These Last Four Years of Madness
On Learning to Forgive Music’s Original Edgelord

I. This Ever-Changing World in Which We Live in

On May 6, 2020, Axl Rose won the internet again. Amid grim coverage of the coronavirus pandemic— “70k+ deaths,” as Rose put it—the media paused to rubberneck Axl’s latest throwdown with the Trump administration. This time Rose’s target was Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, whom Rose evidently doesn’t like. For unclear reasons, he tweeted: “It’s official! Whatever anyone may have previously thought of Steve Mnuchin he’s officially an asshole.”

I don’t think I’d thought anything different about Mnuchin, so fair enough. But what happened next was the stuff of legend. Mnuchin, who occupies the nation’s highest financial office, actually replied to Axl Rose—within an hour—and asked him what he’s done for the country lately. Then, the O. Henry twist: Mnuchin tweeted (accidentally, we think) an icon of the Liberian flag. Take us down to schadenfreude city, Mr. Secretary. Getting owned by Axl Rose couldn’t have happened to a nicer Sachs exec.

Of all the perplexities of the Trumpian world, perhaps none are as gratifying as the fact that Axl Rose is still Axl Rose—but woke. And somehow more relevant than ever. The reclusive singer of Guns N’ Roses, whose concerts sparked riots more than a quarter of a century ago, hasn’t had a hit in decades, but people still care what he thinks. Mnuchin evidently cares a great deal, even though he should have better things to do with his time. (To repeat: within an hour.)

Additionally, Axl seems an unlikely voice for progressive politics. Often labeled its stark opposite—music’s original edgelord—he once did things like record a song by Charles Manson and drop racist and homophobic slurs in his lyrics. And though we all have a past, Rose’s is more troubling than most, especially regarding his record of violence against women. Seems like he should be Trump’s ally, not a vocal detractor.

Nevertheless, here he is trolling Trump and, in the process, shitting up the neat dichotomy between red and blue America. He’s labeled Trump a whiner, a disgrace, a racist, and a traitor. Woke America doesn’t know what to do with Woke Axl. Is Woke Axl really woke, or did he get lost on his way to 4chan?

“Yeah I did not see Woke Axl coming,” tweeted Chris Hayes. A series of memes emerged from the spoof account @WokeAxl. They juxtapose pictures of the late-1980s hellraiser with his tweets, granting us a past that never happened so we can escape a present too grimy to behold.

Slow your roll, others say, and for good reason. Woke Axl is awesome, but he might not actually be that woke. “Woke Axl still hates women an POC,” writes Tiffany Aleman, underscoring that Axl has never apologized for his past misdeeds— “but, shit, he doesn’t like Trump, so he’s a hero to a subset of white dudes in fading black T-shirts.” Annaliese Griffin flags the fact that Rose called Melania Trump a “former hooker,” and, well, “No amount of wishing Twitter followers a ‘Happy Women’s Day’ can really balance that out.”

I get it. I grew up an obsessive Guns fan, my childhood bedroom plastered with posters. I can recall entire albums of lyrics. I’ve attended more titty-baring GN’R concerts than my parents will ever know about. I cherished Axl Rose. But I was also a girl—sensitive to Rose’s not-so-casual misogyny and toxic entitlement. Even at thirteen, I knew Axl would let me down. And he did. I was a nice
Midwestern girl raised by intellectual, civil rights-minded parents, and Axl Rose not only
sang troubling lyrics; he also told a female interviewer, “I’ve had a lot of hatred toward
women.” Worse, he allegedly assaulted women.

So why did I continue to follow this troubled individual? The easy answer is “I liked
the music,” but life is rarely that straightforward. I’m certainly not the first woman to stan
misogynistic music—the book Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them details that very subject. But whereas many women regard such music as a “guilty pleasure,” for me guilt never entered into the equation. My interest in Axl Rose went deeper than the music; it had to do with some unarticulated conviction, buried in the teenage psyche, that people could change.

What do you do when “problematic” people become woke? Can you trust a redemption narrative?

Perhaps the larger question is why we’re still so captivated by Axl, this weird curator of our shibboleths. We have more important things to think about—COVID-19,

immigrant detention, the disregard for black lives. Yet Axl still captures our attention,
getting press every time he tweets.

As I write, my birthplace of Columbus, Ohio, is on fire, as protests of the statesanctioned murder of George Floyd have turned violent. It’s the same flat Midwesternlandscape that shaped Rose, a place of untidy contradictions—of Reagan-inspired tax brackets and unexpected generosity; of crunchy college-town liberals and frat-boy malcontents. It’s where Confederate flags fly beside stops on the Underground Railroad; where counties are named for native tribes with no connection to the area besides the fact that they “passed through” on their way to removal. None of this would seem to have
anything to do with Rose—because it doesn’t. It has to do with the rest of us. The controversies in which Rose found himself entangled thirty years ago—issues of race, gender, and rape culture—haunt the Midwest more than they do any other region. The question isn’t “where do we go now?” but “why the fuck are we still here?”

II. With Your Bitch-Slap Rapping and Your Cocaine Tongue

For a hot minute at the turn of the millennium, Axl Rose seemed poised to become the music industry’s Joe Exotic—a pariah whose vanity had cost him everything. An unflattering Rolling Stone article described a shut-in who surrounded himself by “yes men” and woo bullshit. He was rumored to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on exorcisms. According to producer Moby, he seemed “like a beaten dog.” He still pined for Stephanie Seymour, the girlfriend who’d left him seven years earlier. Other eccentricities included collecting crucifixes and throwing Halloween parties for friends’ children. Once he “appeared outfitted as a pig, scaring a few of the children in attendance.”

Long gone were Slash, Duff, and Izzy—the guys who helped make Guns N’ Roses a
household name.

For Axl, the nineties were a shitty decade. They started out auspiciously enough,
with Guns’ visionary 1991 Use Your Illusion going multi-platinum. A massive stadium tour
followed. But afterwards they disintegrated. Alternative music had something to do with
their decline—it made them archaic to many critics—but Axl’s personal demons were the
likelier culprit. Sued by both his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend for domestic abuse, he spent the
decade in litigation. And in 1996 he lost two people—his mother to cancer, and Slash to a
conflict they couldn’t resolve.

Axl, critics said, had ruined the world’s biggest band. His exile to a Malibu mansion was just desserts; soon it would look like Grey Gardens, and coyotes would carry away his bones.

