Sunday, June 9, 2013

How Crazy is Too Crazy?

I saw Axl Rose perform twice this week--once in a club that Mungo Jerry is headlining next month, and again atop a sprawling, three-day music festival, which, as Chris Weingarten aptly put it, Axl could headline "if he was backed by a Discman and a sparkler."  The main tying factor between these shows was the pre-show discussions--how late would Axl be? Would he show up at all? Would he play for only 15 minutes? Maybe at midnight, if we were lucky?

Yet no one, even those who paid $150 to be in a 600-capacity room with a singular rock star, seemed frustrated. It was all part of the show, part of the crazy, wild experience that comes with following one of the most mythical artists of the past 30 years. If he was late (20 minutes the first night) or surprised us (early?! the second night?!), we got the Axl Experience. The course of true Axl never did run smooth.

Also this week, Dave Mustaine released Megadeth's 14th album, Super Collider, and ejected a fan in England with a series of homophobic taunts. His words weren't anything you wouldn't hear on any middle school playground in America. But coupled with Mustaine's past year of praising Rick Santorum, outing himself as a birther, denying both gay rights and evolution, and spouting that the Aurora shooting were staged by our President to pass gun laws, his banter emphasized his status as an utterly deplorable human being. And this week, Super Collider is on track to sell 30,000 copies, Megadeth's lowest first-week numbers in decades.

Super Collider also received poor reviews, but that didn't stop Countdown to Extinction, which was a rightful smash and is now a metal classic, 20 years later. Metalheads, except for the ones who also write, famously don't pay attention to reviews anyway. But nobody wants to buy Megadeth albums anymore because Dave Mustaine is crazy. He has a supremely loyal fanbase, some of us whom have picked up the previous thirteen albums through artistic missteps, the advancement of file-sharing and even Mustaine's own horrific behavior. All of his most misguided and malicious nonsense is separable from the perfect thrash metal masterpiece he gave us in the '90s. But with his God-fearing preaching and conspiracies showing up in his lyrics and stage banter, fewer and fewer people want to support him. Every time I see him talk about politics, I half-expect him to keel over like the William Jennings Bryan character in Inherit the Wind.

But why is it this way? Why is it still OK to like one inflammatory, redheaded metal icon and not the other?* Why is Axl's use of the word "faggot" attributed to white trash ignorance and mental illness, but Mustaine's is attributed to homophobia? Because Axl performed with Elton John at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert? Because he's a sexually abused child who doesn't know any better? Because, unlike Mustaine, he doesn't have the pretenses of being a Christian? Because his music is more popular than Dave Mustaine's? Even watching the videos above, two shots of great metal frontmen going off on fans, one of them seems insecure to me and the other looks like a bully.

People tend to forgive their idols. Folks who complain about Vince Neil's behavior might forgive Gene Simmons, who is mercilessly mocked by Lars Ulrich fans, who might get called out by someone willing to forget that Kerry King just kicked out Dave Lombardo. I'd like to think that I forgive Axl and not Dave Mustaine based on how far their actions go. If Axl goes on two hours late or leaves a show early, that's something I considered when I bought the ticket. Dave Mustaine's bigotry isn't something I bargained for. But plenty of people have more patience for homophobia than tardiness. I'm sure a lot of people find Rose's mental eccentricities more appalling than Mustaine's, or maybe they just like Rust in Peace more than Appetite for Destruction**.

But no matter whose music you prefer, or how well you distance the art from the artist, there's no denying that an artist's behavior affects the response to the art. Maybe Axl's newest version of Guns N' Roses would sell more seats if he didn't have a reputation for starting two hours late. Maybe more people would buy Super Collider if Mustaine actually turned the other cheek, as his religion urges. It's a shame when either of them get a chilly response for creating something spectacular, like Chinese Democracy or Endgame, respectively. I'd hate to think of how much those responses had to do with the bandleader's attitudes.

The fact is, though, that those attitudes count. Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent, who were roughly equally popular in the '70s are both politically conservative. But only one of them ever gleefully threatened to assault Hillary Clinton, or boasted about his own draft-dodging. This summer, Alice Cooper is co-headlining arenas with Marilyn Manson. The next time Ted Nugent performs in your town, remind yourself why they're selling tickets half-off during the week of the show.

*Brent Hinds is potentially the third.
**Someone should ask Mike Clink, who produced both of them.

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