“The Guns N’ Roses it’s okay to like.”—A headline about Nirvana from British music weekly New Musical Express
“His role has been played for years. Ever since the beginning of rock and roll, there’s been an Axl Rose. And it’s just boring. It’s totally boring to me. Why it’s such a fresh and new thing in his eyes is obviously because it’s happening to him personally and he’s such an egotistical person that he thinks that the whole world owes him something.”—Kurt Cobain on Axl Rose, as quoted by Michael Azerrad in Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana
“You’re everything I could’ve been.”—Axl Rose to Kurt Cobain after a Nirvana show in October 1991, as related by Courtney Love in Mick Wall’s W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography Of William Axl Rose
The trickiest part of writing history is putting styles, trends, and social movements in proper perspective. Not everybody spent the ’60s making babies in the mud at Woodstock, or the ’70s doing blow with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. We dwell on these things because they’re easily recognizable signifiers of their respective eras, but a lot gets overlooked when you use the easy shorthand of Nehru jackets and Bee Gees songs. The spectrum of experiences in any era is simply too wide; it makes me wonder whether the so-called “monoculture” ever really existed, where “everybody agreed on” what was good on the radio and the three TV networks. Maybe we’ve just gotten better about recognizing that even really popular things are irrelevant to significant portions of the population. A band as seemingly all-encompassing as The Beatles were in the ’60s probably didn’t mean much to a black teenager living in inner-city Detroit, a truck driver from rural Texas, or the millions of decent, hard-working, square-as-hell middle Americans who impatiently waited for those tuneless long-hairs to finish their songs on Ed Sullivan so the jugglers and impressionists could come on.
There’s an oft-repeated anecdote about how Nevermind stormed to the top of the Billboard charts in the closing days of 1991 because kids returned their unwanted copies of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous for the Nirvana album they really wanted for Christmas. It’s a story rich with metaphorical significance, pitting the upstart punk-rock band against the gargantuan ’80s pop superstar, and ending with the new guys wresting away the cultural torch by bloody force. In the movie version, you’d see teenagers everywhere suddenly ditch their Day-Glo OP shirts and stone-washed jeans for flannel and Doc Martens, and hear them loudly pontificating about how parents, the school system, and the media were telling the younger generation what to care about, and how these things were complete and utter horseshit. It’s like we all decided to become Christian Slater in Pump Up The Volume, and it started with Nirvana dethroning the King Of Pop.
In reality, Dangerous ended up being arguably more popular than Nevermind, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide and spawning nine singles over the course of two years. The sixth song from Dangerous released to radio, “Heal The World,” would likely be recognized today by more casual music fans than any Nirvana song save possibly “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Dangerous only seems like a failure when compared with the three blockbusters—Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad—Jackson released before it. But there were still a lot of people who loved Dangerous; he might have lost the battle to Nevermind in the eyes of rock historians, but Michael Jackson still did okay in the war.
Nevermind had already been mythologized by the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994; afterward, it seemed Nevermind existed only as an historical turning point marking Cobain’s biggest triumph and his doom-laden introduction to the dark side of inescapable fame and adulation. It’s difficult to play Nevermind today without feeling the weight of history, or hearing the crash of foreboding thunder. But Nevermind’s entry into the canon of Important Rock Records did have some lag time. When it was released, it only got three stars and a genial review from Rolling Stone. According to Spin, Nirvana was good but not nearly as good as Teenage Fanclub, whose Bandwagonesque was named album of the year.
(Nevermind did top the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, ranking ahead of Public Enemy, R.E.M., U2, and P.M. Dawn. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” also took No. 1 on the singles list, ranking 19 spots above “Pop Goes The Weasel” by 3rd Bass, which, like Nirvana, was deadly serious about calling out “phony entertainers.”)
Like millions of other kids, I owned a copy of Nevermind by the end of 1991. But I didn’t rush out to buy it as soon as I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I did, however, browbeat my mother into driving me to the mall so I could buy two albums that came out the week before Nevermind. I had waited three years for these records—my whole life as a music-buying consumer. For months, I had been swallowing up the hype promising that this music just might end up being the greatest thing to ever punish my eardrums. Clearly, I had to possess it as soon as it was available.
You know where you are? You’re in the jungle with Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, baby! And by the end of 1991, something that was once vital about the baddest band on the planet was gonna diiie!
