“It was a long time for you, it was a long time for me, it’d be a long time for anyone, but looks like it was meant to be…”
* * * * *
I am, right now, listening to Chinese Democracy.
You could have bet me anything I own that I would never get to type that sentence. I’m staring at those words now, and I still can’t really believe it. My pilgrimage to Best Buy, the only store selling Axl Rose’s Xanadu-like project, on Sunday the 23rd was plagued with doubt and uncertainty. What if the months of buildup have been an elaborate hoax? What if Axl pulls a shit fit at the last minute and recalls the release because guitar solo number 83 needs just a little more reverb or something? What if the CD actually ships, but it’s blank?
I did not believe Chinese Democracy had actually seen the light of day until I’d played the entire thing through. And even now, with Rose’s surprising silence continuing unabated, I’m unsure. Is this the real Chinese Democracy? After 15 years of work, is Axl finally happy with it? Or did Geffen Records set an immutable deadline and force him to put this out? It sounds finished to me, but that’s a question no one but Axl Rose can answer. And he doesn’t seem to be talking.
Here is what I know. I have a CD in my collection that has the words “Guns,” “Roses,” “Chinese” and “Democracy,” complete with the contraction “N’,” printed on the cover, and until someone tells me differently, I have to believe this is actually the finished product. I am, right now, listening to Chinese Democracy.
Seriously, holy shit. It’s really, truly here.
* * * * *
I was 13 years old when Appetite for Destruction came out.
I had just transferred to Mount Saint Charles Academy, a conservative Catholic school in Rhode Island. I was a churchgoing lad then, and I even had my very own godawful Christian rock band. (In retrospect, Godawful would have been a very good name for that outfit.) I was just starting my teenage metalhead phase, and I was listening to a lot of what I thought was heavy, important stuff. Poison, Motley Crue, Ratt, Dokken… in retrospect, some terrible, terrible bands. But at the time, I thought this was truly dangerous music.
Appetite for Destruction, the explosive opening salvo from Guns n’ Roses, slipped quietly into record stores in July of 1987, but we didn’t really hear about it for almost a year. I was well into 8th grade when the video for “Welcome to the Jungle” started its assault on MTV. Immediately, I could tell this band was the dark mirror of all the other bands I liked. This was seriously sleazy, ass-kicking stuff.
While Poison and their ilk were singing about fun and sex, Guns n’ Roses populated their debut album with tales of drug abuse, violence and paranoia. But there were also rays of sunlight – the still-awesome “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” for example, and the underrated “Think About You.” I knew, even at 13, that this was a monolithic album, one for the ages. Of course, I also would only listen to it through headphones, afraid my parents would catch me with it, while I counted instances of the word “fuck,” as if it were some mark of quality.
I understand now the real difference between Appetite and the records I was listening to at the time (and even afterwards). Where those bands were talking about fantasies, about the loose groupies they met backstage or the kind of eternal, spotless love that only exists in fiction, Guns n’ Roses were talking about real people. Michelle Young, of “My Michelle” fame, is a real person, who really was hooked on cocaine at the time, and whose father really did work in the porn industry. It was like the difference between DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Public Enemy. Not that there’s anything wrong with making up your own world, but describing the one outside your window in terrifying detail is always more jarring.
For a time, Guns n’ Roses were one of the best bands in the world to me. “Patience,” off of their 1988 EP Lies, only cemented their reputation – here was a fragility and beauty not really heard on Appetite, another side to this band. And when I heard they were set to release a double album, in the early weeks of my senior year of high school… well, I was heavily into Queen at the time, so an over-the-top gesture like Use Your Illusion went over very well with me.
I remember the shockwave the album sent through my class. I recall the panic settling in as the long school day dragged on. Could I get to the record store before the album sold out? Would there be enough copies? (Of course there were, but I didn’t know any better – I believed the hype.) Could this be the defining masterpiece of my teenage years?
Use Your Illusion was two albums, and ran more than two and a half hours. It was a glorious mess, on which raw punk songs sat next to expansive epics and acoustic throwaways. It was the Guns n’ Roses equivalent of the White Album – there were no outtakes, everything recorded in these sessions made the final cut. It gets by on sheer ambition, and the fact that a surprising percentage of it is marvelous. Here was our first indication of just what kind of band Axl Rose envisioned – one that could do anything, could play all the music in his head.
