Rock ’n’ redo

Af­ter years of hard rock­ing, hard liv­ing and hard feel­ings, Guns N’ Roses hits the road, heads for Lit­tle Rock

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - SEAN CLANCY

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 con­se­quence­of­ 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.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette photo il­lus­tra­tion/KIRK MONT­GOMERY

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.

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Axl Rose, re­cu­per­at­ing from a bro­ken foot, per­forms at a 2016 con­cert by AC/DC.

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