Darlin’ Don’t Refrain

Guns N' Roses: "November Rain" (1992)

“November Rain” is more than a music video. It’s every idea that existed in hard rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s compressed into nine minutes. It’s an opening shot of pills being popped, the sound of wind fading into strings, a drum fill, a tinkling piano, a church in the desert, Christ on the Cross crying tears of blood. And this is just the first minute and a half, before the vocals even start.

It’s rare that any work can so perfectly encapsulate a subculture and an era. Individual elements of “November Rain” might seem silly out of context. But in their proper place, each is essential. There’s nothing to cut, nothing to add. The song itself is one of Guns N’ Roses’ best, and the pinnacle of the power ballad. It’s loaded with orchestration, melodies, two guitar solos, and enough sonic variation to stay interesting for its lengthy running time. The video, directed by Andy Morahan, likewise carries the hallmarks of its genre—multiple expensive-looking set pieces (two churches, an Old West town, a crowded wedding reception), shots of the band partying together, a sexy woman. There’s just enough artistic ambition to transcend dirtbag party rock, but it’s not so self-serious that it veers into pretension.

“November Rain” captures Guns N’ Roses at a time of seeming (or projected) maturity. Axl Rose, the lead singer who introduced himself to MTV by screaming “You’re gonna die!” in “Welcome to the Jungle,” is more refined here. From the beginning of the video, it’s clear: there will be none of Axl’s menace, none of his famous snake dancing. He sits at a piano wearing glasses, his hair tied back in a bandana. He looks a bit like a prototype of David Foster Wallace—literary, but uninterested in decorum. The song comes from Use Your Illusion I, the first half of a 1991 duology that was itself a declaration of artistic ambition. Use Your Illusion posits Guns N’ Roses as a serious band, more thoughtful than the act who gave their debut album the title Appetite for Destruction. They’re willing to contemplate fame, to recognize the dark side of excess, and to confront the ultimate hollowness of the rock star ideal. If Appetite made Guns N’ Roses the kings of hard rock, Illusion was supposed to make them the genre’s philosophers. The cover was an interpretation of a Raphael painting of an ancient Athenian student writing in a notebook.

The single was a smash. The video was huge. The album went multi-platinum. But this wasn’t the peak of a mountain. It was the crest of a wave. “November Rain” embodied everything Guns N’ Roses had come from, and presented them as they wanted to be seen. 

It was an elegy. 

If We Could Take the Time to Lay It on the Line

September 9, 1992 wouldn’t be Axl’s night. It was the night of the MTV Video Music Awards and Guns N’ Roses was set to close the show with a performance of “November Rain” featuring Elton John (host Dana Carvey called it “the biggest production in the history of the Video Music Awards”). But their welcome wasn’t exactly warm. Backstage, the guys got into a fight with Nirvana over some teasing that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love directed toward Axl and Stephanie Seymour, Axl’s then-girlfriend and co-star of the “November Rain” video. During the show, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl taunted Axl from the stage after the band tore through “Lithium.” 

Van Halen took home Video of the Year that night for “Right Now,” a heavy-handed clip that cycled through animated text of pseudo-aphorisms like “RIGHT NOW, THERE’S A BOMB FACTORY HARD AT WORK” and “RIGHT NOW, YOUR PARENTS MISS YOU.” “November Rain” wasn’t nominated.

“Forget complaining about Crash or Birdman winning Best Picture—the greatest awards show injustice of all-time is ‘November Rain’ not getting a Video of the Year nod,” critic Steven Hyden wrote in a 2016 look back at the ‘92 VMAs. “The only video up to that point that was as grandiose and overhyped as ‘November Rain’ was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’” 

Awards aren’t everything, especially not when it comes to artistic excellence. But the VMAs aren’t like the Oscars or Grammys, because music videos aren’t like movies or songs. Videos are promotional products for art. It’s up to the creators to decide whether the promotions should be art as well. There was no hazard in making a clip that was little more than shots of a singer onstage; it would get played anyway if the song was good enough and the act looked cool enough. The VMAs rewarded the act of doing more, and “November Rain” did a lot more. The comparison to “Thriller” fits. Both were among the most expensive videos ever made (“Thriller” cost a reported $500,000, and “November Rain” three times as much). And while “November Rain” isn’t as groundbreaking as “Thriller,” it’s trying to do something similar—to use the tools of cinema to offer something more engrossing than a song alone. 

But 1992 was not the year for hard rockers to seize artistic credibility by embracing the language of film. Nor was it the year to make an epic for the sake of making an epic. 1992 was the year to strip away the artifice and be like Nirvana, onstage as a trio wearing t-shirts and smashing their gear. It was the year to be like Van Halen and take yourselves almost entirely out of your video in service of a message.

