There was a time when rock ‘n’ roll was unpredictable and audacious. Like the Roman Empire, or Vikings, the genre would invade communities, change cultures and demand tributes from its subjects. Rock ‘n’ roll ruled the world and we worshipped its wild and untamable stars.

But right now, it’s August 9, 2016, and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest stars is surprisingly tame.

Axl Rose, the man, the myth, the lunatic, is walking across the stage and stands behind his band. Behind his band. Mr. Ego isn’t hogging the spotlight. Instead, he’s cordially introducing each member, one by one, throughout the song “Coma,” a 10-minute narrative epic from Use Your Illusion I, the perfect tune to suggest that something is awakening from a long sleep.

Then he gets to the man standing far away on stage right, a certain somebody with a top hat, a cigarette and an orange-burst guitar. He lets the song end, but everyone at AT&T Park in San Francisco knows the introduction is still coming, a moment 20 years in the making.

Best friends who became sworn enemies. Writing partners who penned some of the biggest songs in rock history, but could no longer exist in the same space, let alone on the same stage. Yes, Rose has a long history of losing friends and making enemies, but this particular strained relationship was the most important to fix and the least likely to ever occur. Every five years or so, we would hear rumors, but that’s all they were: rumors. 20 years of rumors. Until now.

The stage is dark. A brief spotlight hits Rose: “Ladies and gentlemen.” He pauses. “Slash.” The crowd goes wild, the guitar solo begins. I wipe off a stupid tear.

No matter what band or genre I obsessively embrace—indie, folk, hip-hop, hardcore, Christian punk—my love for Guns N’ Roses is unwavering. It is true that Rose’s lyrics have become a source of contention for me (“It’s So Easy,” “Back Off Bitch,” “Get in the Ring,” or the horrendously unlistenable “My World,” for example), but I still can’t shake the band. The heart-attack drum intro of “You Could Be Mine,” the timeless whistle of “Patience,” even the searing high-end riff of “Since I Don’t Have You” provide the foundation of my musical DNA.

My first music memory, in fact, is watching the music video for “November Rain.” At probably five years old, I would grab a stack of folded towels and pretend to play the piano on them, just like Axl, mimicking his movements. The little head sway. My older brother and sister would sit on the floor in front of the tube. Together we’d watch Axl Rose’s sad story come to its inevitable end: the wedding, that kiss, Slash’s epic solo outside the church, the wedding reception, the rain. That funeral. Visceral, melodramatic, music-video storytelling at its finest, the kind of stuff that imprints into a five-year-old’s brain and stays there forever.

Unless you lived through the era, it is almost impossible to explain the societal impact of Guns N’ Roses. To date, they have sold more than 100 million records. 100 MILLION records. A rock band. A rock band selling records. 100 million of them. Today’s popular rock groups sell three million records if they’re lucky, which is what Imagine Dragons have done in the U.S., for example, spread across three studio albums. Guns N’ Roses’ debut Appetite for Destruction has sold over 18 million copies in the U.S. alone, 30 million worldwide.

The most recent rock example I can think of is Green Day’s American Idiot, which has reportedly tracked around 16 million in the U.S. As I’m sure you remember, that album conquered everything: MTV, Fuse, rock radio, pop radio, grocery stores, clothing stores. Even El Chapo couldn’t escape “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Eventually, an immensely successful musical spawned out of Broadway and won a couple Tonys. It’s still being staged on tour. The point is American Idiot influenced society at the type of massive, breakneck-speed pace that only comes from an entire culture buying in all at once.

Guns N’ Roses did it with Appetite, and then they did it again with Use Your Illusion I and II, two separate albums released on the same day in September of 1991. It’s said the band sold over 500,000 records in two hours. Use Your Illusion I went on to go platinum in 15 different countries, proving that between Appetite and Illusion, Guns N’ Roses ruled the world for six solid years.

Fast forward 25 years from my towel piano and I’m finally purchasing concert tickets to see my favorite band. The original lineup(ish) is back for the first time since 1995 for the aptly named Not in This Lifetime Tour. I’m turning 30. My friends are all turning 30. Appetite for Destruction is turning 30. We realize there’s no better “Dirty 30” party then paying $100 for partial-view nosebleeds to see Axl Rose, Slash, Duff and Dizzy in tune and on the same stage. And that’s what we do.

Prior to the concert, we postulate all the ways Rose will ruin our evening. Will he take three hours to show? Will there be a riot if he doesn’t? Will he abruptly leave the stage if he hears something he doesn’t like? There is a history of this sort of thing happening.

And something odd does happen: Guns N’ Roses starts on time. In fact, it is still daylight. We are still trying to find our seats through the first minute or so of their opener, “It’s So Easy.”

