On September 17, 1991, the band that had been on top of the hard rock heap since its debut album Appetite For Destruction went multi-platinum back in ‘88 made the groundbreaking — and seemingly insane — decision to release two separate full-length albums of original material at the same time. “An act of almost colossal arrogance,” one writer described it. (On vinyl, each one was actually a double album in and of itself). The Use Your Illusion project was a microcosm of the arena-rock breed of populism that had been annoying intellectuals and highbrow music writers ever since Led Zeppelin and its legions of high school parking lot smokers dropped a bomb on the progressive ambitions of the Woodstock Generation.
Of course, those progressive ambitions returned with a vengeance in the form of “alternative rock,” which killed off Guns N’ Roses quite handily. Turn, turn, turn.
Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II represented a lot of things – inflated runaway egos, rock & roll super-indulgence, perhaps the pinnacle of “event” albums, but most of all they represented the end of an era.
These albums were completely over-the-top, sonically massive, and in a way that seems charmingly archaic now, totally ridiculous in their excess. Overdubbed to the breaking point, featuring synthesized strings and brass, spoken word segments, and enough hubris to fuel three Kanye Wests, the fact that the Use Your Illusions were even allowed to exist opened the door to the more subtle, self-conscious, and self-effacing alternative rock that had been waiting quietly in the underground for a few years. In 1992, Alternative Nation would topple Dinosaur Rock, and cause a complete re-set on how music designed for the masses was recorded, marketed, sold, consumed, written about, thought about.
So the Use Your Illusions have become something of a milestone, a “You Are Now Leaving…” sign. Just like Nirvana’s Nevermind, released exactly one week later (I can’t believe the beautiful symmetry either), became a “You Are Now Entering…” sign.
For some reason (midlife crisis?), in the late summer of this year, I found myself gravitating toward and listening to the Use Your Illusions quite frequently. As with most of my temporary obsessions, I tried to think of a way to spin it into a Holy Bee blog piece, but for weeks, I couldn’t find an angle. I didn’t want to do a straightforward review, nor a “Holy Bee Recommends” segment…because I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Frankly, the albums are a mess.
So I thought briefly of doing the classic music-nerd parlor game of winnowing a sprawling double album into a tight, cohesive single album by discarding weak tracks and championing the keepers. A great exercise to foster discussion and debate on things like The Beatles (“White Album”), London Calling, and of course, Use Your Illusion I and II. But seeing how that activity has been done so incredibly frequently (by me and my friends, you and your friends, and certainly by other bloggers), I didn’t want to make it the whole point of the essay.
I didn’t know what I had to say about the Illusions, then it occurred to me (in the bathroom, where I get my best ideas.) Why not say everything? I had the brilliant idea of doing a shorter version of a 33⅓ book, which are not that long to begin with.
33⅓ is a series of small, slim paperbacks put out by Bloomsbury Publishing, each one dedicated to a milestone album. They are usually written by a critic or journalist, but several have been written by musicians. (My favorite 33⅓ book, on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, was written by Bill Janovitz of the 90s indie-rock band Buffalo Tom). There are currently 98 33⅓ books in print, with several more slated though 2016. The authors are free to write about the album in whatever way they want: technical breakdowns, musical analysis, personal reflections on what the album meant to them, short fiction, etc. Or a combination of it all. No set format, and that’s what makes them fascinating.
I now had an approach. Regular Holy Bee readers know I’m a throw-in-the-kitchen-sink kind of writer, so I decided to dump all of my thoughts on this peculiar pair of albums into one massive, multi-part piece. My own little 33⅓ book.
Imagine my heartbreak when I discovered that there already was a 33⅓ book on the Use Your Illusions! I was stunned. Frankly, the 33⅓ books are a little on the hipster/elite side — their latest entry is on Sigur Ros’ (), to give you an idea — and I was very surprised Use Your Illusion I and II would appeal to their regular readers. Back to the drawing board for the Holy Bee?
But wait! The Use Your Illusion I and II 33⅓ book is perhaps the most reviled work in the entire series. Former Spin and Village Voice music editor Eric Weisbard pissed off nearly everyone with his take on the albums. Here’s some titles of the scathing Amazon reviews:
“This Book Is Garbage !!”
“Yikes. Not for the fans!”
“An hour of my life I won’t get back.”
“Wow – This writer is completely self-indulgent and pretentious.” (The Holy Bee looked around nervously at that one.)
“The Worst Book in the 33⅓ Series I’ve Read.”
And so on.
Weisbard decided to write a piece about popular culture in the early 90s, using the Use Your Illusions as a filter through which he examines the changing of the musical guard described above. What infuriated readers is that his look at the music on the Use Your Illusions is cursory and intentionally secondary. It’s based on his memories of the album from twenty years ago…without re-listening to it until he wrote the final chapter! By his own admission, he was far from a Guns N’ Roses expert, and not even much of a fan.
I was siding with the indignant Amazon reviewers, until I plunked down a ten-spot and actually downloaded the damn thing to my Kindle to see what all the fuss was about.
It turns out Eric Weisbard is a good writer. With every turn of the page, he fires off an eloquent passage expressing the whole end-of-an-era idea much better than I ever could. To wit: “The idolatry required to sustain albums on a 1970s or 1980s scale could no longer be met by a popular culture whose niche markets were collectively far more valuable than its consensus heroes…In the season of the blockbuster [album], CDs still came in ‘long boxes’: tall rectangles shaped like skyscrapers, and meant to…fit record store bins, and provide at least a hint of the majesty that LP covers had offered. Unlike vinyl, however, once you bought a CD and ripped the long box open the effect was instantly gone. A couple of years later, the industry stopped faking consumers; the aura of the LP had been replaced by the profit margin of the CD…We need to hear Use Your Illusion I and II with the long boxes still intact, those twin towers of September 1991. Filter back in the audience they summoned and expected to speak for…”
And there’s more where that came from. (Check out his NPR article on Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” if you like his style.) I understood what he was trying to do, and I think he succeeded in doing it. I can definitely recommend his book — with the caveat that, as the reviewers have made clear, it’s not really about the Use Your Illusion albums
And when he did get to some thumbnail analysis of the songs, he gets everything entirely wrong, naturally.
Good thing I’m here. I decided to plunge ahead and write the 33⅓ (or 66⅔ if you will) on Use Your Illusion I and II that people seemed to actually want. Along with my picks for a single-disc version. Not even Eric Weisbard could resist that little exercise. He may be a great writer, but his single-disc UYI mix blows. Continue reading