Monday, November 17, 2008
The End Of An Era: Why Chinese Democracy Matters So Much To So Many
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly men in their late 20s and early 30s, will line up to buy Chinese Democracy, a mythical album 15 years in the making from rock n' roll's most famous recluse, Axl Rose.
Chinese Democracy, for the last ten years or so, has practically replaced "Hell Freezing Over" and "The Cubs Winning The World Series" as the de facto punchline for things that will never come to be. While his ex-bandmates in Guns N' Roses like Slash became ubiquitous cultural icons not just in rock n' roll, but in video games and literature, Axl Rose stood alone, silent and mysteriously out of reach from the public eye. The only thing the masses could barely see from a well-kept distance was an alleged madman continously tinkering and crafting an album that was supposed to be worlds apart from Guns N' Roses iconic debut album Appetite For Destruction.
Rose practically ditched the whole legendary outfit in pursuit of his White Whale, so to speak. He had promised that the sound would be true to Appetite's roots, but would sound wholly modern in its approach. When buzz on the Internet reached a fever pitch that Rose would finally release the album this year in 2008, the reaction was an equal blend of "I'll believe when I see it" apathy and exasperation. Dr Pepper promised everyone in America except Slash a free soda if Axl actually delivered on his promise. The soda giant knew full well, just like so many other rock n' roll purists, that Axl had promised us this album before. Chinese Democracy was first ready scheduled to be released in 1999. I was 20 years and a junior in college.
I'm now close to 30 years old, and stopped drinking soda close to three years ago. But for one day this week, I will indulge myself with an old friend from my past and a bad habit that I gave up years ago.
On Sunday, Dr Pepper is ready to pay up. Millions, like myself, will drink to that.
Once the official release date was set, I found myself scouring the internet looking for details on the track listings, reviews, etc. I stumbled onto a message board on Fark.com, and found men mostly men about my age bitching about the cover art.
I was pleasantly surprised by this. Not by the cover art, mind you, because I'll concede that it sucks. I was pleasantly surprised that people were even having a discussion about cover art at all.
Fark posters were discussing the lyrics and what they were supposed to mean, what they could mean, what they were supposed to mean. All of these comments, both the good and the bad, made me extremely happy but incredibly sad at the exact same time.
You see, Chinese Democracy is the last significant rock album that will ever be made. There will never be again a rock album that will gain this much scrutiny over everything from the music itself, the lyrics, the cover art and its overall artistic merit. Chinese Democracy marks the last hurrah for three generations that were raised on rock n' roll as it stood in its original artistic format.
An entire generation and generations after them do not and will not understand why this is so significant. The technological innovations of MP3 players and the I-Pod instantaneously transformed the way people process music. Don't misunderstand this as a rant against the young little whipper-snappers and their new fangled gadgets. The I-Pod and creations similar to it were borne of necessity based on the direction of the music industry and the corporate radio ideology of Clear Channel and the ilk.
More and more artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s were compromised by the music industry to release their work for the radio industry as fast as possible aiming for the hit single to push the product to as many people as necessary. It is hardly a surprise that this same era also led to some of the worst music of any generation, an amalgam of slickly overproduced bubblegum pop headlined by the various boy bands, Britney Spears, rap rock and all the various auditory feces that followed.
The focus was more on the image than it ever was the product itself. The music industry was more interested in cultivating celebrities than talent, more concerned with instant gratification than long-term success. Napster.com emerged as a way for people to cut out the middle man and the filler to get what they wanted without having to shell out close to $20 to get it. When Napster came under fire from the likes of the equally craptastic Metallica and others like them, it became evident that technology was going to have to evolve from something less illegal, but to still keep the same overall premise.
I-Pods and other similar products filled the void perfectly and have now become a necessity for anyone who truly cares about music at all. But with that comes a cultural price to pay and it has created a permanent disconnection from a new generation and everyone that has come before them.
That disconnection comes from a certain rite of passage involving music, especially rock n' roll. I can remember spending many nights in high school over at my friend Joseph Kramer's place listening to everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins and Tool to yesteryear artists like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple beneath his black light posters and the PBR neon sign in his room. I didn't necessarily care much for Billy Corgan's voice, but his lyrics on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were simply mesmerizing. If I could ever write poetry as well as Corgan did on that album, I'd die completely satisfied as a writer.
I loved the cover art of that album and I loved all the various paintings and snapshot inserts that the Smashing Pumpkins threw in there as well. It was a grand artistic achievement where each song was meticulously placed and spaced perfectly. It was high, sonic art that could kick your ass across a room, and make you wonder what it was supposed to mean.
Decades before this, my Dad used to light incense in his room and put on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with his brothers, Chris and Tim. I've talked to both my Dad and Uncle Tim about the wonder of perhaps the greatest rock album ever made when it first came out. They would pore over the liner notes, trying to decipher the most famous album cover in history, and attempt to piece together the order of the songs and figure out why those songs were arranged in such a fashion.
They studied the clothes they wore for the photo shoots, the concept of the songs themselves and the mystery of "A Day In The Life." Twenty-five years later, my friend Lauren and I would ask all of the very same questions and more over a CD copy of Sgt. Pepper and a brown-bag lunch in high school when the album was brand new to us.
I was over at Uncle Tim's place not too long ago, drinking a few beers with him, and he turned me on to some songs by Black Sabbath that I confess I had never heard before. He had put on a very raw Ozzy Osbourne screaming into a mic, and was quick to point out the exact moment when Ozzy started to scream profanities. He excitely turned to me and said, "This was the part when Dad used to get pissed off and yell at us to turn it down!"
Much akin, of course, to when I was sixteen and Dad used to get pissed off at the gutteral, primal end of "Slaughtered" by Pantera. I left Uncle Tim's place that night and dug out some old Pantera, and put it in as loud as my ears could take.
My neighbors got pissed off and told me to turn it down. Three of them, in fact.
That, I suppose, was the point.
Interestingly enough, Appetite For Destruction was the last major rock album to be mastered by hand. After that, albums were mastered digitally. It seems only fitting that Chinese Democracy is released at the end of another era as well. It will be released to the delight of an entire generation that for one last time will engage in an old rite of passage. They will take home a CD, and study the whole body of work like it was the textbook for a collegiate philosophy class.
Later this week, I hope to put on Chinese Democracy. Like so many others, I hope I can figure out through the lyrics something relating to Axl's various neuroses, his bipolar rage, his endless and meticulous tinkering with an album that probably won't be half as good or as memorable as Appetite For Destruction.
I'm sure I'll endlessly ponder the liner notes, the cover, the inside photos, everything about this album just to figure out what makes this guy tick, what made him want to fire the entire band so that he could pursue this impossible venture that has led us to this point today.
I hope a younger generation understands what all the fuss is about, and why the events of this week are so important to so many. I hope they pick up a copy of Chinese Democracy. But I suspect they won't.
I suspect they'll just download the title cut, dismiss the song because it's from a washed-up has-been and move right on to whatever song is next on their I-Pod. Sadly, they wouldn't be totally wrong in their initial assessment.
But I know they wouldn't be completely right either.