“Appetite For Destruction”, David Lee Roth, The Day I Almost Died On The Operating Table

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I was emailing with a friend regarding my previous post on the Heritage 207-DD and the subject of “Appetite For Destruction” came up. I’ve already talked about the impact of that record on the guitar business (massive), the music industry (revolutionary), and rock-and-roll (transformative), so now I want to talk about the effect it had on me. In the course of researching this post, I uncovered something that I’d literally had knocked out of my skull, a bit of personal archaeology if you will.

Working backwards: On March 22, 1988, while riding my 1987 Free Agent Limo XL BMX bike (black with white script logo), I was hit by a ten-wheeled Mack lumber truck and injured in various ways that are beyond the scope of this post to catalog fully. The important part to know is that I had my head shoved into the ground then dragged through the spinning wheels at maybe 45mph before being flung clear. In that impact, my neck was broken at the second cervical vertebrae, and I lost some things. I lost most of my eidetic memory, which had been crystal-clear and pervasive up to that point. I lost a lot of the brilliance of my youth; as a child I could program the Apple II in my head then walk to school, enter the program from my memory, and have it work. I’d effortlessly remembered things like: every single specification in “The Car Book 1970”, the full text of most Car and Drivers I’d read from the age of six forward. All of that was gone. In a flash I went from being superhuman to merely pretty smart. I also lost a lot of memories of things that had happened in the years before the accident. Last but not least, I acquired a temper which I hadn’t possessed up to that point. Oh well. If you don’t like me, blame the truck. Prior to that I was a sweet child who mostly wanted to program computers and ride his bike.

I lost a lot of blood during the operations that stabilized me. My own father, a man not characterized by a tendency to exaggerate or even fairly represent the drama of a situation, later on said “It was touch and go for a few days.” I don’t remember any of it.

On March 20, 1988, my girlfriend Holly and I attended the David Lee Roth concert at Battelle Hall in Columbus, OH. I remember the concert but I had always remembered that I saw it in 1989. Not correct: it was March 20, something I’ve recently verified through multiple sources. The opening band was “Faster Pussycat”, a last-minute sub for Guns N’ Roses. I’d bought the tickets because I wanted to see Roth, but a lot of the people had bought the tickets for GNR and as a result about a third of the auditorium was empty. At one point, the bass player for Faster Pussycat moaned, “Guys, the seats are there, but you ain’t gotta fuckin’ use ’em.” Luckily Roth put on a great show and saved the day.

On October 3, 1987, the song “Welcome To The Jungle” was released as a single and everybody in the whole world became a GNR fan, much to my consternation, because I’d considered them a kind of private thing for reasons to be detailed below.

Sometime in August of 1987, I rode my Free Agent Limo XL bicycle to the Buzzard’s Nest Records on Sawmill Road, a distance of 2.3 miles covering the same spot on which I’d later on be hit by a truck. I had a fair amount of cash on me earned washing dishes at Iacono’s Pizza on Sawmill Road. Maybe sixty bucks. All I had in the world, anyway. At the Buzzard’s Nest, I asked the absolutely stunning brunette working the counter for two David Lee Roth tickets. I paid for the tickets. Then she said to me, “Are you going to see Roth or Guns and Roses?”

“You mean the guy who sings ‘No New Tale To Tell’?”

“No, that’s Love and Rockets. This is Guns and Roses. They’re the new thing. The CD is right over there.”

“uh, okay.”

“You should buy it.” At this point my face must have revealed my absolute terror at the idea of spending twelve dollars — eight hours of washing dishes, almost — on a CD that I didn’t know anything about. I remember how gorgeous she was. Brunette, kind of proto-Goth. Maybe twenty years old. She thought for a moment and said,

“I want you to buy it. And if you don’t like it, you can come in here when it’s just me and I’ll trade you for something else, I swear. But if you do like it, you have to come tell me about that, too.” This is what I know about my sixteen-year-old self: I was tall, slim, intense-looking, and very smart as discussed before. This is what my sixteen-year-old self knew about my sixteen-year-old self: I was awkward and dorky and poor and bird-chested and the world was divided into two groups: fellow BMX racers who were slightly afraid of me, and everyone else, who hated me with the fire of a thousand suns. In the lens of hindsight I can see that this girl had some interest in me. Even if it wasn’t romantic, she at least wanted to connect with me as a human being somehow.

