Guns N' Roses

Chinese Democracy

(Geffen/Black Frog; 2008)

By Christopher Alexander | 8 December 2008


A play in one act.

The curtain rises on two figures, sitting in chairs facing the audience, slightly perpendicular to each other. On stage right is YOUNG HOVA, rocking back and forth in his chair, staring into the jewel case of CHINESE DEMOCRACY and looking very befuddled. OLD HOVA, stage left, is slouched, bored, and more than a little hungover. The closing strains of “Prostitute,” a syrupy inorganic symphony that could be effectively described as Baby’s First Ambient Project, is heard, slowly fading away. YOUNG HOVA looks at his older self:

YH: This is some elaborate practical joke, right?

OH: No joke and no dream, friend.

YH: My brain literally can not process what’s going on right now.

OH: Take your time.

YH: Jesus! [He leans back in his chair, and there’s a beat.] And his name is Barack? And he’s cool?!

OH: That’s what I just said.

YH: Wow. That’s awesome. That’s something to look forward to. [He drops the jewel case to the ground and kicks it.] This? Not so much.

OH: I agree. The reason you’re here is because no one’s been able to talk about or review this album without first taking into account its ludicrous gestation period. So Scott decided to take his limo, the stretch DeLorean, and pick you up in the summer of 1994—two months before our fourteenth birthday, two months after Kurt Cobain’s death, and a mere three years after the Use Your Illusions albums.

YH: Who’s Scott? Is he the guy who sent that half-horse/half-man creature? He galloped up to our street hockey game and looked at me saying only “The master commands you to come.” I got on his back, he leaped into the blue, and here I am. It was rad.

[STEVEN ADLER, drummer, staggers on stage with a gallon of Stolichniya. He works up into something like a run, then takes a leap, as if jumping on his drum riser. He lands on his feet in a crouch, and then falls over and DIES.

OH begins to laugh uncontrollably.]

YH: Dude, that’s not funny. [ADLER disintegrates on stage. The bottle stays behind.]

OH: No, no, I’m sorry. I was laughing at the intro to “Shackler’s Revenge.”

YH: Wait, that stupid two note stabby thing? That sucked. So is loud guitar music this lame in 2008?

OH: Well, yes and no. After Kurt Cobain’s death, a lot of so-called “extreme” music was popular in the mainstream rock world, and the stuff was pretty atonal and anti-melodic and was a base for the singer’s troubled and emotionally fragile raging. Do you remember that lame line in the track we just heard, like [affects an awful baritone growl a la the guy from Staind] “It would take a lot more hate than you / something something something?” Like, everyone in the world had that exact line in their songs, or anyway something so close it may as well have been. Everyone was whining about their apathy and you oppress me but I’m better than you and blah blah. And all of it was over this laughably and self-consciously “heavy” music that sounded as if it were designed for the weight room.

YH: But you can say the same thing about the Guns N’ Roses I know, in a way.

OH: True. Axl Rose, like, owns the patent on the whole macho-bully-masquerading-as-sensitive-victim shtick, and all of it was over recycled Aerosmith and Damned riffs that clearly impressed themselves. The thing with old Guns, though, is that they were actually kind of funny. I mean, a song like “Nightrain” is filled with all those clichés about “a mean machine drinking gasoline” or whatever, but then there’s that line that’s like, “wake up late / honey put on your clothes / take your credit card to the liquor store.” And it’s so tossed off that it might be the most effectively nasty line on the whole album, anyway more so than “your daddy works in porno now that mommy’s not around / she used to love her heroin …” you get the idea.

YH: I think a lot of it is our disintegrated friend over there, though. I mean his beat allowed the music a lot of space to breathe. Or anyway, it’s impossible to have a bad time with all that cowbell.

[DUFF McKAGAN wanders onto the stage and walks to where OLD HOVA is sitting. He stands there. He then falls backwards on his head and DIES. OLD HOVA and YOUNG HOVA are silent for a while.]

