(1) guns n' roses, "paradise city"
(8) Ozzy osbourne, "mama i'm coming home"
and plays on in the sweet 16
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/16.
andy segedi on ozzy osbourne's "mama i'm coming home"
This song, as well as anything else from the good but mostly forgettable No More Tears album, makes me think of the salt-and-vinegar tang of soggy Subway sandwiches, my long-suffering parents waiting in their gray Dodge Caravan, and an ill-fated photo of me with the Prince of Darkness Himself.
You have to understand, I pretty much worshipped Ozzy Osbourne. I wanted to be Ozzy. I even (briefly) considered tattooing the letters “ANDY” on my knuckles, like Ozzy has “OZZY” on his. Prototype:
In the mid/late ‘80s, I was still mostly listening to Van Halen and Twisted Sister when, on a Saturday morning during WWF wrestling, “Mean” Gene Okerlund was interviewing the tag-team duo The British Bulldogs. By wrestling standards, these dudes were pretty low-key, and so was their post-match interview, even though they had just won a title.
But then this crazy guy in a silver sequined robe, bleach-blond hair spiked out in all directions, carrying what looked like a royal goblet full of something, came up behind Okerlund and started screaming, jumping up and down, and giving his bald head a noogie. “Mean” Gene was fit to be tied, based on the expression on his face. The crazy guy kept jumping up and down, bellowing “This is fantastic, man, The British Bulldogs … FOREVAAAAAHHH!!!” I don’t know what the Bulldogs’ reaction was, I just remember Okerland looking annoyed and the crazy person proceeding to make crazy faces into the camera before finally stumbling away. Whoever it was, I thought that person was the coolest.
“Ozzy Osbourne, ladies and gentlemen,” a contrite Okerlund said to the camera, before moving on to more serious matters, such as whether the tactical mind games of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan could outduel the mysterious eastern philosophies of the sinister Mr. Fuji.
I lost interest in pro wrestling not long after then, but I was just getting started as far as discovering heavy metal, and Ozzy (along with Iron Maiden) quickly became my focal points. Maybe it was because they’re British, or had been around longer than the hair metal I’d been listening to. Ozzy, in particular, just had a force of personality that members of those other bands couldn’t compete with—a sense of humor and general gregariousness, as opposed to the sulking, fame-hating irritability and standoffishness of, say, the Axl Rose types. He also wasn’t a show-off when it came to his voice, and I appreciated that. Pretty much anyone can sing along to any Ozzy song without having to strain or inhale helium. It’s blue-collar music; Ozzy, who grew up singing dirty terrace chants at Aston Villa football matches, is a man of the people.
So, a few years later, even a mostly forgettable album like No More Tears from such a rock deity immediately became a holy relic for me. Even more so when Ozzy announced an album signing at a local record store.
Somehow, I managed to convince my parents to drive me and one of my friends to this record store, and wait for us in the car while we stood in line, waiting for Ozzy. The signing was to follow a concert downtown, and we knew that if we went to the concert first, there would be a huge line by the time we got to the store, and there was no way my parents were going to wait that long, or let us stay out that late. So we had to choose between the concert and having Ozzy anoint one of his holy relics with his signature. No brainer. We were planning on seeing Ozzy in concert on his upcoming summer tour, anyway (more on that later).
The signing was at a now-defunct store called Coconut Records, in a strip mall called Golden Gate Plaza just off I-271 near Cleveland. 12 years later, the space would be owned by a Caribou Coffee franchise, outside of which I’d share an awkward hug and post-breakup exchange of personal items with a woman I wanted another chance with, but had none. Today, the space is a Men’s Wearhouse (“You’re gonna like the way you look …”) and I work right down the street. It’s a little weird when I drive by there now.
But that night, it was the Sistine Chapel of Metal. Getting there while Ozzy was still performing downtown, the line was relatively small when my friend and I left my parents in their Caravan (I complained a lot about them at the time for mostly unjustified teen-angst-related reasons, but they did us proud by sitting in that parking lot for hours, reading their library books, while we waited for Ozzy). The strip mall’s storefronts formed a large, upside-down U shape, with Coconut Records on the bottom right-hand corner. By the time the concert had ended and fans started pouring in, the line was already almost halfway around the U.
