A stunning number of landmark albums were released 25 years ago, in the late-summer and early fall of 1991. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time looking back at this all-star musical Class of ’91. We’ve already covered Pearl Jam’s Ten. Next up? Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II.
September 17, 2016, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ sprawling double album, Use Your Illusion I and II, and if you were a teenager back in 1991, you probably remember the albums’ trilogy of epic music videos just as well as the rest of the twenty-seven other tracks, if not more so. “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain,” and “Estranged” were in heavy rotation on MTV during the months and years following the albums’ release, and “November Rain” in particular is called out as one of the greatest music videos of all time. Taken together, this trilogy represents the high water mark of 80’s bombastic rock: a final outburst of extravagant guitar solos and helicopter shots before the genre’s death at the hands of 90’s grunge and alternative.
By now we’re all familiar with this meta-narrative, as well as the videos’ narratives that portray lead singer Axl Rose’s struggles with mortality and romantic relationships. But no one ever talks about what’s going on with Slash in these videos. It turns out he might be the key to understanding not just these videos, but the turbulent story of the band…and all of rock music, if those first two weren’t enough.
“Don’t Cry,” Even Though You Saw Me Die in a Fiery Car Crash
I know we’re focusing on Slash’s story in these videos, but we do need to take into account what’s going on with Axl, as his arc provides important context. In “Don’t Cry,” Axl fights a lot with his girlfriend while coming face to face with his own mortality. This isn’t buried in subtext; the music video opens with an infant child and Axl dying in the snow and closes on Axl’s tombstone and the same infant child.
Axl is afraid of dying. We get it.
Slash, on the other hand, well, there’s no other way to put it. He cheats death. About halfway through the video, we see Slash, without much context, fighting with a woman in a car. (It’s possible this woman is the same one that Slash is with during the bar fight scene earlier in the video, but it’s not entirely clear.)
The video cuts directly from the couple fighting in the car to an external shot of the car going over cliff and blowing up. Bam, they’re dead, right?
Maybe the woman, but Slash? After the explosion, we see him standing at the top of the cliff, wailing on his guitar, as he is wont to do.
What just happened? Did he jump out of the car before it went over the edge? Possibly, but we see no physical evidence of this happening; his shirtless body appears free of the scrapes and cuts that would have resulted. If not, then Slash either teleported out of the car, or died in the crash and resurrected at the top of the cliff.
Is he a ghost? Based on how he interacts with other characters in the next video “November Rain,” probably not. At least not yet. Whatever happened to him, this much is clear: Slash isn’t like you and me–or Axl, for that matter. Slash is not bound by the shackles of this mortal existence. Slash has powers.
“November Rain,” Eternal Guitar Solos
In this video, Axl doesn’t die, but his wife does, and it makes him super sad! Slash, on the other hand, seems to be operating on another level. In the last video, we saw him either teleport across space and/or come back from the dead. In “November Rain,” we can see that he’s not a ghost, given that he interacts directly with the other characters. Most notably, he gives Axl and his wife the rings during the wedding ceremony. Immediately after that, though, he exits the church…
…and reemerges outside another church, in the middle of a desert, where he plays a ripping guitar solo.
Slash has teleported either to another location on Earth, or into another dimension, for his solo.
Interestingly, though, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this location. At the beginning of the video, it’s suggested that Axl was there, too. There’s an external shot of the church, then an internal shot of Axl on the piano, with a desert scene in the background.
But we never see Axl in the desert again. Perhaps he sacrificed his ability to move back and forth between realms in order to marry his wife, who he now knows is merely mortal.
Slash, on the other hand, moves freely back and forth across realms. After his solo, we see him at the wedding reception, and again at the funeral scene.
Meanwhile, in the concert scenes that play out in parallel to the wedding-funeral story, Slash mounts the grand piano for the epic finale.
There are no explicit connections between the concert scenes and the wedding-funeral narrative, but since Axl and Slash are shown to move between realms in this video, I’ll take the liberty of connecting the concert and the funeral. They key to doing so is Axl’s grand piano, which has a certain coffin-like quality. If we read the piano as a coffin, it fits in line with the broader themes of mortality in these three videos. It allows Axl to be face to face with death–and it allows Slash to show that he has triumphed over his own mortality. He strides confidently atop the coffin, wailing away at the height of his powers.
