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EXILED ON MAIN STREET #21
- sent to press November 15, 1999


prelude

In college, I loved U2. In '87, during my senior year, they released their fifth album, The Joshua Tree. It was one of the best of the decade. U2 was everything a great rock band should be in the mid-eighties - they were intelligent; they were fascinated by America, but weren't American so they could comment freely on Imperialist America; they echoed The Who in their anthemic sound; they played - if not personified - Live Aid. The Joshua Tree captured a young band at its peak. By mid-1987, U2 had rightly earned their brass ring and were hailed as the biggest and best band in the world.

But this isn't about U2.


1987

Guns n' Roses came out of Los Angeles and into America in mid-1987. They appeared as if summoned, as if the whole We Are the Live World Aid movement had made everything a little too polite, a little too cute, and it was time to balance the scales. They did everything that many great rock bands have always done: they drank to excess and sang about it, they abused drugs and sang about it, they had kinky sex and sang about it. They also sang about America, hinting that it was a fucked-up place. The biggest hint was that they were fucked-up.

From the opening, echoing guitar and those hushed first words ("oh my God...") to the disco orgasm ending of "Rocket Queen," their debut album Appetite for Destruction was one heady trip. Of course they were artless - that was their beauty, their attraction. Appetite was pure punk (in the garage sense) with dual buzzing guitars, slam-it-home rhythm section and a psycho singer. The music had such raw feeling that you couldn't help but respond to it. Guns n' Roses began to attract fans from beyond their hard rock fan base - there were those who recognized the Aerosmith-fronted-by-Joplin sound for the dynamic killer that it was.

Those who judged the band based on hard rock (what a dumb phrase - rock by its very nature is hard) preconceptions dismissed Guns n' Roses as yet another LA nerf-metal hair band. But who else in the late eighties came across so unforced, so pure in feeling? For me, only the Replacements (I think of Paul Westerberg screaming so many of the vocals on Pleased to Meet Me) and Metallica (how they careen and crash their way through Garage Days Re-revisited) rank up there. Don't get me wrong, there was a ton of great music then; but what I'm getting at is that certain moment in rock 'n' roll when you feel the music in you, when it hits you raw, where you almost feel embarrassed for the artist when you know they're putting it on the line with everything they've got. Within the twelve songs on Appetite for Destruction, you will find the key to great rock 'n' roll, it stands out as a crash-and-burn wonder - especially as an eventual mainstream success - in the overproduced mid-eighties.

Guns n' Roses was a band I knew from radio, not from video or magazines or friends. I first heard them on hard rock radio in the Twin Cites when I moved here in 1987. Allegedly, KJ104 (a hard rock station before becoming a ridiculously overrated alternative station) was one of the first stations in America outside of LA to play them. Some of my best memories of my early unemployed days here in the Cities are of driving down the freeways in the summer sun, listening to Guns n' Roses on the radio.

"Welcome to the Jungle" was the first song to get airplay, but "Paradise City" (played on KJ104 a good year or so before being a mainstream and MTV hit) was the song that made me love Guns n' Roses so. The opening drums and fuck-yeah harmonies give way to clanging, anthemic guitars and synths. "Paradise City" is dreaming of fun in the sun, but unlike many songs in the rock lexicon, the dream isn't just to get to the beach. Here Axl is pleading to be taken home to Paradise City. If you interpret Appetite for Destruction as a Los-Angeles-As-Last-Resort concept album (American Mythology says that Los Angeles is where you either make it big or fail miserably; "Los Angeles is where you end up," is what Guns n' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin once said), then Paradise City is where failed Angelenos go when they're done serving their time - if they get out. By the third verse we find that Axl is strapped to a chair in a gas chamber (in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video, Axl was strapped to a chair and forced to watch a bunch of TV's.) By the fourth and final verse, Captain America himself is a mere court jester with a broken heart. Then the song goes on forever with Axl screeching to be taken home as the band thunders on with a fervor that is equal parts boogie and equal parts punk. But I'm guessing you've heard the song before.

I remember being in the record store, holding Appetite for Destruction in my hands. Nice title. And the guys had names like Axl, Slash, Duff, and Izzy. Were they for real? They had teased hair, wore lots of leather, wore hats, they looked like Hanoi Rocks with less makeup. Plus they always seemed to pose with some sort of alcohol around them. Were they punk? Were they glam? Were they metal? Yes, no, maybe. No, maybe, yes. Maybe, yes, no.

But I had a rule back then on metal bands. I called it the Three-Song Rule, and it was based on my theory that almost every metal band had at least one good song, maybe two. If I heard three good songs from a metal band's album on the radio, then chances are the album would be decent. With Guns n' Roses, the radio song after "Paradise City" was "Mr. Brownstone," a song I didn't care for much back then for some silly reason. So I chumped out on buying Appetite in 1987. Besides, they were on the radio a few times a day every day.


