Death by Power Ballad: Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”

As we gather once more at the Popdose dinner table to crack open some beer, bubbly, and/or bourbon (or, in Jason’s case, an orange Nehi) and chow down on the delicacies that have been emerging from the kitchen for the last ten minutes, I must admit to a moment of misty humility. I consider myself fortunate to know and work with my ‘Dose friends, to write for and correspond with our readership, and to bask in the sickly glow of my computer monitor for hours upon hours every week in order to partake of their virtual presence.

It hasn’t been easy, particularly lately. Time, time, time has not been on my side (no, it hasn’t)—job and family responsibilities, as well as a frustrating and ill-timed relapse or two into procrastination (not to mention an honest-to-God flood this fall), have conspired against me, rendering my schedule a miserable mess, and my ‘Dose output has suffered in frequency, if not quality. An unpredictable and unfocused malaise has also settled upon me at various times this fall, rendering me not merely unable to devote the time to write, but also bereft of both inspiration and of words to describe my lack.

When this happens, I go deep into music. Music is what has sustained me through so many such times in my life, from a childhood of long-distance moves up and down the east coast, through miserable stretches of adolescent incarceration in parochial school, through periods of This American Adulthood, when I find my little dinghy of contentment capsized in a big, bad ocean of disappointment. I hate that ocean. The currents are nasty buggers, and I’m not a strong swimmer.

If I had a deity of choice, I’d thank him/her/it for music, all music—with the exception of Coldplay, Creed and Nickelback. To think what the last few months might have been like without it—I can’t imagine. That week I spent listening to Grateful Dead shows was crucial to getting me out of my funk; that Spotify playlist of bebop and post-bop classics helped focus me when I’d lost any kind of desire to perform various tasks at the desk; that Dream Theater song was a cathartic comfort after my friend died; that Renee & Jeremy track put a smile on my face when I’d all but forgotten how to do it myself; that new Mastodon record served as a sword and shield when I had to psyche myself up to plunge into another day. I cannot tell you how thankful I am for music, on this day and all others.

As I was pondering these things in anticipation of writing this column, I flashed back to a sweet memory I hadn’t thought of in years—a moment, really, that I’d long forgotten, but which hit me and surprised me and made me aware, once again, of the power of music to snap one out of a foul headspace.

It was late summer, 1988; I was a freshman in college, a dorm rat fresh outta Mom and Dad’s place, and a little overwhelmed with the freedom I had, and also the responsibilities (I laugh now, but getting up on time and maintaining something resembling a work ethic and not staying up all night counted as responsibilities back then). I remember walking back toward my dorm, my mood dark, my mind twisted around with some problem or another—a class that wasn’t going well, or an exam I’d bombed, or an ongoing argument I was having with someone. I was a little homesick, too, probably (though I’d never have admitted it), and had likely just eaten a meal at the cafeteria that was on its way to “exiting through the back door” in short order. I was in a bad place at that moment, in no condition or mood to be around other humans.

Then, as I rounded the corner between two other dorm buildings, heading toward my own place, I heard it—The Almighty Riff. Boomba-deedle-bom-bom, boomba-deedle-bom-bom, boomba-deedle-bom-bom … Slash, coaxing his Les Paul to speak, soon to be joined by Izzy’s chords, Duff’s bass, Adler’s beat, and, finally, Axl’s elegiac paean to Erin Everly or a groupie, or whoever. I looked up; some dude on the third floor had his stereo speakers sitting in his window, pointed outward toward the walkway, and the song was emanating from them, at an impressive volume. As this fact made its way through the burbling stew of my brain chemistry, I began to notice other things—the sun was still out; the heat of the day was beginning to break a little; there were people milling about—guys playing Frisbee over there, some Hacky Sackers practicing their Jester stalls over here, some attractive lasses in their summer finest entering the walkway, some exiting. There was life and youth and probably some sex going on in near proximity to me, and I was noticing it just then because a song, that song—”Sweet Child O’ Mine”—had snapped me out of my doomy little head trip. I was smack in the middle of a gorgeous day, my ill mood lifting, and unlimited possibilities arrayed before me.

