Sweet Child o’ Monomania
On November 23, 2008, the long-awaited new album by Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy, was finally released. Over its decade-and-a-half gestational period, the mythic album devolved into the butt of many jokes, and Axl Rose, the legendary GN’R front man, frequently corn-rowed and bloated, ascended to the high chair in the pantheon of monomania. We asked our resident expert on all things obsessional, Lennard J. Davis, author of the new book Obsession: A History where Axl ranks with the great obsessive artists of all time. Here’s what he had to say:
The 15-year run of suspense is over. Guns N’ Roses fans, and anyone who has followed the release of “Chinese Democracy,” Axl Rose’s grand obsession, can now buy the album. But the general consensus is that after all the obsessive work, perfectionism, and endless tinkering Rose has brought forth an over-worked and over-produced misadventure, with a hash of lyrics and every instrument and musical style in the world rolled into one mediocre album. In the course of his compulsive perfectionism, Rose went through three recording studios, four producers, and a slew of musicians. In doing so he ran up more than $13 million in production costs, making his album the most expensive recording never released.
In some ways, we might regard this as the latest act of a tortured genius in the great tradition of other tortured geniuses. The nineteenth century abounded with them, from Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest of his white whale to Frenhofer, Balzac’s tortured painter, and Claude Lantier, Emile Zola’s novelistic representation of Cezanne. What these driven people have in common is the desire to create, to capture, and to produce something extraordinary. And yet, they all end up ruining the thing they want and destroying themselves in the process.
Balzac’s Frenhofer works laboriously and endlessly on one painting in secret for years. He even manages to get a student to force his unwilling wife to pose nude for the great painter. Yet when the painting is finally revealed, it is so overworked that the central image of the nude beauty can’t be seen by anyone except the deluded artist himself.
Zola’s Claude Lantier in the novel The Masterpiece paints his nude with such fury and determination that it takes over his life. He alternately falls in love with it, hates it, gouges the painting, scrapes it, tears it with a knife, and finally in an act of desperation and love, hangs himself in front of it.
Is there something inherently obsessive and self-consuming about creating art, and especially trying to create the ultimate work? If you aim high and pledge yourself to perfection, can you in fact destroy perfection? Axl Rose seem to have found the fatal flaw of failed art—the belief that you can force a work into being by sheer persistence over time.
Bob Dylan often wrote his songs in one sitting, while Axl took years. Is there a split between those artists who create effortlessly and those who labor unto death to produce something? In the former case, artists rely on that intuitive and obsessionless state called “flow” in which creativity happens effortlessly. But in the latter case creating can be excruciating and endless—and only obsession and compulsion can carry them through.
But in the case of Rose, his obsessive-compulsive nature didn’t produce a masterpiece, it produced a disaster.
For more from Lennard Davis, listen to a podcast or read an interview. For more from Axl Rose, you may have to wait a while.