Justify Your Shitty Taste: Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today, Shawn Macomber doffs his top hat to Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy.
One time I was in the room when he was talking to his manager, Doug Goldstein, about wanting to hire the Goodyear blimp for the show. I said—as a joke, even though it was true—that the Fuji blimp was the largest in the world. Axl was like, “That’s it! It’s gonna be the Fuji blimp.” There were just no limits with that guy.

So dished Chris Cornell to Rolling Stone in 2005, his way of repaying Axl Rose, apparently, for an opening slot on a 1991 tour with the then-biggest rock band in the world.

Pretty rich stuff, actually, coming from the same asshole who spent the last decade releasing three of the most mind-numbingly milquetoast AOR rock radio records imaginable via lame-as-its-name Audioslave and chasing Justin Timberlake dreams on a Timbaland-produced solo record before running back to Soundgarden, flowing mane between his legs. Grain of salt time: Cornell hasn’t been qualified to carry Rose’s sweat-soaked bandanna since Badmotorfinger.

Nevertheless, how you respond to Cornell’s anecdote is probably fairly determinative of your take on Chinese Democracy. The album is the fucking Fuji blimp, colossal riffs, lush arrangements, and singular, peerless vocals bursting from its gigantic seams somewhere up near the stratosphere. Axl Rose at long last found a way to marry Sex Pistols-esque nihilistic neuroses and Hanoi Rocks glam punk with his longstanding love of Queen II and Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, and it is a glorious spectacle for those of us who at all appreciate unchecked grandiose debauchery.

Alas, though Chinese Democracy is a more solid, ambitious record than a single disc mix of the best Use Your Illusion tracks, the critical die was cast long before it ever felt the warmth of the Best Buy track lighting.

“There is really only one way for Chinese Democracy to avoid utter and absolute failure,” Chuck Klosterman wrote in a prank 2006 April Fools Day review of the perpetually unreleased record. “It needs to be the greatest rock album ever made. Chinese Democracy is not the greatest rock album ever made.”

The “greatest rock album ever made” is obviously a subjective designation—which is to say, there’s no such thing as “the greatest rock album ever made” save for within the ear of the beholder, and Axl Rose’s task was essentially a Mission: Impossible, no matter how tightly he braided his hair. Worse, years of drama surrounding the production of Chinese Democracy, coupled with Rose’s antics, basically transmogrified into great globs of earwax through which the actual album could hardly be heard.

To wit, this excerpt from the actual Spin review of Chinese Democracy two years after Klosterman’s goof:

“An outrageously overblown pop-metal extravaganza, Chinese Democracy feels like a perfect epitaph for all the absurdity and nonsense of the George W. Bush era—one final blowout before Principal Obama takes our idiocy away.”

Lord, setting aside the pro forma authority figure bootlicking, the writer simply could not separate artist from the art, process from product. The desire to project utterly pedestrian politics onto a piece of art outweighing his charge to engage it. Hey Axl, this is how I’ve been feeling about the world since The Spaghetti Incident!

The writer was hardly alone, and the impulse is understandable.

Chinese Democracy is like a girl who stood you up a hundred times showing up at your door one night asking, “What do you think of this dress?”

It could be the hottest couture number going. You’re going to barely glance at it and then go off like Tim Gunn infected with the 28 Days Later rage virus. Or, if you’re the actual communists running China, you’ll call it part and parcel of a Western plot to “grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn.”

Interesting responses, sure, but not actual answers to the question posed.

One time, Slash and Izzy were both fucking a girl in their loft. Izzy wasn’t wearing a condom, and he pulled out of the girl and ejaculated on Slash’s leg. This was when Slash knew they had to find new quarters.—Stephen Davis, Watch You Bleed

Appetite for Destruction was the result of a set of very specific, unsustainable, unrepeatable circumstances. (Just ask Buckcherry.)

It is also the highest selling debut in history—a badge of honor for our nation and the primary reason we aren’t endlessly badgered to explain why our parents were so hot to trot for “More Than a Feeling”—and, thus, the record is deeply ensnarled in the formative years of the better part of a generation.

I myself have a distinct memory of the older brother of a friend up the street who turned me onto Somewhere in Time dubbing a copy of Appetite for me, the staggering swagger of “It’s So Easy” instantaneously replacing Maiden’s twin-guitar history lessons as the most terrifyingly badass thing on the planet to my virgin 13-year-old New Hampshire ears…

Ya get nothin’ for nothin’ if that’s what you do / Turn around bitch I got a use for you / Besides you ain’t got nothing better to do and I’m bored

…um, holy Christ on a crutch, then waiting for my mother to go to work so I could blare the breakdown on my boombox…

I see you standing there / You think you’re so cool / Why don’t you just / Fuck off!

