Commentary

'Chinese Democracy' a fine GNR mess

Guns N' Roses' recent and long-awaited release of "Chinese Democracy" gave Paul Shirley a case of GNR fever, but he's confused about why few others have caught it.

Updated: January 15, 2009, 2:28 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

I was sitting on my bed in a hotel outside Le Mans, France, when I found out that "Chinese Democracy," Guns N' Roses' long-awaited album, had been released. My first thought was, "Finally." My second was, "I wonder if the wireless connection at this rustic country site will handle an iTunes download?"

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It did. I could barely contain my excitement as the new songs were added to my computer's hard drive. I couldn't even wait for the whole album. For the first time in my personal history as an Internet user, I was listening to songs before they even finished coming in over the French cyber-waves.

I believe my anticipation was excusable. Guns N' Roses. The band that brought us "Appetite for Destruction," hedonistic tales from the seedy side of L.A., and that amazing Slash guitar solo from "November Rain." The one that makes me want to walk out of every wedding or funeral I attend, hoping to find not only a dusty, deserted parking lot, but also the bitchin' guitar skills that have eluded me so far.

While listening to "Chinese Democracy" for the first time, it occurred to me that my case of GNR fever seemed to be an isolated one. I thought back. I'd been out of the United States for a few days but, as usual, I'd done a respectable job of staying musically informed. It seemed likely that I would have noticed some chatter about a new release from the band that was once responsible for me waking my freshman roommate when, after a long day of classes, I came home, put on "Don't Cry," cranked the volume on my Sony boom box (with dual cassette feature), and made it to the first Cry-hee-hi-hee-i-ee-iiii before noticing that said roommate looked like he wanted to choke me with his comforter.

I was confused. People had been waiting for this album for a long time. I'd been waiting, and I'm not even the perfect Guns N' Roses fan. I missed the party by a few years. When "Appetite for Destruction" was released, I was 9 years old. While eating at the Pizza Hut in North Topeka, I once wanted to ask my parents if someone was going to arrest the scary teenagers who had just ordered up "Paradise City" on the jukebox.

As I researched the hype -- or lack thereof -- surrounding "Chinese Democracy," I allowed for a possibility: Maybe the new album was horrendous. It seemed possible. Seventeen-year layoff, revamped lineup, increasingly erratic front man -- these probably weren't perfect recording conditions. So I did what any skeptic would do -- I listened to the album several times, ready to crucify the record. But I couldn't find much to fault. Something kept coming to mind, every time I tried to condemn the music. That something being, "That voice. My God, that voice."

"Chinese Democracy" is a mess. It's all over the place. Guitar solos come from out of nowhere, there's almost no continuity from one song to the next, and almost every track has a part that makes me think, "That was a bad idea."

But I love it anyway. That's right: Love it.

So what if Guns N' Roses now consists of Axl Rose and some guys he calls in from his driveway.

So what if that same Axl Rose is now 43.

So what if the album doesn't have a single moment that compares to the opening riff from "Sweet Child O' Mine."

I don't care. It's a Guns N' Roses album. I like Guns N' Roses albums. And "Chinese Democracy" sounds like a Guns N' Roses album.

In my mind, Guns N' Roses has always been different from the hair-band counterparts with whom they're often lumped. Their music has always seemed more emotional. Like Poison, they sang of partying, but they sang about it in a way that made it seem as if they realized the damage it was doing. Like Motley Crue, they sang of girls, but they sang about them in a way that made those girls seem like actual humans, instead of caricatures of the species.

Of course, Axl and Co. were not above reproach. They're responsible for some lyrics that could only be described as groaners.

But let's face it, no one is listening to Guns N' Roses just for the lyrics. At least I'm not. Then again, I never really do. I listen in order to feel. That is to say, a good song makes me feel a certain way. Sometimes the lyrics are responsible for that feeling, but not always. If they were, I wouldn't like a single song by Stone Temple Pilots. And I like lots of songs by Stone Temple Pilots.

The songs on "Chinese Democracy" make me feel like the man singing them is a little unhinged, a little lost, a little wistful and a little lonely. Which seems to me to be a pretty good description of Axl Rose. Strangely, I rather enjoy the chaotic approach to the songs. While the aforementioned guitar solos do come out of nowhere, they're like Kansas weather: Wait a little while and they're gone. And often, what replaces them is something breathtaking -- an Axl wail or an oddly timed beat. But mostly the wails.

Because what, in the end, makes Guns N' Roses is the voice of Axl Rose. To some degree, I mean his "voice" in a poetic, artistic way: the things he has to say and the way he says them. But to a larger degree, I mean, simply, his forceful, beautiful, frightful singing voice. It's worth buying the record just to hear him come crashing in at the 29-second mark on the song "Better."

After thoroughly digesting the album, I decided it couldn't have been the music that was responsible for the lack of excitement. Or rather, excitement that was smaller than I would have expected. To my mind, the music was surprisingly good. I could see the weaknesses, but they didn't seem glaring enough to warrant apathy.

THE PORTABLE PAUL SHIRLEY


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I was stumped.

I asked around. Were any of my friends excited about this development? Not really, it seemed. Most expressed similar ignorance regarding the release of "Chinese Democracy." I discarded my first reaction, which was that I needed to get new friends, but only because it's too hard to make new ones, and came to grips with the fact that no one I knew really cared about Guns N' Roses anymore.

I felt like the guy holding up his lighter long after the power ballad had finished. I had long thought that the return of Axl Rose would be heralded like the second coming of Elvis Presley. Or at least of Jim Morrison.

I was wrong. Maybe I overestimated their importance, or maybe -- and this seems more likely -- the timing was wrong. Maybe people just got tired of waiting. They got old, had kids, and stopped worrying about popular music, leaving people my age and younger to carry the GNR torch. Unfortunately, people my age (and especially people younger than I am) were more interested in Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Like love, music is about timing. Imagine if someone would have knocked on the door when Kurt Cobain was applying his toe to the trigger of his shotgun. Or if all the members of U2 would have been wiped out by a bus when they should have -- right after the "Pop" album.

Or if "Chinese Democracy" had come out three years ago.

It's probably fitting that it didn't. Guns N' Roses has always been cursed. Usually -- it would appear -- by discord caused by Axl Rose's giant ego. It wouldn't be Guns N' Roses if everything went perfectly. And if everything went perfectly for Guns N' Roses, Axl Rose wouldn't be tormented by anything, and Guns N' Roses would be Poison.

Since I don't like Poison all that much, I'm glad "Chinese Democracy" wasn't bigger. Maybe this will mean a new album, new imperfections, and new ways for Axl Rose to send shivers down my spine with that voice.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. Paul can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at mysocalledcareer@gmail.com. His book, now in paperback, "Can I Keep My Jersey?" can be found here. With his brother, he also co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."

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