When one thinks of Guns N’ Roses vocalist and lyricist Axl Rose, a figure who has time for literary excellence is not usually an image that appears. The hard-rock heroes’ only constant member since their 1985 inception, over the years, Rose has come to embody a walking, talking manifestation of rock ‘n’ roll excess. Sex, drugs, violence and a plethora of questionable opinions, Rose is often regarded as one of the most controversial and problematic figures in rock. Although he is widely hailed as one of the greatest and instantly recognisable singers of all time, the media image he has cultivated has more in common with the likes of Kid Rock than, say, Robert Plant.
However, just like any human being, Rose is multi-faceted. It would be reductive to see him plainly as a character defined by the traits outlined above, however hard to overlook they may be. You would be forgiven for thinking of him as plainly a brash, loudmouthed individual with no care for anything of cultural worth.
But this would not be true. Not only is Rose a highly complex character, who has always struggled with a harsh upbringing and all the emotional complexities and implications it brought, but he is also a very well-read individual. This may also surprise you, given the majority of Guns N’ Roses’ work is not concerned with what we will call ‘High’ culture. The original lyrics of ‘Paradise City’ spring to mind when conveying this point.
After Guns N’ Roses famously returned with their sixth album, the long-awaited Chinese Democracy in 2008, fans’ attention were turned to Rose’s literary tastes. This stemmed from the fact that one of the album’s standout tracks was entitled ‘Catcher in the Rye’, which took its name directly from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel of the same name.
Furthermore, Rose claimed he had penned the lyrics after watching a documentary on John Lennon‘s killer, Mark David Chapman. This newfound lyrical density shocked fans and critics alike, who were quite simply taken aback by Rose’s revelations. Rose didn’t stop there, either. In a fan Q&A after the album’s release, he went into depth about the song’s inspiration. Rose said: “It started as fascination and curiosity with Holden Caufield Syndrome and what was or could possibly be in the book that obviously certain vulnerable people have seemed to become so passionate about and resort to outrageous public attempts or acts of violence.”
Even Rose’s mention of Holden Caulfield Syndrome is a shocking far-cry away from the image of the decadent rock star that we are all too familiar with. Rose directly refers to John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman’s infamous delusion that he was actually Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. Chillingly echoing the books cult, anti-“phoney” message, Chapman convinced himself that he had to kill Lennon, who he thought was the greatest phoney of them all. The most notorious excerpt from that horrific crime was that Chapman quietly sat reading the book after he gunned down the ex-Beatle, watching the horror around him unfold.
It would be easy to get bogged down in all the negative implications of The Catcher in the Rye, and that is a story that needs to be told, just on another day. Returning back to Axl Rose, during that Q&A, not only did he share that The Catcher in the Rye was his favourite book of all time and that as a messed-up and confused teenager he found solace in Holden Caulfield, Rose was also generous enough to disclose the titles of his five other favourite books.
This was really the first time that Guns N’ Roses fans had been offered a portal into the frontman’s brain, and just like his surprising fascination with Holden Caulfield Syndrome, it did not disappoint. An eclectic mix of books, the list had one common thread – a penchant for the darker side of the human condition.
Rose mentioned The Stand by Stephen King, the 1978 post-apocalyptic dark fantasy that is centred on the aftermath of a deadly pandemic of weaponised influenza. In the book, the few surviving remnants of humanity gather into factions that are led by a personification of either good or evil. In many ways, this is King’s contemporary take on Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, and is a cult classic amongst his fans.
A Scanner Darkly is another of the classic novels that Rose mentioned. The 1977 semi-autobiographical novel by science fiction hero Philip K. Dick is set in a paranoid, dystopian version of Orange County, California, and deals with the recreational and abusive elements of drug culture. The other literary classic that Rose loves is Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic horror, Frankenstein, which needs no discussion.
Rose also surprised audiences with his inclusions of two lesser-known modern works, portraying Rose as an avid reader who has his own unique taste. Apparently appealing to the same part of his ideation that found solace in Salinger’s pages, one of these other books was James Dean: The Mutant King, David Dalton’s 1983 biography of the original rebel without a cause, actor James Dean.
The final book Rose gave his love to was Zodiac by Neal Stephenson. The 1988 novel tells the story of fictional environmentalist Sangamon Taylor as he uncovers a conspiracy involving industrialist polluters in Boston Harbour. Zodiac is an underrated gem, a speculative piece of fiction that reflects Generation X’s discontent with big business and unwavering neoliberalism.
Check out Axl Rose‘s complete list of favourite books below.
Axl Rose’s six favourite books:
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- The Stand by Stephen King
- A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton
- Zodiac by Neal Stephenson