I don’t remember where I was when I first heard Los Angeles-based Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” in 1987. As a student, I was probably either studying, or, more likely, partying. Not because I partied more than studied necessarily, but because I couldn’t study to music.
Especially this music. “Welcome to the Jungle” was a hard-edged kick in the ass not only musically, but lyrically and visually. Back when MTV stood for “Music Television” and actually aired music videos, this one quickly became the most popular. It is embedded in the consciousness of an entire generation, for whom it is impossible to separate the song from the video. Front man Axl Rose was just a bit glam in his big hair, makeup, and slithery leather pants, but the look was more than offset by his very un-glam yellow teeth and nasty demeanor. The rest of the band, with first names like Slash, Izzy, and Duff, all hiding behind their hair, also looked one part glam and five parts dangerous. Musically, “Welcome to the Jungle” was firmly in the “hard rock” category, with crunching guitars and big drums. But the complicated tempo changes and wall-of-sound backing vocals clearly showcased the band’s musical abilities. And the capper was the song’s lyrics, which, as delivered by Rose with what became a trademark high-pitched, raw-throated sneer, were among the most angry and spiteful I had ever heard:
Welcome to the jungle
It gets worse here every day
You learn ta live like an animal
In the jungle where we play
Two years later, in his Rolling Stone interview, Axl Rose had this to say about Los Angeles:
I’d been down to the downtown-L.A. Greyhound bus station. If you haven’t been there, you can’t say shit to me about what goes on and about my point of view. There are a large number of black men selling stolen jewelry, crack, heroin and pot, and most of the drugs are bogus. Rip-off artists selling parking spaces to parking lots that there’s no charge for. Trying to misguide every kid that gets off the bus and doesn’t quite know where he’s at or where to go, trying to take the person for whatever they’ve got. That’s how I hit town.
When I arrived in Los Angeles nearly 25 years after Axl Rose, albeit in a grey sport coupe instead of a Greyhound bus, I found out that he was right. For all of its sunshine, its “Good Vibrations,” and its “have a nice day” laid-back reputation, Los Angeles is a brutally cold city, especially for people trying to make it in the arts. It will chew up your dreams and spit them out for Mexican landscapers to use as fertilizer.
Of course, Guns ‘N Roses did not invent the idea of Los Angeles as a place where dreams come to die. Some 20 years earlier, in their song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”, Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote about the same thing:
Weeks turn into years. how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas
And Richard Marx had a huge hit in 1987, just about a month before “Welcome to the Jungle,” with “Don’t Mean Nothing,” a song with nearly identical themes:
Ain’t no one you can count on in this sleazy little town
But with “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns ‘N Roses upped the volume, the graphic imagery, and the ante:
Welcome to the jungle
We take it day by day
If you want it you’re gonna bleed
But it’s the price you pay
Then there are the most famous lines, which, the story goes, became the germ of the song after a bum uttered them to Axl Rose when Rose arrived here from Lafayette, Indiana:
You know where you are?
You’re in the jungle, baby.
You’re gonna die!
The funny thing is, either through time’s mellowing effect, or just because I’m a sunny California kind of guy, I now choose to interpret that lyric very differently. Yes, I’m in the jungle, baby, the city that is often one part glam and five parts dangerous. But I love it here. And I’m probably going to stay here for the rest of my life.