Using My Illusion: Building The Perfect Third Guns N' Roses Album.
Part I: Why Are We Even Talking About This?
It's been a rough last couple of months. I've been attempting to survive on my income from working at the magazine ever since last fall, when the last of the three bookstores that employed me over the course of the past 12 years went out of business. I don't make much, but if I'm careful, I can get by. However, life is full of unforeseen circumstances, and between car problems and medical expenses, I've been hit hard over the last few months. My records, which have remained in boxes ever since I moved into my current apartment two years ago for lack of adequate shelving, have started to come into play as a resource to help make ends meet. Even though they've been cooped up for as long as they have, I haven't been able to make myself sell very many of them--too much sentimental value, too strong a belief that one day I'll get my shit together and be able to display and listen to them again--but I have been dipping into the boxes when I need extra cash. I hate doing it, but a few times over the last few months, it's been unavoidable.
The last time I was at my local used record store (Steady Sounds on W. Broad St), I was keeping myself occupied while Marty, one of the owners, was checking out the records I'd brought in. I'm fascinated by cassettes, for reasons I have previously written about, and so I always check the tiny cassette rack that they keep in a neglected corner of the store. This time, I found copies of Use Your Illusion, Parts I and II, for a dollar each. After checking to make sure they both still had the pressure pad (they did), I decided that if I got enough for my records that I had money left over after covering my imminent bills, I was going to buy these two tapes. It didn't end up mattering, though, because when I told Marty I wanted to buy the two tapes, he grinned and said, "You know what? I'll throw those in." Good guy, Marty. If you're in the area, you should definitely stop in at Steady Sounds--you can buy whatever the heck I've had to sell this month.
Anyway, thanks to Marty's generosity, I found myself the owner of two Guns N' Roses albums I hadn't owned since late adolescence. Back in 1991 when Use Your Illusion was initially released, I was 15 and at a transitional point in my life. In the process of transforming from an early-adolescent metalhead to a late adolescent punk, I'd picked up Nevermind (released only a week after the Use Your Illusion two-fer) around the same time, and cut off my mullet (which still seemed unironically cool to me in the early 90s) in favor of a spiky Sid Vicious-style punk haircut by the end of that year. But Appetite For Destruction had been my favorite album in 1988, and the buildup to the release of Use Your Illusion had been rolling for so long and accumulated so much hype that there was no way I wouldn't buy it once it was finally available. It's funny, by the way--at the time, the wait between G'n'R Lies and Use Your Illusion, which lasted just under three years, seemed interminable. I'm sure that was partly because I was between the ages of 12 and 15, and time just moves slowly when you're doing that much growing. But regardless, after waiting 15 years for Chinese Democracy, in hindsight the time between Guns N' Roses' second and third albums seems like an eyeblink.
Even at 15, I knew that two double albums was too fucking much music to release all at once, as something that at least fit some definition of a unified album. At 30 songs and nearly 160 minutes, it was even harder to digest in a single sitting than other sprawling double albums I'd encountered by that point in my life--Quadrophenia, The White Album, hell, even Chicago Transit Authority (don't scoff until you've listened to "Free Form Guitar") were much easier to absorb. I tried at the time to condense Use Your Illusion into one album, and was generous enough to use a 90 minute blank tape rather than the length of a single CD (which is around 10 minutes shorter). I still couldn't really figure out what to keep and what to get rid of. I was taken in by the hype, in a number of different ways. Were all those long songs obvious bloat, or were they the album's indispensable centerpieces? "Coma," from Use Your Illusion I, at 10:14 the longest track on the album, seemed like it must be of paramount importance. But what about "Estranged," which occupied a similar role on Use Your Illusion II and was 9:24 in its own right? Could I cut "The Garden" despite its prominent guest vocal by Alice Cooper? What about all those songs that Izzy sang lead on? Hell, what about the song Duff sang lead on?
In some ways, it's really depressing to think about how long it's been since I sat on my bed on Saturday afternoons trying to figure out these issues. But the perspective provided by a couple decades away from these albums has clarified a lot of my feelings about them. Listening to them over the past couple of weeks, I've developed a fresh viewpoint on this material that perhaps would have been impossible to derive at the time. These days, it seems a lot of people consider Appetite For Destruction to be the only completely worthwhile thing Guns N' Roses ever did. G'n'R Lies has some good songs, but is spotty and two-faced--obviously nothing that was ever intended to hold together as a complete album. Chinese Democracy is a universal laughingstock (although honestly, I like it, and I'm not the only one). And the consensus on Use Your Illusion seems to be that yeah, it's got a few good songs, but for the most part, it isn't worth the trouble. In 1991, people said that it was overlong, but pretty solid; clearly, the conventional wisdom has drifted a bit southward since those days. So to say this in 2013 puts me a good bit farther out on a limb than I would have been in, say, January 1992, but I'm going to say it anyway: Use Your Illusion's only true crime was its length. With a good editor, Guns N' Roses could have released a significantly shorter album that would have shut down the doubters and stood the test of time. It would never be the equivalent of Appetite For Destruction, but it could at least have left a positive impression in hindsight. At this point, I think I finally have the proper perspective to create the edited version that these guys always needed. And since no one else seems to give a fuck at this point, why shouldn't I be the one to put it together?
