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The lead singer and driving force behind the hard rock band Guns N' Roses, Axl Rose was one of the most polarizing figures in popular music for over three decades. To his fans, Rose's strident, assaultive vocals and lyrics tapped into a deep wellspring of fury and sadness, giving a powerful voice to their collective feelings of social exclusion on such classics tracks as "Welcome to the Jungle," "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Paradise City." Detractors viewed him as a racist, homophobic egomaniac whose paranoia and unchecked violent tendencies led to the dissolution of his original band and left a wake of broken relationships, canceled concerts and alienated followers. By 1997, Rose had gone from the heights of the rock scene to virtual seclusion while he crafted Guns N' Roses' fourth album, Chinese Democracy. Fifteen years and numerous band lineup changes later, the record was delivered, but in Rose's absence, musical tastes had changed several times over, and hard rock acts like his were no longer in vogue. The selection in 2012 of G N' R for the Rock and Roll Hall was conflicting for Rose; his singular vision had propelled the group to immortality within its chosen genre, but his perfectionism and...
The lead singer and driving force behind the hard rock band Guns N' Roses, Axl Rose was one of the most polarizing figures in popular music for over three decades. To his fans, Rose's strident, assaultive vocals and lyrics tapped into a deep wellspring of fury and sadness, giving a powerful voice to their collective feelings of social exclusion on such classics tracks as "Welcome to the Jungle," "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Paradise City." Detractors viewed him as a racist, homophobic egomaniac whose paranoia and unchecked violent tendencies led to the dissolution of his original band and left a wake of broken relationships, canceled concerts and alienated followers. By 1997, Rose had gone from the heights of the rock scene to virtual seclusion while he crafted Guns N' Roses' fourth album, Chinese Democracy. Fifteen years and numerous band lineup changes later, the record was delivered, but in Rose's absence, musical tastes had changed several times over, and hard rock acts like his were no longer in vogue. The selection in 2012 of G N' R for the Rock and Roll Hall was conflicting for Rose; his singular vision had propelled the group to immortality within its chosen genre, but his perfectionism and combativeness had also affected their chances to remain viable in a business that largely regarded him as one of its most unsavory figures.
The seeds of Axl Rose were traced to a childhood spent in turmoil and tragedy. Born William Bruce Rose, Jr., in Lafayette, IN on Feb. 6, 1962, he was the son of 16-year-old Sharon Linter and William Bruce Rose, who was 20 at the time of his son's birth. Rose Sr. would abandon the family shortly thereafter, and would be murdered before ever learning of his son's rise to fame. Rose, Jr. was instead raised to believe that his stepfather, Stephen L. Bailey was his biological father. By Rose's later accounts, life with Bailey was relentlessly oppressive, consisting mainly of church attendance and draconian restrictions of the outside world. Allegedly, Rose also suffered untold physical and sexual abuse at his stepfather's hands. Music offered his only solace - first through singing with the church choir, and later in a family group with his sister and half-brother called the Bailey Trio. He developed his expansive vocal range as part of his high school's chorus, and later sang with his first band, which included a young drummer named Jeff Isbell, who would later change his name to Izzy Stradlin and help to form the original Guns N' Roses lineup.
By his teenaged years, Rose's personality had taken on darker hues. He had discovered information about his biological father, and quickly rejected his stepfather, replacing his adopted surname with his birth name. Rose soon developed a reputation as a reckless, often out-of-control young man whose run-ins with the law eventually earned him three months in jail. At 20, he fled Lafayette for Los Angeles, hoping to start a career in music in the rock-friendly city. He eventually found Stradlin, with whom he formed the glam-rock group Hollywood Rose in 1983. Two years later, they merged with the established Sunset Strip act L.A. Guns to form Guns N' Roses, which underwent a number of personnel changes before settling on Rose, who had adopted the stage name W. Axl Rose, as well as Stradlin, drummer Steven Adler, Seattle bassist Duff McKagan, and L.A. native Saul Hudson, who billed himself as Slash.
Guns N' Roses quickly developed a reputation as one of the most hedonistic, self-destructive groups on the Hollywood club scene. Thankfully, they had also had a ferocious set of songs, largely penned by Rose, and an aggressive sound that borrowed equally from the glitter-influenced metal-pop that dominated the music charts at the time, and from harder-edged punk rock. By 1986, G N' R had attracted the attention of the major labels, and after signing to Geffen Records the following year, they released their debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987). Appreciation for the record was modest at first, but by the summer of 1988, the album was at the top of the charts, with 18 million units sold, thanks to the steamroller singles "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child O'Mine" - the latter, a ballad inspired by Rose's wife, Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers. In just a few short years, Rose and his bandmates had risen from obscure Sunset Strip rockers to one of the biggest music acts in the world. But with the success came excess, in the form of out-of-control drug and alcohol binges, missed concerts, and no follow-up record for Geffen. The label hastily issued a stopgap album, G N' R Lies (1989), comprised of old tracks and new acoustic material, which generated a major hit with "Patience." It also attracted a firestorm of controversy for Rose's song "One in a Million," which verbally lambasted African-Americans, gays and immigrants in derogatory terms. The song was the first of many negative stories circulating in the rock media about Rose's behavior; by 1991, he was proving the naysayers right.
