BOOK REVIEW: ERIC WEISBARD’S 33 1/3: USE YOUR ILLUSION I AND II
As the most unfairly maligned genre of music, metal is not often the subject of intense intellectual critical studies. That’s why the prospect of Eric Weisbard’s contribution to the popular 33 1/3 series of music criticism books, examining Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II, is such an exciting prospect; a close, detailed reading of these two seminal, highly controversial albums that more or less marked the swan song for GN’R is not only potentially thought-provoking, but also seems to provide ample opportunity to break down the barriers of the stereotype that metal is music enjoyed only by non-intellectuals. Unfortunately, Weisbard approaches the material not only as a non-metal fan, but as someone who enjoys GN’R only with the detached irony of an East Village scenester (that he has worked in the past for both The Village Voice and Spin should come as no surprise). Consequently neither as witty nor observant as his former colleague Chuck Klosterman’s vastly superior Fargo Rock City, Weisbard nonetheless provides some interesting, little know factoids and insights into these monumental works.
“Welcome to the season of the blockbuster,” Weisbard opens his tome, a not especially witty variation on Axl’s own famous salutation. Placing UYI in the context of its multiplatinum peers (he cites late-’91 releases by everyone from Pearl Jam to Mariah Carey), it initially seems as though Weisbard’s interest in the Gunners is akin to a paleontologist’s interest in dinosaurs long-extinct: purely scientific, never sentimental. He posits that GN’R could never exist in the modern musical climate, and he envisions Axl Rose, holed up somewhere forever at work on Chinese Democracy, as a heavy metal version of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: “I am big… it’s the music that got small.”
“This isn’t a book about [GNR’s debut] Appetite for Destruction, an album that succeeded by every definition,” Wesibard writes. “It’s a book about the void that was summoned up when Axl Rose decided he was entitled to sit at his new piano and make beautiful music.” Weisbard isn’t the first person to suggest that GN’R where ruined by their move from a five person down n’ dirty bar band that played punk n’ blues flavored rawk about life on the Sunset Strip to a grandiose 12-person highly polished (if still unstable) arena circus that specialized in orchestral epics about Axl’s lost loves and inner emotional turmoil.
And Weisbard’s thesis might even stand, if he didn’t spend the rest of his tome contradicting himself. Writing about the track “Back Off Bitch,” Weisbard notes that he and his wife “would blast [the song] for people who came to visit us where we lived not right next door to hell, but to to an an older couple of faded roses: Fay and Marlene… I wonder if they heard [the song] through the walls as we blasted it for our guests… [the song is] not complicated… But fully realized and fully meant. I sang it quite a bit, then.” Weisbard’s flowery tone here suggests a man reminiscing about an old lover, not a piece of pop metal; these are the words of a man obsessed, not a critic detached.
Weisbard’s bizzarely conflicted feelings about both these recordings and GN’R in general is best exemplified when he writes that “by 1991, as my taste group was about to briefly take over rock, I heard in Use Your Illusion something more unsettled, harder to grasp, than anything in Nevermind.” Weisbard is careful to separate himself from the moronic metalhead pack by referring to “my taste group” taking over rock- e.g., that he was on the side of the Nirvanas, the Pearl Jams, the “good guys”- and yet, his confession that he found UYI “harder to grasp” than Nevermind is a barely-tacit admission to finding GN’R work more challenging than their grunge adversaries*.
Weisbard tries to reconcile this inner-conflict- hipster versus metalhead- by positioning himself as intellectually superior to the average GN’R fan: he notes that the overlooked track “Don’t Damn Me” and most of the songs from oft-maligned punk cover disc The Spaghetti Incident? were never played live because they were “cool to all the wrong people”**- presumably, people like himself. This, then, explains why he’s right and most GN’R fans are wrong that “‘Don’t Cry’… fails as a memorable melody” even though it was always one of the band’s biggest hits; that “those who don’t know their roots are condemned to suffer harmonica” on “Bad Obsession;” and that “Estranged”- arguably the band’s finest hour, artistically if not commercially- is an “unhorrible song that achieves the horrible fake rock that fiction is always constructing” (whatever that means). Weisbard is simultaneously too timid to admit his love of GN’R to his college-radio buddies and too scared to just come out and take a stance on the band’s music that might be controversial to other GN’R fans- so he retreats into the shadows of pretension and snobishness.
None of it never really amounts to much, though, because the book is about the Illusions albums without really being about the Illusions albums; that is to say, he doesn’t actually spend a lot of time analyzing or dissecting the records the book is allegedly about. Early on, the author admits that he hasn’t actually listened to the recordings in years and “I don’t intend to listen to [the albums] again until the very last chapter of this book.” Any junior high English teacher will tell you that’s a pretty silly way to research a report (let alone a whole book), and Weisbard ends up spending more time wrestling with the morality of the very-possibly racist/homophobic song “One in a Million”- which doesn’t even appear on either of the Illusions discs- than any single track from the actual albums. When Wesibard finally DOES dive into the actual music on the albums in the final chapter, he writes only brief, not especially probing paragraphs on each song. The book consequently ends up being a lot of foreplay with no sex.
All of this being said, there are two very interesting aspects of this book. The first is a chapter entitled “Get in the Ring,” which collects press clippings on the band to examine how the media viewed them throughout their short career. The chapter has the usual reiterations of heavy metal myths and half-truths that have always surrounded GN’R, but does feature some interesting tidbits, including a letter from Sean Penn to Jon Pareles at The New York Times defending “One in a Million.”
The second worthwhile aspect of Weisbard’s writing is when he plays a longtime favorite game of hardcore Guns fans everywhere and makes his own UYI mixtape which edits the two albums down to a single CD (Geffen Records actually tried a version of this sometime in the 90s, to pretty awful results). Weisbard’s reimagined track listening initially seems pretty weird as it opens with a ballad and leaves off some standards (including “Don’t Cry”), but give it a quick listen as it actually works pretty well (in case you’re curious and don’t want to shell out 10 bucks for the book, his dream Illusion would go “November Rain,” “The Garden,” “Garden of Eden,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Dead Horse,” “Coma,” “Civil War,” “Yesterdays,” “Breakdown,” “You Could Be Mine,” “Estranged,” and “Get in the Ring”).
The author obviously has as much right as anyone to call Axl an “asshole” (which he does) or to criticize the music on UYI- but his criticisms are rarely insightful and more often than not undermined by his own philosophical hypocrisy. Conversely too poorly researched for both the unitiated and the scholar, Weisbard’s book will just have to go down as a coulda-woulda-shoulda for metal intellectuals everywhere.
(two out of five horns)
*Of course, after Weisbard declares himself “one of them” with regards to the grunge movement, he can never stop to let the reader know that GN’R viewed Nirvana and their ilk as their contemporaries, not their adversaries. The Gunners were never any less intent than Nirvana on ridding the world of bands like Poison and Warrant (Axl once infamously declined a request from Bret Michaels to share a table at the popular Sunset Strip hangout The Rainbow Room), and Axl not only went around wearing Nirvana merch, but he even asked Cobain to open on the GN’R/Metallica tour- Cobain declined, natch. It was Cobain who told his fans they couldn’t like GN’R AND Nirvana, not the other way around.
**What’s funny about Weisbard’s assertion is that the only people who don’t like The Spaghetti Incident? are non-GN’R fans; check out the message boards, and you couldn’t possibly find a group of people made happier by the Axl’s recent re-insertion of “Down on the Farm” into GN’R setlist.