Jay Trucker: Axl Rose, Marketing Genius

Axl Rose toy
Where's your shady-looking likness, Mr. Hudson? It's not a doll! It's an AXTION FIGURE!

Because you demanded it, and because he can deconstruct the the dystopian visions of George Orwell with one half of of his hefty brain and Sheryl Crow with the other, The Daily Cocca is proud to present a new guest post from our good friend, Jay “Mr. Thursday Morning” Trucker!  When not singing Journey songs in biker bars, Jay teaches, writes, and composes hilarious Facebook update statuses as if twitter never happened.  Please do join me in welcoming him back the program. -Ed.

Axl Rose, Marketing Genius
by Jay Trucker, The Daily Cocca

In 1994, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses were in the latter stages of their relevance.  G N’ R were still releasing videos from the Illusions albums and putting out a record of covers, and Aerosmith continued their late 80s renaissance into a second decade with 7x platinum Get A Grip. Meanwhile, I was a young lad still anxiously awaiting the growth spurt that would forever prove  elusive.   It wasn’t exactly cool to love these unabashed rock stars while my fellow fourteen-year-olds were mourning the death of Kurt Cobain and pondering the fate of his mopey peers like Eddie Vedder, but I was steadfast.

Here is an exhaustive list of things I was sure of in 1994:

I would never understand women
I would always love Guns ‘n’ Roses
I would always love Aerosmith.

Two out of three ain’t bad, kid.  You see, while Aerosmith may have had a more productive couple of decades (if  we take the word “productive”  to refer to an organism, institution, or collective that produces things),  Axl’s sociopathic and often bizarrely reclusive behavior has allowed the Guns name to age in a much more respectable way than has brand Aerosmith.

For the unitiated, here is a brief timeline for the original lineups of both  bands since ’94:

Guns N’ Roses Aerosmith
1994: Release “Sympathy for the Devil” single; Slash calls this “the sound of a band breaking up” 1994: Release greatest hits album Big Ones, make boatloads of cash
1996: Break up 1997: Release Nine Lives, which includes lame double entrende single “Pink”
1998: Release “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” on Armageddon soundtrack [rock credibility exits stage left]
2001: Perform at Superbowl XXXV with Britney Spears, N’Sync
2001: Release Just Push Play, world shrugs
2002: Release Oh, Yeah, greatest hits double disc, make boatloads of cash
2004: Release blues cover album Honkin’ On  Bobo. Global reaction: “eh”
2006: Release aptly titled greatest hits album Devil’s Got a New Disguise, make boatloads of cash
2010: Egyptian President Mubarak: “I will step down if Aerosmith threatens to release another album”

While Aerosmith has toured nearly every year during the last fifteen years, Axl’s bizarro Guns has only executed a single successful tour of the U.S., in 2006.  While touring, Aerosmith has enthusiastically shilled for the latest repackaging of their greatest hits album.  As the above list indicates, Aerosmith has released more greatest hits records than records of new material during this period, which is probably at least in part due to their recognizing that no one needs to hear a new Glenn Ballard-written Aerosmith record.  Unfortunately, as the recent regime change in Egypt would indicate, Aerosmith is, in fact, planning to release their first record of new material in a decade sometime this year.

Later, Jay would wonder if the relationship between his love of G N' R and his inablity to understand women wasn't, in fact, causual.

Meanwhile, when he wasn’t standing on the roof of his mansion with a hose fighting off California wild fires (http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=85524), Axl was suing his own record company to keep them from releasing Guns N’ Roses’ Greatest Hits (http://www.tfproject.org/tfp/tilted-music/49290-geffen-records-prevails-over-axl-rose-lawsuit.html). In a a 2004 statement that can only be described as equal parts gutsy and insane, Rose claimed that the Guns N’ Roses Greatest Hits release would take attention away from Chinese Democracy.

Chinese Democracy was released four and a half years after the suit.

Eddie Vedder plays a solo acoustic set followi...
Who ever thought Eddie Vedder would grow up to be Jeff Bridges? Talk about a late bloomer. By the transivite property of Lebowski couture, you're still totally rad, Edward.

Herein lies the Genius of W. Axl Rose, nonmusical edition.  Guns N’ Roses is not one of those punk rock bands destined to keep the same sound and tour every couple of years with only their graying hairs and protruding stomachs demarcating the passage of time.  I mean, they’re not the Circle Jerks.  They’re freaking Guns N’ Roses.  They were making videos with dolphins and supermodels set to soaring piano arrangments while the “cool” thing to do was stare at your shoes while whispering verses and shouting choruses.