1988

Early '88, a letter from good friend Joel, then a high-school senior in Iowa. The postscript - "Go and get Guns n' Roses Appetite for Destruction album, but don't listen to it when your parents are around if you know what I mean."



In '88, at age twenty-two, I started my first accounting job, which entailed me driving to Bloomington (later in life referred to as "Fucking Bloomington") Monday through Friday. The people I worked with were almost all in their thirties or forties, at lunch they talked about their decks and mowing their lawns. Once or twice a week I talked to Michele, my head-office supervisor in Denver. During our second conversation, she asked me what kind of music I listened to. I said Guns n' Roses - she loved Guns n' Roses. We became fast friends. Michele once pointed out that Axl danced just like Davey Jones of the Monkees. It's true - check out how the left leg goes left, then the right follows, then the right leg goes right, and the left follows. She said it has something to do with how little boys are taught to dance as toddlers by keeping their feet on top of their mothers'.

I first heard "Sweet Child O'Mine" one morning while on my drive to work. I was immediately captivated, there was more to these guys than the fast n' loud anthems I'd heard so far. I kept wanting to drive anywhere instead of to work, keep driving until the song was over and then drive until another station somewhere played it again. It is one of those songs that tells you there is something else in this world besides sitting in an office while wearing a tie and bathing in fluorescent light.



"Sweet Child O'Mine" is the song that everyone loved. Gals dug its tenderness, guys dug the tenderness also - but didn't admit to it, instead we sang along with the ballad-defying downer ending where do we go now ... where do we go now ... Boomers liked its throwback appeal, youngsters liked that it took away airplay from "Stairway to Heaven" and "Free Bird," both of which it beat in the soft-yet-hard anthem sweepstakes.

It is this song more than any other that secured Guns n' Roses' place in the mainstream. It stands as one of the sweetest rock 'n' roll songs ever recorded. If John Hiatt or Elvis Costello or Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle or John Prine or Neil Young or Van Morrison recorded a song as beautiful as "Sweet Child O'Mine" in the late 1980's, I sure didn't hear it. And if they did, they sure didn't have Slash playing on it.



There once was a girl that I had lost touch with, but I used to think about quite a bit. Fourth of July weekend 1988, I was driving in my car and at that very moment that "Sweet Child O'Mine" started on my tape deck, I looked to my left and saw her in the car next to mine.

I honked, she waved. By the end of the summer, she was cheating on her boyfriend. And for some reason, I thought that was pretty damn funny.


1989

It's early '89, a Sunday afternoon. My older brother calls from Denver.

Randy: I'm watching MTV and getting taken to Paradise City by Guns n' Roses! Me: Cool. Randy: Five guys who are racist, sexist, greasy-haired, drug-abusing, ugly slimeballs... Me: Hey, I love Guns n' Roses! Randy: Me too - I was talking about the Stones back in '71!



Guns n' Roses released the Lies EP in early '89. Side one was four live songs recorded back in '86, when they were unknown. The highlight is the cover of Aerosmith's "Mama Kin," although the late great Z-Rock used to play a live version from the same era of AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie" that was even better. Side two contained four new songs (actually three - "You're Crazy" is an improved, slower version of an Appetite song), two which stirred controversy.

The infamous "Used to Love Her" ("I used to love her / but I had to kill her" went the chorus) became hilarious once my pal Turk told me that Axl wrote it about a dog he had to put to sleep. Think about it.

On the EP-ending "One in a Million," Axl sang lyrics that were racist, homophobic, and xenophobic. Axl did apologize in advance on the EP cover for his lyrics, as if that would take care of it. I don't know if he mixed up being controversial with being profound, or maybe he just wanted to piss people off. Most of my GNR friends defended the use of the "n" word, pointing out that rappers used it in their songs all the time. I thought it was idiotic, and to listen to it today still gives me the creeps. Just like how when I read Please Kill Me or England's Dreaming and see the swastikas favored by some seventies punk bands or when I think about what Elvis Costello said about Ray Charles.

The second half of Lies was damn-near-unplugged. In fact, despite what revisionist history may tell you, metal bands were at the forefront of the unplugged trend. Along with Lies, there was Tesla's Five Man Acoustical Jam, and many of the early Unplugged shows featured metal bands such as Aerosmith and Great White. The unplugged movement peaked at the time the metal bands were doing it, though it would drag on for a few more excruciating years. Unplugged got timid and boring quickly, but it outlived its shelf life because people continued to think acoustic-equals-profound. The whole thing reached its nadir when Eric "King of the Living Blues" Clapton did it. And if anyone wants to place ol' EC next to an open window, I'll gladly volunteer to provide a shove.


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