Boy did I ever love Guns N’ Roses. I saw them twice, once with Soundgarden opening (pretty good) and once with Skid Row opening (not so good). G n’ R gave good show both times I saw them (if a few hours late), but both shows were part of the three-year tour that accompanied the separate-but-equally bloated Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, so the band was already starting to capsize under the weight of Axl Rose’s odd quest to bring us what he must have thought we wanted: a little more Elton John and a lot more Freddie Mercury in our stripped-down, unpredictable hard rock n’ roll.
I overlooked Axl’s excesses at the time, though they are so clearly cheesy in retrospect; I was a freshman in high school when Appetite For Destruction hit. I didn’t realize how sick I was of the era I was suffering through — an era when Bon Jovi was considered “heavy metal” — until G n’ R made it all sound instantly obsolete. They sounded raw like the Stooges, grooved like Aerosmith, and had a singer that chicks thought was hot and dudes would be extra careful not to start a fight with because he was obviously crazy.
Appetite was a huge album —I don’t remember the precise moment I caught on, but once I did I was fully on board, so much so that I gave Axl a pass when he turned grandiose between his first and second albums. (The first sign of rock grandiosity: a full-size grand piano that rises out of the stage.) I overlooked having to pay twice as much for one album’s worth of decent songs and one album’s worth of filler. I overlooked the weird two-handled half mic stand he seems to have invented, and his sudden affinity for bicycle tights (as Freddie would surely have wanted) and Charles Manson t-shirts (poor taste, dangerous rebel or no), and the fact that he drove the band’s strongest songwriter (Izzy) and its coolest character (Izzy again) to quit what was about to be the most lucrative rock tour ever, AND the fact that he jumped off an aircraft carrier to swim with dolphins in a video. I overlooked all of that.
But then he fired the guy that replaced Izzy, and then he fired the drummer he hired to replace the first drummer, and then he drove Slash to quit, a move almost as dumb as driving Izzy to quit. His crazy was starting to seem less like the exciting, unpredictable kind of crazy that makes amazing performers, and more like the megalomaniacal, unreasonable, uncool kind of crazy. Even so, G n’ R probably could have stayed on top if they had been able to release even one half-decent original song anywhere between 1992 and 2008 (1999’s “Oh My God” got exactly no attention), but as it was they were ripe to be deposed when Nirvana kicked the door in.
By 1997, Axl had gotten rid of the entire original band and replaced them with a bunch of hired guns (whoops!) and managed to wrangle them onstage a half-dozen times between 2000 and the present, mostly outside the U.S. In 2008 they released Chinese Democracy, a record they worked on for 14 years, and it was greeted by a universal half-shrug. But Axl has not yet surrendered to reality — he presses onward, taking the Axl Rose Presents Guns N’ Roses featuring Axl Rose Revue to venues around the world, despite a massive conspiracy by the international music press to keep the shows secret.
Despite the near-total media blackout, YouTube clips of the band’s appearance this past summer at Rock In Rio (Axl’s favorite festival) have leaked out. I scrolled past the clip below three or four times before I finally clicked on it, and I only did it then because it was a slow Internet day. (Quite a change from my interest level in 1991.) When I finally watched it, my jaw dropped: Guns N’ Roses 2011 falls comically short of even the most charitable expectations. You cannot conceive of how awful they are until you see it with your own eyes, and even then you might think you’re imagining it.
0:00 – 0:06 Let’s start with this outfit. Did I miss the meeting where a big yellow slicker was approved as acceptable rock attire? With those sunglasses and that hat on he looks like Paddington Pimp.
0:06 – 0:18 Axl just stands there, letting the grand menace of the intro to “Welcome to the Jungle” wash over him like a waterfall of awesome. This is not so awesome, but it’s an improvement over the old days, when Axl might just as likely have been attempting to feed a camera to its owner in the third row during this part of the song.
0:23 Really? Your lead guitar player wears a top hat? Are you making him do that, or was it his idea? I honestly don’t know which would be worse. Wikipedia tells me this is DJ Ashba, who you might recognize from the BulletBoys (intercap theirs) if Sam Goody was out of the other 11 cassettes you wanted to buy that day in 1988. He kind of looks like if Slash were moonlighting as a rodeo clown.