YH: Can you believe we bought that idiot’s solo album?

OH: [Quickly, changing the subject.] But anyway, that whole history lesson gets us up to about 2002. While there’s a lot of noise made about rap-rock crossovers, and they sold a bunch of records, it really just amounted to bad rapping over recycled Stone Temple Pilots riffs because the whole thing was focused on that stupid braggadocio. It was like personality-disorder rock. So, yeah, Axl Rose’s creation would fit right in if it came out at that time. But that’s when the whole thing came crashing down for a variety of reasons. Then there were all these self-consciously primitive and backwards-looking bands who came on the radio, like the White Stripes and the Strokes, and they were actually really good. So you can make the argument that part of the reason Chinese Democracy sounds so out of touch is because most of the so-called cutting edge rock music is closer in spirit to Appetite for Destruction (1987) than Hybrid Theory (1999), towards which this record at its loudest seems to aspire.

YH: I’m sorry, I’m completely confused.

OH: Yeah, there’s a lot I’m leaving out. Okay, there was this dick named Fred Durst…

YH: No, no, no, I mean: what the hell is going on in “Madagascar”?

OH: Oh yeah, that’s something else we need to address. I mean, who the hell knows what’s going on in Axl’s brain—by the way, hope you scoped those braids. He looks like Mark McGwire reincarnated as a bondsman.

[An image of Axl Rose projects behind them:]

YH: Mark McGwire isn’t that big…

OH: [Pauses, then waves his hands in a gesture signifying “nah, fuck it.”] Well, anyway, apparently “Chinese Democracy” was written in response to the movie Kundun, which is about the Tibetan-Chinese situation. There’s also that song called “Riad n’ the Bedouins,” which is the closest thing to a joke on this record, and also he samples Dr. King on “Madagascar.”

YH: And that Cool Hand Luke quote again. Also, Braveheart. Which is a cool movie but, like, next to the speech on the Washington Monument? Is he serious?

OH: Right? So there’s this kind of whiff of topicality, but even a mere glimpse of the surface reveals that Axl’s empathy is too big for his brain. I mean, it turns out that “Madagascar” is just about being free from the shackles of something…or being left off the shore, or…you know I have absolutely no idea what that song is about. Truth? Justice? Beauty? Freedom?

YH: Heavy, man.

OH: Yeah, exactly. The “failure to communicate” bit makes it sound like the whole thing is a never-ending comment on itself. Which would be kind of meta if it had a liquid ounce of wit, but this is about as fun as eating a pie filled with paste.

YH: “Meta”?

OH: Don’t even get me started on “Riad n’ the Bedouins.” I’m pretty sure that whole thing is about how strife in the Middle East distracts Axl Rose from finishing his album, thus leading to frustration. That or it’s a metaphor for former bandmates and lawyers distracting him. I don’t know which is lamer.

[IZZY STRADLIN’ walks on from STAGE LEFT and looks at OLD HOVA in profile.]

IZZY: This really isn’t fair. I’ve been serious about being sober for almost twenty years. I left my many-times-platinum band to stay that way. I was the secret weapon in the guitar work on Appetite and I let Slash take all the credit. I wrote most of the best songs on Use Your Illusions. Only I could make Axl Rose show up to concerts on time. That deserves a prize, not a tombstone.

OH: [Looks down at the deceased DUFF.] Tell you what, if you drag him off stage, you can go.

IZZY: Do I really have to touch him? [A pause.] All right, just kill me. [A bolt of lightning comes down from STAGE RIGHT and electrocutes IZZY, who DIES, and turns into a mound of black ashes.]

YH: Oh, I’ve long ago resigned myself to the fact that any enjoyment out of Guns means completely ignoring the lyric sheet.

OH: That’s fine, but Axl’s pen refuses to return the favor. [He picks up the jewel case, opens the lyric book and flips through it at random.] “If I were you / I’d manage to / avoid the invitation / of promised love / that can’t keep up / with your adoration.” “Sometimes I feel like / my life’s a catastrophe / can’t understand why / it seems like it has to be.” This goes on.

