Guns N' Roses Week: Use Your Illusion I and II
Over the years, many have felt that the Use Your Illusion albums by Guns N' Roses would have been better serviced as a single album offering. I've never agreed with this argument. To truly capture the emotional depth of the material, one needs to be overwhelmed by the vast intricacies that are covered over thirty-songs and three-hours. Appetite For Destruction may be a near perfect album, but the Illusion albums are more challenging and rewarding on repeat listens. Join me as I take a ride rediscovering these poetic and powerful masterpieces.
I'm out here on my own, an drifting all alone
Despite anyone's surroundings it's inevitable we all feel that we are "drifting all alone" at some point during our teenage experience. Every teen finds their own way to deal with these illusions and mine was music. When you dropped that needle, put the cassette in the deck or hit play on your CD player, we all found and hopefully continue to find something profound within these records that don't just distract us from life, but truly take us across the universe and into our own psyche. All of a sudden whatever pain we are feeling isn't quite as bad because we are reminded there are others out there having the same experience. The year 1991 may have been one of the greatest years in the history of music. R.E.M., U2, Ozzy Osborne, Tesla, Richie Sambora, Metallica, Bryan Adams, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Skid Row and Van Halen all released commercially and artistically important touchstones this year, however none caused a bigger stir and more anticipation than the simultaneous release of 'Use Your Illusion Volume I and II' by Guns N' Roses. In a day and age when records leak sometimes months in advance, I don't think I will ever be able to explain to someone younger than me how momentous the anticipation was for these albums. For me, the wait was unbearably agonizing and when they were finally released; I had to be the first to hear it.
Everybody needs some time…on their own
I was a model child growing up. Don't get me wrong, I still felt angst, thought the universe misunderstood me and often felt that impending doom enveloped our existence. However, I didn't distress my parents with the customary teen troubles; drinking, smoking or taking the car out for a spin before you're sixteen. I think the worse thing I did in my teen years was break curfew a few times. My parents did a rather extraordinary job of raising me and my younger sister; they were strict but were always fair and surrounded us with more love than any kid could ever dream of. However, when either of us did anything inappropriate, even though it was a footnote compared to what other kids were doing, they came down on us hard. It apparently worked because we usually never did it again. Except for one time when I bucked the system. This would be something my sister would never let me forget.
At some point in high school, my younger sister was caught for something unbecoming and she felt my parents were being unjust in administering her punishment. I don't even remember what she did to reap my parent's stare of disappointment, so it could not have been anything "that bad". Nevertheless, in the midst of this discourse she lashed back at my parents trying to extinguish the flames (and throw me under a train at the same time) when she blurted out "At least I don't sneak out in the middle of the night to buy CD's like Tony used to". My parents paused for a moment, reflected on what she had said and immediately redirected the conversation back to my sister. A few hours later, my father stopped by my sister's room, peeked in and asked her "Did Tony really sneak out in the middle of the night to buy records?" She responded "yes" and apparently my father had some kind of giddy smirk on his face in relief that I did indeed break the rules every once in a while. I didn't know about this conversation until years later and in truth, to this day I am not even sure how my sister knows of this story, because I never shared it with her. I did indeed sneak out of the house to buy CD's after midnight…once. The only time this occurred was because I couldn't wait a minute longer to hear 'Use Your Illusion I & II'.
It has now been nearly fourteen-years since GNR released 'The Spaghetti Incident' and somehow, the agonizing time in between that record and what will eventually be 'Chinese Democracy' appears to be shorter than the wait between 'Appetite For Destruction' and 'Use Your Illusion'. Yes, I know you think I'm off my rocker, but think about it, once the band got off the road in December 1988, they were constantly appearing at award shows, in magazines and occasionally in concert. There was even an EP released in December of 1988 that fans relished throughout all of 1989, 'GN'R Lies', but this album was merely something to satiate our hunger until a proper follow up to 'Appetite' could be released. During the summer of 1989 in Chicago, I spent many nights listening to WVVX (103.1) to possibly hear about sightings of the band that were in town rumored to be recording. Then in early 1991, the announcement was made that Guns N' Roses would embark on their first headline tour. I thought to myself, "This must mean that the album's release date can only be around the corner"…right? I was wrong as was every other rock fan, magazine editor and Geffen Records employee. Even though the 'Use Your Illusion' tour launched in May of 1991, the album would not be released for another four-months. I remember eventually thinking I'd have the album before the school year was out and low and behold, I didn't have it in my possession until after the next school year had been in session for three-weeks!