“Estranged” from this Existence, but not from Water
I love the dolphins in this video, and there’s tons to read into them, but this is neither the time nor the place for that. Let’s stay focused on Slash, who doesn’t appears in the video until about 2/3 of the way through. With no prior context, we see him gliding through the streets of LA, playing his guitar solo while no one acknowledges his presence:
At this point, Slash may actually be a ghost, in that he used his powers to leave this plane of existence and/or make himself invisible to others. He’s already shown himself to be more powerful than death itself, so why bother with mere mortals?
Axl, meanwhile, still gets himself into trouble; he jumps off of a tanker ship (side note: the band rented a tanker ship for this video) and thrashes around in the ocean until he’s rescued by dolphins, a helicopter, or some combination thereof.
Then we cut to Slash…rising from the ocean, standing on water while he plays his guitar solo.
This fits with the idea of Slash as a ghost, since he doesn’t interact with anyone while he’s on the water, and it also shows an escalation in his supernatural powers. I mean, who else walks on water?
Also this guy:
And don’t forget this guy too:
Yup, Slash is a multi-dimensional superhero demigod. Axl, meanwhile, has hopefully found some solace for his angst with the dolphins.
Why Guns ‘n’ Roses’s Greatness is no Illusion
This whole fanciful interpretation of Slash as a superpowered being isn’t just a fun thought exercise (although it certainly is that); it’s also a serious attempt to helps us understand the nature of Guns ‘n’ Roses, one of the greatest bands in all of rock music.
First, about the band: Guns ‘n’ Roses was a lot of things–a heavy metal band, a public relations circus, Axl’s own vanity project–but at its best, it was one of the great cultural and creative forces of its era. They achieved this greatness by being much more than the sum of their parts. One part was Axl, the leader of the band who provided an identity to the stories in the songs and the story of the band. That identity was primarily one of anger and angst. Consider his signature vocal move in concerts: the high-pitched, blood-curdling, spine-chilling introduction to “Welcome to the Jungle,” in which he screams some variant of,
“YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?
YOU’RE IN THE JUNGLE BABY!
YOU’RE GONNA DIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”
It’s raw, it’s painful, it’s scary, and, well, it’s about death. This is Axl as portrayed in these three videos. He’s hyper aware of his own mortality, he’s afraid of being alone, and he’s afraid of dying.
This is all fine and good, but it’s not compelling on it’s own. What made Guns ‘n’ Roses great, not just good, was how Slash’s incendiary guitar work encased this thematic material with raucous riffs beneath and screaming solos above. Axl screamed of dying in the jungle; Slash created the jungle’s lush undergrowth and sinewy vines. In the videos, Axl worries about dying; Slash uses his powers to defy death and wail on the guitar.
Death & Life.
Guns & Roses.
Axl & Slash.
Oh, and one last thing. Consider that the electric guitar is unique among musical instruments in that, by design, it allows the player to sustain notes for a very long time when played normally, and to create an infinitely sustaining feedback loop, so long as the guitar is correctly positioned by a sufficiently loud amplifier.
In other words, the electric guitar has power over death itself.
It’s this power that made the electric guitar the key catalyst of rock & roll. At the dawn of the genre’s inception, the drum kit, bass, and amplified vocals were standard issue for live music. But the solid body amplified electric guitar, and the exceptionally loud, sustained sounds that it produced, enabled this music to transcend its old constraints, to escape the confines of mere mortals, to become the monstrous power that we see on display here.
The Supernatural Slash isn’t just the peak of a bygone era of extravagant music-making. I mean it’s that, for sure, but it’s also the best illustration of what made both Guns ‘n’ Roses, and guitar-driven rock music, so damn great.
No idea if it’s intended, but the crucifix next to Axl’s bed at the very start of the November Rain video immediately reminded me of Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Sons.” Maybe someone better acquainted with the Gunners will know if that’s what they had in mind.
This reminds me of (I think the Live at the Ritz show in ’88) when Axl is introducing the band lineup, he gets to Slash and says something like “This one is neither man nor beast, a mysterious creature known only as Slash.” I don’t think it’s meant to dehumanize Slash in a demeaning way, but rather dehumanizes Slash in a way to elevate him to something more. Axl, with his fear of mortality you mentioned, plays Slash up as a magical being who is not bound by the rules of humanity.