G N’ R comes from the “bigger is better” rock ideal, not the punk/grunge “less is more” aesthetic.  In this way, they are a lot like Aerosmith.   Thus, had they remained in the spotlight, they could have easily traded on their hard rock past, put out a few radio friendly shmaltz ballads, retooled a greatest hits package every few years, and made oodles of cash with deteriorating performances at amphitheaters and arenas year-round. In other words, they could have become Aerosmith or, even worse, Motley Crue.

TV Guide #2318 (Cover Variation)
yes, Jay. But you're forgetting that after G N' R broke up, Slash actually ended up with the Steelers for a time via the contraction draft of '96.

In fact, in the hands of lesser, more  top-hatted hands, Guns would have no doubt become the same self-parodying pantomime of themselves that Aerosmith and the Crue are today.  Slash has sold his likeness to so many lame-rod pop musicians and video games, even he can’t keep count.  But when he gutted the last bits of his reputation on stage with the Black Eyed Peas this year, I couldn’t help but think back to Aerosmith’s nauseating 2001 Super Bowl performance, when they shared the stage with rock ‘n’ roll titans Britney Spears and N ‘Sync.

As Slash tried desperately to strike a cool rock pose next to an awkwardly gyrating Fergie, I thought to myself, that could have been all of G N’ R up there wearing Light Bright outfits and standing next to will.i.am, Fergie, and the other two dudes.

That could have been Axl, Duff, and company singing a country song  to one of their re-claimed daughters on the soundtrack to one of the worst Ben Affleck moves of all time.

That could have been G N’ R singing goofball pop songs about women’s private parts.

That could have been Axl judging sixteen-year-old singers on a past-its-prime TV karaoke contest.

But for the grace of God.

Instead, Axl, who long ago bought out the Guns name, has guarded it like a rich guy guarding his mansion from a forest fire.  The musicians he has chosen to work with recently have names like Buckethead and Bumblefoot.  They may play the same songs as classic Guns, but no one will mistake them for Slash and Duff clones.  And with the exception of a 2002 VMA gaffe, in which a bloaty Axl huffed around Radio City while a giddy Jimmy Fallon and the world gasped in horror, Axl has avoided the spotlight like the plague.  When he finally put out Chinese Democracy after a seventeen year wait, Axl unilaterally decided his record company wasn’t supporting the album enough.  He has subsequently avoided all efforts to promote it himself, including all state-side interview requests and tours.  Does that suck for fans? Maybe, but what hurts more, the lack of Axl or the embarrassing omnipresence of Steve Tyler and Slash?

In keeping his and the band’s profile low key and touring only very sporadically with a cast of characters who look like aliens, Axl has accomplished what only former nemesis Kurt Cobain has similarly been able to achieve  When most people think of G N’ R today, they think of G N’ R no later than 1994.  Axl has divorced himself and his band from Slash, who defaces only himself when he parades around picking up contract work like a poor guy in a Slash costume.  Today’s Guns are something different.  They are a protooled, faceless entity with an enigmatic lead singer.  G N’ R today are to classic G N’ R what the Foo Fighters are to Nirvana. They sprung from Guns N’ Roses, but they cannot damage the iconic stature of classic Guns any more than a Foo Fighters record can hurt the lasting reputation of Nirvana.

And Axl didn’t even have to die to keep his reputation in tact.

Postscript:  I thought this blog fitting for my esteemed former co-dj’s domain because of our shared love of all things Axl.  I wouldn’t defend his choice in Long Island-bred, Lehigh Valley-loving rock pianists with the same fervor.

Also, in 2001, I wrote an essay about Axl Rose, The American Icon, for my ENGL 200 Advanced Expository Writing class.  It was, admittedly, not my best work.  So if you’re out there, Prof. Martinez, I would like to resubmit my essay. Sorry it’s 10 years late.

Jay Trucker teaches writing at the Community College of Baltimore County and studies Sociology and Education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.  He occasionally writes about the Baltimore Orioles for WNST.net and nightlife for the Baltimore Sun blogs.

15 thoughts on “Jay Trucker: Axl Rose, Marketing Genius”

  1. It probably is good that G n’ R did not stick around for 20 years, but if there was even a chance that they had another Appetite For Destruction in them it would have been worth the degradation. When *I* think of G n’ R, I think of Slash, Duff, and Izzy. Axl is just some a-hole who got lucky enough to fall in with the right bunch of fellows. Slash’s guest appearances may be embarrassing, but are they really even comparable to the joke that has been the rest of Axl’s career? At least he put out some good albums as Slash’s Snakepit and Velvet Revolver.

