Axl staggers through the blizzard, armed and drunk, begging for frostbite and hypothermia beneath only tights, boots, a cape, and what appears to be a Sgt. Pepper uniform.
He thinks back to his baptism. He doesn’t remember it, of course. He was just baby Billy Bailey back then. Axl imagines his infant body sinking into holy water, and he wonders if the priest could’ve seen the fragile, spellbinding devil lurking behind baby Billy’s tender blue eyes.
Axl freezes. The revolver trembles in his hand.
We’re always hearing tales of troubled stars staging their own deaths: Elvis, Jim Morrison, Andy Kaufman, 2Pac. But in Swimming With Dolphins: The Legend of Axl Rose, our anti-hero stages his own purgatory.
September, 1991: Guns N’ Roses were the biggest & baddest rock band on Earth. Their motor hummed on heroin blues, glam metal, gutter punk, and power folk, and their pilot was a hypersensitive, banshee-voiced Batman villain who called himself Axl Rose.
Though GN’R had pulverized hordes of softer party-rock hacks on their way to the top, scrappy new bands from America’s muddy northwest were charging ahead, threatening to dethrone Axl and exile him to the State Fair Circuit. These Young Northwestern Turks were leaner, hungrier, and in the eyes of many culture cops, far more righteous. Seattle poster-boy Kurt Cobain of Nirvana could, for example, sing a song from the point of view of a rapist, and most listeners understood that it was meant as condemnation. Axl, meanwhile, made such a convincing sleazebag, and seemed to have such a blast doing it, that critics got a lot queasier and more judgmental when he sang his dark, tragic songs of hatred, pain, and violence.
In order to hold his throne, Axl figured he not only had to shine an even brighter spotlight on his sensitive side, he also had to go bigger than ever before. Like Led Zeppelin epic, Elton John fantastic, and Michael Jackson kingly, all at once. He commandeered the next available vehicle, which happened to be the music video for Guns N’ Roses’ power ballad “Don’t Cry” (from the band’s album Use Your Illusion I, the #2 album in the country behind only Use Your Illusion II.) It would be merely the first part of a 24-minute rock-and-soap opera video trilogy, based on Axl’s friend Del’s short story, as well as Axl’s True Hollywood Story. It would unfold over a two-year span. And at the end of it all, if Axl was indeed stripped of his crown by Kurt Cobain or any other of those grungy young punks from Seattle, at least he would lose it on his own maniacally spectacular terms.
Now there’s “jumping the shark”—when a widely-beloved cultural entity crosses the coolness Rubicon into a realm where redemption is damn-near impossible—and then there’s what Axl did. Axl jumped the shark with glorious insanity, taking not just the rest of his band with him, but also the very idea of bad-ass rock superstardom itself. The phrase “jumping the shark” feels woefully inadequate to describe what Axl did—what he continues to do, and will do until the end of time:
Axl is “swimming with dolphins.”
Swimming with dolphins – idiom : when mad geniuses, typically of the pop star variety, plunge off the artistic and psychological deep end to become adrift, lost at sea, islands unto themselves, struggling to connect with fellow human beings, perhaps only able to connect with other non-human beings of higher intelligence.
Axl Rose was not the first mad genius pop star to swim with dolphins—Brian Wilson and Sly Stone went before him, for instance—however, he performed this act more magnificently and poetically than anyone before or since, meanwhile creating its perfect audio-visual metaphor. (And make no mistake: Axl Rose is absolutely a genius, even if his genius consists primarily of being “Axl Rose.”)
W. Axl Rose actually died in 1990. Just like those “Paul is dead” urban legends with The Beatles in the 1960s, the clues are all over his band’s oeuvre. Unlike the Paul McCartney legends, Axl was not replaced by a live human impostor, but by a ghoulish undead incarnation of himself.
Axl is buried in the same cemetery where he and Stephanie once enjoyed picnics, in happier times, before she’d have to wrestle firearms from his frantic fingers. Axl’s naked ghost runs around his shadowy grave, lifting his cupped, quivering hands as if trying to catch the pale sunlight shining through his tombstone. His hands did that same thing during therapy sessions, like the one where he wore his Chili Peppers T-shirt, his Nirvana baseball cap, and his floral-patterned nut-huggers.