1991 might be remembered as the year of Nevermind, but no band was bigger at the time than GN-effin-R, and no rock star had more power than Axl Rose, a man that made wearing a bandana and spandex biker shorts in public credible by sheer force of personality. Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 debut, Appetite For Destruction, ranked among the best-selling rock albums of all time, and it was the soundtrack for countless coming-of-age moments for teenagers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Kids everywhere were getting laid, drunk, and beat up for the first time to the sounds of “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Paradise City.” By 1991, Axl was so powerful that he was able to essentially coerce his record company, Geffen, into releasing two maniacally ambitious double-albums on the same day—Sept. 17, 1991—rather than a year or two apart, which is what the label wanted to do because it happened to make a lot more sense. The dual release of the Use Your Illusion albums was an act of hubris so brazen in its arrogance and yet strangely admirable in its artistic stubbornness that nobody had been fucking crazy enough to try anything like it before, or attempt to copy it in the nearly two decades since. (Yes, there was Bruce Springsteen’s little-loved Human Touch/Lucky Town experiment the following year, and Nelly’s Sweat/Suit dual-release in 2004, but at least those weren’t double albums.) We can debate about the greatness and importance of Nevermind—I’d rather we didn’t, but go ahead if you want—but there’s no arguing against the Use Your Illusion saga being a unique and historical event in rock history; in terms of excess, it planted a flag at the end of the world.
Grandiose piano-based balladry, queasily personal prog-punk epics, STD-ridden blues laments, “joke” songs about bitches lying dead in ditches, sleazy folk numbers denouncing anonymous and not-so-anonymous exes, surprisingly trenchant anti-war songs, furious (and libelous) attacks on journalists, guest vocals from the Blind Melon guy—Use Your Illusion left it all in. All Geffen could do was hope that Rose didn’t decide to unload even more stifling paranoia and motor-mouthed psycho-babble into additional songs, further delaying the release of these overstuffed, twin wooly mammoths into the wild.
The first taste the world got of Use Your Illusion was “You Could Be Mine,” which was released as a single in June of 1991 in connection with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which just so happened to be the other massively hyped piece of entertainment I was obsessed with that year. GNR was still months away from actually releasing the albums “You Could Be Mine” was intended to tease—it came from Use Your Illusion II, which was probably really confusing if you didn’t know about Use Your Illusion I—but the Arnold Schwarzenegger-assisted video did succeed in making the band a ubiquitous presence on MTV that summer as it toured the country. Not that GNR needed any help getting attention; during a St. Louis show in July, Rose reacted to what he perceived as “lame-ass security” by storming off the stage during a performance of “Rocket Queen,” the band’s 15th song of the night. The audience responded by trashing the place, causing $200,000 in damages; Rose was later arrested for inciting a riot. (He got his revenge by writing, “Fuck you, St. Louis!” in the liner notes of both Use Your Illusion albums.)
The riot suggested that GNR’s image was still gritty enough to convince fans that punching each other in the face was a reasonable response to the band playing for “only” 90-or-so minutes. But Use Your Illusion was the work of a band moving beyond its humble beginnings as heroin-scamming street scamps; soon the world would discover that “You Could Be Mine”—a lean, mean, and roaring rattlesnake shake in the vein of Appetite—had created a set of hard-rockin’ expectations that the albums, whatever their other merits, wouldn’t come close to living up to.
The defining single of GNR’s UYI period instead ended up being “November Rain,” which hit MTV one year after “You Could Be Mine.” Needlessly expensive, fatally overblown, and a clear product of self-destructive tunnel-vision, the video for “November Rain” already seemed laughably dated the first time MTV played it. It was as if Axl was dutifully following a checklist of things you didn’t want to see GNR involved with: opulent weddings, humungous orchestras, heavy-handed symbolism, Stephanie Seymour, and so on. Just five years earlier, GNR presented a much different image in the video for “Welcome To The Jungle,” which for me is the single most powerful thing the band ever did, even more powerful than Appetite as a whole. To this day, Guns N’ Roses as seen in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video is the only rock band to ever truly frighten me. Yes, it helped that I was only 10 at the time, but GNR was unnerving in a way that even the scariest of scary metal bands couldn’t touch. Metal bands were like slasher movies; GNR was like prison rape.