    A few posts ago Chris mentioned that he had tickets to see the band that Axl called G n’ R in ’02 (or thereabouts) and the event ended in a riot after Axl refused to go on stage? It was a 2-night stand, and I had tickets for the second night (which was canceled along with the rest of the tour). I was that desperate to hear “It’s So Easy”, “Paradise City”, and the like live, but am now glad it did not happen. That show would have just ruined my memories.

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    1. I suppose your post would merit validity if it not for the fact that Axl founded GNR, named GNR, was the creative catalyst, and (along with Izzy) wrote 90% of the songs including ALL the hits. While you claim to be a “big GNR fan” that apparently doesn’t entail learning the basic history of the band and their songs. Nice try though, please play again.

      PS- good albums by Slash’s Snakepit? I guess the fallout of the massive crack wave in the 80’s is still incurring its wrath- this time in the form of revisionist nostalgia worshipping fans who neglect learning even the basic elements of their favorite bands and songs. Nice try though, please play again.

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  2. Well done. We have paralleled each other in many ways from what I read here. Now I’m thinking of all the bands that have not hung around. Slaughter comes to mind, but hair metal was thoroughly destroyed by Nirvana.

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  3. Well, canceling concerts is certainly with keeping the tradition of classic G’n’R alive. And having seen the new band Axl tours with 3 times, I have to say they are ridiculously proficient. Clearly, they are not “Guns ‘n’ Roses” as most people think about it. I think Axl admitted as much by using the more modern G’n’R image with all “Chinese Democracy” era tours and PR:

    http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.zmemusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/guns-n-roses.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.zmemusic.com/metal/download-countdown-to-guns-n-roses-chinese-democracy-podcast/&usg=__eImqzHGV6FDd4toNdfoWuJ3d5Lo=&h=400&w=400&sz=53&hl=en&start=0&zoom=1&tbnid=mvu6cC4gW5ZUPM:&tbnh=146&tbnw=146&ei=AIJdTcrHL8ndgQejy-XpDQ&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dguns%2Bn%2Broses%2Bchinese%2Bdemocracy%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN%26biw%3D1024%26bih%3D587%26tbs%3Disch:1&um=1&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=453&vpy=245&dur=343&hovh=207&hovw=207&tx=131&ty=94&oei=AIJdTcrHL8ndgQejy-XpDQ&page=1&ndsp=10&ved=1t:429,r:2,s:0

    I think CD itself is 10 times better than anything Slash put out with Snakepit or VR, but that’s just my opinion. To me, there is some ridiculously good albeit pro-tooled to death material on CD, whereas everything Slash puts out is just decent blues rock.

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    1. Chinese Democracy remains the G N’ R album that could have been, the great lost work of W. Axl Rose (even after its release). Only Axl could have done that. I really like the album.

      I don’t think an Axl-fronted G N’ R would have ever produced another Appetite, and that’s part of the reason the classic line-up finally called it quits. Sure, part of it was Axl’s Axlness in general, but I’ve repeatedly read that a lot of it had to do with Axl wanting to go in new directions and his fellows wanting to go back to the Appetite sound. I’ll be honest: as good as Appetite is, the things they got away with on the Use Your Illusion records are among my favorite rock moments, ever. Axl was never going back to ’86…even though Appetite doesn’t sound dated even today, he wasn’t going back to something he’d already done (and already done perfectly).

      You simply cannot remove Axl’s Axlness from the formula that resulted in G N’ R’s colossal success.

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  4. Eh, there are certainly some great songs on UYI I & II, but also plenty of what I consider Axl-fueled filler. I particularly do not care for “You Ain’t The First”, “The Garden”, “Get In The Ring”, and “My World”. What are the favorite memories you have from it? I do love “Dust N’ Bones”, “Double Talkin’ Jive”, “November Rain” (but mostly the ending), “14 Years”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, and “You Could Be Mine”.

    It sounds like you love late G n’ R and consider their early work to have been a good stepping stone to that, while I love early G n’ R and consider their later work to be occasional glimpses of brilliance flickering through a sad decline.

    “Evolution” or “maturation” or what have you seems to be a key metric by which people measure musicians, but I have to disagree. There are a few exceptions, but most bands put out the work that I most enjoy very early in their career. If you happen to be really good at writing face-melting, bluesy hard rock, maybe that is what you should write. Moving toward string-soaked ballads and eventually techno-industrial music may be the key to having colossal success, but that does not mean I will want to listen to it.

