Few things are more capable of convincing you that rock 'n' roll is dead than a benefit concert. The spectacle of all those cadaverous rock stars at the Freddie Mercury Tribute leering and gyrating their way through Queen's greatest hits was enough to turn even the most die hard rock fan off.
Who needs Spinal Tap when you've got Def Leppard? Nothing seems so phoney as a group of beery, middle-aged men singing 'Let's Get Rocked' as their wives and girlfriends look on from the wings. At any moment one expected Brian May to ask the audience to put their hands together for Gary Bloke.
Then, in what seemed like a single bound, Axl Rose turned everything on its head. Wearing a Union Jack leather jacket and a T-shirt with the slogan "Kill Your Idol" beneath a picture of Christ, he stalked across the stage, arms held aloft, looking like some obscure cartoon animal. He had the same kick-ass, rock 'n' roll attitude as the others, yet strangely it didn't seem so false in his case. Guns N' Roses were scarcely into the first few bars of 'Paradise City', and all the skepticism you'd felt about this event began to vanish. The extraordinary thing about Guns N' Roses is that without seeming to depart from a formula which, by now, should be completely exhausted they manage to be comparatively exciting. What only moments before had seemed like popular culture's most moribund and lifeless form--not another Led Zeppelin cover--was suddenly capable of producing a rush of undefined emotion. This peculiar conjuring trick is the achievement of the witchy, almost supernatural figure, peering shyly at the audience from the centre of the stage.
Guns N' Roses per se are not particularly remarkable. Indeed, they could easily have been dreamt up by a marketing executive at Geffen Records. It is appropriate that they originated in Hollywood because they are a hi-concept rock 'n' roll band, a tried-and-tested slice of pop culture pared down to its most marketable ingredients. With their hardcore sound, their in-your-face aggression and their predilection for heroin, they are like some crude amalgam of the Rolling Stones, the Doors and the Sex Pistols, a kind of rock version of The Monkees.
Axl Rose himself seems to have sprung straight from the mind of some unimaginative Kerrang! journalist. Born plain Bill Bailey, he was abused by his father, beaten up by his step-father and quickly set about terrorizing the sleepy town of Lafayette, Indiana.
"He was just really fucking bent on fighting and destroying things," says Izzy Stradlin (aka Jeff Isabelle), a childhood friend of Axl's and one-time member of the band. "Somebody'd look at him wrong and he'd just, like, start a fight." Axl was reportedly sent to jail over 20 times before arriving on the LA rock scene at 18. He acquired his name when a friend suggested the moniker 'Axel' and he misspelled it. "I'm always living on the edge," he says, "and that can be a very dangerous place to be." He is a rock star straight from central casting.
The remarkable thing is that in spite of being such a factory-produced, machine-tooled rock band, Guns N' Roses manage to seem completely genuine. Unlike, say, Bon Jovi, there is nothing manufactured about them (Axl once attacked someone for calling him a "Bon Jovi look-alike"). If they are a marketing creation, they are marketed in such a way as to conform to their target audience's perception of just what an un-marketed band would look like. Their first album, Appetite For Destruction, only registered on the Billboard chart after the teenage boys of America saw them on MTV--it went on to sell 15 million copies, the most successful debut LP of all time. Of all the bands who owe their careers to the new medium, Guns N' Roses manage to seem the least affected by it--which is perhaps why they come over so well. They are everyone's idea of the real thing. (From a marketing point of view, it was a stroke of genius to release a record which included the words "niggers" and "faggots". For what could seem less calculated--more genuine--than refusing to disguise your bigotry in spite of its potentially damaging effect on your sales?)
Their believability is partly to do with being so extreme. They manage to out rock 'n' roll their competitors on every front. After a 1989 appearance with the Rolling Stones, Axl was overheard telling Dave Lee Roth that "three out of the four musicians in the band were smacked out of their minds for the show". At one point they ran an ad for an LA gig which said: "Fresh from detox." During one of their world tours, a Taiwanese girl asked Axl why he'd only made love to her once. "Because he's had five others today already," replied a roadie. In Hamburg, two members of the band came across the drummer of Faster Pussycat in their hotel lift and beat him up. On numerous occasions Axl has leapt from the stage to tackle some member of the crowd he's taken a dislike to - he is wanted in St Louis for starting a riot. "We do have a fuck-you attitude," admits Axl.