But at the time, the fact that I had ridden a bicycle to the shop (my car was totaled, for more details see the TTAC article about it) seemed far more important than anything like that. No super-cute girl like that, no sexy older woman who knew about music and hot new bands and stuff, would care about somebody like me. But I liked her and I was willing to follow her instructions. I bought the CD. She asked me my name. I mumbled something and ran out the door.

2.3 miles later I was at home in front of the Sony component stereo my Dad had gotten for me and my brother a few months previously. It had a CD player, which was a big deal then. I put the CD in and hit play. And “Welcome To The Jungle” came on.

A few things to note. I didn’t have very many CDs at that point. The clarity alone of the Mike Clink mix was enough to stand the hairs on the back of my neck on end. But the song, man, the fucking song. It was like opening a window and being hit with a hurricane gale of depravity and sex and viciousness and sex and all sorts of other things but mostly sex.

Welcome to the jungle
We’ve got fun ‘n’ games
We got everything you want
Honey, we know the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey
We got your disease

In the jungle
Welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your
(sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na) knees, knees
I wanna watch you bleed!

My God.

I was sixteen. I was a virgin who kissed his girlfriend with his tongue firmly in his own mouth. I slept in school and I rode a bicycle between eight and twelve hours a day and I washed dishes in the evenings, alone with the clanking, steam-spitting machine while the pretty waitresses ignored me and the cooks who were all brothers in some monstrous Italian family threw shit at me behind my back and my eyes drooped past midnight and my dinner was whatever pizza got sent back that night eaten cold, sitting on an upended bucket at two in the morning. This was almost too much for me to comprehend. And it kept coming:

I see you standing there
You think you’re soooo cool
Why don’t you just…

FUCK OFF!!!!

I don’t think I moved for an hour.

Your daddy works in porno
Now that mommy’s not around

There were people who lived like that. My father drove a BMW 325 sedan and wore Armani suits. My mommy offered an odd sort of daycare to wealthy suburban parents using me as proof that her methods worked, that the Skinner box of isolation and depression in which I sat ninety-nine percent of the time was guaranteed to produce briliance. Most of her kids were reading by the time they were four.

I can do you a favor
But then you’ll do whatever I like

And always Izzy on one side, Slash on the other, both furious, both flawless, playing shit I’d never even thought of. There was an Electra guitar and an old Gibson GA-5 Skylark amp in my bedroom but it never occurred to me I could even begin to play the stuff. It was from another world. In that world people were screwing and doing drugs and cranking up the distortion and watching the jungle bring you to your sha na na na na na na na knees, knees.

What I should have done: dropped out of high school right then and there and taken a bus to Los Angeles with my Electra and my amp.

What I did do: nothing.

How many times did I listen to the CD that month? Dozens? Hundreds? Whenever I wasn’t on my bike, really. It was the only piece of music that existed in my mind. Eventually I bought the new Roth album just so I’d know the music for the concert but it seemed like it was from the past already. Steve Vai was just another EVH: some technician playing beautiful and wicked-fast lines over cheerful party music. Slash was the truth and Izzy was the reality, man. They’ve been dancing with Mr. Brownstone! Who the fuck is Mr. Brownstone? When I was a child a brownstone was where people lived in New York. That couldn’t be it.

Plus they all looked so cool. It was rock and roll defined, stripped to its essence. Most importantly, it was new and it was all mine. I loved Zep as a kid but I was always conscious that I was late to the party. What they were already calling “classic rock” in 1987 belonged to the generation before mine, the guys who drove El Caminos or Monte Carlos and lounged dangerously around parking lots getting high. Those guys didn’t know anything about GNR, man.

On July 21, 1987, Appetite For Destruction was released. It was a massive, hugely expensive lash-up of triple-tracked guitars and drum parts painstakingly created with a razor and tape. The “UZI Suicide” label on which it first debuted was a fiction, a fake-indie brand dreamed up by David Geffen. By the time it was actually time to lay the tracks down, the band had collectively spent their advance money and were pawning items to pay for heroin. Saul Hudson did not own a guitar for most of the recording sessions; his Mockingbird was in the pawnshop. The record producer arranged for a guitar to be provided on credit to him. In exchange for agreeing to pay $2600, which was a fair amount of money in those days, “Slash” received a Les Paul replica. The “PAF” Gibson pickups that were originally installed in the replica didn’t come with the deal; instead, a set of Seymour Duncan Alnicos were provided. By the time Appetite actually came out, Slash had pawned that one, too.

