Chinese Democracy

#798: Chinese Democracy

A sequel to Record Store Tales Part 285: Chinese Democracy

GETTING MORE TALE #798: Chinese Democracy

I met Thussy back in 2007.  He joined the team at work and we became friends immediately.  We liked the same stuff.  Trailer Park Boys, Guns N’ Roses, comedy.  He is responsible for getting me into Super Troopers, which admittedly took a couple tries.  We were also both getting married around the same time, so we had similar complaints and gripes to talk about.  Drama with bridesmaids and seating plans, egads.

Thuss is a gamer, and we enjoyed chatting games.  Axl Rose did a voice (a radio DJ) in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  You could switch between stations, and if you chose the rock station you got Axl.  It was one of the few things Axl did that was released during that long dry spell between albums.  Of course, this led to ample discussions of Chinese Democracy.

“It’s never coming out,” Chris insisted.  I hated to say he was right, but it sure seemed that way.  He refused to back down on his position.  We’d been fucked with by this band for so long.  Guns had missed several release dates, so many that it had become a joke.  Axl chewed up managers and spat them out like stale bubblegum.  Then the Dr. Pepper soda company offered to buy a Dr. Pepper for everyone in America if Axl managed to make his 2008 release date.  Axl seemed good-naturedly amused by the idea, offering to share his Dr. Pepper with Buckethead when the album comes out.  (This because Dr. Pepper said the only Americans exempt from this offer were former Guns members Buckethead and Slash!)

On October 22 2008, I was working at my desk, listening to the radio when the DJ, Carlos Benevides, announced that they would shortly be playing a brand new single by Guns N’ Roses.  It was the title track, a song both Thuss and I were already familiar with.  He had a disc of rough mixes for many of the tracks, and I had the Rock In Rio bootleg CD set.  We already knew half the new songs, and “Chinese Democracy” was a track I thought smoked.  I called Thuss and he listened in as it played.

It sounded like shit on our little mono telephone speakers, but we were listening to brand new Guns!  The overall listener reaction was mixed to negative, but I already loved it.  “The album’s never coming out,” said Thuss.

“It has to, now.  There’s a single out.  It’s definitely coming.”

“No.”  Thuss was insistent.  “It’s never coming out.”

“But Dr. Pepper…” I began before being cut off.

“No.  Not coming out.  Never.”

The funny thing was, “Chinese Democracy” wasn’t actually the first song released from the album.  A month earlier, “Shackler’s Revenge” became the first new Guns song in nine years, when it was released as part of the Rock Band 2 video game, which neither of us had.

A new release date of November 23 was announced.  “Nope,” said Thuss.  “Nothing is coming out on November 23.”  It was, strangely, a Sunday.  Generally, nothing came out on Sundays.  It was absolutely an odd move that did throw the whole release into question for some.

I asked ye olde Record Store to hold a copy for me.  “Do you want vinyl?” he asked.  “No, just CD.”  It was something I’d regret, when he sold out of the vinyl a week later.  I emailed to ask if he had any left.  “Do you remember me asking you if you wanted vinyl?” he scolded.  “Yeah,” I sulked.

When I walked into the store on November 23 and was handed my precious copy of Chinese Democracy, it was so anticlimactic.  There it is.  It’s in your hands, the culmination of a decade and a half’s work.  You’ve been waiting all this time for this album, and there it sits.  An album that had “release dates” going back to 1995 and every single year since.  Then, you witness Guns return to the live stage from their cocoon, different but recognizable.  You watch them struggle to establish a lineup, and you hear rumour after rumour about song titles and release dates.  Then you’re holding a CD in your hands, a pitiful little plastic case with a little paper cover inside.  You hand the guy your debit card, he rings it in.  Transaction approved, you are handed your receipt.  Chinese Democracy goes into a little plastic bag.  Even though it’s probably the most expensive and longest gestating album of all time, your little plastic bag weighs the same as if you bought Sex Pistols.

At least I’d be able to show it to Thuss.  Monday the 24th rolled around.

“It came out.  I have it,” I told him as I strolled into his office.

“No it didn’t.  It never came out.  It’s never coming out.” He was sticking to his story come hell or high water!

“Yes it did! It’s in my car right now!  I’ll show it to you.”

“You have nothing,” he responded, refusing to come and look.

In the years since, Thuss has stubbornly stuck to his guns and his believe that Chinese Democracy has never come out.  “I have the unreleased mixes,” he says.  “That’s all there is.”


