Precisely why Guns N' Roses' North American tour came to an abrupt end last week, days before it was scheduled to hit the American Airlines Center on December 19, may be a mystery never totally untangled. Sure, there have been hints and rumors: Front man Axl Rose insisted the New York City show two weeks ago was as good as it was gonna get; Axl refused to leave his hotel room; Axl needed a head-shrinker to coax him onstage. Oh, yes. Quite a surprise. Axl Rose is fucking nuts. But those trying to find a way into the story of how so anxiously anticipated a tour fell apart so abruptly are met only by the most impenetrable of roadblocks: Those who know the whole truth about Axl Rose are, quite simply, reluctant to talk about the Guns N' Roses singer-songwriter and just why he decided to crap all over the faithful who were promised a tour after nearly a decade of waiting, wondering and wanting.
Part of that has to do with his obsessive litigious nature; the man will sue oxygen for invading his personal space. One former insider (and, at this point, everyone ever associated with the man is a former something) agreed to speak and then asked not to be quoted--and this is from someone who had only good things to say about the former William Bruce Rose. These days, however, most of the conversation about Rose echoes that of another intimate insider who declined to be quoted by name before the riot in Vancouver on November 7 and the no-show in Philadelphia 29 days later that finally killed the disastrous U.S. tour of rock's most bizarre freak show.
"I don't have much positive to say, and Axl has enough complications without me adding fuel to the fire," reads an e-mail sent by said insider. "He's the one that turned on me after 14 years and I only recently got over the hurt. I'd rather try to take the high road." This same person admits needing "to heal from finding out Axl and I weren't really friends."
And on and on and on it goes: For every nice thing someone can say about the guy, they can't help but add a damning postscript.
"He carries a lot of baggage, which is a shortcoming, but it is who he is," says another anonymous insider who recalls that the last time he saw Rose, seven years ago outside an L.A. club, Rose said "he'd just had an exorcist 'clean' his house" of former girlfriend and supermodel Stephanie Seymour's "evil presence." Adds this old friend: "He teeters on the brink of sanity."
For about 12 seconds earlier this summer, it appeared as though this tour might actually happen. Guns N' Roses--or whatever one chooses to call a band featuring Rose, Tommy Stinson, former Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, guitar virtuoso (and world-class freak) Buckethead and several other anonymous ringers--kicked off a world tour in China in mid-August. The concerts were, for the most part, well-received, as were the next two gigs in England. But even those shows were not without their problems: At the Leeds Festival in late August, the band took the stage two hours late and demanded to be allowed to finish its set; from the stage Rose promised a riot if the band wasn't able to deliver an entire set. And on August 26, when the band played London, Rose insisted not only would the band release Chinese Democracy but that it was going to keep making music--"as long as Uncle Axl doesn't act the asshole!"
Prior to those gigs, GN'R had only played two consecutive New Year's Eve shows in Las Vegas in 2000 and 2001 and the Rock In Rio festival in Brazil in January 2001. Although Rose spent most of the last decade--and, reportedly, somewhere between $6 to $9 million--writing and recording a new album, the now-infamous Chinese Democracy, he thus far has introduced a mere four new songs onstage. Instead, he resorted to using TelePrompTers to perform the songs he made famous with an original lineup now scattered to the remainder bins on their own solo projects.
Before the tour began in August, Axl was interviewed for the band's official Web site--www.gnronline.com, which hasn't been updated since the end of September--and insisted he was ready to tour and prove wrong the naysayers who proclaimed the band dead and the front man finished.
"To the ones who are negative and want to see either myself or the new band fall on their faces, personally, I can't pass up an opportunity to upset so many in one quick swoop," he insisted. "I get misty-eyed just thinking about it! I feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside! But seriously, this is our tour [that] I've agreed to, that I have personally authorized, [and] not someone else's good intentions gone awry, or a reckless promoter's personal agenda. These shows are important to us and, for better or worse, we'll be there."
Or, you know, not.
Perhaps the beginning of the end came as early as August 29 during the band's bizarre closing appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, where a bloated, corn-rowed Axl had difficulty hitting the high notes during a medley of "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Paradise City." The band also debuted a new song, "Madagascar," which was either a ballad or just performed at a stand-still pace so Rose could catch his breath.
Then came the tour itself, which began in Vancouver almost precisely where the band had left off a decade ago: in chaos and rioting. A melee outside the venue there caused more than $100,000 in damages and left dozens of concertgoers injured when the concert was canceled 10 minutes after it was scheduled to begin. Axl, of course, blamed the local promoter: "We were going to play, and the plug got pulled on us," he told a Seattle radio station. "We have a legal team looking into it."
The next four weeks found the 40-year-old Rose and crew playing to mostly half-empty arenas in such towns as Boise, Idaho, and Fargo, North Dakota, with reviews frequently echoing the Detroit Free Press account that described the show as feeling "like a proficient GN'R tribute helmed by a guy who reminded everyone of Axl Rose." Then came yet another riot in Philadelphia on December 6, which broke out when Axl no-showed and left the crowd hanging for nearly two hours after ill-received opening bands CKY and Mixmaster Mike finished their respective sets. Venue spokespeople downplayed the damage as "minimal," but photos of broken chairs and busted video cameras posted at www.roadie.net/axlslaststand.htm reveal a far more accurate account. The band reportedly sustained $2 million worth of damage to their gear, including a customized soundboard that was trashed by fans chanting, "Axhole! Axhole! Axhole!"