0:48 I guess I have more to say about that jacket. If he’s wearing it in hopes that it’s slimming, it’s not working. Why would anyone wear a Vulcanized rubber coat out under those insanely hot lights? Axl always cultivated an air of danger in his look, and it sold a lot of records in 1990, but trying to top it with ‘Child Molester’ is ill-advised at best.
0:54 Axl seems to be out of breath after the first line he sings, and is barely hanging on even before the end of the first verse. This is the kind of thing that playing more than once every 18 months can help to prevent. But who can be bothered to rehearse when you’ve got a Ronald McDonald meets The Night Stalker look to shop for? And quit complaining — it’s not like the tickets to this thing were $200 each! (They were $220 each.)
1:07 After slipping momentarily into his patented hand-raised “Serpentine” dance (but coming off resembling John Belushi near the end of an uptempo Blues Brothers number), Axl launches into the second verse, and goes wildly off key on “jungle.” I haven’t seen clams this expensive since I ordered room service on Martha’s Vineyard.
1:36 By the end of the second chorus it’s clear: Axl Rose is no longer capable of singing. He is chasing the song like a fat guy running to catch the bus with a double armful of burgers. Maybe he will take off the Blofeld working for CalTrans jacket and the Boris Badinov hat and sing the third verse like he used to — hope springs eternal — but after he gasps out three yelps with no tonal relationship to each other or to the song during the guitar break, it seems about as likely as Danny DeVito dunking a basketball.
1:55 I don’t know the order of the setlist, but I have to assume that this is the opening song, because that getup seems designed to remove one piece at a time, eventually revealing the superstar — now with cream filling! — that the people paid way too much to see. (They call that “Stagecraft.”) So how is it possible that Axl is this winded? It’s not like he’s doing jumping jacks or even moving around the stage, he’s standing still! Try some cardio, buddy!
2:24 Ah! It appears to be raining. I’m still not convinced that that’s the reason for the jacket, though.
2:41 Axl actually manages a reasonable facsimile of his long high note that goes into the solo — although he does stop and take a breath in the middle — and as he strikes a defiant pose immediately after, you can almost hear him say to himself, “Still got it!” This is now officially the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
2:48 And yet, it gets worse — the other lead guitarist, who Wikipedia helpfully identifies as “Bumblefoot,” begins the Big Rock Solo, for no clear reason, on a double-neck guitar (both necks six strings). But he is wearing an official “Star Wars” stormtrooper helmet, and realizes immediately that he can’t see his guitar while wearing it. He tries to continue the solo one-handed while holding up the helmet with his other hand, then sets it on top of his head and finishes the solo note-for-note like Slash played it in 1987. Is Axl making him do that, or is it his idea? I don’t know which would be worse.
3:04 Whoops! Now the helmet falls down, ruining the solo and prompting Bumblefoot to stop playing, remove it with both hands and drop it on the stage, completely losing his place in the song and knocking his guitar out of tune. Stagecraft!
3:06 It pains me to see Tommy Stinson, punk-rock wunderkind for the Replacements, playing bass in Guns N’ Roses. I once had a ‘Mats bootleg from like 1989 where Tommy makes fun of Axl between songs. I guess a crazy Axl still pays better than a sane Westerberg.
3:52 Axl clearly lets the descending “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby!” riff go on a little longer than it should, just so he can catch his breath. Just a couple of miles a day on the bike would take care of that, Axl. But that would interrupt Axl’s apparent effort to transform himself into the world’s biggest Twinkie. (That yellow jacket is a gift that keeps on giving.)
4:04 Bumbershoot is clearly a slow learner — he put the helmet back on and is already holding up with one hand again.
4:18 Perhaps mercifully, the sound on this clip cuts out here, just before the end of the song.
What stands out to me about this clip, other than the fact that Axl should consider lip-syncing, is that the band is playing an exact carbon copy version of the records that the original band made. That’s something the original band never would have done back when they were touring. The solos were always different and you never knew what the band was going to do. The thing that made them interesting and different from everybody else back in the 90s was their unpredictability. But that appears to be the very thing that Axl, now commanding a “band” of employees, cannot abide. He has squashed every bit of creativity out of these poor guys and seen to it that the only source of tension on his stage is that of the audience wondering if he will make it to the end of the song without an oxygen tank and a stool being rolled out to center stage. Congratulations, Axl! You have Guns N’ Roses all to yourself. Enjoy.