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Welcome to Appetite for Discussion -- a Guns N' Roses fan forum!

Please feel free to look around the forum as a guest, I hope you will find something of interest. If you want to join the discussions or contribute in other ways then you need to become a member. We especially welcome anyone who wants to share documents for our archive or would be interested in translating or transcribing articles and interviews.

Registering is free and easy.


2006.08.31 - GQ - The Final Comeback of Axl Rose

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2006.08.31 - GQ - The Final Comeback of Axl Rose Empty 2006.08.31 - GQ - The Final Comeback of Axl Rose

Post by Blackstar Thu Nov 29, 2018 4:29 am

The Final Comeback of Axl Rose

By John Jeremiah Sullivan
August 31, 2006

Four years after disappearing from public view, Axl Rose is back on the scene, looking like a wax figure of himself, absorbing the crushing blows of Tommy Hilfiger, biting the legs of security guards, and gyrating, shrieking, and storming off stages across the land. John Jeremiah Sullivan grapples with the ghosts of the greatest—or weirdest—frontman of all time

He is from nowhere. I realize that sounds coyly rhetorical—in this day and age, it's even a boast, right? Socioeconomic code for I went to a second-tier school and had no connections and made all this money myself.

Yeah, I don't mean it that way. I mean he is from nowhere. Given the relevant maps and a pointer, I think I could convince even the most exacting minds that when the vast and blood-soaked jigsaw puzzle that is this country's regional scheme coalesced into more or less its present configuration after the Civil War, somebody dropped a piece, which left a void, and they called the void Central Indiana. I'm not trying to say there's no there there. I'm trying to say there's no there. Think about it; let's get systematic on it. What's the most nowhere part of America? The Midwest, right? But once you get into the Midwest, you find that each of the different nowherenesses has laid claim to its own somewhereness. There are the lonely plains in Iowa. In Michigan there is a Gordon Lightfoot song. And Ohio has its very blandness and averageness, faintly comical, to cling to. All of them have something. And now I invite you to close your eyes, and when I say "Indiana"…blue screen, no? And we are speaking only of Indiana generally, which includes Southern Indiana, where I grew up, and Northern Indiana, which touches a Great Lake. We have not even narrowed it down to Central Indiana. Central Indiana? That's like, "Where are you?" "I'm nowhere." "Go there." And when I asked Jeff Strange, a morning-rock deejay in Lafayette, how he thought about this part of the world—for instance, did he think of it as the South? after all, it's a Klan hot spot (which I am inclined to read as a somewhat desperate affectation); or did he think of it as the Midwest or what—you know what he told me? He goes, "Some people here would call it 'the region.'"

That's where he's from.

William Bruce Rose Jr.; William Bruce Bailey; Bill Bailey; William Rose; Axl Rose; W. Axl Rose.
That's where he's from. Bear that in mind.


On May 15, he came out in jeans and a black leather jacket and giant black sunglasses, all lens, that made him look like a wasp-man. We had been waiting—I don't really know how to calculate how long we'd been waiting. It was the third of the four comeback shows in New York, at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The doors had opened at seven o'clock. The opening act had been off by eight thirty. It was now after eleven o'clock. There'd already been fights on the floor, and it didn't feel like the room could get any tenser without some type of event. I was next to a really nice woman from New Jersey, a hairdresser, who told me her husband "did pyro" for Bon Jovi. She kept text-messaging one of her husband's friends, who was "doing pyro" for this show, and asking him, "When's it gonna start?" And he'd text-message back, "We haven't even gone inside." I said to her at one point, "Have you ever seen a crowd this pumped up before a show?" She goes, "Yeah, they get this pumped up every night before Bon Jovi." I didn't want to report that last part, but in the post-James Frey era, you have to watch your topknot.

Then he was there. And apologies to the nice woman, but people do not go that nuts when Bon Jovi appears. People were: Going. Nuts. He is not a tall man—I doubt even the heels of his boots (red leather) put him at over five feet ten. He walked toward us with stalking, cartoonish pugnaciousness. I feel like all anybody talks about with Axl anymore is his strange new appearance, but it is hard to get past the unusual impression he makes. To me he looks like he's wearing an Axl Rose mask. He looks like a man I saw eating by himself at a truck stop in Monteagle, Tennessee, at two o'clock in the morning about twelve years ago. He looks increasingly like the albino reggae legend Yellowman. His mane evokes a gathering of strawberry red intricately braided hempen fibers, the sharply twisted ends of which have been punched, individually, a half inch into his scalp. His chest hair is the color of a new penny. With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster's wife on its home planet. When he first came onto the scene, he often looked, in photographs, like a beautiful, slender, redheaded 20-year-old girl. I hope the magazine will run a picture of him from about 1988 so the foregoing will seem a slightly less creepy observation and the fundamental spade-called-spade exactitude of it will be laid bare. But if not, I stand by it. Now he has thickened through the middle—muscly thickness, not the lard-ass thickness of some years back. He grabs his package tightly, and his package is huge. Only reporting. Now he plants his feet apart. "You know where you are?" he asks, and we bellow that we do, we do know, but he tells us anyway. "You're in the jungle, baby," he says, and then he tells us that we are going to die.

