The Secret History of William Axl Rose, Pt 1: Things Get Worse Here Every Day

There are 101 reasons to love Axl Rose. His music, his voice, his antics, his […]

David Zahl / 10.25.10
There are 101 reasons to love Axl Rose. His music, his voice, his antics, his hair, his moves, you name it – all undeniably fascinating. One of the unsung aspects of his career, however, is the extent to which it illustrates the Christian understanding of Judgment and Love. I’m serious. The crushing power of the Law (the omnipresent “oughts” of life), in both its sacred and secular forms, finds unfortunate yet serious traction in the saga of Guns N Roses, with Axl Rose as its main object (and part of its subject). Yet his story also touches on the inspiring nature of love, the beauty and pain of our inner divisions, and even the unshakeable power of the cross. Honest.

Axl grew up in Lafayette, Indiana as the adopted son of a Pentecostal preacher in whose care he experienced a truly merciless form of Christianity, if it can even be called such. All Law and no Grace, in other words, the sort of Bible church situation which majored in behavior control and church attendance, attempting to keep the lid on the human condition so tightly that it caused vicious splits in the lives of its followers. Axl once described it as follows:

“My particular church was filled with self-righteous hypocrites who were child abusers and child molesters. These were people who’d been damaged in their own childhoods and in their lives. These were people who were finding God but still living with their damage and inflicting it upon their children. I had to go to church anywhere from three to eight times a week. I even taught Bible school while l was being beaten and my sister was being molested. We’d have televisions one week, then my step-dad would throw them out because they were satanic. l wasn’t allowed to listen to music. Women were evil. Everything was evil. I had a really distorted view of sexuality and women. I remember the first time l got smacked for looking at a woman.”

So Axl is sadly the product of the worst kind of religion: ultra-bootcamp Pelagianism compartmentalized to the point of cruelty (not to mention completely at odds with its founder). It wouldn’t be a leap to say that the distance that young Axl had to travel to escape, both geographically and lifestyle-wise, correlates pretty closely to the toxicity of his circumstances in Lafayette. As soon as he could, and after finding out that the preacher in question wasn’t even his biological father, he hopped a bus to LA, following his friend Izzy Stradlin, where he proceeded to dive headfirst into one of the more decadent scenes in the country. Or so the story goes. We all know that strict parents often produce rebellious kids, that the Law does indeed tend to increase the trespass, but still, there is only one Axl Rose. And his story just begins there.


Once in LA, he began singing in bands (a skill he’d learned in church, ironically), and eventually found his way to the rest of the guys in what would become Guns N Roses, a group of fellow outcasts who shared not only his dereliction, but (some of) his talent, and with whom he would experience heretofore unknown degrees of acceptance, affirmation, inspiration and let’s face it – love. Freed of his constraints and surrounded by a relatively supportive environment, the creativity exploded. The five band members lived together in a single room and wrote their first album there; believe it or not, Appetite for Destruction is one of those rare rock n roll collaborations where ego didn’t play a big role. In fact, all of the songwriting credits were split between the five members, virtually unheard of in these situations.

So, debauched as it was, the fruit of this “fellowship” was enormous productivity. There was none of the self-consciousness that would mark their other records, none of the pressure. In a certain sense, Appetite for Destruction can be viewed as a triumph of love over judgment, grace over law, the fruit of Axl finally finding the encouragement that the church had denied him. I guess you could say that where “instruction” had failed, “destruction” flourished…!

Still, as glorious as the music and songwriting on Appetite is, it would be far less so were it not for Axl’s utterly charismatic persona; he was a natural born rock star if ever there was one, emerging fully formed from the opening scream of “Welcome to the Jungle.” The record is a veritable barrage of his preternatural talent. His lyrics are in turns biting and poetic, never dumb, and occasionally even flashing some of the intellectual bent he would showcase on Use Your Illusion. He could communicate unbelievable rage one minute (I don’t think I’d ever been afraid of a rock song before I heard “Out To Get Me”…) and real sweetness the next (“Think About You”). His attitudes toward women were nothing short of schizophrenic, from unlistenable misogyny one song (“My Michelle”), to worshipful adoration the next (“Sweet Child O Mine”), and sometimes both in the same song (“Rocket Queen”). These contradictions, which would find full expression on Use Your Illusion, work together to provide a stunning portrait of human conflictedness. And while there was no explicit religious content – beyond the cross on the cover, that is(!) – there was certainly a religious subtext. The world is portrayed as a predatory malevolent jungle, deeply regressive in nature (“things get worse here everyday”) which produces an honest-to-god yearning for salvation in human beings, aka Paradise City aka HOME. It’s all there.


Axl could sell the wildly divergent thematics because 1. They were genuine/true to life and 2. He possessed an absurdly dexterous voice. The response to Appetite was rapturous, of course, and never to be repeated by anyone, ever (it remains the top-selling debut record of all time). The authenticity and artistry leapt out of the speakers, casting a pall on the many pretenders who made up the LA hair-metal scene, and fixing itself in the hearts and minds of several generations to come.

