Dispatches from the Trenches

1992

 

 

January 13….Dayton, Ohio….Erwin-Nutter Center

 

            The largest band in the world. This is a question that can be answered in a handful of legitimate ways at virtually any point in the history of recorded music. Beatlesmania in its heyday aside, a person attempting to ascertain “what’s really going on” would have multiple forks in the road from which to draw conclusions regardless of the month or week or decade that the dart he threw landed upon. Take a year like 1977, which is the year punk punched through to the mainstream…except it’s also the year disco danced its way into the same, as Saturday Night Fever put a stranglehold upon the airwaves and the Bee Gees became lame suited gods. Meanwhile, tiny little classic rock bands with obscure names like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac were also selling millions of records a week. So what kind of year was it? What was “really going on?” Depending upon the article read, one might have walked away from a piece thinking 1977 was “the” year for punk, disco, or classic rock, and all three of those viewpoints would have been correct.

            Some eras, granted, render the point moot by way of an uncontested fight. There is so little of interest going on it’s as though nobody wants the throne. 1989 was such a year, with hair rock for the most part toast and nothing else of interest on the horizon to replace it. 1990 even worse, with the pop music too beyond the point of dismalness which had somewhat redeemed the last year of the 80s, however tangentially. It had gotten to the point that we were breathlessly awaiting the next appearance of Madonna, so bleak the landscape.

            But beginning in the summer of ’91, our prospects had begun improving. It started with the twin shot of a huge and mainstream single from Metallica, Enter Sandman, and the equally monster Guns N’ Roses hit You Could Be Mine, at the time an advance track from a double disc album that had not yet been released, though found on – and featuring Arnold Swartzenegger in the video for – the Terminator 2 soundtrack. We had been waiting since the Christmas season of 1988 for new GN’R, and we were hungry. Since that time, strange days had followed, optimistic ones. Hard rock and metal appeared to be making a comeback of sorts, a comeback that culminated just this week with the ascension of a relative upstart trio, Nirvana, all the way to the #1 album slot.

            The Billboard 200 album chart for the week of January 11, 1992, has Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, holding down the pole position. Rounding out the top ten, in order, are Garth Brooks, M.C. Hammer, U2, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, and then both of the three month old Guns N’ Roses albums, followed by Metallica and Michael Bolton. So again: what kind of year is this? And what is really going on? Which acts would stand the test of time here, assuming they weren’t already legends, and which would fall by the wayside?         

 

 Darren Myers, Joe Kessler, Kenny Bender* and I are seated at this 12,000 person arena in Dayton, Ohio, near the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Open almost exactly a year, this show and the one to follow tomorrow night – a back to back engagement featuring our heroes Axl, Slash, Duff and the boys – is already being billed as the largest thing to happen at this venue. We have ridden more than two hours here through a steadily increasing snowstorm, with Darren’s dad, who insisted upon driving for some reason, and now sits in car reading and drinking coffee, at the wheel. Problem is, though the tickets state the show is to begin “around 8pm,” it’s almost nine and we have not yet even caught sight of the opening act.

 

 *first and last footnote of this entire piece: while otherwise a factual scholastic work, I have changed the names of most friends here.  The reason for this is that even if you are writing about wildly diverse topics every time out, if you continue to use the same character names, people will accuse you of repetitiveness.

 

 

With all due respect to Kurt Cobain’s impressive, unlikely assault of the airwaves, there is for my money no bigger band on the planet right now than Guns N’ Roses. A number one album could just as well be a fluke as anything else, and is buoyed, to date, by exactly one hit single: thus far, Nirvana have equaled the career arc of Vanilla Ice. With the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd on hiatus, following gargantuan tours of the earth that spanned years, with Bono despite his best efforts nowhere near as compelling a public figure as Axl Rose, the boys in GN’R have been in the news virtually daily from the moment You Could Be Mine first leaked to MTV last summer and have suffered no equal. Despite a bizarre and controversial decision to release Use Your Illusion I and II as a pair of separate albums, on the same day (thus setting a record by holding down the #1  and #2 slots upon their September 17th street dates), and the early November announcement that founding member Izzy Stradlin was leaving the group,  their popularity shows no signs of abating.

Izzy’s departure, however, spells trouble for the future, in the minds of more knowledgeable fans. “If you look at the writing credits, you see a lot of Izzy,” Darren notes, speaking of the twin Illusion discs, and he’s right. But Gilby Clarke’s a pretty solid replacement, at least as far as the road is concerned, and any moment now, we will occupy the same physical space as these hard rock gods, who have somehow already attained near legend status themselves notwithstanding a relatively small catalog and limited time in the public spotlight.

Even so, they were not an overnight success story, as it took a full year for their debut album to really catch fire.  In fact, like those dreaded Eagles, the classic lineup of GN’R was a five piece who had arrived in L.A. from elsewhere and really should not have met one another at all. Childhood friends born just a couple months apart in Lafeyette, Indiana, William “Axl” Rose and Jeff “Izzy Stradlin” Isbell had both migrated there in the early 80s, separately, and wound up reconnecting while there. Izzy was at this point playing first drums, and then bass, for a succession of local punk and rock bands. Meanwhile, guitarist Saul “Slash” Hudson,  who was born in England, and Cleveland Ohio native Steven Adler,  a drummer, had begun jamming together for a series of groups themselves around town. But as of the year 1981, Rose was still living back in Lafeyette, and future bassist Duff McKagan was laying down drums in Seattle for the Fastbacks on tour and in the four song recording session at Triangle Studios.

 

           

            By 1983, Axl and his then girlfriend had moved from Indiana to L.A., and he had formed a band with Izzy, by the name of Rose. They would later change their name to the slightly more original Hollywood Rose, and blow through a rotating cast of characters fleshing out their ensemble. Among the early compositions that would someday find their way into the GN’R catalog were Reckless Life and Anything Goes. Duff was still in Seattle, playing guitar now for a group called 10 Minute Warning and also working as a roadie, oddly enough, for his old band the Fastbacks. Slash and Steven, meanwhile, had fallen into regular work around the L.A. circuit with Road Crew, a run of the mill moniker if ever there was one and yet perfect somehow, encapsulating this scene and this era.

            As the calendar flipped over, Axl and Izzy parted ways for whatever reason and by word of mouth various recruits were drafted into a band now billing itself as New Hollywood Rose: Axl, a guy by the name of Steven Darrow, but also, more significantly, two new acquaintances by the name of Slash and Steven Adler. The Orphanage, Madame Wong’s (both East and West locations), and the Country Club were among the shitholes this band, like everyone else on the circuit, was frequenting, though as 1984 drew to a close they were also finding work at the Troubadour, and slowly building a name for themselves. Nice Boys and Back Off Bitch were now part of the set list, alongside gems from Rose’s early days – already the control freak, apparently, for there’s no mention anywhere of Road Crew material having been brought into the mix – and the occasional cover, a popular one being Hair Of The Dog.

            Then again, the family tree at this time reads now as having been highly incestuous, and one doubts that the band members themselves could have charted the developments themselves even while fully immersed in the scene – Slash, while a member of Hollywood Rose during late ‘84, often opens for them with his own band Black Sheep, and also finds occasion to audition, say, for Poison; after breaking up Hollywood Rose, Axl joins L.A. Guns as lead vocalist and brings with him the treasure trove of material he had accumulated while playing with various cats for the last few years. Izzy, content temporarily to distance himself from these proceedings, is in band called London and yes, Duff is still living in Seattle.

            But not for long. Sometime during the first month of 1985, he and a friend, Greg Gilmore, packed up and headed down to Los Angeles, began scouring the classifieds for bands they could join. It was at this point that McKagan apparently realized he wasn’t going to cut it as a guitarist, and switched over to the bass. Gilmore, meanwhile, would decide he couldn’t cope in L.A., period, moved back to Seattle, and formed Mother Love Bone with Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Andy Wood – a significant development in its own right, years down the road.

            Nothing so fully illustrates the crapshoot element of making it bigtime as a band as a study of which members it had counted in its ranks just before exploding into the public consciousness. You realize with analysis that they were one lineup switch away from having never been discovered at all, that a certain mix of ingredients, for whatever reason, would just not have cut the mustard. And such is the case presented by this flyer from March 26, 1985, for a gig at the Troubador: L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose present the band Guns N’ Roses it states. It is the first known reference to this collective by this name, a cast that at that moment in the time capsule stands as Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin, Tracii Guns, Ole Beich, and Rob Gardner. Two of those names should sound familiar to virtually anyone who’s heard ten seconds of FM radio within the past two decades, and possibly a third, too; but while I know very little about Tracii Guns, I know nothing whatsoever about Ole Beich and Rob Gardner, whoever they are, and yet I feel confident saying that had either of these dudes remained in Guns N’ Roses, had Tracii Guns remained in the band that bore his name, that this band would be nobodies to this day. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t meant to be. If you are Ole Beich or Rob Gardner, it means not beating yourself up for whatever led to your exit from the group – if you are anyone else on planet earth, it means thanking your lucky stars.

            By June, Tracii, Ole, and Rob had been replaced by three fine young lads named Slash, Duff, and Steven, and the rest is legend.