When I began following the band at thirteen, I’d never have guessed this outcome.
Guns N’ Roses seemed untouchable then—our generation’s version of the Stones. But I didn’t know much. Too young to be a fan during the Appetite for Destruction years, I came to GN’R during the pomp and pageantry of Use Your Illusion—lured, no doubt, by those trashy videos. They were catnip for the adolescent id—slow-mo shots of the sweaty band playing to sweaty stadiums. I thought Axl and Stephanie Seymour were married because I saw it in a video, and we assumed videos were autobiographical. No one had internet. My news sources were MTV News and Hit Parader, and for latter I would bike to Revco, stand in the magazine aisle, and speed-read every article I could before my bike got jacked.

In 1993, I bought Use Your Illusion I at Sun TV—a now-defunct store on the northwest side. All day I listened to it. All night. Summer swirled down the drain. On a family vacation to New York, I never put away my Walkman. I guess I saw the Twin Towers—I have pictures—but all I remember is contemplating the lines found a head and an arm in the garbage can/ don’t know why I’m here. Back home I jotted down made-up stories about Axl and Stephanie Seymour—awful stuff, primitive fanfiction. Imagine Axl as Little Eva, giving away locks of his red hair from his deathbed. Or Axl as Trueman Flint of The Lamplighter, a kindly man rescuing an orphan (probably definitely me) and raising her so she could become a respectable adult. Or, you know, a member of the band.

Even at the time, I knew these fantasies were absurd. I’d gleaned enough from tabloids and Axl’s lyrics to know the guy wasn’t a sweetheart. He called his mother a cunt and Courtney Love a bitch.
Critics agreed. Guns’ knuckle-drag ethics and disregard for basic decency—not to mention Axl’s use of the n-word in the song “One in a Million”—proved for Jon Pareles their allegiance to “white, heterosexual, nativist prejudices” and “Reagan-era individualism, plus a personal streak of misogyny.” After quoting their derogatory lines, Joe Queenan despaired: “The record sold six million copies.”

Kurt Cobain said you couldn’t be a fan of both Nirvana and GN’R. You had to choose.

“We’re not your typical Guns N’ Roses type of band that has absolutely nothing to say,” he said, drawing a sharp line between his work and Axl’s. Apparently Axl had asked Nirvana to tour with GN’R, and Kurt recoiled at the mere suggestion. During a concert to benefit LGBT rights, a fan climbed onstage and begged Cobain to drop his grudge: “Hey, man, Guns N’ Roses plays awesome music, and Nirvana plays awesome music. Let’s just get along and work things out, man!”

Cobain cleaned the dude’s clock in front of thousands. “That guy is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore.”

In other words: You’re either with Cobain or you’re with the terrorists.

“And besides,” Kurt added, “they can’t write good music.”

That’s where Cobain overplayed his hand. Say what you want about Guns’ -isms and -phobias, but their music was glorious. Its lyrics had me reaching for the dictionary. (Words
Axl taught fourteen-year-old me: vicarious, sycophant, innuendo, complicity, faction, crass,
subjugation, sordid.) I could imbibe an album while doing nothing, spacing out without
getting bored. Behind that music was Axl Rose—a deeply fucked up individual I wanted to
know.

Still, Cobain’s version of cancel culture—twenty-five years ahead of schedule—had the sting of uncomfortable truth. My devotion to GN’R contradicted my personal integrity, which had been shaped by sixties-era parents. I was also a girl, aware what Axl implied when he chanted, I see your sister in her Sunday dress. So, why was Axl so easy to forgive? Maybe a better question is, why didn’t it bother me more? I didn’t register the same static as Eric Weisbard who flags every autobiographical reason he shouldn’t have been a fan: “I grew up in New York, with no older siblings or bad influences; the kids in Queens who wore jean jackets with hard rock album covers painted on the back were tracked into less ‘gifted’ classes.” He “gagged at hard rock so fully that I can remember bouncing the needle around Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, trying to escape the crudeness.”

But I wasn’t from New York. I was from Guns N’ Roses country—what Weisbard calls “a place I had barely known well enough to run away from.” Was that the answer? Cobain was urbane, coastal. Axl was Midwestern. Many of his songs talked about moving “to the city” in archetypal fashion, but in interviews he spoke of Indiana as home. “I know the Midwest better than most places,” he said. “I wanted to be buried here.” Bandmate Izzy Stradlin, Axl’s childhood friend, described how the Midwest shaped Axl’s personality: “When I do look back [on Indiana], I do see some kind of stability that comes from growing up in a fucking cornfield.” Asked how “stability” could possibly explain Axl, Stradlin clarified: “He’s very uncompromised. He’s the first one to say, ‘Fuck this.’”

So the Midwest was a place. All my life I’d been told it was a samey “nowhere,” where corporations tested products to sell to the “real” parts of the country. I never believed that, but I hadn’t understood Midwestern identity until Axl labeled it. Columbus,though eleven times larger than Lafayette, was similar in ethos. It had a university, a riverthat separated the haves from the have-nots, and pancake-flat topography. I wanted out. It wasn’t until my twenties that someone confirmed what I always knew: I had an accent. A thick one. Growing up, I’d been told that Columbusites had no discernable accent, that we spoke “newscaster English.” In Connecticut, someone—someone who, astonishingly enough, loved Guns N’ Roses as much as I did—paid me a compliment: “You have the same accent as Axl Rose.”

III. But Look at What We’ve Done to the Innocent and Young

I didn’t want to start high school. It was a Catholic school on the north side. Though Columbus’s Catholic community was small and insular, it was large enough to justify four diocesan schools. My friends were districted to the school that drew the city’s Italiandescended population. (Mine was the Irish one.) I’d be alone. I was shy, skinny, and nerdy. High school was gonna blow.

I’d spent the last weeks lovesick about Guns N’ Roses. I’d lie on my bed for hours and “watch the big screen in my head,” as Axl put it. Onto the screen I projected myself as thefirst female GN’R member. On keyboard maybe. Never mind that I sucked at piano and my teacher told me I wasted her time. Freshmen had orientation the day before school’s start—a three-hour run-down of the school’s rules. I was terrified, but by then I knew how to retreat to my mind, pondering what the band was up to. (Three hours earlier in California. Was Axl waking up? Did he call Slash to say hi? I imagined a conversation between them, and it was unspeakably comforting.) My hands shook as I spun my locker’s combination, but I hummed “Dead Horse” and got it open on the second try. Okay, I’d survive high school.

