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The enduring appeal of ‘November Rain’

A personal account of how a generation discovered Guns N’ Roses, and how the band’s sublime ballad still touches the heart.
Nov 22, 2020 / 09:15 AM IST

Narsee Monjee College and Mithibai College, two of Mumbai’s top educational institutions, are neighbouring buildings in the suburb of Vile Parle (West). In the 1980s and 90s, the students of these colleges could broadly be divided into three categories.

The first was the Juhu elite. They were children of film personalities and businessmen, who came from posh schools and displayed an enviable lack of inhibition, sauntering into class blowing gum bubbles and carrying Jansport backpacks.

The second was middle-class English-educated Marathi kids, often from the eastern and northern parts of the city, possessing substance but as yet deficient in the polish and confidence department.

The third was middle-class Gujarati kids, who, despite whatever shortcomings they may or may not have had, displayed the great Gujju trait of always laughing, always ‘majjaa ma’.

I belonged to Category 2. The guy who introduced me to Guns N’ Roses belonged to Category 3.

In the early 90s, a lot of Guns N’ Roses t-shirts could be seen on campus and on Fashion Street, where cash-strapped college students did their shopping.

One day a Category 3 specimen was wearing a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt. I asked him what it stood for.

“It’s roke (rock),” he said, continuing another great Gujju tradition - of pronouncing an ‘aw’ sound as ‘o’ and vice-versa.

So it was a rock band then, this catchy name sprouting everywhere. Nonetheless, I felt no great curiosity to listen to their music. I was not into hard rock or heavy metal. To my layperson ears most songs in the genre sounded the same. And save for genuine fans, the black tshirt and devil horn crowd seemed phoney to me.

But there came a time when Guns N’ Roses could no longer be ignored. They had become too big. And inevitably a friend made me a mix tape with ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ being one of the songs.

My first impression was that this was a rock band with a difference. They had a touch of melody. Somewhere along the way came ‘Paradise City’. It’s an out and out metal song but I liked its energy and consistency.

But it was ‘November Rain’ – soaring and heart-rending, a musical equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ - which had the ‘next-level’ quotient. And it has not just endured all these years but seems to get better with age. There are times when we watch, listen to or read something, we have the sublime realization that we are experiencing something special, when a performer has reached a higher plane. Axl Rose, Guns N’ Roses’ lead singer, is a giant pain in the you-know-where, as his own band members have testified. But he touched greatness with ‘November Rain’. It is a masterpiece, nearly 9-minutes long, finishing with a high-pitched, wailing guitar solo by Slash, the band’s other superstar.

‘November Rain’ was inspired by another epic, Elton John’s 11-minute 1973 hit ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’. At the 1992 MTV Music Awards, when Rose performed ‘November Rain’, he had Elton John on piano. Perhaps it was his way of saying thank you.

The video of ‘November Rain’ also helped its popularity. This was an era when MTV was as culturally and commercially important as Youtube or Netflix today. Song videos mattered.

The ‘November Rain’ video, shot for a then splashy $1.5 million, featured Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s then girlfriend and a model. The video took viewers on a visual and emotional rollercoaster, with shots of Rose performing on stage cut with a cinematic depiction of his wedding with Seymour that ends in her tragic death.

Even in the Youtube era, ‘November Rain’ remains a chartbuster. It was one of the first songs to hit a billion views. No doubt there are listeners all over the world who, from time to time,  block everything else and drown in the music, remembering their own journeys, the pain caused and suffered, and then singing along with the song, “So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way.”
Akshay Sawai
first published: Nov 22, 2020 09:15 am

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