Essay

Here’s Why I’d Hate A Guns N’ Roses Reunion

Last spring, a largely unrecognizable band calling itself Guns N’ Roses did a nine-show residency in Las Vegas. At that point, six years had passed since the release of Guns N’ Roses’ most recent album, Chinese Democracy; 12 years had passed since Chinese Democracy was originally slated for release; and 17 years had passed since Chinese Democracy’s initial recording sessions had kicked off. In an interview conducted prior to those shows, Axl Rose told Revolver that he had a couple GNR albums more or less ready to go. Said Axl:

[B]asically, we have what I call kind of the second half of Chinese [Democracy]. That’s already recorded. And then we have a remix album made of the songs from Chinese. That’s been done for a while, too. But after Vegas, we’re going to start looking very seriously at what we’re doing in that regard.

That was June 2014. The Vegas shows came and went, and with them, so too did any discussion of a follow-up to Chinese Democracy. Perhaps “looking very seriously” at the prospect of those albums led Axl to determine they were not worthy of release. Perhaps they were further from completion than Axl initially believed them to be. Perhaps they never existed at all. Perhaps they’ll arrive, unannounced, at midnight tonight. Or tomorrow night. Or sometime next week, or next month. When it comes to Axl Rose, you really never know what to expect. You can’t apply logic or conventional wisdom; you can only wonder what the hell he’s thinking.

That’s not rhetorical. Seriously: What the hell is he thinking? Does he actually on some level believe the world at large has genuine interest in hearing “the second half” of the now-seven-year-old and 71-minute-long Chinese Democracy? That album was met with mixed reviews, but I can’t remember a single critic calling the thing out for being “too short.” Meanwhile, a Chinese Democracy remix album seems significantly less compelling still: It would be hard to imagine anything else quite so inessential in 2015. (Or even in 2008.)

But that’s Axl Rose for ya. In 1987, his band released Appetite For Destruction, arguably the single-best album of its decade and one of the 10 or so best hard-rock albums ever made. Since then, he has done nothing but troll. He followed Appetite with two distinct, full-priced, full-length albums — Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II — released on the same day in 1991, each one coming in at a punishing 76 minutes. (Each one!) Then there was a 17-year gap between albums, broken up sporadically by promising-sounding updates on the ever-imminent new one (its title, for instance, was announced in 1999, nine years before the LP came out). Voila: Chinese Democracy.

Axl has violently dismantled and randomly re-assembled at least half a dozen different versions of his band over the years. The band that made Appetite — i.e., the band most people are actually interested in seeing reunited today — was gone in 1990, when Axl fired drummer Steven Adler. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin left a year later, soon after the release of the Use Your Illusion albums. In 1996, lead guitarist Slash officially quit, too, three years after his final time onstage with Guns N’ Roses. Bassist Duff McKagen resigned in 1997, leaving Axl the sole remaining member from the Appetite era.

By that point, Guns N’ Roses were little more than an afterthought in mainstream consciousness, largely due to Axl’s famously paranoid, perfectionistic, and tyrannical unwillingness to compromise — even at the expense of his own career, even at the expense of his own reputation. Hell, by 1997, Axl’s reputation was basically nothing more than “paranoid, perfectionistic, and tyrannical,” and the ensuing decade did nothing to curb that perception. There’s a now-ancient music industry joke that went something like this: “We’ll get democracy in China before we get Chinese Democracy.”

Ha! But no; Axl managed to win that race. After 17 years and 44 credited producers and engineers, we finally got Chinese Democracy. And it was BATSHIT. But, like, it was pretty good, too! I mean, it still IS pretty good — I’m not gonna say it’s objectively better than Appetite or the 12 best Use Your Illusion songs (individually culled from the sadistic original total of 30), but I’m more apt to reach for it than I am those albums. Why? Because those albums are nearly three decades old and those songs might as well be The Simpsons theme or “Happy Birthday.” But Chinese Democracy has some jams that still surprise me. And that’s partly because it’s a dense, complicated album and partly because … well, because it’s batshit. Chuck Klosterman wrote a great review of Chinese Democracy, and the entire affair is best summed up by this section of that review:

On [Chinese Democracy track] “Sorry,” Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line (“But I don’t want to do it”) in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there’s gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the “Sorry” vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, “You know, I’ve weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I’m going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.” Often, I don’t even care if his choices work or if they fail. I just want to know what Rose hoped they would do.

