Guns N' Roses – Could the recent Axl/Duff reunion be the beginning of something bigger?

When it comes to rock and roll reunions, eyebrows inevitably begin to raise. Far too often we’ve seen bands reemerge from the depths of whatever temper tantrums or personal tragedies may have befallen them, and deliver a big dud. Upon the announcement of such reunions comes the child-like anticipation of reliving days of glory, as well as the fear of realizing that those glory days may be just too far out of reach. Nonetheless, reunions still seem to generate a tremendous amount of conversation.

For the longest time, Led Zeppelin was the holy grail of reunions. A chance for baby boomers to once again see the beloved blimp, and an opportunity for those not yet alive or too young the first time around to catch a glimpse of rock n’ roll, when rock still rocked. Admittedly, the first time around, Live Aid 1985, was nothing short of a disappointment. Technical difficulties and zero rehearsal time with the two drummers (Phil Collins, Tony Thompson) brought in to fill the late John Bonham’s shoes made for a dismal performance. Thankfully, things went better in 2007 when, along with Jason Bonham, the remaining members delivered a stellar set, especially considering the three remaining members were hovering around their sixties at that point. Yet, the sad truth is, without John Bonham thundering away behind the kit, it can never really be a true reunion.

Bands like Poison and Kiss have returned to the fold in years past. Poison, its original lineup again intact, have toured in between frontman Bret Michaels’ solo and television obligations. Kiss also had a successful reunion tour during the mid-nineties followed by an album of new material. Sadly, many fans believe Kiss are currently abusing the reunion concept by putting a replacement guitarist and drummer in the classic makeup designs created by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss.

Van Halen is perhaps the best band of their generation to mend fences and give fans what they’ve been dreaming about for ages. That the Van Halen brothers even managed to share the same stage again with David Lee Roth is nothing short of a miracle. That miracle alone is enough for most to call the resulting shows a reunion, but they’re not. Instead of Michael Anthony on stage plucking away at his Jack Daniels bass, swinging from the rafters and singing perfect harmonies, we got…Wolfgang. One could understand why Eddie would want to share a stage with his son, to have a father-son moment that tops all father-son moments, but the bottom line is that’s not Van Halen. Bring Wolfie out for a number or two during the show, but for heavens sake don’t call it a reunion and not invite Michael Anthony to the party. Van Halen is Eddie, David, Alex and Michael. End of story.

Then you have… Guns N’ Roses. A band so volatile and explosive, spewing venom both on and off stage, that no one can be genuinely surprised at their current situation. What happened to Guns N’ Roses is not unusual, especially when one considers the cast of characters that were involved in it’s debut incarnation. Axl Rose on vocals, Slash on lead guitar, Izzy Stradlin’ on rhythm guitar, Duff McKagen on Bass, and Steven Adler keeping time on the drums. It was the perfect amalgam of personalities for such a rock n’ roll undertaking.

When they arrived they were definitely a breath of fresh air in a scene oversaturated with glam bands that were picking out their clothes first and writing music later. Much more in the vein of a classic rock band, such as Zeppelin and Aerosmith, the world did not know what to make of Guns N’ Roses at first. Outside of the Hollywood scene that birthed them they were relatively unknown. Their debut offering, Appetite for Destruction, was in record stores for the better part of a year before it really started to chart. Once it did, it would catapult the band into altitudes the likes of which few bands ever achieve. They followed it up with the “GNR Lies” EP in 1988 and, after just a couple short years in the public eye, were already headed towards their prime. As the saying goes, though, “what goes up must come down,” and when Guns N’ Roses came crashing down, they did it in grand fashion.

What started out in the mid-eighties as a band of five streetwise kids taking the world by storm had, by 1993, morphed into something so bloated and egomaniacal it bore little resemblance to the raw, unbridled Gunners rock fans had grown fond of. The stripped down show that one got to see during the Appetite tour had been done away with by the end of the decade, along with original drummer Steven Adler in favor of The Cult’s skinman Matt Sorum. 1991 not only brought along the simultaneous release of Use Your Illusion I and II, but also an entirely new setting with which to showcase the new material. The stage was massive, lighting setup intricate, setlist massively expanded thanks to the influx of new songs, stadiums sold-out, everything you might expect from a band riding the crest of the wave GNR was on at the time. Yet, you also got a pair of backup singers, a horn section, a keyboardist, a tambourine/harmonica player, the one, two and three hour late starts, riots, show stoppages and long rants by Axl, now dressed in a Speedo, usually aimed at whomever had pissed him off that day.

