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Unpredictable as ever, frontman Axl Rose reinvents Guns N' Roses

Oregon Times

Friday, December 08, 2006


The first time I saw Axl Rose was in the video for "Welcome to the Jungle." Axl was a long, lean, red-haired streak of rage and menace, his voice as raw as his looks. I was in junior high, and though I didn't tell anyone at the time, I found him to be a little scary. Not funny scary. More like, "Please don't ever let me be in an alley with this guy" scary.

His bandmates were almost as frightening: shaggy-haired men who looked pared down to bone and sinew but still strong enough to wreak havoc. And Slash, well, he didn't even care enough about you to look at you -- or anyone else. With a cloud of dark curls hiding his eyes and a stovepipe hat, everything about him felt mysterious.

March to self-parody

That was almost 20 years ago. Now, Axl is back, and so, in a sense, is Guns N' Roses -- even if Axl is the only one left.

But the sense of menace and danger that gave such an edge to their music has been replaced by just about the worst thing for someone like Axl: a buffoonish attempt to recapture an image that no longer fits. It's like a 40-year-old man trying to fit into the black leather pants of his early 20s.

When GNR's debut full-length album, "Appetite for Destruction," came out, it dropped like a bomb. It was 1987, when New Wave was still relatively new and the faces of artists such as Duran Duran and Janet Jackson wallpapered many a prepubescent's bedroom. Madonna's album "Like a Virgin" had been released three years before, and her remix album "You Can Dance" was getting people into the groove.

Then came Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy and Steven.

Scruffy wasn't the word; scruffy implied unkempt, a haphazardness to appearance. No, these men had cultivated their sleaziness. When Axl yowled, "You're in the jungle, baby, you're gonna die!," we believed him. When the perennially shirtless Slash ripped savage riffs from his guitar, he made sure we saw that his genius was laced with contempt for us, the schmucks too pathetic to be a guitar god like him.

"Appetite for Destruction" sold in droves. The studied rock star personas of Guns N' Roses had connected with kids who never found a place in dance-pop. The group released "G N' R Lies" in 1989, combining its first independent label EP with four new songs, including "Patience." That tune, an acoustically based ballad, was downright pretty, and the video accompanying the song, featuring the band in hotel rooms with various females, had the kind of melancholy tinge that makes women think they can tame bad boys.

In stark contrast was another song on that same record: "Used to Love Her." Over an almost bright guitar strum, Axl sings, "I used to love her, but I had to kill her," then goes on to complain about a girlfriend who complained too much. "One in a Million" was worse, with Axl railing against gays, immigrants and African Americans in hateful terms. The anger that the band had once made interesting, a combination of predation and pain, became dumb, pedestrian bigotry.

In retrospect, the run-up to Guns N' Roses' next album was loaded with harbingers of the future. For one, the band replaced drummer Steven Adler, citing his problems with drugs, and hired Matt Sorum, a powerhouse previously with the Cult. In 1991 the Gunners at last dropped new work, the simultaneously released "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II." Both the replacement of band members and the delay in releasing new albums would become GNR hallmarks.

The "Use Your Illusion" albums showed a deep ambition and heavy influences from the greats of rock 'n' roll, such as GNR's covers of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." But the albums also revealed tensions within the band, a widening schism between its hard-edged rock of the past and sprawling epics, such as the almost-nine-minute "November Rain" -- the video of which depicted a tragic wedding between Axl and then-real-life girlfriend, Victoria's Secret model Stephanie Seymour, complete with the band playing at Carnegie Hall, all filmed in cinematic swoops.

The video made it official: GNR had become part of the bloated rock establishment that they'd once sneered at.

Midlife crisis?

Just as the shifting tides of musical tastes had helped bring GNR to prominence, the advent of "grunge" rock spurred by Nirvana's "Nevermind" album that same year, meant Guns N' Roses was being swept out to sea. Grunge looked inward and shunned the outward trappings of success. Nirvana and its brethren focused on angst, not anger, and existentialism, not excess.

Soon the Gunners became more known for their antics than their music. Axl's temper earned him the reputation of a petty tyrant, an album of punk covers made few ripples in the pop culture pond, and the original band members continued their exodus. By the late '90s Guns N' Roses was down to one man: Axl.

By then Axl had become the Howard Hughes of rock: a bizarre, aging, recluse. Rumors swirled of feuds with other musicians, including fights with former bandmates. News of an upcoming album titled "Chinese Democracy" surfaced from time to time, but as the years passed and little materialized, the album started to feel like a musical El Dorado, forever just over the next hill. It became something of a joke: the last thing someone like Axl Rose, serious to the point of bombast, needed.

In the past year Axl's shown up more often in the gossip columns than in the music press. Where once Axl took on figures such as Kurt Cobain in his disputes, a few months ago, according to reports, he fought with fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger at actress Rosario Dawson's birthday party. Gone also are the lean physique and spray of red hair, replaced by a middle-aged body and orange braids that look way out of place. In our imaginations, rock gods are forever young; in reality, they're only mortal, aging as we all do.

No one in Guns N' Roses pioneered the rock cliche of believing one's own hype. For a while, Guns N' Roses was even worth the breathless wonder, the sold-out arenas full of screaming fans, the pronouncements of genius. But 2006 is a long way from 1987. The world in many ways remains a jungle. But for Axl to regain his crown as rock king will take a longer, harder road than perhaps even he realizes.

In the recent photos I've seen of Axl Rose, he looks like a caricature. A desperation seems to have replaced the driving anger, a huffing effort in place of his earlier hunger. He looks like what he is: an aging rock star still singing the songs of his youth. Nothing's frightening about Axl anymore, except perhaps for the lessons of vanity and time that I see in him now.

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It's totally true what she's getting at here. I think that's fine that he's older, wiser, and more mature - the problem is that he's trying to recapture, as the author of this article says, the same menace and "danger" he had when he was 21. And I think that's the true problem here - not that the music is "bloated" or any such nonsense, but just that he's trying to relive something that isn't there anymore.

And I also think that's why he needs to stop singing so many Appetite songs. Not because they are poor songs - not by any means. But because this is his one chance to embrace his new music, let many fans hear it and ultimately embrace his age. He's 44, not 24. Songs about heroin, sex, and violence don't sound rebellious and cool coming from a guy who is old enough that he could be your dad.

GN'R as we knew it is gone. I thought this was Axl's chance to show us the "new" GN'R and really blow people away by unleashing great music - bloated, perhaps, but something different. Music like Madagascar, The Blues, and so on are fantastic and the lyrics are deeper than anything off Appetite - and I love watching Axl perform these new songs because I feel like that's when he's really coming into his own as an artist these days and not trying to relive something that ended years ago.

And then he goes out on stage mimicking his late-'80s self and it just kind of defeats the purpose.

I still enjoy watching this band perform, but I think I'd get a bigger kick out of seeing Axl sing more material like The Blues.

Edited by Estranged Reality
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I bet you scoured the internet looking for that Peyton so you could come back here and tell all of us about all of the negative reviews GNR is getting :rolleyes:

This is still only one... obviously biased from the start. Did this person even attend a show? Seems like it's based on a 'video' they got the opportunity to watch... gimme a break :sleeper:

There's still 10 positive reviews for every bad article written out there... so here's a cookie for you for finding one of the obviously biased negative reviews that was written by someone who obvioulsy has no more time on their hands than you do.

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