|By Jeanne Marie Laskas
"Here we are, twenty minutes into the show," W. Axl Rose says to the crowd at the New Orleans -Superdome. His chest is heaving. He's just finished singing "It's So Easy," darting like a mad hornet around the stage, screaming so loud and so hard that the veins in his calves pop out. Guns N' Roses might be true rock and roll geniuses, as their fans say, or they might, as their critics contend, be racist, misogynist, homophobic, self-indulgent spoiled brats-but one thing they are not is lazy. Axl likes to call his performance "a nuclear explosion onstage." If you could harness the energy put out by these men in performance, you could probably light up all the houses and run most of the refrigerators in North America.
"O.K.? How much did you pay for this show?" Axl goes on. "I'll tell you what I'll do I'll pay you back because this just isn't going to work. It's hard to be up here giving like this with all you people sitting there taking a f---ing nap. Yeah,yeah, I know, there he goes begging for attention again. My therapist always says, 'You crave attention.' And I go, 'No shit' "
It is difficult for a rock star to do his job when the crowd is not behaving. On the one hand, this is supposed to be a lawless experience. You come here for the anarchy, for the sheer seizure of joy that happens when all the rules of your school, your mom, your church, your parole officer no longer apply. "It takes a lot of integrity to be a real anarchist," lead guitarist Slash will tell you.
On the other hand, you're not supposed to forget who's in charge of this fantasy. You're supposed to do what the rock star says. Axl might just walk off if you don't. He's done it before. Sometimes you can't blame him. At a concert in New Jersey's Giants Stadium last July he was swaying back and forth in his white spandex shorts, white funged jacket, white cowboy hat, doing a moving rendition of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," when all of a sudden - zzzing!-some kid in the audience threw a lighter and hit him in the crotch. Axl stopped singing. He turned his back to the crowd, threw his microphone into the air, tore off his hat. And he left. Soon the crowd started chanting, "Axl, Axl, Axl," until the house lights came on and the fans stood there looking incredulous and dejected and empty.
Basically, these are the two rules of behavior at a Guns N' Roses show : you don't hurt the band and you don't sit there looking bored. Stand up! You should be screaming, sweating, throbbing with all the other 50,000 bodies in one intense symbiotic moment of pulsating euphoria. To look out and see an audience in any lesser state of rapture is, according to Slash, "sort of, like, disgusting."
And yet it keeps happening. Axl has to keep begging crowds all across America to "WAKE THE F --- UP!" What is the matter with you people? Axl wants to know. Axl doesn't like being disappointed. The guys in the band don't like it when Axl is disappointed, either-or when his throat hurts, or when his mood dips low. In this world, everything is always Axl, Axl, Axl.
For heavy metal and hard rock fans, this is the tour of the summer, if not the year. A 24-stadium triple-headliner, featuring Faith No More, an admirably "grungy alternative-rock band, followed by the down-your-throat thrash metal of Metallica and then the straight-ahead, hard-rocking Guns N' Roses.
Before their show, while Faith No More and Metallica play in the hot sun, the G NR guys spend their day at the hotel, getting mentally prepared for their performance. Slash drinks Jack Daniel's and watches cartoons. Bass player Duff McKagan talks to his wife on the telephone; his heart has been aching a lot lately. Some of the other guys sleep; they often don't get to bed until seven a.m. Axl works out on his amazing state-of-the-art exercise machine, chats with his brother and sister, who are accompanying him on the tour, then has his back cracked and his ankles taped, gets a massage and stretches his throat muscles with operatic warm-ups. When they finally get to the stadium, all the guys except Ax! convene in one large dressing room where they hold their breath, squinch up their faces and work their skinny legs into impossibly skinny leather jeans. They laugh, tease one another about their latest softball-playing antics, drink, flip through Penthouse, Raw Sex, Hot Split, Big Boobs and other magazines that have been fanned out for them just so, like literature in a doctor's office.
There is a genuine camaraderie here, although Axl sets himself apart from the rest and is generally regarded as a Thoroughbred racehorse, a Buddha, the Wizard of Oz or some other being upon whom otherworldly powers have been bestowed.
As the guys prepare for their show, they are completely ignorant of what Metallica is doing out there to the audience. To understand why crowds all across America appear so tired at the GNR shows, you need to live through Metallica.
The concert in Buffalo is particularly lively. Metallica turns Rich Stadium into an awesome battlefield. Singer James Hetfield leads his fans in a singalong of "Seek and Destroy," a Metallica anthem that basically involves the crowd in a stadium-wide chant: SEEK AND DESTROY. SEEK AND DESTROY. Metallica appeals to people who don't need much in the way of melody. People who appreciate the jackhammer clamor and murmuring pulse of speed guitars amplified loud enough to rattle the rib cage and, ideally, the skull. The idea here is to imagine your skull exploding. Giant banners of exploding skulls are displayed onstage to assist you with the fantasy.
