The first time I heard a Guns N’ Roses song, I was at the Pizza Hut in North Topeka with my parents and brothers, sucking down Sprite as fast as our waitress could get it into my red cup and hoping that my mother would ignore my father’s requests for Thin And Crispy because, what, I want the crust to be a cracker?
At the corner jukebox, some raggedy teenager had ordered up “Paradise City.” I knew, immediately, that this was Something Different. I didn’t like it, at all. In fact, my reaction to “Paradise City” was probably best described as “scared shitless.” This was what was coming, the song told me: lawlessness, sin, and complete chaos brought to me by my neighbor Eric Howard and his black Trans Am.
It is important to note that, when I heard “Paradise City” in that Pizza Hut, I was nine years old. Smack in the heart of the recommended reading age for Hardy Boys books. Not yet old enough for Legos Technics. Still terrified of the basement in my parents’ house. (That one remains true.)
I bring up my age because, last week, when I told people that I was going to see Guns N’ Roses at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, they said one of two things:
1. That’s not real Guns N’ Roses.
2. You should have seen them in their prime.
Look, I wanted to say, I was anywhere from nine to thirteen when “real” Guns N’ Roses were in their prime. And since I wasn’t haunting the Whisky on Sunset back then, I might as well take this opportunity to see them.
Especially because – and here’s my little secret – I don’t really give a shit about the rest of Guns N’ Roses. Axl Rose is what matters.
Okay, yeah, I like Slash. Everyone likes Slash. Who among us hasn’t wanted to be Slash, when he walks out of that full church into the empty desert because, fucking hell, man, I gotta play the motherfucking guitar.
But when I was eight or nine, and I was hearing Guns N’ Roses for the first time, the thing that was different – the thing that set my prepubescent loins atingle – was the voicebox on one W. Axl Rose. Rock guitar already existed, but there had never been anything like Axl Rose’s voice.
Before the show in Los Angeles, I was worried about that voice. The reports I’d heard from the tour before this one – the arena shows – were not good. Axl doesn’t have it anymore, they said.
They might have been right, about those shows. If they were, then Axl Rose got his shit together. Because at the show I saw, Axl Rose was as near to perfect as any rock star I’ve ever seen.
It was all on display: the scream from “Welcome To The Jungle,” that bizarre shift for “Mr. Brownstone.” The high hard ones in “Used To Love Her.”
Maybe it wasn’t all there. Rose turned 50 this year. The shakes, the shimmies, the spins: they weren’t like they were 25 years ago.
And sure, maybe the personalities of the band members weren’t as compelling as the old days. Maybe, without the contentious relationship between Axl and Slash, Guns N’ Roses isn’t as good as it could have gotten.
But I’m not sure it matters all that much who else is in Guns N’ Roses. Someone could have put Slash onstage. Or Duff McKagan. Or Izzy Stradlin. My eyes would have stayed on Axl Rose. My eyes would have stayed on Axl Rose if Benjamin Franklin had risen from the grave and appeared next to a naked Kate Upton.
Why, indeed. Why do you fall in love with one girl over another? Why does that green shirt look good on you but the red one doesn’t?
I have hunches, of course; I daresay that most people will say that there’s something that appeals to them about Axl Rose. Most of us would like to seem enigmatic – to be eccentric-bordering-on-crazy but still have people hanging on our every word. I don’t pretend that my semi-worship of Axl Rose is unique. But I will tell you where it comes from: the Midwestern kid arrives in the big city, that rattlesnake shake in the video for November Rain, the police hat, the sunglasses, the bandanna, the ripped jeans, the I-well-and-truly-do-not-give-a-fuck attitude.
Axl Rose is the rock star that we would all like to be; say what you will about his eccentricities, but he ain’t going to be hosting a reality show on VH1 or judging mediocre singers on network television anytime soon.
Before the encore, which came two and a half hours into the night, I turned to my friend and said that I couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
That was partially true, but only partially. Because what I should have said was that I couldn’t believe that I was seeing it at all.
I’ve come a long way from that Pizza Hut in North Topeka. We all have – it’s been twenty-five years, after all. That nine-year-old kid never would have dreamed that he’d one day watch that band that scared him so much. He certainly wouldn’t have thought he’d one day watch that band with an entirely different lineup, in the wee hours of a Sunday night in Los Angeles.
And he definitely never would have thought that he’d be the sort of person I’ve become – the one that, at 34, was pumping his fist like a teenager during the last song of the night:
“Paradise City,” of course.
I may never see Axl Rose and Slash appear onstage together. But what I decided, as the evening ended and as “where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” washed over my ears, is that I still got to see Guns N’ Roses in their prime. Because, as far as I can tell, Guns N’ Roses is in their prime any time Axl Rose shows up.
For more from Paul…