He should be pleased, I think, not only at the extreme way that we are truly freaking out to see him but also at the age range on view: There are hipsters who were probably born around the time Appetite got released, all the way up to aging heads who've handed in their giant rock hair for grizzled rattails, with plenty of microgenerations in between. But why should I even find this worth remarking? The readers of Teen magazine, less than one year ago, put him at number two (behind "Grandparents") on the list of the 100 Coolest Old People…Axl Rose, who hasn't released a legitimate recording in thirteen years and who, during that time, turned into an almost Howard Hughes—like character—ordering in, transmitting sporadic promises that a new album, inexplicably titled Chinese Democracy, was about to drop, making occasional, startling appearances at sporting events and fashion shows, things like that—looking a little feral, looking a little lost, looking a little like a man who's been given his first day's unsupervised leave from a state facility. Now he has returned. The guitarists dig in, the drummer starts his I-Am-BUil-DINg-UP-TO-THE!-VERSE! pounding section, and although it may give away certain deficiencies of taste on my part, I must say: The sinister perfection of that opening riff has aged not a day.

There's only one thing to do, and you can feel everybody doing it: comparing this with the MTV thing in 2002. If you've seen that, you may find a recounting here of its grotesqueries de trop, but I say, never forget. About the guitar player Buckethead. About the other guitar player. About Axl's billowing tentlike football jersey or the heartbreaking way he aborted his snaky slide-foot dance after only a few seconds on the stage projection, like, "You wanna see my snaky dance? Here, I'll do my snaky dance. Oh shit, I think I just had a small stroke. Run away." Or the audible gasp for oxygen on the second "knees" in Sh-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees, kn[gasp!]ees. The running and singing that came more and more to resemble stumbling and squawking as the interminable minutes groaned by. The constant, geriatric-seeming messing with the earpiece monitor. I'll stop. My point is, it's different tonight. For one thing, these guys can handle or choose to handle Slash's parts. Bucket-head has been replaced by a guy called Bumblefoot (again, reporting), and Bumblefoot can shred. So can Robin Finck, formerly of Nine Inch Nails. Remember those experiments where they shot up spiders with acid? If they'd shot up storks instead, and one of the storks had broken loose and dressed in womany wizard's clothing and learned how to play guitar, that'd be Robin Finck (but then, all extremely tall people are inherently misshapen). Listen, these guys aren't fake-booking, like happened on MTV. Everything's note for note. And although we could get into the whole problem of virtuosity as it applies to popular music—namely, that for some reason people who can play anything will, nine times out of ten, when asked to make something up, play something terrible—still, if you mean to replace your entire band one instrument at a time and tell them, "Do it like this," you'll be wanting to find some monster players.
The whole arc of the show has this very straightforward plot, and I hope my crudity is in the service of truth-telling here: It's a battle between the dissonance of seeing all these guys who were not in Guns N' Roses jumping around with Axl and playing Guns N' Roses songs—between the off-putting and even disturbing dissonance of that—and the enduring qualities of the songs themselves. The outcome will determine whether tonight was badass or "Sort of sad, but it's Axl, y'all." What happened? Well, call me a twisted fanboy, but I thought he won. His voice is back, for starters. He was inhabiting the notes. And his dancing—I don't quite know how to say this. It has matured. From the beginning, he's been the only indispensable white male rock dancer of his generation, the only one worth imitating in mockery. I consider the moment in the "Patience" video when he does slow-motion snaky slide-foot dance while letting his hands float down as if they were feathers in an airless room—one fleeting near-pause in their descent for each note that Slash emphasizes in his transition to the coda—the greatest white male rock dance moment of the video age. What Axl does is lovely, I'm sorry. If I could, I would be doing that as I walk to the store. I would wake up and dance every morning like William Byrd of Westover, and that would be my dance. And while I cannot say he is dancing as well tonight as he used to, that so fluidly are his heels gliding out and away from his center they look each to have been tapped with a wand that absolved them of resistance and weight, and although he does at particular moments remind one of one's wasted uncle trying to "do his Axl Rose" after a Super Bowl party, he is nevertheless acquitting himself honorably. He is doing dammit just dropped a bowling ball on my foot spin-with-mike-stand dance; he is doing prance sideways with mike stand like an attacking staff-wielding ritual warrior between-verses dance. And after each line he is gazing at the crowd with those strangely startled yet fearless eyes, as though we had just surprised him in his den, tearing into some carrion.


Very-near-verbatim exchange with my wife, Mariana, June 27, 2006:

HER: What?

ME: Oh, my God. Axl just bit a security guard's leg in Sweden. He's in jail.

HER: Is that gonna affect your interview with him?

ME: No, I don't think they ever really considered letting me talk to him… Biting somebody on the leg, though—it forces you to picture him in such a, like a, disgraced position.

HER: Does anybody help Axl when that happens?