Unfortunately, for guys who seemed to care so little, the members of Guns N Roses would soon begin to care far too much. And as Axl would come to find out, he had not escaped the crushing power of judgment – it had merely been silenced for a short period. It would come back soon, wearing non-religious clothes and ready to use his own success against him. It was a battle he would lose, but a battle that no one has ever won. Except for perhaps one guy, a long time ago.

UPDATED: Read part two. And then read part three!

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34 responses to “The Secret History of William Axl Rose, Pt 1: Things Get Worse Here Every Day”

  1. Margaret E says:

    Wow, DZ, this is brilliant stuff! Love G&R, and I really love this post. Can't wait for Part 2. Woohoo!

  2. Ron says:

    Nice, DZ. Great post.

  3. Matt and Megan Magill says:

    Well said champ! That guy reached something deep, deep inside me and I've never really put words to it. Might not be able to but your post is an encouragement to try….

  4. L.R.E. Larkin says:

    love it DZ; looking forward to more!

  5. John Zahl says:

    Dave, this is great stuff! I can't wait for pt. 2.

    When are you going to give us a book: M'bird's guide to:

    Axl Rose
    Michael Jackson
    Brian Wilson & the Beach Boys
    The Beatles
    Phil Spector
    Bob Dylan

  6. Jeff Hual says:

    I actually saw GNR live–Use Your Illusion Tour, 1991, Birmingham, AL. They were playing music from the album months before the release date, so we were experiencing a whole new side of GNR that night, live music we had never heard, and we loved it. At the time I thought November Rain was probably the best ballad I had ever heard, and it may still be. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the album(s).

    I was really surprised when they fell apart after Use Your Illusion. It always seemed to me that "Estranged" (on Use Your Illusion 2) presaged a lot of what they were about to endure in the 1990's. I can't wait to get your take on that, DZ!

  7. Aaron M. G. Zimmerman says:

    I love Steven Adler's hair.
    And I love the riff Slash uses to open Paradise City.
    Great stuff.
    This band was revolutionary for me in my childhood.

  8. Lisa MH says:

    Kinda late for a comment (3yrs later) but this is a FANTASTIC article. I’m so tired of reading negative stuff about Axl. (I’m having a resurgence of love for Axl and the band since my 13yo loves them.) I, too, experienced a similar childhood as Axl. I know all too well how it fucks with your head on a daily basis. While some of his behaviors were wrong, I, for one, completely understand and empathize. I am actually quite proud of him for disclosing what happened to the entire world! It’s hard enough just telling a friend or therapist. AXL, YOU HAVE AMAZING TALENT & YOU ARE AN AMAZING PERSON. Fuck these child molestors and abusers whose secrets we were given the responsibility, at an age where we couldnt even understand the travesty and devastation of our situation, to keep for them. They deserve NOTHING.

  9. Lisa MH says:

    I apologize for my last comment’s use of profanity. I didn’t realize this was a Christian website… I’m so sorry.

  10. Logan B. says:

    Years ago, I tried out this small-town church – real weird and disturbing. Pastor was racist and anti-semetic, and very authoritarian. Everyone there thinks the world is out to get them, and HE’S the [only] one that’s ‘for them.’ That’s because he’s brainwashed their primitive minds! A manipulator and a control-freak! His wife is totally under his thumb. He has kids and I strongly suspected dark things, but there’s nothing I could do for them because I couldn’t prove anything. Sad!

  11. Phyllis says:

    To Lisa MH: You seem angry and sympathetic toward child abuse victims. Are you doing anything to help them? If not, perhaps start up your own organization or ‘spy-group.’ Simply venting may make yourself feel a little better, and make others think you care, but it doesn’t help anyone in the real world.

    To Logan: Yes, very sad! Sounds like a fascist egomaniac using religion for selfish, degenerate purposes. You say you didn’t have any evidence; well, why not snoop around and gather some?! Is it too late for that?


    • Lisa MH says:

      Phyllis – I’m hardly complaining, and I don’t believe Axl was/is either. I know he has gotten help and is better. I have been working with (a renewed dedication and) therapist for five years, although I’ve been in and out of therapy for 23 years. I have PTSD incl flashbacks and panic attacks, chronic severe depression and dissociative disorder (not to be confused with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as MPD).

      I am angry and have every right to be. Having your own flesh and blood betray the ultimate trust on this earth is devastating to a child. I am angry for me, for Axl and for every other child who has, is or will be abused.

      I am taking action in helping myself to heal. I’m 48 years old and the 15 years of sexual, physical, emotional and ritual abuse has taken its toll. I’m taking action in raising my two children as a loving mother, instead of an abusive mother. I’m taking action in trying to want to live a fulfilling life instead of not caring if a truck hits me. I take action in listening to peers’ stories, offer insight, support and love despite the fact it triggers flashbacks of my own.

      I don’t blame anyone, I don’t complain, and I’m angry. Any therapist will tell a survivor of abuse that anger (and in this case empathy for a fellow survivor) is a healthy emotion because as children we were not ALLOWED to be angry.

      Lastly, even though none of what I just wrote was any of your business, you have no idea what I, or Axl, or any other survivor might be doing in the form of taking action. Your comment, I feel, was unwarranted and hasty at best and cruel and uneducated/uninformed at worst.