Part II: The Format
Here's what I decided: I needed to get Use Your Illusion down to the length of a single CD--somewhere below the 79:57 threshold. I wanted to sequence it so that it'd split up pretty evenly across a double vinyl LP. I figured I'd have to cut around half of the songs in order to do this, and some would be more justified than others. What stood out to me in researching this album and its lengthy trail of singles, videos, and ancillary releases was the fact that seemingly everything that had been recorded during the years of sessions for Use Your Illusion had made it to the final album. Singles like "You Could Be Mine," "November Rain," and "Don't Cry" had either album tracks, or worse, A-sides from previous albums, as their B-sides ("November Rain"'s B-side was "Sweet Child O' Mine"). So I figured the better outtakes could be used as B-sides, which probably would have boosted single sales and created some excitement around releases that didn't really matter to fans at the time.
This sort of use could also have been beneficial for a few of the most worthwhile tracks from 1993's "The Spaghetti Incident?", a cover album the majority of which had been recorded during the Use Your Illusion sessions, then retracked with Gilby Clarke on rhythm guitar once Izzy Stradlin left the band. It sold a few copies at the time of its release, and as I remember, the cover of 1957 Skyliners doo-wop track "Since I Don't Have You" got a fair bit of play on MTV at the time. Still, make no mistake, "The Spaghetti Incident?" is a throwaway collection of mostly-mediocre versions of what amount to hoary old chestnuts in the punk world (though maybe they still had some novelty value for Axl and co, who--aside from Duff--were more like metalheads with a side interest in the New York Dolls and Sex Pistols than anything else). It probably should never have come out, and even its three or so best songs only deserve secondary B-side status. But we'll talk about that below.
Part III: The Songs I Cut
Figuring out what to drop is a three-part process, each of which is more difficult than the last. But in the interest of getting through this as quickly as possible, let's start with the easy part.
None of this shit should ever have seen the light of day. If Axl hadn't been so wealthy and on top of the world at the time, he still would have been a bipolar control freak with anger management issues, but his megalomania probably wouldn't have escalated to the point that he'd have included any of this stuff. Unfortunately, no one was in a position to challenge him at the time. Let's go song by song and explain why someone should have.
"My World" (1:24): This 90-second raging blurt of drum machines and third-rate industrial cliches stands at the very end of Use Your Illusion II like a dictionary illustration for the word "anticlimax." It's barely more than a single verse over a pounding backbeat, and contains porno samples of girls moaning, as if it's a bad Lords Of Acid or 2 Live Crew song. It barely justifies itself as a song, and how it ended up on the album is an even bigger mystery than our next rejection.
Preferred destination: the cutting-room floor
"Get In The Ring" (5:41): Believe it or not, this one confused me as a 15 year old. Were Axl's name-naming rants against journalists actually an important component of this overall sprawling statement? And what about the fact that the verse riff and chorus are really quite catchy, and that the song really kind of holds up, at least until 2:50 in, when the rant starts? Maybe if I could have gone into the studio with these guys and forced them to do a shorter edit of this track without the complaining... but for this edit, I decided that the songs had to stand up in their final, released form, and oh good lord, this song does not. Yes, it's kind of hilarious to realize that someone sold millions of albums that contained this particular sentence: "Bob Guccione Jr at Spin--what are you, pissed off because your dad gets more pussy than you? Fuck you! Suck my fuckin' dick!" but calling this childish harangue "not a good look" for Axl is the understatement of the century. "Get In The Ring" stands as a firm testament to just how off the rails Guns N' Roses already were at this point. No one should ever have heard this song.
Preferred destination: On a DAT that wasn't found until a police raid of one of Axl's condominiums sometime in the mid-2000s, at which point it'd get leaked onto youtube by Perez Hilton or TMZ and everyone (except Axl, of course) would have a good laugh.
"Live And Let Die" (3:04): Cutting a 30 song album's two covers is an obvious choice, but it's also important to note that this cover is an over-the-top slice of ridiculousness, featuring horn sections and what sounds like timpani, flutes, and other orchestral flourishes, all produced within an inch of its life. Covering this is a bad idea in itself, and the final result is fucking awful.
Preferred destination: Some soundtrack that nobody bought for a big-budget flop movie that nobody saw. It could have replaced "Sympathy For The Devil" on the Interview With The Vampire soundtrack or something, and "Sympathy" could have stayed on the Fallen soundtrack and then only been in one movie instead of two. But hey, pick a big-budget disaster from that era. Any of them will do.
"Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (5:36): This is another matter entirely. G'n'R had been playing this track live since early Appetite days, and they had a great version of it that they really made their own. Even with the soulful gospel backup vocals by The Waters, which I really don't think belong, this is a track I consider very worthwhile, and it definitely needed to come out. The thing is, it already had--it was on the soundtrack to Days Of Thunder in 1990. So why rerelease it? I guess once you're planning to do two entire double albums, you may as well throw it in there, but if we're trying to be at all judicious, this one stays cut. It can be a treat for the fans who dropped the money for the soundtrack, rather than making them feel like idiots for bothering when it shows up on the album a year later.
Preferred destination: see above.
"Don't Cry (original)" (4:45): One of the versions of "Don't Cry" had to go, and while this is the version that was a hit single, it's the version I'm choosing to cut, because it has really generic love song lyrics that seemed Mickey-Mouse to me even at 15. The alternate lyrics are significantly better, and deserve to be the ones everyone remembers.
Preferred destination: "Don't Cry" 7-inch B-side. The "Don't Cry" single was just both versions of the song, with the "(alt. lyrics)" version on the B-side. Why not just flip the versions, and give fans who bought the single a version of the song that they didn't already hear on the album?
