The Divisive Legacy & Surprising Future of Guns N' Roses' 'Chinese Democracy'

Axl Rose
Martin Philbey/Redferns

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses performing live onstage on June 15, 2007.

The conundrum of Guns N' Roses' 2008 album Chinese Democracy is clear: Why on earth would a preposterously individualist rock star produce a solipsistic piece of art, thinly veil it as a democratic effort, and then nearly disown it like Tony Kaye in the aftermath of American History X? It was his weight to bear. "He really put his balls on the line," says Tommy Stinson, former bassist of Guns N' Roses and The Replacements.

During the period of recording Chinese Democracy (1994-2008), Axl Rose had become a wounded and mythical figure. His foreign policy was a war of attrition with real and imaginary threats—rarely shrugging off forces he believed were delaying his growth. By the 2000s, he had found the courage to drift away, but in the process of purging himself of his demons, he lost sight of the shore. From his sanctuary, deep in the canyons of Malibu, he wrote to us like Holden Caulfield: "My apologies to anyone I have unintentionally confused and those I have mistakenly offended," reads a cryptic note from the novelistic liner notes of Chinese Democracy—self-ruination to the majority, and a work of uncompromising genius to the minority of GN'R fans who view it like the soundtrack of the singer's lost years.

"I honestly don't think old school fans have any awareness for the record," says syndicated rock radio DJ Eddie Trunk, who was the first person to leak tracks from Chinese Democracy live on the air in 2003. "It didn't have any hits. It wasn't commercially successful. It doesn't have recurrent airplay on classic rock radio, and because of that, the only people that record is on the radar for are extremely hardcore GN'R fans."

It's a record defined by complex mixes that weave together a digital tapestry of interminable layering with grinding hard rock. It was a sonic anomaly from the period, as it has almost no compression, with full dynamic range, which made it sound vintage, or alien to rock music fans being crushed by the loudness of records like Metallica's 2008 LP Death Magnetic. "Its inception began in 1994, which was before file sharing, and when it came out, it was an extension of a period that predates the internet," says author and heavy metal enthusiast Chuck Klosterman, the first critic to review Chinese Democracy in 2006, a work of satire, and one of the few rock critics who would shamelessly praise it when it was released on Nov. 23, 2008.

Fans' ears may not have been ready for it, and certainly, had there been a public opinion poll conducted in 2008 asking fans whether Chinese Democracy belong in GN'R's catalog, plenty of protests would have been lobbed.

"If he had released it as an Axl Rose solo record, it probably would have sold millions," says former Geffen A&R executive Tom  Zutaut. "But when we sat in the studio and talked about Chinese Democracy, he [Axl Rose] just wasn't ready to go there yet." Nielsen reports that Chinese Democracy sold 549,000 units in the first 12 weeks of release. Records by Metallica and AC/DC release during that same period went Platinum in their first 12 weeks. Chinese Democracy was, by most standards, a commercial failure. Would it have quickly moved a million units as a solo effort? Probably not. Zutaut was recruited in 2001 by Interscope-Geffen as consiglieri to Axl, a well-paid advisor and comrade who was there to help the volatile composer meet his Interscope-Geffen deadline—which was extended so many times that Chinese Democracy became a synonym for unpunctuality; even Dr. Dre's Detox had become the "Chinese Democracy of rap."

Zutaut intended to persuade Axl to release the album under his name, "W. Axl Rose," not Guns N' Roses. It was a strategy that Zutaut felt would have alienated less of the outspoken fans. Klosterman, one of the most fluent GN’R fans, says, "almost nobody listened to it as a piece of music. They only listened to it as a series of ideas and functions of Axl Rose as a person, which really skewed the perception of how the record was perceived." Had it been released as a solo record, the critics who viewed Axl's usurped GN'R as a moral dilemma, may have been more sympathetic. Then again, it would been completely out of character for Axl Rose to proceed with a policy of appeasement.

"Axl's victory or death," deli owner and band photographer Marc Canter said as rumors began to circulate about a GN'R reunion, which would culminate at an unannounced show at the Troubadour on April 1, 2016 "You can put one billion dollars on the table, and he could need it, and he still won't do it until he's ready."

It was never about the money for Axl. There was nothing commercially viable about reimagining GN'R through the kaleidoscope of every bizarre musical movement that followed the original band's dissolution. It was career suicide. It was uncompromising. It was punk rock. But Chinese Democracy stalled to convert GN'R stans who were confused by a record that sounded avant but couldn't escape the band’s cultural recession and Shakespearean behind-the-scenes melodrama. It was a paradox, and Axl's weltschmerz permeates the tracks on Chinese Democracy—the musical equivalent of an Ed Hopper painting filled with characters illustrated by Robert Williams. The strange lyrics added to the foreign-sounding production of Chinese Democracy, as fans tried to make sense of the literary rock star's psychology, while trying to reconcile his piano ballads with their need for catharsis after a nearly two-decade drought. Whenever they found something to cling to, such as the monstrous bridge on "Better," or one of the 10 clinical Buckethead solos, they thought, would Slash have played it that way?

