The Anniversary

Reinventing Axl Rose Turns 20

No Idea
No Idea

Have you ever held a Molotov cocktail? I never have. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a Molotov cocktail in person. The appeal of the Molotov cocktail is that it’s a weapon that anyone can make and use. It’s not a grenade — an instrument manufactured specifically to damage and kill. It’s simply a matter of taking everyday items and refashioning them into an instrument of destruction. It’s the weapon of the underclass, the downtrodden, the people with nothing to lose. There’s a lot of romance and fantasy associated with the Molotov cocktail, just as there is whenever any oppressed group rises up against its oppressors. It’s a tactical tool, but it’s also a symbol. The image of the Molotov cocktail instantly conjures more images — of the Spanish Civil War, the Winter War, the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Right now, the Ukrainian government is telling its citizens to use Molotov cocktails on invading Russian forces.

On “Baby, I’m An Anarchist,” the most enduring anthem from Against Me!’s debut album Reinventing Axl Rose, Laura Jane Grace uses the image of the Molotov cocktail as a point of pride: “You believe in authority/ I believe in myself/ I’m a Molotov cocktail/ You’re Dom Perignon.” “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” is a friendly-fire song. It’s a song directed at a “spineless liberal” who wants societal change but who refuses to burn or smash to achieve it. It’s a shot at anyone who thinks that it’s possible to work within the system to change that system. Grace snarls, “You believe in the ballot/ You believe in reform,” and it’s clear that she intends those lines as accusations. The song’s target might be on the same side, but they’re not ready to make a full commitment: “When it came time to throw bricks through that Starbucks window, you left me all alone.” For the narrator, that’s not going to work. You have to be ready to throw those bricks, too. You have to be a Molotov cocktail.

I never want to use a Molotov cocktail. I’d be scared of the fucking thing. I drop my phone all the time, but the worst that ever happens with that is I crack my screen. (My screen is always cracked.) If you drop a Molotov cocktail, you light yourself on fire. I’m not willing to run that risk, which means “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” is a song about me. Maybe it’s a song about you, too. It’s a militant song, a song for people with unrealistic standards. The Laura Jane Grace who first belted out “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” might sneer at most of the people who currently enjoy “Baby, I’m An Anarchist,” but that’s part of the song’s appeal. Even if you’re a living avatar of lazy and complacent bourgeoise complacency, the fire-eyed clarity in “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” still sings.

That fire-eyed clarity is all over Reinventing Axl Rose, an album that will turn 20 tomorrow. Reinventing Axl Rose is an record written and sung from an extreme perspective, and it conveys that perspective with grace and passion and a sense of collective catharsis. It’s an album that invites us in and offers that perspective to us. It turns that extreme perspective into something romantic.

An album like Reinventing Axl Rose could only be the product of certain conditions, and most of those conditions have to do with Laura Jane Grace’s own background. Grace was a military-brat kid who lived on the move all through her childhood. In high school, Grace’s mother left her father and took Grace to live with her grandmother in the South Florida city of Naples. In Naples, Grace was angry and isolated and alone. She started messing with alcohol and drugs. She got arrested for bullshit reasons. She dropped out of high school. She didn’t yet realize that she was trans, or even what that might mean. (She came out more than a decade after releasing Reinventing Axl Rose.) Amidst all of that, Laura Jane Grace discovered punk rock.

Grace recorded her first Against Me! demo on a four-track in her bedroom when she was 16. At the time, Against Me! was strictly a solo project, not a band, but Grace wanted it to be a band. In those early days, there was a sort of folk-troubadour quality to Grace’s music, but it was more through necessity than design. Grace wrote big, rousing melodies, and she screamed them with all the force that she could conjure. But Grace was working on her own. When she started playing shows, she got a friend to play drums, but that friend didn’t own a drum kit. He played on overturned buckets instead. It’s the Molotov cocktail principle: You use what you have to do as much damage as you can.

Against Me! became a band in fits and starts. Grace moved to Gainesville, a city with a proper punk-rock infrastructure. She lived in punk houses and scraped by on scabby part-time jobs. She toured up and down the East Coast, playing punk houses to audiences of punks. She found other punks who wanted to be in her band, though the band’s lineup remained in constant flux for years. Against Me!’s first self-titled EP came out in 2000 on Crasshole Records, a collective-run Baltimore label that, if Discogs is to be believed, only ever put out four records. (When I was in high school, I got members of the Crasshole Collective to come talk about anarchism at my school. They said that they half-expected to get arrested when they showed up.) The band’s second EP came out in 2001 on Plan-It-X Records, an Indiana DIY label that actually had some reach and distribution.

