Axl grew up in Lafayette, Indiana as the adopted son of a Pentecostal preacher in whose care he experienced a truly merciless form of Christianity, if it can even be called such. All Law and no Grace, in other words, the sort of Bible church situation which majored in behavior control and church attendance, attempting to keep the lid on the human condition so tightly that it caused vicious splits in the lives of its followers. Axl once described it as follows:
“My particular church was filled with self-righteous hypocrites who were child abusers and child molesters. These were people who’d been damaged in their own childhoods and in their lives. These were people who were finding God but still living with their damage and inflicting it upon their children. I had to go to church anywhere from three to eight times a week. I even taught Bible school while l was being beaten and my sister was being molested. We’d have televisions one week, then my step-dad would throw them out because they were satanic. l wasn’t allowed to listen to music. Women were evil. Everything was evil. I had a really distorted view of sexuality and women. I remember the first time l got smacked for looking at a woman.”
So Axl is sadly the product of the worst kind of religion: ultra-bootcamp Pelagianism compartmentalized to the point of cruelty (not to mention completely at odds with its founder). It wouldn’t be a leap to say that the distance that young Axl had to travel to escape, both geographically and lifestyle-wise, correlates pretty closely to the toxicity of his circumstances in Lafayette. As soon as he could, and after finding out that the preacher in question wasn’t even his biological father, he hopped a bus to LA, following his friend Izzy Stradlin, where he proceeded to dive headfirst into one of the more decadent scenes in the country. Or so the story goes. We all know that strict parents often produce rebellious kids, that the Law does indeed tend to increase the trespass, but still, there is only one Axl Rose. And his story just begins there.
Once in LA, he began singing in bands (a skill he’d learned in church, ironically), and eventually found his way to the rest of the guys in what would become Guns N Roses, a group of fellow outcasts who shared not only his dereliction, but (some of) his talent, and with whom he would experience heretofore unknown degrees of acceptance, affirmation, inspiration and let’s face it – love. Freed of his constraints and surrounded by a relatively supportive environment, the creativity exploded. The five band members lived together in a single room and wrote their first album there; believe it or not, Appetite for Destruction is one of those rare rock n roll collaborations where ego didn’t play a big role. In fact, all of the songwriting credits were split between the five members, virtually unheard of in these situations.
Still, as glorious as the music and songwriting on Appetite is, it would be far less so were it not for Axl’s utterly charismatic persona; he was a natural born rock star if ever there was one, emerging fully formed from the opening scream of “Welcome to the Jungle.” The record is a veritable barrage of his preternatural talent. His lyrics are in turns biting and poetic, never dumb, and occasionally even flashing some of the intellectual bent he would showcase on Use Your Illusion. He could communicate unbelievable rage one minute (I don’t think I’d ever been afraid of a rock song before I heard “Out To Get Me”…) and real sweetness the next (“Think About You”). His attitudes toward women were nothing short of schizophrenic, from unlistenable misogyny one song (“My Michelle”), to worshipful adoration the next (“Sweet Child O Mine”), and sometimes both in the same song (“Rocket Queen”). These contradictions, which would find full expression on Use Your Illusion, work together to provide a stunning portrait of human conflictedness. And while there was no explicit religious content – beyond the cross on the cover, that is(!) – there was certainly a religious subtext. The world is portrayed as a predatory malevolent jungle, deeply regressive in nature (“things get worse here everyday”) which produces an honest-to-god yearning for salvation in human beings, aka Paradise City aka HOME. It’s all there.
Axl could sell the wildly divergent thematics because 1. They were genuine/true to life and 2. He possessed an absurdly dexterous voice. The response to Appetite was rapturous, of course, and never to be repeated by anyone, ever (it remains the top-selling debut record of all time). The authenticity and artistry leapt out of the speakers, casting a pall on the many pretenders who made up the LA hair-metal scene, and fixing itself in the hearts and minds of several generations to come.
Unfortunately, for guys who seemed to care so little, the members of Guns N Roses would soon begin to care far too much. And as Axl would come to find out, he had not escaped the crushing power of judgment – it had merely been silenced for a short period. It would come back soon, wearing non-religious clothes and ready to use his own success against him. It was a battle he would lose, but a battle that no one has ever won. Except for perhaps one guy, a long time ago.