|It’s probably been a long time since a GNR show was delayed by anything as innocuous as stage fright. Skid Row had left the stage more than two hours earlier, and the crowd had since been booing through two hours of vid-bites from ‘Evil dead 2’ on the overhead screens. Axl hadn’t played Indiana in three years, and sources backstage said he was « extremely nervous » in front of friends, family (and former detractors) from his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. Five minutes earlier, the men’s toilet had been full of drunken white homeys in a mood to stomp somebody because of the delay. These are GNR’s people. One kid on the beer patio groaned : « I think that when Axl lived here, he wasn’t shit - and now he’s taking revenge. » His girl was passing out. « But he’s taking revenge on the wrong people. »
A premature harvest moon sat plop in the first sticky jungle night of summer over Deer Creek music center, an amphitheater outside Indianapolis surrounded by cornfields and the smell of hay and dirt. It was still about 85 degrees for the Guns N’ Roses homecoming show, the third in their first arena tour as a headliner. The last chords of a ballistic ‘Rocket queen’, the set opener, rattled the teeth in 17000 open mouths, emptying of hysteria like when the Beatles did Ed Sullivan.
Axl prowled the stage for a moment then motioned for Slash to hold up a second. I have never heard an outdoor crowd roar so loud, for so long, in response to so little.
« You fuckers been waitin’ a long time tonight, huh? » he growled in his natural voice (not the ‘arena voice’ of Sebastian Bach).
He looked down briefly, then barked something to the effect of : « This stage here, in Indianapolis, Indiana, this time around, is the finest fucking stage in the world that I could ever walk.....because I grew up in this state for two-thirds of my life. It seems to me that, basically, there are a lot of fucking scared old people in this fuckin’ state and for two-thirds of my life these motherfucking old people tried to hold my ass down. »
Axl’s impromptu screeds are the stuff of legend, and the 1991 tour has been peppered with tongue-lashings at Geffen records, SPIN, Rolling Stone, people in the audience who throw shit, critics, teachers, cops, et cetera.
But Axl struck a nerve in Indiana. Deer Creek was seized by an emotional warp. W. Axl Rose, the undisputed heavyweight champion of faux-pas, reached out and told every kid in the Midwest that he or she each shared a common enemy with Axl.
That maybe they were all underachievers - but only on a scale devised by aliens from another generation. It was instantly clear that this shared sense of alienation is why GNR are the biggest band in the US. The crowd exploded with a noise that completely drowned out the PA.
« So I don’t know nothing about Iraq [loud boos] ; I lived in LA ten years already and that don’t mean shit. But I know what the fuck’s going on out there and this band’s one of the only things these kids got. »
Axl shrieked into an unimaginable version of ‘Out to get me’, with the rest of the band smiling and anyone who’s ever had a moment of self-doubt firmly planted in his back pocket.
Their Indiana homecoming show was magic. Axl did little sashaying (mostly because of a leg cast, the result of a misstep at the Ritz in New-York), cut the clichés, and dipped directly into the gestalt. Slash, the best indicator of the band’s tepid-to-torrid mood swings, ripped like he had some kind of black demon up his ass and lavished almost religious energy on the elegant flamenco melody in the new song, ‘Double talkin’ jive’.
This band has sucked shit more often than not since it curtailed live appearances after the fiasco at the October 1989 Rolling Stones shows at the LA Memorial Coliseum - where slurs against « immigrants », « faggots » and « niggers » in the song ‘One in a million’ brought on a confrontation with Living Colour, and Axl and Slash’s onstage discussion of heroin problems sent most of the beautiful people and « huge industry giants » (the band’s words) packing to more politically correct camps. They gave ragged performances at the January 1991 Rock in Rio festival and the April 1990 Farm Aid 4, where they played only two songs.
Worse, they ripped off over 6000 of their most die-hard fans while warming up for the 1991 tour with three floundering small-theater shows in San Francisco, LA and New-York. Those shows were plagued by aborted songs, delays and costume changes, and were excused onstage as « live rehearsals ».
After raging through ‘Welcome to the jungle’ in the encore at Deer Creek, a visibly exhilarated Axl mused : « I’m thinking back to a gig we played once in LA, at a club called the Troubadour, and everything just went completely fucked and wrong. I asked Slash what the fuck was going on and he said : ‘I guess God doesn’t want this band to happen.’ » Axl added : « Now....[huge roar].....I’m thinking that God, he wants this band to happen. »
« Some people got a chip on their shoulder
And some would say it was me
But I didn’t buy that fifth of whiskey
That you gave me
So I’d be quick to disagree »
from ‘Out to get me’
Appetite for destruction, lyrics by Axl Rose.