Guns N' Roses are not the product of an entertainment conglomerate but a far more reliable form of capitalism--the LA rock scene. It is an essential part of the Guns N' Roses back story that they began as a hard-working band on the LA club circuit. As the centre of the entertainment industry, LA attracts the cream of America's rock hopefuls, and of these only the best survive. Guns N' Roses emerged at the top of this greasy pole. They were "discovered" by Geffen Records scout Tom Zutaut, who simply walked into Vinyl Fetish on Melrose and asked the clerk if he'd heard of any great new bands. "Just one," the clerk replied. Guns N' Roses were the group which best exemplified the hard-core rock 'n' roll philosophy of this world. Far from being created, they evolved by a process of natural selection.
Of course, there are other bands with similar biographies--Motley Crüe and Metallica, for instance--but they lack the sheer credibility of Guns N' Roses. Authenticity, above everything else, is the quality selected for by the LA rock scene, and it is the seeming authenticity of Guns N' Roses which has become their Unique--and highly profitable--Selling Point.
Ultimately, it is not the band but the personality of Axl Rose which is responsible for this. He has been compared to Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, but he lacks their stagey, theatrical manner. Jagger was an inversion of show-biz values, a dark side Dean Martin, and Morrison was a self-conscious changeling. Axl Rose doesn't peddle the same line in faked-up nihilism. Guns N' Roses may put on the best live show in the business, but you never get the impression that Axl Rose is giving a performance. (This may explain why he loathes being evaluated by critics. Responding to a lukewarm review by LA journalist Robert Hilburn, he told an audience, "This is fucking art, this is how I feel. You don't like it--don't fucking listen." After an insufficiently enthusiastic review by critic David Fricke he wore a T-shirt which said, "David Fricke--suck my dick.")
What is so appealing about him is that he seems completely indifferent to the good opinion of others. He embodies the retaliatory energy of adolescence, the urge to get back at your oppressors. On the sleeve of Appetite For Destruction, after thanking a hundred friends and co-workers, he attacked "the teachers, preachers, cops and elders who never believed" in him. This kind of bravado can seem like a put-on but Axl carries it off because he appears so self-reliant. He is, to use David Reisman's inelegant term, completely "inner-directed". Which is not to say that he appeals to insecure, "other-directed" people, only that he seems to have achieved that state of psychological independence that is every adolescent's ideal.
His command of the stage is so self-assured he has the makings of a tyrant. But what makes him such a charismatic talisman for millions of teenagers is that he doesn't parlay this into other areas. He is an anti-role model, incorrect in every conceivable way. This goes to the heart of what is so objectionable about benefit concerts. It's not so much the effrontery of all those sybaritic ghouls lecturing us on moral responsibility--though that is galling enough--or even the misguidedness of trying to invest the music with some redeeming social value. Rather it is the attempt to harness all that power to any cause, however worthy. At its best, rock 'n' roll is an inarticulate scream, a dumb protest, a kind of utopianism in the true sense, going no place. It is mass mobilization for its own sake, the wellspring of a political movement--and no more.
Axl Rose nestles in this pre-political space, weirdly capable of eliciting the most overwhelming emotions, yet to no apparent purpose other than to make huge sums of money and screw swimsuit models. This is the most benign form of fascism there is, incapable of threatening bourgeois society in spite of the concerns of Tipper Gore's 'Parents Musical Resource Committee'. Axl Rose exemplifies the unfulfilled promise of adolescence, that awesome sense of power, the feeling that you are on the brink of something huge--and which never comes to anything.
These days he travels with an entourage of over 80 followers, most of them with some dubious medical qualification, and he is reported to be engaged on a John Cleese-like quest to exorcize his demons. Let's hope he fails. Axl Rose is one bad boy who should never grow up.