This article is about the song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. It’s also about nihilism, fury, lost innocence and living at the spear tip of a history that’s fraying and dissipating into irresolvability with each passing moment. “The darkness drops again; but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle” (W.B. Yeats). “My best unbeaten brother / That isn’t all I see / Oh no, I see a darkness” (W. Oldham).
I will write this entire article with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” looping loudly in my headphones. If you can get your hands on a copy of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and some headphones, I invite you to join me.
I always thought G N’ R were properly ridiculous, and derided them publicly on more than a few occasions. But I’m not laughing now. Back in the day, I searched in vain through obscure late-’80s college-radio playlists for my generation’s rallying anthem a la Alice Cooper’s “18” or Blue Cheer’s cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Unbeknownst to me, it was playing on MTV in heavy rotation before my glazed-over, unbelieving eyes. Why couldn’t I see it? Was it the hair? Or those lame heavy-metal scarves? And why all the freakin’ apostrophes (N’ Roses, O’ Mine)? No matter. All is forgiven now. Time has washed away the ephemeral bubblegum stupidity of lite-metal L.A. culture to reveal the shining testament of late-modern existentialism that glistens before me.
“Sweet Child” narrates and enacts the latter 20th Century’s transition from myopically romantic optimism to increasingly troubling disillusion. It begins with the quintessential pop idealization of some dude’s girlfriend, and it ends thrashing amidst the sound and fury of encroaching insignificance. It’s like taking your date to the malt shop and winding up in a dark, subterranean catacomb. Little Suzy meets Mephistopheles. Like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in that cave with Injun Joe on the loose.
“Sweet Child” is really two songs, and therein lies its ingenious tension. The first part is an innocuously beautiful power-rock love paean. Its indelible harmonic guitar riff has earned it a place on many an aerobics mix tape, and justly so. The mere tone of that unaccompanied riff at the beginning of the song ignites my pop-junkie adrenal glands in a deliciously maudlin way. Not even the opening “yea-ea-e-ah” of “I Want It That Way” can compare. Add the meandering, lyrical bass line that joins the lick after four bars, and I’m already putty in the song’s hands. It’s embarrassing to publicly admit. I should be ashamed. And yet I’m proud. Proud, I say! Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
The lyrics tell of an escapist rock ’n’ roll love, devoid of any pragmatic details, as a good pop lyric should be. “Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place, where as a child I’d hi-e-ide / And wait for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by.” Our heroine is not merely elevated on a pedestal. She’s not even a fellow traveler on a journey through some ideal landscape. She is actual geography—an ideal landscape in which to hide. Post-colonial feminist critics would deride Axl for his misogynistic cartography and paternalistic pet-naming. After all, woman is not a land to plunder, conquer and colonize; and she’s certainly not a child. Fair enough, but what do you expect from the auteur who penned, “I used to love her, but I had to kill her?”
In defense of “Sweet Child,” the woman is his shelter, not his stomping ground. She engulfs and encompasses him. It’s actually quite touching, in a write-something-special-in-my-yearbook sort of way. I can see our narrator (not Axl, think Richie Cunningham from Happy Days) with his Sweet Child at Lover’s Lane. “Emily, I’m just sitting here staring at your hair, and it’s reminding me of a warm, safe place where as a child I’d hide. As a matter of fact, if I stare too long, I’ll probably break down and cry.” They embrace tenderly, and then go get a milkshake.
Fast forward to the ’80s, and Sweet Child is wearing ripped jeans and several Cyndi Lauper-ish bracelets on each arm. She waits for our narrator in the back of the trailer park where he picks her up in a green Impala that he bought cheap from his cousin, Randy. They cruise to Makeout Point. “Shauna, I’m just sitting here staring at your hair, and it’s reminding me of a warm, safe place where as a child I’d hide. As a matter of fact, if I stare too long, I’ll probably break down and cry.” They hump tenderly, and then go lift a six pack of Schaffer.
So far, so good.
All the while, Slash’s guitar playing tells a backstory exceedingly more poignant and evocative than the lyric. At First, he’s hesitant to even depart from the song’s original riff. It’s working; it’s gleaming; why ruin a good thing? Then, hesitantly, he releases the side of the pool and eases toward the deep end—gradually, cautiously, never so far away from the safety of the riff that he can’t swim back and grab it again. Each lick ventures a bit deeper—a few more variations, a few more departures, and then straight back to the riff.
Two verses of this teasing, and then halfway through the second break he launches into a deft lick of chilling intention that startles and exhilarates. Suddenly we realize he’s been having us on, he knows exactly where he’s going, and we might be in for a bit of a ride. Then, just as unexpectedly as the guitar melody soared, it’s back on the ground again. Why all this cat and mouse? Why not just launch out and wail? It’s only a verse/chorus rock ballad that’s bound to go nowhere. Thus Slash fishes us in and sets us up for the second half of the song, which shatters the ’50s/’80s motif and drops us into the nihilism of postmodernism like Galileo dropped the orange.
