Has ever a rock band fallen so far as Guns N' Roses? Even in the Age of Nirvana they were still arguably the biggest band in the world, offering a carefully calibrated mélange of hard rock, glam, punk, and ’70s schlock, most of it delivered by a lithe and willowy dangerous pretty boy named W. Axl Rose.
But now, today, you say the words "Fat Axl" to just about anyone and you get an immediate smile of recognition: "Jesus! Did you see those pictures?"
The Fat Axl meme was based on a recent concert photo that showed a glowering Axl at full menace. Twenty-five years ago, the look might have been forceful. Today, when the scowler in question had packed on quite a few pounds — and was sporting a Wilford Brimley mustache and a comically large red bandana — the net effect was pretty buffoonish.
Friday night in Chicago, as Guns N' Roses wrapped up the first week of their formal Not in This Lifetime Tour, you couldn't helping thinking about what had brought Axl & Co. to this pass. Over the last 20 years, the fecklessness of his bandmates put him, the group's most unstable member, in possession of the band's name. The other Gunners were either kicked out for excessive drug use or left after getting fed up with Axl's personal buffoonery, which generally took the form of provoking fights, beating up his girlfriend, missing or being late for shows, and generally being a hellacious asshole.
Two decades went by during which GNR did nothing interesting, unless you count the time Axl toured under the GNR name with a guy named Buckethead on guitar. Buckethead performed with an upside-down KFC bucket on his head and covered his face with a white expressionless mask. He was a decent shredder if he had to be, but he was really an avant-fusion player, and his weirdness level was out of keeping with GNR's musical image. Guns N' Roses had become a joke.
At the show Friday, in front of a vast capacity audience in Soldier Field, the band made you forget all of it, for a while. In their prime, GNR delivered a convincing live assault; they were a bunch of degenerates, sure, but they could create a sonic force of immeasurable power and, importantly, clarity. In Chicago, the band, oddly humble, seemed to be at pains to show they weren't a joke anymore. Guns N' Roses actually took the stage 15 minutes before their scheduled start time — "early" and "Axl Rose" are words that have never appeared in the same sentence before — and they made every song count.
The band appeared at 9:15 and played for a solid two hours and 30 minutes. Two giant screens flanked the stage, projected with a crisp definition, making the show coherent to the 70,000 or so fans in the overlarge facility. Behind the band, another enormous screen projected various visuals (including one with cool green jellyfish, and another that featured skeletons vigorously fucking), again with a remarkable resolution. The first ten songs included "Mr. Brownstone," the first album's hymn to heroin; "Welcome to the Jungle"; the band's cover of "Live and Let Die"; and "You Could Be Mine," all done swiftly and with high professionalism.
For this tour, Rose was joined by bassist Duff McKagan and guitarist Slash, for a total of three of the band's five original members. (Steven Adler, the band's mediocre original drummer, remains a bit player on the celebrity rehab circuit; Izzy Stradlin, Rose's original partner, has by all accounts overcome addiction and made it clear he wants nothing more to do with Axl & Co.* This may change, however, if the current lineup keeps its act together; the Chicago show probably grossed upward of $7 million. On the other hand, why should Rose let Stradlin back in if he's selling out shows without him?)
This trio was buttressed by a Stradlin look-alike, Richard Fortus, on guitar; a couple of keyboard players, one of whom looked like an anime character; and a decent if ingratiating drummer, Frank Ferrer. (For all the competency that this aggregation displayed, there's a different feel when you have a real rock band, with five equal members, playing, rather than a few famous front men backed by submissive session folks.)
