Most people have relegated the rock band Guns N' Roses to the dustbin of history, along with such contemporary groups as Motley Crue and Megadeth. They signified an era in which loud guitars, big hair, and showboat antics meant more to the success of a rock band than insightful lyrics and music. Axl Rose himself became something of a poster child of the genre, throwing temper tantrums on a regular basis and basically playing the roll of "rock and roll superstar" to the fullest.
Yet behind those antics hid a man full of complexities. Axl Rose served as the primary songwriter for the group and also their frontman, and yet behind all of that he was an extremely private individual, hence his almost complete disappearance from the musical world for most of a decade. The recent, short lived reunion of Guns N' Roses bears witness to this: here is a complex individual.
It was this recent reunion of the band that encouraged me to dig my five Guns N' Roses CDs out of the rubbish heap and listen to them once again, with perhaps enough time between their heyday and now that I could have some insight into what made the group work. I listened to them in order: Appetite for Destruction, Gn'R Lies, Use Your Illusion I and II, and The Spaghetti Incident?!.
At some point near the end of the second Use Your Illusion disk, I was again appreciating the group's ability to craft infectious rock anthems when suddenly I had an epiphany. There was a major theme going on here. I stopped the album in its tracks, and moved back to Appetite for Destruction and began to listen to the albums in pieces when suddenly I realized something: each of the albums is a concept album in and of itself. And furthermore, the concepts of the albums actually grow and continue from album to album.
Here's what the entire catalogue of Guns N' Roses was about, from their first release to their last: the evolution of a relationship and the changes in a man's life. Appetite for Destruction charts the beginning of the relationship, Gn'R Lies chronicles the growth of the relationship, and Use Your Illusion chronicles the peak of the relationship. Taken as a whole, the albums of Guns N' Roses tell a continuous introspective story of a man and the woman he chooses and Axl Rose is a genius for being able to pull the whole thing off while still continually topping the charts.
A Musical Analysis
An analysis of these four albums (Appetite for Destruction, Gn'R Lies, Use Your Illusion I and II) will demonstrate that in fact each album follows a cohesive concept which the next builds upon. After this analysis, the implosion of Guns N' Roses as a band will be discussed.
Appetite for Destruction: Man discovers himself as sexual being and seeks love
The album art features a cross with five skulls upon it. The cross is clearly symbolic, as it symbolizes Jesus Christ and the absolution of sin; the skulls upon the crosses seem to indicate that the band has sinned, and will be absolved of their sins when they die. The black cover also lends credence to the central idea: there is sin inside.
The first track of the album, Welcome to the Jungle, opens the door. He is a new man, and there is a wild jungle of possibilities to explore:
Welcome to the jungle; we got fun 'n' games
We got evrything you want, honey; we know the names
We are the people that can find whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey, we got your disease
The man is alive as a sexual being and wants to explore the possibilities contained within. This theme continues with Paradise City:
Rags to riches or so they say
You gotta keep pushin' for the fortune and fame
It's all a gamble when it's just a game
You treat it like a capital crime
Everybody's doin' their time
Life is a game to this young man, and he seeks out his plunder. It is important to note here that the hero is clearly outlined as being a working class individual and thus having some semblance of the values of the working class, and our hero's pessimism about the classist nature of America shines through.
Yet, on the second side of the album, our hero's life begins to change. Witness the lyrics to Think About You:
Something changed in this heart of mine
And I'm so glad that you showed me
Ooh it was the best time I can remember
Ooh and the love we shared - is lovin' that'll last forever
Clearly, our hero has reached out to a woman. Does he care for her, or does she only serve his own selfish needs? Sweet Child O Mine provides an abundantly clear answer; this simple snippet tells the tale:
She's got eyes of the bluest skies
As if they thought of rain
I hate to look into those eyes
And see an ounce of pain
The album as a whole paints a picture of a troubled young man who is beginning to find love. Will this love save him, or bend him further into a twisted knot? The next album delves into this.
Gn'R Lies: Man learns partner and deals with confusion of relationship
When we left our hero at the end of Appetite for Destruction, he was beginning down the path of a relationship. Relationships drive us crazy in a multitude of ways, from a sense of loss of freedom to the desire to protect the newly-born love from the madness of the world. This madness is relayed in the cover art, which depicts a selection of headlines spouting all sorts of nonsense.
In this album, the relationship between the two central characters grows, and they are revealed to parallel Stan and Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. How did the southern lady fall for the man from the gutter? Does our hero really care for our lady, or is she just a pawn in his game?
