Continuing with our three part series on Axl Rose. Read part one here.
“Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into the ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid.” – Roland Bainton, writing about Martin Luther
“I just want to bury Appetite. I don’t want to live my life through that one album. I have to bury it, and do something new.” – Axl Rose
“We didn’t just throw something together to be rock stars. We wanted to put something together that meant everything to us… We’re competing with rock legends now, and we’re honored to be in that position. We want to define ourselves. Appetite was a cornerstone, a place to start. It was like, ‘Here’s our stand,’ and we just put a stake in the ground. Now we’re going to build something.” – Axl Rose
And so we come to GNR phase two. To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, what exactly does one do for an encore? If you’re Axl Rose, you take an extreme situation and make it even more so. He knew full well that the success of Appetite for Destruction could come to define them, and like anyone finely attuned to the devastating power of the Law, he was deadset on escaping it. Sadly, it wasn’t really up to him; reacting against a standard is no different than conforming to one. In this light, Use Your Illusion, for all its many merits, might be seen as an artistic nuclear bomb – or perhaps more appropriately, a middle finger – aimed at all of what Appetite for Destruction represented: unprecedented and universal success. In theological terms, the fulfillment of all righteousness.
Sadly, the money and acclaim did to Guns N Roses what they’ve done to oh-so-many other Behind The Music subjects (especially when combined with the vast amount of substances that were being consumed): they inflated egos and ignited tempers, leading all involved to make their claims of credit and fight over pieces of a pie that wasn’t there before. In these situations, it seems almost inevitable that control begins to subvert collaboration, that law subsumes love. And the Gunners were no exception: as they began work on their proper follow-up to Appetite, self-righteousness quickly came to dominate the proceedings, making for a less than ideal creative climate. Of course, competition can also create the kind of friction that makes for good music, and perhaps they had not quite reached the tipping point. That most of the competition was internal to Axl (see above) should come as no surprise.
The pressure that they were working under – a.k.a. the curious rock n roll Commandment that bands must always “progress,” or improve – pretty much dictated that the spontaneous energy of Appetite would be extinguished this time around. Perfectionism is a great friend of paralysis, so the process of recording Use Your Illusion took a long, long time, as well as an ungodly amount of money. Given the Chinese Democracy debacle, it’s easy to forget that Use Your Illusion was delayed for over a year. But it speaks to Axl’s determination (or the depth of his anger, plus the level of affirmation/adoration that they’d achieved via Appetite) that the record was ever completed.
Anxious to best themselves, the guys let loose a truly manic collection of 30 songs – two discs/volumes, released on the same day! This time, the range and stylistic variety of the music matched the thematic schizophrenia: acoustic songs (“You’re Not The First”), next to overblown covers (“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”), next to speed-metal (“Right Next Door To Hell”), next to shameful scatalogical anthems (“Get in the Ring”), some pop (“Yesterdays”), some charming Stones’ retreads (“Dust N’ Bones”), even a left-field industrial piece (“My World”), all sandwiched between a handful of stunning piano-driven (!) epics. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to ignore how seldom their reach exceeded their grasp. Guns N Roses were/are pros.
Lyrically, Axl’s zigzagging was no less breathtaking than on Appetite, but now with an added degree of intellectual pomp: “Don’t Cry” was undeniably sappy/sentimental when paired with the absurdly confrontational “Perfect Crime.” The defiantly misanthropic “You Could Be Mine” comes right after the existential vulnerability of his nine-minute tour-de-force “Estranged.” The sheer volume of language (and imagery) in “Garden of Eden” is astounding, yet its global scope seems seriously out of step with its punk-rock arrangement. And to say that the attitudes toward women on Use Your Illusion were all over the place would be (very) generous. In fact, the overall audacity on display is simply staggering, and probably evidence of the breakthrough that Appetite represented for Axl, confidence-wise. Having found some remnant of safety in his success, he was able to delve deeper, dredging up some genuinely profound words (along with the suppressed memories of being molested as a child…) to accompany the fantastic tunes. For a short time, the “assurance” achieved in that first album gave him the internal space to embrace an impressively broad chunk of the human spectrum, and we are all richer for it.
Certainly one of the overarching themes of Use Your Illusion is Axl’s fear of being caged; the whole thing almost functions as a soundtrack to his life-long boxing match with the Law. The songs are simply soaked with Accusation, both the giving and receiving of it: “Don’t Damn Me” is absurdly defensive, “Back Off” responds to perceived romantic demands in a unfortunately threatening manner, “Civil War” makes things political, and “Dead Horse” has self-justifying victimhood written all over it. The whole thing is utterly fascinating.
Yet to continue the metaphor, Axl would definitely win a few battles before losing the war, chief among them his bloated yet glorious ode to unrequited love, “November Rain,” a crowning moment of 90s music if ever there was one, video included. Where were you when you first saw it? Most of the record may detail the fallout of Law-induced/self-inflicted suffering, but “November Rain” points timidly to its Answer. The song comes from a man down on his knees, begging for redemption in the form of love and maybe, just maybe, hinting at resurrection in the final verse:
And when your fears subside and shadows still remain
I know that you can love me when there’s no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way
‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain
Don’t you think that you need somebody?
Don’t ya think that you need someone?
Everybody needs somebody
You’re not the only one
Perhaps the conspicuous number of crucifixes in the video (and liner notes) were more than red herrings? Hmmm… [more on that in the final installment]. Ironically, Slash once commented that “November Rain” was the sound of the band breaking up. If that’s the case, the rest of Use Your Illusion must be the sound of them being drawn and quartered. It pleased everyone and no one.
When the band finally emerged from the studio, they had morphed into cartoon characters worthy of their comic-book names (Duff, Izzy, Slash, Axl… and Matt Sorum). Their personae (i.e. their prescribed identities) had come to overshadow their personalities, and the writing was on the wall – use your illusion, indeed. The freedom and camraderie was long gone, evidenced even in the songwriting credits, which were now ridiculously precise – you could almost see the lawsuits brewing between the letters… Axl, being no dummy, described the whole saga brilliantly in his criminally underrated masterpiece “Breakdown,” which doubles as a bit of a eulogy for the band (as well as my personal favorite song from phase two). Enjoy:
We all come in from the cold
We come down from the wire
And everybody warms themselves to a different fire
When sometimes we get burned
You’d think sometime we’d learn
The one you love is the one
That should take you higher
You ain’t got no one
You better go back out and find em
Just like children hidin’ in a closet
Can’t tell what’s goin’ on outside
Sometimes we’re so far off the beaten track
We’ll get taken for a ride
By a parlor trick or some words of wit
A hidden hand up a sleeve
To think the one you love could hurt you now
Is a little hard to believe
But everybody darlin’ sometimes
Bites the hand that feeds
When I look around
Everybody always brings me down
Well is it them or me
I just can’t see
But there ain’t no peace to found
But if someone really cared
Well they’d take the time to spare
A moment to try and understand another one’s despair
Remember in this game we call life
That no one said it’s fair
I’ve come to know the cold
I think of it as home
When there ain’t enough of me to go around
I’d rather be left alone
But if I call you out of habit
I’m out of love and I gotta have it
Would you give it to me if I fit your needs
Like when we both knew we had it
But now the damage’s done
And we’re back out on the run
Funny how everything was roses when we held on to the guns
Just because you’re winning
Don’t mean you’re the lucky ones
Read part 3: Left So Far Out From The Shore.