 

 

            Nearly the first gig this lineup played was one Duff organized in Seattle, with the Fastbacks as opening act. Guns N’ Roses had been promised $250 for a headlining slot, but experienced van trouble en route, apparently hitch hiked much of the way, arrived late and were only paid $50 owing to a dismal attendance of maybe a dozen people. Inadvertently or otherwise, it seems the GN’R die had been cast in at least one respect, that of the leisurely starting time. Bu they were nothing in these early days if not determined, and back home in L.A., five dudes and all the requisite equipment was somehow crammed into one twelve by twelve room on a nightly basis where they ate, slept, and recorded. Accurately dubbed Hell House, I’m sure, yet at the same time, you couldn’t buy this kind of camaraderie off the shelf of your local guitar store, you can’t order it from the musician wanted ads of in the back of Hit Parader. Hellish or otherwise, there’s no denying that the experience was probably the number one factor, ulitmately,  in their success.

            By late summer, many of their future classics were already being honed on a nightly basis upon the circuit’s stages. Welcome to the Jungle, Don’t Cry, and It’s So Easy were among the nuggets populating their setlists, and herein lies yet another clue as to why they were so much better than their peers: this scrappy five piece is only a couple years away from recording one of the greatest albums in rock and roll history, and they are able to do so while leaving future top ten hits that they’d already written completely off of this album. One chestnut of a music business cliche stipulates that you have your entire life to write that first record, which is why so many debut albums kick ass, while the sophomore efforts fizzle. Guns N’ Roses effectively solve this problem by having more material, and material of a top shelf variety at that, than any other band of upstarts around.

            Paradise City began life as a riff Slash had come up with back in his Road Crew days, and was fleshed out to a finished song by the tail end of ‘85, at a time when they were still small potatoes enough to find themselves playing the occasional frat party or what have you interspersed throughout the calendar of club dates. Nighttrain has also taken shape by this point, and though they have yet to draw in any significant numbers to distance themselves from the Poisons or any other hair band teasing its way up and down the Sunset Strip, record labels had begun sniffing around. Owing in part to their hunger from living off of biscuits and wine in the Hell House and probably just a little bit to Axl’s by now well established caginess, the band, in either an extended display of cockiness or stupidity, strings along a number of different record labels for months, being treated to steak dinners and nights on the town, as they hemhaw around and pretend to seriously weigh every offer.

            By March of 1986, just a year after they’d finalized the Guns N’ Roses name and about nine months since the last three pieces were snapped into place, they sign with Geffen Records. Otherwise, not much changes in their universe, as the club shows in and around L.A. continue, while the various members, Axl excepted, party their way into oblivion. Or so one side of the coin has it, though conflicting stories emerge – Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, for example, will claim that in these early days he and his bandmates were completely incapable of talking anyone in GN’R into doing any drugs or partying with them in any fashion.

            Some early recording sessions are attempted and aborted during the summer, and eventually Alan Niven is named as their manager. One early candidate appears to have been Tim Collins, who was at the time finagling Aerosmith back to sobriety and fame, though his take on the boys was that they were too much of a handful for him to deal with. Fall rolls around, and the suits at Geffen Records have Guns N’ Roses slotted into various opening positions, for Red Hot Chili Peppers here, Cheap Trick there, although there is a mix up at one of the Alice Cooper shows whereby Axl is not on some list of authorized backstage personnel, cannot gain entrance into the arena, and thus the band is forced to cobble together a set without him.

            Record company executives take a lot of heat and probably rightly so, for their shameless careerism, among other crimes, they are perpetually the villain when something goes haywire. But nobody ever wants to mention the occasions where the label’s marketing strategy might have been spot on. And I suppose it’s cheesy to do so here, too, particularly when it applies to such a raw band of dynamos – for they were truly that, no matter what they may later become – as Guns N’ Roses. Except that while all of the marketing gimmicks in the world can’t save a crappy album, nor can anyone sitting in an office ever predict with total immunity what kids will lose their marbles over, the strange vision Geffen Records had for GN’R would wind up working beyond anyone’s wildest teased hair and glittery eyed dreams.

            During the fall, Axl and the boys were coaxed into the studio to cut four tracks: two originals in the form of Reckless Life and Move To The City, two covers in the form of Nice Boys (Rose Tattoo, 1980), and Aerosmith’s Mama Kin. And I certainly wonder now, given the wealth of material in the band’s arsenal, how these four cuts were chosen – if only you switched around, say, Reckless Life and Paradise City, between this studio session and the next, who knows how differently this story might have played out. At any rate, these four cuts are then overdubbed with live crowd noise, a bogus “indie” label is created named Uzi Suicide, and in December, a mere 10,000 of this EP are pressed on vinyl – no cassettes, no compact discs (if you spot any of these at your local flea market, rest assured they are bootlegs) – and released under the title Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide.

Meanwhile, before this strange offering has even hit the streets, David Geffen has them in the studio. Beginning in December of 1986, they start laying down the tracks for their first full length album. The tentative release date is July 1987.

 

 

            One of the curious, easily overlooked details about Appetite For Destruction is that the two sides are actually organized thematically. Side one, labeled “G” on the cassette and vinyl copies, ostensibly stands for “Guns” and deals with drugs, violence, mental instability and the like, unsavory topics all; side two, “R” for Roses, might just as well mean Relationships, as it is here you find all their songs about girls. An overarching theme, if you will, that is easily lost because the platter flows so damn well. Even so , while critics now routinely list this as one of the greatest albums of all time, and certainly the number one debut effort ever, none of that was apparent right out of the gate.

            If the world at large was eventually taken by storm when this album blew up approximately one year after its release, then the band itself was in for the first, and most pivotal surprise, without which none of the others might have ever been made possible. Perpetually cruising through life with still another trick up his sleeve, followed by another followed by another, the other four members of the band will later claim that in their years playing in clubs with Axl, they had only ever basically heard him do one voice – it was a very good heavy metal screech, but still, this was all he had in the arsenal. And even on Live Like A Suicide (I don’t feel like trifling with those wacky punctuation marks any more than I have to, and anyway this is how the band always pronounced its title in their interviews), he doesn’t reveal a whole lot more in his box of vocal crayons than these primary shades. Yet the moment they step into the studio for Appetite, everyone seems to agree, he suddenly let loose a torrent of other voices, running the gamut from cat calls to smooth melodies to guttural howls to psychotic barks. The twelve songs that comprise this effort were magic, the playing top notch, the production clean and uncluttered – itself a near miracle during that highly overprocessed era. All of these fed into a project that would not have been so transcendent otherwise. But when it comes down what is absolutely pivotal within these proceedings, Axl Rose is the one giving the performance of a lifetime, and it is this artillery of voices that commands center stage. These voices create the tension and the drama that suck you in, dragging you along, tying your hands to the roller coaster handle through the peaks and valleys of this hedonistic ride.

            Even so, one easy trap to fall into when listening to rock singers is to equate them one hundred percent with the lyrics themselves. The first time I learned that Duff wrote the words for It’s So Easy, along with his chum West Arkeen, or that Slash and Izzy penned the sublime poetry of Mr. Brownstone (which does make sense considering Axl was certainly at no point ever a heroin addict, and in all likelihood never even tried it), this came as a bit of a shock. Even though we know rock bands are supposed to be a collaborative effort, and in fact work much better almost always when everyone is chipping in a bit – provided you have the right individuals in the band to begin with, that is – it’s always somewhat disjointing, for me, anyway, when a singer is able to so convincingly sell words that someone else in the band came up with. And if Axl isn’t converting anyone on Appetite For Destruction, then it’s safe to say that nobody has ever bought into rock n’ roll, period. Without getting too esoteric, I classify this as another feather in their cap, another strength, that they are getting contributions from all sides and are able to make it gel as a complete whole.

            Musically, Rose is only credited with a co-write on his song with Izzy, dating possibly as far back as 1981, Anything Goes. Stradlin came up with Anything Goes one hundred percent on his own, but aside from this and the other two already mentioned examples, the lyrics on here are all Axl, and the music is a truly collaborative effort from start to finish. A lifetime of bouncing from band to band and gig to gig, perhaps, time on the road to screw around in a van and come up with the intro riff, say, for Paradise City, but again, it’s astounding that none of these twelve cuts were siphoned away onto the questionable Suicide EP. Plus, these five guys are all clearly on top of their game, and a number of these songs originated from late 1986 onward – including their eventual breakout smash, Sweet Child O’ Mine.

            With its raw, uncompromising guitar attack and sordid portrait of big city life, the world was not quite ready for this act. Oh, there were metal groups that were twice as harsh and beyond, but no other band on the planet had quite the same notion that they were somehow going to infiltrate the pop music universe with such cutting edge material. To nail this point home, the original artwork intended for Appetite For Destruction’s front cover depicted some sort of robotic rapist in the act of assaulting a semi-nude female, while a monstrous avenger in turn appears on the brink of menacing the attacker. As could have probably been anticipated, enough retailers object to the artwork that the now classic cover is substituted – five different tattoos on a cross, one for each band member, assuming he was now a grinning cadaver – but if one believes Geffen Records were spineless cheeseball patsies kowtowing with the slightest hint of controversy, then that myth is dispelled by their ballsy choice of It’s So Easy as the group’s debut single, in June of ‘87, backed with Mr. Brownstone.