The rust belt punk who became W. Axl Rose has built an empire from the chips constantly falling from his shoulder. It appears that since a very young age he has had a singular mission : to prove to himself that some piece of America would accept his mind, his obvious talent, and even his rage, without any compromise. To create a creature who was exactly who he thought he could be. And then to show us that we were the ones with the chip; we were the ones buying him that fifth of whiskey.
By now we’ve paid for a few. A knock-around kid like Axl had to rule America before his vision and his sense of self-worth were justified back home. And from that vantage point he sometimes gets beyond his petty feuding to dump bad attitude on things we’d all like changed : the hypocrisy of small-town morality ; the dysfunctional family ; the tyranny of police everywhere ; the limits of experience ; boredom.
Axl ran down that piece of America with a Cadillac. After a 1986 EP released on the band’s Uzi Suicide label, ‘Live like a suicide’, went almost unnoticed, the band wrangled a reported $75000 recording advance out of Geffen on the strength of their LA club rep and dropped the bomb : ‘Appetite for destruction’.
Through the latter half of 1987, ‘Appetite’ also languished at the low end of the Billboard charts while GNR toured like hell. Suddenly in 1988 AOR radio and MTV realized that ‘Appetite’ had gone gold without any airplay. A ground-swell of word-of-mouth metal zine support had created an underground phenomenon reminiscent of Metallica.
By August 1988 ‘Appetite’ plowed into No.1 on Billboard’s album chart, powered by ‘Sweet child o’mine’, ‘Paradise city’ and MTV’s video play of ‘Welcome to the jungle’. It stayed on the charts for almost three years and sold 12 million copies worldwide - the biggest-selling debut album of all time. A less inspired EP, ‘GNR lies’, was released in November 1988 and within a few months joined ‘Appetite’ in the top five. ‘Lies’ sold five million copies.
Axl and the rest of GNR remain as conflicted, hair-trigger, and tight in everyone’s face as ever. Their media contracts continue to be a liability. In the midst of wild success they have been variously drug addicted, paranoid, homophobic, racist, xenophobic, ruthless, violent, a threat to the liberty of the press, and a pain in the ass to almost everyone - and largely because a nation of blue-collar fans has encouraged them to take it further. To push. To prove it again every day.
Lafayette, Indiana, is a blue-collar town about 65000 small, the eastern part of the city separated by the rank Wabash River from west Lafayette and Purdue University. Not unlike many small towns, the river is a demarcation zone. One side doesn’t mix with the other, and for kids the rivalry is obsessive. The lower-middle-class residents of east Lafayette work at AE Staley’s corn syrup plants, out at the Subaru-Isuzu factory or at Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals. They fix their own cars at curbside. Axl and Izzy grew up there as Bill Bailey and Jeff Isbell. The popular conception is that west Lafayette is white-collar middle class, home of Purdue academics and professionals.
Monica Gregory runs Lafayette’s Rock Vault, the only rock n’roll clothing shop in the Lafayette area. She and her ex-husband Dana are part of a close, creative gang of about a dozen Lafayette artists and outcasts that included Bill Bailey long before he metamorphosed into Axl at age 18. Monica has turned down several interviews over the last two years, in deference to Axl and Izzy, but agreed to discuss the small-town oppression exorcised by Axl at Deer Creek.
« It’s not really a chip on his shoulder », she says. « He got hassled a lot, for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to go into it other than to say that it is legitimate. It happened to him in Chicago once - he was with my ex-husband at the time - and for very little reason, these guys started hassling them : ‘Who do you think you are? Bon Jovi?’ It was like : ‘No, leave me alone’. The guys with the ties and short hair were yelling obscenities at Axl and Dana ‘cause they got long hair. All the cops came in and basically beat the crap outta Axl.....Just because. »
Gina Siler spent three years in the eye of the maelstrom of Axl’s ambitions, rages, and adolescent scrapes with cops. She began dating Axl when she was 17 and still a senior in high school. Axl was 20 and had already bussed or hitchhiked out to LA and back twice. In December 1982 she finished high school early so she and Axl could move to LA together in her car. They lived together on and off until 1985, and were engaged to be married « about nine times » by her count. She jokingly calls herself « the missing link » because she says Axl now refuses to acknowledge her. Today Gina is a senior at the University of Arizona. She has never before been approached by reporters.
