Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughts on Guns N' Roses

On Deadspin recently there's been a lot of stuff related to the 25th anniversary of the release of Guns N' Roses' debut album, Appetite for Destruction.  That reminded me of this piece I wrote on my old blog a couple of years ago, which I'm pretty proud of.  There are few bands out there that I was never that into that have retained their level of fascination in my mind.

The release of the long-awaited Chinese Democracy album has gotten me thinking about Guns N Roses, by which I mean the actual band, not the revolving cast of sidemen plus Axl Rose that tours today. It's easy to forget just how big they were in their time, and how much their demise symbolized.

I certainly remember G n' R at the height of their popularity between 1988 and 1991, since that period coincided exactly with my early adolescence. (They were at their biggest from the time I was 12 to the time I was 16.) They were without a doubt the biggest band of the time, with Guns N' Roses t-shirts being sported by more than just the metal kids in the hallways of my junior high. A guy I knew the grade ahead of me achieved supreme coolness for his ability to play the intro to "Sweet Child of Mine" on his guitar.

I had a pretty ambiguous relationship with Axl, Slash, and the gang. On the whole, I was not such a big fan of metal, preferring a mix of sixties rock (especially the Beatles), hip-hop (especially Public Enemy but regretably also DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), and the "alternative" music of the time (mostly REM and Depeche Mode.) On the other hand, I thought Guns N Roses was a whole helluva lot better than the likes of Poison, Trixter, and Slaughter. Unlike the other dreck of the time, the Guns sounded like a bona fide rock band, not a glammed up bunch of pretty boys recycling Jimmie Page's riffs and David Bowie's make-up.

Imbibing MTV like the Holy Sacrament, I myself had to admit that "Sweet Child of Mine," "Paradise City," and "Welcome to the Jungle" were killer. On top of that, I really liked the acoustic balladeering of "Patience." However, I didn't buy the Appetite for Destruction album because I thought its cross cover was slightly blasphemous (no lie), and I'd heard that the Lies EP was chock full of profanity, misogyny, and racism. (Yep, I was a good little boy.) Considering that MTV and radio played G n'R almost constantly, there was no need to buy the records anyway.

Being the goody-two shoes altar boy that I was at the time, their whole attitude and personality both scared and attracted me. Slash, for instance, seemed fearsome, his eyes shrouded in hair with only a lit cig poking out. Still, he exuded an air of unflappable cool and effortless talent, things lacking in the gawky, badly dressed, zit faced adolescent that I was. The one guy in the band that I found to be completely repulsive was the only one left today: Axl Rose. He had a seeming contempt for the world, inciting a riot at a concert in St. Louis and often making audiences wait hours before he would go on. He would only grant interviews if he could have a final say over what would be printed, and generally acted like a violent, solipsistic, douchebag. Only his status as one of the last old school rock frontmen redeemed him. Indie rock singers don't do big gestures without irony anymore, and those who make the rockstar poses unironically usually look ridiculous. Axl, on the other hand, was exciting and mesmerizing onstage.

Guns N Roses didn't put out their full-length follow-up to Appetite until September of 1991, with Use Your Illusion I and II. This was the music event of the year, as record stores had midnight sales of the album, and both occupied the two top spots on the chart. My high school buzzed with talk about which album was better, and a guy I knew in marching band had soon memorized the horribly antagonistic "Get in the Ring." I even got in on the act, by buying Use Your Illusion II, mostly because it had "You Could Be Mine," which had been a big hit that summer. Not wanting to get in trouble with my folks, I listened to it strictly over my headphones, impressed on the one hand by songs like "Yesterday" and "14 Years," but apalled by stuff like "Pretty Tied Up" and "Shotgun Blues," where Axl wants the listener to sympathize with his paranoid worldview. On top of that, there were failed attempts at grandeur like "Estranged," a song I will return to later. I pretty much got into a habit of programming the CD so I only listened to the songs I actually liked, which was about half of them.

If the Guns had combined the best of both albums they could have crafted a real classic, but no one talked much about that at the time. The band's inner strife and its videos provided most of the fodder for conversation. The video for "Don't Cry" did not feature rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who soon announced that he had quit the band. It also featured all kinds of bizzare images, like Axl freezing to death while holding two pistols, drowning, and at the end of the video in the grave. The song itself, a haunting little ballad, wasn't all that bad, either, if you could get past the death trip obsession of its sociopathic singer.

The follow-up, "November Rain," was absolutely huge, and for a time I think the most played video in MTV's history. It also marked a fatal departure, in that the song is a sprawling epic full of lush strings and flutes and gets away from what the Guns did best. The only bright spots in the song are two terrific Slash solos, representing the true strength and heart of the band. The video also told a tragic yet cryptic story of suicide and a wedding ending in a mysterious death. At the time there was all kinds of speculation as to its meaning and its links to the "Don't Cry" video (including by me), which is hard to believe today. In hindsight, it looks like a self-indulgent mish-mash of half-baked symbolism and warmed over symphonic goop.

And while Guns N Roses appeared to be set on a path of world domination, the seeds of their demise had already been planted. Three months after Use Your Illusion, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" exploded onto the airwaves and MTV like a bomb whose shrapnel would dismember hair metal and whose concussion would knock Guns N' Roses into the dustbin of history. The same kids at school who had once banged their heads to "Welcome to the Jungle" happily snatched up Nevermind. Next to the overblown Rose, flannel clad Cobain's pain seemed a lot more genuine. His indie sensibility and lack of macho bullshit also endeared him to people like me in the non-metal crowd.

In the meantime, Guns released "Estranged," whose video was supposed to cap off the trilogy begun with "Don't Cry" and "November Rain" and explain all the unanswered questions. Needless to say, it didn't, and the song didn't become much a hit either, despite some seering guitar lines from Slash. At the end of the day, his guitar heroics couldn't rescue the song from its own pretentions, and by the time this video came out, in a changing musical climate, people had pretty much stopped caring about the ins and outs of Axl Rose's tortured soul. Band relations soured, and after releasing a tepid album of punk covers, Guns N' Roses' days as a band, rather than an Axl Rose project, were over.

Looking back on it, the death of Guns was pretty much a harbinger of the death of American "rock" in the classical sense. (British rock music is a more complicated beast.) Grunge and its imitators, as well as indie rock, came squarely out of the punk tradition, and the new generation of rock bands after grunge sucked so bad and were so derivative that they could never inspire the excitement and following of Guns N' Roses. (I am thinking here of Creed, Puddle of Mudd, Limp Bizkit, Nickleback etc.) That rock fans have been so interested in the recent release of Chinese Democracy shows less the persistence of Guns' music than the inability of rock music to reproduce itself.

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