            Then again, anyone with an open mind can appreciate with a single listen that It’s So Easy is a brilliant tune. Shifting back and forth from the snarling punk of its verses and bridge to the almost sunny pastoral California vibe of the chorus, the venomous attitude in even an ordinarily paint-by-numbers phrase such as “fuck off” is astonishingly fresh and the song as a whole demonstrates perfectly the uniqueness of the GN’R songwriting approach – while much is made of Axl’s voice, Slash’s guitars, the lowkey production and, in time, the swirl of controversy following this group like a plague, very little attention, if any, is paid to how virtually none of their songs move in the customary verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-verse chorus fashion that one would expect from 99% of the typical FM radio fare. Once again, though, the world was not ready, and It’s So Easy bombs.

            As August hits, the band embarks on a two month run through Europe and the States as an opening act for The Cult, and they also film their first video, for second single Welcome to the Jungle. A year later, when this single is released all over again, many a fan wonders at Axl’s teased out blonde medusa of a haircut, and wonder why he would adopt this look in between Sweet Child and Paradise City but never again, it’s because most were unaware that the video had been shot a year earlier than either.  In October the boys play Headbanger’s Ball, where they are more or less baited into trashing the set, and do not disappoint. And though David Geffen called up MTV personally to plead with them to play the video, Jungle attracted little attention outside of its expected niche audience of teenage metal fans watching the station at four in the morning, and it too went nowhere.

            November kicks off a US tour in support of Motley Crue. Steven Adler somehow manages to injure himself about a month and a half into it, as the band replaces him with Fred Coury from hair rock band Cinderella. On December 23, at a juncture where the tour has drifted through their hometown of L.A., Steven Adler and Slash stumble onto the cold, lifeless body of Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, who had overdosed on heroin in his hotel room. Sixx will later credit those two with saving his life, though paramedics certainly play a part in reviving him with adrenaline shots some two minutes after he had flatlined and was clinically dead.

            Reputation aside, meanwhile, Guns members seemed to have not partying nor women but music first and foremost in their minds at every turn, even if they haven’t quite mapped what they plan to do with it all. Indicating that they and virtually everyone else considered Appetite a modest success whose six month shelf life had reached the end of its run, in January of 1988 they entered the studio to record five acoustic songs, one of which – Cornchucker – has never seen the light of day. Another was a slower, stripped down version of You’re Crazy, the original of which had been their first album’s heaviest and fastest song. Nobody seemed to know whether these would be b-sides or some other sort of filler, or if they would comprise the beginnings of a second full length album. But the jams, which also included Patience, One in a Million, and Used To Love Her, were knocked out in exceptionally quick fashion. Axl would later state that his pipes were in shreds after such endless touring and that he wished he had gone in separately to recut his vocals for these tracks.

            Which isn’t to suggest other matters aren’t bothering him as well – a week or so later, he resigns from the band for all of three days before returning to the fold. Much of this was probably attributable to nerves, for Guns would soon embark on their first ever headlining tour, playing small clubs around the States. Future Use Your Illusion track Yesterdays begins to make its appearance in their sets, along with other not quite fleshed out numbers. At a stop at the Ritz in New York City, MTV happens to be on hand and filming, footage that will come in handy for the network when the band explodes to the forefront just a couple months later.

            Finally, a short while after the touring in support of this album had presumably ended, they film their second video, for third single Sweet Child O’ Mine. Just prior, they had lent Welcome to the Jungle to the soundtrack of the fifth and final Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool. More notable now for the future stars whose career it launched than any artistic merit, the film featured unknowns Jim Carrey and Liam Neeson…as well as a couple cameos from this little five piece known as Guns N’ Roses.

            I will never forget the first night I witnessed Sweet Child O’ Mine, as it’s one of those occasions that just naturally sticks in your head. At the time, cable station TBS had a late night video show on Fridays and Saturdays, commencing somewhere around midnight, titled Night Tracks. Though peppered with hit songs to some degree, the show was also fairly low budget and you could expect to witness a great deal of filler never seen before nor again. My earliest memory of Night Tracks would have been somewhere around 1983, when my brother and I are hanging out in our grandparents’ living room with Uncle Steve, who was crashing there on a fold up bed. Lights out, the three of us lounged around – Steve having rolled out his bed, my brother and I sitting for some reason on the floor – and watched one video after another, and our uncle asked us at one point if we’d ever heard of Stevie Nicks. We responded with an emphatic no.

            Fast forward to the spring of 1988. Now the ritual for my brother and me is to have either our cousins or possibly family friend Brian Owens over to spend the night some weekends, to stay over with them during others. With each occasion comes the solemn vow that this time will be the night that we stay up until daylight watching Night Tracks, but it never seems to happen – somewhere in the neighborhood of 3am, eyelids would begin to droop. Usually I would be the last youth to shutter his eyes, occasionally my cousin Dustin would (bugging me with an endless series of “are you awake” type questions as I attempted to hide my face in strategic arrangements to avoid detection). But one Friday night, Brian is staying with us, and the three of us are in our living room, reading jokes from a book I’d rented from the school library, religiously absorbing Night Tracks – we had just 13 channels on the clicking VHF dial, we did not yet have cable.

            Five times this hilariously bad video comes on, by a band we’d never heard of. The singer wears a blue bandanna and makes faces like a frightened horse at times, does some weird side to side swishing dance at others. Of course our assessment of this song as being horrible has nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with our never having heard it before – we are not the most imaginative kids yet in our musical tastes, we will unfailingly only love a song when we’ve heard it on top 40 radio and/or had the selection ratified prior by a sizeable chunk of our peers. With each airing, this Sweet Child O’ Mine receives a groan and a chuckle, another round of jokes. Brian at one point notes that he likes the way the one dude is just sitting on the steps with his dog (a figure weeks later identified as “Izzy”) after the other four members had all been depicted in the arms of their hot girlfriends.

            We are too young and too disconnected from society at large to realize that Sweet Child was beginning a steady march up the singles charts, and that this album, which had by now been out nearly a year, was on its way at last to cracking the top ten.

 

 

            Summer arrives, by which time the single is a #1 smash. One afternoon out boating around Pleasant Hill Lake with our respective families, Brian’s older brother Tom – who basically represents for us the coolest person in the history of the known universe – has with him the Appetite cassette, and a love affair with the entire album will begin proper. I remember nights hanging out at Brian’s house alone, long after everyone else had fallen asleep, windows open in his upstairs room as the distant trains could be heard rattling across town, and I am listening to the cassette over and over again in its entirety. A year or two or three earlier, it would have been Van Halen, but they’ve been replaced in my heart and mind by an entity much more dangerous and just flat out better, this band of misfits who were somehow taking over the airwaves by playing a music more raw and edgy, not less, than the hair bands they were systematically lording over, at a time when slickness and vapid plasticity seemed the ultimate goal.

            Welcome to the Jungle is re-released, and rockets into the top ten, followed by Paradise City. The video for the latter depicts Axl at his arguable all time epitome of badass, in the white leather jacket with the GN’R logo on the back, his boots and shades and leather pants, stomping and screaming onstage. Black and white footage of the rest of the band on tour, getting off of planes, hanging out with chicks and sleeping off hangovers mere icing on the cake, leaving pathetic Midwestern youngsters such as ourselves lusting forevermore after this rock n’ roll lifestyle.

            Out on the road, the summer had begun with the band opening for Iron Maiden. When Axl temporarily lost his voice and they had to drop out, the boys were able to turn this into a blessing by then latching onto the Aerosmith slot instead, opening for those veteran rocks even as Appetite was the #1 album in the nation. For their part, Steven Tyler and the gang alternately viewed these upstarts as naïve fuckups as well as serious threats to the throne. They would needle GN’R mercilessly about their tattered luggage, then step in and buy them matching brand new sets just before complaining to manager Tim Collins about the group’s wild partying and unprofessionalism. When Rolling Stone showed up on tour to ostensibly chronicle Aerosmith for a feature article, but wound up profiling Guns instead and giving these newcomers front cover billing, this rankled a few feathers in the Tyler and Perry camp to say the least.

            But personality train wrecks or not, nobody could deny their ability and their dedication to the music. A weekend in August encapsulates this perfectly, as they are in the middle of their US tour with Aerosmith, yet fly into London on a Friday night and fly back Sunday morning, all in the name of playing at the Monsters Of Rock festival in between. By all accounts they play a searing set at Donnington, though this performance will always be overshadowed by unfortunate death of two fans who were crushed to a pulp while the band was playing, an occurrence they would not learn of until they had left the stage.

            Only when Nighttrain becomes a relative bomb at top 40 stations – where I do remember hearing it, though it seems incredibly odd to me now – does the band begin setting its sights on a follow up. Conveniently, it is by now nearly holiday season, and they have enough material in the can to cobble together a stocking stuffer titled GN’R Lies. What this means is a side one consisting of the four “live” tracks from Like A Suicide, which millions of fans had never heard, coupled with four acoustic songs recorded back in January. From a packaging standpoint, the album’s cover is done up as a mock tabloid, which is both clever, and omniscient in light of the troubles that will soon plague the group.

