Classic Rock Crate Digger: Reimagining Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and II
One of the coolest aspects of Rhapsody is our playlist function, particularly the way it bestows upon subscribers the power to play god with rock 'n' roll history. Don't enjoy the track sequencing on The Stones' Some Girls? No problem, switch it around. Are one or two tracks on Springsteen's Wrecking Ball bumming you out? No worries, just remove them. Not enough personal favorites on Elton's Greatest Hits? Simply add them!
I'm not exactly sure why (fascination with the Rock Hall reunion drama, probably?), but I recently felt an urge to apply these divine powers to Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and II. Sprawling, daunting and, at times, utterly interminable, these records cry out for editing.
Usually, rock bands drop a few albums before diving into overblown pretense requiring three or more years of studio masturbation, but not the mighty GnR. No sir. They dove in with their sophomore effort (I mean, efforts). At the time of their release in the fall of 1991 (just as grunge was about to take off, interestingly enough), I definitely liked stretches of both records, but I was also aware that as listening experiences from beginning to end they were significantly inferior to Appetite for Destruction, one of the most perfectly sequenced hard-rock albums I have ever heard.
Twenty years later (wow, time flies), I find my attitude has changed very little. Use Your Illusion I and II contain a lot of great tunes that are, sadly, lost amid an avalanche of interchangeable glam-punk sleaze ("Garden of Eden," "Right Next Door to Hell," "Shotgun Blues"), Axl's sundry art-rock epics ("Civil War," "November Rain," "Coma"), and stupid insult anthems ("Get in the Ring," "Back Off Bitch," the proto-nü-metal "My World").
After some heavy trimming and reconfiguring, I came up with a single track list that I believe would've been hailed as yet another classic album from GnR (had the boneheads not gone off the deep end in the early 1990s). Here's the album they should have released.
You Could Be Mine
Dust N' Bones
Garden of Eden
You Ain't the First
Pretty Tied Up
Double Talkin' Jive
Don't Cry (original)
Side A, tracks 1 through 5, are the aural equivalent of sneaking a sawed-off into a mall and venting all your rage in the food court. It's more or less a three-way pile-up involving Aerosmith's Rocks, AC/DC's Highway to Hell and The Dead Boys' Young Loud and Snotty. In other words, it's raging punk-metal-boogie that's manic, dense, vile and absurdly pornographic. I slip Izzy's acoustic-Stones bummer "You Ain't the First" into the sixth spot as both brief respite and a portent of the disillusionment to come. Closing the side is one of Axl's extended numbers, the funky "Locomotive," which doesn't sound far removed from Mother Love Bone's Funkadelic-meets-Zeppelin stylings.
The B side picks up where the flip left off, with more kinky funk ("Pretty Tied Up"). That said, vibes turn bad in a hurry (my way of capturing the deleterious turmoil then drowning the group). I modeled the stretch consisting of tracks 9 to 14 after the second half of Exile on Main St., which is just so intensely fractured, confused and weary.
Izzy, who plays a prominent role on my Use Your Illusion, returns with "Double Talkin' Jive" before giving way to atmospheric downer "Don't Cry." After that, the pain and heartache become only more in your face with "14 Years" (fantastic keys) and Duff's wasted oddity "So Fine." Compared to everything around it, "Yesterdays" feels upbeat (I ain't looking back, bro ...), but in reality it's a thinly veiled yearning for what the Small Faces once called "long agos and worlds apart" -- youth, innocence, happiness.
The album closes with one more epic from Axl. His best, really. Much like "Rocket Queen," the closer on Appetite, "Estranged" encapsulates the singer's bipolar freakery, violently swinging as it does from torment and dread ("When no one I know can seem to help me now") to delusional gospel redemption ("With all the changing seasons of my life, maybe I'll get it right next time"). I've long believed that most of Axl's "love" songs are actually inner dialogs between the multiple personalities calling his body home; that's why their narratives are so jagged and abstruse. By closing the record with the line "I never wanted it to die," I leave fans reeling with a delicious slice of dream-is-over mythology (of course, nobody in 2012 is reeling, but had my version been released back in the day, maybe).
My Use Your Illusion definitely reflects my own biases. I've always been a big Izzy Stradlin guy, the Keith Richards/Ronnie Wood of the lot. I feel like he (more than Slash, actually) served as GnR's anchor to the vintage boogie of The Stones, Faces, even Aerosmith. His groovy earthiness helped ground Axl's flighty (psychotic?) pretensions. Also, he's one hell of a songwriter. Stradlin is all over "Dust N' Bones," "14 Years," "You Ain't the First" and "Double Talkin' Jive." On the other hand, his solo albums since leaving the band in 1991 reveal his own weaknesses. He makes really solid, riff-heavy forays into retro-classic rock -- but in the end, they lack Axl's warped sense of vision.
It's really a shame the original lineup of Guns N' Roses imploded so quickly.