Pillbox

Big Al’s Metal Shop

“Yesterday’s got nothing for me...”

A few weeks ago, I spoke of a genius who recognized the tribal African roots of metal and reintroduced them to the world. But a decade before Max Cavalera, a skinny redhead from the jungle of L.A.’s Sunset Strip, Axl Rose, redefined the notion of a frontman for my generation. Part shaman, enigmatic, and certainly polemic, Axl was the asshole we all wanted to be. Like Jim Morrison before him, Axl could connect with his audience in such a primal way that marketers today can only salivate at the thought.

Before we see Chinese Democracy, the oft-delayed new album from Axl and his boys in Guns N’ Roses may be released (the word on the street ­— if you believe such things — is this month), warranting a better look at Axl Rose. The late ’80s to early ’90s were (for those who missed it) hard — recession, race riots, the first Gulf War, and the advent of cable news showed us all how inhumane we really could be. In between the horror shown on news stations, the go-to guy for public enemy number one seemed to be our boy Axl. Everyone, including my father, knew who this man was. I think he still does, actually — but more on that later.

The notion of danger and rebellion that Axl embodied for us was genuinely appreciated. It never came across as fake or forced. Think of it this way — you know the guy that you really hate, the one who tries so hard to seem sincere that he comes across as being insincere? Well, b(l)ands today like Green Day and the Dixie Chicks strike that chord in me. I mean really, do you have to go to London to tell everyone you hate Bush? Come back to Texas and do that if you want my respect. Keep your fans waiting for three hours before you come on stage if you have to, but come out and tell us the truth in the Midwest before anywhere else. Axl never hesitated to tell anyone at any time what he felt.

In fact, the best part of a Guns N’ Roses show was the between-song rants. Who would get called out next? The cops? Probably. Magazine editors, journos, city councilmen, all were on his s**t-list. Public beefs between rappers may be de rigeur now in the hip-hop world, but give credit where credit is due: Axl Rose did that ages ago — check out “Get In The Ring” on Use Your Illusion II. Unruly, unappreciative fans were not spared his anger either — throw something or take a picture and you’d be lucky to have the concert stopped.

That leads to the second half of his allure — not just the fact that he’d call people out, but that Axl would do it to see how the people would respond. As powerless teenagers, we had no idea how the system was set up, why people were in power, or how they got there in the first place. All we knew was that in the grand scheme of things, we didn’t matter; and the only thing that mattered to us was rock. If some people were called out, it showed us that they were responsible for their actions. Pushing that boundary, as Morrison did when he “exposed himself” in Miami a generation before, is how we learned what society was built on. In other words, maintaining the status quo.

It was that explosiveness that initially prevented me from being allowed to taste the fruits of teenage rebellion live in Vancouver. Having seen the wreckage in Montreal, and probably having heard whispers of St. Louis, my dad forbade me to hear Axl in person. Of course, like any good Pops, he relented and bought me a ticket to my first real show. Walking to the cavernous B.C. Place stadium, nothing on the inside could match the scene outside, I thought. Bacchanalian debauchery at its finest — perhaps exactly what a young man needs to start his travels down that path. What I saw there 13 years ago set the standard for showmanship and stimulation for any show I see today.

And speaking of today, as the world waits to see what Axl Rose has been working on in those 13 years, the traits of that confrontational genius is still there. The danger is ever-present, or so it would seem. Ironically, there was a riot at a Guns N’ Roses concert in Vancouver, but that was only four years ago when promoters pulled the plug on what would have been Rose’s return to North American touring. In these last five years, some new material has been played live; some yawn-inducing (“Silkworms”), some stellar (“The Blues,” “There Was A Time”) and of course, some downloaded. The mystery of who leaked tracks off the new album, and the response that Rose’s lawyers would have, fascinated and engaged the music press and public in a way I haven’t seen in the last decade. Could it be a viral campaign to get people agitated over a new Guns N’ Roses album? An insider who just had to remind us of this man’s talent? Nah, just another day in the life of one of rock’s greatest frontmen.

Before I go, I want to thank my dad for (unwittingly) getting me into this music. Your love and patience is what has got me here today.

Love ya, Pops.