The Church of Axl

W. Axl Rose is the consummate anti-hero. It would be easy to write him off as an eccentric, self-absorbed, embittered asshole, but there’s a lot more to the story if you’re really paying attention.

Rose’s various proclivities, bizarre as some of them may seem, should probably be contemplated in a separate context from the quality of his musical output. That is, unless you consider the quality of the music to be a result of some form of mental deviation or even a pathology, in the same way that Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic genius was a by-product of his madness. Some have made this connection in the past with musical artists like Kurt Cobain, Syd Barrett, and others, and without making direct and unnecessary comparisons, the same theory may apply in Rose’s case.

Photo by George Chin

Ever since Appetite for Destruction came out in 1987, Axl Rose has occupied a unique space, largely due to the fact that he was the de facto leader of a band that proved they existed on a much higher plane than did their Sunset Strip hair metal brethren, and were considered by many, myself included, as capable of being the next Rolling Stones. That’s a bold statement.

Equally intriguing was the concept of Rose as a potential modern day tragic hero: channelling the ghosts of rock and roll past in our collective consciousness, strapped in and barrelling toward an inevitable demise of his own making, all the while imploring those who thought they saw glimpses of themselves in his gloriously chaotic story to hop aboard and join his revolt. I will admit here that as a young fan I accepted that invitation from a distance, all the while introspectively measuring my own propensity to ‘use my illusions’, drawing parallels that would nonetheless remain benign and securely sheltered in the back of my mind.

Typically, I categorically like or dislike things and people as a general rule. No greys. With Rose, I was a fence sitter for quite some time. I loved some of the music, and despised some of the music. Most of the good stuff is obvious — “November Rain”, “Patience”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Estranged”. Even the cover tunes are ameliorated. “Live and Let Die” realizes previously unrealized power in the Guns canon, and is a great example of the aforementioned fact that Rose and Co. embodied musical greatness in comparison to their L.A. peers. Any metalhead worth his or her salt will know that glam metal outfit Lizzy Borden also covered Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” on their 1985 Murderous Metal Road Show live release. Though I do consider myself a Borden fan, the comparison between the two versions doesn’t even warrant consideration, as I’m sure lead singer Lizzy himself would admit. With Rose’s unique facility for creating vocal ad-libs and melodic harmonies that augment already great compositions, he takes others’ songs to another equally worthwhile and sometimes even better place, as heard on the acoustically-rendered bootleg of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

Rose’s artistic yangs to this yin are self-indulgences like “My World”, the unnecessary, cacophonous nonsense that cluttered the Use Your Illusions records. The uncomfortably awkward, point-blank intensity of Rose’s open book psychosis is unsettling to witness. The fleeting glimpses he offers in “Don’t Cry” and “Don’t Damn Me” are digestible, but they’re more like the showing of a Band-Aided wound than Rose picking off his sociopathic scabs and throwing them at you. As such, Rose’s histrionics carve such a deep swath that indifference is ratcheted up to acute irritation.

I also recognize the fact that his voice is one of the most powerful in the history of rock and roll, and that his range and use of an even, controlled vibrato technique is letter-perfect. He sings in various tonal colorations and timbres, all distinctly recognizable as unique Axl-isms. If singing voices were knives, Rose’s would be a machete. If you listen to the bootlegs of Rose appearing with Tom Petty on “Free Fallin” and Bruce Springsteen on “Come Together”, you tend to feel kinda sorry for those guys from a vocal perspective. Petty had a sneering, badass singing voice on stuff like “Refugee” and anything pre-Full Moon Fever, and the Boss was no slouch either, but when you hear them singing side-by-side with Rose in a neutral element like the MTV Awards, it’s clear that Rose just flat out crushes them by a significant margin.

And yet, on the other hand, I’ve heard his voice sound painfully screechy and fragile, as well. I was always interested by the fact that, knowing how much of a vested interest Rose has in anything with the Guns name on it, the “Patience” live track that appeared on Live Era is a version that garnered his approval, considering the poor quality of the vocal track and the presumably kajillions of recorded versions to choose from. It’s the real deal to be sure, and very remotely reminiscent of Jagger’s jangly, vulnerable vocal on Exile on Main Street‘s “Sweet Virginia” insofar as it gives the same raw and stripped-down ‘tortured artist suffering for his art’ impression, only without coming across nearly as vibey. Regardless, its inclusion on the record is most likely by design on Rose’s part, just another peculiar contribution to his bid to be ultimately considered as quixotic.

