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Hardly anyone believes in Axl Rose anymore, but I do. The paranoid Guns N' Roses frontmanwho's burned through $13 million and well over a full decade tweaking his quagmire of a comeback album, Chinese Democracydoes whatever he pleases, even if that means doing nothing at all.
In the late '80s, Rose's wedding of classic-rock fantasy and urban realism produced the Sunset Strip's definitive perversion of the American Dream, Appetite for Destruction. Onstage, his hypnotic snake dance seduced legions of landlocked Middle American prisoners. I fell for Axl too. My Indian parents had left Bombay for Los Angeles in 1967 (long before Rose would arrive from Indiana), but his stories of urban survival seemed to echo their own cautionary tales. If Axl taunted Iranians on the admittedly repellent "One in a Million," maybe it was because he felt like a foreigner too.
But not long after 1991's messy Appetite follow-up double album Use Your Illusion I and II, GNR imploded, and Rose retired to his Malibu estate, trailed by a trickle of "What Happened to Axl?" articles that questioned his sanity. An endless stream of New Year's Eve shows (often in Vegas) and quickly, disastrously canceled comeback tours has plagued loyal fans ever since. At 2002's MTV Video Music Awards, Rose seemed out of tune, out of breath, and out of time, resplendent in an oversize sports jersey and cornrows. Chinese Democracy, meanwhile, remains a legendary nonentity, the modern age's all-purpose synonym for "broken record."
Well, get ready to protect your ears, because it's Axl-shooting season again. GNR is playing four sold-out shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom starting Friday night, before kicking off a European tour later this month. There's even chatter that Chinese Democracy will finally see release this fall. In January, Rose told Rolling Stone that fans would hear new music this year, and indeed, four demos have already leaked: "I.R.S.," "Catcher in the Rye," "There Was a Time," and the best of the bunch, "Better." While the songs could use an infusion of lyrical depth and tighter arrangements, they're proof that Axl's pop instincts are intact.
Of course, anyone expecting Chinese Democracy to resurrect classic shit-kicking GNR will be disappointed. This is an Axl Rose solo album, and it showcases Rose's contributions to the old band: anger, melodrama, melody. If the danceable grunge of "Better" is any indication of Axl's intentions, this will merely be an enjoyable pop albumGNR without the grit. The bigger problem, however, is that Axl's genre splicing can often feel forced and choppy.
But before you write off Rose for all these optimistic announcements and subsequent, crushing delays, let me say this: Rock 'n' roll isn't about productivity. It's about doing whatever you want, whenever you want. Otherwise, it ceases to be a form of rebellion. Axl's idiosyncratic career confronts us with a kind of paradox: If being a rebel is your job, why work when you don't want to?
Consider the derided Use Your Illusion records. The accepted wisdom is they scatter three or four solid gems among reams of tossed-off studio jams and overproduced pop-metal. But Appetite and Illusion are two halves of a deeply American story. If Bruce Springsteen embodies the stoic working-class hero (happily serenading his wife as the factory closes), Axl plays the Boss's dysfunctional son, an angry runaway who refuses to work at all. Long overdue and wildly overbudget, the Illusions rejected the rock business as well, alienat- ing critics, fans, and even, ultimately, Axl's bandmates with an indictment of the very rags-to-riches dream that'd fascinated him on Appetite. It's as if Axl suddenly realized that his "Paradise City" was "Right Next Door to Hell," that fame was only a facade concealing heartbreak, emptiness, and disappointment. The vicious bite of the one-minute industrial set-closer "My World" reveals that at the very moment we sought to enter Axl's world, he basically wanted to throw us out. The Illusions hated us, so we hated them too.
Still, unlike Springsteen and Kurt Cobain (who both pretended to be anti-commercial), Rose has always strived to be as crassly commercial as possible while still pissing everyone off, showing up late to concerts and instigating riots when he arrives, assuming he shows up for "work" at all. "They don't like it when I let them know they don't own me," Axl told Rolling Stone in 1992. Chinese Democracy's maddeningly epic delay is the most "punk" gesture in the decade it's lasted.
So who cares if he breaks our hearts again? Axl Rose is still a rerun worth watching. Whether rock deity, psychological case study, or reality showworthy disaster, he nonetheless gives his audience what it craves most: authenticity.
Guns N' Roses play Hammerstein Ballroom May 12, 14, 15, and 17.
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