Other people's songs:
I don't really know why any of these songs made it onto the album, but I feel that they diluted the thematic unity of the album by making G'n'R sound less like a unified band and more like a bunch of dudes all in the studio demanding a turn at the mic. These guys weren't the Beatles, and they shouldn't have tried to adopt the Beatles model once they got famous enough that they could get away with it. All it did was make them less good. So here are some tracks I'd cut because they aren't really Guns N' Roses anyway.
"So Fine" (4:06): Um, sorry Duff. But yeah, this is a pretty boring nonentity of a track, one of a significant portion of songs that I rediscovered upon my recent re-acquisition, because I had completely forgotten it in the interim. It's eminently forgettable--a ballad that McKagan wrote for Johnny Thunders, who died six months before Use Your Illusion came out. That's sweet, as is Duff's solo cover of "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" on "The Spaghetti Incident?" But there's no way in this world that this song justifies inclusion on this album. Duff's hackneyed bar-band blues cliches and ridiculously slurred vocal delivery are just cheesy as hell. Ugh.
Preferred destination: What about a one-off Duff McKagan solo single with this on the A-side and "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" on the flip? They could have advertised that the members of Guns N' Roses guest-starred on the A-side, and fans who bought the single as a novelty would thrill to Axl's deep croon on the first few lines of each verse of "So Fine." Plus, it'd be a lot more accurate to call the B-side a true Duff solo song, since he himself sang lead, played acoustic guitar, bass, and drums on it, and was backed by some guy named Richard Duguay on lead guitar, rather than anyone from G'n'R.
"Dust N' Bones" (4:58), "You Ain't The First" (2:36), "14 Years" (4:21): Time to perform a similar triage on Izzy. What was the deal with so many of his lead vocal turns making it onto the album, and in such prominent positions? All of these tracks are boring Rolling Stones retreads, with "You Ain't The First" standing as Izzy's attempt to knock off the acoustic tracks from Exile On Main Street (and failing miserably). The other two here are better only in the sense that forgettable mediocrity wins over dumb crap. There was a fourth Izzy lead vocal on the album, "Double Talkin' Jive," but I left it out of this segment for a reason. We'll talk about it later.
Preferred destination: Izzy quit the band six months later anyway. Couldn't he have saved these for the first JuJu Hounds LP or whatever? Alternately, assuming he wasn't planning his exit by the time Use Your Illusion came out (and maybe he wasn't--I really don't know), maybe place these as B-sides of the "Yesterdays" single. "14 Years" as the 7 inch B-side, with both "Dust N' Bones" and "You Ain't The First" on the 12 inch/CD maxi-single. It could definitely work if Izzy could be talked into it.
This is the really difficult part. Now that we've dropped nine obviously out of place tracks, what do we do to whittle things down from 21 songs and still somewhere north of 100 minutes to make it all fit on one CD? One song at a time, I suppose.
"Bad Apples" (4:28): The first to go once I reached this stage. This is an Axl song that is open to the same criticisms I directed at the Izzy songs we were discussing above. If anything, though, I feel like Axl was less trying to knock off the Stones than he was attempting to jump on that 70s boogie revival that folks like Great White and Faster Pussycat were having short-lived success with at the time. Slash, Duff, and Izzy all helped write this one too, so I'm sure Izzy's influence was part of that, but the barrelhouse boogie piano makes me think of Jack Russell doing "Once Bitten Twice Shy." And whoever wrote that Living Colour-style riff that starts and ends the song should be ashamed.
Preferred destination: The "Don't Cry" maxi-single--either in 12 inch vinyl or 3 song CD form--could have included this track after both versions of "Don't Cry." I think it would work there. And if you're a big enough G'n'R fan to pick that thing up just to hear a single outtake and an alternate version of "Don't Cry" with inferior lyrics, you'll probably be a big enough fan to enjoy this song.
"Bad Obsession" (5:29): Haha oh lord. Here's another embarrassing pile of post-glam neo-blooze boogie garbage. What the hell were these guys listening to in the studio? Did they really think they needed to compete with Taime Downe or the guys in Tesla or something? Slash's turn on slide guitar is well done, and I'm sure they were stoked to have Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks play harmonica, but the only thing I really remembered about this song is the part where Axl yarls "I call my mother... she's just a cunt now." I don't get along too well with my mother either, but that's just in poor taste.
Preferred destination: I'm not sure if there was a "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" single when it came out on Days Of Thunder, nor if any of the other tracks recorded for Use Your Illusion were finished enough to show up as B-sides on said single, but this is an alternate reality trip here, so let's pretend they were. We can put "Bad Obsession" on the 7 inch B-side, and to keep some thematic unity, put the (not-specifically-too-great) version of Peter Laughner's immortal "Ain't It Fun" from "The Spaghetti Incident?", which also features Michael Monroe, on the maxi-single. Bonus--if that decision had been made, the released version of "Ain't It Fun" would have had Izzy on guitar. And maybe it would have been better. Maybe.
"Shotgun Blues" (3:23): This is where things start to get difficult. There's nothing inherently terrible about "Shotgun Blues," and it's definitely a continuation of the classic G'n'R sound from Appetite. But it's just not A-grade material. In fact, I'd say it gets a C-minus. That "Eh, you're blowing smoke/I think you're one big joke" bit is a really phoned-in insult from Axl, who should do better. It's the way the song ends that really pushes it into "outtake" territory, though. While Axl's brief rant ("You think anyone with an IQ over 15 would believe your shit? Fuckhead!") is not as facepalm-worthy as "Get In The Ring," it is distractingly bad, and makes you wonder who the hell he was ranting at on this track. Steven Adler seems like a likely candidate.
