Bill Bailey Comes Home
October 18, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Five years ago GQ assigned me to write about Axl Rose, who was mounting a “final comeback” with his Chinese Democracy, release of which had already been postponed by more than a decade. The album title was meant as a punch line. Q: When will Guns N’ Roses come out with something new? A: When there’s democracy in China. That stage in the singer’s career turned out to be neither a comeback (few people liked the record, and nobody played it much) nor final—a minute ago I ran his name through Google News and found he’s hard at work being Axl, showing up hours late to shows, getting pelted with bottles, making bizarre requests on tour riders (black napkins, Grolsch beer, honey in “bear-shaped tubes”).
The story was, by turns, fun and frustrating to report. I followed the band around Europe for a while, feeding cigarettes to the band members’ model girlfriends and failing to secure face time with “Ax.” His manager back then was a real specimen. Before one show, in Spain, I sat at a coffee table with this person, struggling to explain how it might help justify the seven thousand words we were about to expend on the band if the front man would speak to me for a few seconds. I think at one point I actually said, “Give me thirty seconds.” Axl had by then become, as he remains, sealed off from the press to an almost Michael Jackson level. The manager kept pausing to answer cellphone calls from Elton John. “Well, that’s because they don't know Tea for the Tillerman,” he said into the phone at one point, referring to the classic Cat Stevens record. What were he and Sir Elton talking about? I still wonder sometimes. He told me that, if we would agree to put Axl on the cover, “maybe we could talk about an interview.” I couldn't figure out how to say, in any non-offensive way, that GQ covers are typically reserved for extremely conventionally good-looking people in the midst of a career peak, such as Axl once was but hadn't been in a very long time. I let it drop. Axl broke with the manager soon thereafter, passive-aggressively blaming him in an “Open Letter to Fans” for the failure of Chinese Democracy. Thinking back, I feel sympathy with the manager. What I read as superciliousness was probably professional trauma. He was the devil’s own PR man.
The most memorable trip I made in connection with Axl was to Lafayette, Indiana, where he grew up. I drove there hoping to track down his oldest childhood friend, a man named Dana, who’d never been interviewed. Dana turned out not surprisingly to be a very reclusive person, and although he did eventually meet with me, it took several days to coax him out. I spent them inventing little research projects. I visited the public library and found old yearbook pictures of Axl. I photographed the church where he sang in the choir. And lastly, on the morning of the day when Dana finally called me back, I went to the local police station. Did they have any records on Axl? No, they didn’t think so. Really? That seemed impossible. Would they mind checking under his many Indiana names? William Bruce Rose Jr.? William Bruce Bailey? Bill Bailey? W. Rose? A friendly lady officer agreed to help me out.
Sure enough, when I came back that evening, she had a whole folder of stuff. Arrest reports, warrants, and affidavits, as well as two treasures: mug shots that no one had ever seen. Axl’s first mug shots. In one case, the negative hadn’t even been processed before. The cop had sent it off to the Fotomat for me. I sat outside in my rental car, gazing on my luck. The pictures showed him at eighteen and twenty. They were American masterpieces of the saddest, crappiest kind. GQ ended up running the latter, the one where he’s slightly older and looks like a burned-out strawberry Farrah Fawcett in a jean jacket. You can find it all over the Internet now. It stemmed from a fight in somebody’s yard—a woman screamed at Dana and Axl for hassling her kid. Axl had a splint on his arm. He hit her with the splint. They arrested him in the parking lot of the local Frozen Custard (spelled “Custored” in the police report).
It’s the shots of him at eighteen that move me, though. He isn’t pretty yet, he hasn’t begun to think of himself as a rock star. He’s a boy-man, with a trace of fear in his pugnacious stare. I can’t remember what he’d done, that time. Stolen another kid’s bike, I think. Or destroyed another kid’s bike. When I first saw his hair, I understood something Dana had told me hours before, at a bar: that when they were children, Axl was Raggedy Ann in the Christmas parade. Looking longer, a person could understand something else, too, about the Midwestern darkness in his voice.
Today he is nearing fifty. This mug shot is thirty years old. God knows what suddenly motivates me to write about it. This blog, I suppose, gives me a way to share it, and surely, if you come into possession of a never-before-seen Axl Rose mug shot, you should share it. Don’t hide that lamp under a bushel. There are fans who might enjoy it. There is rock ‘n’ roll history to think about.