Guns N’ Roses rocked hard enough to soak the bandannas of 36,000 amateur Axl Roses.
It was the first rock concert at the BB&T Field in Winston-Salem since 1990 and, as a long-suffering Wake Forest football fan, I’m pretty sure it was the most coordinated display that has taken place on that field since… ever. While Axl, Duff and Slash were welcoming that enthusiastic crowd to the Jungle, taking them to Paradise City and holding candles in the cold November Rain, I was sitting at home, wishing that I’d gone. It wasn’t that I dreaded the traffic (I did) or thought that the tickets were out of my price range (they were), but mostly, I didn’t see Guns N’ Roses because I was terrified that my mother would find out.
Yeah. I’m thirty-whatever years old but, when it comes to that band, I’m still a wide-eyed elementary schooler whose mom says that they’re off limits. I’m not sure I owned my cassette copy of Appetite for Destruction for a full 24 hours before Mom — instructed by a former vice president’s wife — took it out of its case and deposited it in the garbage. As a result, I was in my mid-twenties before I heard it all the way through, from the opening riff of “Welcome to the Jungle” to the final drawn out “To know that I caaa-uhh-aaaa-uhhh-rree” of “Rocket Queen.”
I don’t blame my mom, though, because this is all Tipper Gore’s fault. Two years before Appetite appeared in record stores, Gore co-founded the Parents’ Music Resource Center, or PMRC, to frantically warn everyone’s folks that rock music was warping their children’s minds and — in her words — “searing powerful visual images into young brains.” She became convinced that guitars were what controlled our collective genitals after being scandalized by her own kid’s copy of Prince’s Purple Rain, so she decided to ruin music for everyone. Gore and several other senators’ wives proposed that any album with lyrics that were more suggestive than a Sunny Delight commercial needed to be marked with Parental Advisory sticker.
Those stickers became such a big deal that there was even a US Senate hearing to discuss the “Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records,” and Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snyder all sat behind neatly printed nameplates, trying to explain to those senators why the stickers were problematic.
“Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training program to housebreak all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few,” Zappa testified. “Ladies, how dare you?”
Yeah, how dare you? Two years later, after she got her way with those black-and-white Explicit Content stickers, Gore continued policing the ear canals of America’s youth by writing a book called Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, which alerted parents to the additional dangers hidden in their kids’ cassette collections. I never found out who passed a copy of that book to my own mother, but I’m sure it was someone at her church. I spent so many Sundays whispering accusations at the backs of their home-permed heads, and convincing myself that their after-church casseroles all tasted like betrayal.
ANYWAY, Appetite for Destruction wasn’t mentioned in Gore’s book but, because she couldn’t pick a different hobby like raising succulents or dusting her own butt, it had one of her Parental Advisory stickers just below the arrangement of skulls on its front cover. The day after I bought it, I came home from school, threw my backpack on the bed and pressed the play button on whatever tinny portable cassette player I had at the time. Nothing happened.
I pressed the eject button and discovered that my tape was gone. I wildly grabbed all of the cassettes that were stacked on my dresser and discovered that my mom had spent her morning raiding my entire collection. I lost Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Prince, the Beastie Boys — pretty much anything that wasn’t Billy Ocean, Alabama or the free tape that came in the glove box of a new Mercury Grand Marquis. (Worst of all, she took the tapes, but left their cases, like a T Rex that eats your dog but leaves its chewed collar beside the back door.)
I stomped into the family room, filled with as much rage as you could fit into a pair of Garanimals and saw that damn book, with a tasseled bookmark sticking out of its stupid pages. My music was ALREADY GONE and my mom HADN’T EVEN FINISHED READING IT. (Coincidentally, “Not In This Lifetime” is both the name of Guns N’ Roses’ current tour and what my mom said when I asked when I could get my tapes back.)
After a week of musical deprivation, my next-door neighbor and I figured out how to outsmart both mom and Tipper. If you put a piece of Scotch tape over the top of a cassette, you could record over it, so we copied a lot of what I lost onto innocuous looking albums from Eric Carmen and Billy Ocean. (GET OUT OF MY DREAMS, GET IN TO MY NIGHT TRAIN, SUCKERS.) I hid on the far side of my bed and listened to a lot of those DIY versions but, for some reason, playing Guns N’ Roses still seemed wrong. It felt too risky, like my mom — who is still borderline telepathic when it comes to my breaking the rules — would immediately materialize in the speakers like a Japanese movie demon.
That’s why it was almost two decades before I heard the full album, and I almost understand why mom and Tipper were so afraid of it. It still pulses with a dangerous kind of energy, like the best kind of rock music does. That’s why it’s still relevant, 30 years after its release, and why it still resonates with the 36,000 people who cupped their hands around their mouths to shout along with Axl last weekend.
About an hour into that concert, I saw that a friend had started livestreaming one of the songs on Facebook. I reflexively looked around my apartment, mouthed a silent apology and pressed play.
Please don’t tell my mother.