Times change. Torrents of water pass under the bridge. Band members come and go. And come and go. And come and go. A lead singer subjects himself to psychotherapy five days a week, five hours a day and drops $72,000 on a New Age exorcism. Grunge. Flannel. Indie rock. Death metal. The inexorable pull from what was to what will be. The need to constantly reinvent oneself during younger, less surefooted years.

The Appetite “Thank Yous” conclude with a snatch of lyrics that would eventually emerge on the Use Your Illusion II track “You Could Be Mine” (“With your bitch slap rappin’ and your cocaine tongue you get nothin’ done”) and a sneer at “all those who taught us hard lessons by attempted financial sodomy, the teachers, preachers, cops, and elders who never believed.” Axl’s Chinese Democracy list includes shout-outs to Ferrari, the Four Season, “Grand Hyatt all over the world,” Trump Hotel, Mandarin Oriental in London, “Gary Arnold and everyone at Best Buy.”

Give credit where credit is due, Axl Rose isn’t putting on airs: He’s a visionary eccentric with a very large bank account, and no intention of living up to expectations.

Not everyone is as ready to croon c’est la vie in their best Robbie Nevil as I am, though, and high-class hermitism is admittedly not nearly as romantic as homelessness, hedonism, heroin. Others, as a simple matter of taste, take Chuck Klosterman’s side in the schism he described in Fargo Rock City: “The use of keyboards and synthesizers is the Roe v Wade of ‘80s metal.”

It’s true: Chinese Democracy is not Appetites for Super Destruction: The Sequel. The closest purists will get is Velvet Revolver’s Contraband, another straight-up fantastic rock album no one can approach rationally that nevertheless still falls short of grabbing the Appetite crown. (Spare me the bitching and moaning. If you absolutely feel obligated to hate on VR, pick up a copy of Libertad…)

There is a reason, however, why both Tracii Guns and Slash separately schemed to poach Axl from Izzy back in the Sunset Strip days, and it is not his easygoing manner or his fervent desire to play well with others.

In his (very entertaining) autobiography, Slash compares Axl to the monster from the “Crate” segment of Creepshow—“this thing under the stairs in a box that ate people and no one would talk about”—and once pre-Appetite introduced the singer to a reporter from London’s Time Out as “the most temperamental fucking… meanest little fuck—in the world.” Axl didn’t just fuck Steven Adler’s sometime girlfriend. He fucked her in a studio on tape for posterity. Rose’s idea of appropriate stage banter during a triumphant Indiana homecoming show on the Appetite tour was to gaze down at the kids crammed in the front row and quip, “Looks like I got a lot of cool prisoners in fucking Auschwitz here.” When his half-black lead guitarist objected to releasing “One in a Million” with its infamous “Police and niggers, that’s right, get out of my way, don’t need to buy none of your gold chains today” line, Axl blew him off. (For what it’s worth, I buy Axl’s defense that the song’s POV is not an endorsement and he is not a racist.)

Everyone put up with Axl’s monumental bullshit for as long as they could possibly endure it because he was, and remains, an artistic force to be reckoned with.

We were in our rental van, drinking and playing acoustic guitars when I came with the jangly intro to what became “Paradise City.” Duff and Izzy picked it up and started playing it while I came up with the chord changes. I started humming a melody and played it over and over. Then Axl chimed in.

“Take me down to the Paradise City…”

I kept playing and tossed off some impromptu lyrics. “Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty,” I sang. I thought that sounded totally gay… “Where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties!” I shouted.

…It was decided that the “grass is green” line worked a bit better, and though I preferred my alternate take, I was overruled. —Slash, Slash

During the Use Your Illusion sessions, the collaborative model of Appetite was abandoned in favor of an everybody-bring-your-own-completed-jams free for all. The results, to be generous, were uninspired. What highlights existed, however, were almost invariably either epic Axl Rose ballads or punky Izzy scorchers kicking around since the Appetite sessions. This is no big secret to those who have heard Duff or Slash’s solo efforts (though perhaps Adler’s Appetite will prove to be—apologies—a stroke of genius).

Rose’s impulses and meanderings are not flawless, it should go without saying. Izzy’s annoyance upon learning Use Your Illusion II would close with Axl’s bizarrely awful rapped NWA homage “My World”? Totally justified. And a couple verses on Chinese Democracy’s “Street of Dreams” and “This I Love” remind me of Jason Segel’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall Dracula puppet musical tracks. The Martin Luther King, Jr. samples in “Madagascar”? Way, way too cloying…

Still, while Contraband is the closest aural stepsister of Appetite, a real case can be made that the spiritual, attitudinal descendent of the classic record is Chinese Democracy—a veritable buffet platter of fuck it alls and fuck yous.

Buckethead threatened to quit, and had to be coddled. He made Axl take him to Disneyland, and then demanded that the studio build a chicken wire coop, in which Buckethead then recorded his solos. —Stephen Davis, Watch You Bleed

No one denies Chinese Democracy is the end result of an epically absurd process.

