They might have been the biggest new rock band in the world at the time, but 1989 was a rough year for Guns N’ Roses. While they scored a game-changing hit in 1987 with Appetite For Destruction, their stop-gap album GN’R Lies kept the band in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons.
Although they had long since developed a reputation for pushing buttons, the bigoted lyrics to their song “One In A Million” generated a level of controversy that the band weren’t prepared for. At the same time, Axl was skipping out on rehearsals and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin was causing problems that ranged from getting arrested for pissing in the aisle during a flight to LA to getting punched in the face by Vince Neil at the MTV Video Music Awards for allegedly groping the Motley Crue singer’s girlfriend.
With things growing more dire by the moment, it was a mixed blessing when the Rolling Stones offered Guns N’ Roses the support slot on their North American tour.
Sensing an opportunity that was too good to turn down but fearing that the band wouldn’t be able to complete the entire run, their manager pulled off a compromise by scoring the group a million dollar guarantee over a four night stint at the LA Coliseum. The concerts immediately sold out, with scalpers selling single seats for up to $700 (over $1,700 in today’s currency) by the night of the first show.
Tensions grew as the gig approached. On top of the usual air of danger that always surrounded Guns N’ Roses, the press fanned the flames of a budding rivalry between the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses. If that wasn’t bad enough, Axl Rose, irate over the behavior of his bandmates and apathetic about the Stones concerts, was a no-show.
Former Guns N’ Roses manager Alan Niven told LouderSound: “The day of the first show [October 18], Brian Ahern [the Stones’ production manager] comes to me and he goes: “Your guy’s not here. Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
“I said: ‘Do you have a contact in the LAPD who is an absolutely no-questions-asked guy?’
“And he said: ‘I do.’
“So the guy came in and I told him: ‘I’m going to give you an address.’
“And it was Axl’s apartment. I said: ‘I want you to immediately send two no-questions-asked uniforms to this address, get the occupants out of that condominium in any which way they can, and bring them right here – in handcuffs if necessary.’
“They went and got him, and the band arrived on stage a mere twenty minutes late. I’m standing in the backstage feeling pretty damn clever. And that’s right at the moment that Axl announces this is going to be the last show and he’s going to retire.”
As Nevin alluded to, the dramatic events of the night didn’t end when Axl arrived at the Coliseum. Vernon Reid, the guitarist for African-american rock band Living Colour who played first of three at the concert that evening, delivered a passionate onstage speech in response to the “One in a Million” controversy. While the audience gave Reid a standing ovation, Rose was once again irate
Before Guns N’ Roses could play the first note of their set, Rose addressed the audience, saying: “Before we start playing, [I want to say] I’m getting fuckin’ sick and tired of all this publicity about our song.” He went on to deny that he was a racist or a bigot, arguing that kind of language was acceptable in an artistic context. “If you still want to call me a racist, you can shove your head up your fuckin’ ass,” exclaimed Rose.
As their terrible luck would have it, Axl’s tirade was only a precursor to the horrors that would come next. Blinded by the complex lighting of the room, Rose fell off the stage and into the photographer’s pit. This seemed to be the final straw, as the enraged and embarrassed singer decided to napalm everything around with a single flippant statement to 70,000 fans.
“I hate to do this onstage,” Axl announced, “but I tried every other fucking way. And unless certain people in this band get their shit together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses shows you’ll fucking ever see. ‘Cause I’m tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. Goddamn Brownstone.”
As guitarist Slash told VH1 years later: “I knew it was directed at me, because I was real strung out at the time, but it was probably one of the things that made me hate Axl more than anything.”
“I shrank, I was so fucking embarrassed. Once Axl took his concerns public, the times of being a gang – us against the world – were over,” bassist Duff McKagan said in his autobiography, It’s So Easy and Other Lies. “We played the rest of the show, but it was a halfhearted effort at best. Afterward, and really for the remainder of our career, we just went our separate ways. That night officially rang the bell for the end of an era in GNR.”
Although the band finished their set without further incident, the events of the evening were not lost on the Rolling Stones, with frontman Mick Jagger telling the crowd at one point: “I think Axl did a good show, but I wish he’d just shut up and play.”