Guns N’ Roses headlined the first show I ever saw. This was July 1992 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, the first night of their massive co-headlining tour with Metallica. A couple of weeks later, a Montreal show would end in a riot when both bands ended their sets early: Metallica because James Hetfield caught on fire, Guns N’ Roses because Axl Rose was upset after being upstaged by the guy who caught on fire. As legend had it, Axl had attempted to recruit Nirvana as the tour’s opener, but Nirvana turned it down because Kurt Cobain didn’t like the way Axl talked about women in his songs. Faith No More ended up opening instead. As a 12-year-old, I was happy about Cobain’s decision — not because I supported his reasoning, but because I was more excited to see Faith No More than I was to see Nirvana. (Back then, I thought The Real Thing was a better album than Nevermind. When I’m in the right mood, I still think The Real Thing is a better album than Nevermind. Listen to “Falling To Pieces” again before you tell me I’m wrong.)
Anyway, that show: I actually saw more of the other two bands than I saw of GN’R. Faith No More’s set gave me the first live-music image that imprinted itself deep in my memory: A sea of fists, seen from the stadium’s upper deck, pumping in time to “Epic.” (This was what people did at big rock shows before moshing became mass-culture cool.) Metallica played a blistering hours-long show and absolutely reduced the place to smoking embers. GN’R, meanwhile, made everyone wait something like two hours before they made their entrance, which was a pretty normal thing for them. I saw all of 20 minutes of their set and then had to leave because the DC Metro stops running at midnight and my dad didn’t want to park in the city. I heard the opening bars of “Welcome To The Jungle” ringing out when I was walking across the parking lot to leave; it was heartbreaking. The 20 minutes I did see included a long and breathless Axl rant against the city of St. Louis, where he was facing criminal charges after inciting a riot a few months beforehand. (His opening: “They told me not to say anything derogatory about St. Louis. [Dramatic pause] Well, St. Louis can suck my dick.”) I had to sit there quietly while my dad, a St. Louis native who never liked Axl in the first place, fumed. The little bit of set I did actually get to see was a disjointed and awkward mess, then. But when school started up in September, I still told everyone else right away that I’d seen Guns N’ Roses over the summer. If you were an adolescent 20 years ago, they were the only band that mattered.
The late-summer/early-fall months of 1991 saw the release of a whole lot of big, important rock albums. Nevermind. Ten. Metallica’s Black Album. Achtung Baby. But the two that sent me into paroxysms of need back then were the two Use Your Illusion albums, released on the same day, to great fanfare, exactly 20 years before this Saturday. Over the years, those two albums, in some circles, have come to represent a sort of big-rock bloat, the old guard that Nirvana instantly cleared away. They were huge, ridiculous affairs, of course, 2.5 total hours of music with nearly every song longer than it had to be. (I’m not sure there’s a single non-Axl person on the planet who would’ve been upset if “Coma” was four minutes long instead of 10.) And they dripped with excess: Izzy Stradlin playing sitar on “Pretty Tied Up,” Axl rapping on “My World,” Alice Cooper showing up to lend his best Vincent Price impression to “The Garden,” Slash riding on a dolphin in the “Estranged” video. And given that GN’R had released a grand total of an album and a half at this point, it was a pretty absurd undertaking. By those standards, Billy Corgan’s decision to turn Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness into a triple album seems pretty reasoned and sober; the Smashing Pumpkins at least had a bit of a longer resume by that point.
And yet, listening to those albums back-to-back today, they don’t feel excessive, at least not in the bad way. Even at their most indulgent, GN’R remained vicious hook-writers, and that’s the main reason why a nine-minute monster like “Locomotive” never crumbled under its own weight. They also had the good sense to break up the epics with quick bursts of venom like “You Could Be Mine” and “Double Talkin’ Jive.” And this could just be idealized memory talking, but something like half these songs just dominated rock-radio playlists over the next three or four years. Even non-singles like “Dead Horse” and “Pretty Tied Up” gained the sort of radio traction that, let’s say, “Polly” and “On A Plain” never quite managed. These songs became part of the atmosphere almost immediately, and that’s something that only ever happens when there’s a serious amount of craft involved.
Really, the biggest problem with the Use Your Illusion albums was that they weren’t Appetite For Destruction. Appetite was the sort of debut album that leaves a blazing hole in the universe, and it’s easy to see why GN’R went for grand sweep in the follow-up; it’s not like they could’ve exceeded that album’s wild-eyed abandon. (It’s fun to imagine what could’ve happened if GN’R had tried to go harder and dirtier, like Nirvana did with In Utero. Maybe they’d still be around today, or maybe Axl would be dead; I have no idea.) The Use Your Illusion albums are huge and silly and ultimately meaningless where Appetite was a snot-rocket straight to your soul. The only Use Your Illusion songs with clear points are the ones where they get pissed. I can tell you all the whos and whys of “Get In The Ring,” for instance, but to this day I only have the fuzziest notions of what “Civil War” is even about, and I suspect that Axl feels the same. Another, smaller issue is the absence of Appetite-era drummer Steven Adler, an absolute walking disaster of a human being who nevertheless had the inventive glee to turn songs like “Rocket Queen” into funked-up disco-metal throwdowns. His replacement was Matt Sorum, imported from the Cult, whose wallop was sturdy but who never seemed to be having that much fun.
And yet the Illusion albums still succeeded way more often than they failed. They aimed for grand majesty, and they achieved it. And who even tries for that anymore? Radiohead, maybe? Lady Gaga? Have the ensuing 20 years produced a single musician who could ride on the back of a dolphin and make it seem cool? And in a way, Guns N’ Roses willing themselves out of the hair-band ghetto through sheer talent and spiteful determination and transforming themselves into Pink Floyd heirs… it’s as powerful a story, in its own way, as Nirvana upending the cool-kid lunch table.
But how do the albums hold up for you guys? What’s your favorite Use Your Illusion track? (Mine: “You Could Be Mine” back then, “Estranged” now.) Your favorite moment on the albums? (Mine: The way the chorus of “Garden Of Eden” just frantically careens in.) Your favorite random memory of it? (Mine: The band coming face-to-face with Schwarzenegger in the “You Could Be Mine” video.) And also, check out a bunch of videos below.