And what a crowd there was in that line. It was the first time I witnessed the multi-generational nature of heavy metal fandom (I had only been to one or two concerts at this time). There were people who seemed older than hell, but who were probably just in their late 30s, wearing faded shirts from tours that happened when we were still in kindergarten, telling us unlikely but still cool stories about, for example, meeting King Diamond after a show and helping themselves to a “sample” of his face paint on a bandanna (said bandanna was brandished, and there may have been some kind of residue on it, but I don’t buy it; cool story, though).
At one point, a car that had been new when Ozzy was still in Black Sabbath pulled up and an elderly lady in the passenger seat—her hair covered in a babushka scarf—asked in a quivering voice what we were waiting in line for.
“Slim Whitman is here,” the guy with the questionable King Diamond story deadpanned, and a few of us chuckled as the old couple drove away, 100% convinced that those damn kids were getting into yodeling, now, and what would the world come to next.
As the crowd grew, WMMS, a local rock station, showed up with a mobile unit, and they handed out Subway sandwiches to the first few hundred people in line. To this day, I still think of Ozzy in general, and the No More Tears album in particular, whenever I smell the yeasty, vinegar-tinged smell of a Cold Cut Trio, which is what they were handing out. Good thing, too, because Ozzy was super-late. I have no idea how late he stayed, or if they had to turn anyone away, but without a doubt there were people there into the early morning hours.
Luckily for us, our decision to forego the concert paid off. Because we were among the first in line, they let a small group of us inside the store and into the vast gauntlet of stanchions and belt rails before anyone else. That’s where we were when the moment arrived: Ozzy Osbourne entered from an employee-only door near the back of the store.
He was hobbling. He had sprained or broken his ankle while doing his trademark squat-jump on stage a couple weeks earlier, apparently. Still, he made the most of it—the cast and walking boot he was in were black, matching the rest of his outfit. He was also shorter and skinnier than I would have thought (Fat Ozzy was a thing of the past at this point).
“Black cast,” I muttered to my friend next to me, who nodded. There were a couple whoops from the fans behind us, but for the most part a hush descended when Ozzy entered the room. He was surrounded by a group of scurrying underlings who led him—and the rest of the band, let’s not forget them, even though I mostly have—to a chair behind a long table. He looked tired as hell; pale and gaunt, but ready and willing for whatever came next. He was 43; the same age I am now.
The line began to move, and someone explained to us we could have one item signed per person, and one photo per person. I had my parents’ portable Kodak. My friend and I devised a cunning plan: he’d go first, I’d take a picture of him and Ozzy, hand him the camera, then he’d take a picture of me and Ozzy.
And it started out so well. My friend started down the table with Randy Castillo, the drummer (who tragically died of cancer a few years later). He had brought his Ultimate Sin tape to be signed, which seemed like a pretty dumb decision at that point, since none of the other current members of Ozzy’s band played on that album. Still, Castillo and the others—bassist Mike Inez, who went on to play with Alice in Chains, and guitarist Zakk Wylde—dutifully signed the inside fold-out of the tape, anyway. While this was all going on, I was also going down the line (I had brought my No More Tears CD for them to sign, which I also realized was a dumb decision, since almost every inch of the booklet had a dark background, leaving little clear space for signatures). Ozzy, quietly signing his items and looking up occasionally for photos, was no more than 10 feet from me.
For days, I had been perfecting something to ask him when the moment arrived. Something about his time in Black Sabbath, maybe, or whether Randy Rhoads was as good a guitarist as Jimi Hendrix. I have no idea what I ultimately came up with, however, because within a mere few seconds, my friend managed to fuck up my chance to have what I was sure would be a friendly chat with The Madman.
First, it was his turn. Ozzy didn’t bat an eyelash when my friend handed him the Ultimate Sin tape cover, but I got a sense of how old, how weary he was when he spread the cover out in front of him—his hands were slowly wavering. Not like someone with Parkinson’s, but like, you know, old people. People like the woman who thought we were yodeling it up with Slim Whitman right about then.
I took a perfect photo of my friend with Ozzy. In it, you can clearly see Ozzy in the process of scrawling his name—the “O” a little wavy, like his hands—on the white tape cover, my friend looking over at him with a smug look on his face.
When it was my turn, I handed the camera over to my friend, and my No More Tears CD cover to Ozzy. I was just about to ask that question I had spent days formulating when I heard my friend mutter, “Shit.”
I looked over. Somehow, he was having trouble with the camera. The camera that had a single button on it; look through the window, line up the shot, hit the button. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ozzy signing my album. I had mere seconds.