As Against Me!’s audience grew, so did their sound. In those EPs, you can still hear that the band began as a solo-acoustic project. Laura Jane Grace wrote big, simple, linear riffs and twisty, self-aware lyrics. Even when the music is crude and slapdash, her songs resound as anthems. Her voice was a ragged roar slightly offset by her bandmates’ whoa-oh-oh backing vocals. Grace would write lyrics that crammed in tons of words, often without regard for meter or rhyme, but she had enough charisma and conviction to deliver them with force and authority. I didn’t encounter those early records when they first came out, but the people who did hear those records must’ve known that they were hearing something special.

Against Me! couldn’t stay secret for long. Gainesville had big punk bands like Less Than Jake and Hot Water Music, and it also had No Idea Records, the label that had released both bands’ early records. Against Me! essentially followed the same path. When they were ready to make an album, they recorded Reinventing Axl Rose locally and released it on No Idea. A bunch of friends helped out on the many gang-vocal parts. Much of Reinventing Axl Rose is preaching-to-the-converted stuff. It’s an album by punks, for punks, about being punk. That’s how a lot of the best punk albums work.

The title and cover art naturally got a lot of attention. I first encountered Reinventing Axl Rose as a back-cover Punk Planet ad, and it attracted curiosity: Axl what now? At the time, Grace explained the title as an attempt to “deconstruct the rock star.” But it’s a little more complicated than that. Reinventing Axl Rose is not the same thing as destroying Axl Rose. Laura Jane Grace had loved Guns N’ Roses as a kid, and that cover art is at least a little worshipful. On the album’s title track, Grace envisions a punk utopia where basements and bookstores replace arenas: “Just gimme a scene where the music is free/ And the beer is not the life of the party/ There’s no need to shit talk or impress/ ‘Cause honesty and emotion are not looked down upon.” (Those lyrics look painfully awkward on paper, but Grace delivered them with serious verve, always overcoming all awkwardness.)

Reinventing Axl Rose is an all-or-nothing album. Whether or not she’s singing about throwing bricks through Starbucks windows, Grace brings a zealous intensity to everything. To her, friendships shouldn’t be casual: “I don’t feel anything unless we are living and dying for each other every second of our lives.” Her home state is a trap that must be escaped at all costs: “If Florida takes us, we’re taking everyone down with us/ Where we’re coming from, yeah, will be the death of us.” Punk itself is an elevated state to chase constantly: “If it doesn’t matter now, then it never really did/ And without this we might as well be dead.” Apathy and complacency are evils to be eradicated. If you’ve got a fire burning inside you, you need to throw wood and gasoline on that motherfucker every single day.

The music reflects all of that. The songs don’t fit into any particular genre, though a whole lot of other bands came along soon after and attempted to replicate what Against Me! had already done. The songs are raw and simple, and Grace screams more than she sings, but the tempos are sturdy and midtempo. The songs sound like marches, and the choruses demand to be screamed en masse. If you’re trying to write an anthem, then your “I” needs to sound like a “we.” Not many people can pull that off. Laura Jane Grace always could.

Reinventing Axl Rose sounded like a classic right away — an album bursting with purpose and charisma and fury. Grace emanated such zealous idealism that the people who loved the record couldn’t help but feel betrayed by anything that Against Me! might do afterwards. When Against Me! became a cult sensation, the band moved from No Idea Records to the bigger indie Fat Wreck Chords, and they pissed off a pretty healthy chunk of their fanbase in the process. In the years that followed, Against Me! kept pissing off the people who imagined them to be an exemplar of something or other. They eventually moved to a major label, got MTV play, and even played arenas — not as headliners, but as an opening act for bands like Green Day. But they never stopped writing anthems, and they never lost their sense of purpose. Eventually, Against Me!’s anthems took on new forms of resonance, especially after Laura Jane Grace became one of the first prominent musicians to come out as transgender. You can only hear hints of that future in a few odd Reinventing Axl Rose lyrics. Twenty years later, though, Reinventing Axl Rose still feels hot and angry and dangerous — a Molotov cocktail in musical form.

more from The Anniversary