Preferred destination: Throw this one on the 12 inch/CD maxi-single for "You Could Be Mine" and hope everyone forgets about it.
"Pretty Tied Up" (4:48): The pseudo-sitar at the beginning gives me weird premonitions of Chinese Democracy's "Riad N The Bedouins," but I liked that song a lot better than this one, which just kicks into another dated-sounding post-glam boogie riff once it gets going. Subtitled "The Perils Of Rock N' Roll Decadence," this track's lyrics are strange to me. They stop short of full-scale condemnation of the groupies that bands like Guns N' Roses used to sleep with back on the Sunset Strip, but they definitely seem to take a condescending attitude about those girls "knowing their place" and not being "gold diggers" or whatever. I feel like they're going "We've used these girls for years and now that we're famous they want something back from us--that's fucked up," which is a much more fucked-up attitude to take than they think. Other songs on this album might seem more misogynistic on the surface (don't worry, we'll get there) but I think "Pretty Tied Up" is the track with the deepest expression of those types of feelings. And the music is in no way good enough to offset that--so away it goes.
Preferred destination: The combo of this track on the 7 inch and "Shotgun Blues" on the maxi-single would have been a nice double-dose of immature rockstar attitudes for the B-side of "You Could Be Mine," right? I think so.
"Coma" (10:14): Well, here we go. With six songs (20% of the album's tracks) clocking in at over 7 minutes, something was going to have to give. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that "Coma" had to be the one to go. It's a fascinating track on some levels; based around a cranking heavy riff from Slash, the main verses are dark and driving. Listening to Axl attempt to process his issues with bipolar disorder, mood swings, drug problems, and continual self-destructive behavior through a long, sprawling lyric seemingly sung from inside the head of a rock star (presumably Axl himself) who has finally pushed things too far and torn his entire life apart, putting it in real danger of ending, is fascinating. Lyrical passages like "I wish you could see this--because there's nothing to see. It's peaceful here and it's fine with me. Not like the world where I used to live. (I never really wanted to live.)" and "I wish that I could help you with what you hope to find, but I'm still out here waiting, watching reruns of my life" are insightful and affecting. Did it help him to write this song? 22 years later, seeing how he still behaves, I'd have to say no. If anything, I'm sure Axl is just in a different terrible mental place than the one he was in in 1991. And that's sad. But what about "Coma"? What do we do with this song? Well, honestly, the reason I chose to cut it is that it drags on several minutes too long. The dramatic interludes--with the doctors zapping the patient as he flatlines and a demonic voice speaking in the background, or with several women (credited as "bitches" on the lyric sheet--charming) ranting at him about his personal failings--attempt to add melodrama, but end up overwrought and wasting time that could be trimmed from the song's bloated length. The final two minutes, in which the band plays the last riff over and over as Axl rattles through verse after verse at top speed, seemingly trying to cram every line he'd written for the song into the amount of time he had left, is a squandering of the dramatic momentum that had previously been built up. And really, for an album whose long songs are often its greatest strength, this is the most flawed of them. So it goes.
Preferred destination: I hear they released a "November Rain" 7 inch single, but how you cram a 9 minute song onto one side of a 45 (or even a 33) RPM 7 inch is beyond me. It probably sounded like garbage. I certainly don't suggest plopping "Coma" on the other side of such an already-strained vinyl disc. But I do think it'd be cool to see this track on a 12 inch/CD maxi-single backing "November Rain." As a track placed as a centerpiece of an overlong album, "Coma" is a bit of a letdown. As a single B-side, it's probably good enough to cause a fair amount of excitement amongst a rabid fanbase. It could hold the same kind of "ultimate revered B-side" role in the fan community as "Yellow Ledbetter" does in the Pearl Jam fan world.
"The Garden" (5:22): This was difficult. As a 15 year old, I had plenty of friends who thought "The Garden" was garbage, and I'd always end up going, "I don't know, I kinda like it," immediately getting shouted down by my friends in amusedly aghast derision. I didn't fight too hard with my friends about it, because I knew--and still know--that this song doesn't quite work. Alice Cooper was in a late career renaissance at the time, scoring Top 40 hits at the tail end of the glam era with tracks like "Poison" and "Feed My Frankenstein," so it made sense to have him do a star turn on this track. However, the parts of the song that don't contain Cooper's vocals are the good parts. The song's mellow, airy, and somewhat wistful verses and guitar breaks make me think of Blind Melon a little bit--which makes sense, as Shannon Hoon is all over Use Your Illusion (his guest appearances were why I knew who Blind Melon were when they came out with their debut a year later)--but "The Garden" was actually co-written by Axl and West Arkeen, who also helped write "It's So Easy," "Yesterdays," and a few other G'n'R tracks before dying of a drug overdose in 1997. I'm not sure if it's his contributions that give this track its otherworldly air, but I definitely dig that part of the song. However, with Alice Cooper butting in every so often to make the whole thing sound a bit off, I have to axe this one.
Preferred destination: Well, if there was a "November Rain" 7 inch--or, more likely, a cassette single--this would be the perfect B-side. Combining this song with "Coma" and "November Rain" for a 12 inch/CD maxi-single actually results in a 25 minute release, which probably would have seemed like enough of a bargain to drive sales. Ah, what might have been.
