As the sun set last Saturday, the man who put the Guns in Guns N' Roses took the stage at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, where dozens of his Sunset Strip peers congregated for the inaugural Hair Nation Festival.
With the venue due to close next month, it would have been natural for L.A. Guns co-founder and original GNR member Tracii Guns to wax nostalgic about his previous performances there, an impressive list that includes shows alongside Iron Maiden and AC/DC, as well as an L.A. Guns headlining gig in 1990. But rather than dwell on the past, the man born Tracy Ulrich seemed more excited about the future.
The reason? Hair Nation marked the 50-year-old guitarist's first local show in 14 years with longtime L.A. Guns singer Phil Lewis. Their relationship splintered after Guns quit the group in 2002, and the duo traded barbs (sometimes via lawyers) in subsequent years, when they anchored competing bands that both toured under the L.A. Guns moniker. “The only time we really bitch at each other is when we're in a band together, or when we're not in a band together,” Guns quips, speaking a few days before Hair Nation.
Since Guns' version of L.A. Guns disbanded in 2012, he and Lewis have gradually made amends. Last year, the two even performed a full set of L.A. Guns material in Las Vegas. That show paved the way for what's best described as a gradual reunion, during which the pair have played periodic dates together (billed as “L.A. Guns' Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns”) around the tour schedule of the current incarnation of L.A. Guns, which Lewis continues to front.
Things will simplify in 2017, however, when Guns will officially rejoin the band he formed as a Fairfax High teenager. In addition, he and Lewis recently signed a new record deal and are currently working on an album, which will be supported by a world tour that begins with two shows at the Whisky a Go-Go in March. So the pair's well-received Hair Nation performance provided not only a glimpse into the past, but also a preview of what's to come.
That past is undeniably complicated. According to Wikipedia, 45 different people have played in L.A. Guns since the group's 1983 inception, including Axl Rose, Ralph Saenz (better known as Michael Starr of Steel Panther) and current Alice Cooper bassist Chuck Garric. But the two members who have always been most identified with the group are Lewis and the group's namesake guitarist.
That's precisely why Guns agreed to use the L.A. Guns moniker for the new album, despite initially resisting the idea. “When you put Phil and I together, that's the sound of L.A. Guns,” he says. “There's no way around that. As much as I love certain other [former] members of the band, it's hard to say what their contribution to the overall sound of the band was — but Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns, the band's gotta be L.A. Guns. It can't be anything else.”
That sound — a punk- and glam-influenced take on '70s rock, glossed up with the era's prerequisite big riffs and bigger hooks — helped to differentiate L.A. Guns from the hair-metal pack, as did their goth image (best personified by the title of their 1991 album, Hollywood Vampires). At their peak, they were just as likely to be found playing around town with Iggy Pop or Cheap Trick as, say, Ratt (with whom they also played Irvine Meadows back in the day).
Still, despite a few major tours, a handful of gold records and moderate airplay on MTV, the band never cracked the genre's top tier. The closest they came was 1989's Cocked & Loaded, which peaked at #38 on the Billboard 200 and features the group's best-known song, “The Ballad of Jayne.” (Last year, Rolling Stone included the record in its list of the “50 Greatest Hair Metal Albums of All Time.”)
Nonetheless, the group has managed to forge a career that has stretched into its fourth decade, which makes L.A. Guns — with the exception of W.A.S.P., who continue to tour internationally but haven't played a U.S. date in more than six years — the longest-running, continuously active act of the 1980s Sunset Strip scene. And while Guns never achieved the same level of fame, or infamy, as some of his former bandmates (a group that also includes Nikki Sixx, with whom he played in Brides of Destruction), he said he's thrilled to still make a living playing guitar.
This year alone, Guns embarked on his first-ever solo tour, during which he performed L.A. Guns' debut album in full; completed a multi-year stint with the Las Vegas production Raiding the Rock Vault; and served as a counselor for two summer installments of the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, where he coached amateur musicians.
He's most excited, though, about finishing the new album with Lewis, which should be out next summer. “It's going to be ferocious,” he says.