All photos by Timothy Norris
“Sorry, I can’t do my thang.” Axl Rose regrettably tells the Coachella masses, gathered for the Saturday night headlining reunion set of his rock and roll circus, Guns N’ Roses.
It’s unclear what exactly his “thang” might entail. This is Axl Rose after all, the chemically off-kilter eccentric with the hellhound yowl. Presumably, he’s referring to his inability to walk, run, or do his trademark dance gyrations built for the Gif era. His foot is shattered, thanks to falling off the monitor at their first comeback show. Hence, he’s sitting in a Dave Grohl-built pedestal that looks the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, except with guitars spiking out in every direction. It’s Axl as the Mad King, an Indiana-raised Targaryen, screaming “cut off their heads” until Duff McKagen slays him with a bass guitar for an encore.
Let’s be clear: Axl Rose isn’t supposed to do apologies, express contrition, or anything that would lump Axl Rose in with the rest of the oxygen-inhaling world. He’s a ginger mutant, a raspberry fireball from a Mesozoic Sunset Strip epoch where spray-teased, top-hatted and leather-clad lizards stalked the blocks between Doheny and Highland. Their blood type was bourbon. They subsisted on a nutritional intake of cocaine, candy bars, and the occasional spliff for something green. A world that hasn’t existed since River Phoenix collapsed outside of the Viper Room on Halloween night, 1993.
That was three months after Slash and Duff McKagan walked off-stage at a Guns N’ Roses show in Buenos Aires, the last concert until the first comeback performances earlier this month. During that 23-year interval, there have been futile reconciliations and false permutations under other names, or the original firearms and flowers brand.
There was the re-configured Guns N’ Roses, where Axl tried to replace Slash with a grown man wearing a KFC bucket on his head. There was Velvet Revolver, where Scott Weiland did G&R karaoke backed by the original members minus the lead screamer. There was Slash’s Snakepit, which was an actual “super-group” with two other members of G&R, and not a recurring Monday Night Raw segment as popularly believed.
For whatever reason, the band opted to get back together in the year of our trap lord, 2016, using Coachella as the springboard to a national tour. So Axl and Slash and Duff, and the tens of thousands of liver-ravaged apostles and their spawn are all here—mostly wearing cut-off Guns N’ Roses shirts, as though the Indio Polo Grounds was the Whisky A-Go-Go circa ’87. Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler are cruelly left behind, making this only a semi-official reunion, but we’re dealing with Axl and Slash, the Israel and Palestine of rock n’ roll. You take what you get.
There’s an earlier version of this story involving fan fiction of Axl Rose back-stage, petrified to perform, cloistered up with Kanye, who begs to replace him—desperate to howl “November Rain” and reenact the video with Kim K. in the Stephanie Seymour role. But I scrapped it because it didn’t make sense. What was most shocking about the Guns N’ Roses set was how pedestrian it seemed.
Goldenvoice gave the band a 10:30 set time, ostensibly betting on backstage catastrophe, absurd tardiness, or a nuclear meltdown involving Axl and a haberdasher who brought the wrong fedora. But to my knowledge, nothing like this happened. After an introduction including guns blasting, a sinister instrumental, and the Looney Tunes theme, they took the stage—just 10 minutes late, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Courtney Love watching from the VIP—in case you needed a reminder that the 80s cannot be killed by conventional weapons.
Almost immediately, it becomes clear that something’s off. Whether it’s the cognitive dissonance of Guns N’ Roses playing to the flower-crowned and glowstick hordes, Axl’s inability to move, or something more mysterious and intangible, the magic is absent. The chemistry is non-existent. The myth feels like the work of haggard hagiographers. If the old videos captured Axl as a volcanic auburn angelic monster and Slash as the hedonistic stoic God of Rock, the slanders of age have laid assault to both.
There’s Axl, imprisoned on the throne, apologetic and humbled, frantically waving his arms like a Sunset Strip synchronized swimmer. His face has been artificially scrubbed clean of wrinkles to where it seems uncomfortably smooth. His hair has lost the silken luster of his heyday. He’s wearing a leather jacket and the diamond Jesus piece, ripped jeans, and an emoji t-shirt—looking something like a mid-career Meatloaf or Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote impersonating Axl Rose.
