|"This is the most highly organized unorganized bunch of people in the whole world," declared a semi-sarcastic/semi-serious W. Axl Rose during soundcheck at San Francisco's Warfield Theater, prior to Guns N' Roses first U.S. gig of 1991. The band had originally planned a mini club-tour - a series of warm-up shows for their Get In The Ring, Motherf?!ker! tour, which Skid Row opens - that would've taken them to places like Seattle, Detroit, Dallas, and other hip cities. In a perfect world, this jaunt would've gone down without any hitches, but this is the world of GN'R. A host of problems, pressures and assorted other bullshit prompted the band to cut the club dates to just three - San Francisco, L.A. and New York - in order to deal with more pressing matters. For starters, the band was about to embark on its first major headlining tour without a record in the stores. Slash, Duff and Geffen A&R man Tom Zutaut spent the week prior to the Warfield show in New York City, busily mastering GN'R's forthcoming two-album monstrosity, Use Your Illusion, Vols. 1 & 2. Axl waded through personal and band-related issues, specifically huddling with cohort Josh Richman on schematics for the "Don't Cry" video. GN'R's personal photographer, Robert John, had less than half an hour to shoot the album's back cover - something he'd been working on for over a month. And, to top off everything. Stravinsky Brothers Management, which had been overseeing the Gunners' affairs since late '86, parted ways with manager Alan Niven, who still handless Great White. Niven's partner, Doug Goldstein, now manages Guns N' Roses exclusively. (Was he a mass murderer in a past life, or what?). Ironically, his company is called BFD. Business as usual in the GN'R camp.
The band has been rehearsing for several weeks - minus Axl. "Part of the reason I don't go to rehearsals is, I like to go all out. If the band's not going out at the same intensity - they're concentrating more on getting the music right - I feel like an idiot, jumping around, taking it so serious," explains Axl, who does daily vocal exercises alone or with his vocal coach, Ron Anderson. The site of these rehearsals is an airplane hangar containing their massive, must-be-seen-to-be-appreciated new stage setup. Not to give anything away, let's just say intense is an understatement when describing it.
Guns, as much as they might tend to complain about the downside of touring, the grind, the legal hassles and hysteria that seem to surround them more than any other rock band going, the physical and mental pressures, etc., really love their fans. Sounds corny, I know, but once you've known the guys awhile, you realize to what extent GN'R and their organization go to make sure the fans don't get cheated or ripped off in any way, shape or form. They even keep tallies on ticket counts, so that shady promoters and scalping agencies can't buy up blocks of tix, thus forcing fans to purchase them at overblown prices, and keep tabs on magazine interviews to make sure what they're selling is current and accurate. But the way Guns get to give the most back to their fans is through the music. And when it comes to live performances, when Guns N' Roses are on, no other rock band comes close! Here's an informal, behind-the-scenes look at what the boys have been going through lately.
THURSDAY, LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT:
One of the many nuisances of touring, especially after several months on the road, is traveling by bus. The cramped living and sleeping conditions, the constant drone of 18 wheels rumbling, the boredom.... So, creative lot that they are, Guns got a plane - but not just any plane with their logo painted on the side: GN'R chartered the ultimate flying experience, the MGM Grand. Axl has been known in the past to have a difficult time making flights, but rumor at the terminal had it he was on his way. Guess what? Ax man, who was battling a slight case of strep throat, was early! Things were definitely off to a good start. Of the six members, only three - Axl, drummer Matt Sorum and keyboardist/percussionist Dizzy Reed - were flying. Duff and Slash would be arriving from NY, and Izzy, who doesn't particularly like to fly (which is not too hard to understand, considering some of the problems he's had in the past), bought himself a tour bus, so he can tow his Harleys and bring his dog. Now that the band have private use of the finest flying machine going, it somehow makes sense, in a very Izzy way, that he'd buy his own bus. Go figure.
On the flight to San Francisco, the stewardess asked what video we'd like to watch. No one had thought to bring any, so she started rattling off titles. "How about All About Eve?" Dizzy and I cheered, thinking it was a porno. Turns out it's a black-and-white classic. Shit happens.
THURSDAY, WARFIELD THEATER:
Early that morning, 8:00 a.m. or so, Slash and Duff called the local rock radio station and announced that GN'R would be playing a one-off gig that night. Fans flocked to the venue, and within an hour all the tickets were sold. Among the early birds milling about on the street was none other than an incognito Izzy Stradlin, looking like one of NWA or Public Enemy's homeboys with his dark shades, L.A. Raiders cap, and hooded sweat jacket up over his head.
