An arena full of rock 'n' Roses Guns seems under control and ready to enjoy its music and itself
- Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune, 4.12.92
In the armpit of an apartment they shared in Los Angeles seven years ago, the five founding members of Guns N' Roses didn't have much use for professionalism as they struggled to remain above the poverty line.
Professionals were the people who played on Toto and Kansas records. Pros were the people who made the last 15 Chicago albums so boring. Professionalism didn't have anything to do with rockin' out, man, and it sure didn't count for much when the rent was due.
No wonder the Gunners' concerts were every bit as loud, greasy and gritty as the Sunset Strip dives in which they parked their amplifiers. The band's slumming charisma soon fetched a following and eventually landed them a recording contract with a major record label.
A couple of billion record sales later, Guns N' Roses arrived Thursday night at the Rosemont Horizon for a sold-out show, and they performed like the professionals few expected they would ever become.
But the Gunners haven't entirely outrun their notorious past, as proven when Friday's sold-out show was canceled because lead singer W. Axl Rose left town rather than be served with an arrest warrant in connection with a riot at a concert outside St. Louis last year.
The group hasn't succumbed to the slickness and drab routine that are professionalism's curse, and most of the credit belongs to Rose.
The singer still acts like-pick one-rock 'n' roll's nastiest 500-pound gorilla or its feistiest 160-pound prima donna. Rose performs only when he feels like it and not a moment sooner, so when he led the troops on stage at exactly 10:50 p.m., well past the announced starting time of "about 9:30," it was both annoying and not particularly surprising.
A litany of "Axl's little moments," from his tempestuous and quickly aborted marriage to the St. Louis blowup, could keep a 900-number in business indefinitely.
But though the singer has become the rock equivalent of a Dan Quayle joke in certain quarters because of his erratic behavior, once on stage Rose goes about his business with a ferocity that few performers have ever matched.
He can't seem to fake his way through a performance, wearing his yearning for a better world and his hatred for the present one like one of his many tattoos.
Known to have a hair-trigger temper, he has also been diagnosed as manic depressive. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he revealed even more of his private hell: a childhood in which he was sodomized, beaten and turned into an emotional cripple, only to later bury much of the pain in his subconscious.
Bit by bit, Rose said in the interview, he is trying to break open the hidden wounds in his past so he can heal them and get on with his life.
On Thursday, he broke off the concert after two songs to launch into an extraordinary update of this latest chapter in his now public struggle.
First he quieted the raucous crowd by snapping: "You want a cocaine rock 'n' roll party? . . . Well, I ain't here for that."
Then he told of a phone conversation the night before with a friend who admonished him for revealing the family's secret past.
"My past," he said, "is like a car wreck that no one told me about. . . . If we don't deal with this (child abuse) publicly, then we probably won't deal with (it) at all. . . .
"You want a lot of macho man rock 'n' roll? . . . It don't work anymore for me. I can't fake it anymore (because) my life's falling apart."
The crowd stirred restlessly, anxiously wondering just how big of a pall Rose was going to cast over its party.
Then the singer swept his hand out toward the audience and back across the stage.
"If some scrawny 90-pound weakling can get up here and take this . . . on," he said, gesturing at himself, "so can any one of you."
The crowd roared, and the band ripped into a cover of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die," in which Rose sang one line with particular relish: "When ya got a job to do, ya got to do it well"-a professional attitude if there ever was one, albeit with the bite of a pit bull.
Rose unloaded only one other time, when he bristled because a group of young men in the crowd wasn't quite enthusiastic enough for his taste. "Seems to me you're wasting your time," he sneered, "standing there with your pot, acting cool like you're James Dean."
Oiled and lubricated
The Gunners are more like one of Dean's cars: waxed, oiled and lubricated for maximum efficiency, expanded to a humming 12-piece with horns and backup singers for this leg of their two-year world tour.
Gone is the slap-dash drumming of Steven Adler, fired for drug burnout in 1990, and the bored-silly attitude of guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who quit late last year. In their place is a bull of a drummer, Matt Sorum; a keyboardist, Dizzy Reed, who unlike at last year's tour opening show at Alpine Valley has been fully integrated into the arrangements and can finally be heard above the din of the guitars; and the newest addition, guitarist Gilby Clarke, a pal from the old Sunset Strip days of drugs and decadence.
That neon haze has been replaced by a rigorous discipline of rehearsal and temperance, by the looks of this performance. This new band of Gunners creates the impression of being in full control of its faculties, mental and otherwise, and of seemingly enjoying its music and each other.
For nearly three hours, the group explored a broad palette of musical colors, showing a stylistic audacity that few hard-rock bands possess: from lush ballads ("November Rain") to diesel-powered rock ("Nightrain"), a funked-up "Move to the City" to a bluesy "Bad Obsession."
Although the Gunners still pack a gritty, street-band punch-as evidenced by a pile-driving cover of the Misfits' "Attitude"-the emphasis now has swung more firmly in the direction of epic, 1970s-style rock, with many songs pushed toward 7 or 8 minutes and sometimes beyond.
This was arena rock delivered on a grand scale, with more than a few over-indulgences. There was the obligatory drum solo with synchronized lights: thump-thump, blink-blink, ho-hum.
There was Rose sprinting on and off stage to change into his thrift-store gypsy outfits more often than Cher: red hot pants, fringed cowboy gear, camouflage, a leather coat emblazoned with an image of Madonna, a Confederate flag, an American flag.
And then there was a roadie jumping behind Slash as if on cue to stuff a lit cigarette into the guitarist's mouth in midsolo.
While blowing smoke through his tangle of curls, Slash struck more than a few bare-chested, bend-at-the-hip poses with his double-neck guitar. When he wasn't quoting Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" or torching the "Godfather" movie theme, he was ushering in the slamming "Civil War" with references to Jimi Hendrix's "If 6 was 9" or dueting with Clarke on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses."
His guitar purred and hummed on a wrenching version of the Gunners' 1988 breakthrough hit, "Sweet Child O' Mine," while Rose turned the word "child" into a desperate three-syllable plea, then a repeated scream.
It was a chilling performance, and a transcendent one. The crowd, already standing on its seats, stomped, hollered and exhorted Rose to keep pushing his voice higher.
Then Slash picked out a few bars of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" as a melancholy coda that paved the way for the set-closing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
The Bob Dylan tune was beefed up into a gospel epic with a kaleidoscopic arrangement, as Slash spun out one lyrical solo after another, while Sorum kept changing up the tempo and Reed threw in carnival-organ flourishes. By song's end, Rose had no trouble persuading the crowd to join in, turning the Horizon into one big choir loft.
With the grandeur of their music and the intensity of their singer's delivery, the Gunners transcended the doubt of "Sweet Child" and the death that awaits outside "Heaven's Door."
Venting his bile
If in these songs Rose offered some hope, in others he nearly choked on his hostility. When he blasted out "You Could Be Mine," it was difficult to disregard the misogyny. And the sentiments of "Welcome to the Jungle" were prime, circle-the-wagons Guns N' Roses: "You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me."
There would seem to be only so many ways a songwriter can vent his bile, but as Rose indicated Thursday, he seems in no danger of tapping himself dry.
"I don't care if you're pumping gas or are king of the world," he said to the crowd, "anybody who says you don't amount to (anything) is nothin' but a . . ."
Then he filled in the blanks with the vengeful "Nasty Talkin' Jive."
If Rose is just now discovering the meaning of self-esteem, that doesn't mean he has lost touch with what it felt like to have none.
As long as he holds on to that feeling, Guns N' Roses won't ever be mistaken for Toto.