I was working at The Wiz in Georgetown (in Washington D.C.), an east coast based chain of CD/Cassette Tape stores when I was a junior in college, back when there were record stores in every shopping mall and on almost every commercial street corner. Being a lifelong music fan, I was thrilled to finally get paid to be surrounded all day by music. Music I knew, music I was discovering, music I could recommend, music I could dismiss with a now qualified upturn of my nose.
My responsibilities took me from the stock room, to the sales floor, to the cash register. Music was loudly played over the store sound system all day. Depending who was working, what time of day it was, it could have been anything from Jazz to Neo-Soul to Country Western to face melting Heavy Metal. It was a blast.
Located in an old brownstone storefront on Wisconsin Avenue, our store had three floors. The basement was dedicated to classical music, the main floor to popular music, and the top floor was for everything else. It was a bright sunny spring day, and I was running up the stairs to help a customer. I am not a big heavy metal, so I had not been paying very close attention to the new album that was playing that day. Loud guitars and screaming vocals are fine, I suppose…just not my cup o’ Joe.
Then, all of a sudden I heard the bright, clear clarion call of an anthemic guitar solo intro blasting throughout the store. It was as simple as a musical scale, but more complex. It grabbed my attention immediately, and I could not help but to think to myself at hearing the first few notes “this song is going to be a huge hit.”* I did not know the name of the song, I did not know the name of the band.
Escalating in harmonics and intensity, the crystal clear arpeggio continued. A bass guitar comes in to lead the melody along with a rhythm guitar followed by the drums. We are now into the song.
I’ve never thought of heavy metal music as a platform for evoking romantic sweetness, tender childhood memories or a longing for things we once had and will never have again, but this song was different.
“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.”
Frank Sinatra could never be this vulnerable. Marvin Gaye could never be this nostalgic. Who of us can’t think back to a memory from our childhood that makes us feel good and safe as soon as that memory washes over us? Who of us can even come close to describing that feeling?
“Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place
Where as a child I’d hide
And pray for the thunder
And the rain
To quietly pass me by”
The guitar arpeggio continues in different forms throughout the song, but when the original melody returns, it serves as a sweet reminder of where the song came from, just like we remember our own sweet childhood memories.
There are so many things that can make a song great. The sincerity of the lyrics, the skill of the musicians, the honesty and commitment of the singer. But music can also be satisfying in the way it surprises us. The unexpected turn of a phrase, or the guitar solo that takes twists and turns we never expected. A smart ass lyric that makes us smile. The smash of a cymbal out of nowhere.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” breaks down at the end with a completely different melody and new direction. A dissonant coda tagged on to a perfectly melodic song. Repeating the lyric “Where do we go, where do we go now, where do we go?” The rhythm guitar scrapes along, like knuckles on a concrete sidewalk. Singer Axl Rose screams in perfect control, wondering where to go next. Guitarist Slash brings everything back by repeating the clarion melody, a guitar riff for the ages. Extending the dark, dissonance a bit further, the video for “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is a grainy black and white rehearsal film, which serves as a perfect anti-narrative to sweet, wistfulness of the song.
Whenever I hear Slash’s opening salvo on “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I see myself on the staircase at The Wiz. The bright sun is shining on me, I am at a job that I love, and I am hearing one perfect song for the very first time.
*I’m glad to say I was right. When I first heard the guitar intro to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I thought to myself the song would be a huge hit. The song peaked at #1 in the United States, and it is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as #198 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine”
Written by Guns N’ Roses
Recorded by Guns N’ Roses
Released April 17, 1988