I tried desperately to motion to my friend what to do, which only caused him to start laughing. Meanwhile, Ozzy had looked up at me, then over to my friend with the camera.
“Just … hold it up and hit the fucking button!” I yelled, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I said, but I do know what I was thinking, because it’s written all over my face—the part that’s visible, anyway—in the picture my friend finally took.
In the foreground, there’s the table, probably way too much of the table, considering there wasn’t anything on it other than maybe a couple Sharpies. Behind the table, in the process of standing up and being blinded by the camera flash, is Ozzy, who must have finally gotten tired of posing for the photo while my friend giggled and fucked around with the camera. Oh, then there’s me, off in the upper corner of the frame, completely washed out by the camera flash, eyes wide, snarling at the camera.
I don’t remember anything else about that night. I’m sure I was in a foul mood on the way home, even though I had just been in the presence of a Metal God. And somehow, over the years, I lost track of both of those photos. Maybe that’s for the best; looking at them always just pissed me off. When I dug out my No More Tears CD again recently, all these memories flooded back, especially the little waver in the O of Ozzy’s signature:
How weary he looked dragging around that black cast.
Released near the end of the summer of 1991, Ozzy’s first album of the ‘90s was about as different from his prior material as you could get. It was a time where it seemed like every established metal act was attempting to change their sound and image, eschewing the flamboyance and glam influences of the ‘80s (or, in the case of Metallica, the longer, faster, more complicated songs) for the more stripped-down, back-to-basics ideals that the new crop of flannel-and-ironic-t-shirt-wearing “alternative” rockers were preaching. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point in mid-1990, almost overnight, wearing a Poison shirt in public (or an Ozzy or Priest one, for that matter) suddenly became uncool. And while bands like Poison simply faded away, and others like Motorhead and Iron Maiden settled for continuing to do their thing for diminished audiences, others tried to adjust. But No More Tears was by no means an attempt to sound like Nirvana; it was more a deliberate letting go (or at least softening) of the Crazy Ozzy image I was first introduced to by the British Bulldogs.
The No More Tears album cover alone is a stark contrast to what came before it. When I first saw it on a poster in a record store I thought it was John Lennon, not Ozzy (a friend at the time had a similar reaction, only thinking it was Jim Morrison). It still included a slightly altered version of Ozzy’s classic logo (I enjoyed its little crossbar under the Y’s fork, and I’ll also admit to adding something similar to the Y in my name on school papers), but other than that it’s indistinguishable from any of The Wizard’s prior albums. Set on a blurry, brown watercolor backdrop, Ozzy’s solemn, pale, makeup- and hairspray-free face looks off to the left. On—or possibly growing from—his shoulder, just visible in front of the murky background, is what appears to be a bird’s wing. A dove’s wing, maybe as a way of suggesting he’s letting go of his piss-drunk-24/7 past, which included that time he really did bite the head off a live dove at a press conference? Maybe. The wing is definitely meant to be noticed, since a zoomed-in version of the wing takes up the album’s entire back cover.
In any case, this rather minimalist artwork is a far cry from that of Ozzy’s five prior solo albums:
- Blizzard of Ozz, 1980: Photo of Ozzy crawling across an attic floor wearing caped religious vestments and swinging a large, wooden cross while making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera
- Diary of a Madman, 1981: Photo of Ozzy as a Jekyll & Hyde-type character mid-transformation in some sort of occult laboratory, making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera
- Bark at the Moon, 1983: Photo of Ozzy in full Hollywood-style werewolf makeup making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera
- The Ultimate Sin, 1986: Conceptual painting of a nuclear wasteland with Ozzy as a fanged, winged mutant making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera in front of a demon-eyed dominatrix with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo
- No Rest For the Wicked, 1988: Black-and-white photo of Ozzy on a skull-adorned throne, looking regally at the camera (no Crazy Ozzy Face this time), surrounded by kids in rags who look straight out of “Children of the Damned.”