Since the buses weren’t running yet, my mother picked me up. “You got something in the mail,” she said, handing me a manila envelope. My name and address were typed on a scrap of paper taped to its middle. There was no return address.

When I opened the letter, I understood why. My name stared back at me in huge cutout letters, the kind you see in movies-of-the-week about kids taken for ransom. “ThIs Letter is strictLY perSOnal,” read the first line. “It DealS With making a better fashion statement. You think you deserve EVERYTHING. NOW YOU CAN LEAD AN EVEN FULLER LIFE.”

It went on, cobbling together slogans from fashion magazines, taped to loose-leaf paper. The gist of the matter was my boobs, which were lacking. “Big BONGOs R in,” the letter said, informing me I needed implants. My mother, clued into the letter’s sinister nature, snatched it before I could finish it. We drove home in silence. When I got to my bedroom, I lay on the bed and pressed play to hear whatever UYI had to offer. And cried.

That night, I crept downstairs and took the envelope from the top of the refrigerator and read the last pages. “Stop being THE DREAMER TuRN INTo a SOCIAL BUTTERFLY,” it read. Someone had scrawled “bye now” in crayon and enclosed an ad for an inflatable bra. “Wear it under a sweater. No one will notice until you hil-AIR-iously start to develop!” I had to start high school the next day. I didn’t know who’d sent the letter, and for weeks I’d suspect everyone, anyone. That was the worst thing—not knowing the enemy in my midst.

My parents took the letter to the police, reasoning that I was being harassed. The cops had never seen anything like it. (To this day, I wonder what they’d said.) But the mystery resolved itself: Weeks later, I was at Northland Mall with my friends—the friends who went to the other school—and they asked me if I’d gotten anything in the mail. “A big envelope with no return address,” they said. “No,” I stammered, struggling to process this information. They started to laugh. “We didn’t use enough stamps,” one said.

I left them in the middle of the store. They followed me outside, distraught that I was distraught. They’d meant it as a joke, and it had been another girl’s idea—a mutual friend who always poked fun at my chest. They were sorry. “We told Candace to sign it, so you’d know we were kidding. I can’t believe she didn’t sign it!”

I didn’t believe them, but I forgave them—what else could I do?

Years later, I submitted a story to my college fiction workshop about a girl who receives a letter right before her freshman year. Having kept a copy of my letter, I transcribed it exactly. A guy in workshop—a white male who now works in publishing—scrawled something in the margins and gave it back. “I don’t ‘buy’ that anyone would send a girl this ‘letter.’”

Later still: I’m teaching my own class, and I find a study about kids and gender. When asked what it would be like to be the opposite gender, girls talk positively, mentioning all the things they could do. Boys, on the other hand, associate nothing positive with being a girl. Some even say they’d rather be dead.

In 1993 I was a girl, and I think what I appreciated most about Axl was that he hid nothing from me. Wasn’t circumspect. “Nobody got fucked by the Age of Irony as much as Axl,” wrote Chuck Klosterman, like earnestness was something to tsk-tsk about. Axl’s sincerity—often ham-fisted but sometimes staggering—emboldened his less-likely fans. “Apparently [Rose] still thinks sincerity excuses anything, except a sincere disagreement with him,” wrote Pareles—but Pareles wasn’t a teenage girl in a culture that trades in insincerity, withholding information from girls because, you know, reasons.

Still, words like cunt don’t come from nowhere, and they don’t go anywhere. They remain in circulation, alongside other Anglo-Saxonisms of the trade.

I use the word sometimes, not to be edgy but because it gets the job done. I tell myself I’m “reclaiming” it, but we know that’s bullshit. The playing field’s uneven. There’s no equivalent for white heterosexual man because if one existed, then cunt would not. Opposite cunt stands nothing, just as nothing stands opposite the worst racial slurs. But the nothing isn’t negation—it’s the furthest thing from it. It’s the surety that language hides nothing from you, that it is for you, that there is nothing anyone could say behind your back that you couldn’t imagine them saying to your face.

IV. Your Laundry Could Use Washing, We’ll Hang It Up All over Town

My friend Joe texts me. He’s the Connecticut friend who’s equally obsessed with GN’R. Our paths crossed in a graduate program in 2007. We met on Appetite’s 20th birthdayand started talking. And never stopped. We talked about Guns at parties, in the lounge, between seminars. We drove our cohort batshit. “They’re talking about Guns N’ Roses again?” was the familiar refrain. We were. We grew up in a time when they weren’t cool to talk about. Between us we had a combined thirty years of unaired thoughts.

This time Joe texts me about Nirvana’s “Rape Me.” Though the song is an anti-rape invective, there’s something voyeuristic about it. Whereas Axl’s lyrics oozed misogyny—turn around bitch I got a use for you—they were transparent. “Rape Me,” on the other hand, comes from a place of privilege, says Joe, from a guy who can use rhetorical provocation while distancing himself from the emotional fall-out.

I reply that I’d never thought about it, but yes, the song feels somewhat appropriative. Of course a man has the right to inhabit a female victim’s perspective—but does Cobain pull it off? His “irony” is often lost on people—something he must have known would happen when he titled the song. Consider the Steubenville rape case, where kids cracked jokes online as an unconscious girl was dragged between parties and assaulted.

“Song of the night is Rape Me by Nirvana,” tweeted Steubenville resident Michael Nodianos, who was chased from Ohio State once people learned of his involvement. About the victim,
he also tweeted, “Some people deserve to be peed on.”

There’s another issue, I text. Cobain’s songs make rape the exclusive province of women. Men are also raped. Why borrow a woman’s perspective when you could write about a man? Why continue to erase male victims?

Yes, that’s it, Joe says. We both know that Axl is a rape survivor, albeit one people
rarely acknowledge.

In 1992 Axl disclosed to a reporter that he’d been assaulted. Her name was Kim Neely, and for me, her presence in the saga of GN’R was boss-awesome. She was the first female character I’d stumbled across who wasn’t a wife, stripper, or girlfriend. Though most Guns songs were addressed to women or about them, their identities remained opaque. For me they became a GN’R ur-woman who lived rent free in Axl’s head.

Enter Kim Neely, whose existence I discovered at the local library. Technically I was half-assing a paper on Stonehenge, but the periodicals room beckoned. The daughter of a librarian and a lawyer, I knew how to scrounge for knowledge in the pre-information age, when news was already history by the time it was in print. I used these skills to do God’s work—which meant “find every article about GN’R that exists.”