      You don’t know anyone else’s struggles, just as I don’t know yours. You need to walk a mile before you judge and/or make assumptions.

      • October Tears says:

        Hi Lisa,
        I just found this site today so this post is very very late, but I commend u for ur bravery. I too was a victim of a sadistic “mother” and yes, years later I am angry and will not let others judge me for the pain I have endured. I really feel as though I can understand Axl Rose and I do feel his sadness. I am praying that he has not lost his connection with God. Today I prayed for him to let God work his wonders in Axl’s life because all that nonsensical New Age stuff Axl believes in is detrimental and expensive, no doubt. The Lord has no price tag and can be reached at all hours of the day and nite. Axl is absolutely brilliant as a singer and songwriter, but I sense that he is lost and needs to find his way back to Jesus.

    • Jim says:

      Quit complaining and take action ? LOL Spoken like a typical know it all who has never been there. duh Has it ever dawned on you that just surviving suicidal urges from one day to the next is a full time job for many of these people and many do not survive it ? When you offer advice on a subject you have no idea what you are talking about it’s obvious. What do YOU do to “take action” on anything ?

  12. Logan B. says:

    I actually thought that Phyllis’ advice [to me] was pretty good because … yeah, I could have ‘investigated’ instead of just taking the attitude, ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ So, I see where she’s coming from.

    Phyllis, I am interested in taking an active role and forming a coalition with others. Lisa, you need to work things out with Phyllis. She’s right that most people (myself included) really don’t do enough, and I think she was just ticked-off about that, in general… not really pointing her finger at you, personally. It’s clear that one thing we all (you, me and Phyllis) have in common is that we care about children. People like us (the good guys) shouldn’t fight amongst ourselves. On the contrary! We ought to band together to fight the bad guys, like Phyllis suggested. Therefore, to all those concerned, please let me know if you’d like to collaborate about the crises of child abuse, and we can exchange emails.

  13. Rob S says:

    Phyllis: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS AND SPEAK NOT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW OF. Your comment reeks of arrogance and intolerance.

    Lisa: You are brave for your comment and for sticking up for Axl. Just by admitting what you have, you have helped someone. It takes strength to be a survivor.

    Logan: Lisa owes you nor Phyllis nothing and I’m sorry you could only heard Phyllis’ ignorant advice and couldn’t hear what Lisa bravely said. You completely missed the point.

    Great article.

  14. Logan B. says:

    “October Tears” is a really cool nickname, Lisa. Wishing you the best!

  15. Amanda Thornton says:

    My name is Amanda l have been in love with axl as far back as I can remember. Now that I have read this I feel more love for him than ever. I have one wish before I die and that is to just meet this man that has captivated me for sooo many years. I’m 33 now so it was my mom that introduced me to G n’ R it was the first album I owed at 5 yrs old. And could sing with him all the way thru. Axl if happen to see this please mail me and autograph pic 506 E st west point Ga 31833 ? Amanda Michele……

  16. John Debreux says:

    People who have never been there have no advice to offer anyone. Its really easy to judge when the most traumatic childhood memory is mommy and daddy having a heated argument over the approval of some deadbeat friend or because mommy had a few mixed drinks and slept with dads best friend etc You live in a fantasy world. I think its hilarious when some idiot who has never been anywhere or done anything meets a veteran suffering from PTSD or similar and gives them the ole “suck it up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, man up lecture” and then receive a well deserved education which they later describe to the cops, usually at the local ER “I never saw anything like that, he/she wanted to kill me, I could see it in his/her eyes. Any doubt of that actually happening ? Try it one time, Face to Face, not over a keyboard. For many people, learning the hard way is the best way. It has a way of “sinking in” much, much better.

    • Logan B. says:

      Mr. John Debreux,

      I was quite disturbed to read a portion of what you typed. You presented a tragic scenario, whether real or imagined, in which someone is viciously assaulted and winds up in an emergency room as a result of rubbing someone the wrong way. I just hope you’re not threatening Phyllis or condoning the acts of the perpetrator because that would be scary! You need to state herein that this is simply an example to serve a point and is not a subtle, implied threat to Phyllis and, furthermore, that you would not excuse or condone something like this happening to anyone as a consequence of offending someone.

  17. Lesley Pepper says:

    Yes have always loved GunsnRoses music and was shocked to find out what a traumatic childhood Axl Rose had. Apparently his parents Church goers were abused but had not been healed. Well No. 1 where was God in this, they were in bloody church trying to find God. But No. 2 I don’t care if you have been abused you know what is right and wrong, there are no excues to carry it on.

    Lesley from Australia

  18. DeeDee says:

    Maybe AXL ROSE just needs a person to just love him unconditionally,maybe just being there and really listening to him as a person, he seems like he could be a amazing person ,he just needs to have someone by his side ,as we get up there in age ,we just need that special person,anytime you need someone just to have fun with,I will be there, love you Axl Rose.

  19. B.B. says:


  20. Phil says:

    Axl Rose’s birth name: William Bailey, AKA “Bill Bailey”, in which case the initials would be ‘B.B.’

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