            When Lies reaches #2 on the album charts, Appetite is still in the top five as well, and they become the only band of the 80s to pull off such a feat. In the early part of the new year, one new cut, Patience, is issued forth as the latest smash single. Featuring only Axl on vocal, with Izzy, Slash, and Duff on acoustic guitars, it represents a brand new sound for the band and also manages to be about as original as a pop acoustic number possibly can. Penned jointly by Rose and Stradlin, it was reportedly recorded in all of a day. The video, which was filmed in the hotel where Robert Kennedy was shot, evokes something akin to a wistful nostalgia – this for a band who’d been around all of a few years. But each had paid his dues in wayward fashion for nearly a decade at this point, wandering from group to group until by magic or happenstance they latched upon this one golden union which was greater than the sum of its parts. Almost prophetic, too, with its images of the other four members slowly turning invisible in the hotel lobby, and Axl alone in his room, watching old videos of himself on tv.

            Steven’s absence in the recorded song is just a coincidence, though in actuality he does take a vacation from the group right as Patience is breaking. By now a full blown heroin addict himself, he has checked into rehab, and at the American Music Awards show on January 30th, Don Henley of the Eagles sits in on drums when GN’R performs. This would seem an odd choice – actually, it still does – except that Axl had lent vocals to a track on Henley’s End of the Innocence album, titled I Will Not Go Quietly.

Following their appearance, Appetite somehow manages to climb back into the #1 album slot again, an amazing feat now that the year is 1989 and this record is eighteen months old.

            And yet even though Patience is technically the top ten hit here, it’s the other two brand new songs off of Lies that generate the most press. Used To Love Her, a comedic jam about offing one’s significant other, is considered highly offensive in some circles – although those circles would appear to exclusively consist of people who haven’t heard One in a Million. To my ears Used To Love Her is musically the sort of vaguely familiar 1970s folk number you still catch pieces of on the AM radio dial every now and then, with lyrics that would have been at home on a saucy Who or Kinks album cut. Anyone who found this song controversial even by 1989 standards was plainly idiotic, and now the track does crop up occasionally on the same classic rock stations that play their other hits.

            One in a Million, however, is a different beast entirely. With combative lyrics that attack, among other segments of the population, “immigrants,” “faggots,” and “niggers,” a readymade controversy was pretty much a given. Some accused Guns N’ Roses of canned shock merely for shock’s sake – although it’s difficult to imagine why a band who’d lodged four top ten singles in the space of eight months would need to stir up much more press – while others were troubled in straightforward fashion by the lyrics. In his interviews Axl would state that these weren’t his opinions, necessarily, they were the opinions of the song’s protagonist. This is a valid defense (I’m not the only who by default equates the vocalist with what he’s singing, it would seem), as is the one that points out guitarist Slash is in fact half black. When there are calls to have the song banned, freedom of speech advocates become unlikely allies rallying in the band’s corner. I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that I do in fact believe this is a quality song with artistic merit – if it were a rap song nobody would bat an eyelash.

           

 

            Summer progressives with a whole slew of guests slots playing with other bands, one off appearances, and rumors of beginning work on another record. Bizarrely enough, the group also films extensive footage for an It’s So Easy music video, though this is never released. This would turn out to be the season of Izzy, for all the wrong reasons. Upon landing in Phoenix on an August 27th flight, he is arrested for pissing on the floor of the plane and harassing a stewardess – especially comical considering he rarely flew with the band, preferring instead to take his own bus. And now the world at large suddenly understands why. September 11th, meanwhile, a night where GN’R would take down a trophy for best hard rock song at the MTV Video Music Awards, Axl and Izzy are up playing Free Fallin’ alongside Tom Petty. As Izzy walks off, Vince Neil of Motley Crue jumps out from the cover of some backstage shadows and sucker punches Stradlin in the jaw.

            In the waning months of ‘89, what should have been a high point in the trajectory of a band’s star still rising proved anything but. Guns N’ Roses were out on the road now opening for the Rolling Stones during that bands behemoth Steel Wheels tour, and at a Los Angeles show on October 18th, Axl loses his cool.

            “I hate to do this on the stage,” he announced, “but I tried every other fucking way. And unless certain people in this band get their shit together, this will be the last Guns N’ Roses show you’ll ever fucking see.  ‘Cause I’m tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. goddamn Brownstone.”

            Specifically, he is calling out Slash, Stradlin, and Adler, and their growing dependence upon heroin. Though many have taken one glance at and one listen to his stoned out sounding slur in televised interviews, and thus find this hard to believe, Duff in fact was not a problem here. He liked a little bit of drink, as did Axl, nothing more. But in addition to consuming massive quantities of alcohol, the other three had gotten hooked on harder stuff and Rose issued them an ultimatum not too long after this outburst: shape up, or find yourself replaced.

            Axl has taken a great deal of heat subsequently for his slow ascension to absolute control of the group. One night, while the others were all wasted, he apparently made them sign over all rights to the name Guns N’ Roses as well, under threat that he would walk away from the group if they did not. Yet it must be said that without someone manning the controls, this band, like countless others before and after who did not have such a figure among its members, would have almost surely gotten completely derailed at this point. If it means labeling him a control freak – and certainly, there are plenty of people who have some seriously choice words to say about Axl Rose, making him a tough figure to defend – at least there was definable purpose behind his actions.

            In January they begin laying down tracks for their long awaited full length follow up to Appetite. Slash and Duff, both clearly intoxicated, show up to accept an award on the 1990 edition of American Music Awards and drop a number of f-bombs during their speech. Those two also did some work on Iggy Pop’s latest album during this time. On the substance abuse front, Slash and Izzy manage to clean themselves up to Axl’s satisfaction, but Steven is issued his second warning and even signs papers to the effect that either he loses the drugs or he loses Guns N’ Roses as the employer listed on his resume. They manage to record one completed new track with him, Civil War. By now, keyboardist Dizzy Reed has been brought aboard and added as an official legal member of the group, though this is by no means the only immediate change to this heretofore familiar cast. In April, they play the Indianapolis stop of Farm Aid IV, which is televised – it is their last show ever with Adler, who is soon canned in favor of former Cult drummer Matt Sorum.

            The band is by now fully entrenched in the studio, hammering out songs on a daily basis. Uninitiated into their methods of operation, Sorum admits in interviews to being completely distressed at first that the band refused to do patches on their recordings, that they insisted on playing songs live in the studio and starting over if anyone screwed up (though they would overdub at a later date here and there, and this rule also did not apply whatsoever to Axl’s vocals). They also have a policy of working on no more than two songs on any given day, and pressing onward until at least one of these is finished before introducing the next. Sonically, having Reed aboard opens up a different sound for them, and Axl is also playing some piano now, even a little guitar, while Izzy and Duff also take the occasional lead vocal turn, too. As a tease their version of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door makes its way onto the Days Of Thunder soundtrack, garnering a decent amount of radio play, and the last track they ever recorded with Adler, Civil War, graces a benefit album for Romanian orphans titled Nobody’s Child.

            By the end of September, they allegedly have nearly three dozen songs in the can, and are discussing release dates with Geffen, a turn of events followed by…absolute silence. Nothing. Not a peep from the band. In actuality, what had transpired during the summer was that the music had been finished for a stunning array of tracks, but, ever the perfectionist – some would say overrated hack who needed a tremendous amount of effort to coax passable takes, though I disagree – Axl still felt he had a boatload of work to do regarding his own vocals, and this alone would tie up the album’s release date for months upon months.

            In the meantime, we have to make due with altercations pouring in from his rap sheet. On October 30, Axl is arrested for cracking his next door neighbor over the head with a wine bottle after she knocked on his front door, complaining that he was playing his music too loud. She is quoted as saying he wasted a very fine bottle of chardonnay.

 

 

           

            Though in its wake Appetite carried the promise of a changing guard, in the three years that had passed since it rode the charts and Lies backended it like a satellite or a moon, closing out that era, very little had actually changed on the hair rock scene. These bands and their production qualities had gotten a little rawer, the leonine manes now teased only halfway to the ceiling, but that was about it. Motley Crue had rode a mostly harder, leaner sound to great success with their Dr. Feelgood album, and newcomers Skid Row had notched not one but two multiplatinum releases, in ‘89 and ‘91 respectively, representing for the most part the current template of this lamentable genre. Poison was also chugging along quite nicely with no discernible drop in their popularity.

            But as the Guns machinery ramps up for a second round, there is hope that they might blast some of these poseurs off the charts for good. On January 20th, 1991, they make their live debut with Matt Sorum and Dizzy Reed at Rock In Rio II, a series of concerts stretching nine days down in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The first of these was held in 1985 and had drawn 1.5 million fans total, and while attendance at this year’s edition was down slightly, 700K tickets sold was nothing to shake a stick at. GN’R headlined two of the nine nights, as did Prince and George Michael, although it was, curiously enough, the night that one hit wonders (at least in the US) A-ha took top billing that the single night attendance record was set, at 198,000 attendees.

