READER’S NOTE: This is not an actual letter, nor will they ever read it, so that is not the purpose of this piece; the structural concept is merely a literary device.
Dear Slash and Axl,
Between 1992 and 1995, I listened to Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 pretty regularly. The music of Guns N’ Roses was the first music with which I ever really “bonded,” prompted partly by my love for rock music and partly by the sentimental connection I’d made with the song “November Rain” in relation to the death of my Grandmother in November of 1994. So growing up, Guns N’ Roses was, essentially, my favorite band. Of course, I loved the Beatles (but who doesn’t?), and Vanilla Ice was my favorite rapper, but as far as contemporary bands go, Guns N’ Roses was my first “favorite band.”
I was so naive in my early teen years. Things like drugs and booze and sex didn’t really exist in my reality. Life was just a cacophony of rock & roll and being cool – or at least trying to be cool, in my own way.
I grew up playing the drums, so rock music was typically my preference. And playing the drums is certainly a full-body instrument, expending quite a bit of energy, combined with quite a bit of coordination and a whole lot of enthusiasm. I’m a proficient guitar player, and I can easily say – for me – playing the drums enables me to “feel the music” on a much fuller scale than playing the guitar (although, Slash, I’m sure you’d disagree – I’ve seen you play in-person and you would challenge me on that, both physically and conceptually). But as a young musician, I gained my appreciation for the music by being able to connect to it – both emotionally and physically – and I did that behind my drum set.
I have to admit, I didn’t notice when the band broke up. I really didn’t. My last static memory of Guns N’ Roses (in your original incarnation) was watching the MTV broadcast of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for Aids Awareness. I watched because I’d always been a big Queen fan, and was excited to see bands like Def Leppard and Metallica play, but I really watched to see you guys, Guns N’ Roses. And the cool thing is, I only thought the bands themselves would be performing. As it turns out, that was just the first half. The second half, featuring the remaining members of Queen and other artists singing Freddie’s part, was even better!
Performing with Queen, in place of Freddie Mercury: James Hatfield (of Metallica) sang “Stone Cold Crazy” – Annie Lennox and David Bowie sang “Under Pressure” – You, Slash, and Joe Elliot (of Def Leppard) did “Tie Your Mother Down – You, Axle, did “We Will Rock You” – it was such an amazing surprise and I watched intently. But I had yet to hear my favorite Queen song, all night.
So when you, Axl, performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Queen and Elton John, I was beyond amazed! Damn, that was cool!
And then, Guns N’ Roses vanished.
Again, I hate to say it, but I essentially didn’t notice. My own life had entered such a wild ride of turmoil that I rarely noticed anything outside of the bullshit I had to deal with on a personal level. But eventually, I did notice. I noticed when I grasped back onto “November Rain” as I became more and more wrapped in personal difficulties and I needed a bit of melodic therapy. “November Rain,” “Don’t Cry,” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” provided that. So, in a way, thank you.
I happened to be watching the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002. And to close the show, Guns N’ Roses performed. It was kind of a “surprise performance” and when Jimmy Fallon introduced the band, I just about had a heart attack! I couldn’t believe it! But then, the curtain went up, and it was you, Axl, and a group of guys I’d never seen before. And I guess I kind of knew that would be the case. The rest of the original group had moved on; Slash, you most notably were rocking it out with Velvet Revolver (well-done, by the way) so the group that was playing the MTV Video Music Awards was essentially the Axl Rose solo project. And while it was cool to hear “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Paradise City,” as well as “Madagascar” from the upcoming album Chinese Democracy, I was just a little let-down.
I guess I didn’t really know the details of what really went on with the band until 2004 when I watched VH1’s Behind the Music. After that, I feel like I had a pretty solid grasp on how the band’s break-up happened and where the band was in its current incarnation. It was also nice to have a somewhat updated status of Chinese Democracy, which, at the time, still seemed like it would never be released. It’s “maybe, maybe not” release status was beginning to rival that of “Diablo 3.” But at that point, several demos from the album had been leaked on the Internet, and I had them all, and loved them! So I was excited for what would hopefully be on the album.
