|With Guns N'Roses, he was one of the biggest - and baddest - rockers on the planet. Now his new album is a decade late (and still not completed), and his tour has collapsed amid riots and no-shows. Is Axl Rose finished?
By Nick Kent
The crass, consumer- crazy 1980s have left behind a toxic wasteland of cultural debris for us all to steer around, but one of its most dismal legacies has to be the preponderance of fading superstars from that era who simply can't accept that their golden years are now behind them.
The most obvious is Michael Jackson claiming to be the King of Pop, while his face, fanbase and personal fortune collapse before a largely indifferent world. But even he seems sane compared to Axl Rose, the politically incorrect Eminem of the 80s, the tattoo-encrusted, kilt-wearing Liam Gallagher of La-La-Land.
Though he's done nothing of consequence for a decade, Rose has not been forgotten, not least by those who experienced his volatile mood swings. The Rolling Stones will never forget the afternoon in 1989 when Rose kept them waiting for three hours for the rehearsal of a Rose-Jagger duet. Nor will Courtney Love easily blank from her mind the 1992 MTV awards when Rose stuck his face directly in front of her husband Kurt Cobain and hissed: "Tell your bitch to shut up or I'll take you down to the pavement!"
The latter incident was sparked by a condescending remark Love had made to Rose's then-girlfriend, supermodel Stephanie Seymour. In 1991, Rose had fallen madly in love with Seymour and had become extremely attached to her three-year old son Dylan, but in 1993 Seymour abruptly left Rose to marry multi-millionaire businessman Peter Brandt. According to his few current confidantes, Rose is still hopelessly smitten with Seymour: the new age psychics whom he has employed continuously over the past 12 years claim she is his eternal soulmate and that they have been together in past lives.
And in the only print interview he has given over the past 10 years, with Rolling Stone in early 2000, he stressed that the lyrics to most of Chinese Democracy, the never-ending forthcoming Guns N'Roses album, will tell his side of the Seymour affair. "I hope [Seymour's son Dylan] hears it when he grows up, if he ever wants to know the whole truth."
Dylan Seymour is already a teenager, but he's going to have to wait a while before he hears his Uncle Axl's new lyrics. A decade after it was first begun, Chinese Democracy remains unfinished. More than $10m of studio costs, more than eight separate producers, more than 20 musicians involved in endless sessions - and still the wait goes on.
Executives at Geffen/Interscope are tearing their hair out over the record's non-appearance, partly because it will be the first Guns N'Roses record with only one original member performing the songs: Axl Rose.
Rose doesn't want to be anywhere near his old cohorts these days. "It wouldn't be healthy for me," he told Rolling Stone. Rose says Slash and Duff quit of their own volition in the late 1990s, but Slash and Duff maintain they were forced to leave because Rose had legal ownership of the Guns N'Roses name and had started treating them like his backing group. "I quit because this guy's a power-crazed asshole!" Slash claimed recently.
Rose has his own version: "There was an effort to bring me down. It was a king-of-the-mountain thing. It's an old saying, 'Don't buy a car with your friends'. The old band all wanted to hold the wheel and ended up nearly driving the car over a cliff."
The way Rose sees it, he's reinventing Guns N'Roses for the new millennium because the other guys simply weren't up to it. They laughed behind his back at his healthy lifestyle and new age obsessions, drank and drugged too much in the rehearsal studio and were still content to jam on old Aerosmith riffs when Rose was trying to introduce them to DJ Shadow and Nine Inch Nails. Also, there's a multi-million dollar cheque waiting for him alone as soon as he hands the new record over.
Rose began his life on February 6 1962, his parents William and Sharon christening him William Bruce Rose. His father disappeared; Rose believes he's dead, but has claimed to the media that he sexually abused him at the age of two.
He spent his teenage years in Lafayette, Indiana, an angsty reprobate and hardened juvenile delinquent. Then in 1982, he followed former schoolchum Jeff Isbell, later known as Izzy Stradlin, to Los Angeles and the pair bounced around the Hollywood club circuit for three years, before connecting with drummer Steven Adler, his guitarist Saul "Slash" Hudson and a Seattle-born bassist called Duff McKagan: Guns N'Roses were formed on June 6 1985.
Immediately, the musical and human chemistry of the quintet proved itself a winner, but there was always violence at their shows, mostly sparked by the singer. According to Adler: "He would leave the stage in the middle of every single show we played. Or he wouldn't get there on time. I'd say, 'What are you doing?' He would kick me in the balls, which he'd done numerous times. The first week I knew Axl, he kicked me in the balls!"
In the summer of 1986, Guns N'Roses signed to Geffen records with LA-based Englishman Alan Niven as manager. Niven recalls: "From the very beginning, my relationship with Axl was often strained. His failure to show for the very first gig after signing a management contract rather set the tone. There were aspects to his behaviour that I found excessively abusive of others, even considering the difficulties of whatever might have occurred in his childhood."
