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Rebooting Axl Rose

Nearly 30 years after “Appetite for Destruction,” Guns N’ Roses are back on tour — and fully in their classic rock phase

Katarina Benzova
Katarina Benzova

They started on time. (Initial entrance music: the Looney Tunes theme.) They played for two and a half hours, blustering through everything you’d reasonably want to hear (except “Patience”) and avoiding most of the stuff you reasonably wouldn’t (only three songs from Chinese Democracy). They remained spry and cordial and upright. Axl Rose grievously injured neither himself nor any of his decades-estranged bandmates, and managed not to insult anybody onstage or backstage or offstage entirely. That evening’s Brexit vote didn’t come up once.

No, the first date of the Guns N’ Roses Not in This Lifetime reunion tour, which transpired Thursday night at Detroit’s Ford Field, was a huge disappointment, in that it wasn’t a total disaster. This surly antique roadshow, which will be desecrating both coasts all summer, is a marvel of improbabilities, a lumbering minefield tap dance fated to end in glorious, explosive ignominy, if history is any indication. (And it historically is.) They’re not jamming beneath a hidden cache of wildfire; they are the wildfire. (And the wildlings, and the Brotherhood Without Banners, and the First Men.) Philosophically, it would be a churlish rebuke of everything these vintage cock-rock apex predators stand for if these fellas actually finish this tour. Better catch it soon. Because opening night somehow kicked spectacular amounts of ass.

So get a load of Axl Rose, self-destructive frontman extraordinaire, resplendent in shredded jeans and a succession of stylish gator-huntin’ hats and ridiculous T-shirts. (Yes, that one says “THE BITCH IS BACK.”) Two glittery Jesus pieces banged against his chest; he deployed his trademark red bandana sparingly, with a flannel shirt wrapped around his waist just in case he got cold. Axl hath swelled, yes. He knows. There is ample evidence; he’s trying to remove it. In Thursday night’s quieter moments, his unkempt pale-strawberry mane wafting in the wind-machine breeze, you might’ve found yourself thinking a terrible, unchristian thought: Mama Fratelli.

Be grateful, though. Axl broke his foot prior to GNR’s first big-whoop Coachella gig in April, forcing him to belt out “Paradise City” and so forth whilst glued to Dave Grohl’s doofy guitar throne, and the effect was devastating — you need him lumbering and sashaying around, a nadir predator on the prowl. He’s back on his feet now, roaming about the band’s pleasingly gaudy, multilevel set, though whenever he played on the stairs, I’d get the same paralyzing fear I get when my 2-year-old plays on the stairs.

Be grateful, also, that the night had very few quieter moments, thanks mostly to Slash, visually singular lead-guitarist extraordinaire. Slash hath swelled also, though this was far less readily apparent, given that visual singularity. Meaning, the top hat, the sunglasses, the cascade of coal-black hair, the leather pants, the sweat pouring and the mouth slightly agape as he mimed along to another hostile and frantic and melodious and stealthily sentimental solo. He often held his guitar upright, as though he were very gently giving it the Heimlich maneuver — as though this were a Weekend at Bernie’s situation, and it was holding him up. Slash turned 50 last year, but he could pass for 30, or 90. It’s all a matter of how the light catches the sweat.

One guy on every big-whoop reunion tour never seems to age — here, that’s bassist Duff McKagan. Duff hath not swelled. He also hasn’t worn anything with sleeves in 40 years, and might’ve stepped directly off the cover of Casual Badass magazine, bandana around his neck and Prince symbol on his bass as he jovially dragged the band through the Stooges’ “Raw Power” during one of Axl’s myriad breathers. A nice hometown shout-out, perhaps; Axl and Duff also wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “DETROIT: WHERE THE WEAK ARE KILLED AND EATEN.” Probably that’s a compliment. So these guys still know which city they’re in, which is also disappointing, but only slightly.

