Stoned in L.A.
October 31, 1989
Last week’s four concerts at Memorial Coliseum started as a battle of the bands, the old stones versus the young guns. As one dude-ette said to another on a toilet line, “Some people think this is a Rolling Stones concert. They’re so wrong.” She was among the hordes of nuevo L.A. hard-rockers hoping that the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band title might be passed to Guns N’ Roses, the nasty white boys with two albums out that have sold 12 million copies. They joined the Stones tour only for these gigs, a bill that had fans on other stops envious. Forget about it. If you have tickets for this week’s four shows at Shea Stadium, count yourself lucky. You’re being spared, not cheated.
Shortly after sunset last Wednesday, a tidal wave of cheers arose and thousands of Bics flicked when Guns N’ Roses took the stage for their first hometown concert since they opened for Aerosmith in September ’88. Singer W. Axl Rose started the show by demanding that we “calm the fuck down for a minute!” He had something to say.
“I’m getting fuckin’ sick and tired of all this publicity about our song ‘One in a Million.’ ” That, of course, is the notorious niggers-faggots-immigrants tune that was labeled a vile idiocy in the Voice and elsewhere shortly after the December release of the album GN’R Lies. Months after it climbed the charts, The New York Times took umbrage, inspiring loads of op-eds on rock ’n’ roll bigotry and an Entertainment Tonight segment that gave yet more airtime to Tipper Gore.
“When I use the word nigger,” Axl explained to 72,000 people at the first L.A. show, “I don’t necessarily mean a black person. I don’t give a crap what color you are as long as you ain’t some crack-smoking piece of shit…
“I don’t care who you have sex with. I just don’t want some faggot raping me…
“And I know there are a lot of immigrants in America. All I ask is that they fuckin’ act like it…”
Axl was on a roll. Wearing a backwards baseball cap and T-shirt, he was a greasy, long-haired redneck, spoiling the gig before it got started. His remarks were hardly met with unanimous approval. While still substantial, the volume greeting each line was perhaps half as loud as the initial ovation. Axl finally concluded, “All you people calling me a racist, shove your head up your fuckin’ ass.”
This was winning the argument by intimidation. It was only the first of a series of disasters. Sounding more ragged than they looked, the five members ran through half of their songbook, though not “One in a Million” or the far catchier “Used to Love Her [but I had to kill her].” He had been storming around the set, keeping his distance from the band. Then Axl threw another grenade: “Unless certain people in this band get their shit together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses shows you’ll ever see.” They stumbled into “Mr. Brownstone,” a heroin-laced adventure (“I used to do a little, but a little got more and more”). After sneering and throwing the mike stand about, Axl fell off the front of the stage.
You might have thought he was under the influence, and he was, under the influence of one of his infamous rages. (“He has a natural psychosis, a humongous temper,” an acquaintance of his told me the next morning. Another insider, also an admirer, echoed, “Axl’s a psychopath.”) His anger only escalated. None of the other band members spoke a word, and Slash, looking like Cousin It on guitar, didn’t show his face through his hair. At one point, Axl said, “Certain members of this organization were dancing with Mr. Brownstone,” i.e., shooting dope. That, it turned out, was why he was so furious.
The audience, subdued and confused, came alive only at the band’s breakthrough hit, “Sweet Child O’Mine.” The noise led to an encore, “Paradise City.” Before singing it, Axl announced, “This is my last gig with Guns N’ Roses.”
Well into the Stones’ 23-song, two-hour-plus show, which sets a new standard for stadium concerts, Mick Jagger paused. “I think Axl did a good show,” he said, sneering the words, “but I wish he’d just shut up and play.” He then kicked into “Mixed Emotions,” the first single off Steel Wheels. He put an extra flip on the opening line, “Button your lip, bay-bee.”
The next night, Thursday, the tour openers Living Colour played in the waning daylight before a sparse audience. Singer Corey Glover wore a STOP RACISM T-shirt, and he and the band seemed particularly motivated. Living Colour’s very presence undermined at least some of Axl’s racism, especially this night. Two covers — the Talking Heads’ “Memories Can Wait” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — sucked in the inattentive crowd, which had grown to maybe 20,000 people. As the half-hour set approached its finish, guitarist Vernon Reid stepped up to his microphone:
“Yesterday some things were said on stage that the band has a problem with. A certain person was trying to explain himself.” As a founder of the Black Rock Coalition, Reid was duty-bound to speak, and he chose his words carefully. “Look, if you don’t have a problem with gay people, then don’t call them faggots. If you don’t have a problem with black people, then don’t call them niggers. I never met a nigger in my life. Peace.” The 98 per cent white audience roared. Living Colour careened into “Cult of Personality.”