Other than the consistent logo, and the fact that the mutated thing bearing Ozzy’s head on the Ultimate Sin cover also had wings, albeit demonic rather than dove-like, the No More Tears cover had nothing in common with these predecessors. It was the first sign that this new album was not going to be from the same formula that produced No Rest For the Wicked or any of his prior ‘80s fare. Ozzy kept Zakk Wylde, his guitarist, in the band, but other than during the solos, when Zakk can’t stop himself from constantly bending the strings, the sound on the two albums is about as different as their album covers. Where Wicked is a raucous, straight-up metal album, No More Tears flirts with psychedelia on the seven-minute-plus title track, which nevertheless features one of the heaviest riffs in Ozzy’s solo catalog, and the rest of its tracks could politely be called a mixed bag of heavy but not particularly memorable metal filler and campy, catchy, made-for-MTV singles.
One of the latter was “Mama, I’m Coming Home.”
“Mama” was the breakout single from the album, and by “single” I of course mean video. But the first video from the album was the title track, which launched just prior to the album’s release, and also set the tone for how different this album would be. This video at one point shows Ozzy, wearing a dark purple suit, gold cross, and those sunglasses with the John Lennon frames, sitting on a couch in the shape of a woman’s lips while her eyes blink and look about wildly from gilded frames on the wall behind him. It’s an effect which (unintentionally?) makes Ozzy on the couch become the woman’s nose; the shape fits perfectly. As crazy and different as that song (and video) was compared to the B-movie horror of his Bark at the Moon era stuff, I loved it. I wasn’t really getting into Nirvana and a lot of that other “alternative” music that was suddenly becoming popular, and it was great to see something different on MTV and rock radio. “No More Tears” is not one of his best songs, but Ozzy’s vocals are stronger than they’d been in years, and amid all the psychedelia and piano interludes, the guitar riff—the one that weighs about a million pounds and works in an almost call-response fashion with the vocal lines—keeps the song anchored in Grade A heavy metal. Plus, Zakk Wylde’s solo is probably the best on an Ozzy album since the Randy Rhoads days. I understand how alternative rock was partially born out of a burnout from the guitar-solo-crazy days of the hair metal ’80s, but when done right they can practically define a song, and this is one of those solos.
The “No More Tears” video played regularly on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball—three glorious hours of nothing but metal videos every Saturday night—and got decent airplay on pre- ClearChannel rock radio, but it was mostly appreciated by people who were already Ozzy fans. “Mama” was different. Even some of my Pearl Jam friends, who more made fun of Ozzy’s stutter than listened to his music, dug “Mama.”
Similar to “Goodbye to Romance” on the Blizzard of Ozz album, the quieter, acoustic guitars of “Mama” give the album’s listeners’ ears a break, coming after two heavy, aggressive tracks, and Ozzy’s emotional, more midrange vocals are also a nice counterbalance to his trademark “madman” style. The lyrics, too—on both “Mama” and “Goodbye to Romance”—are more introspective and emotional than your typical Ozzy song (as an aside because I’m pretty sure it’s not relevant to anyone but me, both “Mama” and “Goodbye to Romance” are the third tracks on their respective albums—make of that what you will). Musically, the opening chords have an overt southern rock, Led Zeppelin III influence not found in any prior Ozzy material, and the song as a whole—an otherwise standard power ballad—has a big, warm sound that’s more likely to bring to mind pastoral images of sunny fields than werewolves or headless doves.
Speaking of doves, the video for the song features a small flock of them flapping in slow motion onto Ozzy, who stands with his arms out, Christ-like, to receive them. It’s an unintentionally funny image, since I can only imagine him screaming “Sharon! Sharon!” as the birds scratch and defecate and peck at his hair. Who am I kidding, they surely used a stunt double. In any case, the doves are, I suppose, a reference to Ozzy’s decades of decadence on the road in general, and the incident with the headless dove in particular. That a wing from one of the birds winds up appearing to grow out of Ozzy’s shoulder on the album cover (which clearly lifted its imagery, if not its beige and brown color palette, from this video shoot) is interesting. It sure as hell doesn’t look like just one of the doves from the video—it’s just one wing, on Ozzy’s back. No other doves or dove parts. Have the doves become a part of him, to the point where he’s now sprouting wings? This is starting to sound more like his mad-doctor-in-the-laboratory days, after all … In any case, doves. Not getting their heads bitten off. And close-ups in varying degrees of focus of the gold cross around Ozzy’s neck. No halo, though, so points to the director for some restraint there.
I remember the big news at the time was that this was to be Ozzy’s farewell tour, possibly even his farewell album. So it’s no surprise that “Mama” became the centerpiece of the album and subsequent tour. As Ozzy stammered during an interview with fawning, hair metal reject Riki Rachtman on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, the song is about Sharon, his wife, known by their whole family as Mama, and his return to her after—at the time—over two decades on the road.