Neely had gone on tour with GN’R in ‘91. Her mission: get interviews. Good luck with that. Axl hated the press, demanding (unsuccessfully) the final say on what magazines published about him. He’d also lashed out at reporters in UYI II, naming and shaming them for “rippin’ off the fuckin’ kids while they be payin’ their hard-earned money to read about the bands they want to know about. … You want to antagonize me? Antagonize me, motherfucker! Get in the ring, motherfucker, and I’ll kick your bitchy little ass!”

Neely got in the ring.

“Rock stars hate reporters,” she wrote in her essay about the interview—a rare instance of a journalist breaking the fourth wall. When she’d gotten her assignment, she was “still green enough to expect carte blanche access to the inner circle. But the road, I learned, was War. And I was the Enemy.”

This essay was priceless to me—a GN’R story from a woman’s perspective, a young woman who witnessed and wrote, who’d spent a year in a clown car without windows. Sidelined without much interaction, she chronicled being stranded at gigs and excluded from gatherings, mocked by roadies and routed by band members who suddenly needed to give interviews but then had nothing to say. Gender undoubtedly inspired this hazing, but Neely was mum, obviously. In the nineties, the Worst Person was a feminazi—i.e., a woman who harshed men’s fun.

But then, payoff: Axl granted her the interview of the decade, choosing to go on the record with her about his abusive childhood and the misogyny and homophobia he’d struggled with ever since. He was doing “the work,” he said, using therapy to confront his dysfunction. The account was harrowing—he’d been beaten by his stepfather and raped by his biological father. According to Neely, the interview touched other survivors. Letters poured in. “Some wrote that they felt less alone, others that the piece had given them the courage to tell parents and counselors about abuse they’d kept secret for years.”

#AxlToo.

I’m not being flip. If Cobain’s cancel culture was ahead of its time, then so too was Axl’s conviction that survivors should be believed. People dismissed Axl’s account as a product of the hypno-obsessed nineties, when everyone was recovering memories of satanic daycares. But I don’t think so now. If we’re going to take survivors seriously, we need to extend the same generosity to Axl Rose. Even if details are flawed, and the victim unsympathetic, the pain is real, and the damage runs deep.

For me, though, this story belongs to Kim Neely. Knowing Axl nursed antipathy for both journalists and women, she still pressed him about the misogyny, the racism, the homophobia. She didn’t sanitize her articles—she wrote about Axl’s unhinged behavior and prophesied the band’s collapse. Still, he chose her. She was, apparently, the only journalist he’d talk to.

I don’t know what happened to her. She left journalism. Discussion forums ask why she quit writing, and no one answers; her biography of Pearl Jam still gets rave reviews.

V. If You Had Better Sense, You’d Just Step Aside from the Bad Side of Me

Whatever weird Silas Marner fantasies I’d harbored about Axl met their end in March 1994, when his ex-wife, Erin Everly, sued him for domestic abuse. The news made the wire and surfaced in the Columbus Dispatch. Even small blurbs mentioned appalling details. None of it surprised me, but it was depressing.

Initially Axl’s lawsuit went unnoticed. That would change with O.J. Simpson’s arrest.

I hated the O.J. trial. Initially I’d been engrossed—like every American with a pulse, I’d watched the Bronco chase. But when it ended anticlimactically outside Simpson’s estate, it foreshadowed how the rest of the thing would go—tediously, swallowing the next two years. Simpson was a party-crasher who ruined the nineties. Up next: Gingrich’s Contract with America.

Why couldn’t O.J. just fuck off and go away? His record of abuse—the frantic 911 calls from Nicole Brown played on TV—thrust domestic violence into the spotlight. Journalists starting digging into other celebrities’ backgrounds, and lo and behold, there was the lawsuit Everly had filed months earlier. By July, Axl made the cover of People. BATTERED BEAUTIES read the headline. Below it, a picture of Axl looking bestial onstage (wearing his Manson tee-shirt, of course) juxtaposed with lovely pictures of Everly and Seymour.

I went to dance camp with the issue in my suitcase. Rooming with girls at Wright
State, I’d sit in my bunk and slide the magazine from under my pillow and reread it. It was
like picking an ingrown toenail—I couldn’t stop myself.

Everly claims that during his frequent, unpredictable rages, Rose brandished guns, smashed her belongings and yanked telephones from the wall. At one point, she alleges, he removed all the doors inside her apartment so that he could monitor her movements.

Jesus, take the motherfucking wheel.

That I was so earnestly sad (as though Axl had wronged me personally!) strikes me today as both precious and absurd. But I felt how I felt, and I was devastated. Previously, Axl’s misogyny had seemed like a flaw he could overcome. That was before I knew of the damage he’d done to actual women.

Axl’s spokespeople dismissed Everly as a money-grubbing ex, but I knew better. Women don’t just make shit up. Why had Everly waited so long to come forward? According to her, the answer was in those chilling Brentwood crime scene photos.

I knew then that Axl was finished. There was no “coming back” from being a wifebeater in post-O.J. America. Even the troglodyte deejays at Columbus’s rock station—dudes who cheerfully announced they’d played “Kashmir” so they could take a dump, and who’d dedicated “Run Like Hell” to O.J. during the Bronco chase—were done with Axl. One night I was grooving to “November Rain” when the deejay interrupted the orchestral intro: “Just what every band needs—a wife-beater on vocals.”

During this time, Axl said nothing. He withdrew from public life altogether, dropping
out of the nineties as if acknowledging that the decade had never been his.

His silence infuriated me—I wanted Axl to come forward, to tell “his side,” to apologize, to deny, to do something—but Axl never does what you want him to. However, I now find the choice arresting. Powerful men rarely step back when accused. Consider Brett Kavanaugh’s meltdown. When powerful men are accused, they go DARVO.

Axl didn’t. At least not publicly.

Not that that makes him a “better” abuser. I don’t know why Axl stepped back— legal advice undoubtedly had something to do with it. I’m not excusing Axl at all. But is it wrong to want to believe that he was chastened in some way?