I'd been shuffling around a surprisingly pretty, sunny, newly renovated downtown Lafayette for a couple of days, scraping at whatever I could find. I saw the house where he grew up. I looked at his old yearbook pictures in the public library. Everyone had his or her Axl story. He stole a TV from that house there. Here's where he tried to ride his skateboard on the back of a car and fell and got road rash all up his arm. He came out of this motel with a half-naked woman and some older guys were looking at her and one of 'em threw down a cigarette, not meaning anything by it, but Axl freaked out and flipped 'em off and they beat the crap out of him. Hard to document any of this stuff. Still, enough Wanted On Warrant reports exist for Axl's Indiana years to lend credence to the claim that the city cops and county troopers pretty much felt justified, and technically speaking were justified, in picking him up and hassling him whenever they spotted him out. One doubts he left the house much that they didn't spot him, what with the long, fine, flowing red hair. Must have been sweet to be Axl.

I went to the city cops. They've mellowed along with the town. In fact, they were friendly. They found and processed the negatives of some heretofore unknown mug shots for me, from '80 and '82, the latter of which (the one where he's shirtless) is an anonymous American masterpiece. Then the ladies in the records department rummaged some and came back with this report, which I've never seen mentioned in any of the bios or online or anything. It's written by an officer signing himself "1—4." I took it back to the Holiday Inn and spent the rest of the afternoon reading. Let's call it The Sheidler Incident. It begins:

AGE: 18; HEIGHT: 5'9"; WEIGHT: 149

Here's how it all went down that day—allegedly. I'm about to cherry-pick the pivotal bits. A little kid named Scott Sheidler was riding his bike in front of an older kid named Dana Gregory's house. He made skid marks on the sidewalk. Dana Gregory ran out, picked Scott up under the armpits, kicked over his bike, and ordered the boy To get on his hands and knees and scrub the skid marks off the sidewalk. The kid went squealing to his old man, Tom Sheidler. Tom Sheidler went to Gregory and asked if it was true, what Scotty had said. Dana Gregory said, "Yes and I'm going to beat the fuck out of you." The mom, Marleen, ran up to the scene and began to shout. Around the same time, Bill Bailey appeared, red, green, slender, and fair. And here I need to let the report take over, if only temporarily, as I can't begin to simulate its succinctness or authority:

M. Sheidler stated that Bailey was also arguing with Sheidler and that he was using the "F" word in front of her kids. M. Sheidler stated that she went up to Bailey and pointed her finger at Bailey and told him not to use the "F" word in front of her kids. M. Sheidler stated that Bailey, who has a splint on his arm, then struck her on the arm and neck with the splint. I looked at M. Sheidler and could see some red marks on her arm and neck which could have been made by being struck.

This matter of which hand it was subsumes the narrative for a stretch. Marleen Sheidler says "with the splint," and little Scott says "with a splint," but Dana Gregory's younger brother Chris 15 says "with the opposite hand that his splint is on" (adding that Bailey struck Sheidler in response to "Sheidler Strikeing [sic]" him). Bill Bailey himself then goes on to say that he "struck M. SHEIDLER in the FACE with his LEFT HAND the hand with out the SPLINT." Once again, this only after "MARLEEN SHEIDLER struck him in the face" (though seconds earlier, by his own admission, he'd told her "to keep her fucking brats at home"). The story ends with a strangely affecting suddenness: "BAILEY stated SHEIDLER then jumped at him and fell on his face, he then left and went home…"

The thing I couldn't stop wondering as I read it over was: Why were they so freaked out about the skid marks? Is making skid marks on the sidewalk a bad thing to do? It makes me think I spent half my childhood inadvertently infuriating my entire neighborhood.


Local lafayette morning rock deejay Jeff Strange, on Axl's extremely brief but long-reported fisticuffs with the diminutive and seemingly gentle designer of mall clothes Tommy Hilfiger; actually, "fisticuffs" is strong—accounts suggest that the fight consisted mostly of Hilfiger slapping Axl on the arm many times, and photos show Axl staring at Hilfiger with an improbable fifty-fifty mixture of rage and amused disbelief, like, 'Should I hurt it?':

"Man, I saw that, and I thought, That is straight Lafayette."


I found Dana Gregory. I called his stepmom. He's Axl's oldest friend and worked for him at one time in L.A., after Guns had gotten big. When I sat down at the table in the back-patio area of a pub-type place called Sgt. Preston's, he had sunglasses on. When he pushed them up into his bushy gray hair, he had unnervingly pale mineral-blue eyes that had seen plenty of sunrises. Sunrises surrounded by laughing dolphins and swirly, twirly pinwheels. He'd been there. You knew it before he even spoke. He'd done a spectacular amount of crazy shit in his life, and the rest of his life would be spent remembering and reflecting on that shit and focusing on taking it day by day. The metamorphosis of Bill, the friend of his youth, in whose mother's kitchen he ate breakfast every morning, his Cub Scouts buddy (a coin was tossed: Bill would be Raggedy Ann in the parade; Dana, Raggedy Andy), into—for a while—the biggest rock star on the planet, a man who started riots in more than one country and dumped a supermodel and duetted with Mick Jagger and told Rolling Stone he'd recovered memories of being sodomized by his stepfather at the age of 2, a man who took as his legal name and made into a household word the name of a band—Axl—that Gregory was once in, on bass, and that Bill was never even in…This event had appeared in Gregory's life like a supernova to a prescientific culture. What was he supposed to do with it? I found him intensely compelling.

I said, "Do you call him Bill or Axl?"

He smiled: "I call him Ax."