« When I met him », Gina says, remembering, « I was having my seventeenth birthday party. He had on a long trench coat, dark glasses, collar pulled up, and said he was trying to stay away from the police. I asked : ‘What happened?’ He said : ‘Nothing. They just always bother me. They always harass me, no matter where I am.’ But he would do some pretty wild things. They would go out and drink and do some stupid things, like smash windows along Main Street. »
Gina recalls that the first time Axl bussed back to visit her from LA, cops got to him before she did. « He was walking down the street, and it was probably two o’clock in the morning. From the back, he looks very effeminate, with his long hair - not common for that area - and very thin legs, and he had a long coat on. These police were making comments, making gestures, because they thought he was a woman. Until he turned around, and they were very embarrassed to find out it was a male. So they started hassling him, because they were homophobic as hell. They questioned him, and then found out it was Bill Bailey, who’d obviously been in trouble before, and threw him in jail. »
According to Gina, « He called me about three o’clock in the morning and said : ‘I’m in jail. You got to get me out.’ I skipped school the next day. And they brought him out in cuffs. Took him to court. I had to pay his bail. »
How strange that Axl would later end up sounding like a scared midwestern cop, espousing the same misdirected homophobia.
« There was so little there to do. », Gina explains. « He’d be in fights a lot. And I don’t think he’s even conscious of what he does, or how angry he gets. Somebody told me that he’s on lithium, to try and control, because he’s a manic depressive. I always thought that there was something chemical that happened to him when he was angry. That image of him sitting in that electric chair in that video ‘Welcome to the jungle’, looking crazed, says it all. That’s what he looks like when he’s pissed off. And when you see that coming at you from across a room, coming near you, it’s frightening as hell. And I’m not very big, and that made it even worse. I won’t go much into that. »
Anger and boredom threw Bill Bailey into constant tension with the law. Tippecanoe County Court records indicate that Axl spent a total of ten days in county jail as an adult over a period from July 1980 through September 1982, on charges of battery, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, public intoxication, criminal trespass, and mischief. He was arrested four times as a juvenile.
According to Monica, the gang hung out on local friend David Lank’s front porch, or at Axl’s grandmother’s house, which was right behind the frozen custard shop on the edge of Columbian Park, only a hundred yards from Axl’s house. Ironically, they often hung out on the park’s tiny stage and talked about how they might open some minds in their hometown.
« There was one really cool place called the Stabilizer », said Monica. « And David Lank’s front porch ; in Axl’s bedroom because he just had mattresses sitting around and drawing pads and his piano and you could get really artistic in whatever way you wanted to. He got a piano and put it in his bedroom and practiced. He would just sit down and play the most beautiful things - I mean, beautiful. He turned me on to Elton John ‘cause he used to do a lot of Elton John. The creative side he had was so intense », Monica adds. « And I think it grounded the little group of people that was there for I don’t know how many years even before I entered the picture. »
This circle of artists was clearly an aberration among east-siders, and included : Izzy, originally a drummer; songwriter David Lank (now in the LA band Mank rage); Dana Gregory (an artist in Lafayette); Mike Staggs (in Dumpster, now in LA; opened for GNR in San Francisco); David Pyle (musician); and Shannon Hoon (singer for Blind Melon). Monica Gregory is virtually the only one that hasn’t left for the palm-tree violence and plastic of LA.
« He came back from LA in the summer after my junior year, which would have been 82 », said Gina. « And then he spent the summer there, and we had a wonderful time. We did a lot of hallucinogenics. Wrote a lot of poetry. Did a lot of writing. Did lots of skateboarding. We’d go to parks and play Frisbee ; we always had music with us, Queen or Nazareth or AC/DC or Sex Pistols or Aerosmith. We’d go hang out at Purdue. We’d sit around in somebody’s room and do acid and paint on the walls. I had pink hair and dressed real strange. So we always had the police around a lot. One time, there was a baseball game across the street at the park, and there was almost a huge fight. And it was, like, nine or ten good ol’ boys, and then us, and nothing had happened. They just didn’t like us because we had different ideas. » « Axl and David Lank had designed this huge banner; they wanted to call the band Axl. Izzy was already in LA - there was this idea of things they wanted to do, but for a long time, Izzy and Axl just didn’t click. »
Izzy had graduated from Jefferson high school in 1979 (the only one of the original Gunners to get a diploma) and moved to LA in 1980.
