That's an Axl that Guns N' Roses fans know well: paranoid and spitting mad. But another Axl has gone missing on Chinese Democracy. In his heyday, Rose was a classic sex-symbol frontman, dreaming of a utopian Paradise City populated by babes, commanding "feel my-my-my-my serpentine," stalking arena stages in serpentine-strangling spandex biker shorts. The members of Guns N' Roses were not just archetypal rock Dionysians, they were the last great rock Dionysians—the end of a dynastic line stretching down from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith.
Of course, cock rock is not unproblematic, and its problems—musical, political, and, God knows, sartorial—are epitomized by the skeezy silliness of the '80s hair metal scene that produced GN'R. But listening to Chinese Democracy, and to the earlier Guns N' Roses records, one is reminded how much pure fun was sucked out of rock circa 1992, when the last poodlehead packed away his phallus and shuffled off of the Sunset Strip, surrendering the limelight to a succession of sad sacks: grunge rockers, post-grunge rockers, and the current crop of Radiohead- and Coldplay-influenced bands, whose whimpering falsetto vocals rather pointedly dramatize the music's reduced, um, virility.
Rose is 46 years old now, so diminished libido may be par for the course. On Chinese Democracy, his voice is still an amazing, bludgeoning instrument, rising from demonic low rumble to piercing banshee wail. But listen to the words he is singing: "Sometimes I feel like the world is on top of me/ Breaking me down with an endless monotony." "Don't ever try to tell me how much you care for me/ Don't ever try to tell me how you were there for me." "I've been brought down in this storm/ And left so far out from the storm/ That I can't find my way back/ My way anymore." The priapic rock god has become just another bummed-out white guy, bellowing his angst over noisy guitars.
Of course, in rock, the sexiness starts with sound, and spreads. There's no gainsaying the skill of the L.A. studio musicians whom Rose has been touring with in recent years. (Chinese Democracy is full of virtuoso shredding sure to please the Guitar Player magazine subscribers.) But the songs lack the rugged, sexy swing of the original GN'R. It was a band par excellence: Lead guitarist Slash was Rose's sidekick and foil; rhythm guitarist Stradlin was the hook-savvy secret songwriting weapon; bassist McKagan gave the music its fearsome thrust. I can't help wondering what, pardon the expression, a real Guns N' Roses record would sound like in 2008.
For those of us who will accept no substitutes, there is hope. Rumors have flown for years about the original GN'R lineup reforming; Stradlin and McKagan have mentioned the possibility in recent interviews. Given the money involved, it may eventually prove too tempting to pass up. At the very least, a shotgun reunion is certain to take place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012, Guns N' Roses' first year of rock-hall eligibility. That's just three years away, a blink of the eye in Axl time. As a philosopher once said—way back when, in the heady days of the first Bush administration—all we need is just a little patience.
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