How We Got Here, and Why We Came

Monolithic arena tours like this usually launch in smaller Southern or Midwestern towns, perhaps to keep big-city critics at bay lest the first few shows really suck. Detroit’s on the bubble. But there’s a poignancy to GNR showing up there first: a clash between two gritty American monoliths, once captains of industry, since fallen into disaster-porn disrepair, but still scrappy, still dangerous in a way that’s partly cartoonish and partly very much not. Or, as Axl put it, “Detroit! That’s what I’m talking about! This is a jungle if ever there was one!” (Axl is not great at stage banter, which is a drag. His idea of a joke is to announce, “We’re gonna do a heartfelt, sentimental love song,” right before the band launches into the blaring Terminator 2: Judgment Day–soundtracking jam “You Could Be Mine.”)

It’s hard to convince someone in 2016 — even someone who lived through it — that Guns N’ Roses used to be ungodly huge. Appetite for Destruction, their profoundly misanthropic 1987 ur-hair-metal debut, sold 30 million copies or so, and was, to 9-year-old me, the most terrifying and alluring cultural phenomenon imaginable. My parents, logically, were just terrified. They refused to let me buy Appetite (on cassette tape, of course), and sat me down for a long talk after I asked them them to record (on the VCR, of course) the band’s appearance at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards. (Excerpt: “Now, Robby, we’re just worried that this song might make you think that drugs are something you might want to try.”)

The colossally arrogant 1991 Use Your Illusion saga — two 75-minute albums, on sale separately for $17.99 or so apiece, both disdainful monuments to magnificent arena-rock bloat — was relatively less successful (both went seven times platinum, though!) but a more convincing display of the band’s power. So much corporate synergy! Terminator 2! There’s no way to convey now just how thoroughly the “November Rain” video dominated MTV, or how thoroughly MTV dominated youth culture. That a hard rock band — or a rock band of any tensile strength — would obviously never scale those cultural heights again is beside the point. This isn’t a “they don’t make ’em like they used to” complaint — there is no “they” anymore to make ’em at all. No label or corporation or media outlet is paying for this shit anymore, because nobody is buying it.

GNR found that out the hard way, of course. By the mid-’90s the band had viciously atomized — after one last provocation, 1993’s covers album The Spaghetti Incident?, which most notably includes a Charles Manson song — and Axl began the Herculean, and Sisyphean, and Dionysian, and super fuckin’ hilarious quest to make Chinese Democracy. (It finally came out in 2008, and basically consists of Axl screaming like post-red-pill Keanu Reeves whilst flushing ~$20 million down the toilet.) The reductive history, of course, is that Kurt Cobain symbolically killed Axl with his bare hands, just as alternative rock killed imperious, world-conquering heavy metal in general, though that timeline is flattening, if not collapsing. (Thursday night’s opening act: Seattle grunge superheroes Alice in Chains, who kicked things off with nine really excellent songs.) It was all still rock ’n’ roll to Detroit, unless it didn’t rock enough; the GNR set list’s one true brick was Chinese Democracy’s crazy-histrionic power ballad “This I Love,” which the packed house greeted with the same numb detachment that likely inspired the song in the first place.

Good job, Detroit. The crowd skewed older but not geriatrically so — a jovial sea of variously wizened goatees and the motorcycle-riding women who tolerate them, ranging in age from folks who enjoyed the Appetite Masters of the Universe years in person to those who just know the songs as oldies-satellite-radio catnip. Merch sales were brisk. Notably, the band didn’t play anything from 1988’s monumentally problematic odds-and-ends-and-slurs collection G N’ R Lies, but you could buy a T-shirt with the album art for $40, or $45 for size XXL and up. Abandon the stance, but monetize the pose.

