Much as I love rock music, historically I’ve tended to be a bit discriminating, stingy even, about where I spend my concert dollar. I gravitate heavily towards shows by bands I’m already a fan of, and I don’t often take a chance on an unknown or less familiar live act. Thus my post-show comments, when I put them to paper, tend to gush. A lot. (Having said that, Bob Dylan in concert was bloody awful.)
With that caveat firmly in place, the topic of today’s gushing is Guns N’ Roses, who I saw last night at Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium before a capacity crowd of 50,000, give or take.
Guns were something of an outlier when they burst onto the rock scene in 1987 with their debut Appetite For Destruction, still the top selling debut album in US history and one of the ten best selling albums in the history of recorded music. At a time when mainstream hard rock and heavy metal bands were populated by hair farmers sporting lipstick and frilly stage costumes and churning out pop-ish hook-laden hits, GN’R were dirty, sleazy and dangerous, visually and sonically. Guitarist Slash, with his strategically-angled Les Paul, piled mess of brown curls and trademark omnipresent top hat, combined with vocalist Axl Rose, who… well, you either loved his singing voice or hated it (I fell into the latter category initially), but its power and uniqueness were iconic from the get-go. Appetite‘s infamous rape-by-robots original cover, hastily withdrawn and now worth a fortune, spoke volumes about the tracks within, mostly aggressive, profane snarls about lust, sex, drugs, and the seedy underbelly of life in Los Angeles. Eighties thrash metal, Guns’ brother-from-another-mother, was also delving into the dark side of human existence, but it hadn’t yet managed to claw its way beyond the glam scene into the limelight. Arguably Appetite did thrash a favour, paving the way for Metallica’s …And Justice For All to be nominated for the first hard rock/heavy metal award at the 1989 Grammys. And by 1991, Guns and thrash – combined with the stripped-down post-Cold War brand of angst rock otherwise known as grunge – had comprehensively swept glam/hair metal out of the popular consciousness.
However, Guns’ ride atop the global stardom heap was short-lived. After the release of their two 1991 albums, Use Your Illusion I and II, an admitted shot in the arm from a tie-in with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s smash hit Terminator 2, a massive world tour, and a show-stopping appearance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1992, their fortunes began a steady decline. Their unjustly underrated 1993 album of mostly punk covers, The Spaghetti Incident?, dropped in the midst of their descent into infighting and rancour, was hardly helped by the inclusion of the Charles Manson-penned “Look At Your Game, Girl” as a hidden final track. After Axl surreptitiously enlisted a new collaborator to re-record Slash’s guitar work for the band’s 1994 cover of “Sympathy For The Devil”, Slash quit and the other band members soon followed. Axl plugged along for about twenty years with a perennially rotating stable of backing musicians, churning out 2008’s Chinese Democracy album partway through at a record-setting cost of millions of dollars and years spent.
But then, after the aforementioned twenty-odd years of swearing they’d never work together again, Guns finally announced a reunion of Axl, Slash and bassist Duff McKagan, and a guaranteed moneymaker of a world tour was afoot, billed most Eagles-like as the “Not In This Lifetime Tour”.
And so here I am, the morning after.
The show was an endurance test for band and fans alike, clocking in at just under three and a half hours with no intermission. But if anybody in attendance was flagging by the end, it was all to do with the length of the show, not its content. Starting with 1987’s “It’s So Easy”, which sparked much parental opprobrium back in the day with its profanity and admitted misogyny, the band tore through about thirty songs, mostly culled from their hits, with few signs of waning energy – no small feat from a band whose main three members are all in their fifties. Minimal stage banter, no pauses, much crowd singing-along. And the inclusion of the Duff-led cover of the Damned’s “New Rose” from The Spaghetti Incident? was a personal treat for me, having blasted it many times back in 1993 to my parents’ annoyance.
Axl Rose built his stardom in part on his rep as a legendary asshole, with antics ranging from putting out a song featuring the N-word over the objections of Slash (whose mom is black), to showing up hours late for shows. His last-minute cancellation of a show in 2002 here in Vancouver sparked a riot causing a few hundred grand in damage. But the last ten years or so seem to have mercifully brought about a maturation in him: he got rid of his weird cornrowed facelifted countenance, finally put aside the animosities of the past to reunite with Slash and Duff, temporarily took over vocal duties in AC/DC to considerable acclaim and without turning it into the Axl Show, now starts shows on the GN’R tour punctually, and gives it his all for several hours on end, night after night. Hell, the band doesn’t even have to tune down to accommodate his middle-aged vocal cords; he can still hit the high notes as well as he ever did.
What’s behind this? I’ll venture a hypothesis under the heading “middle age”. Hints were in evidence several times last night, from Axl’s between-songs references to optimism and hope – a bit out of character for him – to “Yesterdays” and “Don’t Cry” with their projected visuals of moments frozen in time and stopped or rewinding clocks. Slash, for his own part, has been married and has kids. Duff is also married with kids; he gave up drinking in the Nineties on the urgent advice of his doctor, earned most of a business degree, and pens the occasional newspaper column on finance topics in his native Seattle. If there’s any theme to last night’s show and the current tour, other than “the unlikelihood”, it’s these guys’ awareness of the relentless march of time coupled with acknowledgment of their own mortality. Any doubt on this front was dispelled by their cover of “Black Hole Sun” in honour of Soundgarden’s late Chris Cornell.
Is there another album in Guns’ future? Axl has suggested yes, but we’ve heard that insistence from him before, from 1994 to 2008. So, who knows. Let’s be honest, it’s unlikely any new effort would match the heights of their work from 1987-1993, at least in terms of popular reception. But if the Not In This Lifetime Tour ends up being their swan song, at least they’ll have ended their journey on a high note.