Goodbye Guns N ‘Roses: America’s most polarizing crime, beauty, and chaos group
If there is a hard rock canon, Guns N ‘Roses is one of them. Appetite for destruction (1987) remains the best-selling debut album of all time, featuring talented headbangers, rebellious teens, stoners, classic rock DJs and Guitar Hero aficionados with the iconic hits “Welcome to the Jungle”, ” Sweet Child O ‘Mine “and” City of Heaven “. But the line-up has changed, drugs, the bloating of double albums and decadent tours, and the erratic and at times violent demeanor of frontman Axl Rose have arguably overshadowed great music. Opera music videos and the rise of alternative rock in the early 1990s also contributed to the group’s rapid decline.
Because of this duality, Guns N ‘Roses has a conflicting heritage. Are they chart-topping, die-hard rock gods with a legacy similar to the bands that inspired them the most (Aerosmith, AC / DC and the Stones)? Or are they closer to their fellow Los Angeles hard rockers from the ’80s who walked through and found success in the charts but are remembered more for the show than for the substance (Motley Crue and Poison)? Three decades later Appetite for destruction blew our minds, what does this band mean?
These are the questions music journalist Art Tavana asks himself in his immensely readable new book, Goodbye Guns N ‘Roses: The crime, beauty and amplified chaos of America’s most polarizing group. Tavana convincingly argues that Guns N ‘Roses made bones looking back. Aside from their early flirtations with hairspray, Guns N ‘Roses didn’t have much in common with their 1980s peers who aspired to replicate Kiss camp and Van Halen’s guitar pyrotechnics, and well more in common with the punk rock and bad boy blues nihilism of the Rolling Stones, both of which had flourished at least a decade before Appetite for destruction. Fans and critics (claiming) often fetishize innovation in popular music, but they embraced Guns N ‘Roses, which was essentially, Tavana says, stuck in the’ 70s.
Another blow to Guns N ‘Roses, according to Tavana, is that the group “has consistently failed to form a coherent political agenda.” Tavana addresses the controversy surrounding the racist and homophobic lyrics of songs like “One in a Million”, but spends even more ink exploring the inconsistency of the songs that seemed to initiate social problems. From “Welcome to the Jungle” to “Civil War”, the band’s catalog contains lyrics loosely In regards to major concerns – urban unrest, war, drug addiction and, ultimately, China’s role on the world stage. And yet, Tavana concludes, Axl “looked like an undergraduate struggling to find a thesis.”
Tavana also goes over a lot of the bad behavior of the group. Readers who came of age in the late ’80s and early’ 90s and / or who follow pop culture closely will likely already experience much of this alleged behavior: domestic violence, lots of hard drugs, canceled concerts. or cut short, public meltdowns, celebrity quarrels, profane and offensive words. I will not lie; it’s juicy content. But Tavana puts those familiar incidents to work, using the group’s debauchery and outrageous ethics as a foray into considering the relevance of Guns N ‘Roses in 2021. What role could the group that wrote “One in a Million” do? does it play in a culture in which many young people fight for LGBTQ rights and support #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo?
Tavana suggests that for all of these reasons, Axl “just isn’t someone American youth care to listen to anymore,” and he might be right. While Guns N ‘Roses still airs on classic rock radio, fewer rock kids seem to revere the group as much as Led Zeppelin (also not known to be so enlightened), The Beatles, The Doors, and Nirvana.
Speaking of Nirvana, Tavana offers a vivid and thoughtful account of the feud between Axl and Kurt Cobain and invites us to consider Cobain’s populism, accessibility, relevance and progressivism in conversation with the iconography and legacy of ‘Axl Rose. Again, it’s not entirely new, but Tavana’s analysis is precise and interesting.
Goodbye Guns N ‘Roses has some weaknesses. I wish I had seen more of Duff, Izzy, and Steven Adler in the book. Of course, Axl’s personality and the virtuosity of guitarist Slash are the first things we associate with Guns N ‘Roses, and those elements require the most unpacking to understand how and why the band rose and fell apart. But Duff and Izzy were arguably the architects of the band’s fusion of punk, blues, and garage rock aesthetics, and Adler was arguably the band’s most difficult life. A deeper dive into the dynamics of the group could have reinforced Tavana’s claims about the sound and style of Guns N ‘Roses.
I also got dizzy at times because of Tavana’s tendency to stack the pop culture analogy on the pop culture analogy. It is very effective in bringing cultural artefacts into dialogue, for example by comparing the aesthetics of Guns N ‘Roses to that of Quentin Tarantino, or by reflecting on Axl’s iconography in light of that of Jim Morrison. Sometimes, however, I’ve found myself wanting Tavana to stick to an analogy and see it through to its implications and resonances instead of moving to a new point of comparison. Axl is like Jim Morrison and Charles Bukowski and Martin Sheen and Salinger and Lennon and the character of Travolta in Land of battlefield. Phew!
Despite these few bickering, Goodbye Guns N ‘Roses is a compelling book of musical and cultural criticism and an important contribution to conversations about the hard rock legacy and how we view problematic art. Tavana never slips into rote platitudes on awakening or generation gaps. He approaches his subject with humor, passion and a long vision of rock’n’roll and the pop culture landscape at large.