It’s fun to listen to the album and ponder just that throughout. And even though it’s totally impossible to say with any certainty what Axl hoped to achieve with his choices, it seems reasonable to suggest that “playing to the base” was not among his ambitions. Has the man ever pandered? He’s wasted millions of dollars and thousands of hours, and forcibly exiled or alienated just about everyone in the entire world, all in the pursuit of a singular vision that culminated in a crazy, incongruous vampire voice employed on one line of “Sorry.” To the outside onlooker, that may not be particularly satisfying, but damn if it isn’t engaging and even exhilarating. Rock music today has it share of cranks, pranksters, and provocateurs, but genuine eccentrics? Those are a dying breed. Truly, Axl is more Howard Hughes than Death Grips, and for that reason, I’m ambivalent about the guy embracing any sort of bald-faced, bottom-line-oriented populism, and dismayed by the idea of a Guns N’ Roses “reunion.”

To be clear, said reunion may indeed be nothing more than an idea. It’s definitely nothing more than a baseless rumor at this point, although it’s a rumor that’s been circulating for a few months now. But over the last couple weeks, that rumor seemed to gain some traction. Most notably, Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx said in no uncertain terms that Guns N’ Roses were reuniting for a tour: “THEY ARE. EVERYBODY KNOWS.” Former GNR manager Vicky Hamilton sort of claimed otherwise, saying, “OK … was texting with Slash who is on tour [in India] … he says the GNR tour isn’t happening … so that’s all I know … your guess is as good as mine …” And whoever runs Guns N’ Roses’ Twitter is just being irritatingly coy about all of it:

Wait, seriously? Look, Axl Rose has bailed on so many actual, mutually agreed-upon, ironclad commitments that it’s deliciously insane for him (or his social-media proxy) to suggest that the press and/or public should parse a handful of disparate clues in some attempt to “read between the lines.” In response, Rolling Stone laid out a bunch of reasons why Guns N’ Roses might or might not reunite. The most convincing items in the “yes” column were:

They’d get a nine-figure payday.
Axl Rose may not be the most rational person on earth, but even he would presumably have trouble turning down the insane money he’d get for a reunion tour.

And:

Nearly every band eventually reunites.
It’s simply the fate of nearly every band to re-form, especially when all the members are living. There are just simply too many forces pulling them together and nothing keeping them apart other than stubbornness and bitterness.

Those are compelling arguments, and I’m inclined to grudgingly almost agree. Still, though … Re: the “insane money”: I don’t know anything about Axl’s finances, but I’m confident a significant (majority?) percentage of the supposed “nine-figure payday” would go directly to several teams of lawyers. As for the thing about how “nearly every band eventually reunites”:

1. That’s true, but Guns N’ Roses are not “nearly every band.” Part of what makes them unique and exciting some three decades later is Axl’s blunt refusal to follow the path taken by “nearly every band.”

2. Will this even qualify as a reunion? Yes, “all the members are living,” but per the most recent rumors, the reunited Guns N’ Roses will allegedly comprise only 60 percent of the actual “classic” Guns N’ Roses lineup: Axl, Slash, and Duff. Absent from that roster are Izzy and Adler. Also absent is Adler’s replacement, Matt Sorum, who played drums on the Use Your Illusion records. You could make an argument that Adler and/or Sorum aren’t essential components, but Izzy is non-negotiable: He was a founding member of Guns N’ Roses, and he wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s biggest songs, including “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Paradise City,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Patience,” and “Don’t Cry.” A Guns N’ Roses reunion without Izzy Stradlin would be like a Pavement reunion without Spiral Stairs — i.e., not really a reunion?

