Song Hall of Fame: Guns n’ Roses’ "Paradise City"

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wrapped up each year by channeling my inner Ryan Seacrest and coming up with an annual list of the best songs of the year. I’ve put 2004 and 2005 online, and 2006 will show up in a month or so. I’ve also begun my own personal Hall of Fame; the initial class of nominees includes Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” and Van Halen’s “5150.” Here’s the next one.

Guns n’ Roses was the last great larger-than-life rock band. Not saying there hasn’t been any good rock made since G n’ R; far from it. But Axl, Slash, et. al. were the last band in the long line of epic groups that began with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and “Paradise City” was the last great epic rock song. From its strum-and-arpeggio opening major chords designed to call a crowd to worship to its naïve-yet-desperate lyrics to its tsunami of a close, “Paradise City” encompasses everything rock n’ roll should be, could have been, and never will be again.

There are a few songs that completely changed my perceptions of music the moment I heard them. Styx’s “Renegade,” with its “hangman’s comin’ down from the gallows” refrain, scared the unholy shit out of me when I first heard it in second grade (and chills me for entirely different reasons today). Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” somehow managed to fill a suburban Atlanta elementary schooler with existential angst. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” touched the same societally-repressed chord in me that it did in millions of other white boys. And Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sliced through the early-‘90s glop of Hammer, Vanilla Ice and, yes, the by-then-bloated Guns n’ Roses like a machete.

G n’ R’s “Welcome to the Jungle” was the same way for me. The first time I heard of Guns n’ Roses, it was from my little brother, who’d seen them opening for Motley Crue back in the ‘80s. Back then, my brother laughed at the fact the lead singer of this wack-ass new band leaped into the crowd to fight a security guard, then got decked and thrown out of the arena—two songs into their set. Who’d have known that in a couple years, this skinny idiot would be the most famous rock star in the world?

Anyway, my brother had a cassette tape of “Appetite for Destruction,” and my buddy Tom and I decided to play it one afternoon. We never got further than the first song, “Welcome to the Jungle.” That opening riff, the scream, the menace, the power—holy shit, this was like getting hooked up to a car battery. We must’ve played that same song six or seven times in a row, PLAY and REWIND, PLAY and REWIND.

“Paradise City” was the sixth song on the album and the closer of Side 1 (back when albums had sides, ya whippersnappers). That was the “Stairway to Heaven”/ “Sympathy for the Devil” position, where true rock artistes placed their most devastating tracks. In seven minutes, it embodied rock music in general and Guns n’ Roses in particular—both devastating and overlong, both simplistic and world-weary. It was the kind of song that could bring a hundred thousand people to frenzy—I remember being on the field at RFK Stadium in D.C. when Guns n’ Roses closed their set with it, and the energy running through the crowd was flat-out primal. And, ten years later, it was the song that Axl wheezed through during one of his fitful “comebacks” with his journeyman band. He couldn’t have tattooed the words “GnR 1988-1992” on his forehead and been any clearer that the band’s best days were long past.

There’s a rumor that “Chinese Democracy,” which would only be G n’ R’s third full-length album of new material, believe it or not, is going to hit stores in the next few weeks. I’ve written about this before; I’ve heard half a dozen of the new tracks, and there’s only one twenty-second break in “Better” that even comes close to approaching the power and edge of “Appetite.” In the end, though, it doesn’t matter—as long as there are guitars and vaguely discontented kids, “Paradise City” will be waiting for them.

Jay

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