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Coachella lures Guns N' Roses back to the jungle as volatile musicians share stage after 20 years

Coachella lures Guns N' Roses back to the jungle as volatile musicians share stage after 20 years
Axl Rose, left, and Slash of the rock group Guns n' Roses at the Stardust Ballroom on June 28, 1985, in Los Angeles. (Jack Lue / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Call this reunion what you want — cynical cash-in, celebration of musical resiliency or a nostalgia trip — but few rock returns have arrived with as much ballyhoo and drama as that of Guns N' Roses.

Until last week's surprise show at the Troubadour, it had been two decades since guitarist Slash and singer Axl Rose, the yin and yang of Guns N' Roses' incendiary classic lineup, last shared the stage. And fans had been hoping for, while betting against, such a reunion for nearly as long.

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Now they'll share the stage at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival along with founding member Duff McKagan, but it remains to be seen if a reassembled Guns N' Roses can survive both weekends of the hipster convention, which opens April 15, intact.

After all, there's a lot of baggage to consider and, with that, many questions.

Has Slash forgiven Rose for calling him "a cancer"?

Is Rose still "suffering an apparent attack of arrogance and ego," in the words of a 2004 royalties suit filed by Slash and bassist McKagan?

Does Rose remain "no longer willing to acknowledge the contributions of his former partners and bandmates in having created some of rock's greatest hits," according to the same suit? Is Rose really touring with AC/DC, and what does that mean for new Guns N' Roses music?

And, to harness a Guns N' Roses refrain, "where do we go from here?"

A few lawsuits, a dozen bandmates, a disappointing, long-delayed "Chinese Democracy" album, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame controversy and many burned bridges later, three-fifths of that lineup agreed to terms that will land them at the festival.

Responsible for classics such as "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Welcome to the Jungle," "November Rain" and "Paradise City," the band then plans to embark on an extended American tour that Billboard recently estimated could generate $3 million per date.

Such enthusiasm is no small feat for a band that made only one great record, its 1987 debut, "Appetite for Destruction," and split long before they could prove whether that was simply a fluke. The bloated two-volume "Use Your Illusion" set suggested it may have been.

No punches were thrown at the band's warm-up gig at the Troubadour, the same club where they played their first Los Angeles set in summer 1985. But Rose and Slash didn't exactly hug it out either. According to those who saw it, the two didn't say a word to each other the whole set.

Big money

With so much money in play, the band can afford mediators if communication fails. They'll have a harder time answering a few bigger questions, such as how the band ever survived to make "Appetite" in the first place.

"The fight with me and Slash started the day I met him," said Rose during a rare 2011 post-concert conversation with The Times in Seattle. "He came in, popped my tape out and put his in and wanted me in his band. And I didn't want to join his band." Instead, Slash joined Rose's outfit — the guitarist even designed their flower-and-handgun logo — and within a few years it was the biggest rock band in America.

The members of Guns N' Roses declined to be interviewed for this story — they're not doing any pre-Coachella press — but they haven't exactly been silent about their experiences.

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Rose, never one to mince words, has railed against Slash at nearly every opportunity. During that 2011 sit-down in his dressing room, his publicist asked that questions about Slash be avoided — but Rose brought his name up within a few minutes. The vocalist went on to accuse the guitarist of increasing the volume on the guitar amps during concerts as a way of drowning out the singer's voice.

"He had his knobs on the front, but then he had other knobs on the back of the amp," said Rose, describing an incident in the mid-'90s in which Rose claimed to have caught Slash in the act. "You can have your differences about songs, but no one's trying to purposely trick someone into … underdoing their part."

Rose's many past beefs against his bandmate could fill volumes, but Slash, a native Angeleno whose nickname was given to him by the actor Seymour Cassel, has been more circumspect about his and Rose's rivalrous relationship.

From the start, wrote Slash in his self-titled autobiography, his bandmate's directness was notable. "Axl impressed me in the way that he always has: no matter what anyone might say about him, Axl Rose is brutally honest. His version of events might be singular, to say the least, but the truth is, he believes in what he says with more heart than anyone I've ever met."

McKagan, who with Slash went on to form the somewhat successful rock band Velvet Revolver after leaving Guns N' Roses, described Rose's behavior in detail throughout "It's So Easy," the bassist's memoir. During their rise, McKagan recalled a singer wrestling with "intense emotional swings marked by incredible energy followed by days on end when he would be overtaken by black moods and disappear — and miss rehearsals."

Those early rehearsals took place, like much of the band's origin story, in the shadow of Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Amid practice spaces and grimy apartments in the neighborhood between the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Bowl, the five bandmates lived, worked and played together. They promoted and toured, working toward a common goal despite three members being addicted to heroin.

In his memoir, Slash described his own addiction while celebrating the lightning-in-a-bottle moment when the quintet first melded into a unit. "I had never been in a band where pieces of music that I found so inspiring came so fluidly. I can't speak for the other guys, but judging by the speed at which our collective creativity came together I assume they felt something similar."

McKagan certainly did. He remembered the band at that time, which also featured drummer Steven Adler and guitarist Izzy Stradlin (neither of whom are participating in the reunion tour), as "a happy bunch of malcontents" who ignited at first musical strike.

"From the moment the five of us leaned into our first song, we could all hear and feel that the fit was right," wrote McKagan. "The chemistry was immediate, thunderous and soulful. It was amazing and all of us recognized it instantly."

Defined L.A. rock

As "Appetite for Destruction" became one of the biggest rock albums of the decade, Guns N' Roses came to define Los Angeles commercial rock as the Beach Boys defined the '60s and the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac did the 1970s. The metal-fueled energy, though, was different.

"On a typical night," recalled Slash in his memoir, "one of us might be [having sex] in the loft or out in the open, another one of us might be passed out between an amp and the drum kit, and usually assorted friends were drinking and doing drugs in the alley until the sun came up."

The gigs were just as rowdy. Rose recalled one show where the band "had to spray the crowd with hoses and stop the show three times because they were just so violent. And that happened a lot. People don't really remember that, when we were opening, how crazy it was." Rose recalled loving that energy, adding "but I want people to have fun rather than it being a blood bath."

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When Slash and McKagan quit the band in the mid-'90s, Rose won ownership of the Guns N' Roses name and hired a hardened batch of session players as replacements. Though the concerts still burned, this band lacked a key component: relevancy.

Few are predicting a Coachella blood bath. Given the advancing age of its fan base, a plague of lower back pain may be a bigger threat. More dangerous, though, may be the outsized expectations, the weight of a history and a penchant for drama that means anything less than chaos on that stage in Indio could be seen as a disappointment.

Rose acknowledged the pressure even five years ago, when the notion of he and Slash being on the same stage was doubtful and the media were reveling in the antagonism. "There's an element of the public that does root against it, but there's also a larger element of the public that just believes what they read. It's 20 years of stuff, and it's too much stuff to fight against."

Asked by a journalist in 2014 whether he was tired of the endless talk of a reunion, Slash answered that he still reveled in fans' fascination with Guns N' Roses. "What I'm bored with is all the brouhaha with stuff the media have no idea what they are talking about." He said the culprits were the cause "of unnecessary conflict between the original members" and called the coverage "a lot of drama and sensationalism."

If history is any guide — and the band is lucky — the drama is going to increase as the stakes get higher. The last thing anyone wants, after all, is a perfectly acceptable Guns N' Roses set.

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