If he scrunches his face and channels his scarcely submerged demons, he can still hit that 200-proof Luciferian falsetto, but it’s clear that time and other torments have tarnished his greatest weapon. Slash still has his skill intact, capably shredding the headbanger’s ball solos allotted to him. But he appears beefy armed and double-chinned, stripped off the fuck-your-girl-in-the-bathroom magnetism he once wielded.
It doesn’t help that the nearly two and a half hour runtime felt particularly bloated. Maybe it’s blasphemous to say this out loud, but Guns N’ Roses have only seven unimpeachably great songs. You know them well: “Live and Let Die” (a Paul McCartney song), “Knocking On Heaven’s Door (a Bob Dylan song),” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “November Rain,” “Estranged,” and "Welcome to the Jungle." There are several other good songs, a couple solid ones, and a whole lot of late-period generic hard rock that explains why not a single member of the band has written a great song since they dissolved.
When they played the hits, you could catch vestiges of that one-time nitroglycerin. Most of the time, it came off flat—a competent but bland approximation of what was once one of the most thrilling bands on earth. Of course, age eventually gets us all, strips us of our vigor and edge, forcing us to adapt to this diminished reality. But Guns N’ Roses wasn’t built on that. Their evanescent genius was rooted in raw power, violence, fearlessness, and sex. But you can’t be fearless when you jump on a monitor and break your foot. The repercussions are clear in cast form. The rocket speed and adrenaline can’t be regained. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Ask Kobe or James Murphy.
At one point, Axl brings out Angus Young of AC/DC. Just hours before the set, they announced that Rose would replace Brian Johnson as frontman for the hard rock legends later this year. Classic Axl: the only person who can manage to upstage himself. The Young cameo feels particularly absurd, especially alongside the AC/DC t-shirt that Steven Adler’s replacement wears. It becomes clear we’re watching some alternate reality in which Gods become mortal, their hair thins, their waistline expands, and you can’t summon the powers of Satan forever (unless you’re Rupert Murdoch).
There were fireworks and guns and flashing skulls and leather dancers dressed like Kelly Bundy gone clubbing. An animated video of people fucking doggystyle. A guy in the beer garden wearing a jersey that read “Slut Whisperer.” #69. He couldn’t get enough of it. And if you were around to remember the classic era of G&R, I’m sure this was epic. Memories don’t live like people do; they don’t show wear or ruin. If you closed your eyes and pretended you were doing Karaoke back in your childhood bedroom, dreaming of one day becoming an adult and showing up at the Rainbow Room with a fifth of Jack and a guitar, then I’m sure you loved their set.
But I grew up in LA, a little too late for the classic era of Guns. Every time I went to the Sunset Strip, you couldn’t ignore the withered remains of hard-rockers, too much hair spray on not enough hair, the leather a little ragged, the pants a little too tight for someone on the wrong side of 40. The drunks in the guitar with the G&R shirts next to Hustler Store. The lie of unlimited youth eventually revealed in the craggy faces of those who had fought harder than all of us and wore the scars.
I saw all these people when I saw Guns N’Roses last night. Some were in the crowd; some are still clinging to the Strip, in the few remaining bars that cater to the leather stalwarts. Guns N’ Roses weren’t bad at all. They were just okay, which means they weren’t Guns N’ Roses. In an ideal world, they could do their thang forever. We’d probably be better for it, but that’s just not the way it works.
1. Set List
2. It’s So Easy
3. Mr. Brownstone
4. Chinese Democracy
5. Welcome To The Jungle
6. Double Talkin’ Jive
8. Live and Let Die
9. Rocket Queen
10. You Could Be Mine
11. Attitude (Misfits cover)
12. This I Love
14. Theme from The Godfather
15. Sweet Child O’ Mine
17. Civil War
18. Whole Lotta Rosie (AC/DC cover)
19. Riff Raff (AC/DC cover)
20. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover, instrumental intro)
21. November Rain
22. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
25. The Seeker (The Who cover)
26. Paradise City
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