            In photos taken at the time and interviews given, Matt and Dizzy seem like giddy children handed the keys to a candy store. Actually, not only was this their first gig with the group, they’d never even practiced with Axl at all until their soundcheck here, which seems astounding given the enormity of this event. A Brazilian tv network is filming this rehearsal on the sly until their touring manager Doug Goldstein attacks one of the cameramen and snags the tape.

            Preparing for not only this event but an upcoming tour, Axl has been working out and looks quite buff here. At the show he is rocking his American flag biker shorts, and this bizarre new mic stand of his that looks like a capital A with the bottom right stem busted off and a chunk of the middle left missing. Sets are heavy as could be expected on the newer material they’ve written but not yet released, though the band also likes to throw in snippets of Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed or the theme from The Godfather as song intros, and on both nights Matt and Slash are allowed extended solos while the rest of the band takes a breather.

            Given Axl’s soon to be notorious propensity for freaking out at shows, it’s amazing to note – or maybe it merely indicates that this is too great a stage to risk such antics – that they didn’t completely cancel their January 23rd performance in light of what happened the first night. In the middle of their blistering set, Axl’s microphone stops working at one point during You Could Be Mine. Izzy steps in without missing a beat and takes over singing lead, as while visibly frustrated, Axl avoids a major freakout somehow until the problem is fixed. Ranting at the soundman is held in check until the song is finished – a remarkable show of restraint for Mr. Rose. All around Axl is in great spirits here, actually, and actually throws an impromptu party in his hotel room.

            A day after their second performance, Slash appears on the cover of Rolling Stone and is interviewed within. That he seems the most laidback and approachable of the band’s members (unless that would be Duff. Or Matt. Basically, anyone but the reluctant Izzy or the often impossible Axl) surely accounts for his choice as the piece’s focus, though it makes perfect sense in general that magazines are tiptoeing cautiously around the Guns N’ Roses camp. They now have a stipulation in place with many major media players that the band must review and endorse anything that’s published about them under penalty of substantial fines, which is unusual to say the least. Even global juggernaut MTV finds out first hand when they film a treasure trove of material during the summer of 1991, only to have Guns veto everything even remotely controversial and leave the network with basically what amounted to a handful of marginal snippets to work into its hourly news flashes.

            The tour kicks off proper in Milwaukee on May 24. Axl had injured his foot during a warmup show in New York on the 17th and is wearing this weird robotic cast, though appears hampered not the least as they launch into Right Next Door To Hell in front of a crowd some 40,000 strong. Already major headliners after just one full length album under their belt, they now have jet with a bar in the middle of it, although Izzy, the lone wolf abstaining from this bit of rock n’ roll excess, refuses to fly. He has his own RV and takes this along with his two dogs a majority of the time. Duff, meanwhile, hates having a bodyguard, and is constantly trying to ditch him. Contrast their attitude against Axl, who has his own dressing home at the shows. And when they do fly into a show, three limos await, which play out as Axl, Slash/Duff, and Matt/Dizzy – an arrangement that makes easy fodder for those quick to criticize these guys as spoiled twats, and at the very least, a disruption of the tight dynamic from those Hell House days which forged their early sound.

            Originally, the tour was scheduled to have coincided more or less with the release of their forthcoming album. Conflicting reports emerge, however, as to who is exactly to blame for this. On June 17th, at a stop in Uniondale, NY, Axl apologizes to the crowd for showing up by helicopter some two hours late but adds that they should write a letter to Geffen Records if they are still upset about it. He then offers the additional insight that the new record is being delayed because, “Geffen Records decided they wanted to change the contract, and I’m deciding fuck you. And since I don’t have time to do both go back there and argue and bitch with them or be on tour, I guess we’ll just be on tour and have a good time and fuck them. It’s a shame but… So we’ll play a lot of the new shit tonight and it really doesn’t matter does it?”

            Yet at a show in Saratoga Springs exactly one week earlier, he encourages the crowd to chant “get in the ring,” over and over again for use in a song of the same name, which they are playing and hope to include on their pending release. This would indicate that they are still in the process of finalizing material if true, which it apparently is.

            Controversy abounds on this tour, but it is no longer substance abuse or debauchery for the most part. Those hedonistic concerns have given way on a seeming daily basis to Axl’s altercations with various individuals. Izzy, for example, with his cab driver’s hat and vest and black attire a uniform of sorts, appears almost British, hearkening back to classic rock royalty from the 60s, and yet his behavior has in fact made a complete turnaround. He now bears nothing in common with Keiths Richards or Moon, not to mention his former self. Every morning down in Rio he had gotten up early to go skateboarding, and continues this ritual while on tour. Meanwhile his lifelong friend and lead singer of his band moves in a decidedly less tranquil direction, picking fights at almost every stop.

            On June 13 in Philadelphia a fan kicks the camera out of officially sanctioned photographer Robert John’s hand, and Axl goes ballistic. He challenges the fan to a fight, and refuses to play until that person is ejected from the arena. Days later the You Could Be Mine single is released, and the video begins blowing up on MTV, but these positive developments seem to have placated Rose’s mood not the least. Or was this fervor merely the mindset he needed to work himself up to in order to deliver the rock, like a method actor getting into character? At any rate, when Arnold the Terminator determines at the video’s conclusion that Axl was a “waste of ammo,” there are a growing number of bodies who would agree with this assessment.

            Nonetheless, they are still acquiring legions of fans beyond what losing the occasional pissed off person meant, they could afford these episodes. And whatever anyone had to say on tangential topics, when it came to performance these guys were consistently top notch. Axl’s vocals remain a focal point, with Slash’s searing leads coming in a distant second, and it was impossible to find much to criticize with either, nor with any other aspect of their approach. Occasional grumblings were heard from “true” fans that they had gotten too bloated and watered down, but the new material played well against the old, even when representing a stylistic departure.

            Controversy kept the turnstiles spinning to some degree, too, however, and from this angle it didn’t get much better than the July 2 show in St. Louis. Kurt Loder and the other talking heads on MTV were suddenly granted enough material to run with for months, it seemed, when they weren’t busy playing You Could Be Mine. During a performance of Rocket Queen, attired in some hilarious getup that might be described as consisting of white biker shorts, a white bandana underneath some plastic variation on the type of cap Izzy usually wears, no shirt but a fake gorilla pelt fur (or whatever), Axl pauses midsong to demand that security seize a video camera from a fan shooting unauthorized film. After waiting exactly six seconds for the guards to respond in a manner that he saw fit, Axl announces, “I’ll take it, goddammit,” and jumps into the crowd. When he ascends back to the stage following a brief scuffle with said fan, he concludes, “well, thanks to the lame ass security, I’m going home!” as he throws down his microphone and storms off. Even the normally reserved Slash, rather than rising above the morass, flips off the crowd and declares, “we’re outta here.”

            When Axl had chucked his mouthpiece, the resultant boom made many believe that a gun had gone off.  And though it later became apparent that the band did intend to retake the stage that night, the damage had already been done, as police are unable to control the crowd and a fullblown melee breaks out. Sixty fans are injured, most of the group’s equipment is destroyed, and GN’R is later charged with inciting a riot. End of show.

            Events spiral further downward, at least from one band member’s standpoint. On August 31st they are playing their last show on this leg of the tour, to a sold out mob of 76,000 in London’s Wembley Stadium. In the past two months, following St. Louis, they had already suffered Axl walking off the stage in Finland for half an hour as the band played without him, a show in Stockholm that started a couple hours late because Axl was busy playing roulette and watching a fireworks spectacle, and a stop in Oslo, Norway, that was cancelled for no other reason than that Axl decided to fly to Paris and hang out instead, Izzy has seen enough.

            For a music lover, a fine line separates what which is “rock and roll” from that which is “bullshit.” It’s a debate that has been running for decades. The same forces that forge an artist’s authenticity, when viewed in a different light, can drive devotees away. Antics we tolerate and possible even admire in one singer we condemn in another, for no concrete reason other than personal taste. And so while on one hand my teenage self especially tends to appreciate that Axl is not simply dialing it in, is not going through the motions when he doesn’t feel like it, the argument that he is disruptive and counterproductive is certainly a valid one.

            But whatever our opinions, this is a dialog limited to those on the outside. Rhythm guitarist songwriters in rock bands don’t sit around thinking about their mercurial frontmen in quite the same way, and if this individual is fed up, he just quits. Which is precisely what founding member Izzy Stradlin does on November 7, the Wembley Stadium show, itself the quickest sell out in the history of this venue, his last with the band. And to even this you could argue: is his quitting rock and roll, or is it bullshit?

           

 

            This idiotic tug of war has been going on for months. As if realizing that Axl Rose represents for us teenage boys the pinnacle of cool, our parents have done everything they can to diffuse our interest in him. Or do they just not like him on some genuine, basic human level? Probably some combination of the two. Darren’s dad refers to him as “Asshole Rose,” however, and my own father, going through some weird Tipper Gore phase, has been censoring my music for months. He’s been inspecting my music collection with an eagle eye for anything even remotely inappropriate, and throwing all contraband away. In one of the more hilarious episodes, this involved David Lee Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough (because of the devil on the cover) and Metallica’s …And Justice For All (because of the lyrics), which were two cassettes he confiscated from my room – only problem was, I had rented those from the library, and he was forced to fork over the replacement fees himself. And yet the primary target of his ire, as always, remained Guns N’ Roses.