    I have given Chinese Democracy four or five listens. I do not hate it, but I definitely do not love it. I find it very … tolerable, which is praise faint enough to be damning.

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  5. Loved this comment. I knew you’d have a good one.

    I love Appetite, but I don’t think Axl and Co. could have made another, nor do I think the world needed or needs another. How many variations of the same perfect thing do we really need? It is what it is: a pretty timeless and certainly classic album that melds styles, pleases purists, and yielded radio hits. And those radio hits? They were colossally awesome, face-melting pop songs. And so were songs like “My Michelle” and “Rocket Queen.” They were also towering, swaggering, dirty rock songs, but it’s not like we’re talking about something very far removed from commercial viability. It wasn’t a great album because it was a hard rock album, it was a great album because it believed in itself, and the band believed pop music could rock. And it did.

    “November Rain” and a few other tracks (a third version of “Don’t Cry”)from the UYI era (also known as G N’ R rule the world) were written before Appetite and at least “November Rain” was supposed to be on Appetite, but they couldn’t nail it down. It sort of blew my mind when I first heard that. It’s so different from that record, even as some of the other songs on UYI would have fit right in. But I love all those tracks from both volumes of UYI. Put them in and press play, I say. It’s not that they represent an evolution or maturation or whatever. It’s that I think success typically gives you the tools (and the money, and the studio time) to do what you actually want to do. “Don’t Cry”, “Estranged”, “Civil War” etc are all Axl being Axl, and the band rising to his soaring pop sincerity. Jay mentioned dolphins in the video for “Estranged”, but he didn’t mention the Axl-branded sneakers, the jump from the air-craft carrier, or Slash emerging like Aquaman from the drink for one of the best G N’ R solos ever. The whole point of the album is its bigness, and you either like it or don’t. Ten years later, Oasis would do the exact same thing, the difference being that they made two barebones awesome rock records before doing their epic. Another difference is that no one in their right might would ever say Be Here Now is any way equal to Use Your Illusion, but I digress. Following Jay’s template, though, Oasis follow G N’ R in that bigger is better mold, and Noel Gallagher wanted to make rock music in the wake of what a mess he thought bands like Nirvana had made. That, of course, is why his first two records sold a bazillion copies and why when Be Here Now came out, Oasis was wearing G N’ R’s old “Biggest Band In the World” crown.

    BHN alienated people (I loved it even as I knew it wasn’t the move they should have made), but UYI elevated people. It’s awesome, it’s epic, and it doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Just like a certain bandannaed ginger frontman in a Jerry Rice jersey and biker shorts.

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  6. Yeah, I think most of the blues rock was Slash and Izzy’s, whereas Axl was always the “go big or go home” force within the band. Without the rest of GnR, Axl was left to go crazy with the gigantic, which he did, for 15 years, while he made CD. He booted the rest of the group so he could do what he wanted unchecked. It was egotistical, sure, but in my opinion anyway, what he turned out was a solid follow up to UYI. Slash’s work since has been decent, but stunningly mediocre for long stretches. It’s like realizing Santa Claus is just your dad. He’s human, which is a major let down. Axl, on the other hand, has maintained a lot of mystery. I don’t know. I find it more endearing. I don’t want my rock stars to be human.

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    1. Except that he didn’t boot the group- Matt Sorum and Steven Adler (and Axl was the last in the band to agree to the firing) were fired, but Duff, Slash, and Izzy left on their own accord and against Axl’s wishes. There is a lot of revisionist history about GNR and the breakup of the classic lineup. Its just a more convenient narrative for the masses to pin it all on Axl than it is to actually take into account the complexity of all the moving parts (drugged out as they may be). In reality (and this is documented publicly and confirmed by the former members themselves) Axl tried very hard to keep the classic lineup together.

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    2. I whole heartedly agree with the latter part of your statements though. In my estimation Axl Rose is the last real rock star still standing. The others have long since lost (or rather sold) their mystique. Chinese Democracy is truly a work of art. What people point to as its weaknesses are more often its strengths. That its so sprawling, excessive, and ambitious is what makes it work so well- its what makes its so endearing and genuine. Axl fucking means it. Axl don’t lie. Chinese Democracy is the last rock n roll masterpiece of that stature by the only guy left with the stature (and balls) to pull it off (or attempt it all).

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