Should you visit the ancient ruins of the Buddhist Borobudur Temple in central Indonesia, you can’t miss the great, layered structure’s solemn majesty as it rises gradually and ominously above a lush valley, an hour’s drive from Yogyakarta.
As you leave the parking lot and head to the temple, the ephemeral, expectant air of spirituality is overwhelmed with the catlike pleading of old woman beggars, their sad eyes pressed in dried fruit faces.
Your orientation becomes more secular as you navigate myriad vendor stalls on the way to the foot of the temple. The sheer volume of religious bric-a-brac for sale — from all manner of Buddha figurines to incense — seems startlingly opportunistic, even in this depressed part of Indonesia, where a bottle of Coke fetches 15 cents.
Then, among the Buddhas, sun hats and food stands, there is a stall selling, of all fucking things, Guns N’ Roses wall hangings! And not just one; there’s the roses-and-skull tapestry, there’s the full-band Appetite For Destruction shot replete with Slash and his trusty bottle of Jack. There are also Harley-Davidson banners.
It’s here you suddenly realize just how ubiquitous Guns N’ Roses is — like Harley or John Wayne — in the world’s collective unconscious, hammered home by the sight of German tourists nosing said wares, and the pushy Indonesian merch pimps selling to them.
A world away, on a snowy November night at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Guns N’ Roses is still an omnipresent force in rock ’n’ fucking roll — at least for the two-thirds-capacity crowd who showed up to witness the 2002 version.
Amid the Nine Inch Nails refugees, ex-punks and prog-funk also-rans that make up the current paste-up Guns’ lineup, this is the band’s — er, Axl’s — first U.S. tour in almost a decade.
An hour after opening the show, DJ Mixmaster Mike has packed up his turntables, and the first ringing guitar stabs of “Welcome to the Jungle” shoot from backstage.
The audience doesn’t seem to care who’s playing them, just that they are being played. Because, as Guns V.02’s set tonight shows, Rose is as ominous and ancient a presence in rock ’n’ roll as the Borobudur temple — a monument to be visited in remembrance.
And therein lies Rose’s dilemma. He seems like he wants to move forward — or at least stay current — in a world that would rather he be David Lee Roth with better hair.
As if you couldn’t tell from his penchant for dressing like an ICP roadie with Milli Vanilli braids, oversized hockey jerseys (at the Palace it’s a Red Wings’) and puffy white sneakers, Axl wants to keep up to date. Even as Guns peaked in the early ’90s and subsequently lost its original members — and even their replacements — Rose has seemed like a guy with an ear for the future.
And who could forget Rose’s laudable if doomed attempt to tap then-little-known Nine Inch Nails for a European tour in the early ’90s, only to see the industrial squelchers booed offstage in Germany by a rock-hard audience with a healthy disregard for synthesizers.
Then there was Rose’s completely earnest request to have Nirvana play his 30th birthday party in 1991. Hey, like Nirvana at the time, Guns were once rock upstarts. Nirvana, of course, declined the offer.
In 1996, Rose — from his multimillion-dollar gilded cage — summoned Moby to LA to talk about producing the Sisyphean opus that would become Chinese Democracy. Moby remembers Rose playing him the tracks, which at that point were still instrumentals.
“The stuff he played me reminded me of U2’s Achtung Baby. It was powerful but groovy. They were doing everything on [audio software program] Pro Tools,” Moby remembers. “Axl’s soft-spoken and a decent guy. The only time he got testy was when I said, ‘These need vocals.’” Moby passed on the project.
Vocals have been a source of controversy for Rose. Besides obvious Jacko-like plastic surgery and ill-advised hair weaves, there is also the persistent rumor that he has, for periods of time, lost his voice. Ironically, his nasal bark — which gets winded quickly— is Guns’ most identifiable trademark. It’s also the last vestige of the group to survive the ’90s into its current lineup.
Now, with the ex-members of Guns (bassist Duff McKagan, guitarist Slash) burning down Hollywood looking for a new front man for their as-yet unnamed band, Rose is becoming to Guns what David Lee Roth is to Van Halen — a founding member reduced to a trademark-slash-spokesman parody. He’s like old Will Shatner at a Star Trek convention signing autographs on behalf of an entertainment empire he only partially, if most visibly, created.
Tonight, Rose shows his “progressive” side by having jackass-inspiring skate-metallists CKY and Beastie Boys DJ Mixmaster Mike open the show. He fills his band with way-cooler musicians than the 15-year-old repertoire of strip-bar anthems they play would suggest. You could argue bands like the Replacements (see ex-Replacement and current GNR bassist Tommy Stinson, who reportedly signed a gag order with Axl so he would not talk to the press) existed in spite of and to spite Guns N’ Roses and all of the world.
And what is Buckethead — a holdover from the whole Primus prog-funk scene of the early ’90s — doing hacking his way through “Mr. Brownstone”? Shit, you’d wear a KFC bucket over your cranium too if your job was to trot out note-for-note songs you made fun of when you first heard them.
But the audience has come to hear the hits, to re-enact the glorious days of FM heavy rotation. Sure, at points an audience that came to see Guns N’ Roses got a Nine Inch Nails/Rocky Horror-looking studio player doing his best John Frusciante for five minutes alone on the stage. But all is forgiven when he puts the arty shit away and gives up the ghost of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and its effusive guitar intro.
Bottom line seems to be, no matter who Rose thinks he is or wants to be — braids, cool band, cooler-still openers — the public domain of classic rock still thinks of him as the guy with the bell bottoms and backward ball cap getting off the bus in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video. When he asked the Palace crowd in “Sweet Child,” “Where do we go now?” the answer is cheerfully nowhere, into a kind of rock purgatory back to the future. And, ironically, it’s Mixmaster Mike, shrewdly mixing up crowd-pleasers from deceased rock acts like White Zombie, Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine with current party jams from Missy Elliott and the Neptunes, who can mine rock’s past gracefully enough without coming off like a Civil War re-enactor with a cholesterol midriff and a hair weave.Hobey Echlin is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]