"Double Talkin' Jive" (3:29): This is the only song here that I almost put on the final album. I really like the chorus ("get the money, motherfucker, cuz I've got no more patience"). The thing that ended up forcing me to axe this track is the Izzy vocal on the verses. It's just so boring and forgettable that it fades into the background. The result is that this song sounds like a brilliant chorus marooned within a sea of monotonous thudding. There's nothing else here but the chorus, really. No harmonic or melodic color at all. It's just a slate-grey wall of perfect boredom. It sounded weak next to the other songs that made the final cut, so at the last minute, I switched it out.
Preferred destination: "Civil War" was originally the B-side to "You Could Be Mine," which was a terrible idea. They finally figured out it deserved a single of its own around 1993, I guess because so many other singles from these two albums had done well. The B-sides were just other tracks from the album, though. Instead, the "Civil War" 7 inch/cassette single should have gotten this track, and the maxi-single could have also carried the covers of "Attitude" (Misfits) and "Human Being" (New York Dolls) that eventually ended up on "The Spaghetti Incident?" All of the other tracks from "Spaghetti Incident?" that I haven't already placed somewhere should probably just never have been released.
Part IV: The Final Album
So this is it: 14 songs, 78 minutes, which I think would have added up to a truly dominant followup for Guns N' Roses. The result will all fit on one CD, but I also put it together in a way that would split well into four sides of a double LP, and I'll group these tracks according to those four sides. For the most part I left the order the same as it would be if you placed the current versions of Use Your Illusion I & II back to back and removed everything I didn't want to keep, but there is one big change in running order, which we will discuss soon. Here we go:
"Right Next Door To Hell" (3:03): This song rules. In fact, I love it so much that, when I decided to tape over my original 90 minute mix of Use Your Illusion, I left this song at the beginning of the tape and covered the rest with a weird mix of underground shit I taped off the local university radio station. This is a fast, driving rock song that is probably as much or more punk than heavy metal, even if we're thinking of metal in the late 80s terms that made G'n'R metal in the first place (I doubt anyone would see them that way if they came out now). Izzy wrote the riffs on this track as far as I can tell, so the fact that they sound like NY Dolls/Sex Pistols riffs makes a ton of sense. The "fuck yoooouuuuuu bitch" bit that Axl leads into the guitar solo with has always struck me as a bit of a non sequitur, but I recently learned from the Use Your Illusion I wikipedia page that this song is about a female neighbor he hated, which explains a lot about this song, really.
"Perfect Crime" (2:24): After eliminating the three songs that originally stood between these two tunes, we've ended up with an excellent one-two punch to start this album--much like the one-two punch of "Welcome To The Jungle" and "It's So Easy" on Appetite, though these songs are significantly faster than those two. That's not to say that they're better--those two tracks are classics. And "Perfect Crime" isn't exactly flawless--from about 1:03 until 1:30, this song has a bunch of weird stuff going on that might have improved the song by being left off (kind of a running theme with even the best songs on this album)--but the vast majority of this track rocks and rolls quite awesomely, and the gleefully profane chorus ("Goddamn it, it's a perfect crime! Motherfucker, it's a perfect crime!") is as much fun to sing along with at 37 as it was at 15. For years and years, whenever I would get away with some shit I wasn't supposed to do at some crappy retail or fast food job I used to have, this song would pop into my head and I would cackle to myself. A truly perfect crime would probably involve something a little more severe than getting to work a half-hour late and having no one notice, but you take your small victories where you can get them when you're a lowly working-class drone.
"Back Off Bitch" (5:04): So, Axl Rose's misogynistic streak rears its ugly head once again. And maybe I should have left this song off the album for that reason. Truth to tell, it was very nearly bumped in favor of "Double Talkin' Jive." But as I said when talking about that track, I just couldn't justify including it. It wasn't a good enough song. And you may hate the things Axl says about one of his exes in "Back Off Bitch," but you can't deny that it's a rockin' enough song to deserve a spot on the edited version of this album. It may not be as fast and hard-hitting as a few other tracks here, but it definitely has the rock n' roll swagger these guys got down to a science on tracks like "Nightrain" and "My Michelle." And come on, let's be real--if you're gonna dig on Guns N' Roses records at all, from any era of their existence, there's a certain amount of problematic misogyny you are going to have to deal with. They're like the Rolling Stones that way. I would think if the lyrical content of this track was enough to scare you away, you're not reading this post in the first place.
"Locomotive" (8:42): Here's our single big-time running order switch. "Locomotive" shows up over halfway through Use Your Illusion II, and with its surroundings being tracks like "Shotgun Blues," "Pretty Tied Up," and "So Fine," it makes perfect sense at that point in the album. But I eliminated all those tracks, so now, if it stayed where it was originally located, it would stick out like a sore thumb between "Breakdown" and "Estranged," plus Side One would run through three heavy rockers and then end with "November Rain," which is just terrible flow. I had to do something, so here's "Locomotive"--two and a half sides before it would have showed up, but providing a much more appropriate emotional tenor for this point in the album. I gotta say, I love this track. I have no idea why this one ended up being an epic-length rocker--I feel like it would have worked just as well clocking in at somewhere between four and five minutes--but I don't think it suffers at all for the extra length.