"Buckethead was an absolutely emotionless person," says Zutaut. "The only thing that allowed him feel emotion was having things cut up and bleeding around him, so he'd cut the heads off rubber chickens and hang them around the studio." Chinese Democracy had a sociopathic tinge to it that made it an album that could become a character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, not something to head-bang to; the perplexing irony being that Axl Rose previewed Chinese Democracy at a Vegas strip club in 2003.

In 1999, reporting for Rolling Stone, David Wild was the first reporter to sit down with Axl Rose and listen to Chinese Democracy, which was "99 percent musically done" a decade before it would be released. "Axl was trying to respond to the different waves of music, and it seemed like he was trying to wait out the changes to capture something new," says Wild, who opines Interscope head Jimmy Iovine was hoping Axl would reunite the old band, which fueled the singer's insecurity during the creative process. "Past success weighed on him heavily," said Wild.

"There is the desire definitely to do it, to get over some of the hump of the people that are trying to keep you in the past," Axl told RS.

Kevin Cogill, aka Skwerl, who would leak nine of the 14 tracks of Chinese Democracy for his blog Antiquiet only months before the official release date, adds his take: "He left in the oven for so fucking long that the end result was every trend over the last 14 years, a little bit of trip-hop, nu-metal, NIN…."

For Cogill, the anxiety of waiting for Chinese Democracy, or rather, waiting for someone else to leak it, was the impetus for the leak; mysteriously, the CD-R, according to Cogill, came directly from the desk of Jimmy Iovine. For Cogill and other infamous leakers, the long incubation period had turned the record into a government secret -- and they were the GNR nation state’s WikiLeaks. By 2008, there had already been major waves of leaks, beginning with Eddie Trunk in 2003 (which was a CD-R lifted from the strip club preview) and ending with the penultimate Antiquiet leak. Even before the Antiquiet leaks, most of Chinese Democracy was being pieced together by internet-savvy fans. "Everyone in the forums were waiting around for the album to come out, but when it came out, we'd already heard a lot of it and there was a bit of exhaustion," says Downzy, one of the moderators of the MyGNRForum (which Axl actually posted in under the pseudonym "Dexter").

As noted earlier in Wild’s account as well as Axl’s own words, Chinese Democracy cast a giant spotlight on Axl's lifelong ideological struggle to "bury Appetite," while his fans wanted him to bring it back to life. "Axl's goal was to make a more modern record, to make GN'R a more modern band. But Guns N' Roses fans wouldn't accept that," says Zutaut. "Had it been a 'W. Axl Rose' record, who knows…but not a lot people know this: Chinese Democracy was going to be trilogy."

Tommy Stinson, who says he hasn't listened to Chinese Democracy since he helped record it, provides his take on Axl's unfinished masterpiece: "All I can is…that record was not meant to be one disc." Chinese Democracy remains curiously incomplete, and though the numbers vary, there seem to be at least 60 different tracks that were at least partially finished when the first part of Chinese Democracy was released. Fans continue to struggle to find a cohesive concept album buried underneath all the years of tinkering and tumult.

"All of the material that hadn't been released was coming out in 2016, then, the reunion happened," says one source, who believes leaks over the years -- including unreleased tracks such as the Stinson penned song "Going Down," and the unheard "Atlas Shrugged" ("a song influenced by Axl's fascination with Ayn Rand," confirms Zutaut) -- are the result of a fanbase that's begun to fantasy book their preferred version through leaked Chinese Democracy demos, album art, and their take on what the most classically GN'R-sounding song was on a record that was essentially postmodern.

"Ironically, the song that sounded the most like traditional Guns N' Roses was the title track, 'Chinese Democracy,' which was written by their drummer, Josh Freese," says Zutaut, who has a reliable ear when it comes to the band’s original sound. Both Axl and Freese are credited for writing "Chinese Democracy," but Freese, perhaps the best modern session drummer in rock, was not someone fans had an emotional connection with. Through no fault of his own, he wasn't Izzy Stradlin or Slash.

As for Slash, when he told Total Guitar in 1997 that "Rose's sound is a lot more synthetic than anything I would get anywhere close to," he would arguably curse Chinese Democracy with a scarlet letter. Without Slash's endorsement, Chinese Democracy lacked the necessary seal of approval to click with the aging fans from the Sunset Strip. Then again, Chinese Democracy, those 14 songs, may have sounded too organic with Slash. Part of the appeal of Chinese Democracy is that it sounds post-apocalyptic and completely cybernetic in parts.

