At one point in our lives, we all thought Axl Rose, and therefore Guns N’ Roses, was brilliant. Or if not, at least you knew that “November Rain” was beautiful. But in that song, Axl may have predicted his own future. “Nothing lasts forever,” he sang. “And we both know hearts can change.”
As I sat towards the back of Broomfield, Colorado’s 1stBank Center and watched Axl perform in December, flagged by six musicians who claimed to be Guns N’ Roses but were anything but that band, I felt pulled in two directions. I thought of the buffoonery that Axl has graced us with over the years—childish outbursts on stage, songs full of threats, riots incited. And meanwhile I was brought back to the moments of my childhood when I was captivated for hours by the music of Guns N’ Roses. Whether it was “November Rain”, “Don’t Cry”, or even “Mr. Brownstone” and “You Could Be Mine” (all of which were played that night), like it or not, Guns N’ Roses had a major influence on my musical upbringing. And the same is true for a lot of my generation.
I’ll admit that a piece of me was hoping Axl would pull some stunt halfway through the show and I’d get to see first hand how he’d gotten his reputation. Unfortunately, I missed the famed two-year Use Your Illusion Tour on account that, when it started in 1991, I was seven. This was my first and, more than likely, only chance to see the circus. What I got was the exact opposite—an Axl Rose who I thought was actually concerned with impressing his audience, as opposed to the Axl of ’92 who’d have probably told the eight-year-old me to fuck off for asking for an autograph. I’m not sure which one is worse, but I’m also not sure which one I appreciate more.
It goes without saying that I had a sour taste in my mouth the entire show—and not just thanks to the $9.00 Pabst Blue Ribbon (which by the way, I loved every sip of). Since I’ve become conscious of idiocy and egoism, I’ve pretty much associated those words with Axl Rose. It didn’t help his cause that, at the door, we were informed by a security guard that he was instructed to “check our shirts.” When I asked further, he said, “If you’re wearing an old Guns N’ Roses shirt, you have to take it off. If he sees too many, Axl will walk off stage.” The band that made Axl Rose famous is no more. Slash is on his own. Duff McKagan has a book out, and is the founder of a wealth management firm. The only guy left from the early ‘90s is Dizzy Reed. If I’m being honest with you, I have no idea who the guys now supporting Axl are, and they may as well be impersonating those that came before them. The fact of the matter is Guns N’ Roses was not only Axl, it was Slash, Duff, Matt Sorum, Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler. Except for the songs, this is not the same band.
But we knew that.
On stage, Axl dons either a black leather cowboy hat or a white one—he switched throughout the show. He wears blue jeans and a shirt that’s not too tight. His iconic red bandana is hanging from his back pocket. While he sings, he runs around the huge stage, onto the wings, up onto the 10-foot drum platform, and he dances like he used to—except with more breaks, and less fluidity. There are pyrotechnics timed with the music, and video clips on huge screens behind the stage. The three current guitarists—Richard Fortus, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, and DJ Ashba—trade solos depending on the song. Each of them does their damnedest to look and sound like Slash in their own way—whether it be the cigarette in the mouth, the hair over the face, or the guitar hoisted toward the sky. When Axl gets tired, he introduces another of the band members and lets them take the reigns for a song. During these moments, which grew longer and more frequent as the show dragged on, we were treated to covers of “The Pink Panther”, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, and a practically unlistenable piano-based instrumental of “Baba O’Riley”.
But it was the moments towards the beginning of the show and drizzled throughout the later part that brought back memories of loving Guns N’ Roses—“Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Estranged” and “It’s So Easy”. Axl was in prime form, and he reminded the not-quite-sold-out crowd why he’s still so famous. Some pretty incredible music came out of those very few years. Despite the negative press attention, protests, riots, stints in rehab and famed feuds, Guns N’ Roses still managed to sell out multiple 80,000-seat stadiums around the world during one of the longest single tours in history. It’s a shame that some people can’t leave the past in the past—but instead keep chasing the fame they once had. Today, they can’t even sell out a 6,000-seat arena in a major metropolitan area, and though the memory of what the band name stood for in the ‘90s still remains, that’s pretty much all there is.