Chinese Democracy of One

July 21, 2008 at 15:39 (Music, Rants) (, , , , , , )

I don’t know that I can justify my unfettering love for Guns n’ Roses.

I certainly don’t feel it – ah, the aches of early-onset age – but that said, I’m ever-so-slightly too young to have grown up with Axl yowling in my ears.  Thanks to my Dad’s occasional benders and his unfailing ability to work a record player even when utterly out of it, there was plenty of Led Zeppelin, lots of Dire Straits and ZZ Top and the Beatles; I think I’m most grateful to him for the Pink Floyd, but that’s neither here nor there – suffice it to say I’m not altogether surprised my favourite ladies get on with him so well.  But whatever he wanted to soundtrack his too infrequent booze-ups with, it was never GnR.

There was no Guns n’ Roses on the radio, either – wow, remember the radio?

There was Whigfield, 2 Unlimited, Shaggy, East 17, Eternal, PJ and hot-damn Duncan.  And what a tragic fucking youth that could have been.  By the time I was old enough to take an interest in music, it… well, it sucked, as far as I knew.  I heard plenty of it, but I made time for none of it.  It was when Dad got drunk – or rather, after he’d gotten drunk and the anger had passed – that I started to care.  It was at New Year’s and whenever our childminder, Walter, turned up with a bottle of malt to drink him under the table.

He’s a strange creature, my Dad.  Most of the time: quiet, unassuming and considerate.  He knows a little about a lot, and he’s happy to listen to a lot about any of the little things.  He’s clever, but not intellectual.  And baby, he’s got a temper.  There are a few known sore spots that are sure to set him off, proxy bombs of pointless anger that my Mum – although I love her to bits – knows just how to exploit.  And it’s not that kind of anger; she’s not afraid to push the proverbial button when she thinks the end meets the means.  When she does, the result is predictable.  Dad gets loud, Mum gets condescending (she’s the intellectual, you see), and I make the same choice I always do: to defend him to the hilt.

It never works.  My Mum has this infallible sense of righteousness that means she’ll stand by whatever she’s said or done long past the point it’s become clear she was wrong.  I can’t argue reason against madness; Dad doesn’t even try.  Drunk, deflated and utterly defeated, nine times out of ten he and I would end up sprawled around the record player in the corner of the old living room, reliving Dark Side of the Moon or Houses of the Holy.  But never, ever GnR.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

I think the reason Axl brings all that to mind is simple enough.  For my Dad, music was a way of forgetting.  I’m sure it was uplifting, empowering and all that jazz, but he never went back to the fights, steered himself in the dead opposite direction.  The music helped him set an unerring course away, always away, and in those days, I enjoyed the music mostly for that.  For me, all the spite and malice are nothing next to the moments we shared; whatever the fallout, I never regretted them, only the peculiar set of circumstances that instigated them.

Guns n’ Roses come into the equation a few years later.  I was in a rather destructive relationship – I’ll spare you the particulars – and one Summer, a jolly family holiday (as if) happened to coincide with the stomping grounds of the once-intended, who spent all her time off with the folks back home.  It was a bone of contention between us, but circumstances seemed to have conspired, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll give island life a shot.  I found a seasonal job washing dishes in a pierside pub; she helped me find a place to stay in the interim.

The Blues

I was something like three months in Orkney that Summer.  And regardless of the end result, I don’t think back on the time with any resentment.  Things between us hadn’t been working for long enough that some time together on her terms wasn’t going to assuage any of our worries.  I forgot a few of them amid the novelty of it all, but that wore off quickly enough, and there they were again: our problems, made more problematic still by their re-emergence.  And there I was: on a funny little island with no-one to call a friend but her, nothing to do with my time but spend it.  There was no TV in my little rented loft; the pubs were full of strangers I didn’t feel up to meeting; mostly, though, I ran out of books too soon.

