Guns N’ Northern Roses
I found myself in early February joining the Citylife crew in driving down Hang Dong to Papa Rock to meet the legendary Ron Thal of Guns N’ Roses.
I wasn’t around for the full surge of Guns N’ Roses mania, but I did grow up in the American south where rock ‘n’ roll is a bit of a religion, so they’ve always been on the radar. I did some research and found that apart from his stint at Guns N’ Roses between 2006-2014, Ron Thal was also very well known for his fruitful and prolific solo career, as well as having worked with some of the most impressive names in the rock industry – Anthrax, Nancy Sinatra, Cindy Lauper, Kiss and Allen Toussaint anyone? So as we sat down with the man himself — hair flowing, beard braided, hands gesticulating, casual in a Beatles tank top and very easy going — we found ourselves, in spite of our prepared questions, simply listening to him talk, regaling us with not only great anecdotes and stories from his long career, but also sharing some rather philosophic and humane insights which blew us all away.
The Man Behind the Music
Ron’s a humble man, a thoughtful man and from our time together, I gathered, a kind man. He told us that he has been doing music his entire life, starting out at six years young on the guitar, and teaching to neighbourhood kids by the time he was 13. His love of teaching still continues today. One of his many projects is his many musical workshops and camps which he holds around the world, his regular camp being a rock school and fantasy camp in Corfu, Greece. Apart from his camps and many classes, he also spends a good deal of time and effort with animal rights groups as well as being on the Board of Directors at the MS Research Foundation, a non-profit that raises money for multiple sclerosis research.
He’s also spent a good amount of time as a professor of music production and engineering at SUNY Purchase College up until 2004, teaching and producing several artists.
When approached by Guns N’ Roses to join up with the group for their new tour, he initially declined the offer — twice in fact — wanting to continue to focus on his recordings and teaching, “Why would I want to be the next generation of a huge band, playing their covers, when I can produce, perform and teach my own music? And as a long term fan, I’d rather be in the crowd enjoying their music than on stage working!” But after persistent requests he decided to humour the group by joining them for a jam session, and as he put it, “Once you start playing with people your heart is in it. Kind of like my wife. I was dragged into a blind date I never wanted, but once I connected with her, well, it’s been 26 great years.” Ron gave in and began to tour with the group.
Other than the original members Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan, Ron has played more shows than any other member, over 100 shows all over the world.
Ron gets really excited when he talks about his various gigs around the world, not just with Guns, as he calls them, but solo or with other musicians. He talks of being a New York Jew playing three shows in Islamabad, “people thought I was crazy to go there, but those guys can rock. It is rewarding to know that music can bridge all those cultural barriers. I have played to stadiums of hundreds of thousands, but I prefer smaller gigs, you feel more connected.”
Chiang Mai isn’t exactly on the international touring circuit, so having someone of Ron’s calibre play added an instant energy to the crowded Papa Rock. Joining Ron on stage were some local musicians, all of whom contributed to the great show. “When you play a song you’ve known for 20 years with someone you’ve never met before,” Ron said before the show, “it’s like you’ve known each other for 20 years. Music can connect people in ways you can’t get otherwise due to cultural or language barriers.”
The music, the people, and the venue all had that rock ‘n’ roll feel that I haven’t experienced before here in Chiang Mai, reminding me of back home in Memphis. Playing mega hits like Welcome to the Jungle, Sweet Child of o’Mine, Comfortably Numb, and Freebird, as well as some of Ron’s originals, the impromptu band got the entire crowd not only on their feet, but on tables.
Papa Rock did an excellent job providing a great space and building up a special atmosphere for this unique show in Chiang Mai. Once again, Chiang Mai still has surprises up her sleeves. As since he wasn’t playing to a stadium of 100,000 people, I felt, as he wended his way with his double guitar through the crowds, leaned back to allow another guitarist to shine, or grinned at the dancers on the heaving floor, as though he was really connecting with us all. I’m always happily surprised when something special and unique happens in the Chiang Mai music scene and I hope there’s more nights like this to come.