I used to attend record shows just outside of Chicago and two pro-shot video bootlegs kept me company over the summer of 1991. The first was from the band's appearance at Rock in Rio in January '91 and the other one was from Deer Creek, Indiana in May 1991, the second stop of the tour. What made the latter so revolutionary was that it showcased a large portion of the 'Illusion' albums months before their proper release. I remember been dazed watching "Right Next Door To Hell", "Dust & Bones", "Live & Let Die", "Bad Obsession", "Double Talkin' Jive" and a pair of epic ballads; "Estranged" and "November Rain" months before these songs could be bought in stores. I had been listening to "November Rain" for years via bootleg from the bands 1986 demo sessions but this time the song was so wildly ambitious that it was downright majestic! But even with a top notch bootleg, it could not fully stop my craving for the completed albums.
I bought me an illusion
And I put it on the wall
I let it fill my head with dreams
And I had to have them all
But oh the taste is never so sweet
So how did I become the coolest kid in school for one day? I decided that I'd had enough cover stories and bootlegs to wet my appetite and it was time for the main course. I wasn't even old enough to be driving when these renowned albums were released on September 17, 1991. I can't explain it, but I needed these albums the second they were available to the public which meant 12:01am on a Monday night. This was a ludicrous time to be selling albums but I needed to be there. So what was my plan? My parents were both school teachers and usually were in bed before 11pm. We had a basement that had a back storage room that had a door that led to the outside where I could enter and exit with minimal noise. No one would notice because this was two entire floors below everyone's bedrooms. So before I went to bed, I put some extra clothes downstairs by the back door and waited for 11pm. I left my bedroom for the basement and luckily for me, everyone was asleep, so I ventured to the basement unnoticed. I made my way to the backroom, changed clothes and went out into the chilly September night on a quest. I quietly opened the garage door where my ten-speed bicycle was housed and I began my trek to Rolling Stones Records in Norridge, Illinois (approximately five-miles from my house).
At this time in my life, I was 115 pounds drenching wet and had a baby face so I was terrified I would be picked up by cops for breaking curfew. I fortunately made it to Rolling Stones Records without issue so see there were already hundreds in line which had been forming for twelve-hours. Even though it would be a short time before the discs would be in my hands, the wait seemed excruciating. I chatted with a number of fans in line and we all couldn't believe we were so close to enlightenment. I finally got inside the store; bought my 2 CD's and rode home. I immediately loaded the CD player, threw in a cassette to tape it for my walkman and let the music take me away. The whipping of Duff McKagen's bass opened 'Use Your Illusion I' followed by Izzy Stradlin and Slash's scorching guitars, the sweltering smack of Matt Sorum's drums and the ominous shrieks of the one and only Axl Rose. It was as if a new world was being opened to me. As I listened to both discs, I felt a noir-ish aesthetic overtake the music. This was more than just an album full of inconsequential songs but something cinematic. The four-years that followed 'Appetite' were legendary and the maturity and progression could be heard on each track; Izzy was channeling Keith Richards with his rag tag songwriting which while not as loud as 'Appetite' was equally dirty and sexy. Then there was Slash's searing guitar which intensified every track along with the pseudo-angst Axl incorporated into each of the thirty songs which poured like a cascade out of my stereo with awe-inspiring abandon. When the final notes of "My World" had faded, I was dizzy…and tired as hell. What I listened to wasn't just an album, but an experience.
