I sometimes wonder if Axl Rose sat Slash down in a room with no one else watching and apologized for talking about the “niggers” at the Los Angeles Greyhound station on the song “One in a Million.” I wonder if Axl Rose looked Slash in the eyes and told him he didn’t mean it. That what he was really trying to say was, “I found myself afraid,” or, “For once, I wasn’t as big as everyone made me out to be, and that is a terrifying tree to be shaken out of.” I wonder, mostly, if Axl Rose has ever felt any regret for anything. But particularly the moment when he wrote “One in a Million,” and then sang “Maybe a Greyhound / Could be my way / Police and niggers / That’s right / Get out of my way.”
It is a fascinating choice, to group both police and “niggers.” The song “One in a Million” is on the album Lies, which came out in the fall of 1988. The song is an outlier on the album — it’s the only song that Axl Rose wrote by himself, using just the bottom two strings of a guitar. It’s a song that the rest of the band pleaded with him to take off the album, but there it is anyway. In the second verse, Rose bemoans immigrants and homosexuals, singing: “They make no sense to me / They come to our country / And think they’ll do as they please / Like start some mini Iran / Or spread some fucking disease.” The song got Rose the controversy he seemed to be courting but left a well-deserved stain on the rest of the album, which was released nearly a full year after Guns N’ Roses released Appetite for Destruction.
I was listening to Appetite while sitting on the hood of a pal’s car in the kind of place in Ohio where the miles of tall grass stretch between houses, which sometimes have Confederate flags swinging in the wind outside their doors. On this particular night, we found ourselves outside a diner, and the car was from the early ’90s, which means it had an old tape player, which means we needed a portable CD player with an adapter attached to a cassette, and those things were always so unpredictable, but it was summer and we wanted to hear some old Guns because Axl Rose has a voice that sounds like it’s crawling out of somewhere bad on the way to somewhere worse.
No one ever talks about sequencing anymore, or at least not nearly as much as I wish people would. The way “Mr. Brownstone” bleeds into “Paradise City” on Appetite and how it seems like that’s when the album finally kicks into high gear, when the band decides they’re no longer fucking around. Sure, there ain’t too many better “kick in the door” songs to open an album than “Welcome to the Jungle,” particularly if the album is your first and you want to rattle some cages. But I love most the way the song about getting high rubs up against the song about getting your little slice of freedom, wherever that freedom may be. Even if that freedom is something you do not arrive at when sober, but wish you did. It was “Paradise City” that was playing when my pals and I were called “niggers” in a small Ohio town in the early 2000s while leaning on a car from the ’90s and playing an album from the ’80s. A milkshake was thrown in the direction of the car that peeled away right after the slur was hurled, and there was a brief sprint after the vehicle before it tore down a road, kicking up brown dust in its wake. I only began to run, but then stopped. I had been called worse before and imagined I would be called worse again. There, pulling me back, was the guitar solo. Slash, after the second chorus.
The thing about Slash is that not everyone knew he was black. On the night of the diner incident, not all of my pals were black. My buddy Chris, who was half black, like Slash, might not pass as black to a stranger until he told them himself. When musicians in 1988 expressed shock that Slash would play guitar on a song like “One in a Million,” that’s when people realized his lineage. I guess that’s the way of it. You are many things until you are just the one thing. The small-town Ohio police came to the diner where we were, after the car peeled away. We gave them our story. They were skeptical, asked what we were doing in town, why there was a milkshake sprawled on the ground in front of us. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s interesting to place “police and niggers” in the same box.
Appetite for Destruction is the first album that felt like rebellion for me, at a time when I think I needed to find a bit of rebellion for myself. I’d heard the hits as a kid, of course. My oldest brother was into rock — the Headbangers Ball type of rock that had big, chunky guitars and menacing lyrics. But to hear the album as a whole project is an entirely different thing. It kind of presents a landscape of a very specific type: Los Angeles, but on fire. Everything urgent, with no exact definition for why. Listening to the album in its entirety feels like being in a crowd where other people start running full-speed in a direction. We do not ask why people are running before we join; we simply know there is a reason to get out, and we chase that reason.
From track one to track 12, there are about 10 hits, and they span every type. “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” with its opening guitar licks that jump on the spine and crawl their way up. The sexy “Rocket Queen,” with its salacious and often-disputed backstories. The dark and touchable “My Michelle.” It’s all there, any flavor you might want from a band, provided by four loud, shitty dudes who tried briefly to take over the world and succeeded for a few months.
The tug-of-war between Axl and Slash is what makes the album great: Axl’s voice itself an instrument, and Slash, trying to drown it with the controlled fury of his guitar. If you look at the push and pull of sound as a battle for supremacy, the album makes more sense. Axl Rose’s voice the water, Slash’s guitar the levee trying to hold it all back.
The title says it all, I suppose. Appetite for Destruction was made by a band that was never meant to last. Guns N’ Roses are fascinating for many reasons, but in part because they could exist only at the time they existed, and maybe never again. The gift and curse of Appetite was the way it was received and how that fed the ambition of Axl Rose, who went from wanting to conquer rock music to wanting a piece of everything. The band was never built for endurance. They were built for a 100 mile per hour sprint at a brick wall and a hope that they could piece themselves together after the wreckage cleared. Appetite was all they could wring out of themselves perfectly. An album where every song was building toward the next.
Lies was fine, though I can’t listen to it much, with the exception of “Patience.” I am not under any impression that Axl Rose aches for my forgiveness, or the forgiveness of anyone black, or anyone immigrant, or anyone queer. I’ve never needed him to apologize, though over the years he has spit out some half-hearted apologies (including, in 1992, the sentiment that he wanted to offend only the specific black people he was angry at in the song.)
After Lies, Guns released the dual albums Use Your Illusion I & II, released on the same day but sold separately. Both had great songs, particularly “November Rain,” “Civil War,” and an iconic cover of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” But the problem was the sprawl. Guns N’ Roses operated best as a band trapped in a small space, screaming their way out. The two albums had just too much filler, with 30 songs and nine singles released between them. It felt exhausting and calculated. The band that seemed like they just woke up angry and loud, piecing together a long, drawn-out puzzle. It was good music, but not exciting. I liked Guns N’ Roses most when they knew what they were doing but didn’t seem like they knew what they were doing.
This is what makes Appetite such a good and rare album. It is a band at both its inception and its peak, which is something we don’t always get anymore. A band just starting out, but also fearless. The band members are old now, and they’re back as they were once. Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan rejoined Rose for a reunion tour in 2016. Earlier this year, original drummer Steven Adler joined for some shows. I caught one, mostly out of a mix of nostalgia and curiosity. These tours are tricky and difficult in that they almost always feel like a money grab, no matter how genuinely the band seems to be taking it. It’s tough to see Guns N’ Roses as exciting as they once were. Axl’s voice still cuts through the night sky, and Slash’s guitar is still clean and pure in its violence. But they’re old now, worn down by the years of controversies and band in-fighting. They are the rare band that started out great and then went into a slow decline. But even with all of this, during “Paradise City,” in the chorus, before Slash took his time with a blistering guitar solo, Axl screamed “Take me hooooooome” like he meant it, and then turned to his old lead guitarist with a half-smirk, before Slash nodded, a small smile visible under his low, iconic top hat. He stepped to the center of the stage and unleashed his guitar on the audience, moving nothing but his fingers. Axl stepped back and smiled wide. I would like to imagine that somewhere, in some room, they’ve made nice for good.