Use Your Illusion I
A few months after the release of Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, went platinum, Axl Rose gave an interview in which he described a piano ballad he’d been working on called “November Rain.” By that point, the band knew it well: They’d recorded a demo of it nearly a year before starting Appetite, and their guitarist, Slash, remembers an even earlier version that had expanded to 18 minutes. The song seemed to torture Rose—or, at least, represented an ideal he was obsessed with bringing to life. If he didn’t get it right, he told the interviewer, he’d quit music.
The best comparison for 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and its fraternal twin, Use Your Illusion II, isn’t music, but film. The budget, the combined two-hour runtime, the scale, the fact that the band was almost never in the same room at the same time: This isn’t music captured, but music built—piece by audacious piece. Riki Rachtman, a former MTV personality and friend of the band, joked that the moment he knew they’d changed for good was during the last sequence of the video for “Estranged,” in which Axl not only jumps off an aircraft carrier into the ocean, but follows it with a sequence of him swimming with dolphins.
This, though, is where Rose’s head was at, and what Use Your Illusion represents: not the spontaneity of bar bands, but the methodical grandeur of blockbusters. The climactic held vocal note of “Don’t Cry”—nearly 30 seconds, twisting in the spotlight—confirms what some listeners probably already figured out: Rose dreamed of opera. He later said he didn’t just want to outdo their debut, but bury it. And in a way, Use Your Illusion is an even scarier effort: tender one minute (“November Rain,” “Dead Horse”) and cruel the next (“Back Off Bitch,” “Bad Obsession”), an exercise in emotional whiplash that verges on the psychopathic.
But even by the band’s own standards, it was vicious: Where Appetite talks about addiction with a sense of swagger or double entendre (“Nightrain,” “Mr. Brownstone”), Use Your Illusion offers a 10-minute death fantasy called “Coma”; where Appetite is “feel my serpentine” (“Welcome to the Jungle”), Use Your Illusion is “suck my fucking dick” (“Get in the Ring”). Of the two volumes, the second is weirder and more adventurous. Slash once compared the entire project to The Beatles’ White Album (only not as good, he genuflected), but the experience is more like The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.: sprawling, dislocated, less about any single song than the rollercoaster-like effect of the larger picture. And as massive as its impact was on the shape of ’90s rock, there are elements of the albums—and II, especially—that resonate even more closely with gangsta rap: the cinematic scope (“Civil War”), the mix of nostalgia and sentimentality (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) with almost paranoiac meanness (“You Could Be Mine”).
Both of its volumes seeing release on the same day, Use Your Illusion came out at a time when a wave of underground bands was redefining mainstream rock by trading grandiosity for modesty. But 1991 also marked the death of Freddie Mercury and, by extension, the end of Queen as we often remember them. The coincidence is poetic: As Nirvana and their peers largely eschewed rock’s taste for spectacle, G N' R embodied it. Like a fading starlet leaning into a nervous breakdown, Axl preens for the camera, knowing it won’t look away.