During the month of September 2012, the IASPM-US website will feature essays on the topic of “The First Time I Ever Heard…” Each of our authors for this series will explore that magical moment most of us are so familiar with, when a song or artist or genre first entered our sound universe and knocked everything off its axis, if only for a moment.
“God knows how long I’ll have to contend with the fallout…”
― Axl Rose, Letter to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Guns N’ Roses Fans and Whom It May Concern
Almost a half-century later, my father still remembers exactly how Oswald’s shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository sounded on the radio. For my generation’s own loss of innocence―Tuesday, September 11, 2001―many more have a similar total recall of the televised broadcast. Apropos of The Patriot Act, then, the first time I heard Chinese Democracy, an entire nation was listening in―an album heard as one collective eavesdrop. Never before in my lifetime had a record promised so much to so many with so few fair assessments. Where was I, you ask, the first time I heard Chinese Democracy? I was the same place you were, struggling to hear anything above the roar of the lynch mob. Of course, like Oswald and bin Laden, Axl Rose never could be granted an impartial trial. No, by the time Sen. McCain conceded to President-elect Obama that Tuesday night in November, Chinese Democracy was already guilty of too much. Another election cycle further into the future, I’m still struggling to hear the whole, in its entirety.
Patience means different things to different people. For Brian Wilson, it was a virtue. For Kevin Shields, it’s become vice incarnate. And for Howard Hughes-in-cornrows W. Bruce Rose, Jr., it’s a song, a mantra―and for the last 20 odd years now―all “Axl” apologists had. So, with all the attendant pomp ‘n’ circumstance befitting the best album never heard, it was a case of the naked emperor when the first new GNR song since the EndofDays OST debuted on a video game alongside “The Middle,” “Chop Suey” and “DownWithTheSickness.” Axl Rose is nothing if not, well, Axl fuggin’ Rose, and his first words since Windows ‘98―”I’ve got a funny feelin’ / There’s something wrong today”―sounded painfully self-aware underscored by this track’s opening, Slipknot-lite textures. As with patience, though, the chorus always had proffered salvation unto Axl, and his first words here since Columbine―”I don’t believe there’s a reason / (I don’t) / I don’t believe it”―recalled the agnostic Axl of yore, as he soared over ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson and whatever bro-in-a-chicken-bucket was futzing with his six-string. With Chinese Democracy all but waiting to be shipped to a Best Buy® nearest you, unfettered by ego, David Geffen and his original bandmates, Axl’s own shackles were no more. Herein laid his revenge.
While “Shackler’s Revenge” did indeed come before it, a Magellan is easily forgotten in the wake of a true Christopher Columbus―especially when the latter’s both track numero uno and the title cut. Prefaced by over a minute’s worth of new age soundscape and garbled, presumably Chinese chatter, it was clear what took the man so damn long. Back when Axl was more likely to back down from scuffles with Vince Neil instead of losing them to Tommy Hilfiger, he was already pushing the limits of what his L.A. cock rock constituency could abide: symphony orchestras with tabernacle choirs; New York Dolls and Charles Manson covers; the nine-and-a-half minute, $8.5 million SWAT Team, Merriam-Webster and bottlenose dolphins of the “Estranged” video. (Hell, Axl probably spent twice what Duff would bearishly advise, thrice what Slash’s Snakepit ever made on this opening experiment alone.) Graciously, he didn’t suffer us his hubris any longer than we were able, as a triplicate of active rock chords soon interrupted, and the suffrage began in earnest. Lyrically, what followed was a particularly incendiary indictment of the Chinese Revolution. Skewering everything from the Great Wall to Chairman Mao’s Falun Gong, it was definitely a new, albeit slightly disconcerting side of Minister Rose. Who knew the guy who first stuttered through the word “knees” just so he could watch us “bleed” had such intense opinions regarding US-Sino relations?
One of the more telling aspects here on the second (and last) single, was exactly how little the old guys in the band were missed. Granted, what Slash did with a single Les Paul coil now required an arsenal of faceless mercenaries and the Full Sail wherewithal of more than 30 ponytailed gear heads. Axl’s trumped up studio machinations were always a source of inter-band turmoil however, and even as early as the Use Your Illusion sessions, the man was well on his way to becoming an insular and protracted Holland-Dozier-Holland. “No one ever told me when I was alone / They just thought I’d know better” he lamented throughout, a hushed falsetto heightening his vulnerability all the more. On the surface―what else?―a woman was at fault. Here was Axl frackin’ Rose, yet again, blaming someone else for the past two decade’s worth of inequities. Or, so it only seemed. Quickly, regret became awakening in the chorus: “Now I know you better / You know, I know better / Now I know you better.” No longer just about a girl, his “I” was “you” and, in a conjugal way, both seemed to stand for W. Axl Rose, Jr. The next time around, howbeit, his l’éminence rousse swears he’ll know “Better.”
Logan K. Young’s pop music writing has appeared everywhere from Pitchfork’s Altered Zones, the Baltimore Sun and Crawdaddy! to Richardson Magazine, the Trouser Press Record Guide and Piero Scaruffi’s Encyclopedia of New Music. Most recently, he was the Editorial Director for the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival. A student of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, Young’s since studied with Thurston Moore at The Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. His book, Mauricio Kagel: A Semic Life, is out now.