The second half begins with a baroque minor-key guitar break that melodically resembles little we’ve heard thus far. Abrupt, eerie, and odd. No more putzing around. Definitely intentional and interesting, but not exactly impassioned. Perhaps he’s saving even more for later. But what later? If this is the bridge, how will he ever return us to the original song? Of course, he never does. The bridge has been burned. Actually, it’s not a bridge at all; it’s an extro: birthed by the First half of the song only to be disowned, less like a beloved son and more like a bastard o spring—wasted and exiled. How could it even hope to return? You can’t unbake a cake. You can’t undo the confluence of historical streams. And you can’t return to the unfulfilled promise of modernism. We are left stranded in a Fatherless void that the heroic materialism of late capitalism is impotent to fill.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. —W.B. Yeats
The unsettling culmination of Slash’s solo wails this hollowness home. The gloves are o , the sleeper awakes, and wanky pop-metal arpeggiating gives way to genre-defying, wah-wah-drenched fury. No longer anchored by the strictures and certainty of a structure that proved rotten and false, Slash’s melody lashes out at the darkness, comes up empty, and lashes out again. Over and over, like the neglected cry of some abandoned creature, like the grasping arms of a drowning man.
Seemingly exhausted, the guitar drops and our narrator’s voice resurfaces—deep, growling, and utterly changed. No more eyes of the bluest skies, no more smiles of childhood memories. Just a simple question, over and over. He’s asking his beloved, and he’s asking us. He wants to believe. He wants to keep on making pop records where boy meets girl and the DJ spins the tale. He wants to write intelligent articles for optimistic rock ’n’ roll magazines that negotiate the fine line between celebrating music and commodifying it. But first he must ask a simple question, over and over: “Where do we go now?”
The question repeats and builds, until it breaks loose into a falsetto wail, re-joined by the guitar, which amplifies and annotates it. The whole imprecatory riot crescendos in an epic complaint that demands an answer it knows it will never get. Twenty years later, here, at the edge of the future, we still don’t have an answer. Some of us have even given up asking the question. “Here we are now / Entertain us.”
My cynical Marxist friend says, “Rock ’n’ roll will never die as long as you have a product to buy.” And yet I find myself up all night looping “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” struggling to explain its brilliance in a way that invites all creatures great and small to rally around its shining profundity—a weathered, defiant, still-flying banner of existential refusal. Am I a loon for finding sublimity in something so sappy?
Yes and no. Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel brilliantly observes, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.” Sublimity and sappiness exist side by side. Good sublime art risks sappiness, but avoids it. Great sublime art is simultaneously sappy and sublime; its sappiness makes it all the more sublime. I know I should laugh at such art, and the fact that I’m crying makes me cry all the more. The original BBC episodes of The Office are saturated with this kind of sappy sublimity. David Brent’s reading of John Betjeman’s “Slough” brings me to tears every time.
Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.---
Likewise, the best pop music is always somewhat stupid. Lowell George of Little Feat described pop music as “smart/dumb”—smart and dumb at the same time. Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks concurs: “Just as the best comic books can turn cliché into high art, so can the best pop music. Brian [Wilson] does that. He can take common or hackneyed material and raise it from a low place to the highest, and he can do it with an economy of imagery that speaks to the casual observer—bam!”
The “bam” of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is in Slash’s guitar playing. It’s one thing to write an essay bemoaning the de-centering of contemporary humankind in a postmodern society. It’s another thing entirely to play a wailing guitar solo that viscerally embodies that de-centering. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said we are born into a world of pure being, which language cannot fully express, so we are always longing for a Real we can’t describe. Slash’s solo doesn’t describe this Real, but it compassionately describes the longing we feel at having been severed from it. Without the words to properly express our estrangement, what can we do but wail? Paul of Tarsus wrote, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The guitar solo at the end of “Sweet Child” intercedes with groans that words cannot express.
But whom does it beseech? To whom does it pray? Slash’s solo is not the heroic voice of the Nietzschean atheist, defiant to the end in his renunciation of the Christian worldview. Nor is it the would-be voice of Dylan Thomas’s dying father from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” raging against the dying of the light. Nor is it the whimpering voice of the defeated warriors and their hounds from Ezra Pound’s “The Return.”
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
Instead, Slash’s solo is our voice—2,000 years after a resurrection we never witnessed, facing a future that seems more or less insoluble. We’re not deluded into believing we can return to the idealized modernism of the ’50s. And still we’re not yet willing to throw in the towel and succumb to nihilistic despair. We still hope beyond hope. We groan. We struggle. And we cry out—not defiantly into the void and not to some man-diluted, manufactured god who can’t satisfy. We cry out to the God we hope is actually there. Paul Simon sings,
The rage of love turns inward
To prayers of devotion
And these prayers are
The constant road across the wilderness
These prayers are
These prayers are the memory of God
The memory of God
Slash’s solo is fueled by the despair and desperation and painful longing of these prayers.
Most pop songs settle for an escapist visit to Lover Land. “Stay lady stay / Stay while the night is still ahead.” “We’ve got tonight / Who needs tomorrow?” Admittedly, such escapism doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but it’s better than one of Mogwai’s interminably angsty, post-rock instrumentals.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” is brave enough not to take sides. It doesn’t simply pin its hopes for the satisfaction of mankind on idealized romantic love and a big brass bed. Nor does it mow over the daises and burn down the malt shop. It does something more complex and ultimately more redemptive. “Sweet Child” posits an ideal worth fighting for, admits that the ideal is not currently achievable, and dares to ask, “Why the discrepancy?” This question continues to echo unanswered from shitty dashboard radios tuned to shitty classic-rock stations in shitty green Impalas throughout our land.
“Tom’s days were days of splendor and exultation to him, but his nights were seasons of horror. Injun Joe infested all his dreams, and always with doom in his eye.”
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? —W.B. Yeats
Where do we go now?
Watch Curt Cloninger read this essay live on ABC News here.