An excerpt follows. You can read the full account here.
The most memorable trip I made in connection with Axl was to Lafayette, Indiana, where he grew up. I drove there hoping to track down his oldest childhood friend, a man named Dana, who’d never been interviewed. Dana turned out not surprisingly to be a very reclusive person, and although he did eventually meet with me, it took several days to coax him out. I spent them inventing little research projects. I visited the public library and found old yearbook pictures of Axl. I photographed the church where he sang in the choir. And lastly, on the morning of the day when Dana finally called me back, I went to the local police station. Did they have any records on Axl? No, they didn’t think so. Really? That seemed impossible. Would they mind checking under his many Indiana names? William Bruce Rose Jr.? William Bruce Bailey? Bill Bailey? W. Rose? A friendly lady officer agreed to help me out.LETTER FROM OUR SOUTHERN EDITOR
Sure enough, when I came back that evening, she had a whole folder of stuff. Arrest reports, warrants, and affidavits, as well as two treasures: mug shots that no one had ever seen. Axl’s first mug shots. In one case, the negative hadn’t even been processed before. The cop had sent it off to the Fotomat for me. I sat outside in my rental car, gazing on my luck.
The pictures showed him at eighteen and twenty. They were American masterpieces of the saddest, crappiest kind. GQ ended up running the latter, the one where he’s slightly older and looks like a burned-out strawberry Farrah Fawcett in a jean jacket. You can find it all over the Internet now. It stemmed from a fight in somebody’s yard—a woman screamed at Dana and Axl for hassling her kid. Axl had a splint on his arm. He hit her with the splint. They arrested him in the parking lot of the local Frozen Custard (spelled “Custored” in the police report).
It’s the shots of him at eighteen that move me, though. He isn’t pretty yet, he hasn’t begun to think of himself as a rock star. He’s a boy-man, with a trace of fear in his pugnacious stare. I can’t remember what he’d done, that time. Stolen another kid’s bike, I think. Or destroyed another kid’s bike. When I first saw his hair, I understood something Dana had told me hours before, at a bar: that when they were children, Axl was Raggedy Ann in the Christmas parade. Looking longer, a person could understand something else, too, about the Midwestern darkness in his voice.