Video game scenario: You are Axl Rose, lead singer of the rock group Guns N' Roses. You are notoriously angry and insensitive, but you are given a chance to atone for some homophobic lyrics from your past by participating in a televised AIDS benefit concert. The concert will allow you to redeem your soul, be part of a veritable Harmonic Convergence of Cool People (including David Bowie, U2, and Roger Daltrey), and maybe—just maybe—save the human race from viral extinction. Unfortunately, you are being sought by the police, who want to arrest you for supposedly causing that riot in St. Louis, and there are rumors that ACT-UP will boo you off the stage. Can you elude the fuzz and the activists and save the planet before the game ends?
Axl played this game in real life and won in April, performing GNR's cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and making a surprise reappearance to sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" with Elton John and do "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions" with Liza Minelli, of all people. ACT-UP was as silent at this "Concert for Life" as they were at the Oscars. And as I write this, Axl has not yet been arrested.
Why did Chicago-area police want to publicly arrest Axl (over a mere misdemeanor charge in St. Louis)? What is it about Axl that seems so dangerous that he must be handcuffed or heckled? Could it be that GNR is a troubling reminder that the passionate, romantic, nonrational part of human nature is a wild, violent thing rather than the sunshiny, environmentally conscious, Rousseauian flower child that so many would have us believe in these days? For an answer we must turn to the only thorough theoretical treatise on GNR: Danny Sugerman's book, Appetite for Destruction: The Days of Guns N' Roses.
Sugerman, in the hyperbolic style that makes this book a treasure, claims "Guns N' Roses are the death rattle of two thousand years of Judeo-Christian culture…the gyrating sound of Dionysus resurfacing…the music of man's animal powers refusing to be denied any longer, gnarling at the oppressive bit, threatening, dancing on the edge of a society collapsing in on itself." Sugerman compares the band, particularly Axl, to such artists as Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Christ, and Nietzsche.
And he's serious. This is the only book I've seen that juxtaposes a photo of the band's lead singer with a picture of "Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, known for her powers of creation and destruction." It would be easy to laugh at Sugerman's analysis—to laugh long and hard—but there is truth in what he says. GNR captures the violent, oddly organic quality of modern urban life in songs where pleasant gardens, loving relationships, and urban night life turn twisted and ugly, songs like their first hit, "Welcome to the Jungle," "The Garden," "Garden of Eden," and "Used to Love Her" ("but I had to kill her").
But is Axl an angry radical or, as Chronicles magazine once suggested, a strange conservative? Some of his detractors may well suspect he has Pat Buchanan as a political adviser after the infamous lines from the song "One in a Million": "Immigrants and faggots / They make no sense to me / They think they'll come to our country / And then they'll do as they please / Like start some mini-Iran / Or spread some fuckin' disease." To understand, we must turn again to Sugerman. He explains that Axl is writing based on ecstatic bursts of anger born of personal experience rather than offering reasoned commentary.
Indeed, Sugerman declares that Axl is a modern shaman, a conduit for forces beyond his or anyone's full control. Sugerman suggests that even Axl's drug use is part of a spiritual quest to summon buried impulses in our collective unconscious and that Axl faces the same antidrug authorities who have sought throughout history to crush alternative modes of thought. Or, as Axl puts it in "Out Ta Get Me": "They break down the door and they rape my rights / But they won't catch me…I'm innocent / So you can suck me."
Axl's days as Dionysus-alphashaman-Kali-zeitgeistmeister may be numbered. A recent Rolling Stone interview reveals he is overcoming his anger through regression therapy and psychoanalysis. I just hope he doesn't become kinder and gentler to the point that he produces New Age music or joins the Men's Movement.
The world needs people like Axl, who, in Sugerman's words, can teach high-tech society something about its psyche "after mounting the shaggy back of a long-haired wildman representative of our primitive animalistic nature." That's from a passage comparing Axl to Dante. At least if we lose Axl, we'll still have this book.
Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.