"It was insane, man. All those kids that early in the morning," reflected Izzy in his tuning room, while a Bob Marley cassette blared away. "I can't wait till we finally go on."
After a well-received set from L.A. noise kings Dumpster, a four-piece whose sound and style bring to mind images of Fear, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Motorhead, the Warfield was buzzing with anticipation. Many of these loyal GN'R diehards had been waiting over ten hours for this. Opening with "Pretty Tied Up," Guns N' Roses cruised through a two-hour set that was 80% new material. New tunes like "Bad Obsession," the brutal "Perfect Crime," "Dust and Bones," "Live and Let Die," "Knocking on Heaven's Door," "Yesterdaze" and "Double Talkin' Jive" mixed perfectly with "Out Ta Get Me," "Mr. Brownstone," "It's So Easy" and "Welcome to the Jungle." Another highlight of the evening was when Slash broke out of a guitar solo and into "Happy Birthday," while Axl dragged Doug Goldstein onstage. Red-faced and highly uncomfortable, Goldstein made it through the song before quickly exiting stage left. Another not-so-highlight occured during "Paradise City," when Duff attempted a stage dive, and an overanxious security guard grabbed his legs as he was in mid-flight, causing him to eat it, face first. One of the gig's highest points was the haunting, set-ending song, which Axl introduced like this: "As the Stones would say, this song is about a girl who's just a memory. It's called 'Estranged.'"
The fans, who had never heard most of these songs, were singing their lungs out by the second chorus.
"It's real cool when people are singing songs they don't really know," Axl said later. "I work on communicating it to them, and they take the time to get into it. I like the intimacy, and I think the crowd likes the intimacy of us showing them our new songs."
Although highly intense energy-wise, the set suffered a bit from lack of cohesiveness. Certain tunes went down smooth as silk; others still needed to have the bugs worked out of them. But an off night or average gig for Guns is still better than most other acts going. Besides, what d'ya want for their first show? As Slash explained to the crowd, part of the reason they chose to do the gig was that when GN'R was a club band, they'd play songs their fans had never heard before, and if the fans liked what they heard, they'd be received well; so this was sort of a testing ground. He also went on to add that the Warfield was one of the few remaining venues that offered concertgoers a full bar, not just beer. What a guy!
Backstage after the show, Axl asked me what I thought of that night's performance.
"Honestly?" I responded.
"It was a seven out of a possible ten."
He didn't really respond, but judging from the look on his face, I think he appreciated my honesty.
SATURDAY, LOS ANGELES, PANTAGES THEATER:
Pandemonium breaks out again! Using the same formula as before, Slash and Duff called radio station KLOS and announced the "secret" - which, even before 'Frisco, was not much of a secret - and the show was an immediate sellout. Most of the prominent members of the L.A. music community, from industry heads to journalists to musicians, were eager to see what GN'R had to offer, with many skeptics secretly hoping they would fall flat on their faces. Also, the entire Guns N' Roses family of friends was there. Once again Dumpster held their own, reaffirming their claim as one of L.A.'s top club acts. It's only a matter of time before these guys get the record deal they deserve. Then, as the lights dimmed, the Pantages Theater exploded as the moment everyone had been anticipating arrived
Opening with "Right Next Door to Hell," GN'R launched into a set that saw many of the kinks from the previous gig ironed out. The band onstage tonight was a lot more confident and firmly in control of the harder-to-please - yes, stuck-up - L.A. audience. "Mr. Brownstone," "Dust and Bones" and "Civil War" followed. Then Axl said, "This next number is my favorite song of the set, because I don't have to sing, and I can kick back and watch the guys. It features Slash Corleone Guido Sarducci on guitar. This is something we call 'Godslobber.'" Slash took his cue and started soloing, then the band slowly kicked in with their interpretation of the theme from The Godfather. "Pretty Tied Up" and an awesome version of "Live and Let Die" followed. "14 Years," a number that features Izzy Stradlin on lead vox, was next. Then came "Yesterdaze" and "Double Talkin' Jive," which has turned into one of GN'R's heaviest jams. The show continued with "Patience," during which Axl jumped off stage and ran through the audience, winding up at the sound board, where he sang the finale of the song. There is nothing choreographed, nothing planned, and nothing contrived about a Guns N' Roses show. Hell, they don't even have a set list, but rather a "pick list" of 30-plus songs they can choose from each evening, according to whatever mood hits 'em.
