feelin’ like a space brain
one more time tonight.”
It is the fall of 1987. The age of Reagan. Iran-Contra and arms for hostages deals. The Black Monday stock market crash. There is a tendency among some to recall the 1980’s with a sort of Day-Glo nostalgia. A time dominated by a soundtrack of bright, bouncy pop music of little substance. Younger people with no first-hand knowledge of the time have been led to believe it was an essentially happy-go-lucky decade thanks to VH1’s I Love The 80’s specials. And while there are elements of truth in the lingering impressions of superficiality, the real story is more complicated.
November of that year. The setting--an apartment in Nashville, a largish two-bedroom with a spacious living room. The second-floor balcony overlooks a hill that slopes toward a line of trees and a creek beyond. In the kitchen there’s a picture of Sid Vicious taped to the wall. The refrigerator is rarely stocked with anything other than alcohol. Shelves crammed with cans and bottles. These shelves are emptied and restocked at a shocking rate. Case after case of Budweiser, Beck’s, and Heinken. Boone’s Farm wine. Mad Dog 20/20. Liters of vodka and pure grain alcohol (190 proof). Jack Daniel’s. Southern Comfort. Bacardi 151. Canadian Mist. Wild Turkey. Crown Royal. None of this just sits around. Enough is consumed to fill multiple recycling bins. The deterioration of the apartment’s interior is perhaps inevitable. Its occupants proceed to trash it with the gleeful, toxic abandon of a platinum-selling rock and roll band laying waste to a hotel room. Couple of important differences:
1. There is no band.
2. And, thus, no team of managers and handlers to pick up the pieces and pay the tab.
I didn’t officially live there, but I spent so much time there—and passed out there so often—I might as well have. We thought we were having good times, but there was a dark undercurrent at work. Soon everything would go down in flames. One person would move out in disgust. Others wouldn’t talk to each other again for years. Some of it was based on genuine personal antipathy, but a lot more of it was attributable to a strangely willful plunge into a whirlwind of self-destruction. A time marked primarily by bad decisions and epic hangovers galore. Drinking again after waking up passed out on the floor. Drinking in the shower. Drinking before work. During work, if possible. Drinking and driving. Drinking while sick as a dog.You get the picture.
Drinking 24/7, pretty much.
“Some people got a chip on their shoulder
An some would say it was me
But I didn't buy that fifth of whisky
That you gave me
So I'd be quick to disagree”
A rock and roll album called Appetite For Destruction was released a few months earlier. All the regulars at the crash pad described above were early purchasers of the debut by the gang of L.A. miscreants, most acquiring it the week it came out or the following week. To say the album struck a chord is an understatement of truly epic proportions. From the first ominous notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” to the final crashing chords of “Rocket Queen”, it was clear that the one and only perfect soundtrack to this wild and desperate stage of our lives had been unleashed. It is the sound of life lived treading a delicate line between ecstatic abandon and a face-down crash-landing in the gutter. You can feel that edge between the grooves and in every note, pouring raw and bleeding from throbbing speakers. These guys were the real deal and we recognized that right away. We could relate in ways we never could have related to the likes of Bon Jovi and Poison. Axl and Izzy were refugees from the heartland scratching out a tenacious new existence on the streets of L.A., living the life we desired for ourselves. They had escaped their small town roots to concoct this instant classic of razorblade blues-punk-metal-inflected guitar riffs and air raid vocals. It was the perfect distillation of everything dangerous and cool about rock and roll, and for decades I believed it could never be topped.
“Not bad kids just stupid ones
Yeah we thought we'd own the world
An gettin' used was havin' fun
I said we're not sad kids just lucid ones yeah
Flowin' through life not collectin' anyone."
Guns N’ Roses success in no way seemed assured back in 1987. The album took almost a year to really take off. The band seemed too raw and intense for the mainstream. Too cool. Too real. Everyone knew you had to have some slick, flashy image to get over in the 80’s. There was a reason the MTV kids lapped up Poison and Def Leppard, after all. GNR had much more in common with another favorite of my crowd back then, the criminally underappreciated Hanoi Rocks. Hanoi never broke big in the states and their career ended on a down note when drummer Razzle died in a tragic accident. Hanoi was like the second coming of the New York Dolls, only with better players and even groovier songs. Mega stardom was not in the cards, and it likewise did not seem to be part of GNR’s destiny. The masses could never “get” something like Guns N’ Roses. Besides, we all figured one or more of them would be dead of an overdose by the time 1988 rolled around and that would be that. The band would break up, and would always be fondly remembered as a great underground cult legend. But GNR did endure into 1988 and in that year they released the long-hidden ace up their sleeves, the classic pop-metal ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The single exploded and the band became the biggest hard rock success story of the decade. Shows how much we knew.
