It's So Sleazy: Guns N' Roses Gave Coachella Its Most Epic Rock Set Ever
Axl Rose on his throne.
Photo by Mathew Tucciarone
“Internal fixation.” That’s how Axl Rose’s good-looking foot specialist Dr. Rachel Triche described the lead singer’s broken foot on April 8. Her ESPN-esque medical update, in which she sat in front of all her various credentials, was both great reality TV and evidence of Team GNR’s belief that rock and roll is not much different than pay-per-view prize-fighting.
Rose sustained the injury when he lost his footing on a riser during the Troubadour reunion show on April 1. For fans who waited 23 years to see GNR reclaim their spot as America’s greatest hard-rock band, it was bittersweet catharsis. “Internal fixation,” which sounds vaguely sexual, is also how GNR fans have felt for over two decades, fixated on the idea that if GNR ever reunited, in this lifetime, the world would shake and experience one giant, gushing rock-and-roll orgasm.
That was half true at Coachella on Saturday night, for the band's fourth and biggest appearance since the reunion. Axl was still restricted to his throne (covered in GNR letters), which he would leave only twice: once to play the grand piano on “November Rain,” and the second time to take a seat on what looked like a chair from the Hearst Castle, from which he whistled the tune to “Patience.”
Wearing a sinister emoji T-shirt with a leather jacket, Axl, one of history's great white-male dancers, seemed trapped on the throne. Dave Grohl, from whom it's on loan, seemed to take pleasure in his contraption (which moves up and down the stage) while on tour with Foo Fighters. But Axl, who made it work, seemed less ferocious without his snake-like moves and shaking knees. Then again, sitting on the captain’s chair had some perks, like beautiful women at his service and the ability to play a two-hour-plus set without sustaining another serious injury. "There are some privileges to being fucked up," he said, as a sexy nurse handed him his mike.
On day two of Coachella, where the crowd size nearly doubled from night one (most certainly nearing the 99,000 capacity), fans decided to camp at the Coachella stage all day to see their favorite band. A few in the front had the neon-Jesus "Kill Your Idols" T-shirt Axl wore on the Use Your Illusion tour. VIPs in attendance, according to multiple sources, were Sly Stallone, Courtney Love and the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger — all of whom watched from the sound board or the side of the stage.
For everyone, the pressing question of the weekend continued to be whether Axl would show up on time. Which is no longer a question we need to ask. GNR came on just ten minutes after their scheduled 10:30 p.m. set time.
The sound of Colt pistols firing off in the sky signaled the start of their set, which would last nearly two and a half hours and drip with sex and grandiosity, including the aforementioned nurses, three go-go dancers, choreographed pyro bombs, and a graphic display that gave GNR fanboys a reason to start a forum thread: During the bridge of “Rocket Queen,” Adriana Smith’s recorded sex sounds were replaced by a skeleton animation of a couple having doggy-style sex. Unfortunately, there were no actual sex sounds to go with the computerized image.
GNR, for their most devoted fans, represent a brand of rock and roll that rejects political activism and neo-feminism. This is a breed of rockism that still believes in authentic leather, flashy jewelry, rough sex and pro-wrestling-esque surprises, like Angus Young of AC/DC joining GNR for blistering covers of “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff.”
Young's appearance, just one year after AC/DC headlined, received Coachella's biggest reaction. An AC/DC fan in the pit commented on Rose’s ability to sing the Bon Scott-era songs: “He can do it, I think he can, but I’m not sure about all their songs.” By then, everyone knew that Axl was officially confirmed as the new frontman of AC/DC on the twelve-city European leg of their world tour (which begins in May). He is, as one fan described him, "the patron saint of rock and roll" at this point, now frontman for two of the biggest surviving representatives of old-school rock.
Besides the shock value of Young’s appearance, the set flowed a lot like GNR's Vegas shows, which included a mix of the band's songs from every era, from ballads like “November Rain” to a cover of the Misfits’ “Attitude.” The bandmemembers sounded their tightest on “Civil War” and “Nightrain,” as Slash shredded while sliding across the catwalk like Axl on the Use Your Illusion tour. He also whipped out his double-neck to play "Civil War," soloed behind his head, and played the Buckethead parts on "Chinese Democracy" and "Better" with more of his slithering notes and bluesy style, as opposed to Buckethead's cybernetic fretwork. Neither is better or worse, just different.
Photo by Mathew Tucciarone
It took Axl a few songs to loosen up his vocals, but when he belted out, from the chest, he sounded epic. The grit on his falsetto is mostly gone, but when he wants, he can still power up and pull off a monstrous yell.
But what’s important is the historical ramifications of GNR at Coachella. Other than AC/DC last year, this was Coachella's first sleazily epic rock act. Perhaps next year they can reunite KISS with all the original members? This was also GNR's first major festival since Rock in Rio 1991; their first major concert, of this size, since the Freddie Mercury Tribute in 1992. Billboard reports that GNR’s potential two-weekend payday could be as high as $8 million, which would make this Coachella’s biggest payday ever.
When fans sang along to the chorus of "Sweet Child O’ Mine," or clapped along with the bass drum on "Rocket Queen," or went fucking gaga on the first note of "Welcome to the Jungle," it wasn't because GNR has sold 44.5 million records in the U.S., or because they represent MTV's golden era of rock. It's because America desperately needs a rock band with more balls. We’ve spent decades being drowned with wimpy hipster bands influenced by Pavement or grunge's depressed cloud of proto-hipster shit. Over the course of the last five years, especially, rock and roll has been desexualized — because boobs are offensive, apparently, to some people.
At one point during “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” when the jumbo-screen caught a girl sitting atop a guy’s shoulders, she hinted that she was ready to take off her top. She didn’t go through with it, but if she did, the crowd would have cheered, men and women, because sex is the essence of rock and roll. From Elvis shaking his hips to Lita Ford showing America that hot girls can shred, rock and roll has always been about fun without boundaries. It's allowed to be outrageous, like WWE spectacle, where pyro entrances and half-naked women are the appetizer for the main event: the tattooed heavyweight champ, like Axl at Coachella, arms raised and triumphant.
Like a great book series, the true story of the GNR reunion is being fed to us in small, bite-sized pieces. We still don't know why Slash and Axl ended their feud. "Where's Izzy?" is a sign we'll see at gigs until the end of their tour. Steven Adler's fallen off the face of the earth after sustaining a back injury during rehearsals. But the mystery has made GNR a cultural hacker in an era of manufactured pop stars who post the details of their lives on Instagram and Twitter.
At the height of its power, from 1987 to 1993, GNR was a runaway train in an era with plenty of rock stars, of different types, from grunge to metal. Today, GNR is more in-demand for offering what nobody else can, not at this level: real rock-star shit, bold, electrified, sweaty, leather-studded and monstrously erect. By playing one of the biggest Coachella sets in history, they might be rock's last resurrection as something dangerously fun.
1. Set List
2. It’s So Easy
3. Mr. Brownstone
4. Chinese Democracy
5. Welcome to the Jungle
6. Double Talkin’ Jive
8. Live and Let Die
9. Rocket Queen
10. You Could Be Mine
11. Attitude (Misfits cover)
12. This I Love
14. Theme from The Godfather
15. Sweet Child O’ Mine
17. Civil War
18. Whole Lotta Rosie (AC/DC cover)
19. Riff Raff (AC/DC cover)
20. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover, instrumental intro)
21. November Rain
22. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
25. The Seeker (The Who cover)
26. Paradise City
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.