He stopped producing music then. Guns N’ Roses eventually split—the “official explanation” was that Axl and Slash couldn’t agree on creative direction. Axl wanted to take an experimental path, while Slash wanted to honor their punk-blues roots. Eventually Slash would leave. And my fascination with GN’R would become a party trick. The day I was sworn into AmeriCorps, I peppered my “two truths and a lie” icebreaker with “I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses,” and none of my teammates guessed this as truth. Our site leader, a lovely nun who once told me she’d gone into the convent during the sixties and never “got” why people were “so into” the Beatles, was shocked: “You’re obsessed with guns? You actually shoot them?”

Of course, my yearning for Axl’s “chastening” reflects my own desires rather than
the reality—that an abused child became a violent adult. Sometimes silence is just an
asshole who’s run out of things to say.

VI. This Side of Heaven Is Close to Hell

In 1994 my family moved to the classier side of the river, and I went into the closet as a Guns fan—literally. My new closet had a cubby hole, and it was there I stashed my Guns merch. I renounce my fanship, I wrote with tearful flourish in my diary, furious with Axl the wife-beater.

Armed with Converse sneakers, black nail polish, and baby barrettes, I made a bid for the alternative crowd. They were mini-Weisbards, and they clustered in the hallway each morning, sizing us up. To impress them, you couldn’t stan anybody current or commercial. I purchased some micro-buttons and pinned them to my shoelaces. (Sex Pistols. Lush.) Can’t they see I’m not a poser? I wrote in my diary.

I credit Axl for my eclectic, offbeat tastes. I’d chased down his influences—everyone from ELO to the Eagles, spending hours in the library reading about his favorite bands. When someone sneeringly asked if I knew who the Dead Kennedys were, I outlined why Patti Smith was superior. The “preps” were getting their asses fleeced for Dave Matthews tickets, but I was building a case for Blue Öyster Cult. (If anyone’d asked, I’d have explained why they were the ur-goth band. No one did.)

I sat by two grungers in biology—Catie Byrnes, a pothead rumored to have a 153 IQ, and Liz Daly, whose purplish-red dye job prompted the school to update its rules about hair color. They weren’t unfriendly but didn’t ask me to hang. During a different class, I looked out the window to see they’d cut gym and were playing in the snow. I felt like Whitman’s twenty-ninth bather.

By spring quarter, I’d lost my chance. Shuffled to a different section, I sat between a boy named Mike and a girl named Erica. Mike thought I existed to help him cheat. When I noticed him copying my test, I adjusted my posture. Afterwards he said, “You’re a tease. You give me five answers then lock shit up like Fort Knox.”

I tried keeping things cordial with Mike, unsuccessfully. One day, our biology teacher projected a slide of some cellular formation, and Mike said, “That looks like a kinky sexual experience.” (It didn’t.) Erica said: “You’ve had a kinky sexual experience, Mike?” I added: “You’ve had a sexual experience, Mike?”

Mike’s eyes turned black. Unknowingly, I’d tripped an IED. You don’t question a guy’s sexual prowess—ever. Not even when the guy in question is all of fifteen. “You’re a cunt,” he whispered. “You’re so ugly you’re unfuckable. You’d only get some if the dude was blind.” He looked me up and down. “You sit there with that ugly retard face and say shit about me.”

I sat motionless.

“Smile all you want. I’ll cut off your nose and shove it up your ass.”

Days later, I returned to my seat after submitting a quiz to find a page torn from my notebook—part of a story I was writing. Mike and Erica laughed. “We have your story,” Mike gloated. “You can have it back if you follow my instructions. Number one, suck my dick.”

There’s no record of this in my diary. Why would there be? It’s utterly unremarkable—just another day in Catholic school. But what now haunts me now is Erica—why didn’t she help me? Did she, like Mike, resent that I breezed through tests? I doubt it.

Now I wonder what memories people have of me standing there, failing to intervene, taking some asshole’s side because it was simpler. Because being affirmed by some guy was more satisfying than calling him out. Because Catholic school was easier when you sided with boys.

I too was unremarkable.

VII. There Were Always Ample Warnings

Gilby Clarke almost got me killed. At the end of the schoolyear I ran afoul of a group of girls who believed I’d ruined someone’s reputation. I hadn’t, but in defending myself I unwittingly plagiarized the GN’R guitarist who, when asked by Rolling Stone if Guns was breaking up, said, “Rumors usually come from some form of the truth.” The remark got Gilby fired—and me on this girl’s shit-list, number one with a bullet. After our last exam, her entourage canvassed the schoolgrounds for me. Luckily, I’d already boarded the bus.

I shouldn’t blame Axl for the summer of 1995, but I do. His exile meant nothing to look forward to. I fought with my parents. Got drunk on their booze when they weren’t around. Lacked ambition. At dance camp, I wrote on a poster I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist, and the coach called my mother. (All the words I’d heard Axl use, and “antichrist” was my undoing? Really?)

Behind everything, the Trial of the Century limped along, with nonstop commentary about Marcia Clark’s eyebrows.

But I had a best friend then. Our friendship was the intense kind that exists only among adolescent girls. Her name was Jenna Lopez, and she was a Pretty Girl. I’d never known a Pretty Girl up close before, and she enthralled me. She drove boys to their wits’ end. Each time she’d dump one, he’d call me crying, begging me to reason with her. When that didn’t work, he’d tell people she was a slut and leak titillating details. Her devout Peruvian mother was always “finding” her diary and then lapsing into
catatonic despair. “Dude,” I said, “what’s in your diary?”

“Mark. Well, and Dave.”

“Jesus.”

Where I was insecure, she was chill. I once asked if she’d rather be pretty or smart. She smiled. “Tell me what it’s like to be both.”

My (usually tolerant) mother didn’t like Jenna. She still talks about Lollapalooza, when Jenna’s mother dropped her at our house “and that girl was wearing an outfit the size of a postage stamp.” Good thing she didn’t see Jenna at the amphitheater, where she tied the bottom of her shirt under her bra. We paused in the mist tent and were approached by guys. One had a polaroid camera. “Can we take your picture?”

Outside the tent we stood side-by-side, giggling. Jenna wanted to see the picture, so
we waited. Dude angled it toward us.

As it developed, I saw I was not there. Not really. Beside Jenna: my elbow, my shoulder, my frizzy hair.

I wanted to undo the day. Of course they hadn’t wanted me in the picture. Duh.

It got worse. The next morning Jenna called me, breathless. “Did you see the Dispatch? The guys who took our picture are on the front page. They’re Coolio’s backup singers!” When I said they hadn’t taken my picture, Jenna denied it. “You’re pretty, dude. Stop saying you’re not.”

