I have written voluminously and freely about Guns N’ Roses since I had my first column at L.A. Weekly. I’m now writing a book about the band. I could write a doctoral dissertation on GNR, but alas, I’m here to let my keyboard bleed. I’m here to talk about how Axl Rose—my generation’s Johnny Strabler, the bike-gang leader played by Marlon Brando in The Wild One—has become an unintentional servant of a political agenda. How’d that happen? Axl became…“woke.”
I first submit to you a provocative, not-so-woke image—Axl Rose, 1989, as he wraps chains around the wrists of his then-girlfriend, before proceeding to gag and whip her in a bondage scene. Glimpsed in brief flashes, Rose’s S&M act is the template for a Guns N’ Roses video promoting “It’s So Easy”—a video MTV decided not to air.
The footage illustrates the moral framework from which vintage Rose, once America’s most unrepressed rock star, should be understood.
Embodying an aesthetic creed that combined feminine ferocity with rampaging male lust, Axl Rose, as the video testifies, savagely stops across the stage of the Cathouse club, wearing a plaid kilt and skull-print leather jacket, howling into the mic, while a swarm of groupies tear away bits of his clothing.
For America’s youth, he delivered a machine-gun aria that tore through their ears, mowing down the lecturing housewives of Washington. Thirty years later, Rose is a wealthy, bourgeois Democrat, lawyered-up, and serving as the politically correct CEO of an American corporate rock machine.
For countless pimple-faced teenagers in an age before memes, hashtags, internet porn, or first-person shooters, it was a way to feel unrepressed and wild—catching a glimpse of Axl Rose on MTV, imagining what it would be like to be him.
Here, in videos, songs, at the concerts, was a ginger psychopath who owned an Uzi semiautomatic and once told his fans at the Ritz in New York that he was dedicating “Out Ta Get Me” to prudes who “tell you how to live,” who “tell you how to talk…people who tell you what you can and you can’t say.”
Axl Rose is now an ally for the people he once ranted against. He wears a slick fedora, designer jeans from Barneys, reflective sunglasses, and occasionally carries a cane, like Picasso, at one of his opulent art shows. He’s a completely different person. Appetite for Destruction-era Rose had the lean, tattooed physique of a hungry featherweight boxer, the face of a teen idol, and the always-running mouth of a hillbilly Rocky Sullivan, the gangster ex-con, played by Jimmy Cagney, in the movie Angels With Dirty Faces. Rather than bravely riding off into the sunset with his outlaw persona pushing him further towards the grave—à la Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister—Axl Rose now exists as a status-quo liberal.