Convolution Is Everything: A Meditation on "Chinese Democracy"
November 23, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
“Passion will make you crazy, but is there any other way to live?”
So spake Howard Hughes, whose passion led him to a billion dollars, a string of notable lovers, and a final chapter as an idiosyncratic germaphobic recluse who died weighing 90 lbs. Two decades after Hughes passed, another internationally renowned figure appeared to be taking the deceased magnate’s mantra to heart, much to the chagrin of those around him and much to his own bandana and kilt-laden detriment.
We understood Axl Rose to be possessed of a certain vision from the time we met him, but as the Clinton presidency moved through its second term this Indiana-bred banshee tripled down on getting everything correct with his multi-platinum band Guns N’ Roses. Rose wanted their sixth album to be the greatest document possible. It would have to surpass Dark Side of the Moon and Nevermind and The Downward Spiral and everything in their own catalog while somehow combining all of those albums’ strongest attributes. Rose vanished from public life to complete this Herculean task. Every other recognizable Guns N’ Roses member vanished, too; they either quit the band or were fired. Rose replaced his departed cronies with shorthairs like Josh Freese and Tommy Stinson. The 21st Century dawned; as far as anyone knew, the new Guns N’ Roses had only four minutes of material (“Oh My God,” debuted on the End of Days soundtrack). Axl insisted an entire album was on the horizon.
It didn’t take long for the title of this alleged album, Chinese Democracy, to become shorthand for a never-ending story. With each passing year, new ludicrous elements were folded into the captivating narrative. Rumored contributions from Moby. Rumored contributions from Shaquille O’Neal. Buckethead. Cornrows. Delays stemming from a) Axl Rose teaching himself guitar b) the new Guns N’ Roses simultaneously re-recording Appetite for Destruction c) someone at Geffen, their record label, deciding they needed a new studio, a new producer, or an old friend to coax Rose into completing his opus before the apocalypse. Every once in a while, a voice would arise to vouch for the phantom music. “I’ve heard four albums’ worth of material that’s incredible,” Sebastian Bach remarked in 2007. Well, when has that guy ever lied to us?
Like Snakes on a Plane, many of us got caught up in the exciting, vivid possibilities. Also like Snakes on a Plane, when Chinese Democracy was finally released on November 23rd, 2008, 15 years after the previous Guns N’ Roses studio album, many of us were underwhelmed. It was a classic case of our imaginations outpacing reality (remember this the next time anyone advocates for the immediate release of The Day the Clown Cried). It’s almost like spending over a decade making a rock ‘n’ roll record will flatten its soul into lukewarm saliva.
“It isn’t exactly an accessible album,” Ann Powers wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “though many hooks and bombastic rock moments surface within its layers… convolution is everything as [Axl Rose] spirals toward a total sound even he can’t quite apprehend.” In a review for AV Club, Chuck Klosterman admitted that “three of the songs are astonishing” before discussing the material’s self-referential lean — “60 percent of the lyrics seem to actively comment on the process of making the album itself… there are many moments where it’s impossible to tell who Axl is talking to, so it feels like he’s talking to himself (and inevitably about himself).”
“The arrangements sound like lab experiments, fragments of music arranged into elaborate puzzles of sound,” Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot mused. “… Somewhere hiding amid all that dazzling muck is a bunch of songs. Some of them even rock. All of them sound like the work of a fading rock star with far too much money and time on his hands, and no one around who could tell him, ‘No.’”
To be fair, Rolling Stone gave Chinese Democracy a glowing four-star review, and Slash admitted he thought it was “really good.”
Ask the band why this album didn’t napalm our curious hearts and they may tell you Jimmy Iovine — founder of Interscope, which merged with Geffen in 1999 — wasn’t involved enough, or that Roy Thomas Baker, one of several name producer hired to “save” Chinese Democracy, was involved to paralyzing degrees (“He would try every Marshall guitar amp in a five state area just to find the right guitar tone,” bassist Tommy Stinson groused to Bass Player in 2009). Rose was more embittered toward Guns N’ Roses manager Irving Azoff; Rose sued Azoff in 2010, alleging a conspiracy to tank Chinese Democracy’s 2008 roll out so Rose would be forced to reunite with the group’s original lineup and thereby “reap… huge commissions” for Azoff. The pair settled out of court.
Chinese Democracy failed to capture the zeitgeist, but there’s no guarantee it would have set the world ablaze had it been unleashed a generation earlier. Guns N’ Roses had done it all by 1993 — the game-changing debut, the semi-acoustic offering, the bloated but beloved double album release, the wacky covers record. The only thing left was to repeat or radically reinvent themselves. Chinese Democracy tries to do both, to varying degrees of “okay, sure.” Even by mid-‘90s standards, the repetition isn’t exciting, the reinvention isn’t bold. With an eight-figure budget and a small nation of talent, Guns N’ Roses made their own version of Blackacidevil. NASA uses the same resources to send people into space.
Maybe Guns N’ Roses was never meant to survive irony. Our culture’s hopelessly soaked in it thanks to “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons,” grunge, Tarantino, “The Gilmore Girls,” Adult Swim, and memes. Mudhoney has barely held on through this mutating landscape; what hope did Axl Rose have? At least he tried. Hiring Buckethead to swing nunchucks around and generally act weird between guitar solos seemed postmodern, as did naming an album Chinese Democracy and waiting an ice age to release it. Rose has been bested again in this regard, though. There is only one copy of the Wu Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin and the influential hip-hop outfit has forbidden anyone from “commercially exploiting” it until the year 2103.
Guns N’ Roses hasn’t released anything since Chinese Democracy. Four years ago, however, Axl Rose reunited with Slash, Duff, Larry, Moe, & Curly to begin touring his group’s classic hits with nary a braid in his coppery mane. Some might see this popular nostalgia ticket and choose to believe Chinese Democracy never happened. Fools! To deny Chinese Democracy is to deny a beautiful legend, a feverish fable spiked with arrests (internet leakers, whom the FBI couldn’t fully prosecute because no one could prove the album was ever coming out), global politicking (Chinese Democracy is, in fact, banned in China; authorities say it’s part of a plot to “control the world using democracy as a pawn”), and endless tributaries flowing from the 15 year money pit production (yes, they built a chicken coop in the studio for Buckethead — the label offered to! — because barnyard fowl inspire his guitar playing).
Only GNF’nR could get away with this kind of insanity for so incredibly long. It really speaks to the power of rock ‘n’ roll, especially when that rock ‘n’ roll makes obscene amounts of cash for greedy executives who’ll do anything to see that kind of payday again.
We close with more armchair quarterbacking — would Chinese Democracy have done better if they’d left on the guest rap by Shaq? Dizzy Reed says it was magical.