Head bangers and slam dancers do their ballistic thing, and the wounded get carted out on orange stretchers. Passing by stage left are a lot of these, a constant parade of bloody kids, or green kids passed out trom too much beer, or kids suffering trom plain old heatstroke.
Metallica's "Seek and Destroy" drones on and on. It is hot. Stadium security comes out with big rubber hoses and turns them on, squirting the kids down as if they were prisoners taken out for showers, until finally the singalong gets transformed trom an artistic concept into a state of consciousness. It starts as a food fight, then turns into an anything-you-can-get-your-hands-on fight. All through the stadium stuff is flying.
Patricia Zera, 20, gets hit. A piece of glass? Ice? It lands right in her eye. Blood shoots out in weird spurts, so much of it that you can no longer see her eyeball. Her sister, Melinda, screams in terror. Her brother, Richard, believes that her eyeball has fallen out. Patricia is in shock. This isn't fair! She's not even a Metallica fan. She's come here to see Guns N' Roses. She spent months begging her mom to let her come to this concert. "Oh, my God my mom!" she cries as she gets carted off to Mercy Hospital.
Guns N' Roses doesn't come out until after midnight. They're all showered, smelling fine, pumped, eager for some serious rock and roll bonding.
And the kids just sit there, lively as fungus spores. Some have been on this battlefield since three p.m. If they could say anything to Axl Rose as he stands up there berating them for being such lame, lazy, unappreciative slobs, it would be this: "Anarchy can be downright exhausting."
Patricia Zera's eyeball does not, by the way, turn out to be missing. Thirteen stitches above her eye put her back in shape. She returns to the concert, but the concert is over. Someone in the GNR entourage hears her story and invites her to the band's private backstage party, a '60s bash with lava lamps and daisies on all the tables and slogans on the walls: Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.
Patricia is introduced to all the guys in the band-Gilby, Duff, Matt, Dizzy, Slash-except Axl, who is sitting in the hot tub entertaining other guests. Slash signs Patricia's T-shirt. "Rock and fn-ing Roll. Slash," he scribbles, right over the bloodstains, while Patricia looks up into the heavens, speechless, trying to contain the ecstasy of this moment.
"In life,. there has to be good and bad," says GNR rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke. "There just has to be. And we're, like, the bad. For every Paula Abdul that parents can let their daughters go to, there's got to be a Guns N' Roses that the kids are going to go to but they're not allowed to."
Meet the rest of the band.
Drummer Matt Sorum: "It's a total fantasy. Axl speaks his mind, and kids would love to say that. They'd love to get up there and say, 'F--- you, boss' or 'F n- you, Indiana,' or whatever. But he does it for them, man. We're just a real rock and roll band."
Keyboard player Dizzy Reed: "I used to listen to loud music to piss off my parents. I think that's still about it, for most kids."
Bass player and heartthrob Duff McKagan: "The kids can really relate to the band because the band's really honest. We don't hide anything. It's, like, here's our life. Here's the love lost, here's the hurt, here's the good, this is what I've been going through. Here it is, on the line."
Lead guitarist and extreme sex symbol Slash: "I hate to sound simpleminded, but I try not to analyze what the band is all about, really, because as soon as you start doing that, it takes the magic away. I'm just a rock and roll guitar player. I don't look back, and I don't look forward."
Lead singer and pop icon Axl Rose: "It's cool by the end of the show when you've won the crowd over and you know it. It's cool for the people because they got a victory. They got to see GNR win at their show. And it makes them happy, and they get to carry that away. I like that. I like going out and winning for that purpose. Because, like, if your team wins the Super Bowl-and every show we play is kind of like the Super Bowl-you're jazzed for a year. Whenever you think about the team, you do good at your job or whatever for a while. I like to be some help like that in people's lives."
This generous spirit - Axl Rose has a surprisingly gentle, almost holy manner when you talk to him in person - is not the sort of thing you expect to come out of a man who sings lyrics like:
"Tied up / tied down / up against the wall / Be my rubbermade baby / And we can do it all And: I used to love her / But I had to kill her. And: Police and niggers", thats right" get out of my way. . . Immigrants and faggots", they make no sense to me / They come to our country and think they'll do as they please / Like start some mini Iran / or spread some f --- ing disease.
Fans forgive Axl for these blatantly cruel sentiments because, they say, he is just speaking his
mind. It is, they say, a matter of integrity. Some of his lyrics are softer. He performs love songs, ballads of angst and occasional songs of self-loathing. His persona is that of a hostile misfit, hero to all the enraged underdogs of this world, unafraid to lash out and destroy his oppressor - which, in Axl's case, often seems to be himself In performance he displays the raw emotions of a man so full of conflict as to be on the edge of psychic explosion. People pay upwards of $27.50 to witness that possibility enacted.
