Axl Rose's birthday was yesterday, but one thing has not changed since last year: Chinese Democracy remains the most expensive album ever produced. Fifteen years and $13 million went into making the 14-track album; about a million bucks and a year, for each song.
No record has been as anticipated as Chinese Democracy was; it's become shorthand for albums that are impossibly delayed. Indeed, the record's shadow loomed so that at my 10-year high school reunion (in 2008, the year the album came out) I didn't ask people what they had done over the last decade; I asked them what they thought of Chinese Democracy.
I didn't have a hell of a lot else to talk about. Most people at the Providence event were living in Pawtucket, RI, roofing for their dad's construction company to pay child support and ducking off to the gents every ten minutes to blow rails of Xanax. I was slightly amazed that we had anything to talk about, but the wait for Chinese Democracy provided a common thread.
What did they say? By and large they furrowed their brows, waggled their chins and said “Eh… it's not bad.”
Correct. Someone cut this man a line of Valium.
More on why the album is underrated below, but first this: I've always loved Axl Rose and I always will. He's the brains behind the band who first lit my fiery pre-adolescent passion for rock and roll. We're both moody little shits from working-class families in culturally impoverished communities, both possessed with cockroach-like tenacity and impeccable taste.
Axl Rose is what happens when someone like myself gets way too much money for his own good. I admire Axl when he punches out a rogue camera man or when he gets into an altercation with some TSA Gestapo. I love the chest protectors, kilts and impossibly high sneakers that say “AXL” on the tongue.
Around 1994, the time GnR had last put out a record, I totally checked out of mainstream music. If it wasn't raging powerviolence blast beats or painfully slow sludge rock, I didn't care. Still, even when I dismissed any record that pressed over 500 copies, I still defended Guns N Roses tooth and nail. The Spaghetti Incident?, the punk covers album everyone loves to hate, got more play on my Walkman than whoever was headlining Lollapalooza that year, because GnR are as vital, ugly and real as your first fuck while alt rock was and remains contrived, tepid and sexless.
Therein lies some of the fun with Guns N Roses; Alt rock squares and indie sophisticates either don't get it or associate GnFnR with some sort of guilty, ironic pleasure. The latest fads in middle-class, college-educated indie rock come and go. But what never goes out of style is balls out, dope-and-booze-fueled rock and roll made by hardcore degenerates who just don't give a fuck what the record industry or rock critics think.
Axl Rose is my Jim Morrison, my Marilyn Manson and my Kurt Cobain all rolled into one. So while Chinese Democracy might be a little silly at moments (I've referred to it more than once as “Axl gets his G.E.D.” due to song titles like “Catcher in the Rye,” “Madagascar” and “Riad 'N the Bedouins”), it's got way more life than anything you'll see at Coachella this year.
The album isn't the great Guns N Roses record, of course. It's not even a good GnR record. It is, however, a collection of ten years of Axl Rose's personal musical proclivities, dalliances and passing infatuations. What you hear when you listen to Chinese Democracy is less a cohesive statement than Axl's diary. It's the LiveJournal of
Guns N Roses Axl Rose solo albums.
And that's what makes it so compelling. In a world where pop music is now made either by computer program or committee, Axl Rose was able to single-handedly shepherd his dream to fruition. Who's going to tell him that he couldn't? He's got too much money for that. If Guns N Roses were the last band that believed in sex, drugs and rock and roll, Chinese Democracy was the last great bloated dinosaur record.
Now go get yourself some Night Train. And bottoms up.