So that’s the story. Twenty-six years later, you can occasionally find me standing in front of a music stand with a Heritage H-150 or Gibson Les Paul tuned to Eb, working through the Appetite book. My favorite one to play alone, I think, is “Rocket Queen”. I swap back and forth between the Izzy and the Slash parts as it suits me, hearing Duff and the taped-together-track of Steven Adler in the background. I can’t always hit all of Axl’s notes any more but I can hit more of them than Axl can.

The edge, the bite, the viciousness that I once heard in the music — it’s mostly gone. It sounds to me now like a bunch of talented children searching for something and mostly finding it. A new sound, created, as all new sounds are, by resurrecting old sounds. “Think About You” is a Bo Diddley lick played at double speed. The first solo for “Sweet Child Of Mine” could have come from Albert King. That famous “Jungle” bridge riff now sounds to me like Elvin Bishop comping under Mike Bloomfield. The lyrics are charming now when I read them, yet another generation of people thinking they discovered sex and violence and the combination thereof. Compared to any Hubert Selby book from thirty years before then, they’re naive and hopeful.

I play the music to cheer myself up, to reconnect with the era, with my childhood self. I never rode back to talk to that girl, you know. That wasn’t in my character at the time. I think that if I could wake up in that long-limbed, pain-free body of my sixteenth year, I’d ride back to see her. And say something ridiculous.

“You know,” I’d drawl, leaning nonchalantly against the counter, “you really did me a favor by recommending that.”

“Really?” she’d say.

“Yeah. You did me a favor. And now,” and this part you have to match with a wink and a chuckle that throws it off, that shows how ridiculous you know you’re being while still sending the message across, “I’ll do whatever you like.”

11 Replies to ““Appetite For Destruction”, David Lee Roth, The Day I Almost Died On The Operating Table”

  1. AvatarMike Gibbons

    Maybe there is something to being run over as a teenager. A very close friend was run over and crippled by a drunk (in Ohio) and went on to become a downhill racer, chef, float plane pilot, yacht captain, dated porno stars, had a bit part in Donnie Brosco, married an exotic 18 year old dancer, now has a 7 year old (like me) and is currently playing music at “Crazy Johnies” in Nassua. Am sure I am forgetting something. I was SO in love with his ex-wife – what a knock out. Glad you can write about the bygone glory days – too melancholy for many of us!

    Reply
  2. Avatarthe gentle giant

    The first place I ever heard Appetite for Destruction? Jack Baruth’s living room, probably on the aforementioned stereo. I also rode my bike to Buzzard’s Nest (the other one, though; by the bowling alley) and bought the album, because I was really into album art and that cover is just awesome.

    Reply
  3. Avatardickie

    i received this cd secondhand. my dad was the original owner, if you can believe that. all i knew at the time was that a few of my favorite songs from that period in my development were on there, and i didn’t have to resort to waiting for them to play on one of detroit’s rock stations or play/rewind/play the tapes i’d recorded them to.

    so i played it and stumbled along on my eerie-blue peavey predator (thanks mom and dad) with the switch positioned to send the humbucker through the little practice amp that came with the set. i was usually izzy but aspired to slash on my better days. mr. brownstone was my favorite to play and i sometimes run through it absentmindedly on that same guitar 15 years later.

    Reply
  4. Avatarchris

    never listened to it…but I will now

    I was there when GNR almost got booed off the stage, opening for The Cult. I thought Axl said they were called “Godzilla Hose” 😀

    Reply
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  6. AvatarMatthew H

    A record that is welded to my soul. My favorite track to play is also “Rocket Queen”, especially the bizarrely tender outro (similar to Zeppelin’s “The Rover”). The melody of Slash’s lead lines, the economy of Izzy’s parts.

    Reply
  7. AvatarMatthew H

    Absolutely. So many disparate elements came together: Punk aggression, rhythmic interplay of the guitars a la early 70’s Stones, a deep understanding of groove and laying back (modern rock-all the braying overly masculine cartoons-could use a master class in “Mr. Brownstone”), and grandiose ambition (note the careful layering of vocals in the outro to “Nightrain”). Even the production, with the exception of the drums-I’m looking at you, gated snare-escaped the worst excesses of the era.

    Reply

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