In the biggest letdown since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault, Guns N’ Roses has finally released its long-awaited new album Chinese Democracy. In its first week, it charted at a disappointing three and moved slightly more than a quarter million copies in the U.S.
What went wrong?
It wasn’t the publicity. An official Chinese Communist Party newspaper condemned the GNR release as a “venomous attack,” strangely interpreting the album title as evidence that the band had shifted “its spear point toward China.” Dr. Pepper had famously promised a free sugary drink for every American should the legendarily delayed Chinese Democracy find store shelves by the end of 2008. It did, but America still awaits its free 23-flavored fizzy beverage. As if all that weren’t enough buzz, there is the train-wreck television of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab co-starring GNR original drummer Steven Adler, of whom the best that can be said is that he is not Jeff Conaway.
An answer to what went wrong can be found in Stephen Davis’s Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses. Veteran rock journalist Davis paints a picture of musicians who were as much drug buddies as band mates. Guns N’ Roses left a trail of herpes, screwed managers, concert riots, and drug overdoses. The irresistible image of rock n roll’s noble savages, which made Appetite for Destruction the bestselling debut album in history, ensured a fall for the band as rapid as its meteoric rise.
When listening to Appetite for Destruction‘s odes to fortified wine, waking up at seven in the evening and going onstage around nine, and an underage girl whose daddy works in porno now that mommy’s underground, one sensed they knew of what they sang. Guns N’ Roses anticipated the current era in which “keeping it real” trumps musical talent. Rapper Rick Ross, who felt compelled to deny past employment as a corrections officer, and soul singer Akon, who manufactured an elaborate biography as a prison brawler and maestro of a stolen car ring, would have paid millions for GNR’s street credibility.
Davis informs that before gaining fame as a rock star, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin was famous among rock’s toxic royalty — counting Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Rolling Stone Ron Wood as customers of his unlicensed pharmacy — through his involvement “in the surge of the Persian brown-colored heroin that had flooded into the L.A. rock scene.” After years of inebriated incoherence, pasty and bloated bassist Duff McKagan’s pancreas exploded in 1994. Lead guitarist Slash actually died from an overdose in 1992 before an adrenalin needle brought him back to life. Drummer Steven Adler got kicked out of Guns N’ Roses in 1990 for overindulging in chemicals, which is like getting cut from the New York Yankees for hitting too many home runs. Singer Axl Rose’s psychopathic outbursts provoked riots from the stage and lawsuits against him alleged severe physical abuse from former girlfriends. It makes one wonder if the entire band would have been better off had the four addict musicians occasionally shared their drugs with the bipolar singer.
Axl’s Hired Guns playing on Chinese Democracy are dwarfed when juxtaposed with all that history. One actually played guitar for Britney Spears and N’Sync, while another of Chinese Democracy‘s many ax men is best known for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket as a hat — an image not destined for Smithsonian cultural iconography à la Slash’s top hat.
The image suffers, but so does the music. The CD sleeve says Guns N’ Roses. The play button says REO Speedwagon meets Elton John meets Nine Inch Nails. The power ballad, persona non grata on Appetite for Destruction, overwhelms the new album. Uninvited guests include Spanish guitars, pianos, and full orchestration. Other than a faint synthesizer on “Paradise City,” the sonic formula of the wildly successful GNR debut was straightforward: guitars, bass, drums — turned up to eleven. Appetite for Destruction‘s raw sound was perfectly imperfect. As Stephen Davis notes of Appetite‘s producer, “He tried, ideally, to limit tracks to a single take. They called him Mike “That was it!” Clink. His philosophy was to capture the ferocity of the band in full manic episode, not tame the music for commercial release.” Chinese Democracy makes the overproduced Use Your Illusion albums sound like Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols in comparison. In contrast to its famous antecedent, Chinese Democracy bows to trends rather than bucks them. Worse still, the trends it bows to — industrial music, crunchy metal, power ballads — are no longer trendy. Such are the risks of spending more than a decade on fourteen songs.
And it is the waiting, as Tom Petty once said, that is the hardest part. More than the lineup changes, the dodgy music, or the lifestyle excesses, it is the passage of time that has ironically ensured Chinese Democracy‘s failure. Like Hitler, Axl Rose made audiences wait themselves into a frenzy. In December 1991, I caught the opening night of a Guns N’ Roses tour at the Worcester Centrum. Following an opening performance by a little-known band from Seattle called Soundgarden, we waited, and waited, and waited. The infamous delays had sparked concert promoters to hilariously prefix ticket show times with “around.” Axl Rose took the stage that night “around” eleven. At the height of the band’s popularity, the tactic attained the desired result of inciting fans into fanaticism. But seventeen years is a wait more tedious than three hours.
Axl Rose is roughly the same age as the incoming president. Since the face of rock-n-roll rebellion dropped off the face of the earth in the mid-1990s, his reincarnations Tupac Shakur and Eminem have come and gone too. Fans that had craved Rose’s personification of all that their parents had warned them against are now parents themselves; and kids who crave a larger-than-life prototype bad boy don’t want one older than their parents. In Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose takes a curtain call 21 years after Appetite for Destruction, only to find that the audience that had waited through concert cancellations, arena riots, and endless delays has finally gone home.