The success of Guns N' Roses' ''Use Your Illusion I and II'' was no illusion

You’d think Axl Rose would be happy. The 29-year-old singer and his full- throttle band of rock & roll gypsies, Guns N’ Roses, barnstormed across the U.S. in one of the few successful tours of the year (estimated gross through November: $29 million). When the band’s Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II albums went on sale at midnight, Sept. 17, fans lined up at record stores around the country. The albums have since sold a combined 6 million copies. And in Appetite for Destruction, an unauthorized biography published in February, author Danny Sugerman compared Rose to Shelley, Picasso, and Lord Byron — and that was just in the first 30 pages.

Still, the notoriously volatile Rose was angry more often than not. In May, the band fired its manager, Alan Niven, right before the start of its tour. Onstage, Rose lashed out at everyone from his record company (Geffen) to magazines and newspapers. And on July 2, he stormed off the stage in St. Louis after complaining about the arena’s security and a biker photographing the band from the front row; the ensuing riot resulted in 60 injured fans, $200,000 in damages, and a flurry of lawsuits.

That sense of anger and egocentricity spilled over wildly into the music. Led by Slash’s bilious guitars and Rose’s coyote-caught-in-barbed-wire voice, Use Your Illusion gave the world a tongue-lashing. Alienation (”Right Next Door to Hell”), the trials of being a rock star (”Don’t Damn Me,” ”Bad Apples”), women (”Back Off Bitch”)-all were targets on the sprawling albums’ 30 songs. The press didn’t get off easy either; in ”Get in the Ring,” Rose challenged certain music editors and writers by name to a boxing match. ”I know people are confused by a lot of what I do, but I am too sometimes,” Rose told the Los Angeles Times during the summer. ”I’m trying now to (channel) my energy in more positive ways but it doesn’t always work.”

So was Rose simply a young musician trying to cope with the pressures of celebrity or an immature, vindictive jerk? A little of both — and that’s exactly what endeared such a raging megalomaniac to music fans everywhere. At a time when most rock stars are polite corporate rebels who would never think of berating their bosses in public, Rose acted like the Real Thing. An Indiana high school dropout (born Bill Bailey), Rose is a grown-up version of the adolescent no-gooder who was always branded a loser but made it anyway — and is still confused by the world and his place in it. Like many of his fans, Rose came of age in the Reagan-era ’80s but now lives in a country burdened with unemployment, a trillion-dollar debt, and overall moral and economic uncertainty. Lashing out at women, the supposedly liberal media, minorities (on older songs like ”One in a Million”), and anything else he saw as a societal ill, Rose became a symbol of white working-class frustration. (In the words of one critic, Guns N’ Roses is ”the ideal house band for David Duke’s America.”) The message was both unsettling and impossible to dismiss. As Rose himself sang on Use Your Illusion, ”My words may disturb, but at least there’s a reaction.”