Next up, a blistering Matt Sorum drum solo rocked the rafters off the Pantages, with a little help from Duff McKagan on timbals. "The drum solo is great," Sorum explained later. "I never got to do one when I was with the Cult. Actually, I never did one before Rio. Hopefully they'll keep getting better. It's really cool of the guys for letting me do it."
Duff let Sorum cut loose a little longer before returning with his bass, and then the duo got into a funk groove. Slash joined the jam, and pretty soon GN'R had done what no one else would dare: go from "Patience," into a drum solo, into a funk jam, into all-out, balls-out rock jam that turned into "Rocket Queen."
"Knocking on Heaven's Door," complete with sing-along, was next, and right before the last song (before the encores) Axl explained that "Estranged" featured pianist Dizzy Reed. the band then launched into the song, which can only be described as a classic.
Returning after a brief break, the band got into the first of their two encores. They started with "Bad Apples," then Axl called up close friend, Shannon Hoon, from Capitol recording artists Blind Melon, and they sang "You Ain't the First." "It's So Easy" ended the series. The second encore started off with "Bad Obsession," then Axl called Hoon back onstage, and the pair duetted, like they do on Illusion, on "Don't Cry." "Sweet Child o' Mine" ended the evening. After the show Guns threw a party for several hundred of their friends, but I didn't stick around. The two-hour-and-ten- minute show had drained me. Instead, I rang Axl's hotel and left a message: "Getting better. Eight and a half."
WEDNESDAY, LAX, EN ROUTE TO NY:
The vibe on the plane was relaxed. The band knew they were getting better, and that these much-needed gigs were paying off in spades. Everyone in the band (except Izzy) was there, as well as Goldstein's inner circle - which makes sure the GN'R machine rolls smoothly - and a few close friends of the band.
"I'm really happy with the way things are going," Axl said. "professional rehearsals in front of people. It allows me to get into the mode I'm gonna have to be in when we start doing the big shows. Frisco and Bill Graham were really cool, and there was a different kind of hunger there for us. L.A. seemed to scrutinize us a bit more, and I welcomed that. In L.A. we didn't play 'Jungle' or 'Paradise,' because we'd already played for over two hours. I didn't want to push my voice any harder. Also, we didn't want to push past the curfew and be fined eight grand for one song. It felt a little bit like I ripped some people off, but I knew they were happy with what we had done. I thought we went over real well in L.A., but I still look at it as rehearsals. I'm not really worried about what critics have to say about these gigs, but if they like these shows, in six months they'll be real happy."
I've had the privilege of listening to the new GN'R material for quite some time now, and certain tunes have become personal favorites - "Estranged," "Coma," "Locomotive," "November Rain," "Pretty Tied Up." One has to wonder what it's like for Axl to sing the new material in comparison to the older stuff.
"On songs I'm supposed to know like the back of my hand, I start spacing out and thinking of other things. I prefer to do the new stuff. I love singing 'Yesterdaze.' 'Right Next Door to Hell' is a blast! I'm just feeling my way through the songs right now. You know when you're at a party, and you put on an old song that's a favorite from another band? Well, we get to play that old song live, and it's cool to give it to the people that way."
THURSDAY, NEW YORK CITY, RITZ THEATER:
GN'R Clubbin' It '91 reached its culmination, and NYC was electric with anticipation. Since Axl had selected one of his favorite up-and-coming bands to open on the West Coast, Slash got to choose one of his, Raging Slab, for the East. Slab smoked! 'Nuff said.
The Ritz crowd went wild as the Gunners ripped into "Pretty Tied Up." It was a breath-stealing show that saw Rose & Co. blast through the new as well as the old. They didn't just storm the stage, they owned it! The set included "Bad Obsession," "Live and Let Die," "Patience," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Mr. Brownstone," "My Michelle," "Estranged," and another new tune titled "You Could Be Mine," which will be used in the movie Terminator 2. Duff successfully stage-dived during "Paradise City," and once again Shannon Hoon joined the band for "Don't Cry." Right before the Gunners' final number of the evening, "Welcome to the Jungle," Axl blew my mind dedicating it to yours truly, as well as to the 3rd Street Hell's Angels, a half dozen of whom were present. The judges from the balcony gave the NY gig nine and a quarter - pretty damn close to perfection.
It was a helluva week, and this summer is only going to be more intense. Can you say psychotic? The Ritz gig and the phenomenal improvement of GN'R live over the course of one week proved what those in the inner circle have known all along: When it's time to get in the ring and swing, Guns N' Roses will always come out victorious!