Revisiting Steven Adler’s Final Gig With Guns N’ Roses
In the spring of 1990, Guns N' Roses were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet — and heading for the first of the roster changes that would dismantle the lineup responsible for Appetite for Destruction.
The group's sound and image had always been strongly driven by a willingness to live dangerously, but at this point, drummer Steven Adler had been singled out by his bandmates for allegedly allowing his personal habits to impact his playing. This dissension in the ranks boiled over onstage at Farm Aid on April 7, when what should have been an incredibly high-profile opportunity to debut new material from the upcoming Use Your Illusion albums dissolved in concert chaos that effectively ended Adler's tenure in GNR.
Rolling Stone looked back on what went down with a flashback post published in 2013, pointing out that rust might have been a factor no matter what anyone was injecting or snorting between shows — the band hadn't played in front of an audience since opening for the Rolling Stones the previous fall — and they apparently compounded the problem by neglecting to rehearse the set list.
Saying it "may have been proof positive that their plan to get me out of the band was already in full motion," Adler accused the band of setting him up for Farm Aid failure, writing in his My Appetite for Destruction memoir that "They weren't cluing me in to new songs or even telling me what they were playing."
Not that Adler was necessarily playing with a full deck anyway. In his memoir, guitarist Slash wrote that the set started with Adler taking a clumsy running leap toward his drum kit, landing nowhere near his target: "Steven took a run up to the drum riser, which is a pretty big platform that's hard to miss, and took flight. I assume he was planning on landing next to his kit, but his depth perception and reflexes were clearly impaired, so he ended up landing about four feet short."
It all went downhill from there. Guns N' Roses opened with "Civil War," one of the centerpieces of the in-progress Use Your Illusion records, a problematic choice given that Adler had reportedly never played it with the full band (and was also rumored to have had an incredibly difficult time tracking his parts in the studio). But that was nothing compared to the set's second number, a cover of the U.K. Subs' "Down on the Farm" — a song Adler didn't even know.
The group covered for its lack of preparation fairly well, with bassist Duff McKagan counting off in front of Adler to help him negotiate the song, but the writing was clearly on the wall in terms of his dismissal from the band. "If his playing had been fine, I don't think anyone would have cared what he was doing to himself – at least I wouldn't have," Slash later claimed in Slash: The Autobiography. "We weren't really concerned for Steven's health as much as we were pissed off that his addiction was handicapping his performance and therefore the rest of us."
"I believe their strategy was to make my playing sound like this," Adler argued in his book. "I believe they wanted me to f--- up on live TV; that would be their evidence. By branding me as an ill-equipped, crappy drummer, they'd be armed with a sound reason for kicking me out."
Whatever the real reasons for the Farm Aid debacle, it ended up being Adler's final gig with Guns. He was fired from the band in July, the first in a series of departures that, by the end of the '90s, would ultimately leave singer Axl Rose the last man standing in a totally revamped lineup.