And then, on the fateful day of November 23, 2008, I drove to Best Buy and bought Chinese Democracy – the day of its official release. Best Buy was the only store selling it, and I was there to buy it on Day One.
My favorite writer, Chuck Klosterman, wrote a review of Chinese Democracy in which he called the album a “unicorn” because of its unique history, anticipation, and content. He pointed out that the cultural significance of the album transcended music, being “the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file.” Chuck is absolutely right. And I think, in a way, I felt that when I picked the cellophane-wrapped CD up from the rack, carried it to the cash register, and swiped my debit card to make the purchase. For me, going to the store and buying the physical manifestation of 15 years of waiting was every bit as important to me as my eventual enjoyment of the music itself.
I took the CD to my car, parked in the parking lot of the east-side Best Buy in Wichita, unwrapped it from its packaging, and opened the case. It even smelled like a new CD; it reminded me of the time I opened my first copy of To The Extreme. And as I inserted it into the CD player of my 2007 Mustang, the slow and heavy opening crescendo of the album’s title track, “Chinese Democracy,” filled my car like a consuming haze of modern reminiscence. It was old, but it was new. And I loved it.
But one vital thing was missing: Slash.
Slash, your guitar sound is unique – it’s your musical fingerprint, and no one can replicate it. And while I thought Chinese Democracy was an amazing album, it didn’t feel 100% like Guns N’ Roses. In his review of Chinese Democracy, Klosterman agrees with me on this point, saying your “unrushed blues metal was the group’s musical vortex.” Again, precisely. But that doesn’t necessarily take away from the greatness of Chinese Democracy; it was merely noticeable, like going to the same bar with your new girlfriend that you used to frequent with your ex-girlfriend. So, essentially, although Chinese Democracy was released under the title of “Guns N’ Roses,” it was essentially Axl’s solo album.
That was 2008. This is 2016.
In 2016, you guys mended fences and got back together for a stadium tour. And we got to see a show. Correction: We got to experience a show. My wife and I drove three hours to see that show, because I was excited to see my favorite band reunite for a concert. I was excited, but I wasn’t ecstatic. I knew it would be fun, though I’d spent several weeks prior to purchasing the tickets going back-and-forth about whether or not to spend the money. After all, we’d need a hotel, and the cheap concert tickets were still $79 each. But it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime chance (to see the Not In This Lifetime Tour), so I went ahead and bought the tickets and booked the hotel.
And then the concert happened.
You have to understand, I’ve seen some pretty fucking amazing concerts: Eminem, Elton John, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones (from on-stage seats), and (of course) Vanilla Ice – but I wasn’t ready for the Guns N’ Roses concert. First of all, we were given a free seat upgrade – which was unexpectedly amazing; our $79 seats became $200 seats – and when the show started, and the three original band members came out (you two, and Duff), it felt surreal.
I noticed several things during that concert about you guys. The biggest thing I noticed was that you weren’t deliberately being badasses (like in the 90s). I mean, that was cool and all, but we’re all a little older now. Instead of the rock & roll rebels of the past, you were a group of extremely talented musicians, playing great songs, and simply having fun doing it. You were playing to a stadium crowd of 30,000+ people, but you could have been playing to a bar crowd of 300 people and had just as much fun.
This, above all, inspired me. Everyone in the band has had a somewhat regrettable past with drugs and violence and a whole slew of shit that I’m sure no one knows about. But you’ve risen above all that, shaken it off, and come back with an incarnation of something that is both new and nostalgic. You showed me that the regrets of the past can be a springboard to a brighter and wiser future; and when critics think you’re down and out and irrelevant, you can step forward and say, “Hold on a minute, I still have something to say.”
I’m not a musician, I’m a writer. But my own literary art is being continually inspired by two rock & roll gods – not simply by the music you’ve made, but by the hurdles you’ve overcome and the walls you’ve smashed.
We can’t simply erase the stupid and destructive and humiliating shit of our past, but what we can do is make it clear to anyone who cares enough to listen that the only thing about the past that remains is the lessons learned. And moving forward, it’s okay to resemble the positives of the past, but we must also embody the wisdom of the present and embrace the hope of the future.
Rock on, fellas.