There are a lot of photographs of Guns n’ Roses out there, a lot of promotional shots and video stills, and while I always liked those slicked up images, I prefer the one above. It appears impromptu, unpolished. Post-gig sweaty. Duff McKagan looks like he was just nose-first in a mountain of cocaine, and he probably was.
I loved G n’R in the late eighties. They really were a game-changing band for me–a welcome departure from pure LA glam. They had an underbelly–or maybe, they were the underbelly. And they could play. Damnit, could they play. I spent hours and hours of my thirteenth year on this planet practicing the opening lick to Sweet Child o’ Mine, smoothing the flow and trying to make it sound effortless. Sometimes I played it with my bedroom windows open, hoping some passerby would hear me and be impressed. In eighth grade, I felt certain that I was destined for rock stardom.
A couple weeks ago, I packed into Soldier Field with tens of thousands of other Guns n’ Roses fans to see them play almost three decades after the release of Appetite for Destruction, hands down their best album. The Use Your Illusions of the early nineties were undoubtedly more sophisticated records that featured some sweeping, opus-esque compositions, but Appetite was G n’ R doing what they did best: playing dirty rock ‘n’ roll songs.
So there we were, middle-aged and graying, out late to see the band we loved when we were 10, 12, or 20. Some younger fans were there and some older–I stood in front of a 60-something grandma through most of the show–but for the most part, the crowd was made up of people who were young in the eighties, predominantly parents and professionals now. The opening act wasn’t announced until after the show had sold out–Alice in Chains, a Seattle band that formed the year Appetite was released and hit its stride during the grunge explosion of the nineties.
For my tastes, things couldn’t have been planned better. G n’ R was in many ways a musical bridge for me between the artifice and cold virtuosity of most metal at the time and the gut-punching grime that was nineties punk and grunge. Because of past strife and drama between Guns n’ Roses members, the tour is aptly named the Not in This Lifetime tour, but it could just as easily have been called We Almost Didn’t Make It. Both bands were notorious for their partying at one point, and both were missing key members. Most prominently, Layne Staley, AIC’s gangly frontman, has been replaced with William DuVall. Staley died alone and emaciated, consumed by addiction in 2002. Bassist Mike Starr passed away in 2011 after a decades long struggle with substance abuse and a stint on Celebrity Rehab that included a devastating confessional talk with his deceased bandmate’s mother, Nancy Staley. And while Guns n’ Roses ex-drummer Steven Adler is miraculously still breathing, he’s long gone from the band’s lineup, and his battle with addiction has been public and questionably successful.
Even those who made it to the stage didn’t walk out of their habits unscathed. On top of the loss of bandmates, they’ve suffered the usual losses of addiction that everyone, famous or not, faces: financial, spiritual, familial, self.
Jerry Cantrell, the founder of Alice In Chains, and Duff McKagan, that formerly coked up wreck on the right, have both managed to come out of their pasts with compassion and wisdom. Both have done work to shed light on the drug and alcohol abuse that plagues the music community and advocate for sobriety.
So here it finally is–the show:
Moments before the current lineup of Guns n’ Roses, a formative and iconic part of rock music in the eighties and nineties, took to the stage at Soldier Field on Friday, July 1, their logo–two guns above a pair of roses to signify their name, derived from past and current members’ associations with the equally formative but less famous LA Guns and singer Axl Rose’s (stage) name–appeared on a huge screen. In the true spirit of 1987 arena cock rock, the guns were animated, firing and morphing from one make to another while the crimson roses bled with each shot.
When the music started, the image changed. Neon words flashed around silhouettes of women and their breasts — what else would you expect from a band born on the Sunset Strip?
They sounded great, better than anticipated. Axl’s warble, although still off-pitch at times, was drastically improved from past Vegas shows that revealed the singer’s pipes to be in dire need of repair. His dancing was majestic. Okay, I’m being ironic. Or maybe we just call this lying. I was going to try to not do that. His dancing was a series of well-intended gestures that both suggested his signature moves and insisted that he’s just too old and corpulent to execute that little snaky dance anymore. In all fairness, I’ve lost some flexibility since the eighties myself.
Speaking of snakes, Slash. Slash, that hatted sex-demon with a Les Paul. I think that he, above all, might know what it’s like to be God. At one point, he strode the stage and let the audience hear just one thing: the stone-skip rhythm of one famous note, d-n-n-n-n-n-n-n (not to be confused with Axl’s ch-n-n-n-n-n-knees). He waited, then gave us another. He controlled the crowd and built the frenzy before the band joined in and ripped into, probably, their best-known song.
There were fireworks and tits, a shout-out to Buddy Ryan, everything you would expect from Guns n’ Roses in Chicago in 2016. It was a really great show.
There was a moment, though, at the beginning–second song in–when everything I wrote about addiction started forming in my head. The band played Mr. Brownstone. It’s bridge, I used to do a little then a little didn’t do, so the little got more and more, was chanted by the crowd. The song, a record of the band’s shared addiction written from inside its depths, is arguably their most popular with “real” fans. It’s final lines: that old man, he’s a real motherfucker, gonna kick him on down the line, is hauntingly similar to Jane’s Addiction’s infamous I’m gonna kick tomorrow.
“How do they play this,” I wondered, “with Layne dead? With Steven Adler wrecked and gone as he is?”
I looked around at the crowd, at my peers–the other former kids who were gonna be stars and probably walked paths similar to mine–and I wondered how many of us were missing people, too. And I wondered how many of us almost didn’t make it.
And then I took in the purple lights illuminating the strange, new space-age shape of Soldier Field, the ten thousand and more lighters lit, and I sang along, because that song is still one of my favorites, too.