"Still talk to him much?"

"Haven't talked to him since 1992. We had sort of a falling-out."

"Over what?"

He looked away. "Bullshit." Then, after a few pulls and drags, "It might have been over a woman."
He was nervous, but nervous in the way that any decent person is when you sit down in front of him with a notebook and are like, "I have to make a two-thirty flight. Can you tell me about the heaviest things in your life? And order more spinach-'n'-artichoke dip. I can expense it."

He finished beers quickly. He used, repeatedly, without the slightest self-consciousness, one of my favorite American idioms—"Right on," spoken quickly and with the intonation a half octave higher on "Right," to mean not "That's correct" or "Exactly" but simply "Yes," as in "Hey, you like to party?" "Right on."

"Tell me about L.A.," I said. "You said you were working for him out there. What kind of stuff?"

"Fixing shit that he broke," Gregory said.

"Did he break a lot of shit?" I said.

"His condo had these giant mirrors going all around it. And every now and then, he'd take that spaceman statue they give you when you win an award on MTV and smash up the mirrors with it. Well, he slept till four o'clock in the afternoon every day. Somebody had to let the guy in when he came to fix the mirrors. Shit like that."

He told me another L.A. story, about the time Axl picked up Slash's beloved albino boa constrictor and it shat all over Axl. And Axl had on some expensive clothes. He got so mad he wanted to hurt the snake. He was cussing at it. But Slash picked up his guitar—here Gregory imitated a tree-chopping backswing pose—and said, "Don't. Hurt. My. Snake." Axl backed off.

I guess we sat there a pretty long time. He has four children and four grandchildren. When I said he seemed young for that (can you imagine Axl with four grandchildren?), he said, "Started young. Like I was saying, there was a lot of experimentation." His ex-wife, Monica Gregory, also knew Axl. She gave him his first P.A. Gregory said he talks to her only once a year, "when I have to." He said what he wants is to lower the level of dysfunction for the next generation. He told me about how he and Axl and Monica and their group of friends used to go to a park in Lafayette after dark, Columbian Park—"We ruled that place at night"—and pick the lock on the piano case that was built into the outdoor stage and play for themselves till the small hours. I'd wandered around Columbian Park. It's more or less across the street from where those boys grew up. Not twenty feet from the stage, there's a memorial to the sons of Lafayette who "made the supreme sacrifice in defense of our country," and it includes the name of William Rose, probably Axl's great-great-great-grandpa, killed in the Civil War, which I suppose was fought in defense of our country in some not quite precise, rather abstract way. And now, as Gregory talked, I thought about how weird it was, all those years of Axl probably reading that name a hundred times, not making anything of it, not knowing that it was his own name—he who one day, having discovered his original name while going through some of his mother's papers, would sing, I don't need your Civil War and ask the question What's so civil about war, anyway?

Back then, Gregory said, Axl played all kinds of stuff. He mentioned Thin Lizzy, which you don't hear done much anymore. "But the only time I ever really heard him sing was in the bathroom. He'd be in there for an hour doing God knows what. Prancing around like a woman, for all I know."
"So, what is there of Lafayette in his music, do you think?"

"The anger, man. I'd say he got that here."

"He used to get beat up a lot, right?" (More than one person had told me this since I'd come to town.)
"I beat him up a lot," Gregory said. "Well, I'd win one year, he'd win the next. One time we was fighting in his backyard, and I was winning. My dad saw what was going on and tried to stop it, but his mom said, 'No, let 'em fight it out.' We always hashed it out, though. When you get older, it takes longer to heal."

It was awkward for me, trying incessantly to steer the conversation back toward the Sheidler business without being too obvious about it. Did he honestly have no memory of the fracas? He kept answering elliptically. "I remember the cops wanted to know who'd spray-painted all over the street," he said, smiling again. "The night he left for L.A., he wrote, 'Kiss my ass, Lafayette. I'm out of here.' I wish I'd taken a picture of that."

Finally, I just grew sort of exasperated and said, "Mr. Gregory, you can't possibly not remember this.
Listen: You. A kid with a bike. Axl and a woman got into a fight. He had a splint on his arm."

"I can tell you how he got the splint," he said. "It was from holding on to an M-80 too long. We thought they were pretty harmless, but I guess they weren't, 'cause it 'bout blew his fucking hand off."

"But why were you so mad about the skid marks in the first place?" I asked.

"My dad was in construction. Still is. That's what I do. It's Gregory and Sons—me and my brother are the sons. Mostly residential concrete. My brother, Chris" (this was little CHRIS GREGORY 15, I realized, from the report, the one who probably spared Axl a battery charge by corroborating the assertion that M. SHEIDLER had struck first), "he's dead now. He was 39. A heart thing. My dad still can't bring himself to get rid of the 'Sons.' Anyway, see, we poured that sidewalk. He'd get so pissed if he saw it was scuffed up—'Goddammit, you know how hard it is to get that off?' He'd think we done it and beat our ass. So, I saw [little Scott Sheidler's handiwork], and I said, 'No, I don't think that's gonna do.' "

That was all. I couldn't get too many beats into any particular topic with Gregory before his gaze would drift off, before he'd get pensive. I started to get the feeling that this—his being here, his decision to meet with me—was about something, that we had not yet gotten around to the subject he was here to discuss.

