33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the seventeenth installment of our attempt to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 19: Guns N’Roses’ Use Your Illusion l & ll by Eric Weisbard
A recent response to the just-announced titles that have been pitched on the 33 1/3 official blog, The Longlist, stated: “Reading through the existing 33 1/3 books, I’m often surprised to find that records I adore and obsess over can result in dull, uninspired books, where records that I couldn’t have imagined reading a whole book about turn out to be fascinating and far more complex than I’d realized.” Good ol’ “Anonymous” expresses the feelings of a lot of people towards the li’l book series, even those like me who can’t help but snatch up near every volume. (Addenda to A.’s wisdom could also be: “Those who don’t interview their subjects aren’t necessarily deficient because sometimes the fiction reflects the music at least as well” and “The theologically-themed ones will always outrage someone, often me.”)
I knew Eric Weisbard could probably do a kick ass 33 1/3. He and his partner, Ann Powers, were/are responsible for whatever was good about the Experience Music Project, especially its Pop Con. And Eric is well known for his work as an editor on the 90s Spin Alternative Guide, but especially the impeccable and outstanding EMP Pop Con collections This Is Pop and Listen Again (yet after buying this volume in 2007, I let it sit on the shelf until last month.)
What prompted me to get it back out and try to read it up? The hype-lash helped for Chinese Democracy, an album I wouldn’t bother buying but don’t mind reading some endless ranting about. Actually, I’d never bought the Use Your Illusion twin brothers either, which may explain why I was more eager to read other 33 1/3s that were actually about records I once played or still play. (Doolittle, for example, or Double Nickels On The Dime, or Paul’s Boutique, all highly recommended in audio form and about the audio form.)
But I was a big fan of the first G N’R record, and liked the crappy satire on the follow-up double EP Lies, and Weisbard continually goads me to check out “UYI l & ll” just to find out what happened, whether he thinks they’re great albums or not. Well, actually, they are “great” albums sort of in the way that W. was a “great” leader, but not near as bad, just phenomenally significant to history. The released-at-the-same-time in 1991 Use Your Illusion set was a humungous paranoia-filled rant that was the anti-Springsteen’s 5X live vinyl release from a few years before; it still brought people together, mostly just to “Get In The Ring” with Axl. As Weisbard describes, “alternative” sort of flushed the Borderline Personality Disorder rock out of the mainstream, but as he also asserts, there’s more of that redneck angst in Kurt Cobain than the Aberdeen boy would have admitted (and though he mocked it). Without being too blunt about it, Weisbard expertly ties the rougher rock of post-hair metal LA-based punk/metal straight through grunge, a trajectory found simply and elegantly in the rise and fall of this particular double album.
But no, really. This is one of the best books in the 33 1/3 series, there’s a dramatic intensity in how Weisbard clearly reports the inflamed hubris and almost sensual acrimony of the band’s engagement with the world, pealing through the next few years with razor sharp thumbs into a fascinatingly rotten onion. And even if I never hit the bargain bins to buy the discs and reread Weisbard’s really cool analysis of the Rose persona (his sadomasochistic tenderness, a self-destructive need for total domination in how he is viewed by others, a little boy lost in the city who becomes demon from being demonized, in some form of recurrent self-fulfilling prophecy based on accused early childhood sexual abuse) to them, exploring the damage track by track (save for the Izzy ones, which Weisbard quickly dismisses), I still plan to get this two-fisted tale back out for another round or two. That shitty homophobia and peculiar racism in “One In A Million” can’t be defended, but can be understood a little by what formed Rose, at least evidenced by his music -- or perhaps more importantly CAN’T be understood, as some things are meant to be hugely fucked up in this world and seeing that for what it is isn’t necessarily a sin in itself. How that isn’t “alternative” Weisbard joins us in grappling with.