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Top 60 Minutes (and Worst 5 Songs) of Use Your Illusion

By Christopher Alexander | 3 July 2008

The Use Your Illusion albums (1991) weren’t the first cassettes I ever bought, but they were the first ones bearing the dreaded and mysterious “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker, and therefore their purchase presents the clearest memory. I smiled at my dad as he picked me up from the mall, pretending those tapes in my pocket weren’t burning rectangles in my eleven-year-old leg. That night I spent an hour trying to peel and wash the stickers off the cases, before I realized that all I had to do was switch the inserts with some Bill Cosby tapes. A young bastard was born.

Ah, but this is too much preamble. It would appear that Axl Rose has emerged with a truly completed Chinese Democracy, ending years of one joke and, surely, starting another one. To mark the occasion, I present a tribute: one to the fallen Stylus Magazine’s great Playing God feature; one to antiquated technology (and notions of commercial and artistic prowess-slash-pretentiousness); and one to my own misbegotten youth which depended so heavily on the former. I present a trimming of one of the most overblown, indulgent, and artistically strangled projects in pop history—or, at least until Chinese Democracy sees the light of day. But it wasn’t enough to just slice the fat—my task was to find a way to fit the best of it on either side of a sixty minute tape (“one side longer to preserve continuity” be damned), in the true spirit of ’91. My picks are entirely solipsistic; “November Rain” is nowhere to be found. Here we go.

Side A

1. “You Could be Mine” (II; 5:43)

Both albums grossly violate the ’80s cock-rock golden rule (one which was adhered so gloriously on Appetite for Destruction): the killer advance single needs to kick off the album. Instead, on I we get the well-meaning but slight “Right Next Door to Hell,” and II gives us the power-ballad “Civil War,” where Axl as philosopher-warrior literally asks “what’s so civil about war, anyway?” My nth generation Maxell rectifies matters: one great wah-pedal riff from Slash gives way to a Stones plagiarism from Izzy. The song’s chorus was first quoted on the insert to Appetite, but is perhaps best known for the Terminator II cross-promoting video that correctly assessed the band to be “wastes of ammunition.” Future generations will laugh at the ever-litigious Axl chastising his ex for “call[ing] my lawyer with ridiculous demands,” if they aren’t already.

2. “Pretty Tied Up (The Perils of Rock N’ Roll Decadence)” (II; 4:44)

I almost switched the first two songs around, for one reason. Imagine that it’s 1991, and the highly anticipated album from “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” begins with a sitar, a high hat, and someone in a bad sportscaster accent saying “the perrrrrrls of rocknrolllll decadence!” If you’re not laughing, you should stop reading. For all its hideous sexism, I still think this is a pretty good song; I hear it gets played pretty often on AOR stations, wherever they exist.

3. “Dust N’ Bones” (I; 4:58)

Two Izzy songs in a row, and the only one with his vocals that I’ve kept by virtue of its strength (Slash and Duff are credited as co-authors, but I’m hoping against hope that this is one of the “totally arbitrary” credits awarded by Axl that Slash complained about in his admittedly fascinating autobiography. Then again, “sometimes these women are so easy” is one of those nose-pinching lines that can only come from Duff’s pen). This song has no business being almost five minutes long, though, which serves as a metaphor for the entire project. Nevertheless, Izzy is in full Exile on Main Street glory here, and his plaintive gruff is a great counterpoint against Axl’s shrieking—which is here rendered into the endemic Scary Man vocal that appears all over the entire album.

4. “Perfect Crime” (I; 2:23)

When the jig was up, this was my mother’s Exhibit A for chucking this album in the trash (although she never did; I found all of the Guns’ tapes and Nirvana’s Incesticide CD in my father’s desk drawer, and stole them back, and never heard boo about the matter again). There were way too many fuck’s and motherfucker’s to let it slide (George Carlin RIP), but she apparently had no problem with Axl’s truly head-scratching Scary Man spoken word in the bridge: “ostracized / but that’s alright / I was thinking about something myself…” Entire algebra classes were spent pondering that one. Musically this rips, and while thrash rock was never the band’s forte, tracks like this really lightened the load. On my beat up cassette, this album is zipping right along.

