There are about half a hundred funny things about Guns n' Roses' superhyped pair of new albums, Use Your Illusion I and II, the band's first real output since their 1987 debut. One funny thing is that the first record starts off with a song called "Right Next Door to Hell," which takes its title from lead singer Axl Rose's well-publicized disputes with a neighbor in his West Hollywood apartment complex. It's anybody's guess what the argument is really about, much less whose fault it is, but my hunch is that the person who should be writing a song called "Right Next Door to Hell" is the person living next to Axl Rose.
Another funny thing is the sheer overkill these two albums represent: 30 songs, two hours and 25 minutes of music, the equivalent of two traditional two-record sets. Guns n' Roses' first release, Appetite for Destruction, sold well into eight figures worldwide, and except for recording a few new songs to accompany the reissue of some early tracks on an EP called G n' R Lies, they have spent the four years since touring, doing drugs, fighting, and generally making fools of themselves, acting wounded anytime it was suggested that they might put out some more music or other evidence of being a viable rock 'n' roll band. Having finally, to their credit, got themselves together, they have now put out more of their music than anyone could possibly want.
What, you ask, does Guns n' Roses have to sing about for 145 minutes? What theme could possibly occupy such a massive outpouring of material?
How about the trials and tribulations of Axl Rose?
Rose--an Indiana boy born Bill Bailey some 29 years ago--is an occasionally amazing singer and may someday turn out to be a consistent songwriter; he has a swirling, mercurial presence both onstage and off that has to be considered something of an asset. He's also so full of shit that the main reason for following Guns n' Roses is the sheer joy of watching Axl get egg on his face. A lot of band leaders have their heads up their asses--particularly in the heavy-metal world--but Rose combines sheer dopiness with unprecedented amounts of pretentiousness and self-importance. (Imagine Spinal Tap fronted by Sting.) Given his not inconsiderable gifts and not unappreciable commercial success (he was a millionaire at 25), you wonder why the poor guy whines so much; the Use Your Illusion records have some virtues, but they are swamped by Axl's sniveling and finger pointing. "Please understand me," he pleads on one song. "I'm climbing through all the wreckage of my twisted dreams." On the first single he sings, "Don't forget to call my lawyers / With ridiculous commands." In love he's no luckier: "Got to peel the bitch off my back," he sings on the song that gives the albums their name: "I know it looks like I'm insane / Take a closer look I'm not to blame." Of course you're not, Axl. Elsewhere he falls over himself in a valiant attempt to catalog the numerous indignities inflicted on him by the piranhas all around: "My mam never said much to me. . . . All I ever get is greed." "Nasty ballbreaker, stay out of my bed. . . . If it's lovin you, I'm better off dead." "The lies they sell to you / The kiss-ass sycophants."
In just a few years Rose has established himself as the all-time biggest complainer in rock 'n' roll. It's fun to watch him get excited, but his antics sometimes take on tragedic effects. At a recent show in Saint Louis, Axl jumped an illicit photographer and then shut down the show, prompting a riot that wounded dozens and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Reportedly he's been diagnosed as manic-depressive and at one time was on a regular dose of lithium. (His bandmates probably wish he still was.) While he's certainly more than intermittently rational, he spends far too much time on and off stage obsessing about problems, plots, and conspiracies, constructing grandiose justifications for himself and wholly ludicrous explanations for his unpleasant activities.
Take, most obviously, his lyrics to "One in a Million," a moody ballad on G n' R Lies that understandably caused the band a lot of problems: "Police and niggers / That's right / Get out of my way / Don't need to buy none of your gold chains today," goes one verse. (On the record, the "that's right" is uttered defiantly: Rose is aware he's using words he shouldn't.) Here's another:
Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they'll do what they please
Like start some mini-Iran
Or spread some fucking disease
They talk so many goddamn ways
It's all Greek to me.
Now Guns n' Roses certainly has a right to express those sentiments, and Geffen records has a right to try to make money off them, but both Rose and the company have tried to justify the lyrics as something other than explicitly racist and homophobic. Here's Axl in Rolling Stone: "Why can black people go up to each other and say, 'Nigger,' but when a white guy does it all of a sudden it's a big putdown?" (I love the "all of a sudden" part.) As for immigrants, Rose said he was talking about Pakistanis or Iranians who work in 7-Elevens and "treat you like you don't belong there." His response when questioned about the "faggots" lyric is priceless: "I'm not into gay or bisexual experiences. But that's hypocritical of me, because I'd rather see two women together than just about anything else. That happens to be my personal, favorite thing."
