Reviews — From the May 2016 issue

War of The Roses

Piecing together the GN’R story

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I first saw Guns in the summer of 1986, at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. The PA system blared the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey before the band came onstage, and when they did, they were so loud that I couldn’t pick out the melody or chorus of any of the songs. Even the covers they played, such as Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin,” were unrecognizable. From Reckless Road, a photo-history of the band by Marc Canter — the proprietor of Canter’s Deli, in L.A., a lifelong friend of Slash (né Saul Hudson), and an early source of financial and caloric sustenance for the band — I have deduced that the show must have been on July 11, and that the set list included nearly every song that would end up on Appetite a year later. My most vivid memory is of Axl Rose — has there ever been a better nom de rock, with its evocation of a metal pole impaling a flower? — who was then androgynously beautiful. Aside from the long red hair on his head, he seemed shaved everywhere else, and to be intentionally subverting gender norms. For a person who wrote some pretty homophobic lyrics, Axl in his crotchless chaps knew how to play a leather rent boy to the hilt.

Axl is the enigmatic figure at the center of nearly every book written about the band. He was born in 1962 in Lafayette, Indiana, to Sharon Lintner, a sixteen-year-old unwed mother, and William Rose, whom Stephen Davis describes in Watch You Bleed as a “troubled and charismatic local delinquent.” Lintner later married a Pentecostal preacher named Stephen Bailey, who raised Axl as his son. Axl — or Bill Bailey Jr., as he was known then — was a gifted member of his local church choir, able to sing an unusually large range of vocal parts with equal facility. His father’s strict household rules meant that he could listen to rock music only under the covers at night. At sixteen, Bill discovered the truth about his father. The revelation led him to distrust authority in all its forms and seems to have accelerated an adolescence of petty crime, which resulted in several stretches in adult jails. Local police and prosecutors, tired of detaining the young hoodlum, eventually sought to put him away for thirty years. Instead, he fled to Los Angeles, where he joined Izzy Stradlin (né Jeffrey Dean Isbell), a high-school friend who had recently lit out for California, and began calling himself Axl, after the name of a band he’d played with in Lafayette. Axl brought his authority problems with him to Los Angeles, along with the makings of his tragic flaw: an unwillingness to surrender his prerogative in any circumstance.

In each of these accounts, Axl appears angry, capricious, and imperious. By the time Guns achieved its first successes, Slash and Duff had already grown wary of trying to curtail his behavior, in part because their own addictions to drugs undermined their credibility. (For all of Axl’s personal and psychological travails, he does not seem to have been a drug addict.) By his mid-twenties, Axl was on his way to becoming a version of the authority figures he had once bridled against, demanding total control of the band, forcing his bandmates to legally sign over ownership of the name Guns N’ Roses, lecturing audiences from the stage like an angry high-school principal. This authoritarian streak eventually led to the resignation or firing of every other original member of the band.

In W.A.R., Mick Wall quotes Izzy Stradlin’s suggestion that Axl’s adult excesses were rooted in his childhood struggles. He was

just a little guy, who sings, is talented. But man, he turned into this fucking maniac! . . . For [Axl] the money wasn’t as big a deal. But he had this power thing where he wanted complete control. And you can say, well, it goes back to your fucked-up childhood, and he had no control, so now he’s getting it back.

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is the author, most recently, of The Subprimes, a novel. His essay “Fever” appeared in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Karl Taro Greenfeld:

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