"You know," he said, "I've never talked to a reporter before. I've always turned down requests."

"Why'd you agree to this one?" I asked.

"I wasn't going to call you back, but my dad said I should. You oughta thank my dad. My son said, 'Tell him what an asshole that guy was, Dad.' I said, 'Ah, he knows all that shit, son.'"

"Is it that you feel it's been long enough, and now you can talk about all that stuff?"

"Shit, I don't know. I figure maybe he'll see the article and give me a call. It's been a long time. I'd really love just to talk to him and find out what he's really been into."

"Do you still consider him a friend?" I said.

"I don't know. I miss the guy. I love him."

We were quiet for a minute, and then Gregory leaned to the side and pulled out his wallet. He opened it and withdrew a folded piece of white notepaper. He placed it into my hand, still folded. "Put that in your story," he said. "He'll know what it means." I went straight to the car after the interview and remembered about the note only when I was already on the plane. Written on it in pencil were a couple of lines from "Estranged," off Use Your Illusion II:



Axl has said, "I sing in five or six different voices that are all part of me. It's not contrived." I agree. One of them is an unexpectedly competent baritone. The most important of the voices, though, is Devil Woman. Devil Woman comes from a deeper part of Axl than do any of the other voices. Often she will not enter until nearer the end of a song. In fact, the dramatic conflict between Devil Woman and her sweet, melodic yang—the Axl who sings such lines as Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place and If you want to love me, then darling, don't refrain and Sometimes I get so tense—is precisely what resulted in Guns N' Roses' greatest songs. A lot of people will try to convince you that the band's street-tough image and attitude are what made them so massive. Of course, that's foolish. The "media" adore street-tough image and attitude and, via a curious circular maneuver, will frequently work to convince you that street-tough image and attitude are the reason you love some band, but you, the people of the world, tend to buy 15 million copies of a debut album because it's chockablock with hits. G N' R wrote four or five untouchable pop songs, and that's why we're still talking about them—that's why the mere fact of Axl's mounting a comeback is newsworthy. You go, 'Dude, speaking of circular! You're a widget in the whole tremendous machine that's trying to make it seem newsworthy!' Yes and I'm going to beat the fuck out of you.

Take "Sweet Child o' Mine," which, in my unassuming view, shares with the Wrens' "I've Made Enough Friends" the distinction of being the most perfectly achieved rock 'n' roll song of the past twenty years. It's not that you don't love it from the beginning, what with the killer riffs and the oddly antiquated-sounding chorus, yet a sword hangs over it. You think: This can't be everything. Come on—I mean, Now and then when I see her face / It takes me away to that special place? Then, around 5:04, she arrives. The song has veered minor-key by then, the clouds have begun to gather, and I never hear that awesome, intelligent solo that I don't imagine Axl's gone off somewhere at the start of it, to be by himself while his body undergoes certain changes. What I love is how when he comes back in, he comes in on top of himself ("five or six different voices that are all part of me"); he's not yet all the way finished with I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I when that fearsome timbre tears itself open. And what does she say, this Devil Woman? What does she always say, for that matter? Have you ever thought about it? I hadn't. "Sweet Child," "Paradise City," "November Rain," "Patience," they all come down to codas—Axl was a poet of the dark, unresolved coda—and to what do these codas themselves come down? Everybody needs somebody. Don't you think that you need someone? I need you. Oh, I need you. Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go? I wanna go. Oh, won't you please take me home?


I know the collage number gets cute fast, but I beg you to indulge me in a personal-experience thing. It's about when I drove back to Indiana with my oldest friend, Trent. We'd grown up in the same small river town and both went off to school elsewhere at about the same time, so we romanticized our childhood haunts and playmates a little, the way you do. The summer before our senior year of high school, we made a sentimental journey home to drop in on everybody and see how each had fared. This is 1991, when Use Your Illusion came out. "Don't Cry" was on the radio all the time. It turned out to be one of the more colossally bleak afternoons of my life. To a man, we'd divided along class lines. Those of us who'd grown up in Silver Hills, where kids were raised to finish high school and go to college, were finishing high school and applying to colleges. Those who hadn't, weren't. And there were these two guys from our old gang, Brad Hope and Rick Sissy. Those aren't their real names, though their real names were just as strange. Their fathers were working-class—one drove a bus and the other a concrete truck; the latter couldn't read or write. But the public elementary where we met them was mid in every sense. And there's something about that age, from 9 to 11—your personality has appeared, but if you're lucky you haven't internalized yet the idea that you're any different from anyone else, that there's a ladder in life.

We stopped by Ricky's house first. Ricky had been a kind of redneck genius, into everything. You know those ads in the back of comics that say you can make a hovercraft out of vacuum-cleaner parts? Ricky was the kid who made the hovercraft. And souped it up. He was taller and chubbier than the rest of us and had a high-pitched voice and used some kind of oil in his hair. Trent got into the University of Chicago and wound up writing a 200-page thesis on the Munich Conference, and even he would tell you: Ricky was the smartest. One time Ricky and I were shooting pellet guns at cars in the small junkyard his father maintained as a sort of sideline. We were spiderwebbing the glass. All of a sudden, Ricky's dad, who had just been woken up from one of his epic diurnal naps, hollered from the window of his bedroom, "Ricky, you'd better not be shooting at that orange truck! I done sold the windshield on that." I'll never forget; Ricky didn't even look at me first. He just ran. Dropping the pistol at his feet, he ran into the forest. I followed. We spent the whole rest of the day up there. We found an old grave in the middle of a field. We climbed to the top of Slate Hill, the highest knob in our town, and Ricky gave me a whole talk on how slate formed, how it was and was not shale.

