One of the aspects of Guns N’ Roses’ music that fans love most is its sheer ferocity. Who can hear "Welcome to the Jungle," "You Could Be Mine," "Garden of Eden," "Mr. Brownstone," or a couple dozen other tunes without recognizing that snarl, that explosiveness, that feral energy? Yes, the band’s instrumental nexus, built around Slash’s guitar and Duff McKagan’s bass, provides the music that illuminates the danger expressed in singer Axl Rose’s lyrics, but Rose’s delivery makes you believe every word he sings.
Rose’s volatile personality feeds his songs and persona on stage and on record; it’s when he’s expressed that volatility in the "real world" that he has done real damage, the kind that causes real injury, ends real relationships, and summons real authorities to level legal consequences against him. And while he currently leads Guns N’ Roses on a successful, years-long reunion tour virtually without incident, the 30-year trail he left in his wake can still make one wonder why he did what he did — what in his past made Axl Rose’s appetite for destruction such a real and dangerous thing?
He was a good student, but a dropout
Though Axl Rose certainly got into his share of trouble as a kid (and your share, and the share of the person sitting next to you), he was not lacking in intellect. But it was his zero tolerance policy towards authority that became problematic. "On the placement tests in school, I was always in the top 3 percent," he told Rolling Stone. However, he "dropped out in the eleventh grade, went back as a senior, then dropped out again." Apparently he wasn’t "stimulated" or "excited" by the curriculum, so he took a permanent hall pass to pursue topics of greater interest — or what he deemed "Axl’s school of subjects that I wanted to learn about" — which one day led to the authorship of the immortal couplet, "Found a head and an arm in the garbage can / Don’t know why I’m here."
He also "studied" music, though due to his stepfather’s religious beliefs, he had to do so clandestinely. While most kids his age could crank their stereos or destroy their hearing with headphones, Rose had to rely on Ma Bell. "I remember once my friend Dave called me and played Supertramp over the phone," he told the LA Times, "I just acted like I was talking to him so no one would know."
The cops in Indiana didn’t like him
Looking at Axl Rose over the years, listening to his music, and tallying the paperwork generated by his arrests and court cases, it’s easy to conclude he had a rebellious streak while growing up in Lafayette, Indiana. "[Me and my friends] got in trouble for fun," he told Rolling Stone in 1989. "It finally reached a point where I realized I was gonna end up in jail ’cause I kept f*cking with the system." As an example, he cited a fight he got into with a young man who eventually befriended Rose and wanted the charges dropped. "The state kept on pressing charges … they tried other ones," Rose explained. "I spent three months in jail and finally got out. But once you’ve pissed off a detective, it’s a vengeance rap back there."
The alleged harassment continued for quite a while, and included a bust for underage drinking, albeit in his own backyard (the charge was eventually thrown out of court). Finally, Rose left Indiana to find his fortune in California, and the rest, as they say, is history. Even two years after becoming famous, though, he was still hesitant to return. "Now when I go back to see my family, I avoid the police there," he said. "I try to avoid all police in general."
He alleges horrible abuse by his birth father
"My real father was a pretty f*cked-up individual," Rose told Rolling Stone in 1992. His birth father’s very existence was hidden from him until late in his childhood. "I wasn’t told I had a real father until I was 17," Rose said. "My real father was my stepdad, as far as I knew." Eventually, he came across some insurance papers and other documents that revealed the truth, adding more confusion and pain to a life that didn’t need more of either.
When Rose was 2 years old, his parents split, which, according to Rose, led to his being kidnapped by his birth father. While undergoing therapy, Rose recalled a horrific incident. "I remember a needle. I remember getting a shot. And I remember being sexually abused by this man and watching something horrible happen to my mother when she came to get me." Because of his age and the awful nature of the alleged abuse, Rose buried the incident in his mind, only to have it crop up again as he got older and more confused about the relationship between sex and power, a confusion he struggled with for years.
Childhood trauma left him feeling threatened by women
Axl Rose’s mother married his birth father while she was still in high school, and Rose was aware from an early age that he was unwanted. "My mom’s pregnancy wasn’t a welcome thing," he told Rolling Stone. "My mom got a lot of problems out of it, and I was aware of those problems." These problems manifested themselves in several ways, one of which was his mother’s choice of a second husband. "She’s picked my stepfather over me ever since he was around and watched me get beaten by him. … She wasn’t there for me."
Rose’s stepfather was a Pentecostal preacher, and in addition to allegedly physically abusing Rose, he also made every attempt to indoctrinate the boy into his narrow view of women and sexuality. "Whenever there was any form of sex, like a kissing scene, on TV, we weren’t allowed to look," Rose told RIP. "Whenever anything like that happened, we had to turn our heads. [My stepfather] had us so brainwashed that we started turning our heads on our own. We scolded each other." His mother, cowed by her husband’s bullying, did nothing; she was, in Rose’s view, too insecure to stand up to her husband, or to leave him.
He claims abuse by his stepfather
The abuse Rose says he received at the hands of his stepfather was not limited to the bullying in front of the TV set. "This person basically tried to control me and discipline me because of the problems he’d had in his childhood," Rose told Rolling Stone. "And then my mom had a daughter. And my stepfather molested her for about 20 years. And beat us. Beat me consistently. I thought these things were normal." By the time Rose made those revelations public in 1992, he had long since separated from the man he called "one of the most dangerous human beings I’ve ever met."
"It’s very important that he’s not in my life anymore, or in my sister’s," Rose said. "We may be able to forgive, but we can’t allow it to happen again." Rose had also, in true big-brother fashion, become very protective of his sister, even in adulthood. She became the Guns N’ Roses Fan Club manager and accompanied the band on the road, enabling her to see her brother howl out in anger over their childhood in front of tens of thousands of people every night.
