Guns N’ Roses was a band with a larger than life aura almost from the moment they hit the national scene with the release of their landmark debut LP, Appetite for Destruction in 1987. The band was at the top of the charts by the summer of 1988 and practically ruled the music world by 1991.
Like a shooting star, though, GNR was already in its descent by 1993. But even after their breakup, singer Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan all retained a cinematic type of mystique. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin sort of does as well, even after stepping back from the limelight almost completely. Such is the resonant power of the band’s songs and legendary live performances.
It’s therefore only appropriate to see GNR depicted comic book style in a graphic novel that traces the history of the group from Axl’s formative days growing up in Indiana to the flap over whether the original lineup would reunite for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2012. With Axl, Slash and Duff at least now set to reunite for the 2016 Coachella Festival and a rumored summer tour, Reckless Life comes at a great time to revisit the band’s colorful history. GNR wasn’t just a band, they were a genuine cultural phenomenon that fired up everyone from hard rockers to pop music fans.
The book takes readers inside the band’s riotous rise to the top, their all too brief reign as the dark princes of rock ‘n’ roll and through their puzzling and acrimonious decline. The story is told in black and white for some odd reason, hardly fitting for the band’s colorful adventures with “”the perils of rock ‘n’ roll decadence”. But artist Marc Olivent does a solid job depicting three decades worth of drama in a gritty realistic style. The type print is annoyingly small for some reason and some readers may have trouble reading it without squinting. But once you settle in, it’s a wild ride.
Much of the tale will be familiar to those who have followed GNR’s career from the start, but it’s still interesting to view the timeline from a 21st century perspective. Reckless Life also provides a comprehensive rundown of what the band members have been up to over the past 20 years since the original lineup fizzled out due to tensions between Axl and everyone else. This includes some of the late Scott Weiland’s antics when he teamed with Slash and Duff for Velvet Revolver as well as Axl’s eccentric isolation, attempts to tour as GNR with a hired “guns” lineup and his protracted odyssey to finish the Chinese Democracy LP.
Reckless Life takes us through some of Axl’s seriously fucked up childhood and emotional burdens before plunking us down in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, which is key to helping the reader attempt to understand his manic depressions. We see the band’s rise on the Sunset Strip club scene, escapades of sex, drugs and incendiary rock ‘n’ roll and the major label bidding war that leads to a record deal. And that’s when the mayhem really begins. With the frequency of reckless behavior the band members engaged in, it’s truly amazing that none of them died (although most of them came close.) It’s all testament to how these guys were like a modern day band of Keith Richards-style iron men of rock.
If the book has one major flaw, it’s the short thrift given to GNR’s 1991 summer tour. It was the band’s first arena headliner outing and a creative pinnacle where they delivered some of the greatest shows in rock history. The Use Your Illusion albums would not be ready for release until September, but the tour had been booked and the band had no choice but to forge ahead. Playing two-and-a-half to three-hour shows (or longer) on a nightly basis where at least half the setlist featured new songs no one knew would be an impossible task for most bands. But GNR were at the height of their powers. The compelling new material was delivered with such electrifying intensity that fans were completely won over by the triumphant performances (except for those lamentable nights where Axl’s bad moods led to truncated shows.)
Therein lies the rub that haunts the band through the rest of the saga and to this day. When Axl was in a good mood, GNR was a genuine force of nature. But his erratic mood swings led to delayed shows, shortened shows and even a few riots when shows got suddenly ended by his tantrums. All the drama led to increasing strain with his bandmates, with Izzy Stradlin deciding he’d had enough by the end of the summer ‘91 tour and leaving the band. The band would even lose nearly 80 percent of their revenues from their 1992 stadium tour with Metallica, we learn, due to union overtime fees and curfew fines.
All the drama was difficult for fans to fathom, since from the outside it seemed like Axl was on top of the world. His mercurial temper was well known, but when Axl sang songs like “Yesterdays”, “Patience”, “Dead Horse” and “Rocket Queen”, it felt like he was telling everyone we were all still going to get through this topsy turvy world and keep on rocking. Axl brought a lot of grief upon himself and his methods were often questionable, but he also empowered countless fans with his defiant attitude toward authority and the status quo, demonstrating that anyone with dedication to a craft can overcome major obstacles in life to live their dreams.
While many would love to live the rock star high life, there are probably few who would actually want to walk a mile on the path Axl had to tread to reach the formation of GNR. To many fans, it seems he threw it all away due to selfish antics and neurotic narcissism. But his failures are ours as well, because we lost one of the most exciting bands that rock ‘n’ roll has ever known.
Now, since no one did die, there’s one last shot at redemptive glory with the 2016 reunion tour. Many don’t think Axl is up to the task, but he can prove all the doubters wrong merely by putting his emotional turmoils aside and rocking the nation with Slash and Duff like the old days. There’s no doubt that Slash and Duff are up to the task, musician’s musicians both. It’s never too late to write a triumphant last act and Axl’s got one last shot to rescue GNR’s legacy. Will it be “Paradise City” or “Right Next Door to Hell”? It’s up to Axl.