Rose looked like 40 miles of rough road. He was recently reported to have been taking steps online to shut down the "Fat Axl" meme. He didn't look quite that bad, but all in all it wasn't pretty. I don't want to fat-shame the guy, but he simply asks for it. At the show, Rose wore a T-shirt with a picture of a woman bending over, shot from behind, with the legend "SHOW SOME CLASS," with the "CL" crossed out. Back in the day, Rose had an almost-feminine aspect as he swayed around stages. The same moves today would have done serious damage to the equipment onstage. His antic facial expressions, projected at huge size, were often just this side of comical, and sometimes on the other side of it. He sported a flannel shirt firmly tied around his waist for the whole show, probably to mask an ample backside. Another of the half-dozen or more different T-shirts he sported featured a topless woman wearing a gas mask. Her ample breasts were splayed broadly over his belly, which seemed to be battling valiantly against a set of industrial-grade Spanx.
He was fairly mobile, however, and stomped around the stage heavily, showing no sign of the broken foot he suffered at one of the early reunion shows. Rose's voice, in its prime a thing of wonder, is at about 70 percent power today. The sound throughout the stadium was terrific, but wherever I went I noticed that Rose's vocals were mixed low; it could have been an accident of the venue or a deliberate move to mask its deficiencies. (It could have been worse; at a Rhianna show I saw recently, she was displayed on the video screens in elongated fashion, making her seem thinner and taller than she actually was; combined with what sure seemed like a lot of lip-syncing, it opened the door to future concerts in which the ostensible performers can be represented by avatars and spend the evening comfortably at home.) Slash seemed a bit worn physically, too, but he has always hidden behind the veil of hair and his big hat. He played winningly and lyrically throughout the show. Bassist McKagan, incongruously, looked like a million bucks. He played well and had a moment in the spotlight teasing the crowd with the opening to his Johnny Thunders tribute, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," before segueing into another old punk cover, the Damned's "New Rose."
The Guns N' Roses story is one of rock's grimiest and stupidest. The band members were lowlifes even by early-’80s Sunset Strip standards, but bought into the scene's promise whole. One of the more amusing tales in Stephen Davis's group biography, Watch You Bleed, comes when Rose and Stradlin, long before they have a credible band, gussy themselves up and march into one of the hard-rock clubs on the Strip. They think that a member of Mötley Crüe might have noticed them. (That's the whole story.) Rose and Stradlin had known each other in Indiana. Stradlin, focused and together, left for L.A. early, and after some struggles established himself as a cool utility player on the scene, helped along by a sideline selling brown heroin. Axl Rose grew up adopted in a severely Pentecostal family. He says he was frequently beaten by his adoptive father, and has said as well that he had been molested by his birth father as an infant. By the time he was a teen he was a well-known local hellion. ("He was really bent on destroying things," Stradlin recalled later.) But it took Rose a lot longer, and over multiple trips to the coast, to finally make his way there to find Stradlin. That pair eventually met up with another duo, a guitarist who called himself Slash and drummer Adler. Slash had grown up in Hollywood unmoored, with both parents on the fringes of the music industry; his mother was supposedly a mistress of David Bowie's. The four eventually came together with bassist McKagan. After toying with calling themselves AIDS, they settled on the uncertain orthography of Guns N' Roses. In the year before they made it big, their L.A. experience culminated in a group squat in something like a storage unit, which lacked water or AC. In it the band practiced, slept, and partied with the skankiest denizens of the Strip, with the lack of proper facilities making it an unhygienic toxic-waste dump. In another early big moment for the band, Aerosmith's Joe Perry came by to score some heroin off Stradlin.
Good times, good times.
The unanimous perception of all normal people who saw the band during this time was of danger and possible evil. All manner of drugs, violence, and young girls went by in a whirl; band fights — fueled by women, drugs, and Rose's mood swings and general immaturity — turned everywhere they loved into pits of filth and mayhem. Members bragged that they systematically rifled the purses of the women others members were having sex with. Geffen, when it finally signed the band, had lawyers cleaning up various criminal actions pending against them — including one involving rape — in two states. Their first interview, with the L.A. magazine Music Connection, began as a Spinal Tap–style exchange and devolved into a contentious disaster, with Rose writing a long, indignant, and entirely incoherent letter in response; this would be the model of his relationship to the media going forward. The group was guided through most of this by a local-band club booker, Vicky Hamilton, who nurtured their career, put them up in her apartment, and got them a record deal. They dropped her soon after. (She ultimately had to sue them and ended up with a pitifully small settlement.) By the time the band signed to Geffen, all of the members had used heroin, with at least two severely addicted; the label collected every bit of music the band recorded for merchandising purposes in anticipation of the fateful end their behavior promised.
