Scenes from a preteen wasteland. Nineteen-eighty-seven, the year Metal broke, the year I turned 12, the year I first got loaded like a freight train and the year Guns N’ Roses released Appetite For Destruction.
It wasn’t Nirvana that killed Metal, it was G N’ R. It was this album. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. How could I go back to Bon Jovi, Def Leppard or Poison? When Appetite For Destruction came out, I intuitively felt that it was Real. Real in the way that nothing else seemed to be at the time: real rock ‘n’ roll, real danger, real ugly. I remember reading a quote from Slash where he described how his tongue had turned black from a steady diet of Jack Daniels and Marlboro Reds. "That’s so cool," I thought. I had a G N’ R patch on the back of my jean jacket, I tried to do the side-to-side snake dance at parties and I once had a dream where I was Axl Rose singing "Paradise City" in front of millions.
Anniversary for destruction: Twenty years after its release, Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece remains a filthy, ferocious glimpse into lawless rock music.
Appetite For Destruction was real L.A. sleaze before L.A. sleaze became a pose for Williamsburg hipsters. Appetite, like a lot of ’80s metal, is music that’s great to blow coke to (listening to it now gives me a Pavlovian nose bleed), but unlike its contemporaries, Guns N’ Roses never made L.A. debauchery sound like fun. In song after song, Axl told us how cruel the city was for a small town white boy like himself. I can’t think of a single G N’ R song, except "Sweet Child O’ Mine," that describes anyone having a good time, and nothing’s cooler when you’re young than hating life.
In 1988, the year that the "Sweet Child O’ Mine" video made G N’ R the biggest band on the planet, NWA released Straight Outta Compton, another album that seemed very Real. Looking back, the pair seem strangely similar. Both albums are unrelentingly male, and both profess to be telling the truth straight from the streets of Los Angeles. Both albums tell stories about troubled kids trying to get by in a fucked-up world, struggling with cops, drugs, sex and poverty. Both also sell kids a fantasy way out, either by being an L.A. rock star or an L.A. gangster. Both are misogynist, violent and immature (Axl Rose is, after all, an anagram for "oral sex"). But both albums still send shivers up my spine.
The biggest difference between the albums is not skin color, however. It’s that the reality expressed in Appetite For Destruction is less about the world and more about the darkness inside its lead singer. The next G N’ R album, Lies, contained the song "One in a Million," one of the most controversial songs of the ’80s. In it, Axl digs down a little too deep, laying bare the xenophobia, racism and homophobia that lurks in his psyche. It is an ugly song, and not one that I feel good about defending. But it is, I think, the most honest song I’ve ever heard, one that portrays the fear, anger and despair that lurks in the heart of many an American man, black or white. After Matthew Shepard, 9/11 and Katrina, the song is impossible to feel comfortable about, but it is also very, very real. It’s the best song Axl ever wrote, and the song that marked the beginning of his decline.
Looking back, it’s easier to see all that "realness" as partially the product of Axl’s diseased mind. In the current Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt describes Axl’s room as a padlocked oasis of O.C.D. neatness in the middle of the filthiest rock ‘n’ roll depravity the Sunset Strip had ever seen. After Lies came the manic-depressive, multiple personalities of Use Your Illusion I and II, the numerous arrests for domestic violence, the 20-minute videos and the kilts. Now, Axl is hunkered down with his plastic face and braided hair, endlessly perfecting his never-ending-album, Chinese Democracy.
But Appetite For Destruction is a great rock album, a modern classic. It’s Nirvana’s Nevermind without the self-awareness and politically correct angst. It’s a pre-ironic album that proves that metal doesn’t have to be the joke that The Darkness and Andrew W. K. have tried so desperately to make it. It kicks serious ass.
Maybe Axl took it all a little too seriously. "Take this one to heart," he says at the end of "Out Ta Get Me," his version of Johnny Rotten’s proclamation "We mean it, man!" Guns N’ Roses certainly did mean it, but thankfully the 12-year-old me didn’t really understand what he was talking about.