The Guns N' Roses reunion and the future of angry young men

What became of the most dangerous band in the world?

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Guns N’ Roses are only seven minutes late for their Saturday Coachella set, which is very close to actually being on time.

There is a horrible second, right before they come out, when the Looney Tunes "That’s all folks" jingle plays and I am briefly convinced we are being pranked. It wouldn’t be out of the question — in fact, this reunion has seemed unlikely ever since it was announced in January, especially given the enmity between Slash and Axl. Before this tour the two hadn’t played together since 1993. There have been riots before, when Axl didn’t show up. I am suddenly, uncomfortably, aware of being surrounded by thousands of people, and well away from an exit.

I am briefly convinced we are being pranked

Adding to my sudden fearfulness: this is Coachella, a cosplay convention for the wealthy children of LA. All the press making fun of the flower crowns and crocheted white dresses has in no way deterred the legions of women decked out in them; the men tend toward the frat boy standard — T-shirts, baseball caps, and cargo shorts — though a brave few appear to be wearing the beta versions of their Burning Man costumes. In general, though, it’s more of an EDM crowd than a metal one. Of course this is a joke. Why would Guns N’ Roses play here?

And then, the opening notes of "It’s So Easy."

The voice is unmistakable. Axl’s voice resonates in a way few other singers’ voices do; rattling around the sinus cavities, vibrating in the skull. You feel it as much as hear it. His breath control is great. The vibrato is still rich and open, even after some scream-singing.

Holy shit.

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The One True Lineup in December 1987 (Paul Natkin/Getty Images).

GNR might have once been the most dangerous band in the world, but has also been one of the commercially viable. The band has sold 44.5 million albums in the US alone. This explains why Coachella was interested in the reunion, anyway. After all, fans have been hoping for a reunion for years — specifically of the One True Lineup of W. Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Steven Adler, and Duff McKagan.

The One True Lineup made the album everyone agrees on: the 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction, which has sold more than 18 million copies. That puts the album in the neighborhood of The Beatles. On the strength of that album, and its number one single, "Sweet Child O’ Mine," Guns N’ Roses turned into the biggest band in the world. GNR were opening for Aerosmith in 1988, according to Aerosmith manager Tim Collins, when Rolling Stone showed up, ostensibly to write about Aerosmith. Guns N’ Roses got the cover — Aerosmith had been upstaged by their opening act.

That lineup lasted for exactly one album. By 1990, when the band returned to record Use Your Illusion I and II, drummer Steven Adler could barely keep time. Drugs, you know. Anyway, 30 takes were required for "Civil War." Adler was the first band member to be replaced — by Matt Sorum, who had previously played for The Cult. But that didn’t kill fan interest. When the albums were released in September 1991, they debuted at number one and two on the Billboard charts. People waited in line to buy the album at midnight, and within two hours, 50,000 CDs were sold. Their 28-month tour in support of the album brought out about 7 million people.

Guns N’ Roses were unusually good musicians, but they also made unusually aggressive music. The fury in a lot of these songs is something a lot of us feel but rarely express. When I listen to "You Could Be Mine," I am not the "you" of the title. Instead, I identify with Axl. I’m the cold heartbreaker fit to burn, and my good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend should be glad I showed up in his life at all. Being angry about how he treated me beats being sad about how the relationship ended. Maybe that’s the secret of Guns N’ Roses’ success: they’re a sanctioned release valve for over-the-top rage. And that rage is really just a refuge from sadness and helplessness. Anger is seductive; it can make you feel powerful.

Seduction is kind of the key, here. Because in addition to anger, Guns N’ Roses has some surprisingly sweet ballads. Their most-successful song isn’t one that thunders out of the gate — it’s "Sweet Child O’ Mine," where Axl explicitly identifies the woman he’s singing to as a shelter from all that fury.

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Slash, shredding (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images).

The crowd is younger than I expected. There were some people who looked old enough to remember GNR’s original run, mostly in the VIP section (and up front, where GNR die-hards began camping out six hours before the show would begin). But walking through the festival, most of the people wearing GNR shirts were kids, who’d presumably bought them at the merch tent. By the time I got there, the merch tent was sold out of several GNR t-shirts and GNR tank tops in every size but extra-large.

For all the interest in the merch, though, it seems like the crowd only really knows the hits. Though they shout along with "Mr. Brownstone," and "Welcome to the Jungle," "Double Talkin’ Jive" and "Estranged" provoke polite-listening-faces. And no one at all seems familiar with the three songs from Chinese Democracy.

"Civil War" appears in the second half of the set, which is 25 songs and more than two hours long. I am singing along at the top of my lungs. I do not know the capitals of most states, but I do know the lyrics to most Guns N’ Roses songs. A man next to me is also belting, and we have the moment that sometimes happens at concerts, where you see someone who’s as into what’s happening as you are, you lock eyes, and you sing to each other. This is the thrill of live music — not just seeing the band, but seeing the other people who love the band, too.

