Arts & Entertainment

1989: Still the Greatest

Guns N' Roses (music group)Music IndustryRock and Roll (genre)Social IssuesRacism

The winner and still champ: the Rolling Stones.

On a night when rock 'n' roll's most celebrated survivors played with such passion and fire at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they looked as though they could go on convincingly for another 10 years, Guns N' Roses, the young Los Angeles rock upstarts, made you wonder Wednesday whether they were going to even survive the concert.

In a series of hot-tempered remarks during his group's 80-minute set, Guns lead singer Axl Rose not only fueled the controversy over the racial and sexual epithets in the band's song "One in a Million," but he twice suggested that the four-day Coliseum stand, which concludes with shows Saturday and Sunday, may be his last performances with the band.

The concert loomed as a classic rock 'n' roll showdown: a generational battle of the bands.

But the Stones simply had too many weapons: too much historic aura, too many great songs and too splendid a lineup of musicians.

Some of the Stones' songs (especially "Play With Fire" and "2,000 Light Years") are too dated, and others are decidedly marginal ("Harlem Shuffle," "Undercover of the Night"), but the best of the Stones' rockers ("Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar") and the most seductive of the band's mood pieces ("Tumbling Dice," "Honky Tonk Women") are rock hallmarks.

The Stones, with good reason, have been called the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band for so long--at least since the early '70s--that for years no one has even considered an alternative. It wasn't until the band's recent seven-year layoff from touring that rock observers started wondering if the band--nearing its third decade--should pass the torch.

Guns N' Roses isn't the only contender, but it is the only one appearing with the Stones during the band's 3 1/2-month tour. The group--whose bad-boy stance is reminiscent of the Stones' role in the '60s and early '70s--is the most celebrated hard-rock outfit of the '80s. Its first two albums have sold an estimated 12 million copies.

The Coliseum bill--it's the only place Guns N' Roses is appearing on the Stones tour--is so hot that nearly 280,000 people will see the four shows. Ticket brokers around town reported brisk business, commanding as much as $700 for choice seats. The souvenir stands at the Coliseum also reflected an awareness of the older Stones fans' affluence. Besides the standard $20 T-shirts, booths offered such upscale concert items as a $450 leather jacket and a $190 flight jacket.

Coming on stage shortly before 8 p.m., Rose didn't even wait for the rest of the quintet to get in place before grabbing the microphone and defending his right to use in "One in a Million" words deeply offensive to blacks and homosexuals.

"Before we start playing, (I want to say) I'm sick of all this publicity about our song," he said in an expletive-filled tirade to an estimated 72,000 fans. He then denied he was a racist, but suggested that selective use of the words--against particular members of those groups who offend you--is acceptable. "If you still want to call me a racist, you can . . . shove it. . . ."

Rose's defense is likely to anger further those who have been offended by the song. It's one thing to argue for the limited use of those words as social realism in art, but it shows a lack of sensitivity to use them as a part of your vocabulary.

It was soon apparent that his ire was not just directed at those who have challenged him on the language of "One in a Million."

Before starting the second song, he again paused. "I don't like to do this on stage," he said, "But unless certain people in this band start getting their act together, these are going to be the last Guns N' Roses shows," he said.

While fans looked at each other in amazement, Rose--known to be a volatile, highly spontaneous performer--continued: "I'm sick and tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. Brownstone," a reference to a Guns N' Roses song dealing with drug use.

Later, returning for the encore of "Paradise City," he again seemed agitated. "Before we begin, I'd like to announce this is my last gig with Guns N' Roses." He then added, with an air of disillusionment, that there's no need to look for a Paradise City because none exists.

(The band's management had no comment Thursday on the group's status for the Coliseum shows on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday).

It was both a troubling and fascinating display--one that will probably go down as a storied moment in L.A. rock. Rose has the potential to be one of the most compelling figures in American rock since the late Jim Morrison.