We get settled into the nosebleeds of AT&T Park, and when I see a bloated Rose, it finally hits me how bizarre this concert experience is going to be. I consider the small fortune I paid (tickets + airfare) to stroke the ego of aging musicians seeking to reclaim their former glory via enormous LED video screens at a baseball park. And I’m slightly embarrassed.

Later, I’ll realize the setlist is to blame for my initial reaction. Appetite for Destruction is a classic album, but it’s just never been my GNR. I came of age during the Use Your Illusion era and those are the albums I naturally gravitate towards (though I’ve also been partial to GN’R Lies). Two Appetite songs back-to-back and Chinese Democracy’s title track are followed by “Welcome to the Jungle,” a song that has always felt especially campy to me. It’s all a bit too much of a novelty for me to take the performance seriously.

When the setlist shifts, however, so does my attitude (the sunset also helps set the mood). “Double Talkin’ Jive” is followed by “Estranged,” and after their Wings cover of “Live and Let Die,” all Illusion-era songs that do the trick and get me fully engaged in the performance.

“Estranged” is an especially wonderful treat. A high-concept, behemoth of a song that runs 9:24 on the album, it features various movements, tonal shifts and vocal flavors (whispering, singing, screeching, yelling) over one of Slash’s most memorable licks. It’s the type of indulgent, ambitious studio track many bands record but never perform due to the difficulties of recreating it live. I’ve always been impressed by Guns N’ Roses’ willingness to fit it into almost every performance since ‘91.

Tonight, the band plays it with the same earnestness required to pull it off, and I’m surprised by how quickly the song flies by. During one of its many solos, however, I take a moment to scan my friend’s reactions, who are getting restless. It makes me consider my nostalgic ears might be getting in the way of genuine criticism. Do these songs really hold up the way I think they do?

I conclude as long as you’re enjoying the music, none of that matters.

Perhaps most surprising about the performance is how little Rose hogs the spotlight. Despite his reputation, Rose is actually quite contained and cordial throughout the evening. In fact, Rose disappears frequently to change outfits (and probably catch his breath). When he’s missing, the band takes over, and no doubt about it: This is Slash’s show. He’s as much a frontman as Rose is and you get the feeling this is the way it was meant to be. Axl Rose was never supposed to be the face, arms and legs of Guns N’ Roses. With Slash returning, and Duff as well, balance is restored.

The evening progresses with “November Rain,” Duff singing the Misfits’ “Attitude” (off of GNR’s rather fun and underrated covers album The Spaghetti Incident?), and Slash’s solo into “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” For my money, song-of-the-night goes to “Civil War.” It is my absolute favorite Guns N’ Roses song and is impeccably performed, minus one rather surprising sour-note during Slash’s solo.

Much like “Estranged,” “Civil War” lands on the more thoughtful and ambitious side of the band’s catalogue. Running close to eight minutes, the mellow tune opens Use Your Illusion II, an intentional contrast to “Right Next Door to Hell,” the three-minute barn-burner that opens Use Your Illusion I. “Civil War” sets a more pensive mood with a timid Rose shivering over a quiet guitar, waxing philosophical about war, poverty, politics and greed (lyrics that are definitely off-brand, but much appreciated). The song eventually explodes like a cannon, and its black powder settles ambiance like dust over the rest of the record.

It’s everything I’ve always loved about Guns N’ Roses all in one song: expert musicality with atmosphere, dynamism and storytelling. Mix in an ambitious vocal performance from Rose at the top of his game, and you have a truly special tune like no other rock song.

Hearing it live is a dream come true, so impossible I fail to grasp the gravity of the moment. Three states from home with my high-school chums in the nosebleeds, celebrating the band that soundtracked our lives. Guns N’ Fucking Roses.

With the band’s own civil war seemingly finished (we’ll see how long the truce lasts), I take a moment to mourn the lost opportunities of the last 20 years, the songs that weren’t written and the great albums that “could’ve been.” I curse the egos that get in the way of great art. But at the end of the day, you can’t put your arms around a memory, especially one that doesn’t exist.

So, here they are. Alive and together, sharing a stage and taking a bow with arms around each other. If Axl Rose and Slash can reconcile, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.

For more information, check out Guns N’ Roses on Facebook. Photos via gunsnroses.com

Setlist

1. It’s So Easy
2. Mr. Brownstone
3. Chinese Democracy
4. Welcome to the Jungle
5. Double Talkin’ Jive
6. Estranged
7. Live and Let Die (Wings cover)
8. Rocket Queen
9. You Could Be Mine
10. Attitude (Misfits cover)
11. This I Love
12. Civil War
13. Coma
14. Slash solo
15. Sweet Child o’ Mine
16. Better
17. Out ta Get Me
18. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover)
19. November Rain
20. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan cover)
21. Nightrain

Encore
22. Patience
23. The Seeker (The Who cover)
24. Paradise City

 

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