A second ago, things were merely tense.
Izzy Stradlin, Guns n’ Roses’ scruffy rhythm guitarist, is slumped on a dressing-room counter, sullenly draining his second bottle of red wine and testing the wattage of a portable stereo.
Sitting on a couch, trying to talk above the racket, are Axl Rose, the group’s singer, and Slash, the lead guitarist. Slash, whose copper skin is still wet from a post-concert shower, is wearing shorts and holding a bottle of Jack Daniels, his only constant companion. Axl is wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt that says, WELCOME TO DETROIT, MURDER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. Axl and Slash are getting increasingly angry with Izzy, who grins obliviously and cranks up the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl.”
At the base of the wall nearest the door, there is a fresh hole the exact size of Axl’s boot. This evening’s concert, the last of three mid-August dates opening for Aerosmith at Pine Knob Music Theatre, near Detroit, went so poorly that the band left the stage five minutes early. And when the Gunners don’t play well, trouble ensues. While the band members sit in the dressing room, their sound mixer and a bus driver are being fired for alleged incompetence.
Suddenly, there’s an explosion. “Violent mood swing!” shouts Izzy, rolling from the counter. A bottle of vodka flies from his hand and smashes against the far wall. “Mood swing!” shouts Axl, leaping from the couch. He grabs a vase filled with roses and pitches it in the same direction.
Just as quickly, Izzy and Axl are seated again. But all that smashed glass hasn’t relieved the tension. The bottle of vodka belonged to bassist Duff “Rose” McKagan, who is now without his favorite liquor and is therefore enraged. Slash, too, is pissed at Izzy, who still won’t turn down the stereo.
“This is entertaining,” says Axl, watching and smiling.
After Slash and Duff have finished yelling at him, Izzy turns remorseful. “Fuckin’ Duff, man. I never like to break his vodka. I know he loves that vodka.”
Just another rock & roll band being assholes, trashing a dressing room?
Not exactly. For Guns n’ Roses, outbursts are not merely the traditional way for a rock star to pass the time between blow jobs. The agitation backstage in Detroit springs from the same hair-trigger temperament that makes the Gunners the world’s most exciting hard-rock band. They are young, foolhardy, stubborn, cynical, proud, uncompromising, insolent, conflicted and very candid about their faults.
The tension that is part of the band members’ daily life compresses their moods and their music until both explode. Except for Steven Adler, their happy-go-lucky drummer, they are willful and combative. “It’s cool that this tension is building up, because it’s gotta find its release in the music,” Axl says backstage. “If we live that long.” If you don’t look any deeper than the band members’ tattoos, you might compare Guns n’ Roses to Poison, Ratt, Faster Pussycat, Mötley Crüe and any other of the dozens of nearly identical heavy-metal bands currently being pushed by the music industry. The Gunners engage in the same antics, revolving around booze, drugs and women; they trumpet their music as “rebellious”; and they claim to play for “the kids.”
But Guns n’ Roses don’t play heavy metal. They play a vicious brand of hard rock that, especially in concert, is closer to Metallica or to punk than to heavy metal. They are a musical sawed-off shotgun, with great power but erratic aim — they veer from terrible to brilliant in a typical set, often within a single song.
And more important, Guns n’ Roses really do play for “the kids.” Metal bands base their images on a fantasy life that has no relation to the daily reality of being a teenager. Kids may idolize or envy David Lee Roth, but they have little in common with him. Guns n’ Roses are young enough to remember what it was like to be 17: Slash and Steven are 23; Duff, the only married band member, is 24; Axl and Izzy are 26. Axl remains obsessed with the contradictions of adolescence: the unfocused rage and pervasive doubt, the insecurity and cockiness, the horniness and fear. The Gunners’ songs don’t hide the fact that they’re confused and screwed up. “We know we are,” Axl says with a nod. “But we’re trying not to be.”
U2 manager Paul McGuinness has called the Gunners’ success “the most exciting new thing to happen in our business for a while.” They have been embraced by the fashionable, and their concerts are invaded by HIGs (the band’s sneering code for huge industry giants). Their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, which has sold nearly six million copies, reached Number One on the Billboard charts in early August, having been released a year before. The album succeeded despite resistance from retail chains (some refused to stock the LP because of its gruesome cover art, which was relocated to the inner sleeve for the second cover), from album-rock radio stations and from MTV. Eventually, the media caught up and helped “Sweet Child o’ Mine” become a Number One single. But the early support, the support that forced MTV and radio to play the Gunners, came from “the kids.”
The week of the band’s Detroit shows, USA Today published a frightening story that helps explain Guns n’ Roses’ appeal. According to a survey, nearly one in seven American teens say they’ve tried to kill themselves. More than half of the girls polled said they find it hard to cope with stress, and a third said they often feel sad and hopeless. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” can’t mean much to these kids.