Documenting the slow unraveling of Axl Rose

Axl Rose turns 51 today. In his mid 20s he was one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, selling out stadiums and releasing groundbreaking albums. However, it’s been 22 years since the double album “Use Your Illusion,” arguably Guns ‘N Roses’ last solid release. These days he’s a fixture on the nostalgia circuit: still playing arenas, but now solely to the type of crowd that goes to a G’n’R show to remember what it was like over two decades ago. At 51, Axl has physically transformed from a lithe rock star to a much larger man. His voice, after decades of smoking, is nowhere near what it was in the late 80s and early 90s.

Make no mistake: Axl is undoubtedly a genius songwriter and has a wicked sense of humor – check out his voiceover work in the “Grand Theft Auto” series. To many, though, Axl Rose in 2013 is almost a Marlon Brando of rock, a revered figure who was groundbreaking in his day but who now can barely seem to hold it together. Perhaps he’s too smart for his own good and in no hurry to recapture his glory days. The fact remains, though: Axl’s decline over the years has been a long, glorious swandive. Here are some of the best moments.

“Sweet Child Of Mine”, 1987

G’n’R’s breakthrough hit was a fresh departure from the schlock of Sunset Strip hair-metal bands like Mötley Crüe, who by that point had entirely shed their hard rock roots, and other follow-ups like Whitesnake and Winger.

Donnington, 1988

At a UK music festival, Axl tears down other bands with an almost laser-like precision. He’s strong here, and this waypoint between Axl from Indiana and Axl the globe-straddling rock star highlights what a complex guy he must be.

July 2nd, 1991 – The St Louis Riot

This is arguably Axl’s breaking point, when he physically turns on an audience member for taking pictures. While other members of the band have gone on record saying that the venue security was shockingly poor and perhaps the worst of the route, this incident perhaps best shows Axl’s break from “rock star of the people” to “control freak”

“November Rain” September 17th, 1991

“November Rain” is a massive, sprawling epic – a real masterpiece of a song. With a full orchestra and clocking in at a little under 9 minutes, it’s different in almost every way from their earlier work.

Oklahoma, 1992

During a stop in Oklahoma in 1992, Axl pauses the show to give nearly a 4-minute rambling monologue. “If you keep looking and you keep digging, you’ll find the person you’re meant to be on this god damn plannet,” Axl says about halfway through. Maybe he’s looking for himself, still. Maybe he’s trying to get back to being that kid from Indiana.

1995/1996, Slash quits the band

Slash quit the band in 1996, but only after an legendarily terrible recording session for the “Interview With a Vampire” soundtrack. Here, in this 1995 interview, he talks to the British media candidly about problems during the recording session.

2002, MTV VMAs Reunion Fiasco

This was supposed to be the big G’n’R comeback. Instead, it’s a shambolic performance – a visibly winded Axl runs around the stage, while a (nearly) entirely different backing band bears zero resemblance to anything G’n’R used to be. It’s one thing to progress one’s sound, but Axl gutted his.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, 2004

Axl surprised everyone by voicing a DJ in a radio station in a video game. The results are pretty classic, and show that, despite the odd comeback, he’s still a human being underneath it all.

Rock in Rio, 2011

Axl forgets the words to his own songs and mumbles lyrics. His physical transformation, from his early days, is astounding.

He might be a man full of contradictions and someone clearly in need of a few therapy sessions, but Axl today is still out there, doing his thing, almost like a hard-rock Elvis. Only time will tell what will ultimately happen to him, yet one thing is for sure: his slow spiral from the top of the world to the nostalgia circuit has been a long, interesting story to watch unfold.