Still, people kept coming. Tickets kept selling. In fact, when one looks at how the music scene was changing in the early nineties, Guns N’ Roses were one of the only bands from the eighties not to feel the carnage brought on by the grunge movement. It’s a testament to how revered the band was by its fans, despite the fact that internal cracks were beginning make their way to the surface. Many fans were willing to overlook the dismissal of Steven Adler, arguably the bands least recognizable member, in return for new material after a three-year wait. It wasn’t really until Izzy abruptly jumped ship mid-tour in 1991, reportedly due to the rapidly changing environment within the Guns camp, that fans began to take notice. After all, Axl and Izzy were childhood friends from Lafayette, Indiana. If they were having a falling out then surely things could not be well on the Guns N’ Roses front, the breadth of which would not come to light until years after the conclusion of the Use Your Illusion Tour. After the release of the Spaghetti Incident, an album of punk covers designed to hold the public over. After Slash quit over lack of progress and creative differences with Axl. After Duff followed Slash out the door shortly thereafter. And after Axl became the sole remaining member of the original band. A band that, had they just held on by the skin of their teeth, could have achieved Zeppelin-like status. They had the songs. They had the talent. They had the attitude down cold. And, much like Zeppelin, when they were on, they were the greatest show on earth.

Activity in the Guns N’ Roses universe grew so cold after the departure of Duff that many figured the band dead. Supposedly, Axl was working with a revolving door of musicians on an album that was already being called Chinese Democracy, however these rumors would constantly be called into question every time the expected release date of the album would be pushed back. There were occasional flare-ups, such as the industrial sounding Oh My God making its way onto the End Of Days soundtrack, or the 2002 tour that saw the band perform a trio of songs at the MTV Video Music Awards. These flare ups, though, always wound up extinguished by the unpredictability and misfortune that had become so synonymous with Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses. They attempted a much-forgotten 2001 tour that put only three shows into orbit before crashing and burning. There was the aforementioned 2002 tour in which the band fulfilled only sixteen of a scheduled thirty-five dates. Then things went dark again until 2006 when the band hit the road once again without an album to tour behind. Yet, still, no Chinese Democracy let alone the prospect of a reunion. Just Axl and a bunch of guys, in all unfortunate honesty, nobody really cares about.

Pounding the reunion nail a little further into the coffin was the formation of Velvet Revolver in 2004. The ex-gunners had always stayed fairly busy in the years since defecting. Izzy had been recording consistently, releasing a string of solid albums on iTunes. Slash had his Snakepit band that released and toured behind a pair of albums as well as a number of collaborations with artists such as Michael Jackson and Alice Cooper. Duff collaborated with Matt Sorum, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), and John Taylor (Duran Duran) on a project called the Neurotic Outsiders. He also formed his own band, Loaded, that released and toured behind an album (Dark Days) in 2001. It was during a 2002 benefit for the late Randy Castillo, though, that saw Slash and Duff playing on the same stage again, creating the initial spark for what would become Velvet Revolver. Rounded out by Matt Sorum, Dave Kushner, and ex Stone Temple Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland, Velvet Revolver’s initial offering, Contraband, debuted at the top spot on the Billboard 200 and provided Slash and Duff with mainstream success independent of Guns N’ Roses. Velvet Revolver would release their sophomore effort, Libertad, in 2007 before going on hiatus following Weiland’s departure from the group in April 2008.

Finally, in November of 2008, Chinese Democracy found it’s way into the iTunes store and onto Best Buy shelves. To be fair, the album did contain some worthwhile tracks but whether or not it was worth a fifteen year wait depends on how big an Axl fan you are. It certainly was light years away from the Appetite For Destruction sound the band is known for, but growth is inevitable. Just the same, Axl and Slash fans wasted no time in participating in heated online debates over Velvet Revolver and the new Guns N’ Roses material. This perhaps further propelled the animosity that had built up between the former bandmates as a result of comments in the press and sensationalistic journalism, among other things. As far as what material is better it will always be, simply, just a matter of taste.

The irony surrounding all the commotion during the release of Chinese Democracy was the reunion talk, now elevated to an all-time high. It seemed the most unlikely time for everyone to call a halt to the bout and bury the hatchet but when Axl made no immediate plans to tour for the album and then went AWOL following its release, the rumors began to swirl. The most prominent one being that Axl was in secret talks with ex-members to reunite the band. In retrospect, it would seem a little out of character for Axl to do such a thing, but in the world of Guns N’ Roses anything is possible. Yet, at the time, it was enough for GNR fans all over the world to start crossing their fingers. Axl would soon give them a reason to uncross them.
In a rare interview on the band’s website, conducted by longtime Guns N’ Roses biographer Del James, Axl went on to discuss reunion possibilities, or lack thereof. When flat out asked about an “Appetite” era reunion, Axl gave a straightforward, “No,” in response. He did acknowledge the possibility of doing something with Duff in the future, but expressed his misgivings about working with Steven Adler and rejected the notion of working with Slash outright. At one point, Axl referred to his former axe slinger as a, “cancer,” that would be better avoided, even going so far as to suggest Slash should not have ever been in Guns N’ Roses to begin with. With such a strong opinion to the matter, a reunion seemed further away then ever.