Axl attends his own funeral, walking with a cane. This may or may not be the same Axl who can walk into mirrors, like Orpheus.
His tombstone reads simply:
W. AXL ROSE
1962 – 1990
Dead at 28, one year older than Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, et al. Still, much too young to let love break his heart.
Were it more descriptive, Axl’s tombstone might say:
HOPELESS ROMANTIC, RAGING MISANTHROPE.
Or: PSYCHO-AMERICAN SUPERSTAR.
Does genius really require a touch of madness, as Aristotle said? Or was Aristotle merely an arrogant, defensive jerk who tried to rationalize his own behavior using pithy axioms? (Hint: “Axl Rose” is an anagram of “oral sex;” “Aristotle” is an anagram of “lies to art.”)
Axl marries Stephanie in a big fancy church, and he’s dressed like an 18th Century Austrian Prince. It’s still pretty rock n’ roll ‘cuz even though his groomsmen are technically black tie, they look like they just rolled out of a Sunset Strip coke orgy.
The ceremony is absolutely lovely. (For a second Slash thought he lost the rings, but phew! Duff was wearing them on his pinky for safe keeping!) Yet at the reception, just as everyone’s starting to have the time of their lives, a torrential rainstorm crashes the celebration. Not just any rain, either. Awful, nasty rain. Worse than acid rain: Cold November rain. Rain that won’t burn your skin but will rip open every last scar on your soul.
Duff seeks shelter beneath a table to escape the terrible rain as quickly as possible. Another dude dives through the wedding cake rather than spend one instant longer exposed to this ghastly precipitation.
Wedding rain should be good luck, but it doesn’t prevent Stephanie from dying soon afterward under mysterious circumstances. Axl, devastated, kneels by her freshly-filled grave as more rain—presumably, also of the cold November variety—falls upon him.
According to myth, Arion was the #1 Dionysian poet in Corinth. An ancient Greek rock star, essentially.
Once upon a time, Arion wished to compete in a song contest in Sicily, hoping to win the grand prize (a bunch of gold) and graciously share the pleasures of his god-bestowed talent with others (though not the gold).
Periander, King of Corinth, bade his bard to stay. “No doubt you are one bad mother,” the king told his poet. “And indeed, the world should only be richer should you share your bad-ass songs of fucking and getting fucked up and fucking shit up. Yet I also fear that this competition may come at a great price to you, Arion. I cannot help but be reminded of Rosie Perez’s wise words in White Men Can’t Jump: ‘Sometimes when you win, you really lose.’”
“A just concern, your majesty,” Arion replied. “Yet I am reminded of my own wise words, from my song ‘Speedball Boogie’: ‘Bangin’ ‘round the world / like a human ricochet / for a bad little boy like me / mama, it’s the only way.’” And with that, he ignored his king’s advice and hauled ass to Sicily.
Arion won the song contest in a landslide by performing a catchy, anthemic composition called “Paradise City.” Alas, when he set sail back to Corinth, he happened to catch a ride with pirates who planned to murder him and steal his gold.
“Unless you’ve already bought a cemetery plot back on land,” the pirates told Arion, “we must insist you cast yourself into the sea.”
“Fair enough,” Arion replied, “but as the #1 Dionysian poet in the realm, I should probably go out with a song. I’ll just need a minute to change my wardrobe.”
Arion clothed himself in a jeweled red bandana, a Charles Manson T-shirt, and a kilt that fell around his thighs in graceful folds. Then he looked down into the deep blue sea and sang:
Athena put my lyre in the ground,
I can’t play it anymore,
Into that darkling flood I’m bound,
Feels like I’m knocking on Elysium’s door.
So saying, he leapt off the ship and into the churning water.
Upon hearing Arion’s beautiful song, a pod of dolphins had begun swimming toward the pirates’ ship as if spellbound. Then while Arion floundered in the waves, one of those dolphins swam to him, offered its back to the poet, and carried him safely to shore.
