For the past decade and a half, Axl Rose has ranked among music’s most sensationalized sideshow attractions.
But as with his fellow Indiana-native Michael Jackson — with whom both his lyrics and lifestyle always shared a certain palpable paranoia, apparently traceable back to an intensely traumatic childhood — nobody would care about him if he hadn’t once been one of the most aurally and visually exciting performer of his day.
With Guns N’ Roses, Rose’s whip-cracking mid-Eighties falsetto attained uncharted heights across the emotional spectrum: “Axl sings the most beautiful melodies with the most aggressive tones and the most outrageous, freakish range,” Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach told Rolling Stone in 2008. But he also put together a group that stood, at least briefly, as the definitive hard rock band of the past 30 years. And only a handful of lyricists before or since have ever come close to his exploration of rock’s archetypal escape and destruction impulses.
Born to a 16-year-old mother and 20-year-old father in Lafeyette, Indiana in 1962, William Bruce Rose, Jr., was renamed William Bruce Bailey a couple years later, after his father left and his mother remarried. In interviews in the early Nineties, after undergoing psychotherapy, he recalled being sexually molested by his father; he said his stepfather, in turn, physically beat both him and his mother. Several times a week, the family went to a Pentecostal church, which Rose later described as being filled with other abusive adults. But he found comfort there nonetheless, teaching Sunday School and developing his wide vocal range while singing along with siblings in a group called the “Bailey Trio.”
By high school, though, he was getting into trouble. Eventually, he was kicked out of his home, and he dropped out of school; when he learned about his birth father, he took back the name he was born with. At 20, after numerous arrests for public intoxication, assault, and other offenses, he followed a guitarist friend’s move from Indiana to L.A. Jeff Isbell, now known as Izzy Stradlin, and Rose, now calling himself W. Axl Rose, playing the sleazy sort of glam-metal then popular on the Sunset Strip, commenced to spend time in a number of bands — most significantly L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, who combined forces into Guns N’ Roses in early 1985. As the band built a local fanbase, its lineup continued to evolve. By the time G N’ R settled on Rose (vocals), Stradlin (rhythm guitar) Slash (lead guitar), Duff McKagan (bass) and Steven Adler (drums), record labels were noticing.
An EP called Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide emerged in 1986 on the covert, quasi-indie Geffen imprint Uzi Suicide; in mid-1987, the full-length Appetite For Destruction followed on Geffen proper. It sold modestly at first, but well into 1988, the singles “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome To The Jungle” became inescapable on radio and MTV. Late that year, long after its release, Appetite topped Billboard’s album chart. At over 18 million copies sold, it now stands as the most popular debut album in U.S. history, and critics regularly rank it among the greatest hard rock albums of all time.
Meanwhile, though, Guns N’ Roses were developing an incorrigible reputation, as abusers of all manner of inebriating substances; concerts were sometimes cancelled at short notice, and speculation circulated that the band was about the break up. When Geffen bought time with an odds-and-sods set called Lies (Number 2, 1988) — half old Uzi Suicide tracks, half new acoustic numbers, including the hit ballad “Patience” — press attention largely focused on Axl’s escape-by-Greyhound-to-L.A. epic “One In A Million,” in which he expresssly insulted black people, gay people, and immigrants.
G N’R didn’t manage an actual followup album until 1991 — or rather, two followups, since the bombastic matched pair Use Your Illusion I and II came out simultaneously, debuting on the album chart at an unprecedented Number Two and Number One, respectively. By then, drummer Adler’s addictions had led to his dismissal, and Matt Sorum, formerly of the Cult, took his place. Also out: manager Alan Niven, reportedly at the volition of Rose though not all of his bandmates. Regardless, the Illusions coughed up multiple hits, an hung around on the charts for more than two years.
And Axl Rose stayed in the news, as well. In St. Louis, fans rioted and several went to the hospital when he grabbed a video camera from an audience member then walked off stage, cancelling the show; he was arrested on misdemeanor assault charges and for six-figure property damage. He got married to Erin Everly, who he’d written “Sweet Child O’ Mine” about and whose dad was Don of the Everly Brothers, but the marriage lasted only a few weeks, eventually being annulled amid Everly’s charges of domestic abuse. His next famous girlfriend, model Stephanie Seymour, showed up in the videos for two Use Your Illusion hits, but by 1993, the pair were filing lawsuits against each other.
Axl feuded with Vince Neil, Kurt Cobain, Jon Bon Jovi, his record label, and ultimately with his own bandmates — almost all of whom wound up leaving Guns N’ Roses, volutarily or involutarily, as the ’90s crawled on. An under-appreciated all-covers album, The Spaghetti Incident? (Number Four), had came out in 1993. But by 1997, Rose — who retained sole ownership of the Guns N’ Roses name — was set on recruiting a new lineup from scratch, with himself at the center.
Not that he was talking about it — for a half decade or more, he refused to be interviewed. Rumors about Rose’s eccentric hermitude and questionable mental and physical state trickled out of his Malibu villa for years. Occasionally, songs trickled out as well, and the concert set Live Era: ’87 — ’93 (Number 45, 1999.).
By 2001, with an album called Chinese Democracy supposedly on deck, a new lineup — among them guitarist Buckethead, plus former members of Nine Inch Nails, the Replacements and Primus — played shows in Las Vegas and Brazil. By 2006, when G N’ R played four nights in New York City then dates in Madrid and Rio, a few more members had been swapped out; that summer, Rose pled guilty to charges mainly resulting from assaulting a Swedish security guard’s leg with his teeth.
By December, he composed a letter to his fans, explaining their interminable wait for Chinese Democracy, and anticipating an early 2007 release. But the album didn’t actually hit the stores — specifically, electronics chain Best Buy, which sold it exclusively — until late November 2008. The album peaked at Number Three, and its title track at 34 on the Billboard Hot 100, hardly spectacular. But 17 years after their previous collection of original material, Guns N’ Roses had still managed one more platinum album.
Axl and his new lineup of Guns N’ Roses continued to tour heavily, playing a set heavy on the classics with a sprinkling of Chinese Democracy tunes. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, causing a steady drumbeat of rumors about a one-night-only reunion. Days before the ceremony, Axl shot them down with a public letter. “Time to move on,” he wrote. “People get divorced. Life doesn’t owe you your own personal happy ending especially at another’s, or in this case several others’, expense.”
Just when a reunion seemed like an absolute impossibility, the new Guns N’ Roses stopped booking new dates in mid-2014. Shortly afterwards, guitarists DJ Ashba and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal announced they were leaving the group. In early 2016, the band confirmed longstanding rumors that Slash and Duff McKagan were rejoining Guns N’ Roses to perform at Coachella. It was the beginning of a surprisingly drama-free world tour of football and soccer stadiums. In the middle of it, Rose took over vocal duties in AC/DC from an ailing Brian Johnson. The singer with the reputation as the least reliable man in show business was suddenly fronting two of the biggest bands on the planet, taking the stage on time every single night and seemingly loving every minute of it. Who would have ever guessed?