The main portion of this song, which is the majority of its length, is based around a few Stonesy riffs from Slash, who does a great job of constructing a steadily building rock n' roller with a good verse, a solid pre-chorus that's clearly ramping up to an excellent chorus, and then, my favorite shit--a choppy, somewhat mathy chorus in which Matt Sorum's drumming shines like a star. Then there's a post-chorus bridge with a bunch of stompy wah-wah stabs and more awesome drum-pound from Sorum, over which Axl drops a masterful vocal part ("I know it looks like I'm insane--take a closer look. I'm not to blame") that is constructed to hide the fact that the part Slash, Sorum, and the rest of the band are playing behind him is not two but three-and-a-half lines, counted in some weird beat-dropping manner that I still don't quite get. The verses on this song are elongated enough that every time the chorus is finally reached it hits you like a six-foot wave breaking on the shore, and somehow after six minutes, you've still only gotten three of them. At the end of that third chorus/bridge sequence, Axl sings, "If love is blind, I guess I'll buy myself a cane," and at that point, an interesting but not entirely essential piano-driven coda fades in. I feel like this was Axl's "Layla" moment--it definitely sounds like something he had written that he said to Slash, "let's tack this other bit on the end of that song, give it a nice melodic fadeout." It definitely stretches "Locomotive" out more than it needed to be stretched, but it also sounds great as a side-ender, so I can't hate on it. And hearing Axl croon "Oooh, so strange..." over and over as Dizzy Reed and Slash trade melody lines like Duane Allman and Jim Gordon works for me. "Locomotive" is up there with "Right Next Door To Hell" (and a couple of tracks we haven't yet talked about) as one of the main reasons I still hold Use Your Illusion in high esteem.
"November Rain" (8:58): You know, I could have tackled this album with the goal of pretending like I had no idea what had happened when it actually came out--that I'm unaware of what the hit singles were, or which songs were most important to various members of the band, or whatever. If I had done that, I might very well have left this song off. My opinion on it has fluctuated over the years. Chuck Klosterman sorta-kinda shits on it in his book Fargo Rock City (though in fairness to Chuck, what he really hates on is the video), and at my most punk moments, I would agree with that. It's an overproduced, ridiculously layered ballad, which was performed live on some MTV special featuring both Elton John on second piano and an orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen (whose name I recognized from my dad's New York Rock Ensemble albums), but on the album is merely augmented by tracks upon tracks of synthesizers, and apparently nearly a dozen backup singers taking the form of a choir. So I mean, what kind of garbage is this from the band who wrote "Welcome To The Jungle"?
But I can't hate. The truth is, this is a masterfully written composition by Axl, who had appaently been working on it for nearly a decade by the time it was recorded. His lyrics are not nearly as complex or interesting as some of the other epic tracks here ("Locomotive" is a good example, actually, as is "Estranged"), but they're not totally dumb like "Don't Cry"'s original lyrics, so I'm cool with them. And the song was the kind of crossover hit that became the final song at prom night at high schools all across middle America for years afterwards. My stance on Elton John, and people trying to write songs like his, has softened considerably since the early 90s, and while I still won't put on one of his records by choice, I will listen to people like Lady Gaga and Axl Rose do their best imitations of him. "November Rain" is a really, really good sappy piano ballad. It's got a few blazing solos from Slash (I always got chills as the climactic solo is about to start in the video, and Slash climbs onto Axl's piano to play it; Klosterman's right, the "November Rain" video is a bit of a nonsensical clusterfuck, but the performance footage in it is cool as hell). It's probably the best-known song out of all 30 on these two original albums, and from everything I read in interviews at the time, it was regarded by Axl Rose as his masterpiece. So at the end of the day, I can't fuck with it. "November Rain" stays, and it deserves to.
"Garden Of Eden" (2:42): It's kind of funny to charge right into the most punk rock thing on this entire album as soon as the final piano and guitar notes of "November Rain" fade away, but I've listened through a few times, and the transition totally works. "Garden Of Eden" isn't much different than "Right Next Door To Hell" or "Perfect Crime"--the main difference is that Axl crams in quite a few more words, which was why the video's follow-the-bouncing-ball conceit was so funny. But it rocks just as hard, and I still love hearing it. I'm not sure how the weird sound effects that show up at spots like the beginning of the last verse got in there, but they don't wreck the flow of the song, so hey, whatever. This one's not deathless or important or epic or anything like that--it's just fun. But if you're gonna have a bunch of 7-minute epics on your album, breaking them up with catchy, fun rockers is a hell of a lot better than making everyone sit through half a dozen mediocre 70s boogie ripoffs.
"Don't Damn Me" (5:19): Even as a kid, I could tell that this one mattered. With all the 7-plus minute monsters on this album, it was easy to figure that song length was the true gauge of importance where the tracks on Use Your Illusion were concerned, but "Don't Damn Me" is the biggest hole punched in that whole theory. The fact that Axl put together some really great lyrics for this track probably wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't had some really great riffs to sing over, but Slash provided in fine fashion for this track, and the verses are upbeat and catchy as hell. There isn't a true chorus, I don't think, just a few different riffs that are in the same tempo and use some of the same chords. They switch back and forth throughout the song, with breakdowns and tempo changes to break things up being rare. And yet it all works--every time it circles back around to the riff over which Axl begins the song by singing the title, it's a thrill. And then to hear him laying out manifesto-like declarations such as "Be it a song or a casual conversation, to hold my tongue speaks of quiet reservations. Your words, once heard, can place you in a faction. My words may disturb, but at least there's a reaction," or "We take for granted that we know the whole story. We judge a book by it's cover and read what we want between selected lines. But don't hail me, and don't idolize the ink, or I've failed in my attentions. Can you find the missing link? Your only validation is in living your own life--vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time" is just outstanding. Instead of wasting his time fucking around with "Get In The Ring," Axl should have let this song stand as the response to his critics. There are so many more good lines than the ones I've quoted, and as an explanation for the way he approaches life, it holds up quite well, and explains a lot. I know Axl is struggling with something that I assume is bipolar disorder (though it may be borderline personality disorder--both would make sense), and I have to figure he was in a much better place when he wrote this song than when he wrote some of his more petulant tunes from these albums. It's a shame he didn't have the insight to keep the latter under wraps.