The first few tracks tell the tale of the lady in our story: she left home to seek a new life, but didn't find all of her dreams met (much like Stella). Nice Boys gives us insight:
Young and fresh when she hit town
Hot for kicks just to get around
But now she lays in a filthy room
She kills the pain with a flick and a spoon
Somehow, these two souls have found each other, and their relationship is growing. But like any relationship, it is filled with moments of pain and sorrow. In Patience, the centerpiece of the album, one can almost imagine the scene in A Streetcar Named Desire when Stan strikes Stella, then begs for forgiveness:
I sit here on the stairs
'Cause I'd rather be alone
If I can't have you right now
I'll wait, dear
Said, woman, take it slow
And things will be just fine
You and I'll just use a little patience
This caring growing in the heart of our hero grows into an interest in the world as a greater whole than just the world he sees. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of our hero that has been unveiled over the last two albums, his views are very conservative and filled with hate and distrust towards newcomers. Intertwined with a chorus about cherishing the love, Axl sings in the album closer, One in a Million:
Immigrants and faggots - they make no sense to me
They come to our country and think they'll do as they please
Like start some mini Iran or spread some fucking disease
They talk so many goddamn ways - it's all Greek to me
Use Your Illusion I: Man commits himself fully to relationship
The colors of fire make up this album cover, which depicts a despondent man and a lady with her head down and arm outstretched. The symbolism of the cover art clearly shows the relationship is consummated and is consumed in the yellows and oranges of the flame.
Many who saw A Streetcar Named Desire wanted to know what happened after the curtain dropped. Axl tells us on the album opener, Dust N' Bones:
She loved him yesterday
He laid her sister; she said O.K.
And that's all right
Buried her things today
Way back out deep behind the driveway
And that's all right
There are mistakes and missteps, but the two of them are one now and this album is all about that connection, through thick and thin. Take Don't Cry, for instance, in which our hero comforts our heroine through a time of trial:
Don't you cry tonight
I still love you baby
There's a heaven above you baby
And don't you cry tonight
The middle portion of the album (the song sequence Perfect Crime, You Ain't The First, Bad Obsession, Back Off Bitch, and Double Talkin' Jive) even discusses an act of infidelity in the relationship. Does the relationship recover? Their passion brings them together through the pain in November Rain:
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
Dead Horse continues this theme:
But maybe if I looked real hard I'd
I'd see you're tryin' too
To understand this life
that we're all going through
There is a deep love between the two, but as their relationship grows, it is bound to cool.
Use Your Illusion II: Man grows and relationship begins to deteriorate
The album art mirrors that of Use Your Illusion I, indicating the continuance of the relationship implied by the art, but the fiery oranges and yellows are replaced by muted blues and purples, indicating a cooling of the relationship. Will it survive?
The album opens with a quote from Cool Hand Luke:
What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach... So, you get what we had here last week which is the way he wants it! Well, he gets it! And I don't like it any more than you men.
It is a startlingly accurate statement about the state of an ongoing relationship: communication problems and a lack of clarity of needs is something that drives a wedge in a relationship. This wedge is expanded upon in 14 Years (which directly discusses a fourteen year long relationship):
I try and feel the sunshine
You bring the rain
You try and hold me down
With your complaints
You cry and moan and complain
You whine and tear
Not convinced yet of their trials? Yesterdays:
Yesterday, there was so many things
I was never told
Now that I'm startin' to learn
I feel I'm growin' old
This relationship has gone on for a long time; it's almost time for a midlife crisis for our hero, perhaps? Knockin' on Heaven's Door immediately follows this, and then Get in the Ring and Shotgun Blues outline a midlife crisis, followed by the redemption of Breakdown. The theme is being made extremely evident on this album.
As the album winds down, some introspection on the long journey occurs. In So Fine:
It's a story of a man
who works as hard as he can
Just to be a man who stands on his own
And then in Don't Cry, near the end of the album:
And don't you cry tonight
there's a heaven above you baby
And don't you cry
Don't you ever cry
Don't you cry tonight
This clearly finishes off our story, beginning with the emergence of a man into the figurative jungle and ending with his words of comfort to a loved one as he slips away.
The Spaghetti Incident?! and the End of Guns N' Roses
After the unquestioned success of the Use Your Illusion albums, Guns N' Roses basically ceased to exist. They released a compilation of covers, The Spaghetti Incident?!, and a few additional covers for soundtracks, and the band basically dropped off the face of the earth. Without going into a Behind the Music monologue, Axl Rose basically spent the next twelve years (and counting) spinning his wheels or doing nothing at all.
Guns N' Roses was the biggest band in the world, and yet they completely failed to follow up their opus. Why?
If you take the idea of the above albums telling an overall story arc and run with it, the supposed mystery of the demise of the band is no mystery at all: Axl had a story to tell and he finished it. Everything that came afterwards was either covers or tributes, much like a person would have an acknowledgements page at the end of a long novel.
So, what about Chinese Democracy? I think it's what someone does when their life work is completed, but they still have creative energy running around: they try out new things and experiment, but don't really finish anything or intend to finish anything.
In a five year period, Axl Rose composed four albums that individually told a story and, taken together, related an introspective tale of a man's life, the love he found, and the highs and lows it brought to his life. Beyond this, the music was immensely successful in the commercial sense: Appetite for Destruction and Use Your Illusion both topped the album charts (Gn'R Lies peaked at #2), and also produced six top ten singles (Welcome to the Jungle, Paradise City, Sweet Child O Mine, Patience, November Rain, and Don't Cry).
This level of commercial success is extremely rare and relies on both songwriting and musical talent; the entire group deserves an abundance of credit for pulling this off.
But to compose the subtle story arc of their albums and also compose music with such commercial success makes it clear that Axl Rose is a musical genius and deserves to be credited as one of the great rock musicians of all time.