I emailed him to tell him I was writing this story, our tale of the time Chinese Democracy was released.

“So you are going to take a crack at some fictional writing…nice.”

I will never win this one!

So now I have two stories both titled “Chinese Democracy”.  I say, why not?  Peter Gabriel has three self-titled albums.

#762: When Is Your Art Really “Done”?

GETTING MORE TALE #762: When Is Your Art Really “Done”?

 

“Where are the starting points and where are the end points? When’s a song ‘done’? What the fuck does that mean anyway? ‘Done’? When’s a record ‘done’? Where does a record start; where does it end?” — Lars Ulrich, Some Kind of Monster

When Lars Ulrich asked the rhetorical question “When is a song ‘done’?” he wasn’t just yammering meaningless bullshit.  In fact he was colourfully paraphrasing Leonardo Da Vinci, who said “A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.”  Da Vinci might be the best known example today of someone who laboured over his art.  Many of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa, conceal previous unseen versions beneath layers of paint.  Scanning the paintings with modern technology, we have been able to discern Da Vinci’s works in progress.  It is a little like peaking inside the mind of a creator as they create.

Imagine you’re finishing a painting of something completely imagined inside your head.  How much time will it take to be “done”?  Perhaps you have to make that sky a little more blue, or cloudy, to match your vision.  You will never be able to take a photograph of your imagination, so painting something is by its very nature a compromise.  You must decide when you are satisfied that you have accomplished your goal.  Let’s say you added that cloud to your painting.  It looks good to you.  Then you take a step back and look at the whole painting.  The corner where you added that cloud now looks too busy.  Did you overdo it?  Was the painting already “done”?

The same applies to music.  Axl Rose laboured over Chinese Democracy for 15 years.  There are, of course, some major differences between recording a Guns N’ Roses album and working on a painting.  With the rock album, there is far more outside pressure and this can become the dominating influence.  Even if outside forces end up pushing you to do something opposite from what they want, it has now effected your music.  The music will not take the same shape that it would have without that outside pressure.  Is that a good or bad thing?  It can be either!  Axl re-recorded the album at least once, and continually updated it as new members joined the band.  By the time 2008 rolled around and the record was “finished”, dozens of musicians and producers and managers and writers had made some kind of impact, no matter how small.

Let’s not forget George Lucas either.  The Star Wars creator fiddled with his movies continuously.  Do you really think the 1997 special editions were the first Star Wars that were changed?  Not even.  The initial updates happened in 1980, when George re-titled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope.  He fidgeted with them steadily, even beginning a fairly recent conversion to 3D until he sold the rights to Disney in 2012. (Only Phantom Menace was released in 3D, with Disney putting the project on hold in favour of the sequel trilogy.)

You can obsess over and overthink art.  You can also rush it, and end up with something “unfinished” that might actually be better.  This often happens out of necessity.  Black Sabbath famously recorded their first album in two days.  They had been playing the songs live for months and were tight as hell (pun intended) but also had a very limited amount of time in the studio.  Maybe they would have loved to stay in there, experiment with different amps and guitars, get different sounds, but there was no time.  And so the debut album Black Sabbath pukes overloaded guitar, and you can hear amps hum.  You couldn’t have made it better if you tried.  (Zakk Wylde will try and will not succeed.)  Whatever they did on that album, they did out of necessity and it just happened to work.

Though my “art” is usually the written word (and occasionally video), I also love recording song introductions.  This is for our annual “Sausagefest” party, and it’s something that allows me to really get creative with sound.  In recent years, in addition to introducing the songs, I also create an introduction for myself.  It’s sort of an audio collage of things I found funny.  This started out of necessity — it was the only way I could get my comedic bits into the evening!  Now it’s something I work and obsess over.  And this is the question I’m currently struggling with:  When is it “done”?  I started recording bits for it almost a year ago, and I began piecing the whole thing together on May 11.  Now we’re at the tail end of June and I’m still making changes!

Without giving it all away, I like to begin my intro with a certain, recognizable musical theme.  You’d know it.  This year, a certain unnamed rock band recorded their own version of that classic theme.  I happened to be playing that album in the car when I realized, I had to use it!  As soon as I got home, I started editing the audio track that I thought was “finished”.  In a couple minutes, I removed the original theme and replaced it with the 2019 rock version.  It was a few seconds longer than the original so I also had to extend the space it fit into, but that’s pretty easy to do.  Now I’m even happier with the intro.

