I’m not sure why I didn’t realize sooner that I should write a novel about musicians, because now my research is watching rockumentaries and reading back issues of Rolling Stone. My fingers are crossed that I’ll get Life, Keith Richards’s memoir, for Christmas, and I’m eagerly anticipating Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon’s memoir, which is due out in February. I could not love that title any more. I can now admit that Sonic Youth was a bit noisy for me even when I was seventeen, but I still think Kim Gordon is devastatingly cool.
You know who I never, ever thought was cool? Axl Rose. By the time I was really into music, Nirvana had arrived and Guns n’ Roses seemed excessive and shallow. But I can’t get this 1992 Axl Rose interview from Rolling Stone out of my head.
For a little context, GNR released Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II in 1991. The first of these albums brought us “November Rain” and also “Back Off Bitch.” There was a lot of strife and drug use in the band during the tour, and then they followed it up in 1992 by embarking on a stadium tour with Metallica. Axl had not yet been sued by two women for abuse, but that would come soon. The band was notorious for going on hours late for shows and for picking fights with fans, inciting a riot in St. Louis.
The full interview is here, and it’s a great read. It was hard to pick highlights, but they’re below. There’s a lot of talk of regression therapy I didn’t include, but, well, wow.
Axl on performing
I mean, do you want to go out every night and jump off, like, your car? And have to do that? It’s like it becomes your job. That doesn’t take away the sincerity or the honesty of it, but it is a job. And sometimes I’d rather be doing something else.
So why does he do it?
The release of the energy.
Axl on women
- Basically, I’ve been rejected by my mother since I was a baby. She’s picked my stepfather over me ever since he was around and watched me get beaten by him.
- I’ve been hell on the women in my life, and the women in my life have been hell on me.
- [M]y mom’s pregnancy wasn’t a welcome thing. My mom got a lot of problems out of it, and I was aware of those problems. That would tend to make you real fucking insecure about how the world felt about your ass.
On watching his mother being abused by his father when he was two
- I basically put thoughts together about how sex is power and sex leaves you powerless…
- My growth was stopped at two years old. And when they talk about Axl Rose being a screaming two-year-old, they’re right. There’s a screaming two-year-old who’s real pissed off and hides and won’t show himself that often, even to me. Because I couldn’t protect him. And the world didn’t protect him. And women didn’t protect him and basically thought he should be put out of existence.
On his reputation
- If you’ve got a problem with me trying to deal with my shit and doing the show the best I can, then just don’t come, man. It’s not a problem. Just stay the fuck away. Because you’re getting something out of it, but I’m also there for myself. I’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot of work to do. I’ve done about seven years’ worth of therapy in a year, but it takes a lot of energy. And Guns n’ Roses takes a lot of energy. It’s a weird pressure to try to deal with both at the same time. And I’m gonna do it the best I can when I can and how I can. And I’m the judge of that – not anybody in the crowd.
- I guess I like who I am now. I’d like to have a little more internal peace. I’m sure everybody would.
Why I keep rereading it
He’s a fascinating character. He’s intelligent and talented. He thinks he’s self-aware, but he comes off as delusional. He understands he has a real problem with women. The line about being hell on women and women being hell on him chills me, but it’s also kind of begging to be turned into a song lyric. In many ways, he’s put his finger right on the problem but can’t manage to change. His explanation of why he performs, when it seems to be such a burden, is reminiscent of the way the profilers talk about the release serial killers get from killing on Criminal Minds, a show I watch way too much of because there are nearly infinite episodes available on Netflix and it’s almost good.
Axl’s grandiosity is overwhelming. He thinks concertgoers want the best version of Axl, even if they have to wait in a stadium with masses of people for hours for it. If they have to go to work in the morning, that’s their problem. He’s done seven years’ worth of therapy in one year because he’s exceptional in every possible way. It’s easy for me to make fun of him, and to hate him, knowing what we know now about his tendency to assault the women he was supposed to love.
But it’s also clear to me that he had an awful childhood. Whether or not every detail is accurate (I have trouble believing things he remembers from the womb), bad things happened. His mother was sixteen when he was born, and he tells a story of always knowing he was unwanted. His dad split early on, and his stepfather wasn’t an improvement. It’s sad to think of any child growing up feeling unloved or being physically abused.
That doesn’t mean it’s okay that he assaulted women. Far from it. But I’m interested in how people turn out to be the way they are, in how character is formed. I’m also interested in how people rationalize their actions. And for the novel I’m working on, I’m interested in what fame does to people. The rock star I’m writing isn’t Axl Rose, but in one way or another, I’m using this.