Rumors began running rampant following Philly: One had Axl suffering a nervous breakdown at the prospect of returning to half-empty halls full of "hayseeds" following a sold-out Madison Square Garden performance on December 5. (According to Jon Pareles in The New York Times on December 9, Rose called the concert a reunion because, "I managed to get enough of myself together to do this.") An MTV newsperson allegedly heard Axl beat up one of his managers backstage. And the most likely story had Axl, still basking in the afterglow of the MSG show, remaining in his New York City hotel room to watch a basketball game on TV. Rose never did check into his Philadelphia hotel.
Other sources reported that Tommy Stinson, formerly of the Replacements and the group's de facto musical director, and Robin Finck quit the band immediately following Philadelphia. That's a highly debatable theory, however: On November 14, Stinson managed to kiss his new boss' ass while throwing his old partner, Replacements front man Paul Westerberg, under the bus at the same time. "I'm probably way more of a control freak than he is," Stinson said of Rose in a phone interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press last month. "I know him as someone who's easy to work with, someone I like working with. If I were to compare him to anyone else, I would say he's one of the easier people I've had to work with in my years, you know what I mean?" Yes, Tommy: Axl's the one signing your paycheck today.
One thing is certain: The band, bound to confidentiality agreements, and its label, Geffen Records, have yet to make any sort of announcement. Axl, of course, was unavailable for comment.
So, at long last, following six more show cancellations and nearly a week of heavy speculation last week, San Antonio-based concert promoter Clear Channel Entertainment officially canceled the tour. "Clear Channel Entertainment takes pride in bringing live entertainment to the public," read the tersely penned release, issued December 11, well after everyone already knew the tour was sunk. "We apologize for any inconvenience to all the fans who purchased tickets."
But riots are nothing new to the GN'R fan; even during the band's late-'80s and early-'90s heyday, rare was the night Axl actually showed up on time. In Montreal and St. Louis in 1991 his tardiness and onstage behavior led to violent melees. A show in Los Angeles in support of the Use Your Illusion album started at 11:45 p.m., when opener Skid Row had finished at 9:30. The same thing happened at the Starplex Amphitheatre in Dallas 11 years ago, when Rose left his hotel and headed not for the venue, but for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. It took hours for his publicist and others to convince him to return to the venue, by which time promoters had taken to broadcasting footage of topless female concertgoers on large video screens just to distract an increasingly unruly audience.
In other words, Axl has always shown contempt for his audience. But in this age of corporate consolidation, promoters no longer take as kindly to the kind of rock-and-roll rebellion that exhorts audiences to take apart shiny new arenas filled with luxury boxes.
Rose's brand of madness has been amply documented elsewhere, starting with his allegations of being "fucked in the ass" at age 2 by his Pentecostal stepfather through public court documents revealing his physical abuse of Seymour and ex-wife Erin Everly. And there was my own experience with Rose and the band in 1992, when Spin magazine hired me to track down original drummer Steven Adler shortly after he filed suit against the band following his firing. The story was killed after Axl made legal threats against then-Spin publisher Bob Guccione Jr. What Adler said then sounds quite prescient today.
"We would play in front of 20,000 kids, and he's pissed off," Adler told me. "It's like, 'Why? This is what we dreamed of all our lives, and now we're doing it. We should be happy!' And then he'd go backstage and destroy the dressing room. Every night, it never failed. He'd bitch and moan and scream. And I'd always be the one who'd finally say, 'What the fuck's your problem?' During the nine years I was with that band, he showed up for eight rehearsals. Eight rehearsals! He just didn't care. He always complained after a show, 'Oh, my voice! Oh, my voice!'"
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Former GN'R guitarist Izzy Stradlin declined to comment for this story, and a spokesperson for guitarist Slash--who was denied access to the 2001 New Year's Eve show in Las Vegas on direct orders from Rose--says the guitarist has nothing to say on the subject. Bassist Duff McKagan did return a phone call, though he says he'd rather not comment on the Axl affair. McKagan is more eager to talk about a much-rumored new project with the three ex-Gunners and Matt Sorum, who replaced Adler in October 1990. "It's the exact same songwriting process as on Appetite for Destruction. With the right vocalist, it could be killer." He confirms that Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, ex-Buckcherry front man Joshua Todd and Days of New's Travis Meeks have all auditioned, although the band is currently leaning toward an unknown. Of his reasons for not wanting to discuss Rose at this moment, he says only this:
"Things have been misconstrued and taken out of context in the past," he says, adding that the original members are still partners in Guns N' Roses Inc. and thus "concerned when damage is done to the name." Still, no one in the old band seems terribly surprised by the recent turn of events.
"In all of our best interests, I always thought he should have returned as the Axl Rose Band or something like that," McKagan says. "But there are things you just can't change, and so you move on."
Sounds like something every Guns N' Roses fan ought to do. Move on. There's nothing more to see here.