So this is a story about Guns N’ Roses. It’s also a story about driving from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City.
In late November 2008, Guns N’ Roses released their incredibly long-awaited album Chinese Democracy. It was an album that had been years in the making. The album was first talked about as the 90s came to a close but it wasn’t until the 00s crept up on the finish line that Axl Rose, who at the time was the only original member of the band still around, finally released the album. It was the band’s first studio album of original material since the Use Your Illusion albums, both of which were released in 1991. Releasing a double album buys you some time to put together a follow-up, but 17 years was pushing it.
Even if you had long since moved on from Guns N’ Roses when Chinese Democracy did finally drop, you couldn’t help but be inclined to check it out. General curiosity prompted me to give it a spin. It certainly wasn’t that I was still listening to the band on a regular basis. I don’t think I ever listened to Guns N’ Roses on a regular basis, not even in their heyday. We were close, but not that close.
But at some point soon after its release, I downloaded Chinese Democracy and gave it a listen. And then I did again. And then I did some more and again after that.
This brings us to the aforementioned trip out west.
At the time, I was working for a company based out in Utah and they needed one of the trucks we had over in Philly. So I was asked to drive the truck, a beast of a Ford F350, out there. I could take my time; there was no major rush. They just needed it by mid-December.
It would be my first time driving west of Pittsburgh. The east coast was old hat for me, having driven up and down the country’s eastern seaboard countless times. This westward excursion would be a new adventure and I was pretty excited. I had the necessary provisions packed and for music, would be relying on that long-gone tech of the FM transmitter, which if luck was on your side, enabled you to play your iPod through the radio. It wasn’t perfect. That’s for damn sure. At the time, the best course of action was the tape adaptor. But in the absence of a tape deck, it was the FM transmitter or bust.
The FM transmitter is no longer around for a reason and no, it’s not just because of AUX cords and/or Blu Tooth. It was a roll of the dice at best.
So that was that. The scene was set and it was a solo drive west paired with the release of Chinese Democracy.
But why bring this up now? Why thirteen years later pay any mind to such a tale? Well, because last Friday, Guns N’ Roses released a new song, their first since Chinese Democracy.
The track is a reworking of “Silkworms,” a Guns’ tune that came about during the decade-plus run-up to the release of Chinese Democracy. It had been part of the band’s live show since 2001 but with Guns N’ Roses stomping their way across the globe these days with something that resembles an original lineup, the tune was retrofit to better mesh with their current sound.
Totally cool. I suppose a world with new Guns N’ Roses songs is better than a world without them.
But this trip to Utah…
On the first day, I got halfway through Ohio and called it a day. Again, I was told to take my time and you’d be spent too after driving solo across Pennsylvania and then into Ohio. Not much doing there. But I did listen to Chinese Democracy at least two or three times, thus establishing a pattern that would continue over the course of the trip.
Wherever it was that I set up shop in Ohio, I saddled up to the bar at an Applebee’s across the street from the hotel. It would not be the last time that happened. Drive on enough highways and you sense a pattern. Where there’s a hotel, there’s likely to be an Applebee’s.
And there’s just so much happening on Chinese Democracy! It makes it almost a perfect soundtrack for a drive such as the one I was in the midst of. Layers upon layers of guitars and drums that sound like death and destruction. The louder the album plays, the better it sounds. It makes you want to turn it up louder as if it wiggles its way into your insides, controlling all of your thoughts and impulses. With each song, the volume inches that much closer to the max and there’s not much you can do to stop it from happening.
It might have been during this first leg of the trip that I started comparing Axl Rose to Kanye West.
On the second day, a look at the radar showed trouble on the horizon in the form of a massive snowstorm. It was one of the snowstorms that looks like an amorphous blob swallowing up swathes of America and I was headed right for it. There would be no way around it. As far as I could see it, I could press on and stay the course, bailing once the snow got to be too much or I could punt, which I did, electing to head north to Chicago. I figured spending the night in Chicago, a city I had never been to, beat making camp somewhere in rural Ohio or Indiana.
And on day two, even though that leg was now a short one, there was more Chinese Democracy. Other music tried to wrestle away the reins from Axl but continued to be unsuccessful. I would listen to the album and then start it over again. I was enraptured by it, taken in by the sheer power and excess of it. In my weaker moments, I wondered if it was the best rock album ever and you know, if you’ve never spent so much time alone, just you and the road, then you aren’t able to judge. The road sends your thoughts in strange directions and takes them to stranger destinations. I could have my entire life figured out but two miles later be questioning everything. Somehow I’d be missing the best car I ever had, a 2000 Isuzu Trooper, and regretting this action or lamenting that missed opportunity. It doesn’t make sense but at the same time, it does. When it’s just the lines in front of you, the brain will wander so just keep your eyes on the road, kid.
And no really, there’s something to this idea that Axl Rose is the rock version of Kanye or vice versa. They both seem like artists in need of limits sometimes and left to their own devices, are prone to either genius or distraction, if not both.
I woke up on the third day in Chicago and yes, it had snowed. A lot. My truck was a block of ice and it took some creativity just to get inside and get the beast started. The cold was a bitter bastard and I crept along the city streets as Chicago came to life. I listened to the radio where they talked about the state’s governor Rod Blagojevich, who had been arrested that morning and passed a mural of Barack Obama, who had recently been elected president.