Rose held up recording on the band's full-length follow-up to Appetite until their manager, Alan Niven, had been fired - a decision that ran contrary to his bandmates' wishes. He also dismissed Adler after the drummer's rampant drug problems caused him to miss several shows, and his marriage to Erin Everly, which had been reportedly spurred by Rose threatening to kill himself if she did not go through with the union, ended after less than a month under allegations of horrendous physical and sexual abuse. Much of the bad press was swept under the rug with the release of 1991's Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, which broke music industry records by debuting at the No. 1 and 2 spots on the Billboard album charts. By this time, Rose had rebounded personally with a high-profile relationship with supermodel Stephanie Seymour, who appeared in the music videos for the singles "Don't Cry" and "November Rain." But the old Axl Rose surfaced again as soon as Guns N' Roses commenced with its massive two-year tour to promote the Illusion records. He consistently delayed concerts, sometimes for hours, which prompted Stradlin to quit the group in frustration. Once on stage, he maintained a combative stance, ranting against his bandmates, security and even fans; at a concert in St. Louis, he dove into the crowd to confront an audience member carrying a video camera, and then abandoned the stage, spurring the crowd of 2,500 to riot. At some point during the tour, Rose forced his bandmates to sign over sole ownership of the Guns N' Roses name to him, which for Slash, McKagan and Matt Sorum, who had replaced Adler, was the final straw.
By 1992, Guns N' Roses had been largely usurped in the media by the rise of alternative rock acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Their fresh, youthful and energetic music made lumbering power ballads like "November Rain" sound like holdovers from the pop-metal era that Guns N' Roses had rebelled against with their first album. Rose's backstage fight with Kurt Cobain at the 1992 MTV Movie Awards only furthered solidified the band's irrelevance in the eyes of the mainstream media and record-buying audience. By the time the Use Your Illusion tour had ground to a halt in 1993, Guns N' Roses - as it had entered the world, brimming with righteous anger and electrifying anthems - was over. A collection of punk covers called The Spaghetti Incident? (1993) attempted to preserve the image that the band was still a cohesive unit, but it fared poorly in comparison to its predecessors, and again, generated controversy for a cover of Charles Manson's "Look at Your Game, Girl." By this time, Rose was embroiled in a series of lawsuits, from former drummer Steven Adler to Stephanie Seymour, who, like Erin Everly, alleged monstrous physical abuse by Rose. Everly herself would file her own lawsuit in 1994, and there would breach of contract, damage and injury and other legal issues to contend with.
In the midst of this maelstrom, the remaining members of Guns N' Roses either quit or were fired from the group. Stradlin's replacement, Gilby Clarke, was let go in 1994, and Slash finally severed ties in 1996. McKagan followed suit the next year, when Sorum was also handed his walking papers. Rose himself retreated to his Laurel Canyon estate, where from 1994 to 1999, he refused to grant a single interview. With rumors swirling about his fragile mental health and involvement with past-life regression therapy and New Age advisors, Rose set about to work on the official follow-up to the Illusion records: an album titled Chinese Democracy. Over the next decade, dozens of producers and musicians would enter Rose's private world to work on the album, including Queen's Brian May, Zakk Wylde, Moby, avant-garde guitarist Buckethead, Robin Finck of Nine Inch Nails, the Replacements' Tommy Stinson and many others. In 1999, a track from the newly configured G N' R called "Oh My God" turned up on the "End of Days" soundtrack. Three years later, the band took to the road for its first tour in nearly a decade. Fan response was positive, but again, Rose's erratic behavior resulted in delayed shows and a riot in Vancouver. Amidst all these changes, one thing was for certain: Chinese Democracy was nowhere near completion. For many, it had become the hard rock version of the Beach Boys' legendary Smile, which remained unfinished for nearly five decades. For the next six years, Rose would issue statements that alternately announced the delivery of Chinese Democracy or apologized for its delay.
Finally, on Nov. 23, 2008, the long-promised LP saw the light of day, eventually rising to No. 3 on the album charts, while its title track peaked at No. 34. Rose himself refused to promote the album, citing differences with his label, Interscope. But he was soon on the road with the latest version of Guns N' Roses for their first world tour in five years. In December 2011, the original lineup was announced as part of the 2012 roster of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In April of 2012, Rose announced he would not be attending the Hall of Fame ceremony, nor wished to be inducted along with his old group, citing continued personal and legal dissent within G N' R. During the ceremony held in Cleveland only a week later, Slash, Adler and McKagan accepted their award, but when present Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong mentioned their missing frontman, Rose was roundly booed by the audience. The tempestuous rocker was the first artist to publicly snub the honor since surviving members of punk rockers the Sex Pistols refused to attend the ceremony in 2006.
By Paul Gaita
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