November Rain (1992)
Guns N' Roses
This ain’t no gumdrop.
“November Rain” is torture. (If the 215 million YouTube views as of 2014 are any indication, we live in a world that loves to be tormented with the pain of love’s precariousness.)
Axl Rose, Slash, and company paint a bleak new world on edge where almost nothing seems certain. Lyrics, hot-air-balloon-big orchestral backing and devastatingly strong lead guitar breaks teetering on the edge of coherence make for the classic power ballad of the early-’90s.
If you’re keeping track of singles from the period, “November Rain” is the B side of the highly entertaining “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” both tracks leaping off album Use Your Illusion I, an 8x platinum-seller that also features “Coma,” “Dead Horse” and a cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Live And Let Die.”
Amidst the sound effects of wind and a symphony orchestra, Axl Rose kicks the song off with a moody, ever-so-vaguely-closing-movie-credits piano solo that is then joined by the BIG drums of Matt Sorum. Big big drums. A flute line wends its way in and around the cozy, familiar piano.
Once Rose sings, a door swings open into the mind of someone who is on quicksand. There is a marriage, or at least a commitment of some sort, pending. But the contract, personal, social, legal, is in trouble. The opening lyrics, simple as can be, rate highly among the best of all time:
When I look into your eyes
I can see a love restrained
But darlin’ when I hold you
Don’t you know I feel the same
‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever
And we both know hearts can change
And it’s hard to hold a candle
In the cold November rain
Two people making vows, but both knowing something is being held back. While we know that Axl’s real life relationship that “November Rain” is based upon did not work out (with model/actress Stephanie Seymour) it immediately rises above the particular and flies into the universal.
Sages from every time have asked “What is the meaning of life?” The role of great Rock music has been to ask “What is the meaning of love?” Guns N’ Roses gives listeners a thorough but – as is necessary and expected – incomplete answer.
Meanwhile, the music rises (though weighted down by sentiment) along with the lyrical outlook. If it is feasible in the first place, “November Rain” blends Anthem Rock with Symphonic Rock and… of all things, the Blues. The singer, the bearer of a strange petition, is racked by the past and knows that his counterpart with whom he is falling in love, is likewise agonized by her own issues.
Through this first movement, Slash (below) lurks, sounding as if he is warming up for his first solo.
Once on center stage, from the first few notes, he delivers the kind of work that ranks him in the hallowed halls of definitively phenomenal guitarists. You easily might think that the usual guitar strings – E-A-D-G-B-E – had been replaced by M-Y-P-A-I-N. It is terse, evocative of what lies beneath words.
Slash’s work is all the more interesting because he had resisted Rose’s push into more mature Rock – specifically ballads – but, clearly, since the band had been playing some form of “November Rain” for six years, the grand guitarist’s mind had long been at work.
Slash returns with part two of his solo after the short, darkly ruminative verse, really more of a talking-out-loud burst of words:
Do you need some time…on your own
Do you need some time…all alone
Everybody needs some time… on their own
Don’t you know you need some time…all alone
The singer can’t make a stand on his mountain of love, and by way of not being able to address his own reluctance squarely, he hands the hot potato back to his lover, hoping she will head for the exit.
This is the kind of music that incites people to light their lighters and sway back and forth as one.
After the second Slash solo, the song puffs up its chest and becomes the giant it had been hoping to be in the long, mind-searching lead up. At this point, the music continues to soar as the lyrics seem to be coming to a resolution. But there is something terribly wrong.
Everything seems disconnected and the listener is launched into a dark sky with no guiding stars. Sure, not even the cold November rain lasts forever, but the fear lurks and we are confronted with our basic aloneness, no matter what the church bells say:
And when your fears subside
And shadows still remain
I know that you can love me
When there’s no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness
We still can find a way
‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever
Even cold November rain
The song moves into a coda, a little jazzy piano bit laid down by Rose, changing the tempo to a pace more in keeping with past Guns N’ Roses grooves. The band was in the midst of dissolution and it seemed – unconsciously perhaps – the right time for them to pay homage to the greats who had paved the way for their achievements.
Led Zeppelin riffs are hauled down from the attic. Hendrix appears, hovering over all Rock guitarists as he is wont to do. Then almost as if the world had been turned inside out, here comes the sun of The Beatles and echoes of the mashed-up close of “I Am The Walrus.” An unsettling chant arises:
Don’t ya think that you need someone
Everybody needs somebody
We can only speculate, but it may be that the powerful undercurrents running through “November Rain” are not just about the difficulties of couples’ love, but more about a farewell to one of the greatest Rock bands of any era, and one that certainly boiled down and epitomized the mid-1980s to early-’90s.
It is draining. It is satisfying to realize one more time that the music can rise to such dizzying altitudes.
Check out our selection of GN’R merch here.
- In 2004, Slash said: “We got into doing these huge production videos and by ‘November Rain’ it was too much, just too involved. At the end of the day it was a great video but that’s when I started realizing that it was getting out of hand.”
- “November Rain” was GnR’s last Top Ten hit.