10 Songs That Prove Axl Rose Is Rock’s Greatest Lyricist

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Not only was 2016 a great year for rock fans all in all, but Guns N’ Roses fans were finally satisfied as they saw their favorite band embark on its long-awaited reunion tour. Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan all took the stage together first at the Troubador, their original stomping grounds. Next was Coachella, a few shows in Vegas, and Mexico City, and then a full-blown U.S. and South American tour. 2017 marks the continuation of their world tour, as they travel to several other continents. 2017 also marks the 30th anniversary of their debut album Appetite for Destruction.

With all of the action GN’R is bringing back to the world of rock in these two years, it’s important to appreciate the work of these legendary musicians. Having already done a list of Slash’s Top 10 guitar solos, I figured it’s only fair to give Axl the credit he deserves as well. You see, what separates Guns N’ Roses from so many rock bands from its time is the substance in their songs. The music is great, and the words actually have meaning. Not all of Guns N’ Roses’ songs are simply verse-refrain structured, and they’re not all about having nothing but a good time. There’s a reason they were so successful.

Here are ten songs that support the notion that Axl Rose is one of the best lyricists in rock and roll, and some of the greatest lines from each one.

10. Rocket Queen
The closing track on Appetite, “Rocket Queen” goes from being a sleazy track full of “sexual innuendos” to a sweet love song. Most of Appetite is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but Rose’s last few lines of this track definitely put listeners in their feels.

“If you need a shoulder or if you need a friend, I’ll be here standing until the bitter end.”

9. Locomotive
This song is just funny, it’s sarcastic, it’s offensive, and it’s the perfect song to dedicate to that ex that you absolutely can’t stand. Erin Everly? Stephanie Seymour? Not sure which one this song was written for, but we sure know that whoever it was truly pissed Rose off.

“Kindness is a treasure and it’s one towards me you’ve seldom shown. So I’ll say it for good measure to all the ones like you I’ve known. You know I’d like to shave your head and all my friends could paint it red. ‘Cause love to me’s a two-way street and all I really want is peace.”

8. Yesterdays
“Yesterdays” is a sweet, nostalgic song reflecting on old memories and the realization that you don’t get time back once it’s gone. Between the metaphors and the rhyming, it’s hard not to catch yourself lost in Rose’s words.

“Yesterday’s got nothing for me, pictures that I’ll always see. Time just fades the pages in my book of memories.”

7. Don’t Cry (Alternate Version)
“Don’t Cry” was the first song Guns N’ Roses wrote together as a band, but they saved it for later on so they could perfect it. While they were in the process of recording it for Use Your Illusion I, Rose had another set of lyrics come rolling through his brain and decided to record them as well. While the original is a classic, the lyrics in the alternate version are a bit more complex and slightly deeper. It’s not necessarily as popular, but definitely deserves to be on this list more than the original version does.

“I thought I could live in your world as years all went by. With all the voices I’ve heard, something has died. And when you’re in need of someone, my heart won’t deny you. So many seem so lonely with no one left to cry to, baby.”

6. Civil War
The band’s only truly political piece, “Civil War” is not about an actual war but about the metaphorical divide between the people of the United States. It goes flips back and forth between emotional and intense, making references to historical events and comparing it to modern time.

“We’ve got the wall of D.C. to remind us all that you can’t trust freedom when it’s not in your hands, when everybody’s fighting for the promise land.”

5. November Rain
You can’t discuss Rose’s talent without mention of “November Rain.” First and foremost, he recorded the entire orchestra in the background of the track using synthesizers. That’s what classical composers did – they thought up the sound of an orchestra and wrote it. Anyway, the words are absolutely beautiful as well. This is a hopeful song, about holding onto something by a thread because you see the light at the end of the tunnel and know it will be worth it. Rose actually had most of this song written before he even joined with the rest of the band, there are plenty of very early demos that can be found online.