            “I’m not supporting this crap!” he continually asserted.

            “You’re actually supporting it even more, because I’ll just keep buying another copy,” I tell him. And while correct, this defense surely isn’t doing me any favors, either.

            My first Guns purchase had been Lies on cassette, from the IGA supermarket in my tiny hometown. They had a rack up front with all the modern releases and a handful of choice classics at the time, and when, true to form, he had thrown that away, I purchased a replacement. But now our idols were coming to town – or, near enough, to Dayton Ohio some two hours away – and the stakes were escalated even higher. How to sneak off to see these legends on a Monday night in the middle of the school year? They had been through Ohio twice already during this current tour, as it turns out, but I knew none of this, all that mattered was that my friends Darren, Joe, and Kenny were going and they wanted to know if I was in. So I told them yes, figuring I would sort out the details later.

            Don’t Cry had been released as a single in early September, and became the band’s fifth top ten hit. Right around that same time, about a week before the two Use Your Illusions albums come out, I had taped a radio show where they were playing a huge chunk of the upcoming monster. Cuss words bleeped out, brief snatches of interview and commercials caught before I could stop the tape, songs all out of order from what they would actually appear on the releases, but essentially there. My junior year of high school had just started, and while everyone I associated with was just as big of a GN’R fanatic as me, somehow nobody else had gotten this and it briefly made my two tapes a hot commodity. As luck would have it, two seniors we viewed as ultra cool and crazy, friends of ours but at the same time older kids we looked up to, Tim and Jeremy, they’d invited Darren, Joe, our other friend Curt Nickell and I out camping for the weekend in some remote location those two favored. As Darren swings by to pick me up, however, and I’m decked out in my way too baggy camouflage pants, holding a sleeping bag in one hand and the two cassettes in the other, my dad stops us in the kitchen just like a scene from a heavily clichéd coming of age movie.

            “So when are the girls showing up?” he asks, and at that moment, coincidentally, I lose my grip on the tapes, they clatter to the floor and their cases bust apart into innumerable shards. In fact there aren’t any girls showing up, but I’m nervous anyway, nervous that he’s going to ask what I’ve got dubbed on here. Fortunately as I’m stooped over scooping up the pieces, Darren offers the skilled deflection he is known for. With a laugh, he counters, “he’s always nervous when anyone mentions girls,” and my dad chuckles at this, too, and we leave.

            This night will forever stand in my mind whenever I think about the Illusions albums as a whole. For though the night starts in promising fashion, launching tennis balls and potatoes across this field from a homemade cannon that Tim and Jeremy had built, and proceeded into the camp site itself, where a few older kids were hanging out, drinking beer, showing off a battery operated pistol that one of them had built, and another actually making coffee from another jerry rigged contraption – for these were deranged geniuses of a sort, these slightly older mentors of ours – the night was a dud. Long before midnight, everyone except for the four of us had fallen asleep in the woods, around this modest four. Without discussing where we were headed or what we might get into, Darren, Joe, Curt and I picked up our sleeping bags and slipped off back to the pair of vehicles we’d arrived in.

            Darren and I had cruised here rocking out to my dubbed cassettes and continue to do so. Speaking of the weird guitar bit at the end of Civil War he says this is “Slash’s Syd Barrett moment,” and as we cruise around the deserted countryside, Curt’s deathtrap ride close behind, we cut through the fog and somehow wind up out by Clearfork Reservoir. Right around this moment, inspiration hits. Both vehicles have backseats piled up with fireworks and other things that go boom…a Friday night out in the middle of nowhere…yeah….

            And thus the long and storied history of the car chase is born.

            On its maiden voyage, it is no exaggeration to say that we rampage around in this fashion from about one o’clock in the morning until daylight. During which, there is a singular soundtrack playing in Darren’s maroon Chevette, and that would be Mssrs. Rose et al. Sometimes we are the lead car, sometimes they, sometimes one gets far enough ahead to hide and ambush, bottle rockets and Roman candles blazing. It’s a disaster in the making on one hand, but terrific experience in car handling on the other. As the sun is just peeking over the lip of the horizon, Darren pulls into the driveway where another classmate resides, near the lake and someone we are only marginally acquainted with, where we both pass out in the car for a few hours. We had lost track of Curt and Joe for good about a half hour earlier, down around the marina. When I wake up again, GN’R is cranking as high as the stereo will allow and we’re about a block away from my house, Darren’s laughing his ass off that somehow I had slept through such racket.

            On Tuesday the albums make their proper debut and opinions are divided in the hallways and classrooms of our high school. Dan Randle, an astute music historian whose analysis I respect, observes that while the curse words on Appetite seemed a natural, organic part of the songs, on here they sound forced, as though the band felt like they had to throw some in. Fair enough, but I disagree. And anyway when the intriguing Don’t Cry video appears – during which Axl displays what might be termed some decent acting chops (and, in an intriguing bit of foresight, is pictured with a Nirvana hat in one scene) – right around the time of Izzy’s departure, we have plenty else to discuss. But what about the songs?

            Right Next Door To Hell kicks off the set in ferocious fashion, and is probably at least partly about Axl’s incident with the wine bottle and the neighbor lady. Dust N’ Bones, my personal early favorite, gives off more of a classic rock honky tonk vibe that they are drifting toward in other spots, too, throughout this collection. Their cover of Live And Let Die is passable enough but there are no transcendent Slash solos a la their Dylan remake, and this cut is in no way necessary – although providing as it does a great venue for making fun of the plinky original, as my brother and my cousin Dustin do one afternoon when riding around with Dad and the McCartney version comes across the radio dial. Closing out then with such standouts as Don’t Cry, Bad Obsession, Perfect Crime, and Double Talkin’ Jive – which features a great flamenco guitar solo and is marred only by its brevity – side one is probably the strongest of the four.

            Kicking off side two is Axl’s pet piece, November Rain, which might prove sappy in less skilled hands but is a symphonic masterpiece here, with some terrific guitar work by Slash. Even our hippie friend Adam Calloway digs it, and he abhors Guns N’ Roses. The Garden features a great, surprising guest vocal from Alice Cooper, and Garden Of Eden, directly behind it, smokes along at warp speed even if it does feature some questionable synth overdubs or whatever those are. Bad Apples a cool, funky departure with particularly inspired lyrics, followed by the somewhat silly Dead Horse before the first slab rebounds with the epic Coma, another gem that details the extensive therapy sessions that Axl has been undergoing in an effort to figure out, among other things, why he is so angry all of the time.

            As for the second half of this massive project,  civil War, the only track from the double album that Adler played on, is a great song with a slightly too long ending, and right behind it, 14 Years, featuring Izzy on lead vocal, might be the hidden gem of this entire project. Unfortunately from here we delve into a trifle such as Yesterdays, which isn’t bad – and is a perfect example of how great players can reach into their bag of tricks and make a song seem better than it actually is – but isn’t especially memorable, either, and further suffers from a title very similar to a certain well known Beatles song. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, a staple of their live set for years and somewhat of a radio hit for them before the studio version even came out, is well done but unnecessary, and while I thought then and still think now that Get In The Ring is an entertaining romp from start to finish, it’s probably the sort of curiosity best issued B-side status and made into a semi-obscure crowd favorite. Certainly one has a hard time picturing its inclusion upon an absolute classic album (then again, despite its bloated status, maybe GNR themselves were under no, ahem, illusions that this sprawling double disc effort was going to be another Appetite), and it also seems much less cool when you realize that certain figures named in the song actually challenged Axl to a boxing match, and were never given a response. Shotgun Blues and Breakdown then close out side 3 in not-bad-but-certainly-not essential fashion.

            Pretty Tied Up starts off the final side with a bang, followed by the fairly strong rocker Locomotive and Duff’s sweet lounge number of sorts, So Fine. Estranged I really found somewhat of a bore to begin with, but despite its admittedly excessive running time, the track does grow on me over time. Actually, when you then segue into the sterling mega hits You Could Be Mine and the alternate take of Don’t Cry, only the absolutely wretched techno (I’m guessing that’s what you would have to call this nonsense?) experiment My World mars this side, leaving the debate still open as to which of the four sides is actually strongest. Overall, the lyrics are again stronger than their contemporaries’, much better than they are ever given credit for. I could do without the weird snatches of movie dialogue thrown in for no apparent reason, however, aside from maybe the Cool Hand Luke quote that kicks off Civil War.

            There are few legitimate reasons, ever, for issuing a double album, particularly when each of the single discs is nearly as long as a typical double. Having a cohesive narrative that could not possibly be wrapped up in a single album, a la The Wall, makes for a rare exception, as for every one of those, particularly in the bloated 1970s, there was seemingly ten triple live Chicago albums, and worse. Even The Beatles would have been better served stripping that “white album” down by half. But one other reason for justifying such excess, if not quite legitimizing it, is in the case of a band just like Guns N’ Roses, which threatens to and in fact does fall apart almost as soon as the album has gone to press: best get this stuff down while you still have a chance. Nobody is arguing that Illusion wouldn’t have been better as a single disc, assuming that the band was able to, say, continue working a few more years, whittle down and jettison some of the weaker material, come up with a few new jams and put out another disc three or four years down the road. But as they were clearly unable to, the debate becomes: would you have rather been granted one of these albums, and never heard anything off of the other, or would you rather have both, warts and all? In which case I must choose the latter.

