When I learned that Guns ‘N Roses was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame late last year, my first thought was of watching the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert as a kid. In between songs they had interviews with the performers, one of whom was Axl Rose. When asked about Queen, Axl looked directly at the camera and said:
When I was young, people would tell me that rock music was bad, that it was not art. Queen was my proof that these people were wrong.
I remember instantly believing Axl Rose. He was right about Queen—but it seemed like he was right about everything. He came across as person who was extremely intelligent and not to be fucked with.
“These people were wrong,” he said with ammunition in his voice. Years later, I would remember this quality and understand why the girls I liked in high school went out with derelicts. I could see the young Axl Rose, armed and dangerous, aware that everyone around him was a liar. Given a choice between rock and roll and the grown-ups, Axl chose rock and roll. I know this decision is probably familiar to most fans of rock music, but I could see in Axl the true cost of this choice. There is a loneliness that comes with the belief that “these people were wrong.”
As an adult, anyone can see Axl Rose stands apart. He has become a person who is quoted as saying things like this:
I’d just like to say that I have a personal disgust for small dogs, like poodles. I have some serious physical problems with them. Everything about them means I must kill them. I must.
I don’t know if he really said that, but it’s conceivable. It has the imperious “I dare you to know what I mean” quality that one associates with Axl Rose. It sounds like something he alone would say, especially when you remember “Get in the Ring” (track 5, Use Your Illusion II). This is the song in which he takes on the various journalists who have opposed him in music magazines. By name:
That means you, Andy Secher at Hit Parader, Mick Wall at Kerrang!, Bob Guccione Jr. at Spin. Are you pissed off ’cause your dad gets more pussy than you? Fuck you. Suck my fucking dick. You want to antagonize me? Antagonize me, motherfucker.
Here’s the thing about those lyrics: they are supremely unattractive. They confirm all the bad things that have been said about Axl Rose: that he is vulgar and unhinged; that he is an impossible person; that rivulets of ickiness emanate from him.
To put it another way, “Get In The Ring” was Axl Rose’s way of biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear. It was grisly and weird. It gave people a reason to turn on Axl Rose once and for all. He was no longer attractive, no longer the baddest motherfucker. He was just appalling.
I must now come forward as someone who was not appalled. And not just because I like Axl Rose. Millions of people in the world still like Axl Rose. It is well known that his madness and his alienation are part of why we like him. A case could be made that “Get In The Ring” is the price we pay for the likes of “Don’t Cry” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” A case could even be made that “Get In The Ring” is something we should just ignore out of loyalty to Axl. But that is not the case I’m making.
I am saying that “Get In The Ring” is the key. It explains all.
For one thing, the title is exactly right. The song very much belongs inside a boxing ring. Not because it’s about “fighting,” but because it does what boxing does. It shows you what’s inside, whether you want to see it or not. The wonder of boxing is being able to see what men are made of: the unbeatable ordinariness of Marciano, the self-determined glory of Ali, the “I’m-gonna-be-OK” hippity hop of Sugar Ray Leonard, the unimaginable fearlessness of Arturo Gatti, the too-easy invincibility of Mayweather, the absolute prodigy of young Tyson, the tragic “who-am-I-now?” of mature Tyson.
There are no liars inside a boxing ring. It is a place where the self inevitably emerges despite all attempts to squash it. Why is boxing special this way? Because you’re going to get hit, and it’s going to be bad. The people hitting you are going to be professional hitters. The hits will represent a level of adversity not found in other sports. In fact it’s probably wrong to say that the hits represent adversity; more accurately, they are the essence of adversity. And in the face of this adversity, a fighter comes to know things about himself. How will he put an end to the hits? He has many options, each of which has the potential to be excruciating: he may surrender; he may insist on being hit so hard that the fight ends by knockout; he may absorb the blows and be inspired to punch as never before; he may time the oncoming hits and crush his opponents’ spirit with counterpunching taunts; he may duck and weave and risk losing his balance or putting himself in an even worse position; he may simply trade blows and refuse to fall first; the list goes on and on. In any case, there is no easy way out. (Or is there? Teddy Atlas correctly predicted that Tyson would find a way to be disqualified in his rematch with Holyfield. But the way Tyson did it wasn’t really a way out at all…)
However a boxer wins or loses, there’s no easy way out. The violence of boxing is inescapable; this is precisely the problem that many people have with boxing. It’s gruesome and designed to cause pain. But to those who choose to stare it in the face, it is endlessly fascinating. It gives proof that miracles can be made from the stuff of atrocity.
Back to Axl. “Get in the Ring” was his way of punching out of the corner. Is it really possible for a rock star on the cover of Rolling Stone to be in the corner? Maybe not, but in Axl’s mind he was, and that is telling. As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” there was a time during the aftermath of Appetite when all of GnR’s detractors had to admit they were wrong. Guns ‘n Roses was just good, and everyone knew it. Try to imagine such a time—we’ll call it August 1991. It was the eve of Use Your Illusion. It was the moment when Axl was right and all those that opposed him were about to be on the wrong side of history.
But Axl chose not to be magnanimous. “I’ll kick your bitchy little ass,” he said to Bob Guccione Jr., and his use of swear words was uncharismatic for the first time. Here was a man who refused to be fucked with, even when he was already invincible. Why? Listen to “Get in the Ring,” and you will know the wide-eyed fury of Axl Rose. The coiled powers of fuck-you that make his banshee high notes possible. The torment that engendered the Welcome-to-hell ending of “November Rain.” The sprawling, commanding weirdness that runs through Chinese Democracy. All of these things are knowable to us by “Get in the Ring.” We can see where they all came from: a voice inside saying, “These people are wrong.”
Once you know it, it changes how you hear the songs. The great ones become greater. “Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I’d hide/and wait for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by.” We’ve all heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine” so many times that it’s easy to dismiss the perfection of a line like that. The words fall into the spaces of the melody so easily that absolutely nothing could ever improve the lyric. It is perfectly appointed. And when you stop and linger on the words, it gets you: what was the thunder in young Axl’s life? Exactly what are the details that have been left out?
Whatever they are, they are some version of the darkness that inspired him to write “Get in the Ring.” And the darkness hovers elsewhere. Even after he succeeded in writing a startling masterpiece like “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” he was still compelled on occasion to introduce it by saying, “This next song is about getting fucked in the ass by a Coca Cola bottle.” What does that mean? It means that if you really get in the ring with Axl Rose, the danger is not that he’ll kick your ass but that he’ll break your heart.
And then, if you listen close, he’ll teach you how to punch your way out of the corner even after your heart has been broken. You bite down on the things that oppose you. You learn to get in the ring with your own demons. And if you catch shit, you have at your disposal the knowledge that “These people are wrong.” Evidently these are things Axl Rose learned at a young age. Years and years later, when the time came for Axl himself to prove that rock and roll was art, he wrote my favorite lyric of all time: “I’m fuckin innocent!”
There’s an interview from 1990 between Kurt Loder and Axl Rose that took place in Axl’s backyard. The interview was magic for a bunch of reasons (for those of you who don’t know what I mean when I say that Axl Rose is extremely smart, just watch the interview), but nothing tops this: Axl was in the middle of saying that working with the members of Guns ‘n Roses was “like having a dream band,” and then his voice trailed off and his gaze turned past the camera. He pointed at something and half-smiled: “A hummingbird. Wow. It’s gone.” Just like that, the moment was past. We never see the hummingbird. And he never finishes whatever he was saying about the dream band.
Here’s hoping that if the five original members of Guns ‘n Roses really do attend the induction ceremony, the hummingbird doesn’t fly away so quickly.