I saw Guns N' Roses for the first time in July of 1991, in Mountain View, California. I'd just turned eleven. Use Your Illusion was still a few months away. My mom took me. I don't mean that my long-suffering mother begrudgingly accompanied her Guns-loving eldest to a big rock show as a parental duty. No, she was the cock rock fan in the family, the one who dug Warrant, Tesla, G N' R, Skid Row. I was still devoting my two pre-pubescent brain cells to memorizing Ice Cube lyrics and figuring out how to pull off a menacing bald look. (Succeeded at the former, failed miserably at the latter.) I was just tagging along as a rocker mom's kid date.
It wasn't my first concert. I'd seen Milli Vanilli at the same sprawling outdoor venue. I believe I had a Color Me Badd concert under my belt. (Don't put Color Me Badd under your belt, by the way. Those boys are naughty.) But it was the first time I saw a truly great band. I've seen plenty of legends since, but I have yet to see another World's Biggest Band at the peak of its popularity.
Guns N' Roses was, to my eleven-year-old eyes and ears on that warm July night, as good as a rock 'n' roll band could possibly get. I feel sorry for people who weren't there. And I make sure to let people know I feel sorry for them. That show is one of the few feathers in my cap, and I like to call attention to it, because I am insufferably proud of my few feathers. It was a formative experience, a perfect night in hindsight, a show against which I measure all other live experiences.
USE YOUR ILLUSION II:
I saw Guns N' Roses for the second time last week, in Seattle, Washington. I'm thirty-one years old. Chinese Democracy came out three years ago. I took my wife. She reluctantly accompanied her Guns-loving husband, considering it a connubial duty. This is what she wrote to that husband a few hours before the show: "We should figure out beforehand what an acceptable amount of waiting around is for G N' R to start or for Axl to return to the stage after a temper tantrum."
She was not so stoked.
But I was. Stoked. Totally jazzed. Not because I thought Guns N' Roses would do anything to satisfy my constant craving for loud transcendence, but because I love writing about artistic folly. And everything I'd read about this iteration of Guns led me to believe that what I was going to see on that cold December night was a shitfest of the highest order. And so I spent the hours leading up to the show sharpening my knives, adding fast-acting poison to my pen, listening to Chinese Democracy and thinking about mean ways to describe Axl's bloat. I also ruminated on my 1991 encounter, the better to judge just how far Axl had fallen. I am a prick.
But this prick's preconceptions were shattered, loosed, left gasping up in the rafters of Key Arena. I had to leave an hour into the show to see to a personal matter far more pressing than any concert could ever be—my reticence here is, I hope, inspiring visions of me saving lives and/or doing blow in the alley behind the arena—and while what I saw in that hour did not approach the epic brain-melting beauty of Guns circa '91, but I am happy to report that this mutant version of Guns N' Roses puts on a killer show. I had goosebumps. I had pure joy shivers at the base of my skull. I was stoked, even more stoked than before, and not because Guns was giving me something to write about, but because Guns was simply really good.
I'm sure some of my enthusiasm was due to nostalgia, but I once saw my favorite band (Green Day) at its grandiose worst (American Idiot tour) and could barely bring myself to sing along with the best pop songs written in my lifetime. Fond memories only take me so far. And I might have been allowing myself some ironic indulgence in Axl's curdled celebrity, but that kind of joy fades fast. No, what I saw in Key Arena was lasting, real, genuine.
USE YOUR ILLUSION III:
I got some perspective on the spectacle two days later, when I saw Portland's wonderful Your Rival play a killer set of boisterous pop-punk to six mostly ambivalent people in a Seattle bar on Sunday night. It's a story as old as rock 'n' roll: a great band runs through a set of perfect pop and the universe doesn't even bother to shrug. But I was there, so I can tell you that the emptiness of the room did not deter Your Rival. The trio played like people cared. That's the only way to play. It was great.
It was then that I understood why Guns N' Roses was so unexpectedly vital and rousing on that chilly Friday night. And this is where this installment of Upper Extremities delivers on its promise to be at least tangentially related to punk rock. Like so: Axl braves ridicule and disdain and memes and stupid jokes about his receding hairline and jabs aimed at his expanding paunch in order to play music that he clearly adores to people who really want to hear that music and people (like me) who aren't (or weren't) all that interested in the cracked bleats of some moribund rock star. It is that same dogged spirit that informs the music I like to write about here. It is just that spirit that inspires Your Rival to drive three hours on a Sunday to play to six people in a shitty Seattle bar. And so here we are, shooting the shit about Axl, who seems to be beholden to that insistent spirit. Call it punk, call it rock 'n' roll, call it blinkered idiocy. But know that it is there.
It's a little bit humiliating to hit the stage to the sound of crickets, as Your Rival did the other night. But Your Rival didn't seem to give too much of a fuck. And it's got to be just as tough to emerge from backstage bowels to the howls of thousands of people who are about to see (and maybe laugh at) just how tough time has been to you and your body and your voice. So why do it? Because you have to. It's that sick drive that makes music so good--it's the reason I'm still listening to and making ridiculous punk rock at this late stage--and I saw it in Axl on Friday.
So here's to Guns N' Roses and Your Rival. May they continue to do it for themselves. Amen. Oh, also: You really should have been there.