You wanna antagonize me
Antagonize me motherfucker
Get in the ring motherfucker
And I'll kick your bitchy little ass
I don't like you, I just hate you
I'm gonna kick your ass, oh yeah!
- "Get in the Ring," Guns N' Roses, Use Your Illusion II, 1991
Once upon a time we were a nation of bad asses. Our presidents were war heroes and cigar smokers, barrel-chested men who could throw a mean fastball and carry on torrid love affairs in office. We hated evil countries simply and exhaustively. 2Pac and Wu-Tang Clan terrorized the rap world. Arnold Schwarzenegger had never heard of a buddy-buddy movie and couldn't find Sacramento on a map. Football players weren't fined for hard hits; fights in hockey were actively encouraged. Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a dove. Red meat every night was a sensible diet. And Axl Rose screeched his way into America's gut, producing blistering music and torched hotel rooms and occasionally a full-fledged riot.
Once upon a time Guns N' Roses was a band parents loved to hate, a band kids loved that their parents hated, a band that that lit every fuse in your body. Their music was a storm of clashing anger, swirling tides of rage. At the center, the homing beacon, the lightning bolt, Axl's blistered vocals scraped the skin off your face. The music made you want to break objects of immense beauty, then cry yourself to sleep. Every second of it a lasting thrill.
Somewhere around 1995 Axl disappeared. The Internet took hold soon after, changing everything forever. The world shifted shapes, growing more sensitive, more introspective, more thoughtful, replacing black and white with endless shades of gray. We're now exposed to a broader range of ideas and more people, fragmenting our collective national tastes into a web of complex opinions. As our culture thinned out, insipid things like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC filled the sewers of mainstream popularity, paving the way for the lukewarm hits of today (see High School Musical, Hannah Montana, etc). Kids talk more with their parents, developing friendlier relationships less riddled with teen angst. Cultural news focuses on underwear-less ditzes made famous by bootleg sex tapes. Our sharp edges haven't so much softened as become serrated, no single point capable of cutting skin. Simple blunt weapons are a thing of the past.
We have evolved into a more complicated culture, one that is generally well-adjusted and sanitized, and often a little boring. Most of our former bad asses have gotten old and mellowed out, and the new crop of cultural leaders isn't interested in piercing hearts with power. They want to conversate, negotiate, implore and explore, seek out consensus. Our president-elect is a thoughtful ex-community organizer, a multifaceted intellectual. Arnold's my governor, Ozzy got a reality show, Metallica went into therapy. 2Pac's dead and Wu-Tang incorporated. The new Rambo movie tanked. Football's clean, hockey disappeared. Action movies got bloated with glittery special effects. And meatless salad, by itself, is now a sensible dinner.
Through our national maturation, Axl Rose stayed in his cave and worked on the next album, blowing through fourteen years and several rounds of band members and a mountain of money. Rumored release dates came and went, concert tours fizzled, slivers of incomplete new tracks leaked onto the Internet. Two years ago I caught a Guns N' Roses show at the Warfield, a small theater in downtown San Francisco. My wife didn't want to go; the next day she told me it was the best concert she'd ever seen.
Because, simply, Axl kicked ass.
He commanded the stage, slam-dancing and screeching, kicking and stomping, the limber maniacal star of the show. He looked like a rock star, moved like a rock star, belted like a rock star, straining his throat, flinging his dreads, slithering his eel-like torso over the backbeat. His voice like an axe over livid guitars, sawmills of sound. The band a live animal, pulsing with chromosomes and blood. Having its way with us in every beautiful way.
It felt like I was privy to a lost art form, a forgotten way of life. For three hours we went back to brute force, and it was awesome.
We've had glimpses of a new wave of American bad asses, but never the main course. I had high hopes for Vin Diesel, between his name, his growl, and his basketball biceps, but then The Pacifier plugged that idea. A lot of lively punk/indie music has filtered into American culture, yet it's usually performed by scrawny disaffected hipsters who wouldn't scare me if I stumbled upon them in a dark alley taking target practice with AK-47s. Best bets for the bad ass fix these days are Russell Crowe, Daniel Craig and Amy Winehouse--foreigners all with a female in their midst. It's just not the same.
Chinese Democracy, the Guns N' Roses comeback album, is scheduled for release on Sunday. I've heard about a third of it on YouTube. It's different, less raucous and more produced than the old stuff, but Axl's razor throat slices a hole straight through the center. It is a noise you can't trust, that might flip over your car while you're sleeping. Music that kicks you in the knee caps and forces its tongue down your throat.
That electrifying blend of rage and beauty feels at home in my heart, a rare species of emotion and power. Yet part of me is glad I don't need this fix so much anymore, that in a way we've moved on. I'm not fifteen and pissed off anymore, and today's fifteen year-olds don't seem as pissed off as I was at their age. America has changed, and I have too.
On November 23, the last great American Bad Ass will be back. It will be a loud, momentous day in cultural history, the resuscitation of the dead. One hard kick against the rising tide. There's a risk the music won't deliver, the nostalgia will dissipate, the venom won't satiate like it once did. But my deeper fear is that the music will arrive on target, as perfectly angry and blood-boiling as before, and I won't respond like I used to, no matter how much I want it. It's the peril of progress and changing tastes, of getting older, of being away for too long. I can't bank that I'll be ready to set the stadium on fire with the rest of the looters.
Axl's return to the national stage will be worth watching for the educational value alone. He is a master of his art, but it feels a little like Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, a classic story of heroism lost. Older and a step slow, not playing in the same league he once was, but a transcendent figure, a guy who puts butts in the seats, a star you can tell your kids you witnessed.
Come see this spectacular act while you still can, and throw a few beers in the mosh pit for me.
Follow Matt Stewart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjfstewart