Saturday, January 23, 2010

Appetite for Redemption
Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses plays the MTS Centre in Winnipeg Jan. 13. Axl and the boys come to Montreal's Bell Centre Jan. 27.

MONTREAL – Do you know where you are?!?!

You are in early 2010. Ready for the longest-delayed makeup gig in rock.

Guns N’ Roses have backstory everywhere, but they have a ... special history in Montreal. Plenty of Guns, no Roses. But take the long view: the Big O events of August 1992 were presaged years earlier, and confirmed every step of the way, with every release, every tour, every spittle-flecked pronouncement from singer, leader, Last Man Standing and GNR President for Life W. Axl Rose.

Hey, you knew what he was like when you married him.

Flashback: You are in the Verdun Auditorium in 1987, where headliners the Cult relax backstage while shirtless, sweat-gleaming hellions race from end to end of the stage. Slash races one way, brandishing a Les Paul like a weapon while Rose shrieks “They’re out ta get me!!” into the echobox of a venue. Sweet Child O’ Mine is still just an evil twinkle in the eye of the mass audience, but these unknown miscreants are not your parents’ metalheads. The review is somewhere in cyberspace, something on the order of “this band will be huge if they survive.”

That night, Guns N’ Roses announced the arrival of hard-rock modernism in Montreal, and the end of metal romanticism. No more dragons, demons and damsels. The Hollywood street rats injected the real – a seedy punk docu-dramedy detailing the victimization of the young by urban predators, drugs, violence, streetwalking succubi and the city itself – screeched with schadenfreude glee by a strawberry-blonde hayseed-turned-antihero. “Watch it bring you to your knees / I wanna watch you bleed!”

Who was this guy? He had a voice like a cobra that seemed to coil within it every warped, furtive, livid sentiment. Here, we would have the herald of the new heartland dysfunction, announcing the revenge of the children. And with Appetite for Destruction, we had a glimpse at justification for his future megalomania. Rose was a mini rock revolutionary, as singular in his way as Cobain was in his. In all the ugly, overamped realism, Rose was the FX.

Of course, with the real came the volatile. Rose may have been the latest offender to believe there was no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity, but as the years unfolded, he proved not to be acting, but acting out. These were genuine psycho-emotional wounds, and the press was eager to give them ink.

Endearingly, we still had the capacity for shock and outrage in 1988 when One In A Million delivered a catalogue of right-wing resentments, not only against cops but “immigrants,” “faggots” and “niggers.” Youtube is scattered with videos of an agitated Rose delivering onstage diatribes against the hustlers and pervs who abused him as a runaway, and he would frame the song as a personal plaint rather than manifesto ... which altered not at all the fact that he was enacting a classic victim-on-victim dogfight to the secret glee of the true oppressors.

And before Marilyn Manson, there was the real one, Charles, who finally landed that “record deal” in a sense when Rose covered his song Look At Your Game, Girl on The Spaghetti Incident in 1993.

And so, instead of a saviour rising from the streets, an avenger – or rather, a scourge. In the zany early ’90s, Rose was the perceived rival/opposite of Kurt Cobain, a conflict spurred in no small measure by the Widder Cobain, Courtney Love. In actuality, his opposite was Bono. One here to redeem, one with a heart full of hate intent on making you feel his pain.

And you would.

Do you know where you are?!?!

Flashback: You are in the Big O on August 8, 1992, 53,000 of you, anticipating a seven-hour riffathon. And seven hours you would get.

At the time, a friendly Slash had told The Gazette that neither medical issues – Rose had a hole in a vocal cord – nor the band’s “typhoon of chaos” could derail GNR’s first-ever headline gig here.

“It’s very much like that. It’s great for variety, hunh?” he’d laughed.

Boom! Metallica’s James Hetfield is headed to hospital with second-and-third-degree burns to his hands and face after a pyrotechnics misfire. And speaking of misfires …

Rose and Guns N’ Roses take the stage 135 minutes later, far too long after the abbreviated Metallica set. Rose is visibly disturbed, radiating his disorder vibe. The following day’s review ran:

Rose seemed agitated after the first few songs of the set, perhaps at a crowd that received the music enthusiastically but did not go ballistic.

Whatever the reasons, Rose followed a doper’s blues version of Bad Obsession with a speech about how the band had honed its act on a seven-week tour of Europe just to have it all fall apart last night.

“In case anybody here is interested,” Rose said, “this will be our last show for a long time.”

Cue the self-destruction as fans bonfire their own souvenir T-shirts, and the real destruction that follows, spilling into the cavernous corridors and out into the east end streets:

They overturned garbage containers, smashed concession stands, tables and a car in a glass display case.

