November Pain

Backstage at General Motors Place in Vancouver, the tension was as thick as the morning fog that often cloaks the rainy West Coast city. An hour after doors had opened at 6:30 p.m. for the band's 9:30 p.m. showtime, officials with the venue's management, Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, were pacing and nervously biting their nails. Where was Axl?

Though the band had arrived in Vancouver for rehearsals the day before the November 7 concert, Rose stayed behind in Los Angeles and planned to fly in on the day of the show. Orca Bay officials became increasingly agitated when word came that Rose's plane was delayed because of bad weather and/or mechanical problems. Or was it that he had run afoul of Canadian immigration officials? At the time nobody knew, though the former story has since prevailed.

Citing customer safety as a major concern, Orca Bay officials pulled the plug on the show two hours before the band was supposed to go on. Cancellation notices were pasted up inside the ticket windows, and the more than 8,000 fans outside GM Place, in the immortal words of Fred Durst, "wanted to break stuff." The mob snatched metal fence barriers and used them as battering rams to break windows. Baton-wielding riot police waded in. Bedlam reigned for about an hour.

For the Gunners, it was déjà vu all over again. What the heck is it with Guns N' Roses and Canada? The band is already barred for life from Montreal after an August 1992 concert/riot. There, James Hetfield of opening act Metallica was burned in a pyrotechnic accident that, needless to say, cut his band's set short. The crowd waited two hours for Axl and Co., who proceeded to play a sloppy sub-60-minute set before walking off stage and bolting to the limos. Enraged Quebecers burned their brand-new G N' R concert shirts and rioted around Olympic Stadium into the wee hours.

"If I was somebody who had bought tickets to the [Vancouver] show, I'd be pretty upset, too," says G N' R guitarist Richard Fortus, who was still at a nearby hotel celebrating a birthday dinner with bandmate Robin Finck when he heard the show was axed. "Personally, I think we could have still done the show and met the curfew, but [Orca Bay officials] were freaked about not having enough time to put the ice back in for a hockey game. I mean, it's not like we haven't always been late on this tour. It didn't seem any worse than any other day."

In the wake of the botched start to the 2002-03 North American tour, the lawsuits are flying. Welcome to G N' R's dysfunctional jungle, baby. This kind of chaos is business as usual for 40-year-old Axl Rose, who has had the weighty ball and chain of rock star infamy strapped to his ankle for more than 17 years since the original lineup was formed. During the group's late-1980s heyday -- until Nirvana came along and rewrote the rules -- Guns and Fucking Roses was the most raunchy rock act out there. The rakish, certifiable singer Axl was unpredictable, charismatic and more than a little bit scary. And who knows what lurked under Slash's top hat and flowing curls? The band and its audiences were in a neck-and-neck race to see who could consume the most Black Jack, weed and blow, and that only added to the rock-show-as-spectacle atmosphere.

Then it all fizzled away. The band never came close to successfully following up the visceral 1987 album Appetite for Destruction, and Rose's insatiable demand for perfection has chronically delayed the release of Chinese Democracy, the band's first collection of new material since 1992. Meanwhile, the band's highly visible original members, Slash and Izzy Stradlin -- arguably the best one-two guitar package since Keith Richards and Ron Wood -- are in the process of reforming, along with original bassist Duff McKagan and longtime drummer Matt Sorum, with a new vocalist, at this point rumored to be Neurotica's Kelly Shaefer. (Note to Slash: Sammy Hagar is holding on line two.) Imagine the fun when both of these bands are crisscrossing the globe in 2003 doing unique interpretations of "November Rain."

Call them Guns N' Poseurs if you want, but Fortus figures he's in the right camp, saying that nobody can outdo Axl when he's in full side-shuffling stride on stage.

Fortus is one of three guitarists hired since 2001 to work on the new record and do the G N' R tribute band thing on stage. Robin Finck (formerly of Nine Inch Nails) and Buckethead -- whom Houston fans last saw a couple of years back with Primus -- had been hired for the Europe/ Asia leg of the tour in the spring. Former Primus drummer "Brain" Mantia is also on board. Only current keyboardist Dizzy Reed has a long-term pedigree with G N' R.

"This [band] isn't like some all-star team. We've all had time to work on Chinese Democracy, but we don't really have any public identity yet," says Fortus. A sought-after L.A. session player and self-proclaimed studio geek, Fortus has recorded with everyone from Britney Spears and 'N Sync to Ben Folds, and contributed to film scores such as Driven and The Fast and the Furious. And though he last played full-time in a band with Love Spit Love in the mid-1990s, he also toured with Psychedelic Furs last year.

All of that seems like pretty unlikely preparation for a Gunner. Fortus doesn't disagree. He concedes that he never bought any G N' R albums the first time around, nor did he care to see the band perform. "The kind of metal I associated them with at the time, well, I was vehemently opposed to it," he says. But the chance to play with Finck and Buckethead, not to mention the nice paycheck, has apparently helped ease the pain.

"I had decided to pretty much stay out [in California] and do my own stuff because there usually isn't any money in touring. At the same time I didn't like the idea of painting myself into a corner and never going out. But I'll tell you, the money on this one was too good to turn down," says Fortus, who adds that Chinese Democracy will be a lot better than people think when and if it drops. In fact, he says there are already enough songs in the can for three albums.

But since he signed on, he claims that his mercenary motives have been replaced by something akin to pure pleasure. "I mean just think of it, to have Robin and Buckethead up there, I don't think you could put a better group together," he says. "We all split up the lead breaks pretty well." And early reviews of the tour -- which often cite the trio's guitar work on their phalanx of Les Pauls as pretty intense -- seem to bear this out.

Fortus describes playing to massive outdoor stadium crowds overseas this year, and he says that watching Rose hurtle past him on stage (while occasionally stopping to study the pair of TelePrompTers scrolling G N' R lyrics) is something akin to an out-of-body experience. "I mean, it just kind of hit me, how weird the scene was," he says. "There's 80,000 people out there, and I'm up there playing this old Guns N' Roses song, and Axl is really on it. I'm not sure if that stuff was ahead of its time, or even behind, but that music had something behind it. It's the real deal."

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr