Guns N Roses dropped the hotly anticipated (by me at least) box set for Use Your Illusions last weekend and I for one am stunned it’s been over thirty years since those great, albeit flawed, albums came out. I’m on record as a big Guns N Roses fan, even this current incarnation of the band with only Axl Rose (vocals), Slash (lead guitar) and Duff McKagan (bass) remaining from the incandescent original line-up. I actually saw that line-up on the ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour over six years ago at Arrowhead Stadium (can it have been six years?). I saw that super cool blended cover art – strips of the yellow LP cover interchanged with strips of the blue LP cover and I fell immediately under it’s spell… I must have this box… until I saw the price tag. This was going to require some research…
I can still remember when Use Your Illusions I and Use Your Illusions II were released. I was working for a medical supply company out of Chicago that was owned by guys that had to be criminals. No matter how much product I sold I never seemed to see the commissions, working for the company store indeed… ah, the life of a traveling salesman. Anyway, in 1991 as soon as my day spent in hospitals and nursing homes was over I headed straight to the record store. This may be my faulty memory but I think I only purchased Use Your Illusions II (the blue one) on that late summer, September day. I had heard and loved the epic track “Civil War” prior to the album’s release as it had been put out on a charity album for Romanian orphans spearheaded by George Harrison’s wife, Olivia. I remember seeing my brother at the time and “Civil War” came on the overhead speakers at a sub shop where we were eating. I began cavorting in my chair and playing my always handy air guitar. I happened to look up at my brother who was sitting across the table from me, blank faced, staring at me impassively. I said, “Don’t you dig this?” Without even blinking an eye he said, voice full of contempt, “Yeah but I don’t have to look like an idiot to prove it.” Family…
I had also heard the rocking track “You Could Be Mine” from Use Your Illusions II since it also had been released prior on the Terminator 2 soundtrack. Having heard two songs that I already thought ranked amongst their best, Use Your Illusions II was an easy buy. I would like to think I’d have just gone ahead and bought both albums that day, but as mentioned, money was tight. I think I was in the “living with my parents again” phase of my life – always a sign of big time success. Much like when I was back in junior high and even high school I always had a hard time committing to a double album or in this particular case two CDs released on the same day with the same title. And admittedly I was weirdly cautious about GnR. It took me until I heard the third single from Appetite For Destruction, “Paradise City,” before I bought that CD. The video for “Welcome To The Jungle” had me thinking these guys were just another hair band. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” caught my ear but it was a ballad and this was back when I was, let’s call it ballad-averse. Once I bought it, I was in, I was a fan but still cautious. By 1991 when the UYI albums were released it had been four years since their debut came out. That was a long gap in my mind.
Of course, in the time since their debut they’d released the odd follow up G N’ R Lies. While I had liked the song “Patience,” you couldn’t get away from it so who didn’t dig it, I had shied away from G N’ R Lies at the time because it seemed like a stopgap between “actual” albums. And admittedly I was deeply uncomfortable with some of the lyrics on “One In A Million.” Axl’s world view is certainly paranoid and misanthropic. I did go back to that same record shop and purchase Use Your Illusions I (the yellow one) a few weeks later after I heard “Dust N Bones.” Most people rushed out and bought that album for “November Rain,” which is a great, epic ballad but I preferred my GnR more menacing. On Appetite For Destruction they seemed like the most dangerous, threatening band on the planet – kind of like Aerosmith at their peak which coincidentally I had been listening to prior to this GnR deluxe release… It’s turning cold, the holidays are creeping up and I’m jumping around singing “‘Tis the Season for Hard Rock!”
The Use Your Illusions albums, taken together, to me sound a bit like the story of the Beatles’ self titled LP, aka The White Album. I’m not suggesting there is anything musically in common between The Beatles and the Use Your Illusions albums, but what has been said countless times about the Beatles’ record can certainly be said about the GnR albums: this is the sound of a band pulling in different directions. Use Your Illusions I seems to have the shorter, more focused, harder hitting rock songs. “Back Off Bitch,” “Bad Obsession,” “Dust N Bones” and “Perfect Crime” hit you like a prize fighter working the speed bag. I think that’s the direction Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar), Slash and Duff wanted to go. They wanted to stay in their lane. Axl, who had turned extraordinarily paranoid – he’d had beefs with neighbors, ex girlfriends/wives, the press, and had been excoriated for being racist and bigoted for “One In A Million” (rightly so) – wanted to indulge his Freddie Mercury/Queen/Elton John fantasies and go big. Use Your Illusions II is full of epic tracks: “Estranged,” “Locomotive” and “Civil War.” Of course “November Rain” and “Coma” were in that epic category and they were on the first album.
Axl’s paranoid vision for GnR was diametrically opposed to the rest of the band which never bodes well. By the time they recorded the UYI albums they’d already fired addled Steven Adler for heroin addiction. They’d tried to wait for him to pull himself together but in the words of Neil Young “He tried his best but he could not.” They replaced him with former Cult drummer Matt Sorum. Izzy always said they lost a key ingredient when they lost Adler, who had more “swing” in his drumming than Sorum, who is more of a plodder. Axl’s megalomania eventually drove Izzy Stradlin, who had also gotten sober, out of the band shortly after the two LPs came out. Losing him was a tremendous blow. Not because his replacement Gilby Clark couldn’t play but because Izzy was key for their songwriting.
In the end, I think you can say about the Use Your Illusions albums what they say about most double albums. There is probably a perfect, single-LP masterpiece lurking in this double album. I will admit, I’m happy to have as much GnR music from that classic line up as I can get so I’m still glad they sort of vomited all of this music on us back then. As I said when I saw the price tag on this box set I couldn’t help but think, “I have these records, what is the bonus material like? I was hoping like the Black Crowes on Shake Your Money Maker we’d get some unreleased tracks and some live stuff. Alas, I think GnR threw everything they had at the time on the two original LPs so scratch any unreleased studio gems from your wish list. However I would have loved to have heard some stripped down demos of these songs (especially of “November Rain”) or if there were outtakes (like Axl taking lead vocal on “Double Talkin’ Jive”) I’d have liked them included… especially at this price. I will admit I was a little disappointed when I heard that they would only be releasing two complete shows from the era, New York from May of ’91 and Las Vegas from January of ’92, and I can’t explain that disappointment. I don’t know why I felt that way? Rush just put out a great live concert with the 40th anniversary edition of Moving Pictures and it was sensational. Where was this feeling coming from?
Maybe it was the checkered history of the Use Your Illusions Tour? They actually started the tour before the albums came out because they were taking so long to finish. They couldn’t agree on a final mix. As I read somewhere, if Axl liked the mix Slash didn’t and vice versa. The Use Your Illusions Tour started in early ’91. I think one of the things that fueled my disappointment in hearing the bonus material was just two live shows was my memory of the troubled history of that tour. All the iconic bad behavior that we associate with Axl and the band stems from that tour. The tour was marred by GnR showing up late, Axl being drunk, Axl having vocal issues, Axl jumping into the crowd and fighting audience members, Axl walking off stage after only a few songs and in the case of the July ’91 show in St Louis, Axl starting a riot. Hence in the liner notes of the Use Your Illusions you can find the immortal words “Fuck St. Louis.” As someone from Kansas City a mere car ride away, I can tell you, they weren’t exactly wrong about St Louis.
GnR had been out on the road for eight months when the albums actually came out that balmy September. By November, Izzy Stradlin had quit the band. Before he quit, he had stopped riding on the tour bus and would just follow them on his motorcycle. I remember after he quit, one of their videos showed Izzy’s picture on milk carton under the words “Have You Seen This Man?” During the summer of ’92 GnR teamed up with Metallica for a joint tour that lasted from July to October that saw James Hetfield being burned up by the pyro. There was just some bad juju around this band and this tour back then.
That said – and I’m not a big bootleg guy any more, so I’ve never heard either of these two concerts before – I enjoyed these two concert recordings. Now admittedly, GnR never put out a definitive live album – and we know our live albums around here – and these two concert documents aren’t going to change that. They’ve confounded the issue by releasing separately, beyond the box set, remixes of the individual version of I and II with a hodgepodge of live cuts from different shows than the ones released in the box. I guess they’re trying to get folks to buy the box and new versions of each album all at the same time. Cashing in? I will say on the individual new release for Use Your Illusions I they have a nice live cut of Lenny Kravitz joining the band to play his tune “Always On The Run” from Paris. Lenny and Slash were buddies in high school and Lenny was the drummer in Slash’s first band. I’m not sure the live cuts would be enough to get me to buy the individual albums again unless I didn’t own them already, which I think is going to be a limited number of people.
In terms of the box set bonus material I probably like the New York May ’91 set best. It’s almost like hearing them rehearse. Axl even admits it’s only like the third time they’d played the songs since he “never shows up to jam with these guys.” Axl certainly has a bad case of LSD – Lead Singer Disease. People may be sort of “meh” about these two concerts but any time you can listen to Slash, one of the most melodic guitarist of all time and Axl one of the greatest voices in rock history rocking out it’s a treat. They throw in snippets of covers songs from Alice Cooper (“Only Women Bleed” an interesting choice), Rod Stewart (“I Was Only Joking”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”). It’s a great mix of tunes from all their albums from the debut to the two then new LPs.
On the Las Vegas Jan ’92 we get more of what we got on GnR’s live album Live Era ’87-’93 with back up singers and horns. There are actually five tracks from Live Era from this Vegas concert so there is a bit of duplication. We even get a little taste of “Hotel California” on this set. While this may not be GnR at their absolute peak it’s still an enjoyable listen if you’re a fan and it certainly holds together than the live stuff they cobbled together for the individual LP releases. I’ve never understood why Axl chose to bring in back up singers and horns? During one track he yells, “Give me some reggae,” which is something I never thought I’d hear at a GnR show… and the band drops into what sounds like a meth fueled attempt to slow it down and play a reggae thing. Sigh.
Overall at the price their charging I can’t recommend this box set. Like a gambler in an old time western movie, I’m pushing away from the table while mumbling, “Too rich for me…” However, I do recommend everyone at least stream this stuff. Especially if you’re a GnR fan or if you dig live music. A definitive live album doesn’t exist for these guys but these two shows provide us a snapshot of a time when GnR and hard rock were on top of the world and spiraling out of control. What’s not to love? Also if you don’t own Use Your Illusions I or II now might be the time to pick up those essential hard rock albums.
To everybody in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving next week. I’m being held hostage by family in a remote location… Anyway, turn this one up loud to drowned out the political arguments during your Turkey Day. “What’s that Uncle Bob, you think I’m a communist but you love Slash?” Well, who doesn’t love Slash? Finally something we can all agree on!