"The solo on 'Riad N' the Bedouins,' I can't imagine Slash playing that," says Klosterman, who, like many music critics over the years, has returned to Chinese Democracy to study the technically astounding guitar solos on the record played by Buckethead, Robin Finck, and Bumblefoot, which makes it one of the last records where guitar solos were such featured attractions. "In the context of the today, listening to some of those solos, it's an epic rock record," says Zutaut. Then again, even Klosterman and Zutaut struggle to immediately remember who played which solo on Chinese Democracy, which fans required an instructional manual to know, along with the fact that a harp is buried in the mix of "This I Love," Axl's vulnerable piano ballad. Tragically, a lot of the record's emotional beauty got lost in Pro Tools maximalism. 

"By loving that album, you were almost rejecting the band that came before it," says Wild. Axl Rose was either too stubborn to abandon ship or fully committed to a militaristic quest to vindicate himself over the corpse of his former band. Either way, it was riveting theater that led to a complicated piece of modern art, rather than something even remotely user-friendly.  

"When I talked to Axl, his idea was very much punk rock," says bassist Stinson, who would go on to be the glue to the band's rhythm section for roughly 18 years. "He owned the name and was like, 'the other fuckers all quit, and I got the name and I'm going on. I'm going on as Guns N' Roses.' Call me kooky, but at the moment, I was like, 'shit man, I'm with you.'"

Stinson has a punk-rock ethos, but a lot of the musicians who worked on Chinese Democracy have explicitly signed confidentiality agreements preventing them from talking about the simonized recording process, in perpetuity, which are now locked away under the threat of legal blitzkrieg from attorneys. It was the fall of 2008, and Axl Rose, along with Stinson and an army of musicians, had authored one of the most anticipated rock records in history -- and nobody was allowed to talk about it, because Axl Rose, the majordomo, refused to promote Chinese Democracy. There wasn't an overwrought music video or a late-night appearance; no Rolling Stone cover, either. The first major interview Axl gave was to Billboard in 2009, where he dragged the label. You'd have to go back a decade to find his next major print interview. Chinese Democracy was lost in the fog of Axl's two-front cold war with Interscope and his demons.

Nobody knows precisely why Axl refused to promote his life's work, which was 14 years in the making with a price tag ballooning to $14 million. The mystery has led to fan theories: Was his evasiveness a defense mechanism to protect him from criticism? "Axl's an extremely fragile and sensitivity person," says Zutaut, a sentiment seconded by a confidential source who worked on Chinese Democracy. Was Axl protecting himself, while at the same time burnishing his own myth as the "Howard Hughes of Rock"?

"I think there was a safety net with the other bands members," says Doug Goldstein, one of several managers who landed on Axl's shit-list during the recording of Chinese Democracy. "Without them around, it [was] an Axl Rose album, so he couldn't say it was bad song because of Slash or something."

If there's any argument to be made that Chinese Democracy should have been an Axl Rose record, it's that every song is a psychological study of one Axl Rose, not his band.

"Sometimes I feel like the world is on top of me, breaking me down," he writes on "Scraped," lyrics that may have been borrowed from the unreleased "Atlas Shrugged," or whispers in a sadistic child's voice on "Better": "No one ever told me when I was alone, they just thought I'd know better." There's lyrics that threaten violence, bemoan betrayal and manipulation, and like Dylan in the late-'60s, he was punishing the hypocrites with diss tracks that were, unfortunately, a bit too cerebral for his fanbase. It felt like Axl was asking hard rock fans to think like poetry majors. On "Street of Dreams," he writes what can either be interpreted as a breakup letter to an ex-lover, or a lyric about a former friend: "What I thought was beautiful, don't live inside you anymore." He possibly spoke to fans on the track "Sorry," the Chinese government on the title track, and teased answers to questions no journalist was allowed to ask him on the ballad "Prostitute”: "What would you say, if I told you that I'm to blame?" None of it was accessible to the novice GN’R fan.

In the studio, he had digitized GN'R with obscure samples, effects, and recording wizardry that had dragged GN'R away from Aerosmith on a path of broken glass, and towards NIN—which was painful for some fans to accept. The fundamentalist fans would never forgive Axl for turning their sacred band into a melancholic science project. They had waited 14 years for the gustatory pleasure of Appetite for Destruction, and got an album that glittered with synths, dance beats, and orchestral arrangements that included a harp. It was the hard-rock equivalent of Dylan going electric at Newport.

Doug Goldstein adds his take Axl's creative instincts during that period: "If it was up to Slash, GNR would have been AC/DC and every album would be Appetite. If it was up to Axl, they'd be the Beatles, and every album would evolve." Like Beatles fans in 1970, you were forced into either the Slash or Axl camp, and until the two reunited in 2016, a specific demographic of fan felt divorced from GN'R.