The Summer job at the Ferry Inn saved me from the doom and gloom.  More specifically, the second CD of the Live album Polydor put out in ’99 when it came clear that Guns n’ Roses weren’t going to release Chinese Democracy after all.  Still more specifically, this is what kept me from giving it all up:

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

I’m awkward enough at the best of times, and it wasn’t the best of times; I was in a miserable state of mind that seemed fit for nothing more than idling about as the things I’d thought most important crumbled all around me.  I didn’t think I’d make friends.  I was sure I’d fuck off the cooks and the sous chef with my sissy fingers.

But the dishes piled up on one side of my station, came out the other side still greasy from lukewarm water, dirty so soon.  And the thing about the line is that, in there, in the heat of it, no single job is more important than any of the others.  Whether you’re prepping salads or arranging orange zest on a roasted duck, if you can’t do it right, if you can’t do it fast enough, the whole kitchen falls behind – the line breaks; simple and irrevocable as that.  So screw the marigolds and fuck my puny womanhands.  I’d fill the sink with cast volumes of water as near as dammit to boiling and bite my tongue until I grew the right callouses or developed some superpower in the doing.

Whatever I was trying to prove, whoever I was trying to prove it to, it did the trick.  I got to know the cooks and the waiters and the KPs and everyone else besides.  I made friends, met people whose names and faces I remember still – no mean feat amongst the cacophany of my mind.  I became as much a part of that kitchen as the head chef and the stuttering boss who’d pop his head through the door to tell us to keep it down.  Of course, we never did.  I don’t know that we could have.  If the Guns ‘n Roses had stopped, I think we might just have ground to a collective halt.  For me – and not just for me, I’m sure of it – that music was what powered us.  I don’t know that cooking and cleaning seem like high-stress jobs, but for those who’ve never had the pleasure: in a busy working kitchen, believe me or not, they were.  But from Sweet Child of Mine through Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door to Don’t Cry to the epic Estranged and Paradise City at the last – that precious half-hour of glorious rock and roll made the seemingly insurmountable not just possible, not even plausible, but so natural it become almost automatic.  We’d erupt into rowdy choruses and lark inexcusably when GnR’s riff on the Dylan classic took a turn toward reggae.  And against all the odds, we’d get it done.


Amazon confirms my worst fears: I still remember the order perfectly.  I’ve listened to every one of these songs on individual albums time and again since, but I still can’t shake the notes I expect at the end of each one.  I hear Dust and Bones after Welcome to the Jungle.  It’s a curious thing, but nothing I’d give up; not for the world.  Not even for Chinese Democracy.

But that mythic album hasn’t been a dream of mine for a long time now – and not for any lack of the desire to hear it.  After the latest round of leaks, I feel, in fact, like I have heard it, and wouldn’t you know it: I love almost every minute.  For Blogcritics and Ace Gamez and a million places in the erstwhile, I’ve tried my hand at a lot of things: book reviews, movie reviews, articles about TV, comic books, video games.  But a music review?  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  I know my tastes and at the same time, I know what a hard time I’d have justifying them.  Hence all this.

In the same way the Live Era album would explode the entire kitchen of the Ferry Inn, in the same way the Floyd helped my Dad feel fine despite a hoarse throat from an an evening of hateful insults, There Was a Time pumps me right up.  For seven soaring minutes I’m free.  It has me thinking I can do all the things I wish I could; I feel the promise of possibility, the budding of something greater just beyond my line of sight.  Consequences be damned: I can take all the lady loves I may, I can live like a fool forever, I can write my fucking book – I can do anything.  Everything.  I don’t need religion or a monstrous cock or a 4×4 to empower me, just the sweet sounds of wailing guitars and Axl screaming his misbegotten heart out.

During the composition of this post, for instance, I decided shaving mightn’t be such an awful idea.  Axl Rose is a ginger fleshbag of a muppet but he is not afraid.  In the process of cleaning my chin-scissors I sliced halfway through my thumb, but I don’t mind.  Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door eats the pain for me.

These things I know: Chinese Democracy is overwritten and overproduced, Axl’s past pushing it and I miss my Slash, but between all of that, this almost-album hits all the right notes to take me back to that bittersweet Summer and those long, loud nights with my poor deafeated Dad and I love it for that.

There Was A Time

I love it for that.


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