"Dead Horse" (4:18): Another one that I just fucking love and have a ton of sentimental attachment to. I can imagine that there are those who hate the purposely lo-fi acoustic intro, but I think it's essential. "Sick of this life, not that you care" is such a great opening line. It pops into my head a lot when I'm bummed out, but the rest of this song takes that rather dark sentiment in a slightly more positive direction. "Dead Horse" is about trying to make the best of a bad situation in an interpersonal relationship, and maybe it's about Erin Everly, or Stephanie Seymour, or ... who knows, man. I'm sure Axl wrote it about one of his intense, doomed love affairs. That's not what's important, though. What makes this track work is the country-blues riffing, Axl's passionate vocal delivery, and the way they add up to a really catchy no-frills tune that stands out so much more than a lot of the filler that bloats the original versions of this album all to hell. It's strange to think that a song that's basically just one four-chord riff could work so much better than a lot of other tracks that were significantly more complex, and yet, there we are. Someone should have gotten that shit out of the way, let this one track stand in for all of it, and moved on. It's a shame that's not what happened.
"Civil War" (7:42) It's interesting that, based on my edits, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II end up having much more contrasting and distinctive individual characters than the actual albums that were released ever had. "Civil War," which was the first song on Use Your Illusion II and begins the second 12 inch of my edited vinyl version, marks the point at which that becomes obvious. I know there are some out there who might think this song was too old to justify its appearance on this album, having been out for nearly two years by the time Use Your Illusion was released, and even featuring Steven Adler instead of superior Use Your Illusion-era drummer Matt Sorum on it. To those people, I say: You're wrong. "Civil War" is an incredibly important song in Guns N' Roses history, not to mention that it's one of the best things they ever did. To have it only ever appear on a charity compilation full of ancient rock dinosaurs would have been a fucking travesty. Nope--"Civil War" needs to be here. In the era when we were all waiting for a new G'n'R album, it stood as proof that Guns N' Roses were still good, still able to crank out something worth our time. What's more, they were growing in interesting ways that proved their talent. We'd heard them cover Bob Dylan before this, but nobody knew they could write a song this complex and multi-faceted and still make it every bit as good as "Sweet Child O' Mine." So yeah, this is an important track that absolutely needed to be here.
I'm not sure I can explain what it is about this dark, half-speed track that is also not a ballad that made it so riveting to me as a kid, and still sounds gripping even now. I feel like I'm describing its importance by talking about what it did, and not how it sounds. But if I'm not convincing you, it's a failure on my part, not this song. The darkly poetic early verse, accompanied mainly by piano and bass, has one mood, while the more dramatic guitar-driven verse that it shifts into moves things in a different direction. And it builds as it goes, accumulating a frustrated resentment culminating in Axl's accusations, spit at the powers that be in abstract terms that nonetheless make totally clear where he's coming from. It's an interesting viewpoint--an anti-war song, released at the height of the extremely popular Gulf War, that takes the position that war is bad because what we're really doing is grinding up and spitting out the working class in order to facilitate the whims of the rich people who run everything. That's why a song that talks about foreign wars the United States is involved in is called "Civil War"--because the war Axl's really concerned with is the war being waged on the kids he went to school with who join the army due to a lack of other economic options, and come home in body bags. It's all spelled out in simple terms in the chorus (which all of you still reading should be able to sing from memory right now, so I won't type it out), but I find the verses more interesting: "All these dreams are swept aside by the bloody hands of the hypnotized, who carry the cross of homicide. And history bears the scars of our civil war." It's rare you hear anyone bring these kinds of topics up, and especially in such a pointed fashion, from a position as close to the mainstream as that of Guns N' Roses in 1990. So kudos to them. I hope they got through to some people.
"Yesterdays" (3:16): This is the really great ballad on this record if you ask me. "November Rain" is cool, but this song is my jam. I can remember seeing a G'n'R special on MTV in 1988, something that was produced right around the time G'n'R Lies came out, and there was a part where Axl and Izzy were sitting on a couch, singing this song while Izzy played acoustic guitar. I only ever saw it once, but I still remembered this tune three years later when I finally got Use Your Illusion, and was stoked to hear it show up on the record. It's got an elegaic feel, to some extent, and the fact that the lyrics are about "yesterday" tends to make people think of it in the same way that they think of songs like "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" by Boyz II Men. I found a video on youtube that mixed this song's original video with clips from whoever made the video's senior year of high school, which was totally weird--mainly because "Yesterdays" has the opposite lyrical message from what that Boyz II Men song is saying. "Yesterday's got nothing for me," Axl sings on the chorus. "Some things would be better, if we'd all just let them be." Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin are from a small town in Indiana, and I'm not at all surprised that a song they wrote about looking back on the old days would have an anti-nostalgia message. Those were not the good ol' days for Axl and Izzy. They weren't the good ol' days for me either--my adolescence in a small Virginia town is an era I'm not sorry to have put completely behind me. I don't know anyone from those days anymore, and I don't have any mementos of that era of my life (unless the oldest tapes in my record collection count). I'm fine with that. Yesterday's got nothing for me either.