Then I was in farm country.
If you’ve ever driven west out of Chicago, then you know. It gets rural super quick and not even halfway through a spin of Chinese Democracy the skyscrapers and hustle & bustle of Chicago have given away to farms and wide-open country and now it’s you, the truck you’re driving, a cup of coffee, and Chinese Democracy. Squint and you can see the Rockies, bub.
Ha, no you can’t. The Rockies are at least a day away. You need to get through Iowa and Nebraska first.
The only thing that got me through those states was more Chinese Democracy. And peeing in coffee cups. While driving. It’s an exercise in balance and concentration and as an east coast kid who was accustomed to highways dotted with signs of life, the absence of any in the region was unsettling. I passed one or two tractor-trailers that had been shoved sideways by the wind and in the distance, there was a farmhouse or two. The novelty of Omaha, home of the College Baseball World Series was short-lived and I pressed on.
“Better” is a wild song. “Shackler’s Revenge” sounds like death from above parachuting in from the future and “There Was A Time” is a trip. There are so many instances on the album where it feels as if there are roughly 37 guitars coming through the speakers and shit, maybe there are. Chinese Democracy makes you think such things are possible and at a certain point on “There Was A Time,” Axl’s vocals remind you of “Estranged” from the second Use Your Illusion album.
I stopped in either western Iowa or somewhere in Nebraska. All these years later, hell if I know. There was an Applebee’s because OF COURSE THERE WAS and that was that.
Throughout the trip, I had pretty much stayed the course. No speeding, certainly no erratic driving. Just headed west with Axl and his motley gang of fools blasting on the radio because, at this point, I don’t think I was listening to anything else. Again, spending so much time by yourself and you start to develop weird habits and tendencies.
But back in Philly, we had been having this problem with some thievery, possibly an inside job. It seemed as if every time I was out of town, cases of Red Bull were being stolen. We installed a security system and new locks, but without fail, if I was gone, cases of Red Bull were too. It was becoming a problem and somewhere in Wyoming, I got a call that again the thieves had struck. Without realizing it, my driving became a little wild and the beast was going faster than it had been as I handled a developing situation hundreds of miles away.
I didn’t even see the cop until the lights flashed in the rearview mirror and my first thought was to ask where he had been because I didn’t see him. But that seemed like a bad move. Yet I did have another question. There were all these mini-fences everywhere, tilted just so. And so instead of asking where he had been hiding, I asked him about the fence things.
“For the drifts,” he replied, handing me a ticket.
Ah, for the drifts.
Chinese Democracy seems to peak with “Catcher In The Rye” and catches a second wind immediately after, first with “Scraped” and then “Riad N’ The Bedouins.” The album has 14 songs on it but because each one has so many things happening, it feels longer than that. It’s why it ended up being a great driving record. With each time through, I could find something new to obsess about and be fascinated by. Yet when you kick everything aside, a tune like “Riad N’ The Bedouins” just thrashes and cooks and to this day, I still have no clue where that Wyoming state trooper came from and if not for the ticket he issued, I’d be questioning his very existence.
The last night of the trip was spent in Laramie, Wyoming, home of the University of Wyoming and it seemed like a good place to stop. I found a nice little Mexican restaurant and then ended up in a bar where the mirror behind the bar had a bullet hole in it. Given that this was Wyoming and as far as I was concerned, the old west, I imagined it had something to do with a gunfight in the 1800s and was super impressed.
No. It was from a marital dispute in the 1970s or 80s.
I was no longer super impressed. More like slightly amused.
It was time to wrap this trip up. I woke up in Laramie, still thinking about that bullet hole and the cop and the thieves in Philly and Chinese Democracy and God knows what else, and pointed the truck in the direction of Salt Lake City.
In the end, my drive took five days. I imagine it would have been at least one less if not for that snowstorm but hey, they told me not to rush. I learned that Nebraska is a bore to drive through and takes forever and when in doubt, find a city to spend the night in. I saw the giant truck stop friends had told me about but didn’t stop there because I was cruising at the time and I thought Wyoming was pretty sweet until I was told that I hadn’t even seen the good part so screw that part of Wyoming. All the signs warning of meth addiction get to you after a while, which I’m assuming is the point but I have this thing about gross teeth, and well, it was a lot.
All told, I probably listened to Chinese Democracy about 30 times, if not more.
Or at least I think I did.
It’s been a minute and the passage of time messes with your mind, much like driving from Philly to Utah by yourself does. I listened to it a lot. That much I’m certain of. 30 times, though? The only thing I listened to, though?
But it has been a few years and since then, that trip west and that album have become intertwined. I can’t think of one without the other and vice versa. As you get older, the bulk of your memories get like this- fuzzy. Did it happen that way or did it happen kind of that way and specifics have fallen victim to the time that has passed? Does it even matter? If you can remember some things, enough things to tell a story, albeit one that may or may not be compelling, does accuracy get you bonus points, or does it just get you a speeding ticket from a phantom state trooper?
I really think he came from the sky.
And that might be the point of all of this.