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Joshua Ostroff, Citizen Special

Published: Thursday, November 16, 2006

"I won't be told anymore/That I've been brought down in this storm/And left so far out from the shore/That I can't find my way back, my way anymore."

from Madagascar, a song on Chinese Democracy

- - -

Axl Rose may not want to hear it, but fans and haters alike have long wondered how lost one must be to need nine years and $13 million to record a comeback album.

Though a few tracks have leaked over the years -- the sprawling epic Madagascar first surfaced in 2002 -- the actual release of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy seemed about as likely as, well, Chinese democracy.

Nearly every year since 1999, when the radically revamped GN'R, with Axl as its lone original member, sold its industrial track Oh My God to Arnold Schwarzenegger's End of Days soundtrack, there have been promises made, but no records delivered.

As Axl became a Howard Hughes-like recluse, running through hired guns and record producers while obsessively rewriting his alleged opus, it became rock'n'roll's greatest running joke.

The Offspring once threatened to name their 2003 album Chinese Democracy, with lead singer Dexter Holland deadpanning: "You snooze, you lose. Axl ripped off my braids, so I ripped off his album title."

This past spring, Spin magazine ran a lengthy review of Chinese Democracy. Was Axl's long-awaited album at hand? After all, pirates had recently loosed three studio songs -- IRS, Better and There Was A Time -- into the wilds of the Internet. But after giggling over the review -- "If you purchased a kitten on the day that Use Your Illusion I & II arrived in stores, it's probably dead by now" -- astute readers noticed the dateline: April 1st. Nuts.

But Gunner news kept coming. Radio stations played the leaked demos, Axl sued Slash over royalties, feuded with Scott Weiland (the singer now fronting Axl's former bandmates in the exceedingly bland Velvet Revolver) and even performed concerts, starting in New York, before headlining Euro festivals and eventually embarking on the North American tour that comes to Scotiabank Place tomorrow.

But since the aging Axl is essentially fronting a GN'R cover band -- admittedly staffed with top-notch talent from Nine Inch Nails, the Replacements and Psychedelic Furs --why does anyone still give a damn?

Of course, better questions might be: Why did readers of ElleGirl magazine vote Axl the "coolest old person"? Or why is YouTube flooded with homemade music videos of those Chinese Democracy demos? Or why do teens wear Guns N' Roses T-shirts without irony when most weren't even born when Appetite For Destruction first rocked the charts?

See, the original Guns N' Roses represent the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll myth better than any band since, and their early recordings remain electrifyingly vital. Two decades later, Axl's sneering threat to bring you to your "n-n-n-n-knees" still sounds bloody dangerous, especially compared to modern rockers like the Killers.

Sure, GN'R didn't have the "cool" cachet of Nirvana -- in fact, Kurt Cobain publicly mocked Axl -- but Guns did just as much to end hair metal by so resoundingly out-rocking the likes of Poison and Whitesnake.

GN'R took metal and made it heavy again, but with a bluesy swagger and barrels of grit and sleaze and slam-danceable ugliness.

This was the white-trash version of gangsta rappers NWA, and they were equally angry at the world. There was no silly make-up, no sappy power ballads and definitely no more Mr. Nice Axl.

I was in Grade 7 or 8 when Appetite was climbing the charts, and the copy I dubbed off my sister rarely left my yellow Sports Walkman. At that age I didn't realize Mr. Brownstone was about heroin, though it certainly made sense that Paradise City would be "where the girls are pretty."

But I began learning about the band's origins. How Axl was a self-made rock star who left small-town Indiana, where he was beaten by his step-dad and assorted local rednecks, to find fame, fortune and females on the Sunset Strip alongside his childhood friend/rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin. Or how the bands Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns amalgamated and eventually included bassist Duff McKagan, drummer Steven Adler and Slash, one of rock's all-time guitar gods.

I may not have known why they sounded so good -- that would be their addition of raw punk ferocity to the glam-metal of the day -- but I could tell Guns was a band in the midst of creating its own legend.

As Appetite became the biggest-selling debut album ever and was joined on the charts by their quickie EP GN'R Lies, the band became inescapable. There was that unforgettable riff on Sweet Child O' Mine, the whistling intro to Patience, the stories of trashed hotel rooms and trampled concertgoers and charges of drug abuse, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

Years of indulgence manifested in the bombast of their over-ambitious 1991 double-shot Use Your Illusion I and II, which debuted on Billboard's top two spots and included hard-rockers like You Could Be Mine alongside blissfully bloated epics like November Rain.

They launched an equally epic 28-month tour, and I waited in line all night to get tickets for the Vancouver show. Unfortunately, this proved my first opportunity to be disappointed by Axl's antics when the infamous Montreal riot delayed the concert.

Instead of Metallica and Faith No More opening, we got saddled with ex-Queen guitarist Brian May.

Still, it was a pivotal moment of my teen years. Too young to drink or drive, we put on our finest ripped jeans and hired a limo from the suburbs to the Coliseum so we could down Budweisers en route. It could have been the beer buzz, but GN'R put on the most fiery stadium show I've ever seen.

Which is a lot more than could be said for their last stadium go-round in 2002, cut short after a riot in Vancouver, but not before I witnessed a puffy Axl straining his screech while appearing to read lyrics off a TelePrompTer in Toronto's Skydome.

Chinese Democracy may actually come out this year, and even prove to be great, Axl appears slimmed-down and energized and this tour has been getting better reviews than their last outing, but it doesn't really matter what Axl or even Velvet Revolver do nowadays.

Guns N' Roses' legacy is sound, because all these years later it remains absolutely physically impossible to hear Welcome to the Jungle without turning it up to 11.

Guns N' Roses play Scotiabank Place tomorrow. Tickets & times, www.capitaltickets.ca.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006


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