The critical theorist Catherine Belsey once commented about Shakespeare’s comedies that ‘the plays are more than their endings’. This applies not just to Shakespeare but also to movies, books, relationships and – of course – Guns N’ Roses.
Forget Axl’s White man dreads. Forget Buckethead. Forget the 2012 report in NME that the current line up, with breath-taking animus, banned anyone wearing a Slash t-shirt from entering their UK shows.
Forget all that. And focus on the moment, bio-identical to revelation, when the band appeared like a comet and the world saw by its light something as familiar as it was rare: audacious talent, a generational line in the sand and – in Axl – a sexual she-man successor to Elvis, Mick Jagger and Robert Plant.
In 1987, Axl’s drinking and violence and mental health were deemed Awesome! by virtue of his youth. In 1987, Axl was beautiful. Just look at this punim – as the Bard said, 95 million views and nearly two decades cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety:
These were years when the band was still awed and delighted by their world fame. These were years when they were already monumentally successful yet still had something to prove; a creative moment as fleeting as it is rare. It blows the mind to imagine being in the audience for any of this:
In 1992, they unfurled the Rococo splendor of November Rain – a single that clocked in at nearly 10 minutes, the longest to ever reach the Billboard Top 10. And they could do that because it contained not one but two of the greatest guitar solos of all time.
Anyone who has seen Andre 3000’s green plaid high-waisted happy pants in “Hey Ya” (or Axl’s lack of them here at 0:17) knows that the secret of Cool is 100% confidence. If that confidence is contaminated by a single grain of doubt it may as well be zero. But, once achieved, Cool has prophylactic powers. This is the lesson of the early Gunners videos. Cool is impervious to the crappy filler songs on nearly all their albums. Impervious to the Tufnel/St Hubbins-esque internecine fighting. Impervious to entropy and the moment when beautiful, bad ass party boys became bovine, slack-jawed men. Impervious to subsequent betrayals of metabolism and talent.
In the moments caught on tape in these clips, Guns N’ Roses have defied the laws of time and space to remain at the top of their game, always. They, like all of us, are more than their ending.