Jay Trucker: Axl Rose, Marketing Genius

Axl Rose toy
Where's your shady-looking likness, Mr. Hudson? It's not a doll! It's an AXTION FIGURE!

Because you demanded it, and because he can deconstruct the the dystopian visions of George Orwell with one half of of his hefty brain and Sheryl Crow with the other, The Daily Cocca is proud to present a new guest post from our good friend, Jay “Mr. Thursday Morning” Trucker!  When not singing Journey songs in biker bars, Jay teaches, writes, and composes hilarious Facebook update statuses as if twitter never happened.  Please do join me in welcoming him back the program. -Ed.

Axl Rose, Marketing Genius
by Jay Trucker, The Daily Cocca

In 1994, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses were in the latter stages of their relevance.  G N’ R were still releasing videos from the Illusions albums and putting out a record of covers, and Aerosmith continued their late 80s renaissance into a second decade with 7x platinum Get A Grip. Meanwhile, I was a young lad still anxiously awaiting the growth spurt that would forever prove  elusive.   It wasn’t exactly cool to love these unabashed rock stars while my fellow fourteen-year-olds were mourning the death of Kurt Cobain and pondering the fate of his mopey peers like Eddie Vedder, but I was steadfast.

Here is an exhaustive list of things I was sure of in 1994:

I would never understand women
I would always love Guns ‘n’ Roses
I would always love Aerosmith.

Two out of three ain’t bad, kid.  You see, while Aerosmith may have had a more productive couple of decades (if  we take the word “productive”  to refer to an organism, institution, or collective that produces things),  Axl’s sociopathic and often bizarrely reclusive behavior has allowed the Guns name to age in a much more respectable way than has brand Aerosmith.

For the unitiated, here is a brief timeline for the original lineups of both  bands since ’94:

Guns N’ Roses Aerosmith
1994: Release “Sympathy for the Devil” single; Slash calls this “the sound of a band breaking up” 1994: Release greatest hits album Big Ones, make boatloads of cash
1996: Break up 1997: Release Nine Lives, which includes lame double entrende single “Pink”
1998: Release “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” on Armageddon soundtrack [rock credibility exits stage left]
2001: Perform at Superbowl XXXV with Britney Spears, N’Sync
2001: Release Just Push Play, world shrugs
2002: Release Oh, Yeah, greatest hits double disc, make boatloads of cash
2004: Release blues cover album Honkin’ On  Bobo. Global reaction: “eh”
2006: Release aptly titled greatest hits album Devil’s Got a New Disguise, make boatloads of cash
2010: Egyptian President Mubarak: “I will step down if Aerosmith threatens to release another album”

While Aerosmith has toured nearly every year during the last fifteen years, Axl’s bizarro Guns has only executed a single successful tour of the U.S., in 2006.  While touring, Aerosmith has enthusiastically shilled for the latest repackaging of their greatest hits album.  As the above list indicates, Aerosmith has released more greatest hits records than records of new material during this period, which is probably at least in part due to their recognizing that no one needs to hear a new Glenn Ballard-written Aerosmith record.  Unfortunately, as the recent regime change in Egypt would indicate, Aerosmith is, in fact, planning to release their first record of new material in a decade sometime this year.

Later, Jay would wonder if the relationship between his love of G N' R and his inablity to understand women wasn't, in fact, causual.

Meanwhile, when he wasn’t standing on the roof of his mansion with a hose fighting off California wild fires (http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=85524), Axl was suing his own record company to keep them from releasing Guns N’ Roses’ Greatest Hits (http://www.tfproject.org/tfp/tilted-music/49290-geffen-records-prevails-over-axl-rose-lawsuit.html). In a a 2004 statement that can only be described as equal parts gutsy and insane, Rose claimed that the Guns N’ Roses Greatest Hits release would take attention away from Chinese Democracy.

Chinese Democracy was released four and a half years after the suit.

Eddie Vedder plays a solo acoustic set followi...
Who ever thought Eddie Vedder would grow up to be Jeff Bridges? Talk about a late bloomer. By the transivite property of Lebowski couture, you're still totally rad, Edward.