I remember the scared, ecstatic freedom of those hours in the woods. When Trent and I found Ricky, he was sitting alone in a darkened room watching a porn movie of a woman doing herself with a peeled banana. He said, "What the fuck is that thing on your head?" I was in a bandanna-wearing phase. This one was yellow. He said, "When I saw you get out of the car, I thought, Who the fuck is that? I 'bout shot you for a faggot." We asked him what was going on. He said he'd just been expelled from school, for trying to destroy one of the boys' restrooms by flushing lit waterproof M-80s down the toilets. Also, he'd just been in a bad jeep accident; his shoulder was messed up somehow. All scabbed over, maybe? This entire conversation unfolded as the woman with the banana worked away. Ricky's dad was asleep in the next room. Retired now. We told him we were headed over to Brad's next. He said, "I haven't seen Brad in a while. Did you hear he dorked a spook?" That's what he said: "dorked a spook."
Brad had a real mustache already. He'd always been an early bloomer. When we knew him well, he was constantly exposing himself. Once I watched him run around the perimeter of a campsite with his underpants at his ankles going, "Does this look like the penis of an 11-year-old?" And it did not. Brad used to plead with his mom to sing "Birmingham Sunday" for us, which she'd do, a cappella, in the kitchen. Now he was all nigger this, nigger that. Trent was dating a black girl in Louisville at the time. Neither of us knew how to behave. Brad must have noticed us squirming, because he looked at me at one point and said, "Ah, y'all probably got some good niggers in Ohio." That's where I was living. "We're fixin' to have a race war with the ones we got here," he said. He had dropped out of high school before they had a chance to expel him. It had been only four years since we'd been sleeping over at his house, doing séances and shit, and now we had no way to reach one another. A gulf had appeared. It opened the first day of seventh grade when some of us went into the "accelerated" program and others went into the "standard" program. By sheerest coincidence, I'm sure, this division ran perfectly parallel to the one between our respective parents' income brackets. God, if I could I'd drop lit waterproof M-80s down every "tracking" program in the country. I remember Ricky and I running into each other in the hallway the first day of seventh grade and with an awkwardness that we were far too young to handle, both being like, "Why aren't you in any of my classes?" When I think about it, I never saw those boys again, not after that day.

Axl got away. That's what I wanted to tell you.


And then about three hours after I wrote that last sentence, I was sitting there thinking, Did he?


There were hundreds of blue flags draped along the south bank of the Nervión in Bilbao, and across the top of each it said GUNS N' roses. The flags were of Moorish blue, and they shook against a spotless sky that was only barely paler. Late that night, in the hills over the city, the band headlined a three-day festival, and the river valley echoed the sound so clearly, so helplessly, people in the old part of town could, if they understood English, make out the individual words, but for now Bilbao retained its slightly buttoned-up tranquillity and charm. There's a fountain next to the Guggenheim that fires bursts of water every four or five seconds, and the olive-skinned kids jump up and down in it. They just strip to their underpants and go wild, male and female, and to watch them at it was lovely. Can you imagine, in the center of some major American city, a bunch of 12-year-old girls in their panties capering in the water, their lank hair flinging arcs of droplets? Hard to say which would be greater, the level of parental paranoia or the actual volume of loitering creepy creepos. Here things seemed so sane. Axl and the boys hadn't landed yet. They were still in the air.

The district where they played is called Kobetamendi. It's high up, and from there you could see the city, the river, the spires, the flashing titanium scales of the museum. When it got dark, you could see the lights. When there aren't stages set up at Kobetamendi, it's just a large empty field with a road and, across the road, some modest farmhouses. As I reached the crest of the hill, a rap-rock band was playing. I don't "get," as they say, rap-rock, and I'm a person who's cultivated a taste for some fairly awful music. The justification for rap-rock seems to be that if you take really bad rock and put really bad rap over it, the result is somehow good, provided the raps are being barked by an overweight white guy with short hair and forearm tattoos. The women from those few little farmhouses had gathered at their fence; they leaned and mumbled and dangled their canes. One of them was one of the oldest-looking old people I have ever seen, with stiff white hair and that face, like the inside of a walnut shell, that only truly ancient women get. She and her friends were actually listening to the rap-rock, and part of me wanted to run over to them and assure them that after they died, there would still be people left in the world who knew how horrifying this music was, and that these people would transmit their knowledge to carefully chosen members of future generations, but the ladies did not appear worried. They were even laughing. I'm sure they remembered Gypsy circuses in that field in eighteen ninety something, and what was the difference, really?