“I know it’s hard to keep an open heart when even friends seem out to harm you. But if you could heal a broken heart, wouldn’t time be out to charm you?”

4. Don’t Damn Me
This Use Your Illusion I track was a bite back at the critics who called Rose a “racist” and a “bigot” for his song “One in a Million.” If you give a musician the freedom to write what they want, they are going to write what they want. He made it clear that the song was a result of negative experiences he had, and that it was not generalized toward everyone. So, “Don’t Damn Me” is Rose stating just that. It also takes a stab at the people who spend their time criticizing musicians when they have no talent themselves.

“Your only validation is in living your own life. Vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time. So I send this song to the offended. I said what I meant and I’ve never pretended as so many others do intending just to please. If I’ve damned your point of view, could you turn the other cheek?”

3. Estranged
Rose claims that this and “Coma” were the two deepest songs he had ever written. A song about a failed relationship and the yearning to discover what did and didn’t go wrong, “Estranged” is arguably one of the band’s best numbers overall. Though about half of this 9 minute tune is instrumental, the verses are brief but very powerful.

“When I find out of the reasons, maybe I’ll find another way, find another day. Of all the changing seasons of my life, maybe I’ll get it right next time.”

2. Breakdown
Another long song, “Breakdown” is much less credited than it should be. It almost has a southern-rock/blues sound to it. There are many different verses in this song, and the only repeated line is the occasional chorus. Rose implements many metaphors throughout this song as he talks about loneliness and depression.

“And now the damage is done, and we’re back out on the run. Funny how everything was roses when we held onto the guns. Just because you’re winning, don’t mean you’re the lucky ones.”

1. Coma
“Coma” is not only Guns N’ Roses’ longest song, but also one the Illusions’ most underrated treasures. Having been at 3 Not in this Lifetime shows in 2016, I hardly saw the crowds get off when the heartbeat sounded at the beginning the way they did when “Sweet Child” or any of their other top songs began. The music is excellent and the lyrics are genius. In 1990, Rose said in an interview that the song was about a prescription pill overdose that sent him into a coma. He described feeling at peace while he was in it, until he remembered that the band still hadn’t toured yet for the new double album, which woke him from the coma. The lyrics take listeners on this journey with him, before spitting them back into reality. This song has been played at every show on their current tour, so be sure to really tune into the words when you hear it, because it is overall a true work of art.

“But if home is where the heart is, then there’s stories to be told. No, you don’t need a doctor, no one else can heal your soul.”

  • Allison Auld

    Good list (particularly acknowledging “Rocket Queen”) but I would put “Estranged” at number one. It’s such a dense song. It’s ethereal and rough, all at the same time. “And now that you’ve been broken down – Got your head out of the clouds – You’re back down on the ground. And you don’t talk so loud – And you don’t walk so proud – Any more, and what for”

  • dakotablue

    Axl’s got nothin’ on Weiland, who wrote these lyrics: “Every time I’m falling down, All alone I fall to pieces…” with Velvet Revolver, in other words Guns minus Rose.

  • Jonathan Keough

    Axl is a among the great rock lyricists but I still think was Roger Waters better.

  • Kaylene Peters

    I agree his music and the baladlike lyrics with sweet kind words are wonderful. I’ve been studying about how some music is good for health. Sometimes nice pieces of music words, or scenes come to mind in a positive way. Music and song old and new are pleasant sometimes as I work.

  • Eddie Yarler

    One in a Million, Better and There was a Time are really good as well.

    • Allison Auld

      “There was a Time” is a great song! Lyrics, music and vocal performance. It’s really impressive.

      • Allison Auld

        “Prostitute” on CD is a great song, too. CD as a whole is a very solid album. Like Duff said, Axl “sang his ass off” on it – lol.

  • dakotablue

    Never said Scott was better than Axl, despite my personal opinion. But you must not be familiar with STP’s early albums that displayed Weiland’s very powerful voice and huge range.