Thanks for sharing, Axl.
While Rose gets a lot of the attention, and is responsible for most of the band's lyrics, he's not the be-all and end-all of Guns n' Roses. Slash, the one with black curly hair covering his face, is easily one of the most melodic and, believe it or not, tasteful hard-rock guitarists we've seen in a long while. His piercing intros and flurries of notes are nothing ground-breaking, to be sure, but his style is restrained, articulate, and distinctive. The second guitarist, Izzy Stradlin, writes frequently (he's had a hand in more than a third of the compositions on the albums) and has shown himself to be quite Rose's equal when it comes to viciously misogynistic lyrics. He does just fine onstage, though he's generally overshadowed by Slash. The rhythm section of Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum (formerly of the Cult, a replacement for original drummer Steven Adler) is a lot better than it has to be, performing particularly well on the rolling attack the band favors on its harder tracks. (There's also a new keyboardist, Dizzy Reed, a friend of the band's from Hollywood. A few metal-scene compatriots also receive songwriting credits, including Del James, who's writing the band's authorized biography.)
The Use Your Illusion records have arrived several months after their original target date, primarily because the band decided that the mixes done by Bob Clearmountain (mixer of, among other things, Bruce Springsteen's last few records and one of the most respected engineers in the business) were unsatisfactory. There was also management trouble (Axl, it was said, wouldn't work on the record until the band's manager was fired), and further delays due to what is euphemistically called "perfectionism" on the part of--you guessed it--Axl Rose. The band began recording last November, but the process extended far into the summer, even after they embarked on what's projected to be more than a year of touring. None of this boded well, but the two albums are crisp, complete, and relatively coherent, and certainly not an embarrassment.
But if you think Guns n' Roses have anything to say, or the chops to say it with, for a total of two and a half hours, you've been listening to too many Poison records. It's a cliche in rock 'n' roll to say that any two-record set would have made a good single record. Two-record sets that justify their length are quite rare--maybe Exile on Main Street, London Calling, Layla, and a couple of Prince offerings--and three-record sets are almost nonexistent. (The best of these, the Clash's Sandinista!, would have made a good two-record set.) The Use Your Illusion records would have made one rather impressive full-length CD, but their virtues are severely diluted in their current configuration.
Use Your Illusion I kicks off with "Right Next Door to Hell," the same foot-to-the-floor rave-up that the band began its long-awaited tour with at Alpine Valley earlier this summer. It's an extended self-pity number from Axl that vaguely tries to account for the band's loser behavior: "Not bad kids, just stupid ones / Yeah we thought we'd own the world." It starts noisy and ends up pallid, but Axl does get off one good line: "Hell, we don't even have ourselves to blame."
After a few songs you notice that the first half of Use Your Illusion I is a waste, notable mostly for an overwrought cover of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" and the first of two versions of the schmaltzy ballad "Don't Cry." But then comes something truly offensive, "Back Off Bitch." ("Back off, back off bitch / Down in the gutter, dyin' in the ditch.") Guns n' Roses' attitudes toward women can be charitably described as unhealthy even by the standard of current American heavy metal, which I think is saying something. Axl, whether by nature or as a symptom of his mental condition, is such an emotional coward that when he isn't writing pure Hallmark-card drivel ("Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place / Where as a child I'd hide"), he's mouthing lyrics like "I used to love her / But I had to kill her" or "Turn around bitch I got a use for you." You've heard of gangster rap? This is dickhead rock.
The first track that lives up to the records' hype is "November Rain," one of Axl's epics. One of the things that makes Guns n' Roses tolerable is an almost endearing fixation--it seems to come mostly from Rose and Slash--with matching the great rock 'n' roll epics of their childhood. Guns n' Roses' existence is predicated almost entirely on a desire to record a song as good as Aerosmith's "Dream On." They don't have the operatic sensibilities that produced "Bohemian Rhapsody," the chops to make another "Layla," or anything like the sheer personal authority on which Jimmy Page based "Stairway to Heaven," but they do understand the thrill of those ambitious constructions, with their abrupt changes in direction, extended lyrical codas, and stirring dynamics, and they've been trying to create their own versions from the start. "Sweet Child o' Mine," the magnificent six-minute single that kicked off Appetite's selling spree, is a fabulous song: after constructing the guitar intro, an off-kilter, gently propulsive riff that fuels the verses, Slash launches into one of the most captivating solos since Page's heyday, and the song builds up steam to a long dramatic coda, with Axl moaning the words "Where do we go now?" While there's little else in the band's early work that can match the sheer joy of this undertaking, you can see them working on similar tricks in other places. At the end of "Rocket Queen" there's another terrific coda, with Axl doing some serviceable crooning: I really like the extravagant way he sings the lines "So don't chastise me / Or think I, I mean you harm." One more incidence: On "Patience," a fairly dopey song on G n' R Lies, there's a wonderful moment after Slash's long acoustic solo where Axl comes sauntering back into the song to do a throaty, ragged-voiced addendum.