Guns N' Roses were always one of the most boneheaded aggregations ever assembled, and should have remained obscure, were it not for two things. One is Rose's undeniable talents. His voice, which at high power has an enviable balance of tone, volume, and range, is arguably one of the most singular in hard rock, probably the genre's best since Steve Marriott, of Humble Pie. At the high register, while screechy, it never became anonymous. The other asset of the band was different. It wasn't songs, exactly — the band has recorded only a handful of great tracks. And it's not Slash's guitar chops, which are fine but whatever. It's the band's onstage chemistry. Back in the 1980s, on one of GNR's first forays out of L.A., I saw them open for the Cult and simply blow the credible British outfit away. Songs like "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Paradise City" — which the audience had had no opportunity to hear before — tore the place apart. GNR were ambitious; they plainly wanted to create those moments — like Aerosmith's "Dream On," or Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" — where hard rock is taken to a higher level. Every time I saw them during their classic period — including some big shows, like the opening of the Use Your Illusion tour, which began months before the long-delayed albums came out — they delivered.
Their debut was called Appetite for Destruction. It had three classic songs — "Welcome to the Jungle," "Paradise City," and "Sweet Child O' Mine." The last of these may be rock's greatest power ballad. There's a timeless guitar riff, an implacable rise of tension, a crisp control of dynamics. Despite some distractions — the band spent a lot of time having sex in the studio to record the proper moaning they wanted for "Rocket Queen" — they worked hard; while the album as a whole is probably overrated, you can't argue with some 30 million in worldwide sales.
The band's supporters at Geffen recognized they had a Zeppelin-size band on their hands; and indeed, after the massive success of Appetite, all Axl & Co. had to do was put together a coherent album that redisplayed their abilities every 18 months or so. They could tour the world and collect paychecks. But Axl couldn't get his act together. As a follow-up they released a cheap collection of older tracks and semi-acoustic throwaways, barely a half-hour long, called G N’ R Lies. One song went:
I used to love her
But I had to kill her
I had to put her six feet under
And I can still hear her complain
Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country …
[And] spread some fucking disease
Leaving aside the degenerate attitudes, Rose was singing in an unattractive low register, and the songs weren't any good. It was the band's second album, and they were already putting out strikingly subpar material.
Note that Geffen had no problem making money off of all of this at the time. Finally, four years after Appetite, the band issued a pair of simultaneous two-record sets, dubbed Use Your Illusion I and II. There were some songs befitting the band's stature on these — "You Could Be Mine," "Don't Cry," and "November Rain," to name a few. These were tracks in which Axl and Slash finally showed they would do hard-rock epics worthy of their idols in Zeppelin and Aerosmith. But in the end those songs were buried among the unwanted flood of some 30 tracks over the two albums.
After a magnificent, riotous tour to support the records, the band descended into nonsense. Two years on, they released The Spaghetti Incident?, another time-marking exercise, this one of all covers. Rose ramped up a theretofore hidden dictatorial nature; he consulted psychics and decided that the band had to go techno, among other things. He and his lawyer started issuing pronouncements to the other band members via fax, and finally concocted new contracts that essentially made Slash and McKagan hired hands. Why exactly Axl had the authority to do this is a mystery to me, but, worn down and apparently taking seriously Rose's threat to leave the band, they signed. (They should have let Rose leave the band and kept the name for themselves and found a new, lower-drama lead singer, but none of these guys are rocket scientists.) After another year of stasis, Slash gave up and quit. Ten months later, McKagan did as well.
