In 1975, Bruce Springsteen was close to losing his mind. Facing an imminent deadline for his Born to Run album, with a promotional tour already booked, he decided that he hated the record and wanted to scrap the whole thing. In exasperation, his co-producer Jon Landau told him that recording artists never feel satisfied with their albums, that they’d all love to go back and do some tweaking if they could. Landau said the time had come for Springsteen to cut the record loose and stop obsessing about it.
It’s probably safe to say that no one ever had a similar conversation with Axl Rose.
This week, Rose finally cut loose Chinese Democracy, a long-rumored, much-blogged-about Guns N’ Roses follow-up to the 1991 Use Your Illusion double-release. Begun in 1995 with the remnants of the original band, it shows up in stores (at least those named Best Buy) as the ultimate creative statement from a bipolar, girlfriend-beating malcontent who, for a short but unforgettable stint, was the biggest rock star in the world.
Rock’s most driven, ambitious artists tend to be teen outcasts who chafed under the authority of repressive parents. It would be hard to find a more extreme example than Rose, who grew up as Bill Bailey in Lafayette, Indiana. Routinely thrashed by his demanding stepfather, pushed into a strict Pentecostal church, and forced to wear a bowl haircut with starched white shirts and black polyester pants, Rose was a seething ball of rage for most of his childhood. He didn’t have to affect the kind of Hollywood rebellion that made Mötley Crüe or Poison so cartoonish. His misanthropy was all too real.
He never had the hippest record collection (remember, this is someone who religiously sang along with Eagles, Boston, and Barry Manilow hits on the radio) or the cleverest way with a phrase (“back off bitch” was his idea of sharp wordplay). For that matter, the high-register screech that many devotees found cathartic was pure nails-on-the-chalkboard torture for anyone grounded in indie-rock playfulness. But in a genre long dominated by posers and eager-to-please showmen, Rose was the real deal: an absolutely feral stage performer whose lyrical threats of violence barely hinted at the long rap sheet he’d accumulated with Lafayette’s finest.
Guns N’ Roses gave Rose power and wealth and enabled him to exercise the kind of control he never had in his boyhood home. During the making of Guns’ 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, he decided that the song “Rocket Queen” needed a boost during the bridge, so he elected to have sex on the studio floor with drummer Steven Adler’s girlfriend while the mikes were on, to get the essential orgasmic moans. That single act said volumes about Rose: that he was crazy obsessive about his music, brazenly contemptuous of his bandmates, and prone to view all women as pathetic groupies. “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the band’s breakout hit, stood out not least because it was practically the only Rose composition that defined a woman as something other than a prostitute, stripper, junkie, or all of the above.
Once the band went multi-platinum, Rose’s ego and neuroses needed tour buses of their own. He stopped communicating with his bandmates (to be fair, most of them were falling-down drunks with serious drug habits) and imposed all kinds of wretched ideas on them.
Consider his infamous tune, “One in a Million,” which found him trashing “police and niggers” in one verse and “immigrants and faggots” in another, while Slash, the child of an African-American mother and immigrant father, gritted his teeth and played guitar. What about his bloated, orchestral ballad “November Rain” and its budget-busting video? Or the pitiful white-boy rap of “My World,” which ended Use Your Illusion II with a thud? Let’s not even discuss his ain’t-we-cute decision to cover a Charles Manson tune.
Use Your Illusion II’s most revealing track was Izzy Stradlin’s “14 Years,” which found Rose’s one longtime friend in the band wearily looking back at their relationship: “I try and feel the sunshine/you bring the rain/you try and hold me down/with your complaints/you cry and moan and complain.”
On Chinese Democracy, Axl can finally “cry and moan and complain” without the interference of a real band. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of his hired guns (including long-suffering ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson) calculating how many more paychecks they’ll need before they can tell their cornrowed oligarch to take a hike back to Paradise City.
One sideman, mysterioso guitarist Bucket-head, actually did hand in his resignation notice nearly five years ago. Buckethead’s blazing wah-wah guitar licks can be heard on 12 of the album’s 14 tracks, suggesting that Rose has spent the last five years (if not longer) compulsively fine-tuning old material. Even with rock’s history of crazed perfectionists (everyone named Mutt Lange, please step forward), this is unprecedented stuff. It’s as if the Who started Tommy in 1968, but got bogged down with the guitar overdubs, and after 355 close-but-no-cigar mixes of “Acid Queen,” finally decided to release the album in 1982. Wouldn’t have had quite the same impact.
Rose’s weird reticence, however, may actually be justifiable. Sifting through this Hefty bag of therapy-speak poetry and ear-bleed riffage will quickly convince you that he should have taken a little more time with the songcraft. The bluesy, garage-punk underpinnings that once made Guns the true heirs to Led Zeppelin’s throne are gone for good. Where Appetite was proudly ragged, these tracks are terminally fussed-over.
Rockers such as “Scraped” and “Shackler’s Revenge” feel layered with such brutal discipline that it’s hard to believe human beings created these sounds. And while Axl’s voice occasionally soars like it’s 1987, he generally struggles to cut through the dense mixes. The melodramatic ballads, which take over the second half of the disc, confirm that Axl is a frustrated piano man in the Elton John mold, but with none of the requisite melodic finesse. The few palatable tracks — such as the jokey “I.R.S.” and the oddball “Riad N’ The Bedouins” — would barely cut it as Appetite-era B-sides. The album’s most absurd moment comes near the end of “Madagascar,” when Axl takes us to the mountaintop with soundbites from Martin Luther King Jr., Braveheart, and Mississippi Burning. You’ll surely be inspired — to skip to the next track.
The song says a lot about what’s wrong with the 2008 model of Guns. This band once reveled in sleaze and took pride in their lack of redeeming qualities. They lived their lives on the puke-and-piss-smelling streets of LA, and all they wanted was to rub our noses in that stench a little bit. These days, Axl is looking for psychological epiphanies.
Good luck, Mr. Rose. Please report back to us in 17 years. •