From the outset, Niven had to confront band members who'd become addicted to hard drugs. "We used to basically kidnap them every now and then and take them to Hawaii to clean up. We'd call Slash and say, 'Interview tomorrow with Guitar Magazine, 12 midday.' He'd arrive at the office, we'd put him in a car, drive him to the airport and take him to the island. Steven Adler was the worst. He became quite tragic. I remember one time in San Francisco when Steven was rushed to hospital with an overdose. The road manager was literally running up the streets with him on his shoulders. Was Axl the less drug-addled of the five? Well, I'd say he was less unthinkingly habitual."
From 1988 to 1991, Guns N'Roses were the world's biggest, baddest and most talked-about rock band. Bad things tended to happen whenever they got together, but the negativity only made them more popular. In 1988, two fans were crushed to death as the group performed at a heavy metal festival in Donington. In 1989, Rose coerced the band into recording One in a Million - a song that depicted homosexuals as immoral disease-spreaders and the entire Afro-American population as a bunch of gold-chain-wearing thieves.
Rose's new-found notoriety also unlocked an unshakable zeal within him to become all-powerful at the expense of his co-workers. Drummer Adler was sacked in 1990. (Adler later launched a lawsuit against the band, and Rose had to pony up a hefty $2.5m out of court settlement.) A year later, Rose forced the other members to dispense with manager Niven, whose replacement, a roadie named Doug Goldstein, was best summed up by Stradlin as "the guy who gets to go over Axl's at six in the morning after he smashed his $60,000 grand piano out of the picture window. Dougie took care of all that."
Stradlin also left in 1991, disgusted by his old friend's transformation into "full-scale Hollywood power-crazy-asshole-dom". The group released two albums that year, Use Your Illusion I and II. But sessions had been long and often painful. Guitarist Slash remarked: "Axl always thinks a Guns N'Roses album is automatically a solo project for him."
These two albums sold 10m copies altogether, but it was over for Guns N'Roses as soon as Nirvana released Nevermind in the autumn of 1991. The Seattle trio quickly eclipsed Rose and his band. This was sweet revenge for Cobain, who'd been viciously running down Axl at Nirvana gigs.
"We come from small towns," Cobain said of his rival, "and we've been surrounded by a lot of sexism and racism. But our internal struggles are pretty different. I feel like I've allowed myself to open my mind to a lot more things than he has. His role has been played for years. Ever since the beginning of rock'n'roll, there's been an Axl Rose. It's just totally boring to me."
Rose and his group toured until 1993, then finished The Spaghetti Incident, an album of punk covers. Rose's final track for it was Look at Your Game Girl, a song written by criminal mastermind Charles Manson, accompanied by his gardener on acoustic guitar. It was a personal message to Stephanie Seymour. Then he locked himself away in his Malibu estate for the rest of the decade in a state of Howard Hughes-like invisibility.
Fast forward to the late autumn of 2002. The new Guns N'Roses are being unveiled to a mildly interested world as the final act on an MTV awards glitz-fest. True, there have been scattered live appearances over the past two years, but this three-song, live, globally televised performance was the real return of Axl Rose to the big ring of fame. Only everything is clearly not quite right when they finally appear. Slash's replacement is a bloke with a KFC bucket on his head and a face-mask. Stradlin's replacement is the session guitarist for N'Sync. And Rose's years as a Malibu hermit haven't improved his always precarious fashion sense: he lumbered around the stage, a ridiculous leather pork-pie hat partially covering his equally ridiculous red-haired Rasta braids.
But the biggest problem was the voice: it had lost its vibrant guttersnipe screech, the eerie sound that was the proverbial mating call for all pot-smoking teenagers in the late 1980s. Its power was diminished and much of the primal rage was gone, replaced by an uncertain desperation. Rose looked deeply frightened that night and his one new song was another terrible self-pitying dirge. Meanwhile Chinese Democracy is still not completed.
The music is finished, but final vocals have yet to be recorded because the mood has not been right or because lyrics haven't yet been written. On a website, Rose advised fans they'd be better off waiting for the resurrection of Christ: "I hear the pay-off will be better."
In November, Rose and his new playmates committed themselves to a North American stadium tour. The first show was in Vancouver. The promoter phoned Rose at 7pm on the evening of his supposed performance and discovered that the singer was still in Los Angeles, having just boarded a plane. The concert was duly cancelled, which prompted several thousand ticket-holders to riot. Rose later issued a statement in which he blamed bad weather for a delayed flight.
Then, in early December, Guns N'Roses were booked to play in Philadelphia. Tickets sold out - and exactly the same thing happened. Apparently Rose - who has yet to state his side of the story - preferred to watch a sporting event on his hotel TV. The result: the rest of the tour cancelled and every major US concert promoter determined he'll never work again.
What is this bizarre individual doing to himself? Alan Niven hazards a guess: "Maybe Axl requires hate to drive his muse. David Bowie once told him that this drove his creativity and the comment made a big impression on Axl."
Rose, meanwhile, could face more criminal negligence charges in US courts for his recent no-shows - he was convicted, fined, and put on probation in 1992 for "incitement to riot" after a concert in St Louis. Still, Axl should look on the bright side: a bit of jail-time might uncork that raging muse again, and finally put an end to the longest case of writer's block in the history of popular music.