But of course, the original Guns n’ Roses was a band, one that thrived on the push-pull tension between its megalomaniacal frontman and its down-to-earth guitarists, Slash and Izzy Stradlin. Some might say the best stuff on the first GnR records came from those two, particularly Stradlin, but I think it’s the battle between their rawness and Rose’s perfectionism that made it what it was. Appetite for Destruction remains one of the best debut albums ever because of that back-and-forth, and Use Your Illusion depicted it coming apart at the seams.
We had no idea, at the time, just how far apart those seams would split. We also didn’t know, as we cracked up at “Get in the Ring,” marveled at Axl’s masterpieces “November Rain” and “Estranged,” and wondered just what the hell he was thinking with “My World,” that this would be the last new album of Guns n’ Roses music for 17 years.
* * * * *
Here is a brief list of everything Guns n’ Roses has released since 1991: An album of punk covers, in 1993. A live album, in 1999. A new song, called “Oh My God,” that same year. A greatest hits album, with a new (and horrible) cover of “Sympathy for the Devil,” in 2004. That’s it.
For 15 of those 17 years, Axl Rose has been working on Chinese Democracy. He’s 46 now, which means he’s devoted a full third of his life to this project. His Howard Hughes impression during that time has been remarkable – he’s been a recluse, surfacing only sporadically to say, “We’re working on it,” or, “It’s almost done.” Chinese Democracy has consumed Rose while all his former bandmates have walked away. Izzy’s got a solo career going (nine albums and counting!), while Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum formed Velvet Revolver.
In their place, Rose has brought in an ever-changing roster of studio musicians – basically, people who will follow his orders and play what he wants them to. The push and pull of the original Guns n’ Roses is entirely gone. Axl Rose has won the tug of war, and Chinese Democracy is his attempt to get the music in his head down on disc. To that end, he’s recorded and re-recorded and mixed and started over and re-recorded and tweaked and obsessed over every tiny detail of this thing. And he’s done it at his own pace, spending whatever he likes – some estimates put Chinese Democracy’s final cost in the neighborhood of $13 million.
Along the way, it’s become an industry-wide joke. Entire careers have started and flamed out in the time it’s taken Rose to finish his work. Chinese Democracy has been called the most expensive album never made, since many, including yours truly, had given up hope that it would ever see the light of day. Sporadic public appearances by Axl and whatever group of hired hands he was calling Guns n’ Roses that week didn’t help matters – Rose’s out-of-breath performance at the MTV Awards in 2004 was just embarrassing.
It’s impossible to listen to Chinese Democracy without thinking about all of this. Nothing, let alone an album of music, should take 15 years to complete. No single record should cost $13 million. No matter what this album actually sounds like, it can’t possibly live up to the expectations that have been set for it. Half of the audience for this record expects it to save rock ‘n’ roll, cure cancer and lead humanity into a new golden age. The other half expects it to suck beyond all reason, and is just waiting to see Axl fall flat on his face.
And I think the surprise of Chinese Democracy is very simple: it’s an album of 14 songs. No more, no less. It comes modestly packaged in a normal jewel case, with an understated cover shot of a bicycle leaning against a wall. The booklet contains no explanations, just pictures, lyrics and credits. It will not save the world, nor will it suck us all into a bottomless pit of despair. It’s an album of 14 songs.
So let’s talk about those songs.
* * * * *
But let’s tackle the album as a whole first. If you’re going to listen to this album (which I definitely recommend), you have to get one thing straight up front: Axl Rose doesn’t care what Guns n’ Roses means to you. This album is all about what Guns n’ Roses means to him. And if Chinese Democracy is anything to go by, it can mean absolutely anything – except, of course, the sleazy gutter-rock the original band was known for.