Sharon Osbourne became Ozzy’s business manager around the same time she became his wife—which was not long after her estranged father, a music executive who allegedly abused her, fired him from Black Sabbath. She’s largely responsible for resurrecting his career, masking his deteriorating voice behind fancy production effects and, in Randy Rhoads, a once-in-a-generation guitar virtuoso. And so as Ozzy sold out arenas in the ’80s, Sabbath suffered from a revolving door of personnel not named Tony Iommi, resulting in a tour that inspired the Spinal Tap movie both in terms of cancelled shows and Stonehenge monoliths on stages.
By the time No More Tears came out, Sharon—and Ozzy—had seen their complete and total revenge on Sabbath, who were still an awesome band live, but who could no longer bring in arena-capacity crowds, especially after Ozzy’s original replacement, Ronnie James Dio, left the band for the second time in 1992 (the reason for leaving, allegedly, involved Ozzy reuniting with Sabbath for an encore set at a one-off show co-headlined with Ozzy’s solo band, a show allegedly arranged by Sharon to have the Dio-fronted Sabbath, in effect, serve as the opening act; Dio did not approve). And with hair metal (or metal in general, at least in the mainstream) suddenly becoming uncool, maybe the Osbournes saw their chance to leave on a high note.
When, a year or so after the Autograph Incident, I finally saw Ozzy in concert, it was during this farewell tour. My friends and I got our tickets months in advance, and on a small chalkboard in my room one of them wrote, “97 days until the madness begins …” Day by day, we counted down, drowning ourselves in All Things Ozzy to the point where we had just about every song on every album memorized, and were constantly working obscure lyrics into conversations and cracking each other up.
Then, a month or so until the show—it got postponed. Sharon had cancer and was undergoing surgery, and Ozzy called off the rest of the tour. I don’t remember exactly how long it was until the rescheduled show, but I can tell you that by the time it did come around, the best performance in the history of rock ’n’ roll would have seemed flimsy by comparison.
And it wasn’t a great show, or even a good show—Ozzy’s voice was barely audible and he seemed off the beat, and the entire show lasted just over an hour, with almost half the material coming from No More Tears. I remember looking over at my friend, he of the inability to operate a simple camera, when the hall lights went on after the final song, both of us thinking, “That’s it?” Was my last image of Ozzy Osbourne, rock god, to be him scurrying behind the drum kit after what seemed like the shortest encore set ever? I don’t even remember what song it was, since on this tour his usual closer, “Paranoid,” opened the show. Maybe that contributed to our surprise when the show ended. Or, maybe we were just seeing evidence of the weariness caused by, at that time, 20 years of constant touring.
Still, two years later, Ozzy was back with another album, and another tour. By the end of the ‘90s, the unthinkable happened: he reunited with Black Sabbath. Between then and 2005 or so, I must have seen Ozzy perform at least six times, mostly with Sabbath, once or twice with his latest solo outfit at one of the early OzzFests, and on several of them he was in top form, more than making up for his dud on the “No More Tours” tour.
He’s slowed down, tour- and album-wise, since then. After the recent “The End” tour with Black Sabbath, which really does appear to be that band’s farewell, what with Tony Iommi being in cancer remission, Ozzy is apparently working on a new album. Supposedly, the accompanying tour will be his last—it's even called No More Tours 2. You can bet on “Mama, I’m Coming Home” being a centerpiece of those shows, and this time, I think The Wizard will “just keep walking” into a well-deserved retirement, for real this time.
Andy Segedi failed in his ambition to write The Next Great American Horror Novel, and is now a 'communications specialist.' He lives in Cleveland with the hungry ghosts of two former cats.
PARADISE VÉRITÉ: KARYNA MCGLYNN ON "PARADISE CITY"
THE STOOPID ORIGIN STORY
Like many less fortunate ideas, “Paradise City” was conceived in the back of a rental van after a show in San Francisco. Apparently the boys in the band weren’t much impressed by the Bay Area because the drunker they got, the more sentimental they supposedly got for home—AKA “Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”. In 2018 this sort of utopian middle class nostalgia sounds a bit unnervingly #MAGA for my tastes, especially since the song seems born out of an anti-San-Francisco frame of mind—I mean, can you blame us for hearing the song as a lament for the loss of a simpler place and time where color lines were well-lit and gender boundaries were clear?—but perhaps we should just by grateful that Slash didn’t get his way on this one. If it had been up to Slash, the song would go, “Take me down to the Paradise City, where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties! Take me home!” The other gunners voted this idea down.