Bless this girl. But really, getting dissed by Coolio’s peeps was a good check. I got serious about school, stopped looking toward California and thought about college.

Jenna and I took driver’s ed together, and once school started, we shared history class. That’s where we were on October 3, when a shout came from the hallway to turn on the TV.

We faced the TV. O.J. Simpson faced the jury. When the verdict came, the room
erupted to the point that I started. Boys jumped to their feet, pumping their fists and
slapping each other’s backs. Girls remained seated.

When I glanced at Jenna, she was shoving her books in her bag. “Fuck this country.”
“Why?”

“You can buy your way out of a murder conviction. It’s gross.”

“But the prosecution botched it,” I said. “And the LAPD is super racist.” Since the Furhman tapes had surfaced, I’d paid closer attention than usual. Whenever my father drove me to school, we talked about the case, about the LAPD’s racism and the riots of three years before.

Now Jenna didn’t look at me. She zipped her bag. “He cut her head off.”

For years to come, people would call the verdict a moment that revealed our starkest divisions. We’ve seen the videos—black elation; white tears. But it’s not what I lived. In my world, white girls were impassive, white boys overjoyed. Not because those boys thought Simpson was the victim of a racist conspiracy (you’ll never convince me my dudebro classmates cared about racism), but because he represented what many of them aspired to be—strong in ways that mattered, and able to do what he wanted.

Now I just think about my friend, a brown girl in a white school saying fuck this country. Slut-shamed for dating white boys, and for being brown while doing so. Shamed for saying yes and vilified for saying no. I had lacked the imagination to understand.

VIII. Never Mind the Darkness

What Rolling Stone prophesied in 2000 didn’t come to pass: Axl’s mansion didn’t slide into the canyon. He wasn’t carried away by coyotes, and he didn’t show up on the Strip dressed as a scary pig. But he was blamed for hijacking the generation’s most iconic band for his own ambitions. (Weisbard actually calls Use Your Illusion I and II “those twin towers of September 1991.”) He’d run off Slash, Duff, and Izzy, replacing them with Tommy Stinson and a guy who wore a KFC bucket as a hat. Yes, he’d traded Slash for a guy who lived in a chicken coop.

But he didn’t give up on the music. He never let a camera crew through the door either—an accomplishment, considering that “washed-up rock stars” comprised a reality TV genre.

In 2002, an awkward stab at a comeback—he performed at the VMAs. The effort was reviled, and after an aborted tour, everyone assumed Axl would go away and stop inflicting this bastard line-up on us, which Conan O’Brien called “Chubby Magoo and the guys that aren’t Slash.”

He didn’t. For Axl, the 2000s involved fits and starts (literal fits) as he tried out
different Slash replacements. People in the audience heckled him. When someone at a
concert held up a sign that read “Where’s Slash?” Axl interrupted “Patience” to reply, “He’sin my ass, that’s where Slash is.”

During this time, Axl wasn’t on my radar. I was, as Millennials say, adulting. I took a
job for a nonpartisan agency, ghostwriting condolence letters to families of soldiers killed
in Iraq—a position that stipulated I not protest the war. Frustrated—and devastated that
the obituaries crossing my desk were for people my age—I quit, sold my things, and moved
to Washington, D.C., to do national service. I rented a room in a house that was occupied by
Bosnian woman whose husband had just died. She had a son, and he was a shitstain who
stole things from my room. But I felt bad for him—every morning before school he’d sit on
the couch and shake with sobs: “I don’t want to go-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.”

D.C. was awful—low and hot and unrelenting. The terror threat level hovered at “orange-plus.” I moved three times in four months, once to escape a stalker and once because I’d been constructively evicted. One time, I smuggled my belongings out the window.

For years I’d dream about the man who almost broke into my workplace, a man I escaped by mere seconds, shutting the door in his face. He stood on the other side and pounded and pounded. Then he breathed: “When I come back here and you’re alone, I’m gonna kill you.”

I landed in Connecticut with undiagnosed PTSD and a dislike for bucolic places. But I
grew to love it for the ways it was unlike Ohio and D.C.—clean, and willing to tax the fuck
out of its rich people. Health insurance! Libraries! It fucking felt like Sweden.

I didn’t trust men. Living alone, I relearned Spanish so I could translate reggaetón
lyrics. I also began to revisit GN’R’s catalog. The music didn’t feel dated. If anything, Axl’s
musings about being “old at heart” at “twenty-eight” hit uncomfortably close. When I was
fifteen, Axl’s sadness had been abstract. Now I saw it in the mirror.

Once I discovered the fellow stan in grad school—well, it seemed okay to talk to people again.

Joe and I had a few pet topics—namely what Axl had done during the 1990s. He seemed to have spent the “lost decade” assembling a “family of choice”—namely Beta Lebeis, a Brazilian woman Axl met when she nannied for Stephanie Seymour, and Beta’s children. Beta became Axl’s personal manager. Depending on whom you ask, Beta was either GN’R’s Yoko, or she was the mother Axl never had.

Regardless, Joe and I agreed that Beta probably inspired in Axl an affinity for LatinAmerica. Neither of us was surprised when, weeks after Trump’s election, Axl playedMexico City and produced a Donald Trump piñata and a big stick. Inviting audiencemembers onstage, he said, “Express yourselves however you feel.”

Other things we talked about: racism and “One in a Million.” Why Guns really belonged to the alternative nineties rather than the dick-wagging eighties. Duff McKagan’s return to college. (“Could you imagine Duff in your comp class?”) The line “Friday night is goin’ up inside her again”—was that metonymy or synecdoche?

Weeks before Chinese Democracy dropped, we carpooled to a conference in Boston,
which required waking at four in the morning, meeting in a frigid parking lot, driving there,
and taking the T. When we arrived, our friend asked if we’d discussed Guns N’ Roses during
the trip. “What do you think?” I said. When she asked if we were going to talk about Guns
on the way back, Joe said, “It’s been a long day. We wouldn’t be at our best. We wouldn’t do
them justice.”

The night before Chinese Democracy’s release, Joe and I celebrated by geeking out on
YouTube clips until four in the morning.

We’d have to wait another eight years for the reunion.

IX. A Crazy Man’s Utopia

And we always knew they’d reunite. But I wouldn’t have minded if they hadn’t. Our culture loves redemption stories, and Axl never wanted to give us one. I don’t blame him. There’s redemption and there’s reality. I think of Axl’s refusal to attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012. “People get divorced,” he wrote in a public letter. “Life doesn’t owe you your own personal happy ending especially at another’s, or in this case several others’, expense.” As a guy who hasn’t had many happy endings, he’d know.