Want to know how to get backstage at shows, peckerheads? Okay, I'm 'a tell you. First, find a Portuguese model. And we're not talking the kind of model who hip-hop dances in halftime shows; we're talking the kind who gets flown to Tokyo for the day. She will have brought along two friends from Lisbon, but there will be a pass waiting for only one of them. Somebody forgot to forward un correo electrónico. Now, there will be two passes waiting for you, because when you first requested the passes, you thought you were bringing a photographer, but in the event, you've come alone. Stand and listen to her and her two friends be like, "What'll we doooo?" for a while. Choose your moment. Go up to her and say, "I couldn't help overhearing that you need another pass. I happen to have an extra. I even have an extra special-access badge I can give to your friend." At this point, the model will say, in the Spanish she turns out not to speak all that much better than you, "It's a miracle!" Next, she will get you stoned. This really happens! Her friend to whom you gave the pass will boast of being the owner of the third-largest collection of Axl Rose paraphernalia in the world, and the revelation that he intends to include your spare, mint-condition media badge in this collection will lead to levels of bonhomie and group fealty beyond your prior imagination, until finally, when the security guard on the back ramp leading up to the stage, who does not even make eye contact with the Portuguese model as she floats past him, puts his palm against your chest, as if to say, "Whoa—that's a little much," she will turn around briefly and say, "Está conmigo." She will say this with about the level of nervousness and uncertainty with which she might say, to a maître d', "Smoking." Before you can thank her, you'll be watching Axl dance from such an inconceivable propinquity that if you were to bend your knees, thrust your hands forward, and leap, you would be on the front page of the entertainment section of El País the next day for having assaulted him in front of 25,000 people.

Jesus. I've been a part of plenty of virtual seas of screaming sweaty kids before, but to see one from the stage, from just above, to see that many thousand people shaping with their mouths some words you made up in your head one time while you were brushing your teeth (needless to say, I was trying to imagine I wrote them)…it's heady. Two half notes followed by two quarter notes in immediate succession, followed by a beat of silence, that's the staccato rhythm of the chant: "Guns and RO-SES, Guns and RO-SES"…Axl's pounding with the base of his mike stand on the stage in time to it. There's a kid with a beard who looks at you every ten minutes or so, puts his hands on his ears, and mouths the word "pyro." Then you're supposed to put your hands on your ears, because the explosion is about to take place ten feet away. Sometimes the kid forgets—he's busy—and then everyone goes "Aaaarrrgh!" and clutches rather than cups their ears.

There's a sort of shambling older dude next to me in a newsboy cap, with a guitar in his hands—a tech, I figure, or else someone who already knew about the Portuguese-model trick. Then he runs out onto the stage, and I'm like, "That's Izzy Stradlin."

Izzy, I'm convinced, is the reason the band sounds so much better than they did two months ago in New York. He started joining them for three or four songs the very next night and has been showing up periodically ever since. His presence—or to put it more accurately, the presence of another original member of the band—seems to have made the other guys feel more like they are Guns N' Roses and less like, as El Diario Vasco will put it tomorrow, "una bullanguera formación de mercenarios al servicio del ego del vocalista," which I'm pretty sure means something like "a noisy bunch of mercenaries in the service of the vocalist's ego." (Cognates, you know.)

The Spanish press—man, they weren't kind. They said Axl was a "grotesque spectacle"; they called him "el divo" (I intend to steal that); they talked about the endless, Nigel Tufnel-esque "solos absurdos" that he makes each of the band members play, in an effort to get the audience to emotionally invest in the new lineup (it's true that these are fairly ill-advised, as has been the rock solo generally since Jimi died). One article says that "Las fotos de Axl dan miedo," which translates literally and, I think, evocatively as "The pictures of Axl give fear," "with his goatee that gives him the look of a Texas millionaire." In a crowning moment, they say that he has "the voice of a priapismic rooster." They say he demands his room be covered in Oriental carpets and that he not be required to interact with the other band members. That he arrived on a separate plane. They say security guards have been ordered never to look him in the eye. They say the other band members also hate one another and demand to be placed on different floors of the hotel. They say he's traveling with a tiny Asian guru named Sharon Maynard, "alias Yoda," and that he does nothing without her guidance, that she chooses the people he should hire by examining their faces. But mostly the Spaniards are fixated, as have been all the European media gangs on this tour, with the secret oxygen chamber into which he supposedly disappears during the shows and from which he emerges "más fresco que una lechuga"—fresher than a head of lettuce.

I cannot confirm or deny the oxygen thing, and it's hard to say whether the constant mentions of it in the press are evidence of its being real or just a sign that people are recycling the same rumor. The manager of a Hungarian band called Sex Action, which opened for G N' R, claims to have seen the device itself, but Hungarians make up tales like that for entertainment, and anyway, I heard people in the men's room at the Hammerstein being like, "Maybe he keeps an oxygen tank back there or something—ha ha!" trying to account for the way he kept bolting from the stage—fleeing, that's how it looked—not just between songs but during them as well.