I have to deal with the issue of my own embarrassment. Listening to Guns N’ Roses now forces me to confront some of my earliest notions of sexuality: pre-irony, pre-internet, pre-Morrissey-phase, pre-queer. I grew up in Texas in the 80s and 90s. GNR was HUGE. Your knowledge of (and allegiance to) them factored into your social status at school. The kids who liked them most were smart and bad and pretty chill. A lethal injection of middleclass coolness that seemed to appeal to both jocks and drama nerds. We could all get behind the fact that Guns N’ Roses totally rocked. Sometimes I think that GNR was the last thing we all agreed on. So why does it embarrass me so much?
My mom picks me up from fifth grade. Correction: my mom and I leave together from fifth grade because she’s my teacher and I only get to leave when she leaves, which is late, because she always has to grade and do lesson plans and feed the snake and staple holiday-themed borders around the bulletin board. But today she says we’re leaving early. My heart soars—the possibilities!—until she says why: the orthodontist. So I’m sulking in the car like a little ungrateful bitch—like, “How dare you spend thousands of dollars of your single-parent teacher’s salary to ensure my mouth doesn’t look like a cemetery by the time somebody actually wants to kiss me!” But we don’t go to the orthodontist...
...we go to the RODEO CARNIVAL. I’m eleven and have been a subscriber to Seventeen magazine for exactly a year. I’ve already seen The Lost Boys twice:
I have a picture of Jason Patric on my wall next to Jon Bon Jovi and Debbie Gibson and Kirk Cameron. I feel guiltiest when I put up the Bon Jovi. I’m confused. There’s been this very nebulous but distinct 1950s/60s nostalgia in the air ever since I can remember. And we’re all supposed to like jellybeans. Lately, almost everything turns me on, and I don’t have vocabulary for any of it even though teachers are always praising my vocabulary. I don’t think they’re giving me all the vocabulary. There’s this commercial for Cherry 7-Up where I imagine this pop-collared proto-Matt LeBlanc (who actually turns out to be Matt LeBlanc) is my boyfriend and that we two serve as the only neon pink pulses of color in an otherwise black and white world. This is how youthful romance feels—like you’re inventing new colors in spite of a previous generation’s oppressive nostalgia:
I <3 CARNIVALS
Carnivals meant everything to me, and I wasn’t a snob about them. I didn’t care if it was a state fair or a dilapidated kiddie carnival that popped up in a k-mart parking lot for a few hours. Everything about them fed into my hunger for altered states at a time when I could only satisfy this hunger vicariously (and abstractly) through MTV, movies like Labyrinth & Beetlejuice, and occasional late-night sleepover games/rituals that bordered on the Occult.
To me, carnivals embodied the whole tantalizingly cloaked world of Teenagers at Night—all the funnel cake and “French kissing” and neon intrigue and denim. I wanted a Matt-LeBlanc-style boyfriend with a great pitching arm to win me a giant stuffed animal. For an eleven year-old girl, is there any greater external validation of your own lovability than a comically large stuffed Garfield? But I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I spent a lot of time getting “bullied” by boys in bumper cars: the electricity that thrilled up my spine when they rammed into me from behind. Sometimes they smirked lasciviously. Sometimes they winked. Sometimes the ride operator would see my “distress” and go full White Knight on me—jumping in my bumper car and chasing down the bad guys to show them who was really the Bumper Boss.
If there was a gatekeeper to the realm of Adolescence, I was pretty sure he worked at the carnival, and I really wanted a ticket. I even had a genie-in-a-lamp wish plan. First Wish: Carnival in my Back Yard. Second Wish: Have a Cabriolet Convertible like Cindy Mancini in Can’t Buy My Love. Third Wish: “Unlimited Wishes, Sucker!” I bought into the Reagan-era mythology, but I also had my feelers out for the freaks, for anything subversive. I liked it when carnies flirted with me even though I pretended that I didn’t. I liked it when they left me stranded at the top of a ride on purpose, my pink jelly shoes dangling in a night air that felt special: endlessly noir & effervescent, like a Cherry 7-Up ad, but slightly sinister. These aren’t thing’s we’re born knowing how to ask for.
