The Bloom Is Off The Rose

No one ever expects Axl Rose to show up on time for his concerts. He likes to keep the fans waiting. He sings about it in "Mr. Brownstone," one of the sleazier hits from Guns N' Roses' debut album, "Appetite for Destruction": Show usually starts around 7 / We go on stage around 9.

True to form, two weeks ago in Albany, N.Y., a Guns N' Roses show was starting at 7 p.m. Then it was 9. Then it was 10, and Axl was nowhere in sight, maybe not even in the building. One of the cameramen distracted the crowd by training his camera on girls in the audience, egging them on to bare their breasts. But this didn't keep people's attention for long. It was 10:45 p.m. Axl had ditched the "Chinese Democracy" tour's kickoff date in Vancouver a few weeks earlier. It looked like he was ditching this show, too.

And then the lights went down. There he was, Axl Rose backed up by a battalion of new musicians, wearing braids and a baggy jersey and screeching the opening of "Welcome to the Jungle" like it was 1987. Any shortness of breath he might have suffered at the MTV Video Music Awards earlier this year clearly had been an aberration. He ran, he jumped, he held high notes for 15 seconds. He roamed the stage like a panther, occasionally stopping to do one of his little hippie dances or to say a few derogatory words about his old guitarists, Slash, Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin. ("They're bad cops, and I'm their Serpico, and they can suck my ..."--you get the point.) He finished with "Paradise City" as a blonde in the front row bounced on somebody's shoulders.

It wasn't exactly GNR's heyday. Axl, that feral sex symbol of the '80s, looked a little Botoxic. He probably went with the sports jersey to cover up some pounds, not to make a fashion statement. And that wasn't Slash backing him up, but Buckethead, an avant-garde guitarist who wears a mask and--yep--a KFC bucket on his head.

But who cared? It was still a great show. This wasn't the same Axl who'd been holed up God knows where for nine years while his hotness factor dropped below freezing. This was a real entertainer, a good facsimile of the Greatest Rock Star in the World he used to be. From my vantage point 30 feet from the stage, I thought the new Guns N' Roses had a chance. If the rest of the tour was like this, and if they put out the long-awaited album (also called "Chinese Democracy") next spring, maybe we would see the real Return of Rock.

Or maybe not. Guns N' Roses cancelled their Dec. 6 Philadelphia show plus three others last week, and then jettisoned the remaining 14 tour dates. If this is indicative of how Axl works now, we'll probably see democracy in China before we see the "Chinese Democracy" CD. And who knows if we'll ever see him perform live again.

Promoters were vague about why they would have called off a successful comeback tour (the official GNR site still boasts of the "overwhelming response" from fans, who snapped up all the tickets for last week's Madison Square Garden show in 15 minutes), but people whispered about Axl's "health." He's had "health" problems before. Most of us hoped he had taken care of them with that exorcism he supposedly had a few years ago. Some people speculated that he was having a midlife crisis--he did turn 40 this year. Others said he never made it to Philadelphia because he was too busy watching a basketball game in his New York hotel room.

If Axl had shown up at the Albany concert on time, I would have been a little disappointed--it wouldn't have been "him." But to not show up at all? I can't say I blame the fans in Vancouver who rioted, smashing windows at the arena after he skipped their show. Philadelphia was the same story. People threw bottles on stage. A few threw chairs. If Axl was indeed lounging on a hotel bed watching ESPN at the time, it's a sad state of affairs. Guns N' Roses fans are now wilder than Guns N' Roses.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Slash, Duff, Izzy and former drummer Matt Sorum were rehearsing with new frontmen and talking about a tour themselves. Given the many jokes that dogged Axl's new band--Guns N' Posers! Hired Guns N' Roses!--his old bandmates may have gotten the better end of the deal. There's hope for them yet. As for Axl, I don't know. At Madison Square Garden in New York, he told the crowd this was a reunion tour: "I managed to get enough of myself together to do this." Looks like he's broken up again.