The guy at first appears to be about my age — early thirties — but at the end of the set, I get a better look at him. The crows’ feet are a giveaway. He’s kept himself up well, but he’s almost certainly in his forties. He leans over and says to me, "You really like this band!" I do, I tell him. "This crowd doesn’t get it," he says. "They’re too young."

rock n roll may never die, but it's definitely growing old.

I think my new friend might be about to say something else, when Axl apologizes, for the second time, for not being able to do "his thing." What he is referring to is the snake dance. Probably you know it, the weird sinuous glide across the stage, sometimes with a microphone stand and sometimes not. His shoulders weave back and forth — he can do this from his throne — while his hips weave in opposition. His feet kick up, if he’s moving, or to the side, if he’s staying in front of the mic. After this apology for Axl's broken foot, Angus Young, 61, enters to do Chuck Berry’s duckwalk across the stage for two AC/DC covers "Whole Lotta Rosie" and "Riff Raff." This appears to delight everyone onstage, and why shouldn’t it? They’re playing with one of their childhood heroes.

As it happens, there’s an announcement just before the set. Axl is filling in for Brian Johnson, 68, with AC/DC in Europe this year. Axl/DC exists, according to the press release, because Johnson’s doctor told him that if he did any more touring, he would go entirely deaf. It’s not just GNR. Rock n roll may never die — Axl, after all, between his two commitments, will be playing 35 shows this year — but it’s definitely growing old.

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Axl and Slash in 1991 (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images).

Appetite for Destruction sounds like it does because Guns N’ Roses — I refer here to the One True Lineup — were a bunch of aggressive dirtbags. There is no way around it. "We sold drugs," said Stradlin, GNR’s rhythm guitarist, in Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses. "We sold girls. If one of the guys was fucking a girl in our sleeping loft, we’d ransack the girl’s purse while he was doing her."

That dirtbag behavior didn’t end when it came to the music, either. The moaning on "Rocket Queen" is real — it’s the sound of Axl having sex with Adriana Smith, who was dating Adler, after the couple had a fight. (Apparently, Axl had the technicians mic the studio floor and dim the lights — and then he and Smith went at it.) Nor did fame change it. In 1989, on a flight to LA from Indianapolis, Stradlin lit a cigarette, berated a flight attendant, and peed on the floor. At one point or another, virtually every band member nearly died from drugs (Axl circa 1986, pill overdose; Slash, 1992, speedball overdose; Adler, 1996, stroke from cocaine; McKagan, 1994, burst pancreas).

The true anarchy can be seen in a video of Guns N’ Roses playing "Paradise City" live in 1988 at New York City’s The Ritz. The weird bit begins with the guitar solo: Slash flops on his back and shreds while Axl dives into the crowd and disappears. It takes three guys to pull him back out so he can finish the song. The crowd doesn’t want to let him go. His shirt is ripped off in the struggle, and some of his jewelry is gone. Finally, he’s back on stage. He takes a second — then begins to bang his head like nothing happened. This is the part of the video that is remarkable to me, not the brawl. Axl picks up the mic, unfazed, and finishes the song. Watch how he glances at his wrist, while singing, coolly assessing the damage from the pit. He’s not surprised or scared. This is a normal day for Axl Rose.

The VH1 Behind the Music on Guns features every band member but Axl complaining about how overbearing Axl was. (The man himself appears only in archival interview footage, mostly with Kurt Loder.) Sure, the dude has a demonstrated interest in dominating people. But McKagan’s alcoholism had reached the point where he passed out on stage during gigs. Slash died in San Francisco (and was revived by paramedics). It does not take a paranoid megalomaniac to feel these working conditions are unsustainable. Given that we’re dealing with Axl Rose, though, any frustrations were almost certainly aired in the most hurtful way possible.

This is when the rest of the lineup, starting with Izzy Stradlin, quits. It happens slowly, over the course of a few years. And then, the only original member of Guns N’ Roses left is Axl Rose.

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Axl and Slash at Coachella (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images).

None of the men on the stage tonight feel especially dangerous. Axl is charming, in a good mood. This is, perhaps, the strangest thing of all, listening to Axl Rose refer to our crowd as "lovely." No — what is strangest is that when Axl talks to us, he often does so from darkness. The spotlight on him goes off, and Axl speaks from the shadows. I ask my editor, who is standing next to me, if it seems plausible to her that Axl has stage fright. She suggests that the blackout is a kind of privacy curtain — that perhaps Axl needs to make some adjustments to the leg / foot situation and would prefer not to do it in full view of the audience. That, perhaps, he is being spared looking publicly infirm.