Check out the band credits in the liner notes of Appetite or GN’R Lies: guitars, bass, drums, lead and backing vocals. Pretty standard fare. Use Your Illusion, the once poster child for overindulgent rock album production, expands to includes two new categories (“Sound Effects,” “Bitches”), yet still occupies less than an inch of space.

The Chinese Democracy credits, on the other hand, sprawl across three panels and can be downright baffling. Is “Drum arrangement” feng shui or, like, you know, just playing drums? Did Rose invent “Sub bass,” “String Machine,” “Additional guitar processing” to provide unemployed cousins jobs or are those real occupations? What does it say about Suzie “French horns” Katayama that Axl Rose receives a nod for “Synth French horns” directly below her on “Madagascar”? Once we’ve ascertained “all Axl’s vocals produced by Axl,” is it necessary for the singer to further credit himself with both “Vocals” and “Backing Vocals” on the same song? What in the name of the God of Thunder is this supposed to mean: “Guitar solos on ‘If the World’ and ‘Madagascar’ initially produced by Sean Bevan, engineered by Critter, re-amped, edited and engineered by Caram Costanzo.”

Brain. Buckethead. Bumblefoot. Dizzy. Are these the Chinese Democracy players or did some brave Geffen lackey insert the call sheet for a Warner Brothers cartoon while Axl wasn’t looking?

Appetite was, Stephen David writes in Watch You Bleed, one of the last big rock records recorded to two-inch tape and “edited by hand with a razor blade, its final tracks mixed down by five people manipulating faders at a non-computerized mixing board.” There were, by my count, nine engineers assigned to Pro Tools duty on Chinese Democracy.

Ironic, isn’t it, that when Axl plastered the words “There’s a lot goin’ on” across the screen at the end of the “Don’t Cry” video, he was only getting warmed up.

Everything is raised to apotheosis. The cradle gives up its babes and new ones take their place —Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Here, according to Watch You Bleed, is what transpired the first time 16-year-old Bill Bailey—the future W. Axl Rose—got wasted:

Axl kicks things off with an altercation at a concert. He tears her ticket up and throws it in her face. Stands in front of City Hall and directs traffic. Throws a beer at a cop. Returns to concert. Punches a “big ugly guy” in the face. (“I saw his teeth go down his throat, so I ran.”) Breaks hand falling out of a second story window. Rides a bicycle without brakes onto the train tracks for eventual destruction. Breaks into an insane asylum, loses track of where he is, breaks out the other side. Creates a neighborhood ruckus arriving back at home. Considers night a success.

“There were just no limits with that guy,” Chris Cornell scoffs.

You think, sad pretty man?

He’s right, of course. Never were, still aren’t. Maybe Axl Rose never did make it back out of that asylum. But is that what we’re interested in when it comes to our artists? Limits? Boundaries?

Is Axl crazy?

The guy supposedly told his one-time wife/ex-punching bag that he was cruel to her in this life because she had killed their children in a past life when they were both Indians? According to a 2006 piece by Mick Wall, “All [GN’R] employees had to submit a photograph of themselves, which Rose would then offer to guru Sharon Maynard for her ‘psychic inspection’ in order to reveal their true motives. Maynard even demanded pictures of potential employees’ children in order to read their spiritual auras more accurately.”

Yeah, he’s probably nuts.

Truth is, Chinese Democracy is nothing more than the natural progression of the very same genetic lack of a sense of proportion and imbalances that made Appetite for Destruction possible. “All the things you might find complicated or difficult about Axl,” Slash told VH1, “is what fuels him to be such an amazing performer and such an amazing songwriter.”

Not everybody has to enjoy it or love the man, but the final product deserves far more respect than it has recieved. There really isn’t anything else like it out there.

“I have something I want to do with Guns N’ Roses. It’s a part of me that I want to get out and take as far as I can. It can be a long career, or it can be a short, explosive career. I don’t really care—as long as it gets out, and it gets out in a big way” — Axl Rose, interview with the Los Angeles Times

Judged by these long-ago declared standards, Chinese Democracy fails. It has sold a fraction of Appetite for Destruction (albeit in the post-download thievery era) and the critical establishment continues to refuse to take it seriously. And Rose’s recalcitrance isn’t forcing the issue. Nevertheless, the record is a great work of art, and as such is like a bulb waiting for a spring thaw when it will rise up to reveal the multihued wonders it held within all along.

1. Chinese Democracy
2. Shackler’s Revenge
3. Better
4. Street of Dreams
5. If the World
6. There Was a Time
7. Catcher in the Rye
8. Scraped
9. Riad N’ the Bedouins
10. Sorry
11. I.R.S.
12. Madagascar
13. This I Love
14. Prostitute