Released almost 25 years ago, Use Your Illusion I and II remain the last great epics in rock music. These are the two albums that legitimized Guns N’ Roses as the last great rock band, separating them from the likes of Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard and putting them in the same stratosphere as Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. In my younger years, while every other 13-year-old was listening to Blink 182, Simple Plan, and others in the legion of bubblegum pop-punk bands that stopped mattering after 2006, I was busy being enamored by Axl Rose’s screeching vocals and Slash’s mesmerizing guitar solos.
While all the hype and attention gets shifted to Appetite for Destruction, I’ve always been much more partial to the Illusion twins. On the record, the band members are better musicians. The music is way more expansive and diverse. Above all else, the albums themselves possess a timelessness that Appetite for Destruction doesn’t have. Whereas Appetite for Destruction is an album that sounds like it’s from 1987, the Illusion duo finds Guns N’ Roses not caring about fitting into the styles of the time. They are records that very much forge their own path in terms of their appearance and what they hope to accomplish. Collectively, they are a masterpiece; individually, they are the mania and the depression that encapsulates the spirit of this band. Use Your Illusion I and II is the Physical Graffiti of the ’90s.
It’s the band at their most ambitious, grandest, and epic, but it’s also their barest and most vulnerable work. For all the shit that gets tossed their way — and in the case of “My World”, rightfully so — Appetite for Destruction has absolutely nothing on “Coma”, “Estranged”, or “Locomotive”.
After hundreds of repeat listens to both albums, the Illusion twins also serve as portents for the fate that would befall the band. It’s easy to realize this in hindsight; as in most cases, the truth is usually realized way too late to even matter. But, alas, let the masochism begin.
1. “Right Next Door to Hell”
“Not bad kids / Just stupid ones / Yeah, thought we’d own the world / And getting used was having fun.”
Back in 1991, Guns N’ Roses ruled the world. They released one of the most anticipated albums in rock history and became the first band to own the top two spots on the Billboard Top 200. Ultimately, it turned out to be a passing phase, as the Use Your Illusion World Tour became the band’s Apocalypse Now. Nirvana then usurped them for the title of the most relevant band on the planet, and the breakup of the classic lineup began to gestate during the recording of the Illusion LPs. These guys thought they owned the world, and for a time they did. But they realized far too late that the rest of the world had passed them by.
2. “The Garden”
“You know you’re all alone / Your friends, they aren’t at home / Everybody’s gone to the garden.”
Being the precipitator of the dismemberment of Guns N’ Roses, Axl Rose has isolated himself from Slash, Duff McKagan (bass), Izzy Stradlin (guitar), Matt Sorum (drums from 1990-97), and Steven Adler (original drummer). He either fired them or forced them to quit, leaving him the as the only original member still standing. These guys, who were presumably friends at one point, now at best cordially pretend that the others don’t exist. Even though Rose tries continue in the Guns N’ Roses name, it’s not the same. Ultimately, in his career as a musician, Rose pushed everyone away from him, leaving himself all alone while his fellow cohorts have all moved on.
3. “Garden of Eden”
“I read it on the wall / It went straight to my head / It said, ‘Dance to the tension of a world on edge’ / We got racial violence and who’ll cast the first stone / And sex is used anyway it can be.”
Sign o’ the times. Apparently, not much has changed in 24 years.
4. “Don’t Damn Me”
“Vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time.”
An absolutely true sentiment, but is this not what Velvet Revolver, the “New” Guns N’ Roses, and the onslaught of tell-all books really are? They’re all vicarious extensions, trying in vain to recapture a glorious past. Even though the former two groups were entertaining and fun, compared to the Illusion-era lineup, everything after it merely goes through the motions.
“There were always ample warnings / There were always subtle signs / And you would have seen it coming / But we gave you too much time.”
The signs were there: the cracks in the band were larger than they seemed. But when one looks back on it, there was no way that Guns N’ Roses were going to survive after the Use Your Illusion World Tour. The firing of Steven Adler was masked by the upgrade to Matt Sorum, but the delayed release of Use Your Illusion I and II, the departure of Izzy Stradlin, and Rose’s illogical obsession with the works of Anne Rice were all cracks and blows that, when mounted on top of each other in conjunction, were more than any group could overcome. Although was only a matter of time before the band was undone by their own machinations, this devolution is something that everyone should have seen coming miles away.
