Wednesday, November 26, 2008
What Can a Poor Boy Do?
There was a time when I believed that Guns N’ Roses, and most specifically its front man, Axl Rose, just might save the world. Or at least rock and roll. In the two-point-five-second-long interim between the decline of the ‘80s Aqua Net bands and the palate-cleansing onslaught of grunge, in slipped Guns N' Roses, who held high for one brief moment the banner of good old-fashioned rock and roll excess. Which, okay, may not have saved the world, but it was still a heck of a lot of fun.
I don’t know if all rock stars need this particular formula to thrive, but it seems to have worked for Axl Rose: one part abusive childhood mixed with one part savant-like I.Q. slowly simmered with one part culturally flat-lined suburban backdrop against which to rebel. Wait out the early teen years and you have a temperament designed to assert itself as loudly as possible in as many ways as possible to as many people as possible. Not as a musician but as a rock star. And if something musically significant happens along the way, well, then, cool.
Which, strangely enough, it did.
The thing about Guns N’ Roses is that it’s members could play and Axl Rose could sing. Thanks to a youth spent messing with his choir teachers, he managed to cultivate a range that could go from baritone to falsetto in the three minutes flat it took him to welcome you to his jungle. Most importantly, though, Axl Rose could front. On stage, he radiated a sibilant, sinewy sexuality of the kind not seen since Mick Jagger and which caused even smart girls in it only for the music (ah-hem) to puddle themselves senseless in his presence. Off stage, Rose was a predictably royal pain in the ass, with a big mouth and requisite misogynist streak, which at first came off as tongue-in cheek (who can forget the hilarious “I Used to Love Her”?), then not so much (his nasty public bitch slapping sessions with Courtney Love, for instance), and then just downright sad given über model and fiancé Stephanie Seymour’s charges of physical abuse.
Still, you couldn’t deny the power of the music. Appetite for Destruction was as near perfect a rock and roll album as it gets and it has never dulled. Admit it. You still grab an imaginary Bic lighter and pump both fists in the air whenever “Paradise City” comes on the radio. The follow up EP, GN’R Lies, was similarly compelling. But by the time most of us got around to both Use Your Illusion albums and survived the full eight bazillion minutes of “November Rain” without going postal on our neighbors, we were flagging. I know I was. Not even a brilliantly menacing rendition of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” could revive me.
Although, I did purchase tickets for their 1992 Stadium Tour, a tripartite effort that included Faith No More and Metallica. Guns N’ Roses outshone them both. The day the music both lived and died for me? A few minutes after midnight, August 27, 1992, when the last notes of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” drifted out into the dark desert skies over Aggie Memorial Stadium in Las Cruces.
I haven’t idolized a rock star since. At least not in the same way. Sure, interesting things followed. Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, for one, but for all their exceptional musicality – don’t me wrong, I’m fans of both – were way too sensitive/serious to be dangerous. Chris Cornell, lead singer for Soundgarden, was probably the most gorgeous man to ever stand in front of a microphone, but at the end of the day he went home to his wife of a bazillion years and their passel of Schitzus. Admirable? Sure. Fodder for fantasy? Uh, no. Besides, grunge had arrived. The world was no longer neon pink or raging red. It was gray. And plaid. The party was over.
Sure, great music has been made since Axl Rose pulled a Howard Hughes at his Malibu mansion, some of it much more sublime than anything produced by Guns N’ Roses. But with the exception of maybe Courtney Love, few rock stars have asserted themselves in the band’s wake. At least none as gleefully over the top, as wild, as downright unbiddable. Even Marilyn Manson comes off as way more corporate-calculated rather than $hocking and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were welcome dinnertime companionship in most of today’s homes, we’ve become that tolerant. No thanks. When I was in high school and I brought boys like Axl home? I wanted my parents to be upset. Not sit them down over appetizers and a nice Cab Sav.
At any rate, did you hear? Guns N’ Roses, who never officially broke up, has finally managed to release Chinese Democracy, a recording that took, what, 14 million years to make? Moi’s prognosis after a cursory listen is, sad to say, meh. Although, I’m happy to report that Axl, despite the persistence of those weird-ass corn rows, remains in astonishingly fine vocal shape.
Still, though: someone, anyone, please. Take me back to paradise city.