Rose was born William Bruce Rose, Jr. in Lafayette, Indiana, the oldest child of Sharon E. (née Lintner), then 16 years old, and William Bruce Rose, then 20 years old. When Rose was two years old, his father abandoned the family. His mother remarried to Stephen L. Bailey, and his name was changed to William Bruce Bailey. He has two younger siblings—a sister, Amy, and a half-brother, Stuart. Until the age of 17, Rose believed that Bailey was his real father. He never met his biological father as an adult; William Rose, Sr. was found murdered in Illinois in 1984.
The Bailey household was very religious; Rose and his family attended a Pentecostal church, where he was required to attend services three to eight times per week and even taught Sunday school. Rose later described his upbringing as oppressive, stating, “We’d have televisions one week, then my step dad would throw them out because they were satanic. I wasn’t allowed to listen to music. Women were evil. Everything was evil.” In 1992, after undergoing past life regression therapy, Rose claimed he had uncovered memories of being sexually abused by his biological father at the age of two. He also stated that his stepfather had physically abused him and his siblings, as well as sexually abused his sister. Rose found solace in music from an early age. He sang in the church choir from the age of five, and performed at services with his brother and sister under the name the Bailey Trio. At Jefferson High School, he participated in the school chorus and studied piano. A second baritone, Rose began developing “different voices” during chorus practice to confuse his teacher. He eventually formed a band with his friends, one of whom was Jeff Isbell, later known as Izzy Stradlin.
At the age of 17, while going through insurance papers in his parents’ home, Rose learned of his biological father’s existence, and he unofficially readopted his birth name. However, he referred to himself only as W. Rose, because he did not want to share a first name with his biological father. (Four years later, after moving to Los Angeles, he became so engrossed in his band AXL that his friends suggested he call himself Axl Rose; he legally changed his name to W. Axl Rose prior to signing his contract with Geffen Records in March 1986. Following the discovery of his true family origins, Rose became the local juvenile delinquent in Lafayette; he was arrested over 20 times on charges such as public intoxication and battery, and served as long as three months in jail. After Lafayette authorities threatened to charge him as a habitual criminal, Rose moved to Los Angeles, California in December 1982.
Shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles, Rose joined the band Rapidfire, with whom he recorded a four-song demo in May 1983. After the group’s disbandment, he joined the first line-up of L.A. Guns, before forming the band Hollywood Rose with his childhood friend Izzy Stradlin, who had moved to Los Angeles in 1980. In January 1984, the band recorded a five-song demo featuring the tracks “Anything Goes“, “Rocker”, “Shadow of Your Love”, and “Reckless Life“, which were released in 2004 as The Roots of Guns N’ Roses. While struggling to make an impact on the Hollywood music scene, Rose held down a variety of jobs, including the position of night manager at the Tower Records location on Sunset Boulevard. Rose and Stradlin even smoked cigarettes for a scientific study at UCLA for the reported wages of $8 per hour.
In March 1985, Rose and his former band mate Tracii Guns formed Guns N’ Roses by merging their respective bands Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns. By June, after several line-up changes, the band consisted of Rose, lead guitarist Slash, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler. The line-up debuted at The Troubadour in Hollywood and proceeded to play the L.A. club circuit, eventually building a devoted fan following. The band attracted the attention of several major record labels, before signing withGeffen Records in March 1986. The following December, they released the four-song EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide on the Geffen imprint UZI Suicide.