Self-destruction became the theme of the band's rise to superstardom, starting with its first album, aptly tided Appetite For Destruction, in 1987. They were a Los Angeles garage band, a group of guys with misspent youths who wanted to make noise. Axl Rose, 30, born William Bailey, migrated from Lafayette, Ind., along with high school buddy IzzyStradlin, one of the band's original guitarists. Slash, 27, was born Saul Hudson in England. His father is British and white; his mother, American and black. Both worked in the music business, and the family moved to Los Angeles when Slash was 11. Duff came trom Seattle. The youngest of eight children, he never got noticed much, not even during his car-theft days: He stole a grand total of 133 cars. Axl, Slash and Duff are the only ones left from the original GNR group.
They got famous with Appetite. They toured with The Cult, Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden and Aerosmith while the album broke into the Top 100 and then shot to NO.1, where it remained for five weeks. Appetite stayed on the charts for nearly three years and sold 17 million copies, making it the biggest selling debut album of all time. Last year, in September, the band simultaneously released its second and third studio albums, Use Your Illusion I and II, which debuted at No.2 and No.1, respectively, on the charts. Since then the two albums have combined to sell 20 million copies.
Fame, as always, had its price. "The only thing we had to justify working as hard as we did was to get drunk, do drugs and get laid," says Slash. Everything became extreme. Original drummer Steven Adler was fired when he could not conquer his heroin addiction. Izzy Stradlin quit when he beat his heroin addiction and apparently wanted to leave all of his past behind. Slash also had a severe battle with drugs; life on the road was good, but as soon as a tour ended, he would collapse into misery. "The whole sanity thing is, like, really hard to hold on to sometimes," says Slash, who will tell you that conquering his "sex addiction" remains one of the biggest challenges of his life. Axl had his own trouble with the sanity thing. His moods were all over the place. He became obsessed with controlling his image. He became more and more angry. "I was a walking dead man," he says. "I was a dead man! That's why in the 'Don't Cry' video, there's my gravestone, marked 1991. I was, like, for two months recording the record, smoking pot because any other drugs just screwed me up. That was the only thing I could do to, like, sedate me and keep me contained enough to not freak out on how depressed I was. I was doing it almost medicinally. I was too depressed. l' d just flip out." What happened was he started remembering his past. He got into therapy. For a while he was doing five-hour sessions, five times a week. It all came out, all started to make sense. His biological father molested him when he was two. His stepfather beat him and molested his sister. And why didn't his mother save her children? That might be the worst of it. His anger at her is so huge. And now he understands why so many people seem to think he rants and raves like a two-year-old. Because he is a two-year-old. Emotionally, that's where he got stuck.
Axl's mood swings earned him a reputation as the rock star who would sometimes start concerts two hours late, sometimes leave right in the middle of a performance, sometimes not show up at all. And then there was that little problem at a concert near St. Louis in July of 1991 when Axl got mad at a biker who taunted him with a camera - Axl forbids cameras at his shows - and leapt off the stage and lunged after him, inciting thousands of fans to riot. That was the end of that show. (Axl pleaded not guilty to four misdemeanor counts of assault and one count of property damage and was released on $100,000 bail, pending trial.) Last summer three shows had to be postponed because Axl's throat hurt - even the guys in the band rolled their eyes at that one - and just when the band got back together for a concert in Montreal, Axl walked off in the middle of it because "the monitor system sucked." This happened just after Metallica ended their show early because James Hetfield was injured. The crowd got furious. Another riot.
Now it seems some people come to GNR shows hoping for a riot. "It's like people who go to watch the Indy 500," says band manager Doug Goldstein. "They don't go to watch the race, they go to see the crash."
That bothers GNR. They don't want riots. They're trying to get this situation under control.
Nowadays the crew accompanying Guns N' Roses is made up of about 80 people, including four bodyguards hired, in part, to keep the drug pushers and sex-crazed fans out of temptation's path. They've formed a family. For some of these people it is the only family they have every really known. Loyalty is cool. Backstabbing is lame. Generosity is cool. Grouchiness is lame. Drugs are passe. Alcohol is the very juice of life. Fidelity is cool. Strippers are cool. Touching the strippers is not cool. Photographing the strippers is extremely cool. Marriage is cool. Cigarettes are everywhere.
Gross debauchery is no longer cool because it sits way too close to flat-out misery. The new focus: survival.
Slash is proud to report that he's been off drugs for three years now. He thinks he's finally beating his sex addiction; thanks to Renee, his wife. "She's, like, a religious fanatic about fidelity," says Slash. Before their engagement he just lied to her, didn't tell her that he was continuing to sleep with just about any woman he felt like sleeping with. She found out. She dumped him. He panicked. He never knew his heart could ache so bad. He crawled back, and they got married last month. He's been faithful for seven months now, a milestone.
