On a bright warm afternoon last summer I walked into a local produce stand to purchase a melon. That was all I needed, one single solitary melon. I made my choice, and fruit in hand was headed toward the check-out when a song came over the radio. The intro piano chords were unmistakable and I was snapped right back to high school.
I stopped and looked at the shaggy 20-something dude who was stocking the peaches down the aisle from me. Our eyes met, flitted toward the speakers on the ceiling and then returned to one another.
Is this really happening? I asked him.
Yeah man, he said, wide eyed and hallucinogenic, as if rifts were being torn in the space-time continuum.
Well shit, I muttered, looks like I’m here for the next nine minutes.
He nodded his head. I set down my melon and he stopped stocking the peaches. We were the only two in the place, which I realize now might sound like the beginning of something truly odd, although in the moment it was strangely comforting. We both moved closer to the speakers, and for the next nine minutes we stood alongside one another, bouncing our heads and tapping our feet. Because this, dear readers, is the only thing you can do when the dj decides to play November Rain.
There are certain things in the world that have a stickiness I can’t deny. These are things that grip me sharp as talons and prevent me from turning my attentions away. For example, were I to be flipping through the channels and come across Apocalypse Now, I will stop and watch it no matter what else I should be doing (unless it’s the Redux, a version whose existence demonstrates the eternal value of an editor). I could have an audience with the Pope, but show me the opening scenes of Martin Sheen drunkenly stumbling around his room and I’d skip out on Il Papa without a second thought.
My list for these sticky things is long—So I Married An Axe Murderer; Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”; anything by The Smiths; Boogie Nights; Caddyshack; anything by Big Star; certain Kenny Rogers songs; The Big Lebowski; the video for Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”; essays by Anthony Lane; certain of Cher’s music videos; interviews with Dennis Potter; and so on.
Oh, and of course November Rain.
The first time I ever heard of Guns N’ Roses was at my neighbor’s house. It was the fall of 1987 and I was ten years old. I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV at home and had even less access to pop music. My grandparents, who helped raise me, had never been capable of interacting with the cultural shifts of the 60’s and 70’s. Specifically, they were distraught by its impacts upon their children, two of whom went very conservative while the other two got a little loose. For my grandparents it was a lot easier to blame rock-and-roll and the lifting of the Hayes code than it was to own up to their own parenting deficiencies, all of which meant that contemporary culture had been effectively banned from the house.
(“Banned” is perhaps misleading, as it implies that I was attempting to sneak this material into the house, when, at that point in my life I simply didn’t know any of it existed. But that all changed once I started elementary school, where my new friends knew what was what; soon pop culture was everywhere…)
On that day in the fall of 1987, with Casey Kasem hosting American Top 40, I heard my first GN’R song, Welcome to the Jungle. Of almost-equal importance, I caught my first vision of the band. This was the beginning and they were all there, names and faces that would soon become familiar as my own—Duff and Izzy; Slash, who surely must have been misplaced from the set of the Addams Family; and of course Axl, who at that time was a scrawny, tattooed, big-haired baby-faced kid. To watch the video now Axl’s unmistakably a child, the sort you might want to buy a hamburger and leave a handful of bills, but despite his youth he was fearless as he walked the mean streets of LA. Curiously enough, I never caught the drummer’s name.
At this time in my life I was not allowed to own much music, and what I did have was closely, if not meticulously, curated (Springsteen’s Born in the USA made it through; my grandparents, like the President, deaf to the satire). My neighbor Tommy dubbed me a copy and I snuck it home, and soon I was holed up in my room blasting Appetite for Destruction, which beyond argument has to be one of the best rock-and-roll records ever made.
That Axl Rose is one of the greatest lead singers in rock-and-roll history is beyond dispute. There are a multitude of reasons for this: the three octave range, which seems naturally to reside as a baritone but inevitably gives way to what JJ Sullivan, in his excellent essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” calls the “Devil Woman”. We all know the Devil Woman, for it is she who comes screeching in, usually during an extended coda, on so many tracks—Patience, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Paradise City.
There’s also Axl’s insane stage presence, which always reminded me of a bee protecting a hive; the absurd rock-star wardrobe, worn with the brave certitude that he looked damned cool in every outfit; the relationships with multiple supermodels; the requisite drunken and outrageous behaviors.
And of course there is the snake-dance. That shimmy-shammering undulating move that only Axl seemed able to do. His move, the one dance move that mattered, not just for its snakey slinkiness but because he looked really fucking cool doing it. It’s important never to forget the contribution of the snake-dance, because honestly—when was the last time you saw a white dude who was leading a rock band look good while he was moving onstage??
