This week, Axl Rose decided to make a rather impromptu appearance at the China Exchange in London. The purpose of this appeared to be…just a chat with fans. After initially believing the entire thing to be a practical joke or a tribute act, I elected to attend.
Since Guns N’ Roses were the first band I ever listened to and Axl is the man I credit with igniting my passion for music, it would be reasonable to assume that I am biased. However, I wrote an article several years ago entitled ‘The Fall of Axl Rose’ in which I displayed my capacity to be his harshest critic. His lack of effort and care in terms of performances, punctuality, vocal technique and everything else, made me actively oppose the idea of a GNR reunion, and I expressed doubts about an Axl-fronted ACDC. It was not the voice I lost faith in, but the man himself.However, since the GNR Troubadour performance, he seems to have been reborn. And the China Exchange event provided invaluable insight into a man it seems the world simply never understood at all.
Axl arrived half an hour late to the hourlong talk, as I had predicted based on prior evidence. In a strange twist however, it turned out the he was not at fault for this particular delay and had been ready for some time. It’s also worth noting that he has not been late for a single concert this year with either of his bands. Promising signs. Axl walked in to rapturous applause from an audience of barely a hundred fans and took his seat.
For a supposedly feisty and unhinged rockstar, Axl appeared withdrawn and shy at the beginning of the event, even audibly questioning why anyone would want to come and see him. More concerning was the increasingly arrogant and dickish behaviour of the host, Sir David Tang, who bizarrely began by asking about the last time Axl had felt ‘tenderness’. After an awkward few minutes, an acknowledgement that Axl liked dogs and cats, and the revelation that he unwinds and has showers like regular humans, it was thankfully decided that the audience Q&A should begin.
With everyone aware that this was not something Axl was used to, the opening questions were very respectful and broad, and Axl did his best to provide in-depth and relevant answers to all of them. With one of the first questions, I kept it light and asked whether he had ever felt a yearning for something outside hard rock. He replied that he had many diverse sources of musical inspiration such as Frank Sinatra, though he deemed it unlikely that he’d dabble too much in other genres, or join a jazz band as I’d suggested. Instead, he expressed his love for film soundtracks and was very keen on the idea of scoring a film one day.
Despite his initial unease, Axl quickly relaxed,seemingly enjoying the atmosphere. A running gag soon developed as I had opened my question with ‘Big fan’, and each successive person attempted to top this with increasingly complicated pre-question compliments. Realising that this was an environment of respect, admiration and adoration, rather than a a press conference, Axl invited further discussion. At one point, Tang lambasted the crowd for recording the talk, perhaps trying to be clever given Axl’s previous incidents involving recording equipment, but Axl himself was not at all bothered. Axl was busy giving lengthy, satisfying answers to each and every question as the Q&A vibe ebbed away to be replaced by something akin to a friendly group discussion. He not only made an effort, but was happily telling stories and cracking jokes for the entire session, even calling himself a ‘dictator’ in one instance.
I’ll break down what we actually learned here:
- Axl has always been keen to work on a film soundtrack and may do so in the future, saying ‘I was more interested in that than staying in Guns N’ Roses’.
- Axl does regular vocal exercises and has resumed work with a vocal coach he had stopped working with 20 years prior, since the Back In Black material is particularly demanding.
- Axl has a varied music taste and particularly enjoys Frank Sinatra, but doesn’t see too much branching into genres such as jazz.
- Axl apparently made a concious effort to make his voice ‘clearer’ for the Chinese Democracy album which he feels people did not respond to.
- Axl is working on new music which has been received positively by Duff McKagan and Slash.
- There no plans for a solo album.
- Axl may release his own book.
- Axl believes that Slash fabricated some details in his book and told him so over the phone when they patched things up in 2015.
- Axl feels that he and Angus Young have good chemistry and is open to working on new music with him.
- Slash’s new work ethic impressed Axl, as he and Duff learned the Chinese Democracy material without being prompted.
- There are definite plans for a Guns N’ Roses tour in the UK
- The current Guns N’ Roses arrangement is one that Axl hopes to keep ‘going for quite a while’
- In retrospect, Axl believes he should have self-released more music rather than use a large record label.
- Sir David Tang is a douchebag
At the end of the event, the organisers attempted to rush Axl out, and stated that he should not be approached, only for Axl to cut across and say he was happy to stay and do some signing, with his exact words being ‘I’ll do whatever you want’. Here was a man regularly depicted as high maintenance and easily provoked, who proceeded to lay waste to each and every misconception simply by being his timid and appreciative self. In that moment, we learned the most important thing about Axl Rose: He’s sincere and sensitive to the extent that he will act like he doesn’t give a fuck if he thinks the whole world is against him, but when he’s treated with a little love, he responds in kind.
This was underlined as he ignored his entourage and posed for every photo he could, and signed everything thrust in his direction. After he was ushered into the lift, I turned for the stairs and descended three floors to street level, where I was surprised to run into him again as he had opted to spend more time with fans.
As he approached his car however, he gestured to one person near him and told his entourage to call the police, then followed up with a weary ‘Fuck off man’. This behaviour was completely at odds with that of the man we had gotten to know over the last couple of hours, and it threw off all of the surrounding fans, who began to wonder what had been said to him. It was in that moment that I remembered the Zinedine Zidane headbutt of 2008. Axl Rose has had many such moments over the course of his career, but perhaps these ‘Zidane headbutts’ have been exaggerated into a persona that doesn’t exist. He is simply a human like all of us, and he will respond to people who mess with him.
After spending over an hour with him, there was new-found respect for this man that I had misjudged. This is not some uncaring, messed-up, controlling has-been. This is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve in an almost childlike manner. That much is apparent by simple things, such as how happy he looked to be reunited with his old bandmates at the Troubadour. And I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that these small things occur as Axl’s voice appears to be making a strong recovery. When Axl is happy to be somewhere and do something, you can get more out of him. In an informal setting with the fans, he opted for sincerity and straightforwardness in his answers and it revealed a lot about his character. Perhaps the poor understanding of Axl’s nature is his own fault for being such a recluse and avoiding interviews or public appearances. While there are still questionable elements about Axl, such as the allegations of domestic violence, he is easily one of the most sincere and genuine people I’ve ever met, and it’s clear he gets far more bad press than he deserves. Whatever Axl Rose is, he’s not a dick.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Take a look for yourself.