But it's unfair to only blame Axl or Slash for the alienation and immolation of Chinese Democracy. There's another, more industry-oriented theory about the fan denial of the record, which involves the singer's decision to never promote or fully sign-off on Chinese Democracy.

"I think he [Jimmy Iovine] never gave it a chance. I think he was like, 'Ok I'll sponsor this, and then the band will get back together, and I'll have that.' I think he was always waiting for that ball to drop," says Stinson, a theory that was mostly corroborated by Wild.  "I think to some degree, he [Jimmy Iovine] sabotaged the thing. There were a lot of missteps, and they were all record company related, which had everything to do with the failure of that record," says Stinson.

There's an audio clip Billboard reviewed; it's allegedly from June 2014 and includes Axl Rose from behind his grand piano telling a story to a group of friends. Some of those who knew him then describe him as “Twain-y” because of his gift for gab. "Listen, listen, you gotta' understand," he says. "When you see the real artwork from my album, not what you see (inaudible), there's a reason I didn't promote it, because the real artwork is what I will promote." Axl then begins to play a medley of Elton John. The grand piano from the recording is described to have custom artwork on the lid that most uninitiated fans have never seen. Initially, Chinese Democracy was scheduled to be released with three different covers (a grenade, a red hand, and a bicycle), but only the minimalist bicycle art made it to the mass-production phase and became ubiquitous with Chinese Democracy, a record that was the antithesis of minimalism. "They ripped it away from him," says Stinson. "Right at the last second, when he wasn't ready…."

The general public essentially never saw the "Red Hand" album booklet, which is said to have been Axl's preferred version, with a cover designed by Chinese artist Shi Lifeng. It would be released in limited quantities, but the digitally haunting "Red Hand" cover never appeared on the rack for the Best Buy exclusive, which failed to move units at a substantial rate (according to The Wall Street Journal, Best Buy was experiencing a poor quarter in terms of earnings during an economic recession). The most anticipated album in rock history felt lost in Best Buy's cardboard stands, with such DIY artwork—which Axl refused to promote. Around the same time, however, Wal-Mart released AC/DC's Black Ice, creating a pop-up AC/DC shop that sold T-shirts and AC/DC-themed Rock Band video games; that album sold 1.95 million copies in the first 12 weeks, according to Nielsen. Of course, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young was a media darling, while Rose was more mercurial. But Universal Music's Interscope Geffen label had released a blockbuster and promoted it like it was nothing of the sort. The most anticipated rock record in history was murdered by a thousand different jabs and body shots, including artwork the artist wasn't committed to, but the colossal marketing blunder was the Tyson-esque knockout punch.

But a curious question that remains is, as Chinese Democracy becomes vintage and benefits off the tacit endorsement of Slash and Duff on the reunion tour, can it become a more accepted part of GN'R canon? Thus far, the reunited band has played numerous tracks off Chinese Democracy (“Better” and “Chinese Democracy” are mainstays on their current set). For GNR's fans, seeing Slash strum the first few notes of "Chinese Democracy" at the Troubadour and Vegas kickoff shows, the first time he'd publicly play those riffs, either felt like closure, deep offense, or…

"For most people," says Trunk. "It was a go get a beer or go to the bathroom moment…."

Since the Not In This Lifetime...Tour began in April 2016, Chinese Democracy has sold 7,900 units, according to Nielsen. That's pretty insignificant. However, streams of Chinese Democracy (a total of all songs on the album) have spiked from 8 million to 24 million, which is to say that Slash and Duff's endorsement, and the tour, has led to a notable increase in album streams. The reunion bump has also tickled the imagination of music moguls and made Chinese Democracy more of a curiosity for a new generation of fans.

"One of the best things about the reunion tour is hearing the Chinese Democracy material with Slash and Duff, and how much better it is with them playing on it, which only puts into my imagination what the record would have sounded like if they had played on it," says Zutaut.

Trunk feels the reunion has mildly increased interest in the record: "It's been a slow grower and people have rediscovered it with them just playing it on their reunion show."

The most interesting question is whether Axl Rose can recruit Slash and Duff to record or re-record the material to fill the second part of Chinese Democracy, as, in the end, the singer may require the services of his original bandmates to complete his unfinished masterpiece, which the sage-like ghosts of GN'R's past continue to bury, refusing to accept it as part of GN’R's hard-rock legacy.

"Chinese Democracy proves the importance of Izzy Stradlin to Guns N' Roses," says Alan Niven, who managed the band from 1986 to 1991. For an Izzy purist such as Niven, the former guitarist was the leash on Axl's mad genius, the voice who would keep him from losing himself in an abyss that's absent of limitation -- which is what makes Chinese Democracy such a fascinating study of an auteur losing control while trying so desperately to assert it.