Guns N’ Roses were in full meltdown mode when they arrived at Farm Aid on April 7th, 1990. The group hadn’t played a gig since opening up a few shows for the Rolling Stones the previous October, and drummer Steven Adler’s addiction to heroin and cocaine was spiraling out of control. The band had been working on the hugely ambitious Use Your Illusion albums since January, but progress was slow and they were extremely frustrated by Adler’s diminished drum skills.
The band hoped playing a huge high profile gig like Farm Aid on live TV might motivate Adler to clean up, but from the moment they got onstage they realized they were in trouble. “Steven took a run up to the drum riser, which is a pretty big platform that’s hard to miss, and took flight,” Slash wrote in his memoir. “I assume he was planning on landing next to his kit, but his depth perception and reflexes were clearly impaired, so he ended up landing about four feet short.”
Making matters worse, Adler had absolutely no idea what songs they were going to do. They had a ton of hits by this point, but Axl opted to debut the Use Your Illusion epic “Civil War” and cover “Down on the Farm” by the U.K. Subs. Adler had never played “Civil War” with Axl, and he didn’t even know the U.K. Subs song. Duff was forced to clap his hands onstage to show him the tempo.
“Looking back, I realize that this may have been proof positive that their plan to get me out of the band was already in full motion,” Adler wrote in his book, My Appetite for Destruction. “They weren’t cluing me in to new songs or even telling me what they were playing. I believe their strategy was to make my playing sound like this. I believe they wanted me to fuck up on live TV; that would be their evidence. By branding me as an ill-equipped, crappy drummer, they’d be armed with a sound reason for kicking me out.”
Needless to say, the band had a very different take on the situation. “At this point the truth was that if his playing had been fine, I don’t think anyone would have cared what he was doing to himself – at least I wouldn’t have,” Slash wrote in his book. “If you can handle both the music and the drugs, more power to you. We weren’t really concerned for Steven’s health as much as we were pissed off that his addiction was handicapping his performance, and therefore the rest of us.”
Farm Aid was the last time Adler played with Guns N’ Roses. They attempted to record “Civil War” with him for a tribute album benefitting Romanian orphans a short while later, but his playing had reached a new low. After countless botched attempts (some claim it was as many as 30), producer Mike Clink was forced to cut-and-paste the drum track together from multiple takes. It was the last straw, and they ultimately booted Adler out of the band, kicking off a long, bitter legal battle.