Nirvana is credited with making ’80s hair-metal bands look silly with Nevermind, but GNR had already done that with the “Welcome To The Jungle” video several years earlier. But even if Rose had grander ambitions by ’91, the young turks from Seattle threatening to make him a dinosaur before his time apparently didn’t threaten him. In fact, he was among the first rock stars to hop aboard the Nevermind bandwagon. In September 1991, GNR released the video for the relatively restrained power ballad “Don’t Cry,” which included clips of Rose wearing a Nirvana baseball cap. Rose wore the same cap in the making-of documentary, and apparently was an enthusiastic fan of his Geffen labelmates away from the cameras as well. In October, he dragged Slash to see Nirvana perform in Los Angeles and, according to Mick Wall’s W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose, he even did his little Axl dance while the band played. (Why oh why didn’t iPhones exist in 1991?)
Rose longed to hear Nirvana cover “Welcome To The Jungle”—he wanted it done “their way, however it is”—and put out a request for the band to play his 30th birthday party. Publicly, he reached out for Nirvana to join GNR and Metallica on their massive stadium tour, which would’ve been an incredible boon for any band trying to establish an audience at the time. (When Nirvana said no, Rose instead asked Soundgarden, another Seattle band he praised in the media before most mainstream rock fans had heard of the group.)
Say what you want about Axl Rose, but you can’t accuse him of not putting out the welcome mat for new pledges in the rock-star fraternity. More than anything, the guy just sounds like a fan; I know I would have asked Nirvana to play my birthday party in 1991 if I had the means. Unfortunately, Axl Rose embracing Nirvana seemed to confirm Kurt Cobain’s worst fears about signing with a major label. For Cobain, Axl Rose represented everything horrible about corporate rock. On a personal level, he found Rose to be a despicable human being, the epitome of racist, sexist, homophobic, proudly redneck and macho assholes that his music was intended to irritate and destroy.
That Rose was actually more complicated than that—he was just as much of a misfit as Cobain was growing up, and a fairly sensitive guy considering he once called his mother a “cunt” in the song “Bad Obsession”—was beside the issue. Rose signified old-guard, cock-rock superstardom, and Cobain was never more deliberate in his desire to dismantle that institution than in his outspoken criticism of Guns N’ Roses. Cobain’s aversion to turning into Axl Rose bordered on obsession; he claimed to the press that out of the $1 million he made when he was first flush with Nirvana’s success, a relatively modest $300,000 went toward a house, and only $80,000 was spent on other personal expenses. “That’s definitely not what Axl spends in a year,” Cobain said. (A seemingly contradictory story is found in Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain, where Cobain and Courtney Love spent two months in Fall 1992 at the fancy Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle, ringing up an extravagant $36,000 bill before being kicked out. The name they were staying under was Bill Bailey, also known as the original moniker of one Axl Rose.)
The irony of the Kurt/Axl rivalry is that Cobain—the wimpy feminist who took to wearing layers of sweaters in order to look less scrawny—was the clear aggressor while Rose, who demanded that any and all critics “suck his fucking dick” in “Get In The Ring” and once threatened to fight Vince Neil of Motley Crüe outside of Tower Records in L.A., seemed to shrink away from a man he seemed to have genuinely admired. It’s sort of sad, really, though Rose was not above insulting Cobain; when Nirvana turned down the GNR/Metallica “Get In The Ring” tour, Rose crabbed to Metallix magazine, “They would rather sit at home and shoot heroin with their bitch wives than tour with us.” (Artless wording aside, Rose wasn’t completely wrong.)
Things finally came to a head backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, where Cobain and Rose had a mythic encounter on par with some of the most iconic pop-star tête-à-têtes ever. It was like Bob Dylan smoking pot with The Beatles, or David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby, only this time the participants unequivocally hated each other. You could liken it to that scene in Heat where bank robber Robert De Niro has a cup of coffee with rival cop Al Pacino, but Axl and Kurt couldn’t even work up some grudging mutual respect. The details of the meeting are already well known to fans of Nirvana, GNR, and celebrity pissing matches: It started when Courtney Love, who was sitting with Cobain and their baby daughter Frances Bean, called out to Rose and his girlfriend Stephanie Seymour and snarkily asked if Axl would be the godfather of their child. Rather than acknowledge Courtney, Axl instead strode up to Kurt.
“You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement,” he growled, sounding more menacing in that one moment than at any point over the 150 minutes of the Use Your Illusion albums. (At least that’s how I imagine it.)
