How Will History Remember Guns N' Roses?
GN'R 2016: Axl & Slash's wild bunch rides again...
Katarina Benzova/Courtesy of Rogers & Cowan PR
For some Houston rock fans, the excitement for Guns N’ Roses’ approaching concert this Friday at NRG Stadium — the first time Slash, Axl Rose and Duff McKagan will share a stage in Houston since the Astrodome in August 1992 — is tempered somewhat by the disquieting realization that this could be one of the last times the Bayou City’s biggest public arena will be filled to the brim by screaming, stomping, whistling, air-guitaring rock fans, if not the very last ever. On one hand, it’s impossible to deny rock’s shrinking position in the pop marketplace, as bands with GN’R’s raw animal magnetism and box-office clout come along less and less often, but on the other is the charge that will come over the crowd when they hear “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Paradise City,” no matter what a bizarre journey it's been to even get to this point. For one night, at least, the balance tilts toward GN’R, so it seemed worth wondering how one of the last bands standing who can rock such a huge crowd might be remembered decades from when they've finally hung up their bandanna and top hat for good.
How history remembers Guns N’ Roses may depend on how future historians reflect on rock itself, and it’s not looking good. If rock’s two- or maybe three-generation reign as the dominant force in Western popular music is reduced to a paragraph or two, it’s hard to imagine how GN’R can beat out the likes of the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. Their best shot at immortality is probably their timing: GN’R showed up just as the two styles that would unseat rock as youth culture’s preferred soundtrack, hip-hop and dance music, started breaking out of the underground; Axl, Slash et al. served as reminders of what made rock great in the first place — rebellion, danger, killer riffs — just as its hold on younger imaginations started slipping. Ultimately the band couldn’t save rock and roll, or even themselves, but their efforts kept it going strong a few years longer than it might have otherwise lasted, both with their own music (through the Use Your Illusion years, anyway) and reflexively as the ideal foil for Nirvana. And in Appetite For Destruction, they left behind an album for the ages.
Guns N' Roses' history is still being written. But unfortunately, in the words of Gotham DA Harvey Dent, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Once a respected rock outfit, the band's name has already been tainted by Axl Rose's persistent shenanigans, which stopped being cute more than two decades ago. I doubt anyone expects a comeback and return to form any time soon, so the band's reputation is likely to continue its decades-long downward trend.
GN’R will be remembered fondly for the exact same reason their nemesis Nirvana will be remembered fondly. Both bands put out enough great songs during their run to live on forever, but neither stuck around long enough to overstay their welcome. We remember each band not so much for what they did, but for what they could have done. It's the burn out vs. fade away argument, and GN’R most certainly burned out. The band has so many signature rock classics ("Paradise City," "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Welcome to the Jungle") and a classic ballad ("November Rain") to its credit, GN’R's legacy is more than secure.
Music history, appreciation, and criticism is as much reflective of the time it’s written as it is the subjects it covers. It’s a fluid notion, just look at how Paul Simon seems to be most known for cultural appropriation or internet memes in 2016 compared to where he stood even 15 years ago. Decades of hindsight can’t take away their popularity or importance at the time, but as times and tastes change, it does appear as though their influence on the current landscape has faded as of late. Regardless, classic-rock radio will never stop playing them, and there will always be a new round of teenagers who discover hard rock through “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” They’ll never be as respected as Zeppelin or considered as important as Nirvana, but they’ll never really die or fade away. There’s no shame in that.
History will remember Guns N' Roses for an equal mix of all the right and all the wrong reasons. A hair band with legitimate talent, GN’R showed amazing promise for longevity: a singer with impressive range, a lead guitarist who could straight-up shred, and raw performance ability that sold out arena after arena. There are many songs from their heyday that are beloved by fans and the general public alike, and in contrast to many other rock hits of the time, those beloved songs have aged surprisingly well. More than just singles, the band can actually boast a handful of strong albums. Unfortunately, that very boasting is no doubt what ultimately did the band in. Their over-the-top arguments and interpersonal clashes, excessive drug use, absurd hedonism, and lackluster actualization of their potential sadly have made GN’R a punchline to many jokes — one mention of "Buckethead" or "Fat Axl" and his crazy temper, and all credibility is lost. GN'R's fingerprint on pop culture is arguable at best, but there is absolutely no argument against the songs that still endure.
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