5. “Don’t Damn Me” (I; 5:18)

The band (or Axl, same diff) hated this song. They only played it once on the entire two year tour, and at the end of the recording Axl wants everyone to know “all riiiiiight, that sucked.” He’s admittedly sleeping at the wheel, here: his vocal merely follows Slash’s riff. This fits on my tape because a) it’s a great riff and b) there are no overdubs, Scary Man vocals, or weird spoken word pieces on this entire track, which on Use Your Illusion is cause for a fucking parade. My friend Jim and I loved the outro, too: at every New Years’ party we ever attended, we tried to time the dropping of the Times Square ball with the final “all riiiiiiight, that sucked / BONK!” This illustrated how bad the prior year had been for us, in ways both intentional and otherwise.

6. “Breakdown” (II; 7:04)

“Breakdown” ends side A for time considerations more than anything else, although not only does this include Scary Man and a horrifying spoken word outro (“Our soul driver in his soul-mobile, yeah baby! They’re about to strike! They’re gonna get him! Smash! Rape!”) but one of the worst pseudo-country intros I’ve ever heard. If you can get through all that, the song’s actually not bad at all. It isn’t nearly as cloying as any piano song heard on radio, and its final lyric (“funny how everything was roses when we held on to the guns”) provides an odd coda to the self-referential drama on all of this side. That still leaves the outro, which, with any luck, will be cut off by the tape finishing before the song does.

Side B

1. “Garden of Eden” (I; 2:41)

Alright, alright, I’m caught: I like stupid riffs and fast tempos, and this riff is pretty goddamned stupid. That would be fine, too, except Axl really piled on some shit here: weird, atonal synth noises; bubbles; fucking lots and lots of swirling bubbles. A spoken intro, Scary Man vocal, the aforementioned overdubs (BUBBLES!), and to cap it all off motherfucking Duff McKagan puts in his two cents with a poison apple (or is that eyeball? Don’t put anything past this man). So why am I kicking off side B with it? Slash’s surf-rock slide-from-nothing intro. Don’t bother sending me hatemail, I already hate myself.

2. “Locomotive” (II; 8:42)

Axl Rose was so consumed with his vision of this project that he moved into the studio. For nine months, this man lived, ate, shat, breathed, and probably screwed Use Your Illusion. During that time, he looked at this song, added the requisite weird vocals and Scary Man overdubs, had the producer Mike Clink go through every flanger effect in Los Angeles, and in nine months, what did he come out with? “If love is blind / I guess I’ll buy myself a cane.” Slash brings out all of his big guns, probably because he has to.

3. “Estranged” (II; 9:23)

I cut the last fifty seconds or so off of “Locomtive”’s coda (you’re not missing anything—the band reaches for “Layla” like resolution but instead just jams in a different minor key), and the jarring effect it has on this song’s piano intro is palpable. I can never tell if Axl’s emotive intro is intentionally funny or not; Slash’s guitar makes you believe every word. Seventeen years later, I’m still struck by how well-arranged this song is: it’s a power-ballad in reverse, sure, but the way it floats between minor and major keys, loud guitars and subdued ones, is truly unlike anything in big-budget rock at the time, and maybe even still be the case. Best of all, Axl lets one of his own songs get out of the way—there isn’t an unnecessary sound to be found, and Axl-as-rock-god-cum-sensitive-artist-who-beats-his-girlfriend achieves a kind of pathos. This is hands down the best installment of the overblown “trilogy” video concept, and, of course, the least successful. Major labels should hire me.

4. “Coma” (I; 10:08?)