            In an extensive dual review, Rolling Stones gives both albums four stars. This seems about right to me. They aren’t masterpieces, but they are certainly above average, even in a standout year for rock as 1991 has been.

 

           

            Tension abides even up to an hour before we leave for the show. For weeks now I’ve been telling my parents that we are going to see Soundgarden, a band they have never heard of, who are in fact opening for GN’R. This is technically not a lie – some hipsters at school talk about driving all the way down to Dayton to watch them, then leaving before Axl and company come on – and a safe pick because while this relatively new Seattle sludge band has a hit song out right now in Outshined, its lyrics are easily understood and are nothing anyone would object to. Daniel does relate to me one hysteric incident where he’s sitting in the living room and Dad’s flipping channels, happens upon the Soundgarden video.

            “This is the band your brother is going to see?” Dad bellows, and at the image of singer Chris Cornell parading around the screen, he shouts, “why don’t you get a shirt and get a job!”

            Elsewhere, he has griped to me about the $18 I paid for this ticket, that an Alice Cooper show he went to in the 70s cost about a third of that. I wanted to point out that these things are all relative and that such info was about as tired as a grandparent warbling about five cent loaves of bread, but thought this might damage my chances. Clear up until this fateful Monday, the threat was hovering over me like a prison sentence, that any misstep might potentially mean a grounding or otherwise having this show taken away. But I arrive home from school this afternoon, and even as Kenny arrives to pick me up, all appears golden. Except that Dad insists upon picking up the phone right before we step out, and give Darren’s father a shout.

            I can feel the entire enterprise crumbling beneath my feet. Darren’s dad is notoriously no fan of Guns N’ Roses, either, and while his dislike doesn’t extend to disallowing his son’s attendance – after all, he has volunteered to drive us there – a telephone rant now will completely annihilate this ruse I’ve spent a month and a half concocting. Dad’s asking him various questions about when we’re leaving, how bad this looming snow storm is supposed to be, and the like.

            “Uh huh, uh huh,” he says, and then abruptly asks, “now, who did you say they were going to see again?”

            Kenny and I exchange quick, horrified expressions that Dad fortunately does not catch. And then, inexplicably, just when I’m mentally running through every defense tactic in the book, Darren’s dad mutters an exasperated unthinkable, saying, “ah, hell, I don’t know, one of these goddamn bands they listen to.”

            And just like that, we are off. Kenny is blasting Master Of Puppets in his car as we ride into town, for he and I both live in the boondocks. Down in Darren’s basement, we hastily draw up a banner that says GUNS N’ FUCKIN’ ROSES, replete with some truly lame drawings of the objects named in their moniker. Tim has lent us a pocket recorder in the hopes that we might capture the show, and as we are backing out of the driveway, Darren also commits each of our thoughts to tape. He has seen Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney perform, his parents have taken him to a couple shows here and there, but for Joe and Kenny and me, this is our first ever concert and we are stoked beyond any sensible expression, certainly incapable of any wisdom nugget that will age well on this tape.

            Darren’s dad takes a somewhat unusual route, sticking to highway 42 from Lexington clear down to where it intersects with interstate 70. By the time we had hit Cardington, the snow was coming heavily and our middle aged driver already appeared somewhat frazzled, be it from the weather conditions or our crazed chirping. The further south we head, the worse the forecast becomes, and as interstate traffic creeps down well below the posted speed limit we actually question, though hilarious to us now, whether we will make it to the show on time.

            We make it to the door, but my first rock concert experience is actually about as lame as it gets. The security guard says the band isn’t allowing any banners at this show, and makes me throw it out – apparently, standard issue behavior for Guns N’ Roses, unless they are filming a video. This seems to me almost certainly something that Axl has stipulated, and still makes no rational sense. Spooked by this encounter, meanwhile, Darren knows they are going to find his pocket recorder when they pat us down, and so he retreats to the car to stash it away.

            This is actually just about the smallest venue the band has booked for the entire tour, and somewhat of an odd choice city-wise as well. But the weather hasn’t prevented a near capacity crowd from showing up, has possibly even increased the likelihood of such: bad weather towns are notoriously fervent about their rock music, because there is nothing else to do. Standing in four separate merchandise lines, the four of us have somehow all chosen the exact same shirt to purchase, from a plethora of options, with no knowledge of what the others were up to. Black, with a skull sitting atop a tattered among flag on its front, sporting a bandanna and with the barrels of two shotguns peeking out from over his shoulder. On the back, simply a “G N’ Fn R” in red script, like dripping blood.

            After the Wembley show had wrapped up that leg of the tour in August, the band had taken about three months off to deal with the album release and all its attendant obligations. On December 5th the tour resumed, but was now augmented by backup girl singers, a second keyboard player, even the occasional horn section at select spots. As much as Axl’s antics incensed him, it was apparently this bloated version of the band that Izzy objected to just as much, and when he and Rose couldn’t come to an agreement, Stradlin left the group. They had a month to initiate Gilby Clarke, formerly of the L.A. band Kill For Thrills, but he looks at least like a proper Gun, we don’t object to him as a replacement.

            Our tickets take us to a section one up from the floor, stage right, not a bad locale at all  by any stretch. The four of us then choose our exact seats at random, though it becomes quickly apparent that I’ve hit the jackpot by being last in line. To my right two hot metal fanatic chicks sit down, both visibly about the same age as us. Joe and Kenny are both fresh into their newfound cigarette habits within the past six months or so, but it’s Darren, clear down at the furthest seat away, who comes up with the angle that I should, “ask the girls for smokes.”

            Maybe somehow they ferret out some fakery, in handing over just two cigarettes, but it’s true that I don’t care about this and neither does Darren. While passing the requested materials further on down the line, I strike up conversation with the brunette, Kelly, to my immediate right, and soon her flaxen haired associate Star is chiming in. Both are exquisitely attired in black tops and tight jeans – Kelly has long kinky hair, a velvety vest buttoned up with nothing underneath; Star, one of those flimsy blouses with sleeves like veils. High schoolers like us, albeit from right here in Dayton, they are madly obsessed with the band. Kelly confesses a huge crush on Duff, while Star is reluctant to name a favorite.

This trio of college age students filters into the seats directly before of this, one of them wearing a cast on his right arm. They’ve no sooner climbed into their seats, however, and the chap with the broken arm promptly pops open some secret hatch concealed on the now clearly bogus cast, extracts a joint. For the remainder of the evening, they repeatedly return to this apparently endless stash. And some middle aged guy in a camouflage jacket dances alone in the aisle to Damon’s left to the mostly, for whatever reason, Metallica songs broadcasting on the overhead speakers and some enormous redheaded dude a few rows behind us – which are yet to fill in at this relatively early hour – in a pea green army jacket has each arm around a surprisingly attractive female flanking him on both sides. He keeps whistling and shouting a bunch of hilarious comments to nobody in particular; my first time out, yeah, I see and take in everything.

This upperclassman Mike from my accounting class kept talking all week about driving down just to catch his favorite band, opening act Soundgarden, and then leaving. But he doesn’t, nor does anyone else. As far as we can tell, hot as GN’R are at this height of their considerable commercial powers, the four of us are the only ones from our school who came here. 

Soundgarden take the stage, but from the word go, they just sound like one gigantic sludgy mess. The four of us are each familiar with just the one hit song – and the girls not even that – and maybe this would have made a difference, being more familiar. But it shouldn’t, and I doubt it would have. Dad would have been considerably bemused, I’m sure, to see singer Chris Cornell has still not found a shirt, though I would assume he’s doing alright in the job department.

“Get off the stage Sound-Dick!” the belligerent redhead behind us hollers, between songs.

At any rate, if Dad was beside me bitching about them now instead of Kelly, I unfortunately would have had to agree. At least they are punctual: we’ve heard horror stories about this so called “Get in the Ring Tour” starting ridiculously late, but they take the stage within a half hour of the “Around 8pm” starting time listed on our tickets. Our corpulent friend to the rear, however, is moved not even by this.

“Go home, Sound-Pussy!” he shouts, and the girls snuggling up to him snicker.

Predictably, the last song they play – the first we recognize – is Outshined, though it sounds like a half-eaten tape, emerging from the murk only because we already know it. Whether they’ve heard our distant friend’s strident pleas or not, they do exit the stage upon this cut’s conclusion, which is literally the coolest moment of the night thus far – guitarist Kim Thayil hangs his feedbacking guitar upon an amp and walks off, and it rings out for a good five minutes after they’ve left the stage.

An eternity passes. Our veteran looking friend in camo is out dancing in the aisles to Metallica again, headbanging even. The boys keep having me borrow smokes from the more than willing females, but I never partake; if they had caught me in my more impressionable early days, then maybe, but the key I discovered magically somehow in the summer between that 10th and this 11th grade year is not caring what anyone else thinks about anything, and doing only what I want. And this entire school year has been like one fantastic dream, climaxing with this very moment: chatting up the two girls geography has granted me, while my curiously, atypically coy friends are making occasional shy stabs at talking to them, but mostly puffing away and murmuring amongst themselves. Damon even deciding, for one night only, he’s going to become a smoker, too.