By now, you’ve all likely heard the title track, which kicks off the record. It’s a simple yet appealing stomper, a modest song that sounds like any modern rock band could have knocked it out in two days, right? Just for fun, and so you can see just how much work Axl put into this thing, here’s the complete list of credits for “Chinese Democracy”:
Guitars: Paul Tobias, Robin Finck, Buckethead, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Richard Fortus. Bass: Tommy Stinson. Drums: Frank Ferrer. Keyboards: Dizzy Reed, Chris Pitman, Azl Rose. Background vocals: Dizzy Reed, Tommy Stinson. Sub bass: Chris Pitman. Guitar solos: Robin Finck, Buckethead. Intro: Eric Caudieux, Caram Costanzo. Vocals: Axl Rose. Arrangement: Axl Rose, Paul Tobias, Sean Beavan. Digital editing: Eric Caudieux, Caram Costanzo, Axl Rose, Sean Beavan. Additional guitar processing: Chris Pitman.
That’s right, five guitar players. Three keyboard players. Four guys credited with digital editing. Three people to arrange a song with four chords in it. All of this work done in pieces over at least a decade. And this is one of the simplest tunes on here – you should see the credits for “There Was a Time,” or “Madagascar.”
With all this, you’d think Chinese Democracy would sound over-produced, stuffed too full of sound. Amazingly, you’d be wrong. Oh, there’s a lot here – pianos, choirs, string sections, a hundred guitar solos, armies of backing vocals, samples, synths, electronic drums, even a Flamenco guitar or two. Tons of stuff. And I will admit that my first listen through left me exhausted – there are no subtle, reserved moments on this album. Every song is bigger than every other song, every one reaches for the limit of what the studio can do for it.
But to my ears, it all sounds about right. This album is well-produced, not over-produced. It juggles all its elements very well, and the melodies, the songs, are always the focal point. One of the most surprising things about Chinese Democracy is how compact it all is. Sure, it’s 72 minutes long, but that’s less than one Use Your Illusion volume. Its longest song is just shy of seven minutes – there are no “Coma”-like patience-testers. Even “Madagascar,” by far the most self-important, most epic thing here, clocks in at a modest 5:37.
This should have been a shambling monster of an album, constructed by a Frankenband under the direction of an obsessive madman. But astonishingly, it all works. I couldn’t tell you whether this album really took all 15 years to get right, but as far as the overall sound goes, Axl clearly knew just what he was doing.
* * * * *
So, how about those songs?
By and large, they’re very good indeed. I think 15 years of work deserves a track-by-track review, especially since very few of these songs sound similar to one another. There are sounds and songs on here you’d never associate with Guns n’ Roses, linked only by the inimitable voice of Axl Rose. It’s so good to hear that voice again, especially considering the workout he gives it here – this is what you get when you have 15 years of vocal takes to choose from.
In the ‘90s, Rose had been talking about taking his band in an industrial metal direction, and the first two songs (easily the worst on the album) are the main evidence. The album opens with its title track, and starts, therefore, with a minute and a half of atmospheric buildup. The sun-through-the-clouds guitar part is awesome the first time you hear it, announcing itself as what you’ve been waiting for, whether or not it is. The song itself is pretty good, really, but it stays in once place for its whole running time. And I’ve heard it probably 30 times now, and I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about.
“Shackler’s Revenge,” meanwhile, is the only song here that follows through on Rose’s threat to incorporate Nine Inch Nails and nu-metal sounds. Buckethead’s solos are alien and wonderful, but the song is average at best, with a not-quite-there chorus. It’s not awful, but it’s terribly dated, and if you’re thinking at this point that Rose might have wasted a decade and a half, I wouldn’t blame you.
But keep listening, because the next song, “Better,” starts the renaissance. This is a great pop song. The trippy, beat-happy intro, with its falsetto vocals, gives way to a terrific power-pop guitar part, and some superb vocals from Rose. He’s rarely sounded better than he does on the verses here, which were obviously recorded some time ago – the choruses sound like modern-day Rose, reaching for notes out of his grasp, and giving it a ragged quality that really works. Add in a complex bridge and a couple of melodic guitar solos, and wow.
Rose indulges his inner Elton John on piano ballad “Street of Dreams,” but as it goes along, it just keeps getting better. By the time you get to the final chorus, it’s a monster. Three people are credited with the orchestral arrangement, but it’s subtly mixed into the background, Rose’s vocals remaining in the spotlight the entire time. “If the World” is a surprising knockout, all slinky electronic drums and James Bond style. It’s a song like nothing else Rose has ever done – it combines Spanish guitars, wah-wah bass, heavy industrial-sounding electric guitars, and a sky-high vocal that he absolutely nails.