YH: Is it weird that there are still parts of this that I like?

OH: No, because in spite of himself, Rose remains a pretty astute melodicist and arranger. “There Was a Time,” “I.R.S.,” “Prostitute,” even though the name of it really is fucking “Prostitute,” are all actually very good if you can get past the whole stink of the songs. During “Prostitute” I keep having images of Axl in the studio with a copy of Moby’s Everything is Wrong (1994) on the mixing deck, trying to replicate it on Pro-Tools. In Korean. With the little finger on his left hand. The vision is sixteen years long. But, you know, it is a catchy tune.

YH: Wait, what about Tool? Did they have something to do with this shitfest?

OH: Umm. Well, did you notice that weird glitch sound on his voice in “Street of Dreams”? That, among other things, is the legacy of Pro-Tools. It’s the name of computer software that also had a big role in the aforementioned Complaint Rock so prevalent around the turn of the century.

YH: Yeah, it marred what is otherwise my favorite song on the album. Which, I mean, it sounds sort of like “Breakdown part II.” And the others you mentioned would be parts III through VI. Holding on to Dizzy Reed should’ve given you guys a gigantic clue what you were in for.

OH: Agreed. But there’s that line in “Prostitute” about how, “in my affections, I misunderstood,” and he’s more right than he knows. These songs are openly slavish impersonations of Elton John and Freddie Mercury, who, while being thoroughly and obnoxiously pompous, are certainly craftsmen. “Your Song” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” deserve to be evergreens. But noted homophobe Axl Rose completely missed the healthy doses of camp and irony that leavened a lot of those songs. As a result there’s almost no self-awareness in any of Rose’s songs, even the really good ones like “November Rain” or “Estranged,” and “Street of Dreams” is a strong song, but it’s no “November Rain.” The whole thing is so humorless that it’s actually kind of funny.

YH: Actually, that line is “and if my affections / are misunderstood.” See? The lyric sheet comes in handy for something.

OH: Is it really? That makes it better.

[SLASH walks on from STAGE LEFT, where his trademark top hat has been modified into a kind of beer helmet, except where beer would be are two gallons of vodka. He is attempting to play the riff to “Mr. Brownstone,” and it’s not so much that he’s playing it so poorly as much as there isn’t even a guitar in his hand. He sees his friend DUFF on the ground. He picks him up, mistaking him for a guitar. A guitar solo, with wah pedal effects, comes out of DUFF’S deceased mouth as a sparkle of bright light shines on DUFF’S belt buckle. That light grows in size until it envelopes the two, then shines brilliantly, blinding all in the audience and YOUNG and OLD HOVA. The light disappears and so do SLASH and DUFF. There is a pause before YOUNG HOVA speaks.]

YH: You know, the weird thing is that I don’t miss Slash all that much.

OH: Me either. The joke is too obvious to make that it took four top-notch guitar players to replace one crater-livered Slash, but the proof is in the pudding. The lead work is excellent throughout the album, although some of Robin Finck’s leads sound like you do trying out the Dunlop Wah at Monmouth Music. Bumblefoot and Buckethead deserve some special kudos. And, it must be said, for all of the many flaws of Chinese Democracy it still kicks the ever-loving tar out of Velvet Revolver. [He pauses.] Though if Slash ever makes an audio book of his autobiography, that would be infinitely more enjoyable than this.

YH: Uh…what’s a velvet revolver?

OH: Oh, God. There’s really no time. Besides, the review’s over. I thought in true Buddhist spirit, we would close things out with a haiku. Up for it?

YH: Oh sure. You first.

OH: Naturally. [He clears his throat.]
Somewhere Buckcherry
Is smiling, because it’s clear
The tables have turned.

YH: Not bad. Let me see. [He pauses.]
Ugh. What is this shit?
And why do we care? Oh well,
Free Dr. Pepper.