13 June 2006

A hip-swing down memory lane

My high school philosophy teacher Karl Meyer1 once posed a question to the class about his favorite golf club. It seemed that every other year he had the grip replaced. Once, after a particularly errant swing, he had knocked the head clean off, and had to have it replaced. And another time, following another bad swing, he had snapped the shaft over his knee in frustration; this too had been replaced. His question to the class: with none of the original parts remaining, was it the same club? Is there a single element of the club that bestows identity? Or does each new part become absorbed into the intangible whole of the club?

More recently, I blew out the motherboard on my computer. The warranty period had passed, but I'm apparently still entitled to tech support over the phone for as long as I own the machine. But having already replaced the hard drive and the operating system, in addition to several other upgrades, was it still the same machine? Rather than trying to have it repaired, I simply bought a new CPU, motherboard and chassis, then built a new machine using parts from the old one (memory, disc drives, PCI cards, etc.). Or did I simply replace those three parts (keeping in mind that one of them is the case, for heaven's sake) on the old machine? Is it still the same machine? The original memory chip, CD-ROM drive and other parts mentioned above have all been replaced. The only part remaining from the original machine is the 3.5" floppy drive. More to the point, am I still entitled to that eternal tech support?

Believe it or not, there is a point to all this. Last month I purchased a ticket to see a live performance by a band billed as "Guns N' Roses". Perhaps you remember them. And whom, might I ask, do you remember exactly? Surely you recall bilious frontman W. Axl Rose. And of course that perpetually shirtless lead guitarist known to the world only as Slash. Dishevelled rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin'? Ex-punker bassist Duff McKagan? Perhaps your memory even reaches back far enough to conjure up traces of drummer Steven Adler, the first of the original lineup to be unceremoniously dismissed, presumably for possessing a recognisably legitimate first name.

Exactly one of the aforementioned individuals appeared onstage at New York's Hammerstein ballroom on the night of the event. Which begs the question: what constitutes Guns N' Roses? What constitutes any band? Is it the music or the musicians? The people onstage or the sounds they make? If the replacement parts play the old songs in the same style as their original counterparts, and the band sounds essentially the same, is it the same band? Bands such as Radiohead and U2 have evolved to create music in a style that differs so drastically from that of their earlier work that one could not possibly have predicted how their later work would sound based only upon evidence of the earlier. And yet no one questions whether they are actually the same band, as the members themselves haven't changed. "Guns N' Roses", as it were, currently include one original member, but they play the same songs in the same style as the old lineup. Steven Adler currently plays in a Guns N' Roses tribute band2 called Adler's Appetite. They too play old Guns N' Roses songs in the same style as the old lineup, and have just as many original members as "Guns N' Roses" (i.e., one). Are they any more or less Guns N' Roses than the band I saw the other night? How close is Mr. Brownstone to being Guns N' Roses? The have just one member fewer than the band I saw, and sound pretty much the same. And just whom exactly did I see on the night in question? Guns N' Roses? Or Axl and His Employees?

Setting aside for a moment the band's burning identity issues3, the music was just as you'd expect it to be: tight, energetic and above all professional. He's Axl fucking Rose, for God's sake; the man doesn't work with hacks.

The real standout was Robin Finck, charged with the unenviable task of filling Slash's size-50s. He apparently used to tour with Nine Inch Nails, and did a stint with Cirque du Soleil(?!). His obligatory solo turn4 was an unexpectedly spare and rootsy little number that bore more than a passing resemblance to Neil Young's work on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and none of the sub-Eruption histrionics one typically expects from such spotlight moments5. When the rhythm (third) guitarist, whose name I didn't catch and can't be bothered to look up, had his solo moment, he was joined by Finck for an instrumental rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful", easily one of the evening's highlights.

Rounding out Finck's hat trick of good decisions, he played the solo in "Sweet Child O' Mine" pretty much note-for-note, demonstrating his inherent understanding that it's one of the finest and most unfuckwithable guitar leads ever composed, and best to treat it with the reverance it deserves. The rest of the solos, for the most part, he made his own, but respect was paid to Slash when it counted. Bravo.

As for Axl himself? Well, his goatee looked sad and dated (anyone care to bet on whether there's an extra chin or two hidden beneath it?), and his trademark auburn mane, while unfortunately still bound by those ridiculous cornrows, remained tied back in a nice conservative ponytail for the show's duration, preventing, as you can no doubt imagine, any truly authentic headbanging6. Hair aside, he seemed to have at least bothered to work out this time, enabling the appearance of the old Axl dance we all remember so well, to the obvious delight of the crowd. His voice sounded fine, perhaps not quite as menacing as in the old days but certainly better than I'd been led to believe by recent reports, and he sounded like he was hitting all the notes.

Good heavens, man, never mind the technical commentary, you gasp from the edge of your seat, tell us about the new material! Briefly: four new ones, the only one I recognised ("Chinese Democracy") saved for the encore, and with good reason. Not only was it far and away the most well-known of the new songs, prompting a roar of recognition from the crowd as Finck teased the riff, it was also the only good one. The others I can't remember so well, other than to report they do not bode well for the new album7. Before the show, I figured I would have been perfectly happy to hear an entire set of new material8. This is different band, I reasoned, let's hear their music. But having heard the cream of it I think sticking to the classics was a good call. Regardless of who exactly that band was up there playing them.

ADDENDUM 4 JULY 2006: Worth noting that one of the two keyboardists present on the night in question was none other than Dizzy Reed, official GN'R keyboardist for the Use Your Illusion albums and, if you count it, The Spaghetti Incident? So the new lineup had maybe one-and-a-half original pieces? Beats Adler's band by a nose, anyway.

ADDENDUM 3 OCTOBER 2007: Re: my computer, the monitor died and I bought a used one off craigslist for $10. The spacebar on the keyboard started getting squirrelly so I just broke down and bought a phat new keyboard with a backlight, LCD display and macro keys. Only the 3.5" floppy drive remains from my original Gateway purchase. I'm actually not entirely certain that Gateway is still in business, which would render the whole question moot.

    Tangents & Clarifications:
  1. Carl Meijer, perhaps? I have no idea how it's spelled, actually. One of the best teachers I ever had at any level of schooling, by the way. Wonder what he's doing these days? Still golfing his way through retirement, I hope. [Return]
  2. And if that ain't rock bottom, I dunno what is. Ah, what the hell, I'm sure he's having fun. [Return]
  3. And I'm sure they're just as concerned as I am, particularly when Axl's handing out the paycheques. [Return]
  4. Oddly, while all three guitarists took solos, no one else did. I mean come on man, no drum solo? That's Brain up there! Nor was there a bass solo from punk legend Tommy Stinson (resplendent in a red plaid suit), but I'm not sure we missed out on much there beyond the potential morbid-curiosity-value of the whole thing. [Return]
  5. These were left to new guitarist Bumblefoot, a recent replacement for the departed Buckethead, and whose contributions led me to believe he was chosen largely for his name. [Return]
  6. Worth noting that Axl was thoroughly outheadbanged by "surprise" guest Sebastian Bach, who showed up for an enthusiastic duet of "My Michelle". Bach sounded absolutely terrific, and did not appear, from our seats, to have aged so much as a single hour since the heyday of Skid Row. It's enough to make one wonder whether there lurks a classically-styled painting of a portly, bald and wrinkled Sebastian in some dark corner of the attic of casa Bach. [Return]
  7. This sentence appears to imply a belief on my part that said album may in fact ever be released, an impression it is by no means my intention to give. [Return]
  8. At least up until a good long encore. I'm not crazy. [Return]

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