On 'Chinese Democacy'

One of the pleasant aspects of this job is I am able once a week to write about rock 'n' roll. I despise most music journalism I read (including my own), but it's not a bad gig if you can get it.

One of the unfortunate aspects about said occupation is sometimes I have to hear and review albums such as Guns N' Roses' debacle "Chinese Democracy."

To properly delve into my thoughts on this record — 21 long years in coming — I have to slip into autobiographical mode.

I was in third grade and in deep trouble. My friends and I had been busted by the playground monitor for throwing dirt clods into a pool belonging to a neighbor living next to the elementary school.

I was awaiting my punishment outside the principal's office when classmate Jason Stice walked by and asked me if I had heard the "Welcome to the Jungle" band.

No. I hadn't.

Afterward, while held inside for the next recess, Stice let me borrow the "Welcome to the Jungle" single. First of all the name of the band was not "Welcome to the Jungle" (though that is a much better name than Guns N' Roses); second, it was the sleaziest four or so minutes ever to ooze from my Emerson boom box, or "ghetto blaster" as we called them in the casually racist parlance of the rural Midwest.

This was three years before I discovered Metallica and Slayer, so Guns N' Roses made quite an impression. It conformed to my vision of what a rock band should look like without quite blowing apart my comfortable world view on such matters.

The music was fast and heavy, though the band members wrapped themselves in leather pants, high-heeled boots and there was more than a little Aqua Net suspending Axl Rose's hair in the video.

And they cursed in their album. A lot.

Lest we forget, it took a lot to shock my parents. They were children of the swinging '70s. They went on dates to Kiss and Alice Cooper shows. Those bands, creepy and Satanic as they were, stuck to a cartoony shock-vibe and only hinted metaphorically at the drugs they were ingesting.

Guns N' Roses members, on the other hand, wore their substance abuse on their tattered sleeves. They let on that their nights were spent snorting Peruvian cocaine off the backs of $1,000-per-night Los Angeles hookers.

Guns wrote songs about pounding cheap Night Train wine and brown speed trucked in from Tijuana. It wrote about dirty flop pads in east L.A. and hustling heroin to buy more Night Train wine. Good God, the "Welcome to the Jungle" single was paired with a song about the infamous bum wine.

"Appetite for Destruction" made me afraid of Los Angeles. Perhaps that was the band members' intention all along. They modeled themselves after rock stars to push their own cautionary tale about the excesses of such a life.

Either way, I was among millions who bought the album and listened to it until the tape wore out. Portions of it still sound good.

They followed it up with the underrated "Lies" and a few tunes on movie sound tracks.

And then it all got really big and stupid in 1991 with the release of the "Use Your Illusions" epic. By that time I had heard the Ramones so it barely registered, but I remember huge, expensive videos detailing Axl's failing relationships with super models he enjoyed beating up from time to time.

I tuned out, but every once and a while "It's So Easy" or "Mr. Brownstone" pops up on my iPod and I remember how great that early stuff could be.

Which brings us to "Chinese Democracy."

What it must be like to be Axl Rose. Your band hates you and the ones you didn't fire, left long ago. You've played out the most public case of performance anxiety in world history for 21 years only to cut a record at a time when the concept of "records" doesn't apply in a fragmented digital musicscape.

Axl's throat-ripping scream surfaces here and there in songs such as "Shackler's Revenge" and "Scrape," though its effects are lost in the overproduction.

I hate to throw out review cliches such as "it sounded overproduced" but it perfectly fits here. Every note, chord, bridge, movie soundbite (yes, Axl includes dialogue from "Cool Hand Luke" again) and guitar solo sounds like it had been arranged down to its DNA.

The result: A big, loud rock record that lingers too long at 14 songs, three of them stretching over the six-minute mark.

Axl — I do not include any of the 1,235 or so people who drifted in and out of the studio to work on this thing over the past two decades — seems to dare his listeners to hate the album.

"It don't really matter/ You're gonna find out for yourself/ No it don't really matter/ You're gonna leave this thing to somebody else," he growls in the eponymous opening track.

He and Barack Obama need to go bowling together because both have spent considerable time lately trying to play down people's expectations.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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