“The name [Guns n Roses] helped the music [on Chinese Democracy] more than you could ever know, and I’m not talking in regards to studios and budgets. I mean it as in being pushed by something, and having to get the music to a place where I can find my peace regardless of what anyone says.” – Axl Rose, 2009
We come now to the third act, or what some might call the epilogue of the story. With the original band having gone up in smoke sometime in the mid-90s, Axl forged ahead. Or at least, announced that he was forging ahead. But then, silence. There were “wars and rumors of wars” for a while, but after the forgettable Spaghetti Incident and a pretty atrocious cover of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the greatest (and globally most popular) American band of the late 80s/early 90s faded from view. Completely. The turnaround was dramatic – all of a sudden it was 2000 and an Axl-sized hole was gaping.
Axl claims that his absurdly prolonged absence wasn’t a matter of perfectionism. He refers instead to an unrelenting barrage of woes, both artistic and letigious in nature, that kept him from finishing the new album. The revolving door of personnel and management seemed to tell a different tale: that of an erratic artist getting more erratic.
In the story of Axl Rose, we’ve seen how the Law (the “oughts” of the Bible and the world) provokes intense rebellion, how its converse fosters creativity and collaboration, and how the pressure of success turns in on itself, killing conviviality. We’ve also seen how when standards are met by, say, producing the best-selling debut album of all time, self-righteousness and greed soon follow. In this final chapter, we see how the Law paralyzes. In fact, the 14-years-in-the-making Chinese Democracy has come to function as a shorthand for creative paralysis. I mean, five years would have been a long time! But Axl needed to prove himself sans Slash, to demonstrate conclusively that he was the driving force behind the band all along, that the critics had been wrong about him, and of course, that the music in his head was worth the wait/struggle (and recording, period). And as the years went by, the standards naturally rose… and rose… and rose. Axl rationalized the process this way:
“In regard to so-called perfectionism, I feel that has a lot to do with your goals or requirements with whatever one’s doing or creating. Different levels may be required for different objectives. If you’re making brakes for a vehicle, what’s required? It’s all relative, right? You try to make the best calls you can at any given moment and go from there. Generally, when this term is used by others in regard to me or how I work, it’s said in a negative way or as an excuse for their shortcomings — and again by my detractors.”
Make no mistake: that Chinese Democracy ever came out is a miracle. It may have done so without any promotional help from Axl – no videos, only a handful of low-profile interviews – but come out it did. Ironically, the end product felt a little rushed(!): the lyric booklet has some typos, Axl alluded in interviews to a “real cover” that was going to eventually see the light of day, etc. So even in its final release there was something tentative, a hedging of bets, the sense that it had been clutched from hands that hadn’t quite finished with it. Which, after all, is the nature of the beast.
Yet despite a few rough edges production-wise, the songs themselves hold together unbelievably well. Interlocking themes of recrimination, justification, blame-shifting, accusation and exhaustion dominate the proceedings. Chinese Democracy is what happens when you marry the extreme end of a Law-based mentality to an ungodly (or godly, depending on your perspective) orchestra of guitars. As such, it’s a brilliant and deeply misunderstood masterpiece. It was criticized for being overproduced, somehow both overblown and claustrophobic at the same time, and way too insular in its spleen and sheen. Axl was dismissed as “no longer relevant” – as if “relevancy” ever had anything to do with his music. Plus, this was Axl Rose – what did they expect?! Restraint was never a strong suit. In the muted and somewhat antagonistic reception, one almost got the feeling that Axl had been right all along about the critics, that he was being judged by people who were at odds with him as a person and therefore couldn’t hear his material for what it was. That this was their chance to chide him and “correct” his clearly inflated sense of self, rather than bask in its awesome glory.
Some folks even claimed the songs themselves weren’t up to snuff – which is a blatant untruth. “Better” is a peerless self-pity anthem (“No one ever told me when I was alone/They just thought I’d know better”). “There Was A Time” serves as a stunning mission statement, communicating extraordinary regret and self-reproach before ending with roughly four consecutive and simultaneous guitar solos, each besting the one before it. “This I Love” is a total heartbreaker, the two-headed monster at its most tender. “Street of Dreams,” which was maligned for sounding like a Broadway tune (which it doesn’t), summons as much uplift as Axl can muster for a (gorgeous) song about loss. And “Madagascar” is the oddly majestic sound of defiance turning into defeat, delivered in Axl’s most exhausted voice (“I won’t be told anymore/That I’ve been brought back in this storm/And left so far out from the shore/That I can’t find my way back, my way anymore”). Then “I.R.S.” brings the sparring senses of condemnation and justification to a boil:
Do you think I’m doing this all for my health?
I should’ve looked again then at somebody else
Feeling like I’ve done way more than wrong
Feeling like I’m living inside of this song
Feeling like I’m just too tired to care
Feeling like I done more than my share
Could’ve been the way that I carried on
Like a broken record for so long
There’s not anymore that I can do
I could go on. Of course, Chinese Democracy should never be (or have been) evaluated as a mere collection of songs. That would be absurd. It is an album-length transmission from the scary, neurotic, self-absorbed/ -aggrandizing yet utterly captivating Planet Axl. And as such, it sounds like nothing else, not even GNR. It is SUCH a personal statement that to criticize it for not being something else is to misunderstand it. Again, it is nothing more or less than a musical survey of internal reactions to the Law: self-justification, blame, anger, victimization, paranoia, despair, alienation, etc. That its production (and promotion) would be mired in paralysis, litigation and confusion only completes the picture, i.e. a self-defeating record about self-defeat that was defeated by itself! Of course, this also means that it’s not much of a party record…
So where is the hope in all this? Is there any at all? Certainly none in the intense desire for personal exoneration (in the media) that seems to occupy much of Axl’s energy – that’s just fighting pyrotechnics with pyrotechnics, as it were. No, the only hope I can see is the one hanging around Axl’s neck and tattooed on his arm. I’m serious. Despite his severe misgivings about the faith in which he was raised, crosses dominate not only the UYI-era videos, but his image since then as well. These days he seldom appears on stage without an enormous cross necklace, an accessory which could be written off as a fashion statement, were it not accompanied by his outspoken affection for and collection of antique crucifixes.
Something about the central symbol of Christianity must have stuck with him. He could clear away all the fundamentalist detritus and religious baggage of his youth, but apparently the Cross was something he couldn’t shake. Which gives me hope: that the Cross retains some shred the power for those who have been most ravaged by the Law (and done the most ravaging in return), those maimed by both sacred and secular imperatives, is good news. That it can withstand and even transcend the most toxic religious upbringings gives me hope, hope that it ultimately does represent the end of the Law (Romans 10:4), full stop. Hope that, yes, there’s a heaven above you, baby.