“There Was a Time” is too long, and its second half is drowned in guitar solos. But the song itself is solid, rising and falling like the little epic it is. This one and “Madagascar” are the only ones I could consider excessive, but despite the armies of keyboards, the full orchestra, the 15 Axls singing at once, and the electronic and real drums battling it out, this song stays pretty well grounded. It was a mistake, however, to sequence the similar “Catcher in the Rye” directly after it – that song’s extended “na-na-na” coda is great in isolation, but wearying as part of the whole.
The second half crashes open with “Scraped,” one of the most memorable. Over a pummeling guitar line, Rose sings about how unstoppable he is – as you might expect, most of this album is about the process of making this album, and about the people who crossed Axl along the way. At 3:30, “Scraped” is the shortest thing here, but it packs a lot of punch, and the a capella opening, with its choirs of Axls, is an unexpected surprise. “Riad n’ the Bedouins” keeps up the pace with a jackhammer riff and a killer chorus – this is the closest Chinese Democracy gets to the old GnR vibe.
That vibe is then obliterated by “Sorry,” the most musically interesting thing here. It’s almost a dirge, slow and creepy, until the thick guitars come in on the chorus. That chorus inverts your expectations – “I’m sorry for you, not sorry for me.” The lyrics to this one are almost a sequel to “Get in the Ring,” and could be about anyone who Rose imagines has tried to hold him down over the last 15 years. This is the song with the Mexican vampire accent on one line, which I might not have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to me – more jarring is the line “I’ll kick your ass like I said that I would,” delivered over one of the more Pink Floyd-like sections of the song. This one is fascinating.
The record’s one moment of levity is “I.R.S.,” another swell pop song that finds Axl threatening a wayward lover with several federal agencies: “Gonna call the president, gonna call a private eye, gonna get the I.R.S., gonna need the F.B.I.” Sounds silly, but it works well, especially the slinky acoustic sections between the verses. But that’s the last bit of fun you’ll have listening to this, and there’s still three songs to go.
Ah, the closing trilogy. I’m back and forth, but most times I’ve listened to Chinese Democracy, the last three songs have stood up as my favorites. The final act begins with “Madagascar,” which hasn’t changed much since Rose and his band performed it at the MTV Awards four years ago. Ignore the cheesy keyboard opening – this thing is mammoth, full of strings and horns and layers of guitar. On first listen, it seems to go nowhere, and it takes some time to realize that “I can’t find my way back, my way any more” is the central line. But Rose’s vocals are center stage, and they carry the song.
Of course, there’s the middle section, which incorporates quotes from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and several movies, including Mississippi Burning, Seven and Casualties of War. And yes, there’s that damned “failure to communicate” line from Cool Hand Luke again. What this bit has to do with the rest of the song, I’ll never know, but it provides at least some clue as to what Rose thinks “Madagascar” is about. This whole thing should be a mess, and it comes closer than anything else on Democracy, but somehow, it hangs together.
If you think “Madagascar” is self-consciously epic, hang on for “This I Love,” a genuine Freddie Mercury moment. It’s a sad piano waltz that includes some of Rose’s most nakedly emotional lines – “I’ve searched the universe and found myself within her eyes.” It also sports Rose’s best vocals on the album, on a song that’s clearly a labor of love. It gets huge by the end, with strings (arranged by Rose) and a soaring guitar solo. This is the song I think Rose wanted “November Rain” to be.
Chinese Democracy ends with “Prostitute,” a song that rises above its name to serve as a statement of purpose. It’s all about sticking to your guns, not “living with fortune and shame.” It’s also a terrific mid-tempo mini-suite, nimbly skipping from section to section. The last words are “perversion and pain,” oddly enough, and then the gorgeous piano and strings coda brings us out of Rose’s little world. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect conclusion, honestly.
