You’ve likely seen the image—a cross, adorned with representative skulls for each member of the band. I hadn’t heard Appetite for Destruction at that point, but I knew this was something to avoid. Because that flag was dangerous.
At the time, my favorite tape was Placido Domingo’s Perhaps Love, specifically his cover of the Beatle’s song “Yesterday.” I won’t spend too much lingering on that bit of trivia, but it’s safe to assume that I was a strange kid. Walking around the neighborhood, foam headphones securely on my ears, rewinding that song over and over again.
You won’t be surprised to learn that fifth grade was difficult for me. I wore jeans cuffed close to my knees because we couldn’t afford to buy new pants every time I grew a few inches. And I was painfully enthusiastic about being a part of everything—musicals, sports teams, student council, all of it. That excitement came with the price of near-constant mocking, naturally.
Despite this, I was invited to a party at a roller rink. Those of a certain age know that roller skating parties were the high-water mark of a childhood. And let’s be honest: back then, I could flat out skate. Fast. Slow. Backwards. And while I likely would’ve swallowed my own tongue if a girl had asked me to couples skate, I was confident my abilities would save me.
So, I’m killing the skating rink. And then it happened. A record scratch. A moment of silence, full of anticipation.
The first notes sounded like air sirens going off, something I’d only heard in the old movies my grandfather watched. Followed by guitars. Drums like a bomb. And this bat-out-of-hell voice. You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re going to diieeee! I believed it too, covering my Domingo-sensitive ears. I went up to the shoe counter, the source of all information in a place like the rink.
“What is this?”
The skinny teenager spraying roller skates with Tineacide looked at me as if I’d just asked directions to Mars.
He shook his head, embarrassed for me. “Guns N’ Roses.”
I felt dizzy for a moment, which may have been the music—rumbling toward the finish—or the multiple pieces of pizza I’d sucked down during one of the slow songs, which are never good for breakneck skating. But as I stood there, I honestly had no idea why anybody would listen to this chaos.
I blame this moment for the next three years of music choices. We’re talking Bad English. Richard Marx. Bell Biv Devoe. ABC (Another Bad Creation). M.C. Hammer. Billy Ocean. As cringe-worthy as they seem now, they were safe. Popular. And, of course, good for roller skating.
My freshman year of high school, something changed.
We moved to a new city and I was once again walking hallways alone. Playing football and basketball, running track, but never being a part of that crowd. By then I’d learned to hide my weirdness, to tamp down the knee-jerk, double exclamation mark personality.
And then, one day after football practice, a teammate’s older brother popped Use Your Illusion I into his tape deck, fast-forwarding in search of a specific song. (This same brother would, a few months later, introduce us to Nirvana’s Nevermind, even going so far as to haul us to downtown Chicago to see the band live. But those flannel fists hadn’t grabbed me yet.)
When he pressed play, piano trickled through the speakers. A string arrangement. Once again, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“This song changed my life,” he said, employing the sort of solemn conviction that only a song like “November Rain” can evoke.
“Who is this?” I asked.
After that, there was no more confusion about what that meant.
As I’ve grown politically, theologically, emotionally, I became aware of the troubling parts of this band. I won’t attempt to solve the question of whether art can be separated from the artist, but I will say I’m long-past apologizing for or explaining this fandom to my progressive-leaning friends.
Guns N’ Roses was profound in my life in a way most people reserve for religious experience. It was the soundtrack of outsiders. Music for a kid who was scared to be who he really was. Swagger when I didn’t have it; when I desperately needed it. It was a soundtrack to nearly every foundational moment of my life. And after twenty-five years, there was only one thing missing…
When the Not in This Lifetime tour was announced—classic lineup!—I was beyond excited. But as the initial amazement wore off, a sort of dread settled in.
I’ve seen a lot of shows, a few of which were reunions or the sort of “I used to be in your favorite band” concerts that never quite live up to the expectations of a lifetime of listening. As I walked into the stadium, I told myself once again to stomp on that enthusiasm. Because this could be bad. Really bad.
The last time I’d seen Axl or Slash, they looked like bloated versions of a previous glory. And that didn’t even begin to mention the effect thirty years of boozing and drug abuse would certainly have on one’s ability to perform.
It’s difficult to believe in resurrection because we don’t see it. At least, not in the way our faith has conditioned us to. An atheist friend is fond of saying: “I’ve never seen a person brought back to life. Have you?”
I could argue the point, but ultimately, he’s right. I’ve never seen a bodily resurrection. I’ve never seen a dead person rise and walk again.
Listen, I’m not going to make too strong a connection between Guns N’ Roses and, you know, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But as soon as they stepped on stage, as soon as I heard the first shrieks coming from Axl’s voice, I couldn’t help myself. I stood up, hands in the air, a boy once again.
This is what resurrection looks like. It’s joy and contentment and a previously broken life made new. Shockingly, none of these men died during the height of their fame—not that they didn’t try with integrity. But I don’t think death is the only requirement for resurrection. Sometimes it looks like transformation.
And on that hot night in July, it looked like Slash, shredding a guitar solo behind his head, pyrotechnics going off behind him like the Fourth of July.
Will it last? I don’t know. The enmity in the band runs deep. But even for a moment, I caught of glimpse of something different. Something beyond. And I have the T-shirt to prove it.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Bryan Bliss
Bryan Bliss is the author of the novels Meet Me Here, No Parking at the End Times, and the forthcoming We'll Fly Away, all with HarperCollins. He holds graduate degrees from Seattle Pacific University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and kids.
Above image by Heini Samuelsen, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.