Like Morrison, Rose exhibits a fierce independence that sometimes leads to errors in judgment as he races in a somewhat romantic pursuit of artistic truth. He also shares Morrison's duality: exploring the dark side of man's nature (the fast-lane corruption of "Welcome to the Jungle") while also possessing an almost old-fashioned yearning for innocence ("Sweet Child o' Mine").

In the midst of the anger Wednesday, for instance, Rose led the audience on a disarming sing-along of Bob Dylan's wistful "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

The most striking of the similarities with Morrison, however, is Rose's tendency on stage to act on raw impulse and emotion. He is someone that you can't take your eyes off. There is a sense of genuine involvement--rather than rote--in both his soft, swaying movements as he sings, and in the way he searches vocally to find some new truth every time he sings a song.

Rose seems to get so caught up emotionally in the song that he disregards his own safety. At one point early in the set, he fell approximately six feet after he accidentally stepped off a dark edge of the main floor while singing "Patience," one of Guns' hit singles. He landed on his side on a platform and appeared stunned, losing his balance as he tried to regain his footing. Finally, a security guard helped him up.

Undaunted, Rose stepped down to the Coliseum floor and shook hands with fans as he moved along a wooden partition that separates the audience from the technicians in front of the stage.

Whether because of or despite its raw edges, Guns N' Roses has become the most absorbing hard-rock band to emerge in the '80s, and it may again challenge for the title--if it survives. But you can't beat a great team by showing the divisions that Guns N' Roses did.

The group did supply one element Wednesday that the Stones no longer have: A sense of spontaneity. It wasn't however, enough.

There was a time when the Stones were branded as irresponsible in their use of language and as rude in their behavior as Guns N' Roses is now. What those criticisms missed was the excellence of the Stones' music, and it's that music that now enables the group to continue to be such a wonderfully stirring attraction.

After the emotional high-wire act of Rose, the Stones seemed almost quaintly tame. The show moved as smoothly as a Broadway revue--but what a revue.

The stage set is a futuristic construction site that, through use of lighting, shifts during the evening to serve as either an unsettling display of urban decay or a more optimistic statement of social and urban renewal.

The lighting, too, is dazzling as it changes from red-hell alarm (during "Sympathy for the Devil") to a comforting blue ("You Can't Always Get What You Want"). There's also a sense of humor as 50-foot high balloons in the shape of bar girls brighten "Honky Tonk Women."

Wearing the same sporty green leather tails he wore at the start of the tour on Aug. 31 in Philadelphia, 46-year-old Mick Jagger set a fast opening pace as he skipped around the stage with the energy of a man half his age.

Guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman have been joined by keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford, saxophonist Bobby Keys, three backup singers and a three-piece horn section. These musicians have all been woven into the Stones' traditional blues-based rock sound without making it appear either unnecessarily fancy or uptown.

Richards has always said that he doesn't worry about growing old because he's seen his treasured bluesmen play into their 60s and 70s. That gives him and the Stones a long time to go. The question on recent tours was whether they would still be accepted by young audiences.

The response of the young fans on this tour--and about two-thirds of the crowd on most tour stops is under 21--is that the Stones hold up well. Even those fans predicting a Guns N' Roses victory in Wednesday's showdown expressed admiration for the Stones. Their fondness for Guns was based on matters of generational pride. "This is my band," said Robert Sanchez, 20, of Hollywood. "The Stones are my dad's band."

After the concert, Martin Miller, 36, of La Habra had a comment that appeared more typical of the older Stones fans on hand. "Guns N' Roses," he said sarcastically, "may be a great band--let's see in 10 years."

Living Colour, the opening act, was in the difficult position of beginning its set at 6 p.m., when only about 5,000 people were in their seats and it was still daylight. But the New York group, led by guitarist-songwriter Vernon Reid, put on a crowd-pleasing mix of almost metal-ish force and songs with substance and social relevance. The only weak link is the stiffness of lead singer Corey Glover.

The lesson of Wednesday's show is that it's doubtful that any band can step on stage with enough good-to-great familiar songs and with enough historical mystique to take the rock crown away from the Stones. The Stones can only be upstaged when they no longer play their music with the energy and commitment it deserves. Don't expect it to happen soon.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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