If we’re being honest, Axl Rose has never been one to cultivate a moderate response to anything. Today, he’s about as calm and amenable as he’s ever been, showing up to concerts on time, getting along with his bandmates, and even flashing an unusual bit of knowledge and political acumen when criticising former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams for his initial comparing of COVID-19 to the flu. Not resting there, Rose even took aim at former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for encouraging travel during the pandemic. Of course, his style of criticism remains slightly vulgar and vitriolic, but hey, this is Axl Rose, not Mr. Rogers.
However, it wasn’t always this way. Rose had a habit of putting his foot in his mouth on a regular basis during Guns N’ Roses heydey in the late 1980s and early ’90s. There’s the time that he even considered himself to be “pro-heterosexual”. The history books show multiple rants by the singer who had been let loose during GNR live shows spilling out vitriol to an unsuspecting audience. In fact, there are the actual physical fights he’s gotten into during conceerts. There are the incidents of him throwing fans out of shows, specifically one person at the 2001 Rock in Rio Festival supposedly wearing a Slash T-shirt. Let’s just say that he used to be a more combustible and combative figure.
Sometimes, that combative nature came out on record. ‘Get In The Ring’, a track taken from Use Your Illusion II, signals out music journalists, including Mick Wall and Bob Guccione by name, and challenges them to duke it out in hand to hand combat. While less directly pugnacious, ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’ from The Spaghetti Incident? courted controversy because of the song’s writer: cult leader Charles Manson. Rose invited the spotlight that came with his aggressive demeanour and incorrigible reputation. Sometimes it came off as silly rock star arrogance, with a lot of bluster but remaining inherently harmless. Sometimes, however, it was less innocent.
‘One in a Million’, the final track from the band’s 1988 mini-LP G N’ R Lies, is the most controversial song in the band’s back catalogue, and that’s including the two previously mentioned tunes. Written about the time that Rose first came to Los Angeles, the track is a smorgasbord of ill-conceived idea and prejudices thrown together in a half-coherent, bizarrely incongruous acoustic ballad complete with whistling and bongos that do nothing to soften the harshness of the lyrics.
Some choice cuts from one Axl Rose: “Police and n*****s, that’s right/Get outta my way/Don’t need to buy none of your/Gold chains today.” Or how about: “Immigrants and faggots/They make no sense to me/They come to our country/And think they’ll do as they please/Like start some mini-Iran/Or spread some fucking disease.”
OK, so out of context, those look like utterly deplorable thoughts from a rampant racist and homophobe. I’m not calling Rose that, but he defends himself in a strange way by saying “it’s been such a long time/Since I knew right from wrong.” Yeah, no shit. It’s worth noting that he calls out “radicals and racists” later on in the song, but it does little to mitigate the fact that Rose could very easily be pointing the finger at himself.
‘One in a Million’ was left off the band’s debut Appetite for Destruction, and there’s plenty of sleaze and questionable lyrical themes already on the album to take its place. But Appetite is always a fun, deliriously nihilistic album that plays as joyous debauchery without taking a turn into hateful rhetoric. ‘One in a Million’ shoots Axl Rose far past the realm of an irreformable scamp and straight into hatemonger territory.
Some band members, including Axl Rose himself, have attempted to defend the song as either an honest portrait/character study of a yokel’s first experience in L.A. or a vivid commentary on poor race relations in America, but it seems like the band is mostly trying to forget it exists. The song has rarely been performed live, and after 1992, Rose has chosen not to discuss the song.
This brings us to the Appetite for Destruction box set released in 2018. That collection featured all the tracks from G N’ R Lies on a bonus disc. All, except for one. ‘One in a Million’, in what was described by Slash as a collective decision, was excluded. By the sound of it, even Axl wasn’t willing to reignite the controversy surrounding the track. ‘One in a Million’ isn’t exactly hiding anywhere: it’s still on streaming services and hasn’t been wiped from any official releases. But it seems pretty clear that the band are in a more contemplative phase of their career, one whose legacy doesn’t have to be potentially tarnished by a misbegotten song.