« The people back in Indiana, they missed out on something that I got to experience », says Gina. « I lived with him during that period of ‘Bill’ to ‘Bill Axl’ to ‘Axl’. It was the strangest thing, because some days he’d be Bill, some days he’d be Axl, some days I didn’t know who the hell he was. I didn’t know what to do, because I didn’t know what person he was. For a long time he tried to dispel the fact that he had ever lived in the Midwest. He was trying to build an image, and a persona of a musician he thought he wanted to be. And sometimes I find it ironic that that thing which he tried most to get away from is what he’s trying most to go back to. »
« He is extremely intelligent », insists Gina. « That was one of the things that attracted me to him. He is just a nit-picky perfectionist and when things don’t go smoothly and to his liking he just loses it. He blows up. I’ve seen him do it on many occasions, smashing things and breaking things and yelling and screaming - holes through walls. Seen him do it one too many times. »
Gina and Axl left Lafayette for good in her car on December 19, 1982 and moved into « some shit hole » at 1921 Whitley Avenue in Hollywood.
« He knew he wanted to be in a band. He was made to be a musician. I went to West LA Community College, and had some cheesy part-time job somewhere. We lived there for five months, and then I moved out. He stayed there, and then Izzy moved in for a while. In fact, while we were living there he got into the band Hollywood Rose. » It becomes apparent that neither Axl nor any of the other future Gunners lived « on the streets » as much as they would like us to believe. « There were times when he would take my car to practice », says Gina. « I would help him do his make-up. No, he didn’t live on the streets entirely. I helped him out quite a bit. I don’t think he likes to think about that, though. There were times, granted, when he lived on the streets after I’d kick him out because I got tired of trying to support the both of us, and I got tired of fighting. I would describe the two of us as putting a nuclear warhead in your living room and hitting it with a hammer and just waiting. That was what the two of us together were like. »
Gina says she bought him the rose tattoo for his birthday - the one that reads ‘W. Axl Rose’ and sealed his identity in blood. Another Lafayette pal bought Axl his first PA system for Christmas years earlier ( on condition that he bring it back when he became a star, which he did). Members of that Lafayette Commune have remained GNR satellites to this day. But a few, including Gina, were disgusted by Axl’s flickering vision once the star-maker machinery kicked in for real around late 1985.
During the years 1983 through 1985, Axl networked and petulantly threatened to dye his hair black or blond. On many occasions he also threatened to cut it off and go back to school and become a ‘suit’. Axl and Gina « didn’t do drugs then », she says. « He exercised a lot. We didn’t have any money to do anything. »
Gina returned to LA from Phoenix to visit Axl at the end of 1985. « It was a huge apartment. And these people were just sleeping everywhere. I remember Axl and some other guy - I can’t remember his name - picked me up at the airport. I was really pissed because they were doing heroin. Really pissed. God, that weekend was awful. All we ever did was fight. I shouldn’t even tell you this, but when I went to see him before ‘Appetite’ came out, and all he said to me was, ‘ I can’t wait until this album’s done, because I want to lock myself in a room for six weeks and do heroin’ ».
Gina and others point to the recent single, Civil war, from the George Harrison Romanian relief album, performed at Farm Aid IV, as a hopeful sign that Axl and GNR might have survived megadecadence with part of their more positive vision intact. But many of the band’s hometown critics simply see them continuing a hard spiral into madness and decadence.
The Indianapolis Star sent reviewer Marc D. Allan to the show at Deer Creek. He seemed to completely miss the point of Axl’s soliloquy on Indiana, writing : « Some people don’t know when to shut up. And Rose, immensely talented though he is, is one of those people. He ought to get over it. There are people with real problems out there, and the meager gripes of a millionaire rock star don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. »
I would argue that they do amount to a hill of beans. The only beans that count to the young and inspired. I was driving in Lafayette one noon with a dude named Chad from a local band, Vexatious. I asked him in what way Axl and Izzy were an inspiration.
« More of an inspiration are all the hundreds of dickheads around here who say people like me will never make it. They just scoff and go like ‘Oh yeah. Sure.’ They think I’m the asshole. That makes me practice twice as hard, play twice as much, work to make it. I ain’t even gonna look back. »
Thanks to Laura for this article!