Which makes his stance against Trump all the more intriguing. After all, if we’re going to extract ourselves from the pigfuck rapeworld that is Trump’s America, we’re going to need optimism—and Axl (yes, Axl) seems to have a truckload. In 2012 he told Jimmy Kimmel that he “leaned Obama” but probably wouldn’t vote. Now he tweets “VOTE MOTHERFUCKERS!!” with pictures of his ballot. I guess he wants that happy ending for the country that we once wanted for GN’R.

At a concert years ago, Axl slipped an extra line into “Estranged”: “Maybe I’ll get it right next time—but I doubt it!” Now he tweets Trump: “We can work past U w/whatever it takes 2 make a better, stronger future!” Motherfuck, it’s snowing in July.

X. Maybe I’ll Get It Right Next Time

So is Axl woke? I don’t know. Duff’s zoomer daughters think he’s woke, as does Melissa Reese, the first female member of Guns N’ Roses. Oscar Wilde says it’s perilous for the old to contradict the young, so I’ll leave it for them to decide.

But here’s my theory: I don’t think Axl was ever that unwoke to begin with—at least not in ways Pareles and Queenan believed. He certainly had flaws, but he’s long been a populist in the most generous (non-Trumpian) definition of the word. He grew up in fucked-up circumstances. Dropped out of high school despite his outlandishly high IQ. Was arrested twenty times before he left Indiana. For that reason, he identifies with those from troubled backgrounds—though not in a way that echoes J.D. Vance’s hillbilly paternalism. Axl doesn’t tell anyone to bootstrap it. Nor has he mythologized his own bootstrapping.

When Guns released Appetite in 1987, they held a mirror up to a society that had recently begun to disembowel its better angels. They didn’t judge and they didn’t explain. They offered a perspective. I’m not saying they did so with political awareness, or what Paolo Freire calls
conscientização—but awareness wasn’t far from their purview. They existed in space and time, and they chronicled that experience. But they were, also, willing to evolve.

In 1992, Trump wanted to meet Axl. Speaking to the band’s manager, he called Axl “the Donald Trump of rock and roll.”

It’s unclear how Axl responded.

Even if the two seemed alike back then, they’ve taken different paths, says Corbin Reiff. While Axl’s content to just play shows, Trump “is still on an unending quest for acceptance in the mass culture.” Trump is racist whereas Axl has distanced himself from “One in a Million.” “Axl has become a human being; Donald Trump a caricature.”

But I’d argue that ‘92’s Axl didn’t have much in common with Donald either. By that time, Trump had roiled a small city, stiffing its workers and tanking its employment rate. Axl, on the other hand, was fronting a band that sold cheap tickets and paid its staff fairly. “We’re very close to the kids we play for,” Slash said, and even after the band became wealthy, they kept this commitment. They played small towns, citing the fact that kids who grew up “like them” didn’t often get to see major bands. And when Axl was late to the stage? It was, he explained, out of a desire to give fans their money’s worth at a time when his psychological problems were impeding his abilities to perform. (Anyone who’s seen a show knows dude gives his all and a half.) Yes, there were riots in St. Louis and Montreal—
but in both instances, Guns took responsibility for the fallout. (Trump, on the other hand, has never owned leaving Atlantic City a slightly nicer version of Kandahar.)

When Axl lashed out at the press in the early nineties, he was thin-skinned—not unlike Trump. But the situation was complicated. Axl explained that he was offended on behalf of kids who were getting fleeced by “fake news.” “I want the real story,” he told Neely. “I never wanted ‘Steven Adler’s on vacation.’ I wanted ‘Steven Adler’s in fucking rehab.’ . . . There are a lot of kids who collect [magazines], and we’d rather they have real stories than bullshit stories.” (No wonder he was pissed by Khashoggi’s assassination.) No, Guns didn’t advocate for the poor or endeavor to end the poverty from which they’d escaped. They didn’t write protest music. They just witnessed. For them, that was
enough.

I keep revisiting what Izzy said about Axl—that the Midwest made him “uncompromised.” But like the Midwest itself, so much of Axl’s personality embodies compromise, contradiction, and incongruity. I think I now understand what Izzy meant: Axl’s never for sale. He likes what he likes and does what he does—he could be homophobic while declaring Freddie Mercury his hero. If he contradicts himself? Well, then Axl contains multitudes, just like the rest of us. Deal with it. Or, as Axl would say, “Suck on
that.”

XI. These Last Four Years of Madness Sure Put Me Straight

I confess: I never listened to “One in a Million” when I was younger. Call it an act of white cowardice on my part, but I didn’t want to be that close to Axl’s racism.

When I finally confronted the song in my twenties, I understood why people had been infuriated. The song is a good one. Layered. Complex. Reminds me of “Gimme Shelter.” Axl wanted people to write it off as “a joke,” but it’s anything but. In “One in a Million,” Axl does all the things Axl does best, conquering several octaves and embodying different personas. Sometimes he inhabits the character of an L.A. transplant—a bigoted “small-town white boy”; at other times he sings to this boy from the perspective of the people he left behind.

He might have gotten away with the n-word back in 1989 had he kept his mouth shut. “One in a Million” was troubling, but it could also be understood as an diatribe against the prejudices of the “white boy,” who’s put in his place by his nagging conscience. Move over, “Rape Me.” Dr. Axl’s doing a real teach-in.

But Axl decided to speak. In doing so, he shot himself in the foot. And the leg. And the arm. He wasn’t talking about all black people, he said, just those black people. He wasn’t homophobic but wished gay men wouldn’t be so obvious about their gayness. And the immigrants line? Well, one time Slash (a black immigrant himself) got hassled by an Iranian with a butcher knife.

Understandably, Slash was offended by the song. But Axl moved ahead, and history was sealed: Axl would be remembered as a bigot, and Kurt Cobain would be welcomed as his enlightened repudiation. And now—thirty years later—people are confused by Axl’s anti-Trump stance, even if they don’t remember why.

But the upside: Axl was forced to grapple with the fallout. He was dismayed when GN’R was dropped from an AIDS benefit concert organized by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and angered when a critic called Guns “the perfect house band for David Duke’s America.” “Is that what you get out of this?” Axl asked his audience. “That we’re fucking racists, and you’re supporting it?”

