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1989: Still the Greatest

The Stones face off with Guns 'N Roses and emerge the champ.

October 20, 1989|By Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

The winner and still champ: the Rolling Stones.

On a night when rock 'n' roll's most celebrated survivors played with such passion and fire at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they looked as though they could go on convincingly for another 10 years, Guns N' Roses, the young Los Angeles rock upstarts, made you wonder Wednesday whether they were going to even survive the concert.

In a series of hot-tempered remarks during his group's 80-minute set, Guns lead singer Axl Rose not only fueled the controversy over the racial and sexual epithets in the band's song "One in a Million," but he twice suggested that the four-day Coliseum stand, which concludes with shows Saturday and Sunday, may be his last performances with the band.

The concert loomed as a classic rock 'n' roll showdown: a generational battle of the bands.

But the Stones simply had too many weapons: too much historic aura, too many great songs and too splendid a lineup of musicians.

Some of the Stones' songs (especially "Play With Fire" and "2,000 Light Years") are too dated, and others are decidedly marginal ("Harlem Shuffle," "Undercover of the Night"), but the best of the Stones' rockers ("Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar") and the most seductive of the band's mood pieces ("Tumbling Dice," "Honky Tonk Women") are rock hallmarks.

The Stones, with good reason, have been called the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band for so long--at least since the early '70s--that for years no one has even considered an alternative. It wasn't until the band's recent seven-year layoff from touring that rock observers started wondering if the band--nearing its third decade--should pass the torch.

Guns N' Roses isn't the only contender, but it is the only one appearing with the Stones during the band's 3 1/2-month tour. The group--whose bad-boy stance is reminiscent of the Stones' role in the '60s and early '70s--is the most celebrated hard-rock outfit of the '80s. Its first two albums have sold an estimated 12 million copies.

The Coliseum bill--it's the only place Guns N' Roses is appearing on the Stones tour--is so hot that nearly 280,000 people will see the four shows. Ticket brokers around town reported brisk business, commanding as much as $700 for choice seats. The souvenir stands at the Coliseum also reflected an awareness of the older Stones fans' affluence. Besides the standard $20 T-shirts, booths offered such upscale concert items as a $450 leather jacket and a $190 flight jacket.

Coming on stage shortly before 8 p.m., Rose didn't even wait for the rest of the quintet to get in place before grabbing the microphone and defending his right to use in "One in a Million" words deeply offensive to blacks and homosexuals.

"Before we start playing, (I want to say) I'm sick of all this publicity about our song," he said in an expletive-filled tirade to an estimated 72,000 fans. He then denied he was a racist, but suggested that selective use of the words--against particular members of those groups who offend you--is acceptable. "If you still want to call me a racist, you can . . . shove it. . . ."

Rose's defense is likely to anger further those who have been offended by the song. It's one thing to argue for the limited use of those words as social realism in art, but it shows a lack of sensitivity to use them as a part of your vocabulary.

It was soon apparent that his ire was not just directed at those who have challenged him on the language of "One in a Million."

Before starting the second song, he again paused. "I don't like to do this on stage," he said, "But unless certain people in this band start getting their act together, these are going to be the last Guns N' Roses shows," he said.

While fans looked at each other in amazement, Rose--known to be a volatile, highly spontaneous performer--continued: "I'm sick and tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. Brownstone," a reference to a Guns N' Roses song dealing with drug use.

Later, returning for the encore of "Paradise City," he again seemed agitated. "Before we begin, I'd like to announce this is my last gig with Guns N' Roses." He then added, with an air of disillusionment, that there's no need to look for a Paradise City because none exists.

(The band's management had no comment Thursday on the group's status for the Coliseum shows on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday).

It was both a troubling and fascinating display--one that will probably go down as a storied moment in L.A. rock. Rose has the potential to be one of the most compelling figures in American rock since the late Jim Morrison.

Like Morrison, Rose exhibits a fierce independence that sometimes leads to errors in judgment as he races in a somewhat romantic pursuit of artistic truth. He also shares Morrison's duality: exploring the dark side of man's nature (the fast-lane corruption of "Welcome to the Jungle") while also possessing an almost old-fashioned yearning for innocence ("Sweet Child o' Mine").

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