Growing up in the Northeast, going to sleep away camp for the summer was a rite of passage for many, including me. It was here where I was first introduced to the music of the time. This was 1992. I was mesmerized by Check Your Head. Hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time was the most important moment of my listening life. However, the day my camp counselor popped in a Guns N’ Roses mixtape with “Paradise City,” “November Rain” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” it piqued my interest in the band and I never looked back. I was a fan. When I came home, I pleaded and implored my dad to get tickets to see Guns N’Roses and Metallica, who were playing not too far away (45-90 minutes away depending on traffic) at Giants Stadium.
At that point, he would have been crazy to take me. The Montreal riots were only 10 days removed and Axl Rose’s reputation by that point was hardly sterling. I don’t know if I blame him for his bout of common sense and perhaps some self-serving interest when he used the fact that it was a work night as an excuse.
“We’ll catch them when they come back and play Madison Square Garden when this leg is over,” he said. “No band ever quits when they’re as big as that band is now.”
But the Guns N’ Roses I knew and loved would never appear in New York City again. I’ll spare you the details as they’ve been repeated in nauseum for the past 22 years.
I saw Guns N’ Roses in its current incarnation in Las Vegas last week, not knowing whether or not the world’s most dangerous band (at least in 1992) would actually make it to Coachella. Something though felt right about seeing GNR at a festival. Some of the band’s best shows in its pre-1993 form came at the biggest festivals in the world. To see them this week would mark the rebirth of a band who lost their prime to megalomania, bitter, deep feuds and a volatile chemistry that eventually exploded.
As the day wore on, more and more fans with t-shirts from generic stores like H&M and Urban Outfitters were interwoven with rock veterans who proudly wore their well worn Use Your Illusion tour shirts. There was an aura of excitement among rank-and-file fans who wanted to hear hits like “Welcome to the Jungle” and power ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “November Rain.”
The night got off to a curious start, and this was even before the band went on-stage. At around 7 p.m., music journalist were the official press confirming the shocking, but not-so-shocking announcement that Axl Rose was joining AC/DC to finish up the Aussie rockers’ current tour. Only the strawberry haired serpentine of the Sunset Strip could usurp his own band’s return by announcing he was joining another band. It’s not like this was a surprise to anyone in GNR, who probably knew about this months ago, but the timing was head scratching at best.
By the time the band hit the stage at 10:36 p.m., only six minutes behind their scheduled set time, something was different than it was in Vegas. Slash was on-fire and Duff McKagen proved his worth, but the band sounded disjointed and Axl wasn’t hitting his notes. Considering the ease with which GNR returned to form in Vegas, Coachella ended up not being the right place where the band should make their grand return.
Signs of trouble were apparent only three songs into the set. While there weren’t as many for Ice Cube, the crowd was healthy enough and eager to hear what GNR had. Despite the set playing out well in front of eager supporters last weekend, it didn’t translate well with the casual, non-rock festival crowd. Opening with “It’s So Easy,” “Mr. Brownstone” and even the machine-gun smattering of “Chinese Democracy” would have thrilled the diehard, casual fans who were curious about the band started leaving in droves.
Midway through the set, vast space opened up in the fields, allowing those who stayed to get a decent view of the stage. However, by not catering to a festival audience — basically the opposite of what AC/DC did last year — they sent younger fans elsewhere.
There were highlights. On what should have been GNR’s grand return, Axl trotted out Angus Young, who you may know from the band Axl will be fronting in May, for thunderous versions of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff-Raff.” Strangely, at 17 songs in, he found his voice on these not-so-easy song whereas he had trouble hitting many of the notes earlier in the set.
The most damning thing about GNR’s set is that these Coachella shows were hyped as the band’s return to the spotlight and to relevance. Over the past 15 or so years, the band wasn’t the Guns N’ Roses that many of us late-‘80s, early-‘90s kids grew up hearing through the stereo. Playing America’s grandest festival would have been a short cut to relevance.
The hard truth to understand, which the 11-year-old in me had a tough time reconciling, is that sometimes we need to let go. Guns N’ Roses aren’t the invincible titans of the Use Your Illusion, nor is the band the boring version of hired musicians either. I told anyone whom I’d spoken to in the past week how GNR was not to be missed. I found myself surprised — and frankly questioning my judgment — about my take from a week ago. Suddenly, midway through a plodding version of “Civil War,” it made sense.
Coming to grips with how something so great become so mediocre is astounding, but not surprising. This is a band that has played a grand total of three shows together in this current incarnation. Both Richard Fortus and Frank Ferrer, and Slash and Duff respectively had played with Axl, but not with each other. Thus, this band remains a work in progress, and its inconsistencies (except Slash who was an absolute monster all night) made sense. On a grander level, the younger crowd’s general disinterest proves that Coachella isn’t the haven for legacy rock bands that many people think it is. Sure, it brings even the longest of long shots out of retirement, but only the right act. Unfortunately, GNR’s set proved that they and their brand of music is from a different era, and while familiar, it isn’t 1993 anymore.
Wrestling with this while aimlessly roaming the polo field was tough for me, to be honest. Would it have been better to have seen them in their prime as I originally wanted or should the band have just let the past be the past? Walking towards the ferris wheel as “Paradise City” was the soundtrack to take me home, I realized that sometimes a good thing is best left a mystery. Hell, we still don’t know why GNR reunited or even why Axl is joining AC/DC, but after 24 years, I’m finally at peace with my relationship with GNR as a band, and can finally move on with some closure.