Herein lies the Genius of W. Axl Rose, nonmusical edition.  Guns N’ Roses is not one of those punk rock bands destined to keep the same sound and tour every couple of years with only their graying hairs and protruding stomachs demarcating the passage of time.  I mean, they’re not the Circle Jerks.  They’re freaking Guns N’ Roses.  They were making videos with dolphins and supermodels set to soaring piano arrangments while the “cool” thing to do was stare at your shoes while whispering verses and shouting choruses.

G N’ R comes from the “bigger is better” rock ideal, not the punk/grunge “less is more” aesthetic.  In this way, they are a lot like Aerosmith.   Thus, had they remained in the spotlight, they could have easily traded on their hard rock past, put out a few radio friendly shmaltz ballads, retooled a greatest hits package every few years, and made oodles of cash with deteriorating performances at amphitheaters and arenas year-round. In other words, they could have become Aerosmith or, even worse, Motley Crue.

TV Guide #2318 (Cover Variation)
yes, Jay. But you're forgetting that after G N' R broke up, Slash actually ended up with the Steelers for a time via the contraction draft of '96.

In fact, in the hands of lesser, more  top-hatted hands, Guns would have no doubt become the same self-parodying pantomime of themselves that Aerosmith and the Crue are today.  Slash has sold his likeness to so many lame-rod pop musicians and video games, even he can’t keep count.  But when he gutted the last bits of his reputation on stage with the Black Eyed Peas this year, I couldn’t help but think back to Aerosmith’s nauseating 2001 Super Bowl performance, when they shared the stage with rock ‘n’ roll titans Britney Spears and N ‘Sync.

As Slash tried desperately to strike a cool rock pose next to an awkwardly gyrating Fergie, I thought to myself, that could have been all of G N’ R up there wearing Light Bright outfits and standing next to will.i.am, Fergie, and the other two dudes.

That could have been Axl, Duff, and company singing a country song  to one of their re-claimed daughters on the soundtrack to one of the worst Ben Affleck moves of all time.

That could have been G N’ R singing goofball pop songs about women’s private parts.

That could have been Axl judging sixteen-year-old singers on a past-its-prime TV karaoke contest.

But for the grace of God.

Instead, Axl, who long ago bought out the Guns name, has guarded it like a rich guy guarding his mansion from a forest fire.  The musicians he has chosen to work with recently have names like Buckethead and Bumblefoot.  They may play the same songs as classic Guns, but no one will mistake them for Slash and Duff clones.  And with the exception of a 2002 VMA gaffe, in which a bloaty Axl huffed around Radio City while a giddy Jimmy Fallon and the world gasped in horror, Axl has avoided the spotlight like the plague.  When he finally put out Chinese Democracy after a seventeen year wait, Axl unilaterally decided his record company wasn’t supporting the album enough.  He has subsequently avoided all efforts to promote it himself, including all state-side interview requests and tours.  Does that suck for fans? Maybe, but what hurts more, the lack of Axl or the embarrassing omnipresence of Steve Tyler and Slash?

In keeping his and the band’s profile low key and touring only very sporadically with a cast of characters who look like aliens, Axl has accomplished what only former nemesis Kurt Cobain has similarly been able to achieve  When most people think of G N’ R today, they think of G N’ R no later than 1994.  Axl has divorced himself and his band from Slash, who defaces only himself when he parades around picking up contract work like a poor guy in a Slash costume.  Today’s Guns are something different.  They are a protooled, faceless entity with an enigmatic lead singer.  G N’ R today are to classic G N’ R what the Foo Fighters are to Nirvana. They sprung from Guns N’ Roses, but they cannot damage the iconic stature of classic Guns any more than a Foo Fighters record can hurt the lasting reputation of Nirvana.

And Axl didn’t even have to die to keep his reputation in tact.

Postscript:  I thought this blog fitting for my esteemed former co-dj’s domain because of our shared love of all things Axl.  I wouldn’t defend his choice in Long Island-bred, Lehigh Valley-loving rock pianists with the same fervor.

Also, in 2001, I wrote an essay about Axl Rose, The American Icon, for my ENGL 200 Advanced Expository Writing class.  It was, admittedly, not my best work.  So if you’re out there, Prof. Martinez, I would like to resubmit my essay. Sorry it’s 10 years late.

Jay Trucker teaches writing at the Community College of Baltimore County and studies Sociology and Education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.  He occasionally writes about the Baltimore Orioles for WNST.net and nightlife for the Baltimore Sun blogs.