I have to admit that after passing on the opportunity to sample countless Chinese Democracy leaks in previous years, lately I’ve heard several of the tracks from the upcoming release. I had previously read all kinds of commentary about these songs, from all kinds of sources, but there was always one common denominator — they sounded grand. And I can say that the songs are indeed that: grand. If you were looking for the natural succession to Appetite, or even to the Illusions records, don’t look here. To really enjoy these songs, you need to consider them as separate entities in and of themselves, having little to do with the old G N’ R, and really nothing at all to do with Appetite for Destruction.

I understand that this is difficult, as a key cornerstone of Axl worship is rooted in the jackhammering swagger of Appetite. And I do looooove that record. But, Chinese Democracy dares the listener to consider Rose as an upper-echelon songwriter, on a higher level than that attained by any previous output, including “November Rain”. All sorts of new elements introduce themselves, including trip-hop beats accompanied by flamenco guitar. This new stuff is truly epic, demonstrating that Rose possesses a legitimate understanding of melody in composition, swelling crescendos, quieted subtlety, and wry cleverness. The music is powerful, vital, and absolutely relevant. In fact, it’s changed my mind about the possibilities in potential for musical growth and artistic progression. I would previously long for my favourite artists to simply rewrite their best records over and over again out of my own selfishness and a scepticism that they could navigate with any success into any other musical oeuvre. Rose does so quite successfully here.

And therefore I don’t think he should have called this new incarnation Guns N’ Roses. Here’s why. I think about what the product of an original-lineup, modern-day Guns would sound like, considering the important variables in the progression of that group (minus Adler and Stradlin along the way), and assuming Slash would be the only other meaningful songwriting contributor in addition to Axl’s material. (Yes, I do know that Duff McKagan was lauded by some as a formidable songwriter, and that he did his little drum routine live with Matt Sorum during the Illusions tours, but I never really bought into any of that.) I also consider that Scott Weiland is a competent purveyor of melody, and that by the sounds of it, he used Slash’s riff foundations and song structures and built on them to create the two Velvet Revolver records, with the remaining band members as secondary contributors. But as much as I like the VR records, the second more than the first, they simply don’t measure up to the material of these Chinese Democracy tracks. Not even close.

And I’m not talking about the curious first-single selection “Chinese Democracy”. I’m talking about songs like “There Was a Time”, “Prostitute”, and “Better”. Pinheads will argue that Rose took ten-plus years to come up with it, and blah blah blah. But as much as I do love Slash — as a guitar player and a genuinely organic musician the likes of which is rarely seen today — I think we all know who the most prolific songwriter in the Guns gang was. Thus, Rose could and should have housed this new project under a separate name. Hell, he could have even called it something as unimaginative as AXL or whatever, keeping the Guns brand alive in his back pocket to avoid the risk of a freefall into obscurity. But, it would seem that in his megalomaniacal style, Rose recognized himself as the nucleus, and thus sole and rightful proprietor, of the Guns N’ Roses namesake, and this new musical direction is the natural path that this entity would have taken under his leadership, with or without Slash and the remainder of his former peers.

The depth and breadth of the concept of W. Axl Rose is profound. I say the concept of, because at the end of the day, I don’t know the guy. Like anyone else, I can go on what I glean from the mass media and what he puts out there for me to consider. But the legitimate, visceral, and real connection, as it always has been for music fans and their favourite artists since the dawn of popular music, is through the music itself, and the perception of the message it delivers. While I’m positive that Rose is extremely cognizant of image creation, maintenance, and spin, his message delivery is still met with extremism, mainly because he has stretched his popular concept into a sizeable spectrum through his inexplicable conduct. Reactions and responses will always be polarized, and the Church of Axl will almost certainly continue to enjoy economy of scale in this sense, as people will forever be interested whether we empathize because we think we understand his myriad troubles and can relate, or because we scathingly loathe his unfathomable disingenuousness and dismiss him as an unworthy, spoiled crybaby.

The contradictions are many, and certainties few. Nevertheless, love him or hate him, W. Axl Rose is wise enough, creative enough, and resilient enough to have the last sardonic laugh. With the release of Chinese Democracy, my money’s on him.