THE 1988 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
We had a school-wide election prior to November. For months my mom and I had been canvassing for Michael Dukakis door-to-door on weekends. Mostly old men told us they were “proud Republicans” and “not interested” in anything we had to say, “thank you.” The old women always told us we’d “have to speak” to their husbands who could never “come to the door right now.” But I thought at least the kids at my school would vote the right way. They didn’t. After all the votes were tallied, George H.W. Bush won the Cypress Elementary School mock election by 94%. I couldn’t believe it. I cried about it sporadically for weeks. “But HOW could they be so blind?” I asked my mom melodramatically. My mom wisely told me not to cry about it at school if I wanted to start making friends. I didn’t listen to her.
“Paradise City” will forever be linked to the occasion on which I first heard it: as an eleven year-old standing in line for the Super-Himalaya—the most glam & psychedelic of all carnival rides:
I was in line behind two beautifully bad teenagers with amazing bangs. She had holes burned into the butt of her jeans and he had a long black coat and glitter eye-shadow and they were smoking and frenching at the same time. And then, suddenly:
Take me down to the paradise city!
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty!
Take me home! (Oh won't you please take me home!)
This was the moment some primitive version of my Kundalini woke up. In Axl Rose’s elven plaint I heard it: there was something missing and I’d been lied to. Guns N’ Roses tore through the scrim of my innocence all at once. I wanted whatever pleasure-torture men and women were inflicting on each other all around me. I wanted a huge teddy bear, yes, but I also wanted carnal knowledge: I wanted somebody to put their big warm hand in the butt pocket of my jeans, wanted my tongue to snake-dance with another tongue under the strobe lights, wanted the bumper car of my adolescence to smack me from behind, wanted to cause somebody to feel so passionately that they undulated & pulsed with irrepressible color.
While on the Himalaya ride I was musically deflowered by the Appetite for Destructiontrifecta: “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and (again) “Paradise City” (they were playing them in a loop) while sitting directly behind the french-kissing teenagers. Their car waved up and down in front of me and their tongues made snail silhouettes. They kissed like it pained them to do so but were nonethleless magnetically compelled. This is exactly how Axl Rose sings. The unseen carnie/DJ occasionally interrupted Slash’s sickest solos with air horns, stinky fog machine blasts, and questioned whether we could collectively “handle it” if he sped up the rotation or “Turrrrned IT A-ROUUUUND!” Can you imagine taking in all this information at once? “Where do we go now?” I thought that Super-Himalaya would spin faster and faster until a current of neon, pheromones, and Pure Rock launched us all into sexual orbit. When I got off that ride, my knees buckled.
THE ENNUI OF THE EUROPEAN TOUR
If there’s one thing late 80s/early 90s music videos love doing, it’s dressing up a bunch of black & white b-roll footage as a music video for a surprise hit. These pseudo cinéma vérité montages always include silly and subversive moments—like the drummer popping up from behind the green room couch in a leopard print Speedo and chugging a magnum of champagne in a delightfully self-aware caricature of Rock Star Excess—but also moody, soul-searching moments, like grainy shots of the bassist asleep on his gear at the Frankfurt airport, or the front man smoking alone in front of hotel in Belarus as the sun rises, silently asking himself, “Is it all really worth it?” These same videos always feature stop-motion animation of massive stages being built in Pasadena/Lisbon/Everywhere/Nowhere in a matter of seconds. You can never really tell where the sound-check ends and the show begins. And to be fair, that probably speaks fairly authentically to the experience of touring with a hair metal band in 1988.
The “Paradise City” video is in the aforementioned tour montage mode: Steven Adler being woken up in his hotel room by a mischievous camera crew and putting a pillow over his face. Slash, practically naked, smoking a requisite cigarette, and just shredding it in the middle of Wrigley Field (and shut up—I don’t care whether it’s actually Wrigley Field. That’s not the point. The point is that some of the footage is in grainy black and white and could be anywhere in America where a rock band has both unbelievable privilege and unbelievable loneliness, and feels the need to flex both simultaneously... Okay, so it’s Giants Stadium.)
