If Axl Rose pushed the boundaries of his music, the fifty-something lead singer of Guns N' Roses might be performing songs that are as pivotal today as the old songs were to kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.
But he doesn't. He’s still tossing around the mic and prancing up and down the stage, wearing a wide-brimmed hat over his bandanna, fetishizing a youth he has long left behind.
He and his crew keep ticking — on and on and on, despite Duff’s exploded pancreas, Slash’s overdose (not to mention the mountain lion in a hotel room, the assault charges, the rants and so much more chaos).
Even Guns N’ Roses seems to know the game should have been over a long time ago. At their Denver show on Wednesday, August 2, the rockers occasionally performed under a superimposed animated clock, hands spinning in circles, as if to say, “Will this shit ever end?” At times it seemed like the audience wondered that, too — at least when the band wasn’t sticking to old hits like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Patience” and the Paul McCartney cover “Live and Let Die.”
The show had its moments. Slash still jams with dexterity. Duff plucks the hell out of his bass. And Rose keeps whistling out of tune, hitting ungodly high notes with his thin falsetto while screeching about flaming out, even as he simmers on.
It’s hard to watch him performing without wondering why Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and so many others died so early and Rose, who nearly followed in their footsteps, just keeps on keepin’ on, now a walking midlife crisis.
It’s not that anyone wishes Rose had died already. Really. But it’s awkward to listen to him sing songs about taking the night train until he crashes and burns and all the other die-young-forget-the-past-live-in-the-moment sentiments the Guns N’ Roses brand is built on and know that the myth he created turned out to be bunk. Somehow, they all survived.
(That Icarus brand never was cute — not when we watched the news reports about Rose being accused of beating women or now that he is clearly long past the age when his death, however he may go, would be commemorated as an only-the-good-die young sort of thing. It would be more of a Death of a Salesman swan song, and no journalist wants to pen that obit.)
It’s not exactly breaking news that Rose is no longer the bad boy he built his reputation being. He’s not even a particularly rebellious adult. Rumor has it he’s gone new-age. Mic in hand, he seems more like a creepy uncle who tells sex jokes to his teenage daughter and her friends while buying them wine coolers and taking them drunk water-skiing than a person embracing life’s higher truths and settling into his own authenticity.
With Rose’s pornish black T-shirts, casual flannel tied around his waist, and his endless assortment of leather jackets from all stripes of scaly animals, he’s faking it to barely make it and desperate for approval. No wonder. When he flubs at his iconic slithering-back-and-forth dance and says, “I don’t want to overstay our welcome,” he seems to know he has.
Look, maybe as I age and struggle to shed the pounds and cut back on substances and feel my own body stiffening, I’m a hypocrite jabbing at a person fifteen years older than me who’s going through the same tired, all-too-American middle-age shit. And maybe, in some ways, I resent him for even thinking he can look toward his youth when he thought he would burn bright and die rather than fade slowly, stumbling toward crapping himself to death in a hospital bed. (Isn’t that better than overdosing, or blowing his brains out, or drunk driving off a cliff?)
If you believe his songs, the grim reaper should have already snatched him; he could have been a Kurt Cobain or an Elliott Smith or a Marilyn Monroe — not a wannabe. Or maybe like Arthur Rimbaud, Rose could have quit creating as adulthood started overtaking him. Or perhaps he could follow David Bowie — a guy he once punched — and embrace the change and become a blackstar.
Had Rose died during his youth, he would have been canonized. Had he backed out of his career, he would have been forgotten. Had he kept creating with authenticity, he might still be praised. Instead, he’s just an old rock star, whose moves look more like Frank Sinatra’s than Axl Rose’s. If he sticks to the same old script when he performs, he’ll be remembered as an important musician who became a washed-up has-been, a man who could attract a stadium-sized crowd not for what he is, but for what he was.
It must irritate Rose that Slash still has that spark. Beneath all that curly hair, top hat and sunglasses is a man who’s aged well, despite his own struggle with addiction and history of domestic violence. Perhaps the sound of the electric guitar immortalizes youth better than the human voice.
Sure, Slash could have used a tighter belt in Denver. At the end of the concert, when he showed off his handstand skills and inadvertently gave us a peek at his crack for the sixtieth time, he didn’t seem any less cool than he did in 1989, and for a person who kept half-mooning his fans, that’s an impressive feat.
Sadly, Slash's enigmatic coolness — ass and all — does Rose no favors. It turns the rock star, whose baggy T-shirt steadfastly concealed his rump, into a cautionary tale about living too hard. But it also shows that it's possible to age artfully, and that it’s maybe not too late for Rose.
He could still show us who he is now instead of wallowing in memories. He could share his rumored spirituality in song. He could open up — even a little.
But until Rose performs as the person he is rather than the man he was, he will only be as relevant as an aging artifact embodying those melancholy lines of T.S. Elliot: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Rose and his fans deserve much better than that.