Haven't we all done it? Thrown ourselves down the rabbit hole of YouTube, suffering from, let's call it, procrastinostalgia, or maybe only inebriated and alone, in bed at 3am, plugging in the names of bands or songs, in search of ourselves.
We start cool, obscure even, as if YouTube is archly watching, judging our teenage selves. My Bloody Valentine muddy the laptop's speakers. So you try The Dead C. Even worse. Out come the Smiths, Felt, New Order, Galaxie 500. This gets boring. Galaxie 500, you realise, were always boring, and, anyway, you still live that portion of your past, don't you? You've carried My Bloody Valentine with you into adulthood and so the teenage you just isn't in there any more; all traces written over. Too many years of you separate those first sensual memories of the songs and bands that helped define who you had been, or who you had hoped you were going to be. The trail has gone cold with My Bloody Valentine. They belong as fully to you now as then. So soon enough your voice cracks, pimples appear, and the more embarrassing ones start coming out. Chapterhouse, say. Or Poison. Ned's Atomic Dustbin. White Lion.
Guns N' Roses.
There you are. You experience suddenly what you once were, with the added critical teeth and distance of what you are now. The frisson is irresistible.
Yes, we've all done it.
And, no, we don't look for the official versions at 3am, we're not even our official versions at 3am, nobody is. So we avoid the record label mediated viewings, those wetly lit MTV-ready commercials, soulless as a high school portrait. No, we want the rough stuff. The ourselves we hadn't known back when we were 16. Couldn't have. YouTube has that, those footnotes to our teenage years; an unmediated director's cut, a whole different angle. Our most full, unknown and unloved, unspeakably shitty selves: not the official Sweet Child O' Mine video, but Guns N' Roses poorly recorded, sloppily wasted, berating their Latin American audience - with a translator! - for throwing oddly shaped, possibly Aztec doo-dads on stage. Axl Rose coveting an audience member's camera, leaping mid-song off the stage as if into a pool. They are his people, they won't hurt. Axl in a too-small fur jacket, open at his bare, vaguely back-like chest. Backbone? The man has two spines. Plus a Village People police hat. A hopefully unironic Christian cross. Tight white shorts for healthier living. I can't remember what he has on his feet - does anyone ever look at Axl Rose's feet? - but I'm hoping it's high heels.
This is St. Louis in 1991 and the band played on. You would too.
4am now and you click through chirping interviews from Asia, grainy live clips, German TV shows and - striking gold! - airport flame-outs. Unless the band you're searching for happened to die young, this is rarely disappointing. Like finding new home movies of yourself, doing things you don't remember doing, like wearing a bandana.
And what if they died young, or split up before the proliferation of personal recording devices? Think Ian Curtis, for example. He is poorly served on YouTube. You have to imagine Ian Curtis fat, bald, doing a karaoke-style All Tomorrow's Parties "Don't Look Back" concert. Or Ian Curtis in an airport.
Ian Curtis waiting for his luggage, being filmed by a fan on her phone. Grizzled old Ian watching baggage go round and round and what is he doing with his hands? You've romanticised him already, haven't you? You've put his hands in his pockets. You've dimmed the fluorescence. You're making him tortured, weary and meaningful. He's standing there heroically, the carousel is life and he's not suffering like us but for us, and that's because he's not real anymore, can't be. Because Ian Curtis at an airport - if only YouTube could show us - was probably like this. Hungover, giggly, dying for a smoke and infuriated at Peter Hook for growing a stupid beard.
Ian Curtis is unavailable to us, and this, you might think, makes him cooler now. More authentic. It does not. In fact, it makes him monstrous, and far less authentic. It curdles him into something unnecessarily inhuman so that, in the end, absurd biopics must be made to fill him with human vim. I've seen one of them and it does just the opposite: it merely animates photographs of him. The film might as well be a slideshow, or a music video, explaining just why he looked so gorgeously moody in those photographs his biography is now partially based on. And the reason seems to be this: unlike the rest of the world in 1977, Manchester had not yet upgraded into full colour. Of course he hanged himself, you think. Ian Curtis had never seen the colour blue! His skin was already grey.
Biopics, like MTV, are unnecessary now with YouTube. Axl Rose will never need a biopic.
Which isn't to say someone won't make one, of course, because someone will. And it will have a penny-dropping scene featuring Axl's childhood that neatly explains the entire course of his life. He'll discover the awesome power of music, of his caterwaul. Maybe singing in church, and maybe while on drugs, and he will be hurt by someone he trusted, hopefully his father, but maybe the dickhead down the street. And then there will be a triumphant montage set to music, his own, and there will be a scene where he is just totally devoid of soul and disgusted with himself and looks around, dazed and suddenly not confused, gazing at a trashed hotel room, two sleeping groupies in his bed. And we will see another montage of his childhood, another trashed room. This time toys everywhere, instead of groupies his little twin sisters asleep in bed and maybe Axl never had twin sisters and didn't actually accidentally kill them, leaving him with a hole only an appetite for rock and roll and self-destruction could fill. But after the movie we will know two very important things. 1) Fame comes at a price, and 2) clean your fucking room, and don't play with power tools when your kid sisters are around.
But we won't know a thing about Axl Rose, and far less than what we would know if we spent the early hours of the morning alone with YouTube when we should be sleeping or doing something more important. Because he's all there, right now, every era of Axl Rose all at once forever. Find him in there and find yourself as well.
The most recent clips of Axl Rose are by far the best, and easily the most rock and roll.
Rock in Rio, 2011. And it's impossible to imagine Axl Rose having a stylist that isn't his inner ten-year-old self. He emerges wearing a large yellow rain jacket, a black cowboy hat, sunglasses - it is night-time - and an extra chin. His bizarre new moustache, a stylist would tell him, perfectly accentuates his bizarre new chin, but sadly his ten-year-old self has already told him: "Axl, dude, you look like a fucking outer-space cowboy, now go and fucking rock Rio!" His voice, once one of the greatest in rock history, is kind of shot. But, because of that, it is also kind of heartbreaking. On a power ballad from his new Chinese-themed album, he makes Axl noises rather than words. Screeches, purrs, growly intonations, sounding very much like a Greek singer phonically covering a Guns N' Roses song, almost perfectly, but without understanding a single word of English. His band are still called Guns N' Roses in the same way, I suppose, that the United States of America is still called the United States of America over 200 years after its foundation. It's re-enactment, sure, but it's also inclusive and unfrozen and totally warped. You could be in Guns N' Roses now.
We would all like Elton John to be bald again. We'd all like Paul McCartney to die painlessly, happily - so we can finally start missing and appreciating him again. With YouTube this is all more-or-less possible. And late at night we can even find new parts of our old selves and feel better and know that time isn't a straight line but a flat surface, just inches from our face. §