When will it be “done”?  It will be “finished” when time is up and I’m forced to turn it in.  Until then, I continue to listen for room to improve.

I’m no Leonardo, or a Lucas, and I’m not even a Lars Ulrich (although we have shared the same hair style on numerous occasions).  I do, however, have a keen understanding that art is never done in the eyes of the creator.

 

 

#584: Fake News

GETTING MORE TALE #584: Fake News

Fake news is not recent.  Fake news has been around as long as there were people!  Here is a list of fake news stories from the Record Store days.

In the mid 90s, many people actually believed that Marilyn Manson had his bottom ribs removed so he could bend over and blow himself.

From the same time period, word had spread that all five Backstreet Boys released solo albums on the same day, and that “Walmart has them.”

Bafflingly, and for many many years, people believed that Toronto got album releases before anywhere else in Canada.  As if albums were delivered by the Pony Express.

Levels of hoaxes so complex it’ll make your head spin.   SuperShadow was a supposed Star Wars inside informant who leaked prequel plots and characters.  He was a notoriously hated spreader of fake Star Wars news, but the layers of intrigue here go down to all the way to…me…who posed on MySpace as a “fake” SuperShadow, in hopes of smoking out the real one.  Fake news of fake news!

In an interview with Slash published in the March/April 1994 issue of M.E.A.T Magazine, the guitarist claimed the next Guns N’ Roses album would be out the following summer of 1995.  Heh.  Won’t get fooled again?

There are of course many “fake news” stories through the history of rock and roll.  “Paul is dead.”  “2 Pac is alive.”  “There are two Nikki Sixx’s.”  “Joey Tempest is a demon.”  What are your favourites?

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)

By request of reader Johnny Sixx: A review of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy so long that I split it into two installments. For the first part, click here.

GUNS N’ ROSES – Chinese Democracy (2008 Geffen)

Chinese Democracy, over a decade in the making, became both the biggest joke in rock and the most anticipated album of all time. It polarized music fans as expected. Was it worth the wait? That’s a pretty hard question to quantify. Ultimately it’s up to the individual. Did I expect more, personally?

No. I didn’t expect more. I got what I expected. I did hope for more, but by and large I was very happy with Chinese Democracy.

My first exposure to these songs came in 2001, after the Rock In Rio concert. I downloaded all the new tunes from Limewire. (Remember Limewire?) My favourite of the new tunes was “The Blues” (later renamed “Street of Dreams”) but I also loved “Chinese Democracy”, “Madagascar” and a track called “Silkworms”. Those of us who had heard the songs in advance of the album release were much more likely to enjoy the new GN’R for what it is: Axl attempting to keep the GN’R name going, and stay current. For better or for worse.

For Axl, staying current meant incorporating more electronics. It also meant replacing feel-based guitar players like Slash with shredders.  No, this does not sound like the dirty, blues-based majesty of Appetite. Yet, it does rock. Hard. Add in some samples, lush ballads and some cool lyrics and we have a modern followup to Use Your Illusion I and II. It has the same diversity and experimental bent, even if it sounds nothing like those two albums.

I won’t sit here and defend Axl’s decision to keep going with the name, that’s a dead horse that’s been flogged over and over again. It is what it is, and at least Axl has chosen musicians that are at the top of their fields. The Rock In Rio lineup was already long gone by the time of this album release, but all those guys contributed to Chinese Democracy. That means you will hear guitar solos by ex-members Robin Finck (an underrated player) and the incredible Buckethead. You will also hear drums by Brain, and Frank Ferrer too. You will have contributions from everybody. Hell, you will even get one song that dates back to the Slash n’ Duff years called “This I Love”, another epic ballad. It was written way back in 1993; it’s most likely the oldest song here.

The album is chock full of riffage. The title track itself (written by Axl and ex-drummer Josh Freese, yes that Josh Freese) is a monster. That riff is infectious, as are the verses. Axl loads the whole album full of vocal hooks, piano hooks, guitar hooks — this album may pack more hooks per minute than any other in history, who knows? He certainly had time to come up with and perfect them.

This is an even more dramatic Guns N’ Roses than anything before. Some might say over-dramatic. You thought “Estranged” was epic? This is even more so. Yet, boiled down, “Street of Dreams”, “Madagascar”, and “Better” are all emotion-drenched tunes and extremely well written and executed. The production, as expected, is thick and sweet. Maybe too sweet. A tune like “If The World” for example might have been better served with more basic guitar oriented production? Who knows? I’m sure Axl has done a thousand mixes of each of these songs, before selecting these final versions.

