Rock & roll stardom can exact a terrible toll. It killed Gene Vincent (and Jim, Jimi, Janis), it turned Elvis Presley into a chemically-fueled doughboy, John Lennon into a heroin-gorging shut-in and Bono into a strutting, self-righteous peacock who just won’t shut up. It creates a psychological spectrum of gaudy, obnoxious shades, and those trapped within are unable to recognize anything except their own disconnected, bizarre reality; once mired there, the resulting actions and irrationalities are quite often as downright unfathomable as they are fascinating.
Case in point: Axl Rose.
The Guns N’ Roses founder and sole surviving original member has come down with one of the most absorbing cases of rock star pathology ever, a transformation that began over 20 years ago, when he was just one more Hollywood b’vard gnarly, a shabby creep from the Midwest haunting Tinseltown porn shops to escape the elements and dreaming of an epic-scale, decidedly unlikely heavy metal uber-conquest.
It’s important to recall the context of Hollywood rock & roll circa ‘85-‘86: it was a stinkin’ mess. The late ‘70s best bet for salvation, punk rock, had degraded to a self-made mockery, and the Sunset Strip teemed with a rising horde of Flying V-toting androgynous quasi-anorexics whose squealing, girly-man brand of spandex-girded, purported metal-glam had all the appeal of a warm can of stale, flat beer. In other words, a propitious moment for someone with guts, drive, and a grasp on the neglected elements of the rock & roll idiom—the underworld allure of its neglected socio-sexual threat—to step in and show all the deluded pretenders how it was meant to be done.
Guns N’ Roses did precisely that, building a down-and-dirty nightclub cult whose worshipful clamor grew ever louder in its intensity, finally earning them a deal with Geffen Records and releasing their debut album Appetite For Destruction in the summer of ‘87. That turned Hollywood upside fucking down—an electrifying, almost Biblical moment when everybody realized that the long-sought Promised Ones were indeed now among us. The desperate low-life survivalist anthem “Welcome to the Jungle,” with its momentous aura of back-alley menace, skull-denting blend of mad riff-slinging and deep scouring rockeration, was—even for those who despised metal in any way, shape or form—an undeniably magnificent creation, demonstrating a deceptively simple artistic excellence that enabled Guns N’ Roses to become not only the key musical influence of the day, but also to haul in cash by the boxcar load (the album has sold over 20 million copies).
G’N’R was many things, but boring was never one of them. Yet, that gilded zenith of ‘87 was never to be repeated, and subsequent recordings carried less and less of the impact they had so strikingly achieved. It turned sour over the next few years, with fans trampled to death, stadium riots, the press going apeshit over Rose’s employ of taboo language (“niggers” and “faggots”) on his song “One in a Million,” and then covering Charlie Manson’s “Look at Your Game Girl;” the band started hating each other, players came and went, and by the mid-‘90s, Guns N’ Roses were nowhere to be found—even when they had a show to play.
Now, Axl Rose is like some twisted rock & roll Howard Hughes, a mostly behind-the-scenes mogul (occasionally re-emerging, bless him, for arrests on violent conduct and criminal damage) who has been tinkering with the long-delayed Chinese Democracy album for so many years that, with 13 million dollars already spent on its production, it is the rock & roll equivalent to Hughes’ ultra-maxi Spruce Goose aircraft. However, with the threatened appearance on this year’s KROQ Inland Invasion, the boy who would Rock God could still put it all into much-needed perspective—unless something goes haywire, and the whole thing turns into a catastrophe.
GUNS N’ ROSES PLAY KROQ’S INLAND INVASION WITH ALICE IN CHAINS, PAPA ROACH, 30 SECONDS TO MARS AND MORE AT THE HYUNDAI PAVILLION, 2575 GLEN HELEN PKWY., SAN BERNARDINO, 909-880-6500; WWW.LIVENATION.COM. SAT., 3 P.M. $35-$75.