bassist Duff McKagan, singer Axl Rose, guitarist Slash, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Melissa Reese and drummer Frank Ferrer — bring the Not in This Lifetime Tour to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Saturday.
Axl Rose, recuperating from a broken foot, performs at a 2016 concert by AC/DC.