Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why I Still Listen To Guns N Roses

*Note: I initially meant to write this a few months back to add onto a post a good friend wrote, but it ended up getting put on the backburner as life took a turn in a very busy and productive direction.

Back in the mid-late 1980s, I was going to a public school in a very rural area. I was depressed, angry, and frustrated. I was frustrated because most of what I was learning was repetition of things I'd learned years before, and my young mind just didn't see the point in going through all of that (again) just for the sake of grades. (In retrospect, I probably should have, but I was young and thought I knew everything.)

My friends were non-existent at that point in my life. The closest person to my house was more than a mile away, and proximity doesn't always imply friendship. People pretty much started to fall into two categories: People my age who actively tried to do me harm (either physically or verbally), or those I could tenuously keep from doing so.

To zoom out from the picture a little bit, this very insular community also had some of the worst teachers I'd run across. This didn't spring from my (at the time) naturally contrarian mindset, nor did I have a problem with authority at that time (though that would change). The teachers wouldn't stick to the curriculum, and would use the classroom as a personal forum, without imparting any of the things we were supposed to be learning (which would be reflected on standardized exams, unless you ignored what was happening in the classroom and stuck to reading the textbooks instead).

To zoom out even more, This was the beginning of the late-80s. The Cold War was in its death throes. The halcyon days of the Reagan Economic Period were starting to feel the big hangover. Increased reports about violence and drug use were inescapable.

I was outgrowing the music I was raised on (classical), and was looking for...something, anything to help me retreat inward. My closest friends (at the time) were books, but music was a close second. Most of what I'd heard on the radio (the closest music store was a 40 minute drive - which is a long way for a 13 year old) was garbage, and nothing was putting me at ease.

Then I heard it.

The opening notes to Welcome To The Jungle sent a cold bolt of electricity down my spine, and once the gasp/scream of the vocals started to build, I couldn't turn away. I needed to know what band this was, and if they made more songs (like this one).

I remember getting my hands on a cassette of Appetite for Destruction, and listening to it over and over again. This was a take on America that was nothing short of scary. Even more, I wanted nothing to do with the outside world. Los Angeles seemed like a place where vices, dreams, and people were traded and thrown away - but it wasn't just L.A. - those elements were everywhere, and symptomatic (or so it seemed at the time) of what the "Feel Good 80s" had ignored and allowed to fester.

The cassette played on and I began to write anything and everything that came to mind - experiences I had, fiction that drew from said experiences, my hopes, and even poetry and songs. I got my hands on a discarded copy of G n'R Lies, and was introduced to the range that the band had - from punk to blues, and even a tender ballad.

I was still lost in this rural area, without friends, and few positive interactions at school. The best place - or most comfortable, I should say - was inside my own head. Maybe it was a shared unease, or misery trying to make the best of a bad situation combined with similar interests, but I ended up hanging out with my friend Shane, and our small group of misfits.

Sarcasm reigned along with a taint of bitterness toward our geographical location, the people we dealt with, and the angst that accompanied our youth when faced with a school where we weren't learning anything, and a great big world "out there" that seemed to be spiraling downward before we were even prepared to deal with it on a rudimentary level. To paraphrase a song, "Indiana wasn't our kind of town."

Shane's brother played the guitar, and when we were all hanging out one day, I decided to drop all inhibitions for a few minutes and sing. I can't tell you exactly what it was, but something worked, and a creative venture was born.

Shane and I went from writing on our own to collaborating on songs and stories. I wasn't just keeping my writing in an overflowing desk drawer. I was sharing it - and when put to music, it felt like I'd hopped on a train, and there was no holding back.

In a sense, Guns N' Roses both figuratively and literally gave me a voice.

When the Use Your Illusion set came out, I bought it on the release date and pored over every note, every word, and every intonation. I memorized the liner notes and credits. Both albums contained such a vast array of material, that I couldn't find at least one track for every overarching emotions, thought, or sudden mood swing I experienced.

As I wrote, sang, and tried to muddle through social interactions (while dealing with the chemically induced emotions and irrationality that come with hormonal adolescence), these songs were a solace, of sorts, that let me know that I wasn't the only one thinking immediate and higher level situations were messed up (for lack of more accessible words) - and that what I was feeling, thinking, and writing shouldn't be invalidated before they leave my head. I still think the track Don't Damn Me is one of the most powerful songs to have come out of the Use Your Illusions tracks, and it's that song that's stayed with me while others waxed and waned with less temporary situations and feelings.

Whether it was closing my eyes and letting the songs wash over me so I could forget the outside world for a bit; writing at a fevered pace; or caterwauling and using my voice to exorcise whatever was welling up inside of me (both good and bad) until I damn near collapsed after either a live performance or in my own room - the music was always there.

I'm no longer a kid (chronologically speaking). I'd like to think I've matured, learned how to play with others (to a degree), and lead a much quieter, calmer life than I did in my 20s and even 30s. In that time, I saw Guns N' Roses go from an unstoppable force to an ever-changing line-up of band members, to utter disintegration.

I last saw Guns N' Roses live in 2002, shortly before their tour was cancelled. They were only mildly late to the stage, but the show was well worth it - three hours plus of music, including the various asides and rants against everything from Slash to the state of digital media by Axl.

While I'm no longer the wiry kid with anger issues, I certainly have held to the credo of expressing myself. I've had my writing published in various places (outside of this neglected blog), and I still belt out a song (or ten) when so inspired. I've gone through some tumultuous times (often by sticking my foot in places it didn't belong, despite what better judgement might have said), and at times I've chosen the uphill fight when I shouldn't have tried to go against gravity in the first place. I'd like to think I'm a bit wiser, slightly more cautious, and not as headstrong (or heartstrong, as the case may be) about proving that I can do a thing when logic and odds tell me I shouldn't have a dog in the fight. I'm a little worse for wear, ragged  and torn in certain places, and have probably shaved years off of my life due to various stressful situations and relationships, and how I managed it in my younger years. However, the important thing is to take lessons (no matter how bad they may seem when you're standing in the middle of the aftermath), learn from them, and apply that wisdom down the road.

While Slash has stuck to blues rock and Axl's relationship with his former bandmates has pretty much stayed on the level of bitter divorcees for the past decade or so, I can look back and say I've grown, but the music and lyrics of Guns N' Roses fueled the initial fire that still hasn't been extinguished. I still listen to those songs with more consistency than other artists I enjoy (of which there are quite a few - many of which have remained relevant), and I never forget what took me from a quiet kid with too much on his mind that he never said, to who I am now.

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