White fragility? You bet. But growth also. When Axl was contacted by Ice T and
Eazy-E, they had a conversation Axl described as “heavy.” Though Axl never formally
apologized for the song, he eventually removed it from future pressings.

2020 isn’t 1989, and I don’t think anyone needs to be as generous as Eazy-E. I also don’t think “cancel culture” is a terrible thing. Some people deserve to be canceled. But was Axl one of them?

As I reread Axl’s gag-inducing excuses—everything from “I have black friends” to “I avoid gays because my father molested me”—I’m struck by the clumsiness. This wasn’t a practiced bigot covering his ass. This was someone who genuinely thought he wasn’t a bigot—and was disquieted to discover he was. I’ve taught hundreds of students during my career, many of them grappling in ways that make me roll my eyes. (Yes, tell me again how an “unqualified” minority “took your place” at a better university.) But they’re one thing, and pathological racists are another. The latter are adept at deploying the lingo of “privilege” and “microaggressions.” Recently I had a student produce a groundbreaking paper about 12 Years a Slave, only to disappear from class. Later I learned he’d taunted a campus security guard from his dorm window, shouting the n-word at her again and again.

Though Axl draws a line between GN’R and Trump, he’s not judgmental of his Trump-voting fans. Angered that Trump played GN’R songs at rallies, he announced publicly that Guns, like other musicians, had requested that Trump cease and desist. But the campaign found loopholes around licensing agreements.

On Twitter, Axl didn’t mince words: “We have an individual in the WH that will say n’ do anything w/no regard for truth, ethics, morals or empathy of any kind, who says what’s real is fake n’ what’s fake is real.

“Most of us in America have never experienced anything this obscene at this level in r livetimes n’ if we as a country don’t wake up n’ put an end 2 this nonsense now it’s something we definitely will all pay hard 4 as time goes on.”

Once he got that settled, some perspective: “As far as I’m concerned,” he tweeted, “anyone can enjoy GNR 4 whatever reason n’ there’s truth 2 the saying ‘u can’t choose your fans’ n we’re good w/that.

“Personally I kinda liked the irony of Trump supporters listening to a bunch of antiTrump music at his rallies but I don’t imagine a lot of ‘em really get that or care.”

A couple things. First, despite Pareles’s pearl-clutching to the contrary, Axl did
indeed conceptualize GN’R’s music as protest music. (Duh.)

Second, you’re either with Axl or with the terrorists—but Axl gives zero shits if terrorists listen to his music. He finds it amusing, even. He out-ironizes Cobain, the King of Irony himself, who once issued an ultimatum to fans: “If any of you hate homosexuals, people of color or women, please do this one favor for us. . . . Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

Axl’s taking a different tack. He’s not canceling his bigoted fans—perhaps because black and gay artists didn’t cancel him thirty years ago. Elton John even played with him at the 1992 VMAs.

A cynic might say that Axl’s playing both sides for money—pandering to the left while placating the right. But this is a guy who waited seventeen years to release an album and then did fuck-all to promote it. And given the number of knuckle-drag fans who reply angrily to each anti-Trump tweet with “I’ll never go to your concerts again,” I’d venture that Axl doesn’t care about alienating that oh-so enviable demographic.

Don’t worry, small-town bigots and Proud Boys and MRA trolls. Axl believes in redemption, and he’ll wait for you. And for you. And even you, fuckface.

Live and let live, motherfuckers.

XII. What’ll Happen to Us Baby

Then again, I don’t know Axl Rose the person. Everything I’ve written here is speculation. The daughter of a lawyer and a librarian, I became a historian, and that’s what historians do—we wrestle stories from detritus. But they’re still speculation.

But I also know that stories are always openended. I wrote my dissertation on serial narratives in early America, a time when the U.S. barely had a publishing industry but still managed to continue stories, distributing them in pamphlets and multivolume books. The urge to continue on is powerful.

Today we also live in a serial culture, where everything is “to be continued.” Our shows. Our movies. Our celebrities. And when you live long enough, things blur together. O.J. Simpson’s out of prison—has been for three years. Erin Everly allegedly attended a Guns show back in 2011. In 2013 she auctioned Axl’s letters. (“I’ll miss you, I wasn’t looking for anyone to take your place,” he wrote in one. In another: “Think of me when you wipe yo’ ass.”)

And oddly enough, Axl’s life with his reunited band and adopted family seems close to those Silas Marner fantasies I’d indulged all those years ago (minus social distancing). Last year he played a practical joke on bandmate Melissa Reese, searching high and low for a wig that matched the particular blue of her hair so he could sneak up and pretend he’d cut off a chunk. Dorky as hell! My fourteen-year-old self would have swooned. “You could not ask for a better group of dudes,” Reese says. “It’s beyond just having my back. We’re like a family, and they’re like my big brothers.”

My pretty friend Jenna went on to become an RN. A good one. She works in ICU,
currently in a COVID ward. She tells us to mask up but otherwise spares the details, which
must be horrifying. Old schoolmates—the same kids who shamed her—drop notes on her
Facebook, thanking her for the work she does.

And every Christmas, Joe sends me a card: “Collect another memory.”

* * *

Last confession: I liked Chinese Democracy, that black sheep of the catalog that fans
want expelled from GN’R’s canon. It’s Axl’s solo album really, and calling it anything else is
sacrilege. That’s fair. But it contains songs that are among his best. My favorite is “Catcher
in the Rye”—a song that people often misinterpret as uplifting. It’s not. It’s sad. It’s Axl’s
tribute to John Lennon, assassinated when Axl was eighteen, and in it Axl mourns the finality—how at once the song I heard, no longer would it play. After watching a documentary on Chapman, Axl pondered the senselessness, the possibilities lost. Somehow you set the wheels in motion, now haunts our memories, he sings. Took our innocence, beyond our stares. Sometimes the only thing we counted on when no one else was there.

For those who are gone, there is nothing more. For those of us still here, we can keep telling stories. We can watch them, read them, write them. That’s the beauty of the long-arc form, the serial narrative. The past’s pieces are beyond revision, sure, but you can go forward despite what’s already been set down. Because there’s always more, another episode, another season, another spin-off. Like our own lives, but more forgiving and less cynical.

 

Kristina Garvin lives and writes in Philadelphia. She earned a PhD from Ohio State University and was awarded the Richard Beale Davis Prize for research. Previously an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, she now works in the nonprofit sector.