“14 Years” to “Estranged”
6. “14 Years”
“It’s been 14 years of silence / It’s been 14 years of pain / It’s been 14 years that are gone forever and I’ll never have again.”
It took Axl Rose almost 15 years to the day to release a followup album to The Spaghetti Incident? (1993), and it was a decade and a half rife with silence on Axl’s part, pain on the part of the fans, and time wasted for all parties involve. Rose spent 14 years during the prime of his life writing and recording songs, some of which have yet to see the light of day. The fans were made fools of year after year as they eagerly awaited the arrival of Chinese Democracy, drooling over any ancillary tidbit of information to whet an insatiable appetite.
Whenever I hear this song lyric, I can’t help but feel sorry for the unjustified hype waiting for an album that, although being a solid compilation of material, could never meet such impossible expectations. The potential for a rebooted Guns N’ Roses was wasted. After standing idly by for 15 years not only in music, but in love, and life, Rose threw away a chunk of time he can never earn back. If nothing else, that will always be the real tragedy of Guns N’ Roses.
“Yesterday’s got nothing for me.”
Yesterday is in fact all any of the band members have today. We listen to Chinese Democracy and Velvet Revolver because of what came before them. We do so out of allegiance to the history of the musicians involved. Because they wasted so much time bickering or sitting idle, the best days of any of the members are behind them. Slash’s Snakepit, Adler’s Appetite, Loaded, and whatever the hell Izzy Stradlin does are all attempts to move on from Guns N’ Roses, just as “New” Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver were as well. It doesn’t work though, because following something as mammoth as Guns N’ Roses, there was no moving on. Axl’s gag-rule on anything pertaining to before the dawn of this millennium and Slash’s growing aggravation at the mention of Guns N’ Roses are clear indications that the two biggest egos of the band want nothing to do with the past, even though that same past is what most of their fans enjoy the most. None of them will ever be as big as they were back in 1991… not unless they plan a (successful) reunion tour.
“But if I call you out of habit / I’m out of love and I’ve got to have it / Would you give it to me like when we both knew we had it?”
Speaking of a reunion tour, sometimes it’s fun to bring the old band back together. Between Velvet Revolver and the fact that Axl has played shows with every important member of the band besides Slash, maybe a reunion isn’t too far off. (Disclaimer: it is too far off.) The past is the past, and with Guns N’ Roses it’ll most likely stay that way, but every so often it’s nice to see some of the old magic with Stradlin or McKagen on stage with Rose.
9. “Pretty Tied Up”
“Once there was this rock and roll band rolling on the streets / Time went by and it became a joke.”
Guns N’ Roses went from being the biggest band on the planet to the butt of jokes made by high school contrarian Cobain apologists who think they alone have the true knowledge of rock music. Chinese Democracy, much like Axl Rose, became a lampoon of itself, Slash became a guest star on Nickelodeon, and the former band members hate each other more than Ace Frehley hates Paul Stanley, and even more than the Van Halens hated David Lee Roth back in 1996. They’ve become synonymous with bloat and rock ‘n’ roll excess. To the untrained eye and those who don’t know any better, Guns N’ Roses became the worst kind of joke: a joke that was never funny to begin with.
“I’ll never find anyone to replace you / Guess I’ll have to make it thru this time / Oh this time, without you.”
This line is far more powerful than mere prophecy: for Guns N’ Roses, it’s the all-encompassing truth. Scott Weiland could not replace Axl Rose. Buckethead, Bumblefoot, Tommy Stinson, Richard Fortus, Brain, Frank Ferrer, and above a dozen others could never replace Slash, Izzy, Duff, and Steven or Matt. No one ever will. Velvet Revolver and “New” Guns N’ Roses will always fail because they are constantly trying to replace the members that aren’t in those groups. All of those guys who made up the classic lineup of Guns N’ Roses are irreplaceable, and I suspect that it’s a truth that, while unpleasant for some to digest, they all know to be true.