Dedicated to those songs that I can’t stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included Weezer’s “El Scorcho,” Ronnie & The Daytona’s “Little G.T.O.”, and Tender Box’s “Spectacular Spider-man Theme.”
“This is a song about yo’ fuckin’ mother!” Can this kind of on-stage banter be rehearsed ahead of time? Whatever you may feel about W. Axl Rose, you can’t honestly believe he’s dumb enough to be driving to a gig as he gets hit by ‘inspiration,’ forcing him to pull over and jot down this nugget of idiotic gold. Nobody could be that stupid or lucky, because that introduction tells the listener so much about what to expect ahead. With that simple stupid splatter, we’re invited to a fight; we get a handshake in a sucker punch. We get exactly what this band has always done at their best, pressing me now to look beyond the obvious praise I reserve for appropriately chosen cover songs (and all the nods to the fact that I often seem to write about appropriately chosen cover songs) and forcing me, for the next 1000 words or less, to just talk Guns N’ Roses and guitars.
The opening is immediately followed by a guitar count-off, which is funny because the next sound seems closer to an electric lion’s roar than any strummed instrument. I have a major soft spot for this kind of Big Wheels style guitar, even when the results are less than inspired. But the sloppiness of this particular performance seems especially noticeable and commendable. A hobby of mine is writing out guitar riffs (like “Dun-dun-dun… chick chick… bun-nun-nunt!” would be the intro to “Highway to Hell”), and I normally write each strum/grunt with at least a space or hyphen of separation. “Mama Kin’s” guitar is one garbled phrase, all apologies to text editors for tormenting the word wrap:
And it goes on like that, for nearly the entire song. It sounds like the strumming got played with a boxing glove as it growls under the rest of the whole song, cooking on oil, sweat and sex. It breaks a few times throughout, but by the two-minute mark, it feels like the guitar growl is being played by the band’s locomotive energy more than their fingers. Besides being completely cool as hell, the bass run in the third verse operates to remind us that there are actual humans with hands playing these instruments and we’re not listening to some wild robot program set to “Classic Rock Guitar” with more guitar “wah” than a Billy Squire/Ted Nuggent comeback tour. To call it a hum able riff would be an understatement. That guitar sound feels nearly organic, not just in the way it’s played but the actual tonal quality.
And this may sound like the pathetic ramblings of some sad Axl apologist (and if you’re any kind of G N’ R fan, you kind of have to be one, if only a little bit), but his performance is just as perfectly organic as the guitar’s. All praise to the Toxic Twins where necessary, but the “Mama Kin” lyrics as performed here are not so much sung or screeched or screamed as they are drooled out of Mr. Rose’s maw. Just like the perfectly messy guitar, the delicate dance between diction and rock singing gets shit all over. I’ve heard this song countless times, played along on guitar as best I can, and even come this close (I’m holding my fingers barely apart right now) from singing it aloud in the train station, and even though I couldn’t tell you what all of the words actually are, I could sound it out within a sixteenth note.
Most bands I enjoy involve a kind of “join us” element. As I listen to their music, I often imagine I’m a part of the band. Most rock’n'roll operates on this level of “join us,” and it helps the overall fantasy. On the other hand, there’s a band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, who made a career out of making simple things complicated. They both attract and repel simultaneously. You want to be part of a group this powerful, seemingly indestructible and confident, but they strove to keep listeners at arms length. You were cool enough to listen, but not to be a part of the actual lifestyle, even if you wanted to be part of the actual lifestyle, I mean, really, who would want to really BE Axl Rose? Maybe for just three or four minutes of Aerosmith covering. 20 years later, knowing what we know now about the inner struggles and eventual implosion, it turns out that those of us kept out of the reach of G N’ R had the best seat in the house.
NOTE: This is a review of the cut as it appears on G N’R Lies, and the title may be even more appropriate than initially realized. The rumor has always been that this album’s live cuts, supposedly recorded pre-Appetite For Destruction were not only done after, but are actually studio tracks with audience noise added in later. Upon searching for an appropriate YouTube fan video, I couldn’t find one using the Lies track, but I did find one called “Demo #1,” which not only includes the aforementioned “banter” at the top, but every little inflection I’ve come to love. By my highly trained ear I can attest that this is the same performance… only slower. Which is to say that the cut appearing on Lies may have been sped up just a hair, accounting for yet another “lie” I’m happy to live with. So I’m including that version.
HOWEVER, if anyone reading this article expected a slightly faster track, I’m also including a link to a home video of the band circa 1986 playing at L.A.’s Troubadour, complete with another dose of mother-based banter. It’s the nuts!
Live at the Troubadour.