Precisely why Guns N' Roses' North American tour came to an abrupt end a few weeks ago may be a mystery never totally untangled. Sure, there have been hints and rumors: Frontman Axl Rose insisted that the New York City show three 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: Axl Rose is fucking nuts. But those trying to find a way into the story of how such an anxiously anticipated 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 and wanting.
Part of the secrecy has to do with Rose's obsessively litigious nature; the man would sue oxygen for invading his personal space. One former insider (and, at this point, everyone ever associated with the man is a former something or another) 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, one who declined to be quoted by name before the riot in Vancouver on November 7 and the no-show in Philadelphia 29 days later, which 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 fourteen years, and I only recently got over the hurt. I'd rather try to take the high road." But a detour beckons anyway: 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, he or she 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. He adds that, the last time he saw Rose, seven years ago outside an LA club, Rose said he'd just had an exorcist "clean" his house of former girlfriend/supermodel Stephanie Seymour's "evil presence." Adds this old friend: "He teeters on the brink of sanity."
For about twelve 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 eccentric) Buckethead, St. Louis guitar god Rich Fortus and other ringers -- kicked off a world tour in mid-August at Tokyo's Chiba Marine Stadium and Osaka's WTC open-air stadium. 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 promised that not only would the band release Chinese Democracy, it was going to keep making music "as long as Uncle Axl doesn't act the asshole!"
Before those gigs, GNR had played only two consecutive New Year's Eve shows in Las Vegas (in 2000 and 2001) and the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil during early January last year. Although Rose spent most of the last decade -- and, reportedly, somewhere between $6 million and $9 million -- writing and recording a new album, the now-infamous Chinese Democracy, he's introduced a mere four new songs onstage. Instead, he's still using TelePrompTers to perform the classic songs he made famous with an original lineup now left to re-form without him.
Before the tour began this August, Axl was interviewed for the band's official Web site and insisted he was ready to tour and prove wrong the naysayers who proclaimed the band dead and the frontman 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, when a bloated, cornrowed 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 standstill pace so Rose could catch his breath.
Then came the tour itself, which began in Vancouver almost precisely where the band left off a decade ago in chaos and rioting. A melee outside the venue caused more than $100,000 in damage and left dozens of concertgoers injured when the show was canceled ten minutes after it was scheduled to begin. Axl, of course, blamed the local promoter.
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 sets. Venue spokespeople downplayed the damage as "minimal," but photos of broken chairs and busted videocameras posted at roadie.net and axlslaststand.net reveal a far more accurate account. The band reportedly sustained $2 million worth of damage to its gear, including a customized soundboard that was trashed by fans chanting, "Axhole! Axhole! Axhole!"
Rumors began running rampant after Philly: One had Axl suffering a nervous breakdown at the prospect of returning to half-empty halls full of "hayseeds" after a sold-out Madison Square Garden performance on December 5. (According to Jon Pareles in the December 9 New York Times, Rose called the concert a reunion because "I managed to get enough of myself together to do this.") An MTV newsperson allegedly heard that 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 bassist Stinson, formerly of the Replacements and the group's de facto musical director, and Finck quit the band the next morning. That's a highly debatable theory, however: On November 14, Stinson managed to kiss his new boss' ass while throwing his old partner, Replacements frontman 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." 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, after six show cancellations and nearly a week of heavy speculation, 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 -- or 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 GNR fan; even during the band's late-'80s and early-'90s heyday, rare was the night when Axl, guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and guitarist Izzy Stradlin actually showed up on time. A show in Los Angeles in support of Use Your Illusion started at 11:45 p.m.; opener Skid Row had finished at 9:30. In other words, Rose has always shown contempt for his audience. But in this age of corporate consolidation and the bottom line, promoters no longer take as kindly to the kind of rock & roll rebellion that exhorts audiences to take apart their shiny new arenas filled with luxury boxes.
Rose's brand of mental instability has been amply documented elsewhere, starting with his allegations, in public court documents revealing his physical abuse of Seymour and ex-wife Erin Everly, of being "fucked in the ass" at age two by his Pentecostal stepfather. And there was my own experience with Rose and the band in 1992, when Spin magazine hired me to track down original drummer Stephen Adler shortly after he filed suit against the band in the wake of his firing. The story was killed after Axl made legal threats: In the song "Get in the Ring," grudge-loving Rose made fun of then-Spin publisher Bob Guccione Jr. for getting less poontang than his Penthouse-publishing father. But what Adler said at the time 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!"
Former GNR guitarist Stradlin declined to comment for this story, and a spokesperson for 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 McKagan did return a phone call, although he says he'd rather not comment on the Axl affair. "Things have been misconstrued and taken out of context in the past," he says -- and besides, he's moved on. McKagan says the original members are still partners in Guns N' Roses Inc. and are therefore "concerned when damage is done to the name," although no one in the old band was at all surprised by the recent turn of events.
McKagan is more eager to talk about a much-rumored new project with the three ex-Gunners and final drummer Matt Sorum. He confirms that singers Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, ex-Buckcherry frontman Joshua Todd and Days of New's Travis Meeks all have auditioned.
"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.