As the dolphin returned to sea, Arion thanked the creature profusely and promised to donate his prize monies from any future song contests to various dolphin-related charities.
Arion is an anagram of “A nor I”– neither an indefinite article nor a definite personal pronoun. Like how Axl Rose is certainly no everyman, yet neither is he ever actually “Axl Rose.”
After Stephanie dies, Axl becomes estranged to the world. He hides out and mopes in his dark, empty mansion, and for some reason a SWAT team is hunting him. Earlier—or maybe later, who knows—Axl’s escorted from his home in broad daylight by people in all-white clothing who take him to an idyllic place full of more people in all-white clothing. Heaven’s asylum, maybe?
Somehow Axl ends up on the deck of an oil tanker in the middle of the ocean. He climbs atop the railing and leaps into the water. His rhythm guitarist throws him a life saver, and Axl throws it away. Another dude rows toward Axl in a lifeboat, but his efforts are also in vain.
Then the dolphins come. And suddenly Axl’s troubles are forgotten. The majestic creatures frolic around him, fancy-free, unconcerned by trifles like heartache and rock stardom. “Don’t panic,” the dolphins tell him. “Swim with us.”
Axl grabs a fin and swims with the dolphins.
Slash rises through the surface of the ocean and unleashes a triumphant guitar solo. A Coast Guard helicopter swoops in. By now Axl has decided he’d like to be rescued after all, and he’s hoisted safely into the chopper. Ultimately, all the ocean is able to claim of Axl is one of his white Converse high-tops with ‘AXL’ printed in big red letters on the heel and tongue. No doubt he has dozens more of those back home.
After the final piano chords fade into Heaven, Axl sits in a bandana and bathrobe, smiling at us through the fourth wall. A dolphin friend stands beside him, clicking happily. As this epic journey concludes, Axl leaves us with a handwritten note:
“LOSE YOUR ILLUSIONS, LOVE, AXL – GN’R—93.”
By the time Axl went estranged, Kurt Cobain had indeed become the de facto king of rock n’ roll. But Kurt despised the crown and all its attendant consequences, and eventually he shot his head off in April 1994. If Kurt were still alive, he’d likely be swimming with dolphins too. A lot of Kurt’s admirers like to think he made Axl Rose obsolete, and Kurt did overtly try to make Axl obsolete as well, publicly trashing his rival as a talentless joke. Of course, it was impossible for Kurt Cobain to make Axl Rose obsolete. Axl died four years before Kurt did, and Axl survives all these years later. Kurt, quoting Neil Young in his suicide note, thought it “better to burn out than fade away,” as if he had to choose one over the other. Axl’s been doing both for over two decades now.
Kurt’s logical heir apparent seemed to be Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, a Seattle band that was arguably more popular than Nirvana, though not considered quite as “cool” by the tastemakers of the time. But Eddie wanted none of that monarchy business either, and he dumped the crown on the ground without even trying it on for size.
By the summer of ’94, the kids were understandably hungry for rock n’ roll that was still hard and rebellious, and yet not nearly so miserable—maybe even FUN! In August of that year, the kids threw their very own Woodstock, where a trio of Bay Area snot-rocket shooters called Green Day barged on stage, played some insanely catchy punk-pop, flung mud clumps at the audience, and pogoed off as rock’s Next Big Thing. Bandleader Billie Joe Armstrong gleefully seized the crown that Eddie had tossed aside, and he stuck it up his butt and pranced around MTV for a year or so.
Meanwhile in Rock n’ Roll Purgatory, Axl Rose recorded a pointless cover of “Sympathy for the Devil” for that movie where Tom Cruise made vampires sexy.
The kids quickly grew bored of Billie Joe’s shenanigans. They decided he was now a symbol of “selling out” and pseudo-punk poseurdom (even though most of those kids only heard “real” punk bands like Operation Ivy in the first place because Green Day introduced them). The kids didn’t quite dethrone Billie Joe so much as they simply stopped caring whether or not rock n’ roll had any kind of monarch whatsoever anymore.
