The Mets game tonight is making me anxious and I need a distraction. Nothing works better for this purpose than watching old music videos that once ruled MTV. Typically in this series I've discussed the videos of the 1980s, but I thought it was high time I dipped a finger into the 90s. And what better video to start with than the Citizen Kane of golden age videos, "November Rain."
Back in the late 80s Guns N Roses burst onto a rock scene overrun with geezers and hair metal. GNR brought a hard, dangerous edge, one that had been sorely missing. In the early 90s, however, the band began to branch out from their early approach on the twin Use Your Illusion albums. There were ballads and glimpses of roots music amidst the bombast and killer Slash riffs. No song was more out of character from their Sunset Strip scumbag days than "November Rain." It had strings and flutes and a sound that was more Elton John and less Thin Lizzy.
It was also a long song, clocking in at almost nine minutes, and thus not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on the radio. Nevertheless, the Guns, at the height of their popularity, decided to make a video for the single, a video that was completely inescapable for a time for an MTV addict like myself in 1992. There is a narrative nowadays that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" killed off all of the 80s metal bands. Sure, the likes of Warrant and Poison were shit out of luck, but Guns N Roses had never been bigger than at that time. While Nirvana was breaking punk into the mainstream, "November Rain" was trying to rehabilitate the grandiosity of classic rock. It would take another year or so before the winner of this battle became obvious.
The video itself is rock star excess at its most indulgent. It starts with a dark room and Axl Rose taking some pills with a whiskey chaser, ever the rock n roll bad boy, but looking a little sad and pathetic. Cut to him playing a piano with the orchestra in what looks like an opera house. There's scenes of a wedding, and Stephanie Seymour (Axl's then paramour) walking the aisle in a ridiculous wedding dress that exposes almost all of her legs. There's clips intercut of Seymour and Axl having fun the with Guns crew, everything appears to be absolutely idyllic. The strings swell as Slash leaves the country church to go play an absolutely killer guitar solo. Is he upset that his buddy Axl is leaving him for his new wife? Does he just want to get his hair tossed around by the helicopter getting a sweeping shot? We'll never know.
At this point the video has already gotten completely ridiculous. Nowadays, that's obvious to see, but in 1992 I and most others were fixated on the kickass solo itself, which sounds like Slash's attempt to keep Axl from getting this song buried under its own pretensions. In any case, we see Axl and Stephanie leave their church, but it's a DIFFERENT CHURCH than the one Slash left, though that's a goof I never noticed at the time. Oh, but it gets better. We see the reception, outdoors with people dancing and the various Guns smoking and drinking and having fun. There's even a gratuitous shot of Rikki Rachtman, host of Headbanger's Ball, perhaps inserted to insure maximum MTV airplay. Suddenly, the rain comes down (just to make sure this hits exactly on the nose), people run for cover, and someone DIVES into the wedding cake in one of the most blatant examples of a music video shooting something cool in slow motion for no discernible reason. We see a wine spilling out of an overturned bottle, implying spilled blood.
Suddenly, we are transported to a church where Stephanie Seymour's body is in a coffin, prepared for her funeral. How does she die? Why does she die? Was she killed by an errant raindrop? There is no explanation whatsoever. Again, the ridiculousness is covered up by an even better Slash solo, this one burning with the power of a thousand suns, pulling on the heartstrings like Eric Clapton playing "Layla." The solo's so good I never noticed the neat trick of showing Seymour throwing her bedding bouquet, having it flying through the air, then BAM becoming the flowers on the coffin. In between we see clips of Axl in the bed at the beginning, distraught, and also crying in the rain at the grave. The last two minutes of the video are absolutely nuts, but for some reason many of us agreed to overlook the ridiculousness. I think the credit belongs to Slash, and his searing solo was in many ways the last gasp of classic rawk music, an endangered species in the post-grunge world.