I've always identified strongly with the The Onion headline "Oh My God, You've Never Seen Every Movie Ever Made?" Being a professional film critic means constantly astounding people who simply cannot fathom why you haven't seen [X film they care passionately about]. This was reinforced when we ran lists of "Still Unseen" movies in our recent "My Favorite Movie Year" feature, and caught flak from readers who were shocked, yes, shocked, that we hadn't seen a personal favorite of theirs, yet didn't immediately resign in shame.
This gave us an idea for "Better Late Than Never," a new feature where A.V. Club writers finally catch up with crucial blind spots in their pop-cultural education. For some, this means moving out of their comfort zones by, say, writing about a seminal hard-rock album instead of the new Pete Rock CD (which is excellent, by the way). For others, it means immersing themselves in canonical classics they inexplicably missed the first time around. The idea is to revisit venerable pop-culture treasures with fresh—even ignorant—eyes. It's all part of The A.V Club's sinister plan to overwhelm readers with more ongoing new features than they can possibly handle.
For the maiden entry in Better Late Than Never, I will momentarily take a break from hipping and hopping to immerse myself in the Sunset Strip depravity of Guns N' Roses' classic 1987 debut, Appetite For Destruction. I tend to have a backward relationship with music: Most people follow a group for years, then read a book about them. I arbitrarily read books about groups I have at best a passing interest in, such as Mick Wall's W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose; then I think "Hey, I should check out this band's music." That's what led me to Appetite For Destruction.
Regular readers of this site know me as a hip-hop guy. But my tastes are wide-ranging and diverse. I like everything from early Taylor Dayne to mid-period Taylor Dayne. (Okay, that isn't technically true, but how refreshing would it be to hear someone finally describe their musical tastes as narrow, nichey, and not at all diverse?) Alas, like 90 percent of humanity, I like all different kinds of music, but I definitely have my pet genres. So the novelty here isn't so much a hip-hop guy writing about a rock album, but a guy who favors rock of the effete, irony-saturated, quirky, and/or political variety writing about a hard-rock album that isn't remotely effete, ironic, quirky, or political.
When I was 19, I took exactly two electric-guitar lessons from an old guy with a hearing aid who told me that he didn't particularly care for heavy metal, but he respected Metallica because of the complexity and intricacy of their guitar parts. Though I could care less about the complexity and intricacy of a band's guitar playing, I understood where he was coming from. I've never been particularly enamored of heavy metal, but I respect that Metallica is really good at what they do. On a similar note, it was apparent even at the time that while Guns N' Roses were unmistakably a product of the L.A. hair-metal scene that eventually flowered into two seasons of Rock Of Love and the Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson sex tape, their music was plugged into something vital and pure at rock's core. They were both of their time and timeless.
GN'R towered above their hairspray-addled peers to such an extent that it almost seems unfair to associate them with the hair-metal scene at all. The group deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jerry Lee Lewis, heroin-era Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, Cheap Trick, and all the other hellions who ever pleased Satan with their rockitude.
Axl Rose solidified GN'R's iconic status by firing his band and pulling a J.D. Salinger. Nobody could complain that Guns N' Roses' new albums paled in comparison to their classics, because there were no new albums. Nothing becomes a legend quite like disappearing. Axl Rose became the Howard Hughes of rock, a kilt-sporting hermit who divides his time between recruiting/publicly firing new bandmates, disparaging old bandmates (yes, even Buckethead), getting arrested under bizarre circumstances, and working on his notorious, endlessly delayed comeback album, Chinese Democracy.
It's tempting to play amateur psychiatrist and view Rose's obsession with power and control as an extreme reaction to a traumatic childhood. As a bullied, awkward boy in Indiana, Rose felt powerless and vulnerable. As an adult, he vowed never to feel powerless or vulnerable again, even if it meant destroying every important relationship he had, and willingly turning himself into a freak. Axl Rose and the band he ruled with an iron fist became one of pop music's great "What if?"s. But before they flamed out, they conquered the world with Appetite For Destruction, which catapulted Rose and company into the rarified heights of rock superstardom.
Nelly Furtado once described The Roots song "Pussy Galore" as sounding like "walking through a Thai whorehouse in bare feet." That description describes much of Appetite For Destruction as well. The album luxuriates in debauchery, sex, and sleaze: it just plain sounds dirty, from the buzzsaw guitars of Slash and Izzy Stradlin to Axl Rose's leering, raspy howl.