Scary Man cries “Help me!” during one of this song’s many, many dramatic overdubs, and one has to wonder if the sound is the song itself crying out for relief. “Coma” is here because it succeeds for the exact opposite reason “Estranged” does (and for the very same reason most of the project is so tiring), that all of the bullshit actually works in the conceit’s favor: a man chooses between life and death. Because literally everything is here: not only Scary Man and actors reciting lines (funny side note, but the sheet music for the segment starting at 7:10 actually says “Riff B w/ bitching”) but wind effects, heart beats and the inevitable flatline. Melodically, there’s a lot going on as well: the key changes at least five times during the song’s final two minutes, and some real violence is being done to music theory as the song repeatedly goes between major and minor chords. The last two minutes are the key to Illusion I, and they’re the key to my album as well, appearing as a perfect mirror to the final minutes of “Rocket Queen,” affirming that the band survives entirely on the prowess of vocalist and guitarist. If I’ve timed it right, the tape stops at precisely the moment the flat line ends, leaving Matt Sorum’s extraneous drum hits in the rubbish bin in which they belong.

APPENDIX: The Five Worst Songs from Use Your Illusion

The problem with Illusion is not that the material breaks down to two mediocre records, but it’s more like three: you have the obvious Guns N Roses material (which this tape leans pretty hard on) (heh, “pretty hard on”); the way-too-long, slow, piano led, “epic” songs; and total fucking shit. (Which, I suppose, at least wouldn’t be at all mediocre.) I leave you with some final thoughts on the least of the worst, leading a crowded field, and in ascending order:

5. “Shotgun Blues”

I suppose I should save this spot for “Don’t Cry (alt lyrics),” a waste of now-precious analogue tape if ever there was one. But this song is too aggressively tuneless to avoid contumely: like the weak but mostly harmless “Dead Horse,” Axl supposedly wrote this before joining the band, or forming a brain. Best worst part: the end, where a choir of Axls sing “I know” while Axl the rebarbative bully asks “you think anyone with an IQ over fifteen is gonna believe your shit, fuckhead?” An important question, since the IQ of the average Guns fan is probably twenty.

4. “Back Off Bitch”

Score one for mom: if “Perfect Crime” got her radar up, this one sent her to the rafter, and with good reason. There are some songs worth fighting for, however ideologically flawed: Chuck D namedrops Louis Farakkhan in “Bring the Noise,” and even if you find yourself on thin ice defending the NOI’s sometime positive effects on Black consciousness, you can ultimately say that the beat itself is such a monster, such a clear ground zero in the history of pop music, that one has to look the other way. This is not one of those songs, and I would like to publicly apologize to my mother for ever conflating the two.

3. “So Fine”

Duff McKagan sings solo.

2. “My World”

To be fair, no one else in the band, including management, had any idea this was coming til the CDs were actually pressed, so it falls (and falls, and FALLS) on Axl. Let’s see: a beat made entirely of synth loops and a woman’s sex sounds, and Axl rapping the lines “you ain’t been mindfucked yet / oh my distorted smile / guess what I’m doin now?” Did you know that the woman in “Rocket Queen” was actually having sex with Axl in the studio, hence someone got a credit for “fucking engineer?” As George Carlin would say, a real “Emmy award winner.”

1. “Get in the Ring”

Oh, like it could be anything else. It’s one thing to do Scary Man on ex-girlfriends, judges, hangers on, and, um, whomever else was plaguing Mr. Rose’s expense account. And critics certainly count, too, but it’s another thing to name names on a CD. That’s certainly the most embarrassing thing about this track, but there are still goodies: Scary Man talking about crushing your head right in his vice, the Duff-ism that is “we’ve built a world out of anarchy” (hit pause: you can hear the skulls of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman banging against their coffins), and finally, “in this corner, weighing 850 pounds, Guns N Roses.” Should Axl decide to resurrect this song, he would have to play by himself for that to be accurate. Maybe that’s the idea.