One young girl was injured when she was slammed through a glass display case by the departing crowd. She was later taken away on a stretcher.

About 200 security guards cordoned off the crowd, extinguishing flames, forming a line and shepherding the fans toward the exits.

Olympic Stadium’s screens flashed the message: “The show is cancelled. Please check the media for news.”

The trouble spilled out on to the street where midnight ramblers overturned a police cruiser, lit trash can fires, smashed car windshields and slashed tires.

A phalanx of riot-equipped police took up positions on Pierre de Coubertin St. on the south side of the stadium.

In the post-show recriminations, it was important to remember, as I wrote at the time, that “Some (most of whom were not there) saw scary TV news footage of kids throwing rocks and jousting with police, heard tales of teens trashing concession stands and stealing Expos caps. Others saw a reaffirmation, albeit a twisted one, of the very power that makes rock ’n’ roll music our truest, realest art form.”

Mainly, after the ugliness, lack of apology and $400,000 in Big O damage, the OIB banned the group for life.

Scant weeks later, U2 is in the Big O, four songs into the set. “What time is it?” Bono asks the crowd. “We gotta go …” The crowd gets it – haha, a GNR reference. And as the band opens into One, Bono head-shakingly mutters “Axl …” So there’s another twist in their “relationship”: Bono as dad, ruefully watching the angry teen blow up his life.

And then – where does the time go? 14 Years that are gone forever / and I’ll never have again. Who knew that in the GNR lexicon, that wasn’t just a song but a time frame? Fourteen-odd years between Use Your Illusion and Chinese Democracy. In a preface to its release, I noted the cultural touchstones we had welcomed in that span: Pentium processors, MacBook, iPod, Blackberry, Segway, Viagra, Google, Yahoo, Youtube – hell, the Internet.

But perhaps to his credit, Rose once again needed to make an album that was bigger than hard rock or genre itself. When he could have made Welcome Back, Jungle in two years and wallpapered every Hollywood whorehouse with Benjamin Franklins, he went through half a lifetime, zillions of studio dollars, half that in whiz-bang guitarists and a dozen false release dates to release an album that bears forth a few great songs (Better, IRS) and the unavoidable bombast of something so delayed and overcooked it had to be Who’s Next Calling The Stairway to justify the wait and hype.

And to his discredit, he cannot simply have been motivated by some sublime Joycean artistic fire. The thing he needed the album to be bigger than was his ego.

It’s been awhile since the real Rose had to smell spicy buffalo wings in the air as he took the stage. But here we are in Times Square, in BB King’s Blues Club, anticipating November Rain in mid-January.

Why not ease into Wednesday’s real GNR gig with a little artifice? Here in BB King’s supper-club venue, cover bands are a staple: Black Dog, Tramps Like Us, Bobby and the Jets … Tonight, featuring a fat Slash and a doughy rest of the band, November Rain pays tribute to GNR.

“Good evening New York City. Hey, we’re New York City boys arselves” says not-Axl, using a southern accent for some secret tribute-band reason. And it soon becomes apparent which members of a rock tour they resemble: they look like roadies.

Their version of Mr. Brownstone is respectable. Paradise City is lugubrious and missing the high, frenzied edge. During Live and Let Die, some guy at the bar asks me if they’re lip-synching.

But then, after Don’t Cry, something remarkable. November Rain is cranking through the incred-ugly riff of Welcome to the Jungle to a solid response when a girl’s friends somehow compel her onstage. Awkward and in braces, she’s up there with no moves whatsoever, beaming with a tremulous confusion of over-adrenalin and please-let-me-hide. She waves her arms nerdishly behind fat Slash in a parody of rock ’n’ roll ecstacy … but then begins to open to the moment, to feel her place on the stage, to enjoy, and suddenly we have a cover-band revelation.

All the glamour and pretense dissolve as a band of non-Guns crunch through their long-lapsed dream of stardom while a girl has her gawky epiphany onstage, stripping away the veneer of cool to reveal the need and desire that power the rock ’n’ roll lust-dream. It may be a beautiful accident. But this is no illusion. These Xeroxes are delivering the real thing.

Back on Earth, what will Rose do? Some fans from their last Montreal headline gig have their own teenage kids (and second mortgages) now. What they never had was their GNR moment. Reviews of this latest leg of the real GNR tour, which opened in Winnipeg, have been positive. A thorough, expansive, professional performance, ending with explosions and Rose’s “We love you.” Equal parts Guns, and Roses. And 17 years after the interruption, Montreal deserves at least that.

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