If there’s a hard rock canon, Guns N’ Roses are part of it. Appetite for Destruction (1987) remains the all-time best-selling debut album, having gifted headbangers, rebellious teens, stoners, classic rock DJs, and Guitar Hero aficionados with iconic hits “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, and “Paradise City”. But the line-up changed, the drugs, the bloat of double albums and decadent tours, and the erratic and sometimes violent behavior of frontman Axl Rose arguably overshadowed the great music. The operatic music videos and ascendancy of alt-rock in the early ’90s also contributed to the band’s swift decline.
Because of this duality, Guns N’ Roses have a conflicted legacy. Are they chart-topping, hard-living rock gods with legacies akin to the bands who most inspired them (Aerosmith, AC/DC, and the Stones)? Or are they closer in kind to their fellow ’80s Los Angeles hard rockers who crossed over and found chart success but are remembered more for spectacle than substance (Motley Crue and Poison)? Three decades after Appetite for Destruction blew our minds, what does this band signify?
These are the questions that music journalist Art Tavana engages in his immensely readable new book, Goodbye Guns N’ Roses: The Crime, Beauty, and Amplified Chaos of America’s Most Polarizing Band. Tavana argues compellingly that Guns N’ Roses made their bones by looking backward. Aside from their early flirtations with hair spray, Guns N’ Roses had little in common with their 1980s peers who aspired to replicate the camp of Kiss and the guitar pyrotechnics of Van Halen, and much more in common with the nihilism of punk rock and the bad boy blues of the Rolling Stones, both of which had flourished at least a decade before Appetite for Destruction. Fans and critics often (claim to) fetishize innovation in popular music, yet they embraced Guns N’ Roses, who were essentially, says Tavana, stuck in the ‘70s.
Another knock on Guns N’ Roses, according to Tavana, is that the band “consistently failed to form a cohesive political agenda.” Tavana touches on the controversy surrounding the racist and homophobic lyrics to songs like “One in a Million”, but devotes even more ink to exploring the incoherence of songs that seemed to be engaging social issues. From “Welcome to the Jungle” to “Civil War”, the band’s catalog contains lyrics that are vaguely about important concerns—urban unrest, war, addiction, and eventually China’s role on the global stage. And yet, Tavana concludes, Axl “sounded like an undergrad struggling to find a thesis.”
Tavana also reviews a good deal of the band’s bad behavior. Readers who came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s and/or follow pop culture closely will likely already know about much of this alleged behavior: domestic violence, lots of hard drugs, concerts canceled or cut short, public meltdowns, celebrity feuds, profane and offensive lyrics. I won’t lie; it’s juicy content. But Tavana puts these familiar incidents to work, using the band’s debauchery and outrageous ethos as an in-road for considering the Guns N’ Roses’ relevance in 2021. What role could the band that wrote “One in a Million” play in a culture in which many young people are fighting for LGBTQ rights and supporting #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo?
Tavana suggests that for all of these reasons, Axl “is simply no longer someone America’s youth cares to listen to,” and he may be right. Though Guns N’ Roses still gets airplay on classic rock radio, fewer rock kids seem to revere the band as much as they do Led Zeppelin (also not known for being all that enlightened), the Beatles, the Doors, and Nirvana.
Speaking of Nirvana, Tavana offers a vivid and thoughtful retelling of the feud between Axl and Kurt Cobain and invites us to consider the populism, accessibility, relevance, and progressivism of Cobain in conversation with the iconography and legacy of Axl Rose. Again, it’s not wholly new ground, but Tavana’s analysis is sharp and interesting.
Goodbye Guns N’ Roses has a few weaknesses. I would have liked to see more Duff, Izzy, and Steven Adler in the book. Sure, Axl’s personality and lead guitarist Slash’s virtuosity are the first things we associate with Guns N’ Roses, and these elements require the most unpacking when making sense of how and why the band rose and fell. But Duff and Izzy were arguably the architects of the band’s merging of punk, blues, and garage rock aesthetics, and Adler was likely the hardest living of the band. A deeper dive into group dynamics might have strengthened Tavana’s claims about the sound and style of Guns N’ Roses.
I also got dizzy at times from Tavana’s tendency to pile pop culture analogy on top of pop culture analogy. He is very effective at putting cultural artifacts in conversation with one another, comparing, for instance, Guns N’ Roses aesthetic to Quentin Tarantino’s, or thinking about Axl’s iconography in light of Jim Morrison’s. At times, though, I found myself wanting Tavana to stick with one analogy and see it through to its implications and resonances instead of moving to a new point of comparison. Axl is like Jim Morrison and Charles Bukowski and Martin Sheen and Salinger and Lennon and Travolta’s character in Battlefield Earth. Whew!
Despite those few quibbles, Goodbye Guns N’ Roses is an engaging book of music and cultural criticism and an important contribution to conversations about the legacy of hard rock and the ways we reckon with problematic art. Tavana never slips into rote platitudes about wokeness or generation gaps. He approaches his subject with humor, passion, and a long view of rock ‘n’ roll and the pop culture landscape writ large.