I've worked too hard for my illusions
Just to throw them all away
The next morning, I brought the CD's with me to school. I was never the most popular kid in school, nor was I the least popular. But on September 17, 1991, I was the coolest kid in school. Not one of the other 1,500 students had these albums…but I did. The questions came fast and furious asking me if the album lived up to the hype. Without a doubt, I told them the albums were worth the wait. In retrospect, many see this as the end of Guns N' Roses as they have yet to release another proper studio album of original material since, but the truth is that September 17, 1991 was just the beginning. Over time I would love these albums, let them collect dust and rediscover them time and time again. This is the true essence of a truly magnanimous album; it messes with your mind and continues to challenge you. Songs like "You Ain't The First", "Bad Obsession", "Breakdown", "My World" and "Shotgun Blues" may appear to be filler at first but over time you wouldn't trade their placement on the record the same way you wouldn't take "Ventilator Blues" or "Revolution 9" off of 'Exile on Main Street' or 'The White Album' respectively. 'Use You Illusion' was the Gunners stab at making their version of 'Exile' and 'The White Album'. When the Rolling Stones and the Beatles released these complex masterpieces, they were widely misunderstood but over time they have become some of the most important albums ever released. Guns N' Roses were a band that pushed boundaries further than anyone ever imagined. Both the Beatles and Stones liked screwing with the system and GN'R was no different. There hasn't been a band as viral or dangerous as Guns N' Roses since. Anytime you saw or heard this band, you felt as if a primal force was at hand. Guns N' Roses was challenging themselves, their audience and the industry by expanding their sound, their songwriting and their mission. Double albums are meant to defy with the norm and at this moment in time, no one gave the middle finger to the status quo quite like Guns N' Roses.
Gonna find a way to cure this loneliness
Yeah I'll find a way to cure the pain
The 'Use Your Illusion' albums continue to invigorate me almost sixteen-years later proving how audacious these albums truly are. A song like "Locomotive" gets lost upon initial listens, but just in the last few years I've come to realize that this is potentially the most ambitious track on the album. People may think that Dizzy Reed's shining moment is on "Estranged" or "November Rain", but his real moment comes six-minutes into "Locomotive" where the minimalism of his piano takes you over and as every bit as powerful as a chilling lyric. The final two minutes of "Locomotive" are so appetizingly good you only wish that the band had performed this song on a regular basis. They were actually scheduled to perform it with Jeff Beck at their Pay-Per-View Paris show in 1992, but unfortunately Beck had to drop out at the last minute which is a shame as the live broadcast would have brought the song to the forefront. When you hear the lyric "I'll find a way to cure the pain" it fills you with more hope than anyone could ever imagine but I'm guessing most people never heard this lyric over the swirling mix of instruments. If you have overlooked it before, I suggest you check it out again.
You can find it all inside
The lyric above from "The Garden" is my favorite GN'R lyric. Those six words sum up the 'Illusion" albums and life better than anything else. The band's emotional psyche is explored profoundly here and it's inviting, haunting and disturbing as hell but it justifies our existence. We all seek answers in life and what "The Garden" is telling us is to look inside ourselves for the answers just as "November Rain" demands that we "need some time on our own" in order to "kill the pain". The emotional depth of the 'Illusion' albums is far more astounding than anyone has ever given them credit for. When Axl sings of being "sick of this life" in the Stones-esque "Dead Horses" I knew exactly how he felt before the blast-off assault instruments that impeded my eardrums. There are several layers to the 'Illusion' albums that I'll still be excavating them sixteen-years later.
Give me a kiss before you tell me goodbye
Little did we know at the time that the length between 'Use Your Illusion' and 'Chinese Democracy' would be four-times as long, but it too will be worth the long wait. Last fall when Axl Rose strove onto stage at the Allstate Arena, just outside of Chicago, I saw a man possessed with a determination and purpose I have only witnessed a handful of times in my life. It reinvigorated my passion for Guns N' Roses and I realized that if Axl put a tenth of that same energy into 'Chinese Democracy' as he did on the concert stage, then expect the unexpected. Whether 'Chinese Democracy' breaks records or sales plateau's is not the point. What is vital is that Axl Rose is an artist who deserves to decide when his art is ready for public consumption and I will forever respect his wishes even if it means it's another five-years before 'Chinese Democracy' see's the light of day. Guns N' Roses is all about breaking the rules and only they could have inspired me to ride a bike in the middle of the night for a pair of albums. When it finally does arrive I'll listen to it with the same intensity as I did sixteen years ago with 'Use Your Illusion', albeit I may drive my car to the store at midnight this time. I wish Axl the best and hope to take my psyche on another emotional roller coaster soon, but until then, I'm having a rather great time rediscovering "Locomotive".
Seems somehow I've found the will to live
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Guns N' Roses Week: Use Your Illusion I and II