Without missing a beat, Cobain turned to his wife, and said sarcastically, “Okay, bitch. Shut up.” Not wanting to miss out on the insult-trading couples competition, Seymour disingenuously asked Love, “Are you a model?”
“No,” she replied. “Are you a brain surgeon?” Game, set, victory for Team Grunge.
If an analogy comes close to describing this hostile summit, it would be the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where Muhammad Ali was commonly seen as representing anti-war liberalism, and Joe Frazier was associated with the conservative establishment. Like Ali and Frazier, Kurt and Axl were bonded by their ability to turn their feelings of aggression, anger, alienation, and hatred into a highly lucrative vocation. But they came from fundamentally different worlds, and bringing them together offered a fascinating case study in what happens when two men who perfectly represent opposing sensibilities act out philosophical differences in the physical world.
Sounds pretty heady for an evening presided over by Dana Carvey, I know. But the way the “Kurt made Axl look dumb at the VMAs” story was gleefully reported and subsequently exaggerated by Cobain and the media says a lot about how Use Your Illusion (even more than Nevermind) had made GNR’s outlaw cool look like empty posturing in the space of a single year. That Nirvana proceeded to pull a memorable “fuck you” rock ’n’ roll move onstage by playing a few bars of “Rape Me” before launching into a perfectly sloppy version of “Lithium”—a devastating contrast with Rose dueting with Elton John on the highly choreographed “November Rain”—apparently wasn’t enough for Cobain, who shared his juicy behind-the-scenes Axl story on MTV, playing up Rose’s pomposity in what was depicted as a classic David and Goliath tale. In the clip below, which appears to have been recorded the day after the confrontation at a benefit show in Portland, Ore., Cobain talks about the “20 bodyguards” that were guarding Rose and how Axl was threatening him when he had “a little helpless child in his arms.” Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic also chimes in about Guns N’ Roses being “the establishment rock ’n’ roll,” and how “they want you to buy their packaged rebellion of sitting on a Harley-Davidson while you play a piano with a 41-piece orchestra, just like Emerson, Lake & Palmer did in 1978.” Nirvana clearly had been reading its own press clippings.
An interesting tangent to this story is Novoselic’s claim that he was threatened later that night by GNR bassist Duff McKagan. Apparently this actually happened; McKagan even made a belated public apology to Novoselic earlier this year. But even if he did challenge Novoselic to a celebrity bassist death match in the midst of a drink and drug-induced fury, McKagan might’ve deserved a little more slack than Nirvana gave him publicly. Before he moved to L.A. to join Guns N’ Roses, McKagan was an active member of the Seattle punk scene, playing in the Fartz, Fastbacks, and numerous other bands. After he hit it big, McKagan maintained ties with the local music community, hosting the members of Pearl Jam at his L.A. home on one of the band’s early tours, and even hanging out with Cobain on a plane ride to Seattle after Kurt fled rehab one last time in the final weeks of his life.
Obviously I don’t know Duff McKagan personally, but based on this clip and what I’ve read about him in various grunge-related books, I’ve got to say he seems like a solid-enough guy. And his anti-Nirvana rancor was apparently short-lived, given the empathy he felt for Cobain as he was circling the drain. But after 1991, the mere mention of the words “Duff McKagan” or anything else associated with Guns N’ Roses would inspire laughter and scorn among those who believed that the world wasn’t big enough for Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain to both be rock stars.
It’s convenient shorthand to paint Axl Rose as the meathead rock cliché and Kurt Cobain as the genuine artist, but what gets left out? Looking back, I see the crucial difference between Axl and Kurt being how they chose to act out their darkest, ugliest sides. Both men had troubled childhoods that led to adult lives distinguished by intense mood swings and a compulsive need to control their surroundings. Both men hated the press for spreading “lies” that often turned out to be true, and both were drawn to complicated women who created as much misery as ecstasy in their lives. Both men saw fame as a double-edged sword; it gave them the attention they craved after a lifetime of being ignored, and yet it also seemed to intensify their feelings of self-loathing. They were, to use medical terminology, a couple of fucked-up individuals, which both men expressed eloquently in their music.