What I can tell you, based on my privileged vantage point, is that there is a square cell entirely covered in black curtains just to the rear of stage left. You cannot see as much as a crack of light through the curtains, and I kept trying. Axl runs into this thing about fifteen times during the course of a show. Sometimes he emerges with a new costume on—makes sense—but sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he goes in there when one of the guys is soloing or something—makes sense—but sometimes he goes in there at a moment when it's really weird and distracting not to have him onstage. I do not know whether Sharon Maynard is in this cell. I do not know what he does in there. If he's huffing reconstituted gas, I don't know whether it's in a Michael Jackson "This is good for me" sort of way or if he has a legitimate lung problem. I don't know anything about what goes on in the cell, only that it exists and that being in there is important to him. Past that, let's give the man some privacy. Crissakes, you people are Nosey Parkers.

I'm afraid that, overall, I can't agree with my fellow ink-stained wretches in the Old World. This show kicks much ass. He is sounding fuller and fuller. Every now and then the sound guy, just to make sure the board is calibrated, pushes his mike way up in the mix, and we hear nothing but Axl, and the notes are on. Nor is he fat. In fact, he looks pretty lithe. At one point, he puts on a rather skimpy T-shirt and sprints from one end of the stage to the other, and it is not a fat boy's sprint, with quivering man dugs, a sight from which one must turn away; it is the sprint of the cross-country runner he used to be. Dana Gregory told me Axl used to run everywhere. Just run and run. Dana Gregory said there was one time out west when G N' R played in a stadium that had a track around it, and Axl just started sprinting around the track during a song. When a security guard, believing him to be a crazed fan, tried to tackle him, Axl kicked the guy in the face. "That happened ten feet in front of me," Gregory said. And now here the bastard was, ten feet in front of me. The moon looked like she was yelling for help because some dark power was erasing her side. They brought out a piano so that he could do "November Rain," and the way they positioned the piano, he was facing me directly. Like we were sitting across a table from each other. This is as close as I ever got to him and as close as I ever wanted to get, truth be told. And what I noticed at this almost nonexistent remove was the peace in his features as he tinkled out the intro. Absolute peace. A warm slackness to the facial muscles way beyond what Botox can do, though I'm not saying it didn't contribute. His face was for now beyond the reach of whatever it is that makes him crazy.

After the final encore, he and the rest of the band ran down a ramp into the open door of a waiting van. Big, heavy men in black ran alongside them, like drill instructors. The van squealed away. Big, heavy black cars pulled out alongside the van. And then there was quiet. The Basque country.


They were the last great rock band that didn't think there was something a tiny bit embarrassing or at least funny about being in a rock band. There are thousands of bands around at any given time that don't think rock is funny, but rarely is one of them good. With G N' R, no matter how sophisticated you felt yourself to be about pop music (and let's leave aside for now the paradoxical nature of that very cultural category), you couldn't entirely deny them. They were the first band I got to be right about with my elder brother. You know what I mean? I think it was that way for a lot of people in my generation. All my life, my brother had been force-feeding me my musical taste—"Def Leppard sucks; listen to the Jam"—and now there was finally one band I wouldn't have to live down; and I recall the tiny glow of triumph, blended with fraternity, that I felt when one day he said, "Dude, you were right about Guns N' Roses. That's a good record." That was Appetite, of course. Things got strange after that. Now, I've read all this stuff that said Nirvana made Guns N' Roses obsolete. But Guns N' Roses were never made obsolete. They just sort of dimmed. What, you think if they got back together, with something even approximating the original lineup, and put out a record with, let's say, one good radio song on it, the record wouldn't sell a jillion copies? I saw that show in New York City; I saw the crowd. It would.

Closer to the case is that G N' R made Nirvana possible. When you think about the niche that Nirvana supposedly created and perfected—a megaband that indie snobs couldn't entirely disavow, no matter how badly they wanted to—G N' R got there first. They didn't get all the way there, I realize. They dressed silly. They didn't seem to know the difference between their good songs and their crap songs. But we have to remember, too, how they came along at a time when bands with singers who looked like Axl and thrust their hips unironically, and lead players who spread their legs and reeled off guitar-god noodling weren't supposed to be interesting, melodically or culturally or in any other way. G N' R were. They were also grotesque and crass and stupid sometimes, even most of the time. Even almost all of the time. But you always knew you were seeing something when you saw them.
I don't know where this new situation is headed. Velvet Revolver? Are they any good? Seriously, I'm asking. Everybody I know who's heard the leaked Chinese Democracy tracks says the album sounds like a bummer. Shouldn't the band just get back together? Don't they know how huge that'd be? But Dana Gregory told me Slash and Izzy will never play full-time with Axl again: "They know him too well."

I don't know him at all. Maybe if his people had let me talk to him, he'd have bitten and struck me and told me to leave my fucking brats at home, and I could transcend these feelings. As it is, I'm left listening to "Patience" again. I don't know how it is where you are, but down south where I live, they still play it all the time. And I whistle along and wait for that voice, toward the end, when he goes, Ooooooo, I need you. OOOOOOO, I need you. And on the first Ooooooo, he finds a note so tissue-shredding it conjures the image of someone peeling his own scalp back, like the skin of a grape. I have to be careful not to attempt to sing along with this part, because it makes me, like, sort of throw up a little bit. And on the second OOOOOOO, you picture just a naked glowing green skull that hangs there vibrating gape-mouthed in a hyperbaric chamber.

Or whatever it is you picture.

JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN is a GQ correspondent.

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