Their name and logos are everywhere in this video: on stage, on their shirts, on multiple shots of merch tables, emblazoned on the backs of their jackets, tattooed on their biceps. Their branding is so pervasive that any sartorial choice that’s not self-promotional stands out— like there are lots of fabulous Izzy Stradlin vests, and at one point Slash is wearing a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, but it actually says “Hard Cock.” There’s also this angry beefsteak of a security guard who has filled his polo shirt to max capacity. He looks like he’s about to shove the shit out of someone. He probably was; half the video is shot in Castle Donington for the Monsters of Rock Festival—you know, the show where two fans were trampled to death in the mud. Leave it to GNR to shoehorn tragedy into their music video as proof of their own Extremeness.
I find myself wishing the jump-happy camera would sit still and show us the stage show. That’s extreme enough. Also, Axl Rose is fucking mesmerizing. The hips. The hair. The bandana. The undulations. Those otherworldly pipes like Robert Plant;s, only more pained and Pentecostal. It’s so good that I sometimes forget that I’m not watching a younger Ewan McGregor playing the part of Axl Rose in a biopic that never got made. Why would you cut away to the merch table?
But our relationship to Axl Rose has always been troubled. There’s this scene in the video that always seemed so stupid: a close-up of Axl Rose flashing his all-access backstage pass and nodding meaningfully. “Um, dude, you’re the lead singer of the band—I already assumed you had all the access.” But it turns out I was missing something: there’s a clear overlay on his badge that says “ACCESS ALL AREAS,” yes, but there’s also a Nazi eagle insignia with a fucking swastika and everything.
Writer and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, Gavin Edwards, discusses this moment at length in his way better essay on the “Paradise City” video:
Axl’s wearing the leather military cap again; some guy on Wikipedia claims it is a “World War II Nazi officer cap,” and indeed, it seems to be in the same style as Nazi caps, although it bears no logos. I think Axl was showing off the “Artistes” pass rather than the SS Eagle, but his mind is a strange and squirrelly place, and obviously he enjoyed having a swastika hang from his neck. I suspect he wasn’t a believer in the master race, but was pursuing cheap nihilistic thrills. This was the same impulse that led him to release a Charles Manson cover five years later. In brief, I’d peg him as an asshole more than a racist, although he’s probably both.
“PROBABLY BOTH” BUT REAL QUICK
- Axl Rose’s skin is smooth. TOO smooth. JB Smoove smooth. Like, butt-of-the-white-suede-outfit-that-Cindy-Mancini-wears-in-Can’t-Buy-Me-Love smooth.
- Imagine this scenario: some asshole at a party spills red wine all over Axl Rose’s pretty white jacket and Patrick Dempsey comes to the rescue by spending all his fancy telescope money to get it replaced. Now Axl Rose has to pretend to be Patrick Dempsey’s girlfriend for a month and ride behind him on a lawnmower!
- (BTW: don’t Google “whatever happened to the actress who played Cindy Mancini” or you’re in for another Jonathan Brandeis/Corey Haim sized hole where your childhood used to be).
- Here is something that Axl Rose said about his own childhood: “We’d have televisions one week, then my stepdad would throw them out because they were Satanic. I wasn’t allowed to listen to music. Women were evil. Everything was evil.”
BACK UP: DID YOU CALL GUNS N’ ROSES “HAIR METAL”?
Look, the last thing I need is some armchair bro musicologist sniffing up in my vinyl collection and borrowed taxonomy, ok? I get it: GNR is “genre defying”—a bit blues, a bit punk, a bit (hair) metal, a bit glam.
As Tom Erlewine’s says in his review of Appetite for Destruction, “it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time.” He notes the “nasty edge” that sets GNR’s music apart, and the “primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales.”
They’ve got more grit than say, Poison, sure, but why are people so keen to disown GNR’s glam roots?
I’ve always felt like there’s something a bit glitterphobic about the insistence on GNR’s grittiness. Hair Metal as a genre is tainted by its own glamminess. And I suspect some fans want to keep GNR far away from any whiff of glam because they’re “too good for it.” But how can a band be “too good” for a genre? That is, unless the genre itself complicates any individual member’s perceived gender or orientation. It’s a question of Realness v. Camp. That tension is one of the things that makes stadium rock so thrilling—the flamboyance and the fire-worship, the wind and fog machines, the transformations and electrified peacockery, the strutting and catastrophic amounts of guitar. And yes, dudes, the Hair.
Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and several chapbooks including The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions 2016). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Georgia Review, Witness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She was recently the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Christian Brothers University in Memphis.