Guns N’ Roses came on next, without Axl. Wearing a T-shirt that said BETTY FORD CLINIC, Slash came forward and asked for quiet. Now he had something to say:
“Over the years rock ’n’ roll has lost a lot of great ones.” He named Elvis, Janis, John Bonham, and rambled on. “Rock ’n’ roll and excess have become synonymous. There has been a lot written about this band and drugs. A lot of it is bullshit. A lot of it is true. Last night you almost saw the last Guns N’ Roses gig. I remember coming here as a kid to see Aerosmith and Van Halen and the Stones, dreaming of being up here. Last night I was up here and I didn’t even know it. Smack and all that crap ain’t what it’s about, and Guns N’ Roses isn’t going to be one of those bands who break up over it.”
Then Axl swaggered from behind the drum riser, to tremendous applause. Tonight he looked ready to play. His hair was washed, even his tattoos seemed to gleam. “I wanna thank Slash for that intro, and I want to apologize for my comments and actions last night. It’s just that I don’t want to see my friends slip away.”
The band was in somewhat better form. Here was the singer’s nice side, the charming, sexy misfit with a stage presence that rivals Robert Plant’s. Axl has this menacing sashay, a signature move, that allows his body to sway below the shoulders while his mouth hugs the mike. He has a screeching falsetto any number of L.A. rooster-tails would die for, and an earthy midrange that carries a big heart, which he poured into the ballad “Patience.” On the rat-bag rockers, though, he would scrunch his eyes, open his throat, and nearly throw his arms off his torso. His mean side still erupted, “I’m gonna dedicate this to some psycho-bitches,” he said by way of introducing “Out Ta Get Me.”
In this song he complains of having his rights “raped,” a favorite word. The stadium’s three big screens zoomed in on Slash’s guitar neck during the solo, your standard arena-rock squeal. The doctor, an internist, sitting next to me noted, “He’s not that bad yet. U can still see some veins on his arms. If he’s an addict, he’s only a babe.” When the camera panned back to Axl for the conclusion, he struck one of his stock poses, the crucified rocker. On some nights that might be convincing, but not this one.
The Stones were fabulous. Their show is tightly formatted, with intricate lighting and video cues and justly celebrated staging, which could’ve come out of Blade Runner. It’s taken a beating since the tour’s August 31 debut in Philadelphia, and the wear only enhances it.
What’s surprising is how much room the Stones have left for screwing around, as seeing back-to-back concerts confirmed. Mostly this comes in Keith Richards’s and Ron Wood’s guitar dueling, though even Jagger took many liberties with phrasing and ad libs. One night he crooned the lyrics to “Paint It Black,” the next he barked them. (Let’s also salute drummer Charlie Watts, who read The Art Pepper Story and ate sushi while driving the band to Memphis and back in three minutes.) Richards completely messed up the opening chords of “Satisfaction,” a seemingly deliberate prank he also pulled at the second Shea show earlier this month. Despite nearly identical set lists and shticks — Richards sang two songs instead of only “Happy,” “Angie” replaced “Play With Fire” — nearly every performance had a different high.
On the first night, however, I was rooting for Guns N’ Roses. Here was an opportunity for Axl to back away from his ugly interview in Rolling Stone. I actually worried that the Stones might have been making a mistake by inviting one of the planet’s biggest bands to open for them on home turf. I was also worried that the Stones might suck. (Their tour eight years ago was nothing special.)
Yet from the explosion before “Start Me Up” to the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” fireworks at the end, the concert was a grand spectacle. It yielded a lot of laughs, a lot of funk, and the three new songs almost held their own. The most jaded bizzers and crits shook their tail feathers, and the paying customers were ecstatic. I fell in love with them again.
Of all the memories that stick — Keith’s voice sounding like shit and no one caring, the guitars roiling under the Uptown Horns in “Tumblin’ Dice,” my wife deciding Jagger’s not such a pratt after all — the one that’ll probably hang the hardest is Eric Clapton’s cameo during “Little Red Rooster.” Here’s an ex-addict joining a band that has had many narcotic difficulties of its own. Here’s a guy who once babbled from a London stage about how his green and pleasant England was being ruined by Pakistani immigration, now sitting in with a band that had to shake the dog of its own sexism-racism (“Black girls just wanna get fucked all night”). Here he was elegantly stinging a solo while Wood and Richards laid down grungy country-blues picking behind him.
Just look at all the records, all the concerts and cops and divorces and child-support payments behind these geezers. Compare them to the lives and maybe four first-rate songs of the bucks in Guns N’ Roses. It’s like putting a Honda scooter on a highway with a Harley. Has Keith Richards ever apologized? Has he ever got up in front of 72,000 people and blubbered about how he’s messed his life up on drugs? More than any other shows on this Stones tour, which seems to be peaking right now, the concerts in L.A. put things in perspective. It was a battle of the bands, and Guns N’ Roses got blown off the stage. ■