There was a lot of history to reckon with, and no city enjoys a good reckoning more than Detroit. “I’ve waited 30 years for this,” announced the woman standing in front of me in the downtown Holiday Inn check-in line, to her crew of folks curiously already decked out in Not in This Lifetime concert T-shirts for a show that hadn’t happened yet. “It’ll either be a complete shitshow,” another guy noted, “or they’ll be fresh and ready to rock. No middle ground.” Neither ticket-holder looked like a threat to society, or the next PTA meeting. Folks nearby also talked about “Oldchella” and kitchen renovation.

What We Did Once We Got There

Not a shitshow! Anything from Appetite killed, obviously — even ostensibly second-tier boogie-metal jams like “Rocket Queen” or “Mr. Brownstone.” All the savagely overblown Use Your Illusion jams worked just as well as innings eaters, the ludicrous pomp of “Civil War” or “Coma” or fellow MTV staple “Estranged” befitting the circumstance. (Notably absent: the sweetly nostalgia-averse “Yesterdays”: “Yesterday’s got nothin’ for me / Old pictures that I’ll always see / I ain’t got time to reminisce on novelties.”) Naturally, this is not a full reunion — rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and primo-era drummers Steven Adler and Matt Sorum are long gone, though Adler might resurface sometime — but enough stars aligned to make this feel historical, and those stars worked hard enough that it didn’t feel like ancient history.

Nobody worked harder than Axl, who as always was basically doing a one-man Macbeth out there. He took copious offstage breaks (mostly during the guitar solos, which were plentiful), presumably to receive quickie lung transplants; you can imagine all those fresh pairs of lungs hanging backstage, gently pulsing next to the guitars, ready for action. However swelled his exterior, he does not shy away vocally from anyone or anything. “You Could Be Mine” alone has both a hyperventilating macho-rap breakdown (which these days takes him roughly 15 breaths instead of, like, two) and a pint-glass-shattering final shriek, and if he didn’t quite scale that particular mountain, he smacked into the side of it with admirable aplomb.

It is probably not a coincidence that the band’s classic rock covers have aged so gracefully. Apologies for this, but GNR’s take on “Live and Let Die” is now older than the original Wings version was when the Use Your Illusions came out, and it’s only gotten funnier and more hostile with time. Axl knew that one day he’d wind up fossilized in the same amber, and his bearing nowadays is a winsome mixture of resignation and defiance: He’s willing to embrace his role as a classic rocker if you’re willing to watch him grab his crotch and bark “SO YOU CAN SUCK ME” at the dramatic conclusion of “Out Ta Get Me.” As for the GNR remake of Bob Dylan’s

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” let’s just say it has a certain added poignancy two hours into an exhausting arena-rock show, with a valiantly winded Axl legitimately looking like he was knocking on one door, if not the other.

Meanwhile, Slash jammed with not-Izzy for awhile on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and tried his hand at the Godfather theme; the Who’s “The Seeker” will apparently be an encore staple. They apparently do a mean “Layla,” or actually a pretty pleasant “Layla.” Embrace the oldies; even the ones that aren’t yours. This whole thing is shameless, and ridiculous, and somewhere between 10 and 20 years too late to achieve the legit-cultural-phenomenon status Axl, at least, still desperately covets. But shamelessness and excess and unsustainable grandiosity were kinda the whole point all along.

Nearly every song inflicted on Detroit, from the fantastically brutal gutter-rock opener “It’s So Easy” to the absurdist emo-prog majesty of “November Rain,” landed hard and straight and true. You’d expect “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to be the climax, and it was, featuring lotsa Jumbotron closeups of Slash’s fingers just to show you how mundane the physical act of producing something so transcendent can be. But at one point Axl, on-camera, looked over at Slash and flashed a disarmingly goofy grin, and Detroit roared louder than it had ever roared or would again, at least for these guys, this time. The secret highlight within the obvious highlight. Is the goodwill a put-on? Possibly. Does that matter? Definitely not. Is this enterprise sustainable through late August regardless? Probably not. But you already knew that nothin’ lasts forever. But it might last longer than you thought.

An earlier version of this story misstated the year that G N’ R Lies was released; it was 1988, not 1998.