Guns N’ Roses broke all sorts of new musical ground with their mammoth Use Your Illusion albums. They played things straight on the brisk, bluesy “Yesterdays,” however, bidding farewell to their checkered past in pursuit of an even messier future.
The third track (and third single) on Use Your Illusion II, “Yesterdays” split the difference between the rancorous blues-rock of Guns N’ Roses’ debut, Appetite for Destruction, and the high-brow art-rock of their new double-album collection. Slash‘s clean, arpeggiated guitar chords vaguely recalled the intro to “Paradise City,” but Axl Rose‘s bouncy piano chords and Dizzy Reed‘s textural organ work reflected the expanded scope of the band’s songwriting.
“Yesterdays” was credited four songwriters, but Rose was the only member of Guns N’ Roses who had input, collaborating with West Arkeen, Del James and Billy McCloud. (Arkeen was a longtime friend of the band who also cowrote “It’s So Easy,” “Bad Obsession” and “The Garden“; James cowrote “The Garden” and now serves as Guns N’ Roses’ road manager.) Rose reflected wistfully on his past as he looked eagerly to the future, singing: “Yesterday’s got nothin’ for me / Old pictures that I’ll always see / Time just fades the pages in my book of memories.“
Guns N’ Roses debuted “Yesterdays” on Jan. 14, 1988, at the Coconut Teaszer club in Hollywood, less than six months after the release of Appetite. Performing as Drunk Fux, they were joined onstage by Arkeen and James for a loose, nine-song set that included another unreleased song titled “Sentimental Movie” and a slew of covers – including Led Zeppelin‘s “Communication Breakdown” and the Rolling Stones‘ “Honky Tonk Women.”
Listen to Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Yesterdays’
“We’ll try something that none of us has ever played together before,” Rose told the Coconut Teaszer crowd, adding that the band was going to record “Yesterdays” the following week. Like most of Rose’s release-date promises, this one would prove false — but judging by the Drunk Fux rendition of “Yesterdays,” it was probably for the best. While Rose had already ironed out his lyrics and vocal melodies, the tune itself was much slower and featured boilerplate blues solos from Slash that would have sounded more at home on a Marshall Tucker Band record than the sprawling Use Your Illusion.
Guns N’ Roses sped up and cleaned up “Yesterdays” considerably by the time it appeared on Use Your Illusion II on Sept. 17, 1991. They once again enlisted director Andy Morahan — who helmed the ridiculously over-the-top video trilogy of “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain” and “Estranged” — to direct the the song’s black-and-white video, which featured the band performing the song in an empty warehouse.
One version of the video also featured pictures of former band members Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin, who had been replaced by Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke, respectively. Watching Rose sing “Some things could be better if we’d all just let them be” over a picture of the recently fired Adler during “Yesterdays” – a song that could be interpreted as optimistic – felt strangely vindictive.
Hear Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘Yesterdays’ in 1988
“Yesterdays” retroactively took on a newfound poignance after Arkeen died of a drug overdose in 1997. Slash memorialized his friend in his 2007 memoir, saying that “as things got crazier for us, West became the only thing like a friend that our band had in the world. He was the only one that always came through when any of us needed anything; for a long time he literally was the only one we could trust.”
By the time Guns N’ Roses released “Yesterdays” as a single in October 1992, they were neck-deep in controversy and fighting for their sanity (and in some cases, their lives) as they criss-crossed the world on the seemingly endless Use Your Illusion Tour. The former street urchins had become the biggest rock band on the planet, and the halcyon days of jamming in clubs as the Drunk Fux probably felt a lifetime away.
Guns N’ Roses had no choice but to plow ahead toward an uncertain, increasingly chaotic future. As Rose put it so succinctly in “Yesterdays,” “I ain’t got time to reminisce old novelties.“
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