Then came 20 years of Axl in the wilderness — a very dumb wilderness populated by a paranoid assclown with too much money. An album called Chinese Democracy had already been announced. An early producer was, incredibly, Moby, who didn't last very long. Even more incredibly, Geffen started doing things like advancing Rose a million dollars to try to induce him to get an album together. Then came the producer known as Youth. Then a Nine Inch Nails mixer named Seth Beavan. Davis claims that at this point there were 1,000 CDs and DATs of Chinese Democracy working tapes — and that was just by 1999.
Rose kept recording and occasionally toured, with a constant revolving door of sidemen and producers; the vast majority couldn't take it and left or were fired, each time in a hail of recriminations, threats, and portentous pronouncements from Rose. Buckethead came in and said he could only record if he was built a chicken coop in the studio to work in. It's been estimated Rose ultimately spent $13 million on the album.
A fair person has to concede that parts of the result, which finally came out in 2008, sounded great, but Chinese Democracy as a whole has jarring tonal inconsistencies. One ballad, "Better," sounded like something out of a John Hughes movie from the ’80s. Another was grandiosely titled "This I Love" and sung even grandioserally. And, in any case, there was nothing like a good song on the album, the cover sucked, and there were clumsy marketing agreements with Best Buy and Dr. Pepper, to boot. Rose toured, intermittently, with various sidemen (one GNR vet, oddly, was Tommy Stinson, formerly of the Replacements), sometimes missing shows or starting hours late.
Friday night there wasn't a hint of such nonsense. There were no histrionics. Rose barely spoke from the stage. "Rocket Queen" turned into a long workout, with Slash playing that "talk box" thingee Peter Frampton used on Frampton Comes Alive! Slash wore a Bowie T-shirt. McKagan sported a purple Prince symbol on his bass. Besides "Live and Let Die," the band also did their cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
Slash and McKagan even dutifully played three Chinese Democracy tracks, including the exceedingly un-menacing title song and the goofy "Better." It's hard to believe that anyone in the audience would have requested it, but Rose also put the crowd and his bandmates through a highly lugubrious reading of "This I Love." I was surprised to hear the Who's "The Seeker" during the encore, but it turns out Rose has been playing that live for years with the group's other incarnations. There was a snatch of the piano coda of "Layla" to introduce "November Rain," and Slash did an extended solo take on The Godfather theme.
And so, some 20-something years after the Use Your Illusion tour, Guns N' Roses are … where? They are performing successful gigantic shows, Rose's vocals are a decent simulacrum of the originals, and Slash's solos as articulate as ever. GNR deliver on their classics: "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Paradise City," "Don't Cry," "Civil War," and on and on. In fact, when I went back and looked it up, I found that the Chicago show contained all but a handful of the tracks they played on a typical night in 1991 or 1992 — and all of the high points were identical, right down to The Godfather theme.
In other words, over 20 years, Guns N' Roses have not added a single significant song to their repertoire, much less an actual trick. For two decades Axl Rose dicked around, driving away his friends and bandmates and playing with a guy who wore a bucket on his head. And now he's back. He and his fellows in one sense deserve the decent reviews they are getting; at the same time, to paraphrase the noted philosopher George W. Bush, isn't this cursing the band with the soft bigotry of low expectations? Should you get credit for clawing your way back to the top when you were dumb enough to throw yourself off the cliff in the first place? Should Axl Rose get a gold star simply for showing up on time? Are Guns N' Roses anything more than a nostalgia act?
Aerosmith, too, had a heyday and ended back up in the gutter. But with a little help from Geffen (and, ahem, the assistance of outside songwriters), they reconstructed themselves, and showed the awesome financial worth of a beloved hard-rock brand name. The Guns N' Roses show in Chicago had exactly the feel of a band that had been told, "Look, what part of 'Go up onstage, smile, and play the hits, and we'll give you a million dollars each' do you not understand?" On the other hand, the Gunners had watched Aerosmith's rise and fall happen before they got big, and it still didn't stop them from going through the same process. No one ever said they weren't numbskulls.
*The original version of this article misidentified Steven Adler as Stephen Adler.