Axl is busily conquering his own demons, clinging somewhat desperately to remedies. He's doing "regression therapy," going back and retracing his journey through the womb,which he claims to remember. He's traveling with his own chiropractor and masseuse, hoping to heal the pains in his bones and muscles that he says he still feels from all that childhood abuse. "It's, like, I was always accused of being a hypochondriac, and I'm not," he says. The chiropractor stays backstage so that Ax1 can run offbetween songs and get adjusted. "It's, like, I have a pit crew," he says. "And it's, like, I'm a car." For a while he was taking 60 vitamins a day. "We do muscle testing and kinesiology. We do chiropractic work and acupuncture. We do cranial adjusting. Oh, yeah. On a daily basis. I'm putting my life back together, and I'm using everything I can."
He's planning a future with supermodel Stephanie Seymour, his current girlfriend, and her son. They just got a new house.
And then there's Duff. Don't forget Duff. Duff is still having a hard time getting noticed. He is a gentle, silly and delightful man, even when he is drunk, which nowadays seems most of the morning and most of the afternoon and a good part of every evening. Duff is having a hard time with life on the road. He is, frankly, getting sick and tired of fans who come up to him and, rather than fall all over him, ask, "Where's Axl?" Duffs wife, Linda, recently got him a tshirt that reads: 'No, I don't know where Axl is!'
Duff wishes Linda could be with him more often. He is 28 years old, and the fits of loneliness are starting to become fits of terror. "A lot of nights I wake up, and I'm, like, where am I, what city, and you run to the window and look out and try to figure it all out," he says. "You actually forget who you are. It's, like, I am completely blank. I end up a lot of times just sitting on my bed, and I'll find tears start coming out of my eyes and my heart is just aching. It's, like, please let there be another show soon. It's, like, can you get the next shot of insulin."
That, in the end, happens in the New Orleans Superdome after Ax! gets done berating the crowd for its poor behavior. Does he walk off the stage in disgust? Not this time. The New Orleans fans become more generous with their energy, and so they are treated to the whole Guns N' Roses show - all 250,000 watts of power and an excellent fireworks display: 20 bangs, 28 sparkles, 15 airbursts, 20 flashes, 25 waterfalls and 32 fountains. Axl continues doing his mad-hornet routine, sprinting from one end of the stage to the other, stopping stage center only when he needs to read the TelePrompTer. He believes in his lyrics and doesn't want one word out of place. He changes his clothes after almost every song, from spandex shorts to leather kilt, from a T-shirt featuring the face of Jesus to another that reads: Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian. And when it comes time for him to sing his hit single "November Rain," a grand piano on a hydraulic lift rises from beneath the stage, and there is Axl, sitting on a motorcycle that has been turned into a piano bench.
This isn't just rock and roll. This is the showmanship of a band striving to please. This is an amusement park ride called Anarchy. Slash climbs on top of the piano and does a pure sex guitar solo, hidden behind his great animalistic mass of hair, not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, just being a rock and roll guitar player. The set ends with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Axl is swaying in his red fringed jacket and white cowboy hat. Slash and Duff are shirtless and dripping sweat. When the band finally leaves the stage, a big red sign flashes GUNS N' ROSES, GUNS N' ROSES, GUNS N' ROSES, like an APPLAUSE sign, suggesting in no uncertain terms that it would be O.K. for their fans to ask for an encore. Which they do, and the band comes out, sings "Paradise City" and exits, returning one last time for a bow, arm-in-arm, as in a Broadway show.
Axl tosses roses into the crowd, the other guys throw guitar picks and drumsticks. And then more explosions-20 bangs, four fireballs and 100 fireworks-and as the band leaves for the last time, the red lights flash: THANK YOU WE LOVE YOU, THANK YOU WE LOVE YOU.
The fans are treated to a final farewell gift, a cartoon: A butcher chops off his thumb, shouts, "Son of a bitch!" then chops off his arm and his head, which ends up twitching and drowning in a large pool of blood.
It was a good show. The band feels high. After, there is the usual backstage party with the usual hors d' oeuvres, open bar, pinball machines, pool table, hot tub and strippers. But these strippers say the heck with the hot tub and just do their stripping and undulating right on the tables.
Duff doesn't go to the party; he goes back to the hotel and calls Linda. Slash doesn't stay at the party; he goes back to the hotel with Renee.
Axl stays at the party until five a.m. Upon his table three strippers weave around one another, trying to please him with their long legs and red fingernails. Axl takes photographs of them for a while, then puts his camera away. He leans toward the naked women, smiling shyly. "Thank you," he says to them, as gently as a man appreciating a sweet gift. He turns to a young blond fan seated next to him and says goodbye, then asks his brother, Stewart, to please take him away trom this place of temptation.