|Axl Rose is preparing the first record of Guns originals in 11 years. Should we still care?
By Nick Marino
Times-Union music critic
Think of popular music as one giant company.
Before a given VP of Hard Rock steps down, he usually appoints a successor, a smart junior executive with gobs of potential who can embody the company philosophy and keep the shareholders happy.
Mr. Led Zeppelin taps Mr. Aerosmith who taps Mr. Kiss and so on.
These power exchanges assure that the original exec's legacy lives and expands in the form of the new hire. And, with the exception of chairmen-for-life the Rolling Stones, the exchanges give senior bosses with declining artistic visions a discreet and much-needed exit.
From 1987 to 1991, Guns N' Roses held the key to the executive suite. Their reign started with the howling intro to Welcome to the Jungle and ended after the closing strains of November Rain, a four-year period in which Guns were unusually secure in their position at the top.
They were the Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Kiss of their generation, a heavyweight rock act with enormous cross-generational appeal and unlimited sales potential.
Kiss eventually ceded power to the equally flamboyant (and probably more talented) Van Halen. And Van Halen turned it over to Guns N' Roses.
But Guns' old office has remained empty since they stormed out of the building a decade ago. A few artists have poked their heads in, but no one has had the chutzpah to actually sit in the big chair.
GNR remains the last great American band who both wanted the job and was qualified to hold it.
Eddie Vedder had the resume, but he never cared to be a cog in the corporate machine, which is why Pearl Jam, his band of reluctant heroes, has spent its collective career fighting Ticketmaster, bootleggers and the rest of the music-business meanies.
And Kurt Cobain, you might remember, wanted so desperately not to become a corporate stiff that he blew his own head off when the board of music directors tried to thrust him behind the mahogany desk.
Axl Rose wanted the job, and he had credentials to burn. That banshee howl, that grand ambition, that command of the masses -- these gifts alone would have made him a star.
But what made him a legend was the group of musicians that provided his launching pad. Guns N' Roses was a merciless band (a ruthless management team, if you'll extend the business metaphor) with any number of members responsible for some of the most memorable rock melodies in the last 25 years.
Slash's lead riff in Sweet Child O' Mine is still recognizable within two seconds. Matt Sorum's hard-driving drumline made You Could Be Mine Guns' most explosive song since Jungle. Even underrated keyboardist Dizzy Reed contributed, lending a loose pianoline to the little-heard tune Bad Obsession that swings like prime Billy Powell during Lynyrd Skynyrd's bluesiest moments.
Guns N' Roses played blues-based pop-metal, a label that has stuck to no one else because no one else has tried to make it work. The band became huge precisely because of that unique, all-encompassing sound.
By deftly blending blues, pop and metal, they managed not to alienate adults who grew up on Hendrix or high school kids who headbanged to Metallica, or even younger MTV junkies who might also have liked, say, New Kids on the Block.
Edgy and singable, street-ready and radio-ready, Guns was the last major band with true mass appeal. Linkin Park may be able to sell 8 million records today, but not to anybody out of college.
Ordinarily, in the great rock power exchange, we might hope for a retired band like Guns to leave their place in rock history untainted by comeback albums, comeback tours or any other half-baked (or as Ben Braddock might say, "completely baked") plots to reassume their glory.
Restraint often seems best for a band that's been dormant for the past several years. After all, once a hotshot newcomer takes your job, you're usually ill-advised to drop by the office one day holding your beat-up briefcase and expecting people to pay $300 to watch you recline in your old office.
But because the band's accomplishments have been so untouchable for so long, and because no other group seems poised to assume their office, we owe it to ourselves to get excited about the re-formed Guns N' Roses and the long-awaited record they might well reveal later this year.
Details on the new group's plans are sketchy at best, but the band seems to be lurching forward. Axl appears on the cover of the September issue of Spin magazine, and his band has scheduled a high-profile concert in Japan for this month, the latest show in a herky-jerky public reintroduction campaign that began early last year with successful performances in Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro.
Soon after the Rio show, Guns scheduled a European tour to showcase their new lineup, which featured Rose, keyboardist Reed and several unheralded sidemen, including a guitarist named Buckethead who wore a KFC receptacle as a hat.
They announced the tour in February 2001, then canceled it in May, then rescheduled later in May, only to cancel again in November.
In a statement, GNR manager Doug Goldstein indicated that the tour would be postponed until Axl and company completed Chinese Democracy, their first album of original material since Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991.
"I jumped the gun and arranged a European tour, as our plan was to have the new album out this year," Goldstein said, adding that Rose has spent "every waking minute of every day during the last five years writing, recording and producing the record."
Democracy still isn't done, and nobody seems to know when it will be, though everyone hopes it will be soon. The record has become Rose's version of Brian Wilson's Smile, the ambitious follow-up to Pet Sounds that he was unable to finish even with the aid of mind-enhancing drugs and a sandbox 'neath his piano.
Wilson eventually moved on to other projects, but Rose seems determined to finish this one.
Let's hope he does and that, against the odds, it turns out great.
This won't be easy without Slash, Sorum and the rest of the hell-raising sidemen who contributed more than their share to the Guns legacy.
But still, we must have faith. Because in the unlikely event that Chinese Democracy turns out well, it will serve a higher purpose than simply rocking out for its own good -- it will embarrass today's godawful, one-dimensional nu-metal bands the same way Nirvana's Nevermind embarrassed the godawful, one-dimensional hair bands that spent their careers clinging to Axl Rose's heels.
In a primer for the changing of the guard that Cobain suicidally avoided, Nevermind entered stores the very same month as Guns' last offering of original material. Nevermind's punk (or "alternative" as we called it back then) attitude scared off all the mascaraed Poisons and Skid Rows of the world, and ushered in a whole new army of leaner, hungrier, less pretentious bands.
Guns never tried to keep up with Nirvana and the rest of the new acts. They just toured behind their mammoth Illusion set and vanished, reappearing only to release an ephemeral 1994 collection of punk covers called The Spaghetti Incident? and a 1999 live retrospective of their glory days.
Today, the alternative movement has long since run its course. In the 11 years since Nevermind and the Illusion records, we've heard from a lot of bands who realized that it's easier to fake Cobain's despair than to fake Slash's towering riffs.
As a result, we find ourselves subjected to an array of plodding hard rock bands with sad-sack vocalists who made their fortunes moaning in time. That's right Staind and Puddle of Mudd -- we're talking about you.
Upstarts like the Strokes and Hives are fun, but they're never going to conquer the world. Relatively speaking, they'll always work in the company mailroom.
With no superstar saviors on the horizon, the best antidote to today's hard rock doldrums has to be another classic Guns N' Roses record. On a superficial level, the album itself would have its own joys, no doubt.
But the greatest joy of all would be to watch Axl Rose again ride the elevator to the top floor, march into his old office, slam the door and tell Linkin Park to be out of the building by noon.