Who Axle Rose is is another matter. More attentive minds than mine have attempted to flush out that answer, with limited success. What is certain is that he’s from Lafayette, Indiana, where he seemed to have it rough—his parents split, he was lied to about who his father was, there are allegations of abductions and molestations, all followed by the inevitable juvenile delinquency, etc., etc. It’s easy enough to imagine the shit, and so he split and headed for LA. Founded a band. Made a great album followed by a terrible album, and then a couple so-so ones. Finally, he holed up out of the public eye like some absentee offspring of Howard Hughes and Brian Wilson; grew dreadlocks and got fat and made us wince every time he showed his face in public. Who is this guy??
For mental calisthenics, try this question: when was the last time you saw a rock band dress like GN’R did? I don’t just mean the clothes as-clothes, which any objective observer could only describe as absurd. I’m talking about the sincere belief that the outfits looked good, with no ironical referencing or backward gazing; just straight up cool.
Most would argue that as quickly as it started, it was over. That is—Appetite for Destruction (1987) gave way to Lies (1988), which was a mess. But more than Lies‘s overt misogyny (Used to Love Her), saccharine ballads (Patience), and asinine lyrics blaming faggots and niggers (Oh Axl, no!), what made GN’R dinosaurs was Grunge, and by the time I was in high school in the early 90’s a line had been drawn, as lines will get drawn by adolescent boys looking for something substantive by which to measure and define their fledgling personalities: either you were for GN’R or you were for Nirvana.
This dichotomy was intended to delineate you into being either a predictable stooge (GN’R) or the newly coined hipster term of the day, Alternative (Nirvana). Because we were teenagers there was no middle ground. In either case the winner was Geffen Records, who had both bands under contract.
(Interestingly enough, GN’R/Axl seem to have genuinely liked Nirvana, so much so that in the 1991 video for “Don’t Cry,” Axl has a Nirvana hat in his hands; the song also features back-up vocals from Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, then a very hip Alternative choice. Unfortunately, the boys from Nirvana seem to have despised GN’R, and given that both were volatile agents in time there was an ugly altercation at some MTV awards show, followed by much public spitting and spatting; even Courtney Love got involved, so you know it was a real mess.)
Like most of my friends I chose Nirvana. I think history shows that it was the right choice to the wrong question, that is, there’s no reason we couldn’t have continued liking both. But hey—we were fifteen and sixteen years old and living in the suburbs. You gotta find something to stand for.
More mental stretching: when was the last time you heard a guitar solo in a rock song? I’m not talking about a melodic lick or a fill thrown in; I mean a multiple measure, extended solo that becomes the focus of the entire song. Now try this thought—November Rain has three (3). That’s three, as in two more than one. Three guitar solos, in one song.
It’s ridiculous, and yet somehow it works.
“GN’R were the last great rock band that didn’t think there was something a bit embarrassing about being in a rock band. There are thousands of bands around at any given time that don’t think rock is the least bit funny, but rarely is one of them good. With GN’R, no matter how sophisticated you felt yourself to be about pop music (leaving aside for now the paradoxical nature of that very social category), you couldn’t entirely deny them.” (JJ Sullivan, “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose”)
(If you question the validity of this statement, try your nearest rock venue on a Friday night.)
Many people will say that grunge killed GN’R and other arena-rock bands. For no good reason these conversations can quickly get contentious, so let’s just say that perhaps it’s true, although I’d argue that the single biggest factor in GN’R’s undoing was GN’R. What’s often overlooked is the impact that GN’R had upon grunge. To me it’s beyond dispute that GN’R pushed the general pop consciousness into accepting hard rock in a way it had never before, and it’s very difficult to imagine Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the like having had the successes they did without the path first having been paved by GN’R.
That GN’R used music videos well should also be emphasized, and once you see the November Rain video you don’t easily forget it. Some highlights: Stephanie Seymour’s ridiculously sexy wedding dress; the “live” shots inside the Orpheum, Axl slinking at the piano in his John Lennon glasses; Slash soloing in front of an empty church in a desert, wearing leather chaps and no shirt, his guitar unabashedly plugged into nothing; the priest’s awkwardly accepting smile as Slash gives the rings to Axl and his bride; the inevitable rains that fall on the wedding party, disruptive to the point that someone finally jumps through the wedding cake… What the hell was going on??
I don’t know why we hold onto the past like this. The truth is that if I died right now I wouldn’t regret not having seen Apocalypse Now one additional time. I’ve seen it at least twenty times, what could I possibly be hoping for from the twenty-first?
As for GN’R: I still listen to Appetite now and again, though I rarely play any of their other material. Say what you want about GN’R—and there’s plenty to say, much of it negative—Appetite still rocks. Despite having heard it a zillion times I know I’ll come back for at least another listen. Whatever the reasons for this behavior the fact remains that this past summer there I was, my body frozen in the space of a produce stand and my spirit potentially transcending time as well, savoring all nine minutes of November Rain. For that I can only say—Thank you, Axl.