"Breakdown" (7:05): This is not a perfect song, but I dig it. I like the country-ish inflections that come through early on in the song, and the way the verses sound yearning and inspirational, like a song you'd put on at the beginning of a road trip. I'm not always happy with the vastly increased role of piano on Use Your Illusion, but there's a lot of piano on this song, and it works for me. In fact, I don't think this song would be nearly as good with more heavy guitars in evidence on it. Izzy plays an acoustic throughout, and I think that's just about perfect. The only thing that hurts my enjoyment of this song is on the chorus, when Axl sings the song's title, and then overdubs himself in a deep, portentous voice, saying "Lemme hear ya now." Argh! That part is dumb. But it's the only flaw in an otherwise great song, and that chorus part only comes around three times, so it's not a dealbreaker by any means. I just wish it wasn't there.
One other thing about this track--it ends with a long solo by Slash, over which Axl recites a snatch of dialogue from surreal, psychedelic early 70s crime/hot rod film classic Vanishing Point. It's a monologue originally delivered by Cleavon Little in his role as a blind disc jockey who is somehow using his radio show to narrate the main character's high-speed flight across the desert. When I finally saw Vanishing Point in 2005 (which I rented from Netflix after it was mentioned in Death Proof), I remember Cleavon Little delivering those lines and sitting on my couch thinking, "Why is this so familiar? Where have I heard this before?" It wasn't until I re-acquired Use Your Illusion a few weeks ago that I figured it out.
"Estranged" (9:24): I very nearly cut this one--perhaps in favor of "Coma," or a couple of the shorter songs. I might have done so if it weren't for the fact that the morning I was first contemplating which of these songs I'd include, I found myself with the first half of this song stuck in my head while driving around running errands. Over and over, I kept thinking, "When you're talking to yourself, and nobody's home..." and then after a few minutes, finding myself humming Slash's first guitar solo. The first few minutes of this track have an essential melancholia to them. It captures a dark, mournful mood that is one of the things I love most in music. Yeah, the video for this song was ridiculous--CGI dolphins? But it'd be unfair to think of that when I'm trying to evaluate whether this is a solid piece of music. It's really irrelevant to how deep and dark the first several minutes of this song gets. "Old at heart, but I'm only 28," Axl sighs at one point. "And I'm much too young to let love break my heart." Then later, attempting to cover his desperation with some sort of bravado, he sings, "How could you say I never needed you, when you took everything from me?" And Slash fires up the downcast electric guitar lead again, and damn. How can I deny this song? I can't.
What is a shame is that "Estranged" doesn't maintain this mood throughout. It starts digging itself out of the depths at around the 4:15 mark, and has turned into a more upbeat piano ballad by the halfway point. I don't like these later moments as much, which is funny because what the song really does to lose me, at least somewhat, is to add in a bit of hope that leavens the despair of its early moments. It never gets fully happy, so I can't even complain about that. I guess I just think it's better when it's darker. Slash's guitar solo at the 6-minute mark is still great, and there are some good lyrics and nice melodic turns later in the song. But the feeling put across in those first few minutes is apparently unsustainable, and that keeps "Estranged" from really being one of the best songs here. Still, it's pretty goddamn good.
"You Could Be Mine" (5:44): This song is the most clearcut successor to the Appetite For Destruction sound. The production is far more polished--Duff McKagan's bass lines in particular have a brightness to them that was never present on Appetite--but the midtempo guitar raunch n' roll sound here hearkens back to songs like "Welcome To The Jungle" and "Mr. Brownstone" more than anything else on this album does. I think it's for that reason that this song is one of the only ones specifically created for this album (as opposed to "Civil War" or "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," which were older) that G'n'R purists will give the credit it deserves. I used to have some friends who did a G'n'R tribute act for a while, and this was the only post-Lies song they did. It made sense. And of course, I have to include it on this album for that reason, even though the truth is that I think "You Could Be Mine" is one of the weakest tracks that's still made the cut. I mean, it runs rings around "Dust N' Bones" or "Bad Obsession," so don't get me wrong, but the fact that this is the song that people like the most from this album when "Right Next Door To Hell," "Locomotive," and "Garden Of Eden" exist is kind of a shame. But hey, it was the big advance single that doubled as a contribution to the Terminator 2 soundtrack--and it does fit well with the best of the early G'n'R tracks. So it deserves to be here. Even if I do think it's overrated.
"Don't Cry (alt. lyrics)" (4:44): And now we can finally wrap this whole thing up, with a ballad Guns N' Roses had been playing since before they recorded Appetite For Destruction and which definitely has some great guitar melodies running through its verses. And finally, without "My World" tacked on afterwards, this album has an ending track that makes sense. Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon duets with Axl on this track, and that's how I first heard of that band, but his vocals on "Don't Cry" are so high that it wasn't until I saw the video that I realized he was a man and not a woman. I knew I'd pick this version of "Don't Cry" over the original version from the second I started planning this particular edit, and lines like the opening: "If you could see tomorrow, what of your plans? No one can live in sorrow--ask all your friends," or from the final verse, "When you're in need of someone, I won't deny you. So many seem so lonely with no one left to cry to" are the reason. They are more nuanced, more intelligent, and offer a touch of ambivalence rather than a simple, straightforward love poem, and all of those elements appeal to me greatly.
Part V: Enough
So there you go. That's my one-disc/double-LP edit of Use Your Illusion. I don't have Spotify or whatever, but you should definitely turn it into a playlist and give it a listen. I guarantee that it will come across at least twice as well as the original albums did. It was never about the songs being bad, after all--it was just that there were too goddamn many of them. And now there are probably way too many goddamn words in this entry--which I have been writing all day. So let's stop here.