Nonetheless, GNR fans couldn’t overlook the fact that Axl had already rekindled his relationship with Izzy at some point over the years. During a handful of shows on the 2006 tour Izzy surprised fans by coming out for a few numbers to spectacular ovation. This is the same Izzy that was hovering around during the early stages of Velvet Revolver, until talks of bringing in a singer scared him off. Certainly, with Izzy on good terms with both camps, there was the possibility of some cross-communication potentially working in favor of a reunion.

Then, when Chinese Democracy failed to perform as expected, and a tour in support of the release still hadn’t been announced, many suggested a reunion was the only appropriate thing to do. In fact, Guns N’ Roses had parted ways with manager Irving Azoff, who Axl claimed was trying to sabotage the new incarnation of the band and force a reunion. If the allegations were true, despite being unethical, could anyone really blame Mr. Azoff? The truth of the matter was Axl had tried the Guns N’ Roses thing on his own, it hadn’t exactly been a barnburner. The rest of the original cast had done their own thing. Velvet Revolver had seen some success, but was now dying a slow death without a vocalist, despite what they were saying. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was time to listen to reason and consider putting the original five back together, or at least the original four plus Matt Sorum, an acceptable alternative to many. But, before anybody had time to listen to any reasoning, the clouds rolled in and the climate in the Guns saga changed… again.

A whole year after the release of Chinese Democracy, a tour was announced that would kick off in Asia beginning in December 2009. Slash, on the other hand, looked to be making good on plans to release the solo album he had mentioned in his book. In March of 2010, Slash’s eponymous album hit shelves and featured not only a slew of guest vocalists but also collaborations with every original Guns N’ Roses alum, the exception being Axl. He subsequently hit the road in April with Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge on vocals. Even Duff was keeping his chops up to par as he teamed with Jane’s Addiction to record an album and embark on a tour.

It wasn’t until last month that the prospect of a reunion got it’s first real boost in two years. Duff, by chance encounter, for the first time since 1993, had found his way onto the same stage as Axl at London’s O2 Arena. It seems, while on a business trip, unknowingly booking himself into the same hotel as the Guns entourage put Duff in close enough proximity to Axl to garner an invitation onstage. It was, no doubt, a huge shock for not only the fans in attendance but for the world of rock n’ roll in general. It stands to reason that even the most pessimistic of Guns N’ Roses fans are interpreting this as a step in the right direction. The truth is, as far as we know, Duff and Slash are still band mates in Velvet Revolver, meaning, if this is anything more than a one time exchange, if Axl and Duff have now re-established a dialogue, then it could mean the possibility of something happening in the future. Certainly, not immediately, as currently both Guns N’ Roses and Slash seem to be doing just fine on their own. Guns N’ Roses are touring successfully (despite the late starts and being bottled off stage in Dublin) and Slash has moved from his own headlining tour straight into a supporting role on Ozzy’s Scream tour.

Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Guns N’ Roses are up for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame eligibility in 2012. It would be another serious blow to the credibility of that establishment if they were overlooked and not inducted in their introductory year. An even more serious blow would be if the “Appetite” era lineup could not see their way to putting aside their differences for a single day and honor the legacy of a band that has certainly left a lasting mark on, not only rock n’ roll, but music in general. The worst crime imaginable would be for Axl to usher his new band onstage to celebrate an accomplishment they were not even part of. Most would probably rather have the band accept the honor in absentia than be subject to that. A highly unlikely scenario given that the remaining alumni, including Slash, are sure to show. With all the original members on amicable terms save for Axl and Slash, it really comes down to a matter of those two ironing out a large pile of differences. It’s that obstacle that makes the Axl/Duff reunion in London so intriguing, narrowing a couple of unknowns down to just one. Nobody knows what exactly went down to create such a level of animosity and perhaps we never will, but can it actually be THAT bad? So bad that two grown men can’t swallow some pride and leave their egos at the door long enough to give a little something back to the fans and industry that have given them so much? Has time done nothing to heal old wounds? It goes without saying that when 2012 Hall of Fame nominations are handed out the world of rock in roll will adjust its focus on the game’s two major players, Axl and Slash. Until then there is little more the rest of us can do but wait and see. There is no doubt Guns N’ Roses were great in their day, but should 2012 come and go without a reunion celebration, then it’s probably safe to say the sun has set on the band for good…. And that would be sad.