“Right Now” seems like it has a message, anyway. If you watch it once, it comes across as almost deep; it’s aware of poverty, inequality, and other global issues. But a few more plays betray a shallowness. The messages don’t declare so much as they imply. And the band doesn’t seem willing to put anything on the line to change the conditions that their video sort of describes. The clearest piece of advocacy is a blurry shot of a condom under the words “RIGHT NOW, NOTHING IS MORE EXPENSIVE THAN REGRET.” This is timid compared to the members of TLC wearing prophylactics as jewelry in the video for “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” which was also in heavy rotation in 1992. Whenever Van Halen is shown in their video, it’s a celebration of their fame, disconnected from the purported ideas of the video: “RIGHT NOW, MIKE IS THINKING ABOUT A SOLO PROJECT” and “RIGHT NOW, VAN HALEN IS PLANNING A WORLD TOUR.” Within a year, it was a Crystal Pepsi ad. 

“November Rain” offers no commentary on the state of the world. It’s a clip designed for people who like Guns N’ Roses and for people who watch MTV all day. As such, it rewards rewatching. Its jumble of scenes and confusing timeline unfold more clearly for an experienced eye, as the brilliance behind the excess becomes clear. 

“November Rain” starts with Axl looking sad. He’s in a blue-lit bedroom surrounded by statues, liquor bottle on the bedside table, pills nearby. As he lies down, the video fades to show him at the piano onstage. Maybe it’s a dream. There’s a conductor, strings, woodwinds. Duff McKagan and Slash loom nearby. Then, Axl is in a desert church with walls that fade away. Next, he’s at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip for what looks like a bachelor party with the band and Seymour. They have so much fun that Best Man Slash can’t find the ring at the wedding the next day. Duff offers a replacement from his gloved hand. As the couple weds, Slash leaves the church. He emerges in the desert, his tuxedo replaced by a leather jacket (no shirt), jeans, chaps, boots, and guitar. What follows is one of the most indelible images ever put in a music video. Helicopters and cranes capture sweeping shots of Slash playing his solo in the desert. The unseen equipment kicks up clouds of sand that swirl around him, as if each grain is moved by the wailing high notes. 30 years later, it’s still jaw-dropping. It looks cool because it’s the very idea of cool in hard rock. Bare chest, long curls, leather, Les Paul, sand. 

Credit: YouTube | Guns N’ Roses

The second half of “November Rain” is funereal. The titular rain ruins a joyous wedding reception (and causes a guest to leap into the three-tiered wedding cake that has a tiny Axl and Stephanie on top). There are flashes of a casket and pallbearers. When the bride throws her bouquet, the flowers turn from white to red, then land on a coffin. Axl wakes up in his blue bedroom, terrified. The video ends with a close shot of flowers in the rain. 

“As a combination of music, video and that moment in time, they’re very poignant to where the band were in that time and the cultural history of music videos,” Morahan told Kerrang in a 2020 retrospective on “November Rain” and two other Use Your Illusion videos, “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged.”

All three videos are based on the writings of Axl’s friend, Del James. “November Rain” is literature as a rock video, a rock video as literature. Maybe it’s a little clumsy, a little boneheaded, a little like watching the jocks and bullies try to star in the school play, but it’s an unblinking attempt. “I think the best music videos tend to be surreal and off the wall anyway. In those times we were reinventing the wheel; it was fine to be as big and bombastic as you wanted to be,” Morahan said in the interview.

“November Rain” is a band planting its flag in the ground with one hand and reaching as high as possible with the other. But there had been an earthquake that year, and Guns N’ Roses had nowhere left to stand. 

Before Guns N’ Roses closed the VMAs, the other rock acts to grace the stage included Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton, and a solo Elton John. Guns N’ Roses were caught between elder statesmen and young punks. They weren’t established enough to be the former and they were no longer cool enough to be the latter. They were middle aged. MTV is not a place for the middle aged.

It’s Hard to Hold a Candle

Oh, for a rock and roll overreach in 2002. If seeing “Right Now” get honored over “November Rain” and watching Nirvana steal the show in the year after punk broke was like watching a changing of the guard, then the rock entries at the 2002 VMAs were a slow-motion car crash—literally, in one case. Nu-metal act P.O.D. was up for Video of the Year for “Alive,” a clip that features the band playing on a highway as a CGI bus slowly plows into a CGI car behind them. Also up for the award was Linkin Park’s “In the End,” a video that manages to be extremely earnest despite featuring a flying whale. (Guns N’ Roses’ “Estranged” had featured dolphins, including one that flies out of an airplane, so maybe there’s some kind of airborne cetaceans link I’m overlooking.)

Having been in high school for these more recent VMAs, I know that these songs meant a lot to kids who were going through some tough times, but the videos do no favors for the tracks. They lack humor and subtlety and offer only loud, raw emotion. I’ve watched them, again and again, and there’s nothing to find, nothing to read into. The videos don’t even offer enough to let the viewers speculate on their meaning.

