In the spring of 1987, my cousin was a junior in high school and overflowing with Midwestern teenage rebellion. A couple of classmates convinced him to stand lookout in the doorway of the boy’s restroom at school while they detonated a pipe bomb in one of the stalls. The explosion created major devastation and, as my cousin later admitted, it’s a miracle that no one was hurt during the incident.
The two boys that created the bomb were expelled from school while my cousin was handed a fifteen day suspension which entailed the final week of his junior year classes and the first two of his senior year.
His parents, feeling that this punishment wasn’t severe enough, grounded him for the entire summer and forced him to learn about responsibility by getting a job. In a strange twist of irony, the job he landed was filing papers for a local insurance agent.
He spent his time outside of work holed up in his bedroom, passing the hours reading music magazines and listening to heavy metal records. A five-star review in Kerrang! of an unknown L.A. hard rock band called Guns ‘N Roses caught his eye and he made a mental note to look into them the next time he tasted freedom again.
Towards the end of summer, his parents finally displayed a small amount of sympathy by allowing him to tag along to the mall one weekend while they went shopping. He made his way towards the record store and immediately looked for the band that received such a glowing review. He became enamored with the original Robert Williams cover art for Appetite For Destruction and used some of the money he earned from his minimum wage job to take a chance on this debut.
The small town in Central Illinois where my cousin lived at the time probably wasn’t much different than Lafayette, Indiana, the city that W. Axl Rose fled from at the age of seventeen. It would only be a matter of time, and a few dozen plays of that cassette copy of Appetite, before my cousin drew parallels between him and William Bailey.
Fueled by the imagery within that album and inspired by Axl and Izzy’s own similar tales of escape, he and another friend jumped into a 1979 Chevy Camaro and headed west. A mutual friend who didn’t join them seemed to put more forethought into the journey than they did: she set them up with crackers and peanut butter for the trip, knowing that their limited resources wouldn’t provide them with much cash flow for fine dining.
While the Camaro’s 350 V8 gave them enough dependability to make it across the country, it did so at a high price. By the time they arrived in Los Angeles, the majority of their funds had been spent on fuel with the remaining balance going towards Marlboro reds and Mountain Dew.
They spent their first night gingerly sleeping on the Camaro’s bucket seats in a seedy part of East L.A.
While Appetite may have convinced them that L.A. was ground zero for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the “jungle” proved to be relatively uneventful. The pair cruised the strip, looking for evidence of the scene chronicled in heavy metal magazines and immortalized in their favorite hard rock songs. The reality was much different: while they naively thought that they would be able to run into the members of GNR hanging outside of the Whiskey, neither one caught a glimpse of anyone remotely famous. After growing tired of their lack of success on the Sunset Strip, they decided that they would have better luck at meeting some of their SST idols like Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn. A quick drive down to Redondo Beach proved to be just as dull as their time on the Strip.
Perhaps their most notable encounter came while buying sodas and cigarettes one morning in a convenience store. They struck up a conversation with a prostitute who was coming to the end of her “shift.” After learning about the pair’s predicament, and perhaps going though similar circumstances herself, she offered the teenagers some sage advice: “Turn around and go home.”
Twenty years after the release of Guns ‘N Roses Appetite For Destruction, I’m hard pressed to think of another album that speaks to the disenfranchised youth of America with such power to subliminally motivate them to hop in a Chevy Camaro and head for Los Angeles.
GNR was grubby looking and inked to the hilt at a time when tattoos and dirty fingernails weren’t a rite of passage, but a complete declaration of anti-social values and poverty. Rose’s lyrics also reeked of anti-social behaviors, with misogyny, addiction, violence, and the brutal reality of the underbelly of Southern California being common themes of their initial batch of material. Appetite was a welcome change from other hard rock bands of the time who were watering down their arrangements to be more palatable to radio and MTV.
The album foundered for nearly a year before someone finally had the good sense to recognize that under the grit of the album’s harsh subject matters was a song of tremendous vulnerability and beauty. By the time the rest of the world finally heard the gentle refrain of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” the band instantaneously changed from spokesmen for America’s troubled youth to the mainstream’s resident bad boys.
From that point on, the band would never be able to recreate that stunning blend of ferocity and hunger like they did on the debut. We may have come to terms with the fact hat they, particularly Axl at this point, won’t be able to match the level of Appetite again. The challenge that I struggle with is how a blend of five fuckups managed to come that close to perfection in the first place, only to immediately distance them from that winning blueprint.
My cousin isn’t necessarily proud of his youthful indiscretions nowadays; he had a certain amount of reservation in using his past for this public display. The turning point was the record up for discussion. The moment he heard it would be a piece about Appetite For Destruction, he relented about the unflattering points of his teenage years. Because things like pipe bombs, Camaros, Marlboro cigarettes, and running off to Los Angeles are completely logical when Appetite is part of the backdrop. And while we still may be waiting for the next seedy underdogs to rise from the gutter and rally America’s youth, it’s nice to know that Appetite For Destruction still has enough vitriol in it to help teenagers make poor choices for another twenty years.
Guns N’ Roses -- “Welcome to the Jungle” (Live in Long Beach, March 21, 1986)
Read Todd’s story about his own experience with Appetite at his blog, Glam-Racket.