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Highlights: “Better” for its angry, awesome riffage. “Street of Dreams” as the natural successor to “November Rain”. The title track, for anger and aggression. “Madagascar” as the next “Civil War”.

Lowlights: Wasn’t much into “Scraped”, “If The World”, and the overly-techno “Shackler’s Revenge”. Illusions had filler too, y’know.

Most of all I love the playing. These are some of the best players in the world, bar none. Plus a guy like Tommy Stinson is a rock veteran with a history longer than Axl’s. With these kinds of experienced rockers on board, Chinese Democracy was bound to be impressive. What Chinese Democracy lacks are two things:

1. Band chemistry. You can’t fake it.

2. A suitable predecessor. If Guns had even one interim album to bridge the sounds and introduce new members gradually, Chinese Democracy wouldn’t sound like such a shock to the old-time fans.

It may turn out that Chinese Democracy is as close to a “bridge” record as we will get. Axl claims the next two albums that he’s written are even more extreme departure from the Guns sound.

Hopefully, those next two Guns N’ Roses records will eventually materialize.  They should include “Silkworms” a great punky synth-rocker, and a song that Sebastian Bach raves about called “The General”. Whenever Axl feels motivated enough to finish them.

4/5 stars

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Part 285: Chinese Democracy

By request: A review of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy so long that I split it into two parts. Part Two comes tomorrow. Read on!

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RECORD STORE TALES Part 285: Chinese Democracy

The story goes like this:

In late 1994/early 1995, T-Rev and I would update the store’s “new releases board” every few weeks. This board advertised what new releases were coming in the weeks and months ahead. When I was given my own store, T-Rev took over the original as manager, and continued on diligently with the new releases board.

Of course, one of the most anticipated releases even back in 1994 and 1995 was the “new” Guns N’ Roses. We’d sat through solo albums from Izzy, Duff, Gilby and finally Slash himself. While Izzy and Gilby came close to the mark, none of these were a substitute for a real Guns N’ Roses album. The only official new Guns N’ Roses CD that we had for sale was the CD single for “Sympathy For the Devil”. Little did we know back then that “Sympathy” was like the straw that broke the Guns’ backs! (Axl had secretly brought in Paul Huge as Gilby Clarke’s replacement, and had him overdub “answer” solos to go with Slash’s. Slash was furious, especially since Axl fired Gilby without telling anyone.)

The rumours were always buzzing, so T-Rev would periodically call me. “Mikey! Do you know any more new releases I can add to the board?” I was always checking out M.E.A.T Magazine, and inside a recent issue (March/April 1994), Slash himself said he was mixing the new album himself, and that it would be out by summer.  He actually went into quite a bit of detail regarding the new Guns N’ Roses album in this article.  He offered no song titles, but it’s easy to tell from his descriptions that many of the songs ended up on his and Gilby’s solo albums.  He downplays Axl Rose’s contribution to the project considerably.

An excerpt:

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Flush with cryptic updates such as these, I would always be able to help T-Rev keep the new release board up to date.

“Yeah man, I got a Guns N’ Roses update for you,” I would tell him on the phone.  “The new album’s coming out next quarter.”  After M.E.A.T Magazine went bust in 1995, I would have kept up with the latest Hit Parader or RIP Magazine.   The release dates kept getting pushed back.

Every month, T-Rev would dutifully change the board. Guns N’ Roses – spring 1995. Then the next month, he’d call me again. “Anything new?” And I’d let him know whatever I’d read. “The album’s scheduled for summer. This is according to Metal Edge,” or whatever.

And the board changed again. Fall 1995. Christmas 1995. Spring 1996. It became a running gag. Even if there was no GN’R news, T-Rev kept that album on the board dutifully. He’d just bump it ahead a couple months. He kept doing that until the store moved and changed formats at the end of ’96.  Even if no customers got the joke, the two of us thought it was freakin’ hilarious.  Trevor always predicted it would never come out.

I don’t think we would have laughed if we knew how long it would really be before Chinese Democracy was finally released to the public!  We waited through lineup change after lineup change, and the release of the new track “Oh My God” in 1999.  It would be almost a decade more before the final release.  Would it be worth the wait?  Find out tomorrow.