As the ‘90s went over the hill, the neo-bubblegum of Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys swarmed the mainstream, pushing rock into the uber-aggro Beast Mode of Korn and Limp Bizkit. The latter band’s front-douche, Fred Durst, became rock n’ roll’s unfortunate poster boy for a while—up until about the time he soundtracked some fiery riots at Woodstock ’99—but nobody’d ever call him a king, not with a straight face anyway.
At the dusk of the millennium, Axl gathered some new Guns N’ Roses after all the original ones got sick of his bullshit. New GN’R did a song called “Oh My God” for the soundtrack of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s apocalyptic, Satan-smashing blockbuster End of Days. The song’s a killer jolt of cyberpunk-metal, an unexpected yet logical step in the band’s evolution, but most listeners failed, and continue to fail, to give much of a crap about it.
As the 21st century dawned, a psycho-troll from Detroit named Eminem came close to being the new Axl, but ultimately he was too much of a jerky boy, and besides, he was a rapper with rock n’ roll edges, not a bona fide rock star. Then came Motor City blues-punk Jack White, and though he could wail like a witch and shred like a demon, and sometimes he was kind of a jerk, he ain’t no Axl, not by a country mile.
Billie Joe flirted with the crown again in 2004, when he became a pep-rally ringmaster for kids who hated George W. Bush—many of whom were too young to care what “real” punk was, but unfortunately also too young to vote for John Kerry. Yet after rocking too many arenas full of rebellious young patriots, the influence went to Billie Joe’s head, and he decided he’d rather be less of a mischief-making, grenade-throwing pop-culture trickster, and more of a planet-hugging, award-winning Bono Junior.
Today we’ve got Dave Grohl, leader of the Foo Fighters, and Kurt Cobain’s ex-drummer. He’s arguably the world’s biggest rock star at the moment, but he’s more of an ambassador than a king. He’s repeatedly dubbed “the nicest guy in rock,” and rock n’ roll royalty can’t be the nicest anything. Most rock fans would rather have a few beers with Dave and listen to him talk about Nirvana than crank his latest record.
Perhaps one day we’ll see another king of rock, or better yet, a queen finally: the 50-foot daughter of PJ Harvey & Iggy Pop, perhaps. That would fucking rule. Alas, it feels like the world has moved on from that kind of worship.
Axl worked on Chinese Democracy, his follow-up to the Use Your Illusion albums, for forever. Once enough people stopped believing (or caring) that he’d actually finish it, Axl said fuck it and finished it in 2008. It’s an intermittently ass-kicking yet ultimately underwhelming album, bloated by more than a few piano ballads that aren’t half as good as “Estranged,” let alone “November Rain.” The album should’ve been the final splat in Axl’s monumental shark-jump, but remember: Axl’s swimming with dolphins. So Chinese Democracy floated around the pop-cultural ocean for 15 minutes without making any waves. In purgatory, no one can hear you splat.
In 2012, the Real Guns N’ Roses were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by none other than Billie Joe Armstrong. Axl stayed home from the ceremony, and his old bandmates played some greatest hits with Myles Kennedy, one of the few rock vocalists bold (or foolish) enough to make a career of singing like Axl Rose.
(As of this writing, the Real GN’R has reunited to attempt an American tour. The over-under for their next implosion is currently set at the July 14th, 2016 gig in Philadelphia.)
Axl’s still dead, but he’ll never die. He’ll end up in Vegas, fat and happy, singing from his glitzy piano bench six nights a week while a rotating cast of ringers thrashes around him. He’ll get in a few drunken casino fistfights with slightly-less-famous celebrities.
After he finally retires, people will start googling “Is Axl Rose dead?” They won’t find any obituaries, but they won’t find any evidence to the contrary, either. Axl will have spirited himself away to his own private island, somewhere between Bali and Madagascar, spending his days swimming in eternity with the only soulmates he’s ever known.
Joseph P. O’Brien is the managing editor of FLAPPERHOUSE. On twitter he’s @JosephPOB. He lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife & their very popular dog. He dressed as Axl Rose for Halloween in 1991.