"Welcome To The Jungle" gets the album off to a supersonic start, with Rose theatrically playing the role of a demented rock 'n' roll barker with a leering, sinister, seductive spiel. Destruction is lifestyle porn, pure and simple, an invitation to spend an hour vicariously experiencing a world where the drugs are free, the girls are easy, and the party doesn't stop until someone ODs.
It's a glorious exploration of the adolescent mindset that touches upon such beloved teen themes as drugs and alcohol ("Mr. Brownstone" and "Nighttrain"), how girls, especially hot girls, are all fucked-up ("You're Crazy," "My Michelle"), how adults be all hasslin' you and shit ("Out Ta Get Me"), idealized romance ("Sweet Child O' Mine"), and the eternal quest for transcendence ("Paradise City"). Oh, and on the album-closing "Rocket Queen," there's the sound of real, live, in-the-studio fucking, which is terribly transgressive and naughty in a 13-year-old kind of way.
In case anyone doubts that Appetite For Destruction is the product of a wonderfully blinkered adolescent mindset, the liner-notes thank-yous end with a shout out to "all those who taught us hard lessons by attempted financial sodomy, the teachers, preachers, cops, and elders who never believed." (To paraphrase Woody Allen, financial sodomy is my second favorite kind.) Elders? Are Guns N' Roses secretly stuck inside M. Night Shyamalan's The Village? Who else hath forsaken them? Hath someone stoleneth their butter churn? Think of the "teachers, preachers, cops" line as Rose's version of 2Pac's "Picture Me Rollin'" roll call.
2Pac and Guns N' Roses could scarcely have less in common, musically. Gangsta rap celebrates consequence-free drug use, sexual promiscuity, the subjugation of women, lawlessness, and wanton hedonism. Appetite For Destruction, in sharp contrast, celebrates drug use, sexual promiscuity, the subjugation of women, lawlessness, and wanton hedonism with loud guitars and pummeling drums. There's a world of difference, really.
The lyrics of Appetite For Destruction frequently blur the line between "stupid" and "transcendently stupid," and Rose's debauched frontman routine constantly goes way, way, way over the top, as when he howls "Now you're clean and so discreet / I won't say a word / But most of all this song is true / 'Case you haven't heard" during "My Michelle," a portrait of a heavy-metal casualty-to-be etched in acid. I can't help but laugh out loud every time I hear Axl Rose end "Mr. Brownstone," an incongruously funky song about heroin, with an ecstatic cry of "Yowza!" At first, this annoyed me, but after a while, I couldn't envision ending the song any other way.
Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for "Mr. Brownstone" describes the song's origins: "[Slash] states that [he and Izzy Stradlin] were sitting around, complaining about being heroin addicts, when they started improvising lyrics and music ('Brownstone' is a slang term for heroin)." Inspired, I wrote the following, extremely short play about the song's genesis.
Slash: Man, being a heroin addict sure sucks.
Izzy Stradlin: Tell me about it. It's like, I shoot up some heroin, then I totally want to shoot up even more heroin! It's downright meshuggeneh, is what it is!
Slash: Whatever dude, pass the heroin. Oh, incidentally, my lawyer says that if we write a song about Mr. Brownstone, I can write off all my heroin purchases as a business expense.
It took me a little while to warm up to Appetite For Destruction. At first, I found the singles way too long, especially the nearly seven-minute "Paradise City," which initially struck me as a kick-ass chorus in search of a song. I similarly found a lot of the album tracks flimsy and inconsequential, little more than ramshackle filler. Upon my fourth listen, however, I surrendered and gave myself over to the rock completely. Things got so crazy, I even took to lightly drumming my fingers over my computer keyboard in appreciation. I hope I didn't distract any co-workers with my crazy rock 'n' roll shenanigans. The album tracks I initially found wanting suddenly seemed like the product of the world's greatest bar band. I mean that as a compliment.
By a strange coincidence, I reviewed Thriller, another unimpeachable staple of the pop-music canon, while reading W.A.R. That got me thinking about the unexpected parallels between Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, two Indiana boys made good, then bad. Somehow I imagine that when Tom Petty sang about those "Indiana boys on an Indiana night" that helped Mary Jane grow up tall and grow up right in "Mary Jane's Last Dance," Axl Rose and Michael Jackson weren't what he had in mind.
Like Jackson, Rose was liberated by music and ruined by money, power, and fame. Both men peaked early and transformed historic careers into chilly mausoleums to wasted talent and squandered potential, Xanadu-like monuments to arrogance and delusion. Like Thriller, Appetite For Destruction earned Axl Rose a lifetime's worth of "fuck you" money. But a lifetime spent screaming "fuck you" to everyone and everything is bound to feel awfully empty.