I remember one day in the late summer of 1988. At 10 years of age, I was stumbling out of childhood and into my teenage years. It was still early enough on in this process that I was certainly more child than not, but I was beginning to see the larger world around me. My peripheral vision was focusing, becoming sharper and more distinct. I was growing up.
On this particular afternoon, I was in the back seat of a car coming back from a friend’s lake cabin. Bret and Eric were the same age as my brother and I. Their parent’s owned the cabin and they frequently drove my brother and I up with them for the weekends. I don’t remember too much about this cabin, other than they had an old speedboat we would take out on the lake. I remember the lake being fairly small and that their father made us do a lot of chores over the weekend. I also remember, one day, seeing an insect that I have spent my whole life and lots of google searches trying to identify. Today, I can see this creature clear as day in my mind. I can see it looking intelligently and fearfully back at me as I prodded it with a stick. I was certain at that time, and only slightly less certain now, that it was an alien. But that is a different story for a different day.
The days in late August were still plenty hot, even in northern Indiana. I was in this particular back seat of a car driven by his father. We were driving down the road with cornfields escorting us out both windows. It was a small hatchback and the six of us, the parents, Bret, Eric, my brother and I, were hurtling down the old state road at just above the speed limit. It was at this moment that I first heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns n’ Roses.
Although I didn’t understand this at the time, I have come to realize that music, and strictly nothing else, can sometimes break through all the distortion and distraction and show you something beautiful and greater than yourself, even if your not sure what it is at the time. I suppose I am describing somewhat of a religious experience, and possibly the two of these things have a lot in common. But nothing embraces you quite the same way as the perfect song at the perfect moment does. I was getting my first lesson in this on that August afternoon.
That opening guitar riff, played by Slash, is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Behind it’s beauty it gives a slightly dizzying feeling of going both forwards and backwards at the same time. The riff is not terribly hard to play at it’s roots. It was discovered by Slash as a picking exercise. But I can guarantee you that no one in the world can play this lick like Slash plays it. I can say the same thing about some other notable guitar licks in Rock and Roll history. Licks like Richard’s “Satisfaction” and Knopfler’s “Money for Nothing.” No matter how easy or hard the licks are, the cannot be duplicated exactly by anyone other than the musician that originally wrote it.
As the riff plays on, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, quietly, almost shyly, comes in. Then bassist Duff McKagan begins playing the melody of the verses on his bass guitar. This is something unique and brilliant. You seldom get any get any sort of bass solo in a rock and roll song and you NEVER get before any vocals have even started. All the while, Slash,, continues on with his soaring riff that is lying comfortably within the rest of the band’s music. Lounging in there like it had been there all along.
This is when Axl Rose starts singing:
She’s got a smile it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry
It’s a love song?!?!?! This isn’t “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Paradise City”. It’s a completely different sentiment. Just watching the music video gives me a bit of vertigo. These guys are pretty rough looking. When Axl steps up to the mic and starts singing these lyrics, I just don’t see it coming.
After the first verse is the first of three (yes THREE!) guitar solos. The brilliance of these solos is that each one gets a little more bold, a little more frisky, like they are an 8th grade boy pushing the envelope with his girlfriend. The first solo is just a couple of notes, just testing out the waters. One of the things I aways admired about Slash is that his solos were compositions within themselves. So this first solo is a melody. Safe and sturdy.
The second verse. More of the same. Innocent. Honest. Pure.
Then the second solo. This one starts out like the first solo. The same melody but it goes on a little longer. It gets a little more adventurous towards the end. Then back to the refrain. But this time the band is a little more raw and aggressive. Then comes Slash’s third and final solo.
This solo is possibly one of the finest in rock and roll history. It begins melodically. Once again, Slash is writing his own tune here with his guitar. The melody and the pacing is a little halting. Almost like it’s not so sure of itself. Then he kicks into the second half of the solo that unrelentingly rocks you to your very soul. It has that great quality of thinking that he has climaxed to the end but then gives you a little more. By the way, it’s worth noting that Slash was in his early 20s when he recorded this.
All of this crashes into the “Where do we go now” part. During which Slash’s guitar is in the back ground like a caged beast pacing back and forth. As the band breaks it back out, his guitar is once again unleashed upon us. This leads us the great ending, again, one of the greatest in rock and roll. With Axl screaming in the upper reaches of anyone range and the band slowly winding down like it an unstoppable machine that has finally run out of gas.
Anyways, what is your favorite summer song?