Taken as a whole, Chinese Democracy knocks it out of the park more often than it misses. It’s surprisingly angry in places, and deliriously self-obsessed, but it’s musically intricate, impressively produced, and contains some fantastic performances, particularly those of its crazy corn-rowed visionary. This is not the Guns n’ Roses you remember, but it does what it sets out to do very well. This is the music in Axl Rose’s head – insular, massive, paranoid, and oddly beautiful. Only Rose can tell us if the finished product was worth all the work, but separated from its history, Chinese Democracy is mostly a triumph.
* * * * *
“Seems like forever and a day… If my intentions are misunderstood, please be kind, I’ve done all I should…”
* * * * *
But you can’t separate this album from its history, can you?
I recently saw what I believe will be my movie of the year – Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. This film is about a lot of things, but at its core, it’s about a man who works on one piece of art for decades, trying to get it right, because he wants it to symbolize everything, reflect as much of real life back as it can. And in the end, what he ends up with is real life, all of it, and it proves to be an impossible project to finish. It drags on and on, with no audience, just the pursuit of perfect meaning.
Other writers have pointed out the similarity as well, but I found myself thinking of Axl Rose, locked away in a California studio, trying to make the most perfect album possible. And I thought of the famous quote about art never being finished, merely abandoned. I wonder what the magical last ingredient for Chinese Democracy was, the final tweak that made Rose say, after 15 years, “Okay, I’m done.” I hope it wasn’t the Mexican vampire accent.
Is this album worth it, after so long? Can it be? I don’t know. Here’s what I can tell you. When I was 13, blues-based rock ‘n’ roll did it for me – in fact, it was pretty much the only music I listened to. And Axl Rose and the original Guns n’ Roses provided that for me, in better and sharper quantities than I had heard it. When I was 17, my tastes had expanded – I’ve already mentioned my love of Queen, and of huge, well-produced epics with that classic rock edge. And again, Guns n’ Roses provided that for me, with Use Your Illusion.
I’m 34 now, and everything’s different. I am struggling to remember the last blues-based rock song I listened to and enjoyed. My tastes now are more expansive, and though I still love a good melody above all else, I listen to and enjoy music of all stripes. My favorite albums are the ones that take themselves seriously, construct their own little worlds, and work overtime to invite me into those worlds. And again, Axl Rose has given me exactly what I want. It’s like we took similar paths, and he had to wait until I could appreciate an album like Chinese Democracy before releasing it.
It’s still unlike any other album I own. I haven’t heard anything this unironically grand in a long time, and I expect much of the 15-year studio session was geared toward deciding just how much was too much, and then tiptoeing right up to that line. I don’t know if it actually took 15 years, but it sounds like it did. An album like this is beyond concepts like “good” and “bad,” I think, but it’s far better than I expected, given the circumstances.
Still, I can understand the disappointment. It is, in the end, an album of 14 songs. And yet, you can tell by the amount of type I’ve expended on it that I know it’s more than that. It is an event in my life, a milestone, as it is for a lot of people. Chinese Democracy was created in total isolation from its cultural impact – Axl doesn’t care what it means to us. And now that it’s here, arriving like a thief in the night, we all have to decide just where it fits into our lives, if it does.
Only Rose can speak for his 15 years. Mine have taken me in directions I didn’t expect, and broadened my horizons beyond measure. For me, Chinese Democracy has dotted those years – I first heard the title in 1996, I think, while working at Face Magazine. Everything’s different now. But I approach Chinese Democracy not hoping it will take me back to my youth, but that it will help me look forward, and help me understand my own tastes and obsessions. Here at the end of 2008, one of my childhood heroes has returned to tell me about how life can change us, and about how it’s sometimes worth it to hold on to your vision until you think you’ve realized it.
I’ve been waiting 15 years for Chinese Democracy. The finished product is nothing like I thought it would be when I was 19. But then, neither is my life. Time changes us, changes everything we are. You can say this is not Guns n’ Roses, and you’d be right. But it is Guns n’ Roses, as much as we are all the same people we were 15 years ago. What is Chinese Democracy about to me? It’s about how much I’ve changed, and how much I haven’t.
Your mileage may vary. There’s no disputing, however, that it’s a miracle this album exists at all. I can’t imagine spending a third of my life working on anything. Now there’s only one important question left, the one that faces all artists once they tie that last bow on their latest work. I have a million other questions for Axl Rose, but really, this is the only one that matters.
See you in line Tuesday morning.