Take Axl Rose. In the real Guns 'n' Roses he's a whip-thin, snarling, redheaded white man. His counterpart in Rocket Queen is a fat black man in a garish red wig, kilt and dark sunglasses named Blaxl Rose.
Blaxl is Chris Brown, a 25-year-old VCU graduate and guitar teacher at Mars Music. If you studied with him during a lesson or saw him sitting at the Village Cafe sipping a Coke, you'd never imagine him onstage, belting out the high notes to "Paradise City." Even so, he shrugs, "I've been given the gift of sounding like Axl."
To be Axl: That dream, and how to achieve it, suddenly crystallized one day a few years ago while Brown and the original members of Rocket Queen were rocking out to "Sweet Child o' Mine" and other G 'N' R tunes in Brown's Camaro. Brown's ability to mimic the wicked redheaded waif's catlike wail impressed them all enough to cobble a band together that could back it up live.
When the band first played out in the fall of 1998, the response was overwhelming. Naturally people and the press were attracted to an act that played G 'N' R songs flawlessly, yet featured Brown at the helm, looking less like Axl Rose and more like an overweight guy in a ridiculous get-up. It was hilarious. Sloshed bar jocks and beer hags throughout the city thrilled at hearing these singalong G 'N' R songs live again. There were shows. Lots of shows. Win-a-date-with-Blaxl shows. During one, the bass player was so drunk he can hardly remember it.
Two guitarists left in the spring of 2000, and Rocket Queen hung up its wigs. But after a nearly two-year hiatus, Blaxl is back. It's hard to tell if this comeback is a serious attempt to establish the band in the pantheon of tribute acts, or just more goofing off. They've never been outside Richmond, but Brown says he'd like this to lead to bigger things, and the other members generally agree: They'd love to become rock stars.
Still, Brown's main stated reason for dressing up as Blaxl "This is the only fun I have in my life" sounds a little more realistic. Being onstage mimicking Axl Rose is "one of the few times when I feel confidence and joy," he says.
Brown, whose good nature and bright sense of humor is immediately apparent, also says he's been working hard since he was 15 to become a famous musician. But then, he's never really been in any bands except this one, and he says things like "[Rocket Queen's] my chance to be a rock star of the '80s, which was the greatest time to be one." Rocket Queen ends up being an abnormal but rational result for Brown's normal, irrational dreams. Deep down, he seems to realize that Rocket Queen will likely never lead to great fame, but at least he can get some second hand.
In the end, maybe it's the feeling that counts. Guitarist Ron Worrell, a young-looking 34-year-old who performs as Izzy Stradlin, says he learned how intoxicating even pretending can be during a show earlier this year: "I was looking out over the audience. They were holding lighters and singing every lyric. At that moment I was imagining what Axl and the guys felt when they were out there. It was the closest I could ever come to being a rock star." S