He claimed to be ‘brainwashed’ by religion
Rose’s stepfather strictly adhered to the tenets of his Pentecostal faith, and insisted that his family do likewise, a situation that left Rose feeling "brainwashed." Speaking with RIP, he said, "I’m not against churches or religion, but I do believe, like I said in ‘Garden of Eden,’ that most organized religions make a mockery of humanity." He was particularly angered by the hypocrisy he saw as prevalent in Pentecostal churches, and how emotional harm was passed on through generations. "These were people who were finding God but still living with their damage [from their own chilhoods] and inflicting it upon their children," he said.
Compelled to attend church services "anywhere from three to eight times a week," Rose was also confused about the fluctuations in what the church considered to be evil. Confusion spawned within the walls of his church was exacerbated once he came home. "We’d have televisions one week, then my stepdad would throw them out because they were satanic," Rose remembered. In all, his entire childhood religious experience wound up having the opposite effect on Rose than what his stepfather had intended. "The Bible was shoved down my throat, and it really distorted my point of view," Rose told RIP. "We were taught ‘You must fear God.’ I don’t think that’s healthy at all."
His romantic life was more guns than roses
Given Axl Rose’s issues growing up, it’s not difficult to predict he would have problems in his relationships with women as an adult. "I’ve been hell on the women in my life," he told Rolling Stone, "and the women in my life have been hell on me." This was particularly true of his brief marriage to Erin Everly (inspiration for the Guns N’ Roses hit "Sweet Child O’ Mine"), who Rose both fondly described as his "best friend," and also said: "other times … we just f*cked each other’s lives completely up." A high-profile relationship with model and actress Stephanie Seymour was likewise fraught with trouble; he even mourned her "death" in the "November Rain" video — and those were the good times.
As a celebrity, though, Rose was forced to work through his problems in public, which added unwanted complications. He channeled his frustrations into his songwriting, which could also be problematic, particularly when the lyrics were viewed as mean-spirited ("My Michelle"), or misogynistic ("Back Off, B*tch"), or even jokingly murderous ("Used to Love Her"). Rose tried to explain his rationale to Rolling Stone: "The anger and the emotions and stuff scare people. … I don’t think our music promotes that you should feel this way. … We’re saying you’re allowed to feel certain ways."
His volatility could cause real destruction
When Rose vented his rage, anything in his path could be in jeopardy. When Rolling Stone visited him in 1989, his condo looked like the aftermath of a battle between Chuck Norris and Godzilla (with Norris, of course, emerging as the victor). "One guitar has been destroyed," the magazine reported, "a mirrored wall shattered, several platinum albums broken beyond repair and the telephone dropped off a twelfth-story balcony. Apparently … Axl Rose had to get something out of his system." Rose wouldn’t tell the reporter what had set him off, but he did explain his typical tantrum: "When I get stressed, I get violent and take it out on myself," he said. "I’ve pulled razor blades on myself but then realized that having a scar is more detrimental than not having a stereo. I’d rather kick in my stereo than cut my arm."
"Axl is like a magnet for problems," Slash told Rolling Stone years later, having endured multiple tours and recording sessions with the singer. "I’ve never met anybody like him. He’s the kind of guy that would get a toothbrush stuck down his throat because that particular toothbrush happened to be defective."
He left riots in his wake
Rose’s volatility might have been self-directed in some instances, but the decisions he made either as a result of his anger or disregard for others occasionally had massive consequences. According to Rolling Stone, Rose ended a 1991 St. Louis show early after becoming irate with his security team for not properly dealing with an camera-wielding audience member. Following the tussle in the front row, Rose left the gig, and a riot started not long afterward, resulting in 60 injuries, 16 arrests, and $200,000 in damage to the facility.
Similarly, at an August 1992 double bill with Metallica in Montreal, James Hetfield, Metallica’s front man, was severely burned in a pyrotechnics accident, cutting their set short. Rose then ended Guns N’ Roses’ set early, complaining of a sore throat. That set off a riot in which concertgoers, according to the New York Times, "smashed stadium windows with an uprooted street lamp, looted a souvenir boutique, burned a sports car and Guns N’ Roses T-shirts and set dozens of small fires." As late as 2003, Rose would simply not show up at scheduled Guns N’ Roses shows, causing riots in some venues (most famously in Vancouver, as reported by The Guardian) and leading some promoters to stop booking the band.
Therapy helped him work through his issues
Rose told Rolling Stone that he began controversial regression therapy in February 1991, hoping to identify the source of his volatile nature and deal with it proactively. "It’s finding some way to break the chain," he explained. "I’m trying to fix myself and turn around and help others. You can’t really save anyone. You can support them, but they have to save themselves." Much of this kind of therapy deals with recovering "lost" memories, which can sometimes be unreliable — the mind can be a fragile thing. Still, Rose claims the practice has helped him. "My life still has its extremes and ups and downs," he said, "but it is a lot better because of this work."
He noted that the result of this effort was not forgiveness, nor was it to simply "handle" the problem and walk away. It was about grieving and assessing and coming to some understanding of the core reasons he sometimes behaved in the unpredictable, temperamental way he did. "My growth was stopped at 2 years old," he said. "And when they talk about Axl Rose being a screaming 2-year-old, they’re right. There’s a screaming 2-year-old who’s real pissed off and hides and won’t show himself that often, even to me." Here’s to the hope that he’s found some peace and that he continues to keep his volatility confined to his music.