The crowd is thinner for this set than it was for another group of formerly dangerous men who owned the mainstage before Guns N' Roses came on. Ice Cube, 46, was once a member of NWA, a group that, like GNR, attracted the ire of parental watchdogs led by Tipper Gore. One of his special guests was Snoop Dogg, 44, who once stood trial for murder. Both Snoop and Ice Cube have remained in the public eye for all this time, slowly aging into dads. Here is Ice Cube talking about what he loves about the Eames house. Here is Snoop, making brownies with Martha Stewart. Their aging happened publicly; fans got to witness them mellowing out in real time.

Both Ice Cube and GNR are legendary West Coast acts, but NWA are the ones with a commercially and critically successful 2015 biopic. The children know who Ice Cube is, in other words, even if it’s via his son O’Shea Jr., who makes an an appearance during his dad’s set. The show is really fun — the only dud is the duet with Common to promote a track from the latest Barbershop film, but if that’s what it takes to see Ice Cube perform "Fuck the Police" with a reunited NWA, fine. This reunion, too, was incomplete — Easy-E is dead and Dre wasn’t there.

Ice Cube (like Snoop) went from being a dangerous outsider to a beloved entertainer, in part by expanding the reach of his celebrity into film and television. In contrast, Axl pretty much retreated from the public eye in 1994, aside from the release of Chinese Democracy in 2008. It’s a weird, overproduced album, which nonetheless peaked at number 3 on the US charts. Aside from the touring, Axl spends most of his time away from the media. So it’s shocking to see Axl look so old because it’s not the gradual aging we witnessed with Ice Cube and Snoop, both of whom continued to make albums and movies and celebrity appearances. The image of Axl in most people’s minds, including mine, is that of the beautiful wiry child of the late '80s and early '90s.

this isn't the band from 1993, and why would it be?

Coachella is just the fourth time Axl has performed with Slash or Duff since 1993, and it shows. Maybe it’s just the throne, but Axl and Slash hardly interact — they barely even look at each other. Age may have changed their appearances, but the talent is intact. Slash is not only one of the best living guitarists, but one of the all-time greats. The up-close shots of his guitar solos on the video screens were a welcome reprieve from the frankly cheesy graphics that accompanied many songs. A close look at excellence is basically always thrilling; I love to see a master at work.

But this isn’t the band from 1993, and not just because Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin aren’t there. Axl’s voice has lost some notes at the top end. Anything that gets put into your body — cigarettes, booze, drugs, food — will affect the voice, as will the normal aging process and overall physical health. Vocal cords typically stiffen with age, and more air pressure is required to make them vibrate. Axl lived hard. Even if he’s clean now, even if he’s not eating dairy (which messes with mucus production, altering the voice), and following a strict vocal regime, he’s got to live with the damage he inflicted in the 1980s. The muscles required to produce that "Welcome to the Jungle" scream are even finer than the ones Slash needs to shred, or Duff needs to propel the band forward. Some of those top notes may never come back. That doesn’t make Axl’s performance any less magnificent. He holds notes long past the crowd’s breath capacity, if only to show us he can. Measuring him against the standard of his vocals twenty years ago feels cruel — he's being punished for exactly what made him thrilling in the first place, his authenticity.

Maybe I’m just an apologist: I’m glad I got to see them live in any capacity. They’re older, they’re not dangerous, they’re happy to be here, and they play the hits. There are the deep cuts — I love "Estranged," and was thrilled by "Coma." I got chills during "Patience." The AC/DC covers were inspired, and came from somewhere deep and lovely within Axl. Even the Chinese Democracy songs feel a little fresher and better live, with Slash.

But the song I find myself still thinking about was not a GNR original: it was "Knocking on Heaven’s Door," the Bob Dylan cover from Use Your Illusion II. In 1992, the song was a defiant challenge, but now that the band has mellowed out, it feels like a warning. Maybe it’s because the spoken-word interlude from the album ("You just better start sniffin’ your own rank subjugation, Jack, ‘cause it’s just you against your tattered libido, the bank and the mortician, forever, man, and it wouldn’t be luck if you could get out of life alive") is left off. These are older men and they are almost certainly feeling their mortality. There was a time when it wasn’t clear they’d make it to middle age. Now that they have, I suspect dying doesn’t sound as glamorous as it used to.

But in case you’re worried they’ve totally lost their outlaw edge, Guns N’ Roses broke Coachella’s notoriously strict 1AM curfew with their final song, "Paradise City." Not by much, granted — just four minutes. But Slash needed to solo with his guitar behind his head, and Guns N’ Roses is still enough of a force that even Coachella can’t bring them in line. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, maybe no one wanted GNR to play by the rules, including the people who made the rules. After all, who doesn’t want to tell the establishment to go fuck itself? The crowd was bonkers for "Fuck the Police," too, middle fingers in the air and everything. Even when the true danger is gone, we still love the performance.

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