Monday, January 10, 2011

"Civil War" - Guns N' Roses

Axl Rose, love him & hate him
I know it hurts, progressive folks. But there's no denying it: the ultimate hard-rock bad boys of the 1980s -- renowned for an anti-immigrant diatribe ("One in a Million"), a Charles Manson cover song, and more misogyny than you can shake a whip at -- also had a sensitive and politically astute side. It was displayed most triumphantly on this, one of the great anti-war anthems of all time. "Civil War" debuted on Nobody's Child, a 1990 fundraiser for Romanian orphans, and was reworked as the opening track on Use Your Illusion II (1991). It has the timeless feel of some other anti-war classics (Neil Young & Crazy Horse's "Powderfinger"; Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore"). But it forges a steamroller sound all its own, built around Axl Rose's lung-busting vocals and Slash's Hendrix-inflected guitar lines.

According to bassist Duff McKagan, who shares co-writing credit with Rose and Slash and contributes tuneful backing vocals, the song's origins lie in "a riff that we would do at sound-checks. Axl came up with a couple of lines at the beginning. And ... I went in a peace march, when I was a little kid, with my mom. I was like four years old. For Martin Luther King. And that's when: 'Did you wear the black arm band when they shot the man who said: "Peace could last forever"?' It's just true-life experiences, really."

One finds some genuine poetry in the G N' R lyrical canon (see, e.g., the tail end of "Coma," "Bad Apples," "Sweet Child o' Mine"). But "Civil War," more sparely and soberly phrased, is perhaps the best example. There is the anthemic, ancient-sounding opening refrain:

Look at your young men fighting
Look at your women crying
Look at your young men dying
The way they've always done before ...

The reprise of this stanza later in the song seems to me to have even more anthemic potential for anti-war causes:

Look at the shoes you're filling
Look at the blood we're spilling
Look at the world we're killing
The way we've always done before
Look in the doubt we've wallowed
Look at the leaders we've followed
Look at the lies we've swallowed
And I don't want to hear no more

But it is in the chorus that the Gunners gift progressives with a genuinely anthemic refrain -- if we would only swallow our pride and prejudice, and recognize it!

I don't need your civil war
It feeds the rich while it buries the poor
Your power-hungry sellin' soldiers in a human grocery-store
(ain't that fresh!)
I don't need your civil war

Here's the first live performance of "Civil War," at the Farm Aid concert in April 1990. It was also the last performance by the original group, including Steven Adler on drums ("Civil War" is the only song on the Use Your Illusion set on which Adler appears):

A potent 1991 performance from Noblesville, Indiana (once Axl gets through with hitting on a woman in the audience). The first leg of the "Use Your Illusion" tour, with Izzy Stradlin still on rhythm guitar, and the song introduced by Slash's "Voodoo Chile" solo:

Other Resources

Song available on Guns N' Roses, Use Your Illusion II (1991), track 1.

Full lyrics here.

The "Civil War" Wikipedia page includes the Duff McKagan quote used here.

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