The prospect feels especially insignificant when you consider that both Duff and Izzy have played with Guns N’ Roses numerous times since 2010. Really, the whole thing feels like a wild miscalculation. Outside of hardcore fans (who’d presumably turn out for any incarnation of Guns N’ Roses), does anyone actually give a shit about seeing Axl, Slash, Duff, Dizzy Reed, Richard Fortus, and Frank Ferrer doing “You Could Be Mine” or “Nightrain” in 2015? Does anyone actually give a shit about a scant 3/5 of the “classic” Guns N’ Roses lineup reuniting at all, much less uniting anew with 4/6 of the mercenary lineup from the Vegas residency? (FWIW, Duff actually stood in on bass for one of those Vegas shows, so this whole supposed reunion more or less amounts to … Slash.)

When I say, “Does anyone actually give a shit,” I don’t mean, “Does anyone give enough of a shit to tweet their supposed excitement?” I mean, “Does anyone give enough of a shit to part with hard-earned cash?” Note to everyone involved: Don’t mistake virality for genuine interest! A Guns N’ Roses reunion announcement might make for brisk blog traffic, but come next spring, are real people going to pay $75 – $250 per ticket to sit in an arena and watch those six guys doing a two-hour selection of songs that came out between 1987 and 1991? Can they even do two hours? Ferrer is the youngest member of that band, and he’ll be 50 years old next March. Axl will be 54! Make no mistake, the reunited Guns N’ Roses would bear only a sallow, gray ghost of a resemblance to these white-hot feral maniacs:

Guns N' Roses
CREDIT: Marc S. Canter

That photo was taken backstage at the Fender Ballroom in Long Beach, California, in 1986 — five days before Guns N’ Roses signed to Geffen Records. And no matter how much you pay for tickets today, you’re never gonna see those dudes again.

Most disheartening of all, though, is what this reunion would mean for Axl Rose’s legacy: He’d be downgrading from “paranoid, perfectionistic, and tyrannical” to “acquisitive, avaricious, and cynical.” He’d be evolving from “genuine eccentric” to “just another middle-aged musician trading on nostalgia, trying to cash in while cash is still on the table.” He’d be dismissing the goodwill of every fan who dedicated serious time to Chinese Democracy, every fan who heard that spoken-sung Count Chocula accent and wondered, How and why the holy hell did he come up with THAT? After spending more than 11 years and $13 million on Chinese Democracy, he’d be disowning the thing. His magnum opus, disavowed. More than a decade of his life, tossed aside in favor of rehashing songs he co-wrote when he was 23 years old, when Ronald Reagan was in office. He’d be betraying us a little bit, but he’d be betraying himself a whole lot more.

He’d also be shutting the door on those Chinese Democracy sequels. In the case of the remix album, that’s probably a good thing. Nobody wants that. I’m not even sure anybody would release that. But I, for one, was sincerely and eagerly looking forward to hearing the “second half” of Chinese Democracy, irrespective of how the world at large might respond to such a proposition. I mean it! I didn’t expect that album to yield a vast trove of great music, but Axl Rose rarely puts his name on anything that’s not at least pretty good and inherently interesting. Furthermore, the very existence of both those albums — even if they existed chiefly in Axl Rose’s imagination — suggested an artist altogether unmoored from reality, and therefore, an artist guided by an idiosyncratic muse, an artist uninterested in making a profit or pleasing anyone.

Scoff all you like, but those choices require an almost religious-fanatical commitment; a commitment to a deluded worldview, yes, but a commitment that’s all too rare in art today. We need more musicians like batshit Axl Rose: musicians who pursue their vision at any cost, financial or personal. We don’t need more reunion tours: reprehensible cash-grabs that spurn integrity and monetize nostalgia. If caring about music is supposed to mean something — anything — we need at least a handful of unyielding, unreasonable, uncompromising iconoclasts to give it definition, to give us direction. Where do we go? Where do we go now?