I was never much of a Star Wars fan, so the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that accompanied the forever-awaited release of The Phantom Menace passed by me at the time. But when I finally sat down with Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy—a long-awaited follow-up to a cultural moment that, for better or worse, defined my adolescence—I finally got what my Star Wars friends were all up in arms about, namely the casting of a newer, harsher, and daresay aged light on a once-cherished talisman.
It’s hard to listen to Chinese Democracy without any preconceptions, particularly if you’re someone whose relationship with the album became increasingly professionalized in the months and days leading up to its once-impossible-seeming release date. The leaks, which dribbled out agonizingly from February 2007 to this past June to the week before street date, only made my relationship with the album stranger; here was a relic of a time that wasn’t all that long ago but seemed like another era, the time of Street Dates Equaling The First Time You Heard The Thing*, making ill-fated deals with Best Buy even though they didn’t seem to give two shits about Axl once the press releases had gone out, jumping on the Rock Band bandwagon, and being forcibly tethered to an ill-fated publicity attempt by Dr Pepper.
Honestly, for an album that was “the most anticipated in history,” the music itself seemed to be the least important thing—although maybe that wasn’t such a bad outcome, given that its crazy mishmash of Illusion-style balladry, old-style Axl swagger, and curious early-’00s trend-hopping (was there a two-step beat in there??) sure made it sound like the process of getting Chinese Democracy to stores had been rushed for non-artistic reasons. (The sideshow of Axl’s ex-bandmates unsuccessfully trying to find a lead singer for their own semi-doomed project during the unspooling of Chinese Democracy‘s narrative only made the drumbeat for a reunion of the “real” band grow louder.)
And then, after the disappointing first-week sales, the denouement got even weirder, yet strangely appropriate for the Post-Dignity Era we all are thrashing around in: Axl posting to fan boards and having his songs marketed at strip clubs. Not to mix my movie metaphors, but it was a denouement not dissimilar to the end of The Wizard Of Oz, when the curtains are all pulled and you just find out that this guy who had been lurking in the shadows for so long, and toiling away, was really just a dude who liked to watch Dexter and who wasn’t above using an emoticon or two when he couldn’t let out an ear-bending caterwaul as a way to get his point across.
* Or at least approximately; I actually got the Use Your Illusion records the Saturday prior to its retail debut, thanks to some friends in high places. Well, next door at the record store, anyway.