"November Rain" is nearly nine minutes long, laden with piano and even strings. Over them Axl mouths his beloved romantic cliches: "We can still find a way / 'Cause nothin' lasts forever." It's not bad, I guess, and somewhat refreshing after "Back Off Bitch," which it follows. The rest of the first record is less successful, with a couple more extended self-justifications from Axl, "Garden of Eden" and "Don't Damn Me." In the latter, he argues that the stupid things he writes are legitimate because, well, he writes them: "Don't damn me when I speak a piece of my mind. . . . I put the pen to paper / 'Cause it's all a part of me." Here's the big statement:
So I send this song to the offended
I said what I meant and I've never pretended
As so many others do intending just to please
If I damned your point of view
Could you turn the other cheek.
Here Axl's asking women, gays, blacks, and immigrants not only to credit his shit but to take it without a fuss. You can't look at the guy cross-eyed without getting him excited.
Use Your Illusion II is the better album of the pair. It starts out with "Civil War," a long and extremely impressive exercise in hard-rock dynamics; lyrically it's a stretch for the band as well, their first attempt to write with a political overtone. It's not bad, but the very thought of it makes you leery: I'm not sure the world is ready for Axl to really get his political views down on paper. (The song was Guns n' Roses' contribution to Nobody's Child, a benefit album for Romanian children.) There's also a passable run at "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (which has been a staple of the band's stage show since its early days; the version on the record was originally on the Days of Thunder sound track), and then "Get in the Ring," yet another self-justification from Axl, this one already notorious for its attacks on some heavy-metal rags and Spin's Bob Guccione Jr. ("What you pissed off because your dad gets more pussy than you? / Fuck you / Suck my fuckin' dick"--here as elsewhere I'm quoting from the lyric sheet.) This song ends with an extended spoken rant, but Axl, articulate as a street urchin, can't even get off an appreciable insult--and, of course, the importance of each writer he mentions is now indelibly impressed on the mind of every metal kid in the country. Hey Axl--put me on the next one, will ya?
Finally, on the second half of II, the band gets its shit together and does what it's been threatening to do for about five years: put together 25 minutes or so of the best hard-rock music you've heard in a long time. It starts off with a song written by McKagan, dedicated to the late and fabled Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls. I think it's McKagan half-singing, half-talking it, and splendidly, I must say: the song is plaintive, heartfelt, and touching. Recently McKagan confided to the press that he wants to go to Harvard Law School. I and every other sentient being who read that snickered, but if you'd told me that he could write and sing a song that would sound right at home on the Replacements' Let It Be, I would have snickered at that, too, so more power to him. Maybe he can go after Axl with the first class-action suit against a major public annoyance.
II also has "You Could Be Mine," a fully unbridled rocker (from the sound track of Terminator 2) that makes every other heavy-metal band in the world, from Metallica on down, sound like they're driving Model Ts. This is one of the moments when the rhythm section and Stradlin--who wrote the song with Rose--show their worth: it's just unrelenting. You also get another version of "Don't Cry," the current single, and Axl's moment of triumph, "Estranged," nine and a half minutes of first-rate singing and an unquestionably terrific display of guitar pyrotechnics from Slash. The song is your basic I'm-lonely-and-mopin'-around number ("So what'll happen to us baby / Guess we'll have to wait and see"), but Rose sings the fuck out of it, and you have to give him credit. If his songs about women are any indication, he will probably never have a productive relationship, and if his songs of personal philosophy are a guide, he will always be just that sort of asshole you don't want to sit next to on a bus, much less work or come into daily contact with, and in a lot of ways Guns n' Roses is just one of a million bad bands, but this "Estranged" is some piece of work: the dynamics, the breaks, the slow build, the way Rose's voice breaks out in the last verses. You've finally done it, Axl--it's a better song than "Dream On." Now will you please shut up?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert John.