But even in the saddest, most depressing Nirvana songs, Cobain always seemed like a sensitive, thoughtful man. Rose, on the other hand, wrote a lot of songs about being a bad person and not seeming all that sorry about it. Is this dichotomy merely a reflection of who these guys were? Maybe, but I find it hard to believe that Rose was clueless about the monstrous picture he often painted of himself in his music. He’d have to be a complete sociopath not to notice it—though even Patrick Bateman from American Psycho knew to hide his true self behind his love of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins-era Genesis tunes.
If Cobain’s songs dealt in surrealism and playful nonsense, Rose was all about directness and outrage. A song like “Dumb” seemed to touch on Cobain’s chemical romance with love (“My heart is broke, but I have some glue / Let me inhale, and mend it with you”), but he also claimed his lyrics didn’t mean anything; Rose made the connection between “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and his then-girlfriend Erin Everly unavoidable by putting her in the video. But if Rose loved Everly enough to write the best power ballad of all time about her (with an assist from Slash and Izzy Stradlin), there were also days that he hated her with equal passion—and he believed that was worth writing about as well. Cobain’s relationship with Love was far from healthy, but he never wrote the sick and twisted sequel to “Heart Shaped Box,” like Rose wrote many toxic retorts to “Sweet Child.”
I’m not saying one approach is preferable, just that Axl Rose should be recognized for the role he played in creating his own public image, including the parts that people like Kurt Cobain despised. Perhaps he was too honest; as laughable as the Use Your Illusion video trilogy of “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain,” and “Estranged” ultimately is, it shows Rose self-consciously grappling with his suicidal impulses, childhood traumas, and proclivity toward domestic violence on a large and public canvas. Not only was he open about the demons that had stalked him from Indiana to the Sunset Strip, he freely admitted that sometimes he enjoyed them, or at least was unwilling to sacrifice them at the altar of political correctness, no matter what effect they had on how he was perceived.
The best example of this is the most controversial song Rose ever wrote, the radioactive “One In A Million” from 1988’s GN’R Lies. An account of Rose’s first days in Los Angeles, “One In A Million” is an uncomfortably frank but bracingly honest depiction of how a “small town white boy” reacts to being confronted by a number of offending parties, including police, “niggers,” immigrants, and “faggots.” Rose just wants them to get out of his way, so he can make a living in the big city. Sympathetic critics (of which there weren’t many when it came to “One In A Million”) could interpret the song as a comment on bigotry, but Rose derailed such efforts whenever he tried to defend it, saying in interviews that he was “pro-heterosexual” and that the “niggers” comment referred specifically to black people that hassle you at the Greyhound station. Other times he simply claimed “One In A Million” was a joke, which only made the song more offensive.
The power of “One In A Million” lies in it being an intolerant song that doesn’t endorse intolerance. Only a complete fucking idiot listens to “One In A Million” and nods in agreement. It’s not a persuasive song in the least, and it doesn’t seem that the protagonist is intended to be likeable in any way. “One In A Million” is a song nobody would ever admit relating to. What makes it so disturbing is that Rose doesn’t tip his hand; there’s no catharsis pointing toward a change of heart by the end, which is why Cobain and millions of others concluded the worst about Rose when “One In A Million” was released. But if Rose really was just a cardboard-cutout racist, homophobic bad guy, why would he have bothered to expose himself as such by releasing this song? Rose would’ve had to be the least self-aware pop star ever to not anticipate the shit-storm “One In A Million” caused; you have to assume that he either didn’t care, or saw value in shining a light on the dimmest regions of his psyche. Was he trying to shame himself into being a better person? If so, did it work?
Cobain was right; Rose felt that the world owed him something, and that was the fulfillment of his dreams in exchange for a painfully detailed account of his nightmares. In “One In A Million,” Rose sings, “It’s been such a long time since I knew right from wrong / It’s all a means to an end, I keep it movin’ along.” By the end of 1991, I chose Kurt Cobain over Axl Rose because I wanted someone who did know the difference between right and wrong. But even if Cobain’s music changed lives, Nevermind failed in saving the man who created it. It also couldn’t touch Axl; he’s the one who is still movin’ along.
What Happened Next? Nirvana was the first grunge band to achieve superstar status, but Pearl Jam quickly became the defining group of the label. Next week will look at Pearl Jam’s ascendancy during the grunge summer of love in ’92, when the band toured with Lollapalooza and dominated MTV, and how Pearl Jam’s subsequent legacy has shaped mainstream rock music, for better or worse.