The volatile band did eventually fall apart, but for a gloriously decadent few years they were the biggest fucking thing in the world. I saw them twice, in ’88 and ’92, and I will always be grateful I was able to witness those slices of genuine rock and roll history. The following years were not a fun time to be a GNR fan. It was a dry period, characterized by a disheartening lack of real news regarding a potential new album. Then Slash left. Then Duff. It seemed GNR was well and truly over, but at least we had some amazing memories.
Except that it wasn’t over, at least according to Axl Rose. He had somehow wound up with rights to the GNR name and was assembling a new roster of players to carry on under the GNR name.
“You don’t know why
I won’t give in
To hell with the pressure
I’m not caving in”
A lot of people scoffed at the notion of Axl carrying on the GNR brand with no other original members. To many it was perhaps the most egregious example of a superstar’s ego run amuck, an impression cemented by the many years of silence punctuated by only sporadic media accounts of activity. Axl was rarely—almost never—seen in public. He was a hard rock Howard Hughes. So it was easy for his critics to dismiss him as disconnected from reality. GNR couldn’t exist, they said, without Slash’s searing guitar work, Izzy’s songwriting smarts, and Duff’s lock-solid groove. Axl seemed to think that he WAS Guns N’ Roses, its spiritual heart and core, in much the same way Trent Reznor IS Nine Inch Nails. The situation wasn’t helped any by the problems that plagued the reconstituted band seemingly every time they tentatively ventured back into the public spotlight. The widely criticized performance at the VMA’s in 2002. The multiple tour cancellations and riots. The years kept passing and even many of the most ardent fans began to believe GNR 2.0’s album Chinese Democracy would never see the light of day.
A word or two about being a GNR fan and lessons in patience. In the first few years after Appetite was released, I played that album so often I knew every note and lyric by heart. I lived and died by that album. The first copy I owned was a cassette. Yes, boys and girls, once upon a time we bought new music releases on cassette tapes. And dinosaurs once walked the earth. I took that cassette everywhere. There was something in the music made me feel more alive than when I wasn’t listening to it. Like I’d found something essential that had been missing in my first twenty-two years of existence. I’m forty-three now. I realize how insane a statement like that sounds now, but at the time that was absolutely how I felt. So you can imagine how deep my yearning for a new full-length album became after some years passed. GNR did release the Lies e.p. in late ’88, but that stopgap wasn’t quite enough to slake my thirst for new material. Month after month, year after year, I read the rock magazines and watched every MTV News report, hanging with bated breath for every tiny scrap of new information about the new album. There were delays upon delays. It was maddening. Then, finally, in September of 1991, the band released the Use Your Illusion albums. The holy grail of rock and roll (as far as I was concerned) was in my hands, and, for a while, all was right with the world. Or so it seemed.
“Don't hail me
An don't idolize the ink
Or I've failed in my intentions
Can you find the missing link
Your only validation is living your own life
Vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time”
It should come as no surprise, then, that I continued to follow every development in the epic and seemingly endless Chinese Democracy saga. I remained cynical for the reasons outlined earlier, but my heart rate nonetheless kicked up a notch every time some new morsel from the recording sessions leaked. I became excited again when the band’s spurt of activity in 2006 appeared to indicate the album’s release was imminent. And even after that, I kept checking the fan forums and news sites on a daily basis. The ultimate, long-delayed culmination of this period arrived in the form of an announcement that Guns N’ Roses had agreed to an exclusive deal with retailer Best Buy to release Chinese Democracy on Nov. 23rd, 2008. I hardly dared to believe it and kept expecting the deal to evaporate somehow, even as the weeks until release dwindled down to days and then to just hours.
In fact, it didn’t feel real until I made my trip down to Best Buy on Nov. 23rd and purchased two copies of the album, one vinyl and one compact disc. I’m looking at my copy of the CD as I type this, and even now the actual fact of its existence feels quite surreal. As if I’m some fabled medieval knight and have procured a long-missing and cherished artifact at the end of a long and daunting quest.
But I have it. Chinese Democracy. I really fucking do.
Was it worth the agonizing wait?
In a word, yes.
But let’s not stop there. Axl and his new cohorts have met even the wildest expectations I ever dared to imagine for them, they have exceeded them by a margin wider than I ever could have imagined. Please note this is not a first listen impression. On first listen I liked it a lot, but was not necessarily completely blown away. But this album kept revealing new layers and textures with each subsequent listen. I would go back to certain songs and listen to them repeatedly, then go to another batch of songs and do the same. After a dozen or so full spins, I was convinced that this was not merely a very good album, but was an excellent album. But the evolution of my overall opinion of Chinese Democracy did not end there, either. I continued to play the album, listened to nothing else but this album, in fact, for days. Some of the songs began to reach that place inside me that Appetite For Destruction had stirred so effectively so long ago. After a few days, I was ranking Chinese Democracy well ahead of Use Your Illusion I & II. And that’s essentially where I stand now. Chinese Democracy is the second best Guns N’ Roses album, behind only Appetite.