“November Rain” is endlessly dissectible. Take Slash’s solo. As he leaves the church, Axl is singing “Do you need some time on your own?” and, later, “I know it’s hard to keep an open heart / When even friends seem out to harm you.” Whether it’s the case in real life, the general promotion of rock bands tends to present the singer and guitarist as friends, co-writers, and co-conspirators in line with the Mick-and-Keith model. Slash is Axl’s Best Man in the video, but the guitarist seemingly can’t bear to watch his pal kiss the bride and start a new life. He retreats to the desert, the same landscape where Axl found himself alone with his pain earlier in the video. Later, the two are together, with Slash leaving his spotlight to stand on the widowed Axl’s piano as he sings, “Everybody needs somebody.” P.O.D., meanwhile, has kids making out in a train tunnel and digital bolts flying at the camera.

The other rock video up in 2002 was the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl”—two minutes of stop-motion animation done in Lego by Michel Gondry. It’s short, colorful, fun, and devoid of rock star iconography. In 1992, bombast was on its way out in favor of grunge’s stark imagery. Over the next decade, grunge’s angsty sound evolved into aggro nu-metal, while its sense of artistry and irony fell to indie acts who didn’t take themselves that seriously. Jack and Meg White dressed like superheroes who’d been outfitted at a thrift store. Directors like Gondry and Spike Jonze made videos that reflected this playfulness. The clips were ambitious like “November Rain,” but more compact. They avoided rock and roll myth-making and instead embraced clever concepts, inventive camerawork, and meticulous planning.

Viewers who wanted grandeur in videos had plenty of options, though—all of them outside of the rock genre. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” was essentially an action movie. Puff Daddy’s “Been Around the World” nodded to international spy thrillers. And Hype Williams made wondrous visuals to accompany songs from Missy Elliott, TLC, Tupac, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes, among others. Artists who wanted to do more with their videos could treat them as playgrounds for their art or as megaphones for their identities and ideas. The best videos were both: statements of intent made by people who had something to say and enjoyed saying it. By 2002, rock acts were either kids in a toy store or pallbearers at a wake. The combination of grandeur, fun, and art had moved to pop and hip-hop. So, too, had listeners. In the early ‘90s, Billboard started using digitally tracked music sales, rather than less formal surveys, to make their charts. Among the revelations in this new data was the fact that hip-hop was more popular than editors and executives previously thought. 

The shift in the rock genre, from hard rock to alternative, had been the story of the 1992 VMAs. At the 2002 VMAs, the rock narrative was one of decline. The sound of rock and the look of its videos showed how little was left of the genre. Rockers could make a big noise or they could be coolly irreverent. Neither approach would yield anything like “November Rain.” Neither approach would make them relevant. 

Nothing Lasts Forever

What were videos by 2012? MTV didn’t play them—a business decision that had people in their 20s waxing nostalgic. Total Request Live was long defunct. YouTube was the place for creative visuals, while MTV grasped for relevance. The 2012 VMAs featured awards for Best Video with a Message and Most Share-Worthy Video. The music video format was as moribund as rock music itself (Green Day was the only rock act to perform during the show). Excitement and innovation abounded in the music of Rihanna, Frank Ocean, and Nicki Minaj—artists who made videos, but didn’t need to. They were dynamic on tape and iconic in life and online. Guns N’ Roses, meanwhile, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that year. The band was a museum piece. Axl didn’t show. 

Hearts Can Change

It’s 2022 and we haven’t stopped talking about “November Rain.” Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned the video in her memoir, citing it as a favorite of former President Donald Trump. 

For the clip’s 30th birthday, Vice asked why someone jumped into the wedding cake that was left out in the rain. The investigation led to Sofia Coppola, who reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to buy the storyboards from Morahan, and who told Vice, “I love that it’s so sincere and really embracing the drama.” 

“I was really into the Axl and Stephanie love story,” Coppola said. “It was a moment when I lived in L.A. and Guns N’ Roses were huge and Nirvana was about to come along and everything shifted.”

Coppola’s quote is similar to what Morahan told Kerrang two years ago. Nirvana was the antithesis of everything “November Rain” celebrated. The bands’ fight backstage in 1992 was an artistic revolution taking physical form. Nirvana and the alternative movement so thoroughly shattered the rockstar image that no one has been able to put it back together. “November Rain” captures a time when they’d spend seven figures on helicopters and orchestras and multiple church sets for a view, but still drop in a joke about the lead guitar player losing the singer’s ring, complete with cheesy pantomime performances. “November Rain” has it all in a way that rock videos haven’t since. There have been videos as big as “November Rain.” There have been videos that are better. But there hasn’t been a rock video like it. Maybe there never will be. And maybe there doesn’t need to be. 

At the moment, it appears that older music is outpacing new music in streaming listens. And for all the disruption that YouTube brought to the music video industry, it couldn’t stop “November Rain.” The video made the track the oldest song with over a billion views on YouTube in 2018. NPR noted that it was far ahead of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 

The numbers might be coming from old timers rewinding the songs of their youth. It might be young people digging in the archives. It might be links passed around in a joking, get a load of this way. It might be a fluke of algorithms or successful marketing. It might be, too, that Axl and the band reached as far as they could. They put everything into a video that says so much, it speaks for an entire era. It’s a last gasp, and a loud one.