I not quite sure why I chose this 33 1/3 book; possibly I thought it might be interesting to read about music that I’ve never deliberately listened to. My partner plays Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” from time to time, and I’m in some way fond of its closing section and the way it runs through every heavy rock cliché in the book and pushes them all that little bit further. But “Sweet Child of Mine” didn’t appear on Use Your Illusion. The only track I’ve ever knowingly heard off it is the cover version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” I’d never been keen on heavy metal, even less so hair metal, and when the album came out in September 1991 I was mostly listening to indie rock. For me, 1991 was dominated by The Jazz Butcher’s Condition Blue and the Blue Aeroplanes’ Beatsongs. I was nowhere near the scene of the crime.
Weisbard was near the scene, and spends most of the book being embarrassed about the fact. There’s some comedy in this, as in Geoff Dyer’s book about not writing a biography of D. H. Lawrence, but — in both cases — not enough to sustain a whole book. The book begins with some interesting reflections on the larger changes in rock and its relation to rebellion and corporatist consumerism, and if there’s something worthwhile in the whole exercise, it’s Weisbard’s well-informed awareness of the historical moment of the double album: above all, the moment where the idea of releasing two double albums was possible, and necessary for the kind of band whose career was posited on excess, and where the gesture was about to expose the emptiness of the entire genre. Part of Weisbard’s running joke is that the albums are just too long for him to be bothered listening to; back in 1991 he had made a manageable tape-length selection. In Chapter 2 he runs through his reduced length version, before reminiscing about Spin magazine and its place in the historical moment of the early 1990s. In this, Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose becomes symbolic of rock at the moment of its last gasp, where it (seemingly) can’t sustain the hopes that have been attached to it. At this point, Weisbard seems to lose interest, or focus, and although Chapter 3 has many anecdotes of Axl Rose’s infantile misbehaviour and wasted talent, and although these are incidentally amusing, the book becomes incoherent. Chapter 4 takes us through the various ways in which band and record company repackaged the album. Finally, in Chapter 5, we have the conventional element of a 33 1/3 book, the track-by-track discussion, here rendered unconventional by Weisbard’s reluctance to do it. Inevitably, his accounts of some tracks are perfunctory; that wouldn’t be so bad were it not that he also gives short shrift to tracks that would be interesting to discuss within the frame that he had earlier established. He might, for example, have discussed the way that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, in its bloated and epic scale, becomes “about” rock, about ambition, about the band’s ability to remould and remake Dylan’s song, and the way that in doing so it loses touch completely with the song’s emotional core; it becomes as self-referential as any postmodern ironist could wish, only without the ironic self-knowledge. There are signs in Weisbard’s book that an interesting work could be written about the Use Your Illusion albums, but this one is a missed opportunity.