We have waited more than an hour since Soundgarden left the stage before Slash ambles out with some weak apology. He explains that while Soundgarden were on the stage “the main amp blew.” We buy this explanation at the time, though it will come to light days later that this is complete horseshit. On one hand, knowing Slash, his conscience prompted him to come out and say something to the fans; but on the other, why this nonsense tale? In truth, as it turns out, Axl hasn’t even arrived in Dayton, Ohio yet: goofing around still in whatever the last city they’d played in had been, and now blindsided by this blizzard. And all this talk – watching a GN’R special on MTV about this tour, and guitarist Gilby Clarke talking about Axl, about waiting backstage until Axl felt ready to perform, and I wonder, subsequently, after learning the truth, if this is what Gilby meant. And anyway, the image of these dudes as out of control badasses is somewhat nullified by the evidence at hand, of grown men who lie to their fans and don’t allow banners in arenas.

Till midnight on the nose we 12,000 wait, but I can testify that the instant the band emerges and rips into the opening manic crunch of Welcome to the Jungle and Axl Rose comes screaming down the tunnel – “wohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHH…..” – and streaks onto the Guns N’ Roses logo emblazoned upon stage center, all is instantly forgotten. We can see now that Soundgarden had only been granted a small portion of the sizeable playing area, which doesn’t explain away their sludginess, but justifies their tendency to stand and do nothing. Axl clearly has no such problem, in some kind of manic zone as he runs around wherever he pleases throughout the night with a cordless microphone, and if anyone gets in his way, it seems, he’ll shove them aside. So the story goes, although I notice that bandmembers are never given a shove, it is only the lowly roadies who happen to be standing in the way of his furious wandering path. He runs up one of the two ramps – each side of the stage has one, both leading to another, even higher platform running the length of the room’s rear – and we witness one such roadie being pushed aside; it seems a miracle there aren’t more.

It’s So Easy is the second song they play, followed by Night Train, My Michelle, and another tune from Appetite, then three more from Lies – it seems they’re moving in sequential order. But just when I think this, they stop, allowing us to catch a break from this breakneck pace they’ve set – and they operate without a set list, they’ve always said, and what we can gather from the lightning fast huddles after each song, this would seem to be the case – or else they’re the most amazing actors in history – but even allowing time for these quick powwows, they’ve flown through eight songs already without pause and are merely getting warmed up…..at a point when most bands, I will learn through my future concert-going years, are hitting their halfway point, if not wrapping things up in anticipation of an encore. Axl disappears, and now Duff McKagan is singing lead vocal, on some punk cover called Attitude. Which totally smokes, even though none of us have heard it before.

Though they’ve been around not even five years, already just three original members are left. It says a lot for our collective devotion, really, the way Gilby is already well known to everyone, despite not having appeared on the Illusion records (or any other, obviously). We hang upon these MTV News broadcasts nightly, though, and the four of us are obviously not alone. We tolerate keyboardist Dizzy Reed, too, because he’s pictured in the identical band photo gracing the inside sleeve of both Illusion cassettes, listed now apparently as the official sixth member. But there’s a seventh musician onstage, Teddy Andreadis or whatever the hell his name is, who looks like some cheesy hanger-on (and probably is), and three backup chick singers as well. All of which would normally Springsteen-dilute the overall impact of the music, if not for the absolute ferocity of these five cats. What they’re playing drowns out the keyboards and backup singers anyway, which relegates them essentially to what Slash has hinted at in their interviews: Axl’s pointless classic rock trip. Not that we’re debating all this at the moment; rather, in the wake of this orange spotlight that slashes her all night, one of the backup singers – a smoking hot black girl – is wearing a similarly colored dress, and from where we’re standing it appears as if she’s standing there naked. For much of the night we debate this, especially Darren and myself, until the right lighting strikes her and it’s made obvious she isn’t.

Following Duff’s lead vocal turn, they attack this double Illusions beast proper. Discarding the chronological bent of their first breakneck run, they volley back and forth between the two efforts. Casting the two keyboard players aside for just this once – perched, both of them, on the highest platform, stage right – Axl has to climb over equipment in an almost comical fashion to reach his own piano, for his only instrumental effort of the night, to this piano mounted high stage left for November Rain. Somewhere along the line the hits You Could Be Mine and Civil War are busted out, the latter the only track from the newest releases featuring original drummer Stephen Adler, before his heroin problem sent him packing. I also recall a smoking Double Talkin’ Jive. Somewhere along the line Matt Sorum has a kickass drum solo, and they play what seems like half of the thirty Illusion tracks, and the two guitarists trade off licks, alone on the stage, from the Eagles song Hotel California. Oh, and a possibly drunken Duff falls down once running down a ramp, though his condition doesn’t prevent him from doing an exquisite take on So Fine.

Somehow, our heroes have eaten up three hours already. I will forever hold onto the memory, during Welcome to the Jungle, of the band ripping through this track and I’m standing almost in a daydream, thinking that this is completely bizarre, that it is THE Axl Rose and THE Saul “Slash” Hudson and THE Duff McKagan now standing before me. This isn’t a video, this is the band. They are only in one spot in this world right now, and it is here.

Except now they are off the stage, for the requisite encore. This blinking digital display of red lights keeps blinking “Guns…..N’……Fuckin…..Roses…..” and each flash is chanted along in fervent fashion by the converted faithful. Eventually, though unable to see him, we hear Axl say over the p.a. either “that was pretty sweet!” (Kenny’s version) or “that was pretty weak!” (my own impression). At any rate, they soon emerge for a final run.

Apart from one long monologue ranting against the media approximately 1/4 of the way into their set, Axl hasn’t said too much apart from singing the words. They play a slower ballad, and Star is given to standing, like me – she and I have not sat down at any moment that GN’R have been on stage – but Kelly and the other three guys have a seat. She has a smoking body – whereas Kelly, while attractive, and wearing the appropriately slutty makeup and jewelry one would expect of a metal chick, is just skinny – and anytime I think about this show, I wonder what we would have done, all of us, had we been a little older. Kelly has spent much of the night talking about Duff, but for variety’s sake, I drift over to stand beside Damon.

“This is our happy song,” Axl explains, and Darenn and I, wondering all night if they’re ever going to break forth Get in the Ring – one of our favorite tracks – believe now is the moment. Since this is named the Get in the Ring Tour and all, we figure they’re bound to play it. But no, it’s Estranged, a song that interests us decidedly less.

Paradise City closes out the show, three and a half hours after they first took the stage. Raging with adrenaline doesn’t even begin to describe the state we four are in, and likely much of the rest of the crowd as well. Inexplicably, however, we simply wave a goodbye to Kelly and Star and part ways, no phone numbers exchanged. A blizzard rages still outside and we encounter Darren’s poor dad in the car, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee, three thirty in the morning, with at least a two hour drive staring us in the face. And this is a school night.

As he had during the trip down, Alan somehow inherits the shotgun seat. We’re barely on the highway and the other three are sound asleep – Kenny passed out against my right shoulder and snoring – but though I close my eyes briefly, I find I am completely unable to drift away. No surprise here. For the remaining two plus hour drive, I stare out the window at the swirling snow and unfamiliar landscape, going over the show in my head.

Just past six o’clock in the morning, we arrive in Lexington again. Kenny and I climb inside his vehicle and the Metallica cassette we’d been listening to what seems a lifetime earlier instantly greets us with an ear splitting volume.

“Fuck that!” he chortles wryly, stabbing the off button.

“Really,” I agree.

Mom is sitting in the living room and Dad’s pacing the length of it when Kenny drops me off, both furious and concerned. “Doesn’t Darren’s Dad have enough sense to call!!!?” Dad bellyaches, but I mumble a quick “I don’t know” and drift off to bed. We’d felt so fired up, stoked, that when we parted in the driveway, the four of us were enthusing about how cool it was we’d be heading into our high school in about one hour, but now that the buzz has worn off, this doesn’t seem like such a hot idea. Much to my relief – and continual amazement at the fortuitous coincidence – Mom informs me that school has already been canceled, owing to the snow.

And I still remember collapsing into bed bone weary, but laying in the pitch black unable to sleep, owing to the pulverizing ringing in my ears. For two days to follow, I will hear this.

Two days later, on the 20th, we all four wear our shirts to school. Only one teacher accosts us, our tough as nails history overlord Oswalt.  Muttering “GN F’n R?” as if outraged.  Kenny makes up something on the spot, as to what the initials supposedly mean (“it means guns and fun and roses, sir” he explains, in his best Eddie Haskell voice), and we continue unfettered from this day forward, wearing the shirts as much as we please. In the spring, far more kids would attend a Pantera show, and wear their “Cowboys From Hell” shirts to school the next day, and the powers that be would make a huge deal about it, forcing kids to change shirts or else cover up the phrase.  But we were the original offensive tee shirt wearers, at least from our own school tenure, and it all started with Guns N’ Roses – what else. 

Advertisements