There have been rave reviews in Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. The acclaim, however, is by no means universal. There has been harsh criticism in certain segments of the press and the public. To some extent this is to be expected. No work of art, no matter how brilliant or generally revered, is without its detractors. And while I accept that there are people who objectively just don’t like the music—including some people I well respect—I believe a significant portion of the negative opinions are based not on the music but on kneejerk instinct and the cumulative ill will generated by a decade and a half of bad press. Many of these people are reacting against Axl’s persona and recluse mystique rather than the art he has produced with his collaborators. It is almost as if many of them have been programmed to negatively react against Chinese Democracy without regard for its true merits. Again, I refer here not to the more astute and informed naysayers, but to the plethora of so-called critics who have panned the album with only the broadest observations and the shallowest of supposed insights. Many of them are bloggers as opposed to real journalists, spewing inanities from bully pulpits that didn’t exist twenty-one years ago. Many of them were perhaps five-years-old when Appetite came out, if that. Some weren’t even born. This contingent of critics—not to put too fine a point on it—is talking out of its collective ass. They don’t know what they’re talking about and their opinions aren’t worth the electrons required to convey them across cyberspace. The work of 14 years deserves more than your snide five-sentence dismissal, Joe Blogger Douchebag. You say Axl isn’t relevant anymore, Joe? Well, while the question of whether that’s true is certainly open to debate, one thing is stone cold certain—you never HAVE been relevant and nothing you will do in your entire life will matter like Appetite will always matter.
One thing the critics—smart ones and dumb ones alike--have said pretty much uniformly is that the band that recorded Chinese Democracy is not really Guns N’ Roses. I alluded to this earlier. It is a fair criticism and is one I have offered myself over the years. I didn’t think anything could ever sway me from that viewpoint, but one of the new album’s many revelations has been the way it has confounded and even short-circuited many of my long-held doubts. Truly, this is not the band that recorded Appetite. And seeing Axl again share a stage one day somewhere down the road with Slash, Duff, and Izzy remains one of my fondest rock and roll dreams. However, the best songs on the new album are so overwhelmingly majestic and transcendant that I can’t imagine them having been crafted in quite the same way by the original band (or any other group of collaborators, for that matter). Songs such as “Prostitute”, “Sorry”, and “There Was A Time” are astoundingly great. They are as good an anything ever released under the Guns N’ Roses banner. On the strength of songs like these, Axl’s group clearly deserves to bear the proud name originally made famous by another lineup. Regardless of whether the original band one day reunites for a renewed run at glory, here and now, in this moment, this is Guns N’ Roses. It may not last long. Or maybe it will. Who knows what the future holds?
Right now, I’m just grateful to have this album.
The other day I was talking with one of my oldest friends about Chinese Democracy. This is one of the guys who lived at the crash pad referred to in the first paragraph of this epic essay. He and I have had our ups and downs over the years. There were times when we didn’t see eye to eye (to put it mildly) and didn’t talk for a long time. And yet there’s always been a lot of common ground (and I’m not just talking about the trips to rehab). When it comes to rock and roll music, there is no one whose opinion I respect more than his. He said it was possible that his opinion could change, that it was very possible that he was just caught up in the moment. What he said was that he thinks Chinese Democracy is the best album ever recorded and released by anyone, ever. Now, I can’t go that far. It’s not even my favorite Guns N’ Roses album ever. That’s Appetite, now and forever. But I do understand how he can say what he said. And maybe you have to have grown up in the time we grew up in and in a similar set of circumstances to really understand. A few years later they called Kurt Cobain the “voice of a generation.” I was the same age as that guy—and I liked Nirvana—but I never felt that guy “spoke” for me. Guys like me and my friend, Axl was that voice. Still is that voice. It didn’t always say pretty or reassuring things, but it spoke the truth as we understood it. And maybe it was an ugly truth, but that didn’t make it any less worth saying.
“Ask yourself what I would do
To prostitute myself
To live with fortune and shame”
So, Axl, in my view, you’ve done it. Chinese Democracy, in my opinion, is the grand statement you were clearly always shooting for. It’s been said that you have two more albums’ worth of material recorded more or less with this same lineup. Like many of the long-time GNR faithful, I am now more eager than ever to hear this new music. Here’s hoping the release of Chinese Democracy is a sign of things to come and you actually let those songs out of the vaults sometime in the near future.
In the meantime, again, congrats on Chinese Democracy. Thanks for letting us finally hear it in all its glory.
(NOTE: It should go without saying, but in case anyone’s clueless, all the lyrics quoted above are from Guns N’ Roses songs.)