I celebrate that moment and song—and express my thanks for my family, my friends, our readers, and the mighty force of music—by presenting a collection of “sweet children.” My dwarf valet, Passepartout, is handing out CDs around the table. This mix collects a baker’s dozen of versions of “Sweet Child”:

  • The original. The one that saved me— six amazing minutes from Appetite.
  • The classic lineup, live. From the Live Era – ’87-’93 album.
  • The current lineup, live. A bootleg of pudgy Axl and his current merry band of sidemen, playing Rock in Rio this past October. The band is note-for-note perfect; Axl is not. It’s not good enough to rave about, but not bad enough to poo-poo too hard. Many thanks to Big O for uploading the show.
  • Slash, acoustic. From the bonus disc that accompanied the deluxe edition of the top-hatted one’s last solo record. Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge takes the mic, and does well (funny, I hate Creed, but I like Alter Bridge, in large part because of Kennedy).
  • Slash, live in Manchester. From the first of two live records that Slash has used to document his solo tour. Kennedy once again takes the mic.
  • Slash, live in Stoke-on-Trent. From the second live record that Slash has used to document his solo tour, again with Kennedy. The performance is cool, but virtually indistinguishable from the Manchester version.
  • Gilby Clarke’s take. From one of those cheesy compilations of re-recorded versions of hit songs. I think we have the unfortunately monikered Jizzy Pearl (Ratt, Love/Hate) on vocals here. Don’t hold me to that, though.
  • Sheryl Crow’s version. She doesn’t even attempt the riff. How can you do this song and not attempt the riff? Whatever …
  • Luna’s version. Fucking Luna attempts the riff, Sheryl! Jesus. I like this take, cuz I like Luna, though I imagine it’s heresy to G N’ R fans. Just wait, though.
  • Eliza Lumley’s version. My favorite of the “alternative” covers of the songs. I know nothing about Lumley, but her voice is lovely, and the acoustic instrumentation is really nice (the riff is played on the piano—the piano, Sheryl!).
  • The bossa nova version. Something called Banda Do Sul perform an airy, synthy version. Featured vocalist Natascha sings the song like she’s whispering it to someone in the back corner of a bar.
  • Taken by Trees’ version. I think this is really cool. The singer is Victoria Bergsman, who used to be in the Concretes, and she sounds weary and damaged here. She flubs the lyrics in the second verse, but it somehow sounds right.
  • The instrumental version. Trace Bundy layers on the guitar goodness. Probably a little new-agey for most folks’ taste, but I dig it.

I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving. Be thankful for music and one another. Peace.

  • David_E

    I think, on the note-perfect current line-up live version? One of the strings on the lead guitar is flat. That opening riff … one repeating note does not sound perfect. I think. (That, or the audio wave rippling through the additional 40% of Axl is causing some weird sort of dissonance.)

  • http://twitter.com/joey_nz Jos B

    Good post, but I don’t think of ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’ as a “power ballad”. November Rain is a power ballad. Don’t Cry is a power ballad. I’m just nit picking probably, but I think a power ballad must be slower – must meet certain criteria…

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    This commercial is still my favorite version.

  • EightE1

    Yes, you are just nit picking.  But thanks for commenting anyway. :^) 

    Don’t think I could find 13 versions of “November Rain” (which I love and will write about eventually) and I’ve never liked “Don’t Cry.” Really, I was just surprised at how many versions of “Sweet Child” I found; plus it was the song playing in that memory I discuss.  And it’s my column, ferGawdsake; if I wanna write about Barry Manilow singing Jim Steinman songs, I’m gonna … probably not do that, but you get the point.

    We have the PB criteria discussion around here from time to time. It’s all good.  Hey, if you have Spotify, check out my DbPB Playlist. Lotsa good stuff there: http://open.spotify.com/user/eighte1/playlist/0e6BdBRbufDHXG9S2zHzP6 .

  • Miketandini33

    Nice post Mr. Smith. Very well written as usual.Many years ago I heard a preliminary version of Sheryl Crow’s Sweet Child O’Mine with the aforementioned riff, but frankly it was out of place. The riff was good for the G’n’R version, not for this cover. FYI the final mix was made by Rick Rubin specifically for the soundtrack of “Big Daddy”, a movie for kids and families. Movie producers asked for a different sound. And no riff. So attempting what? It was a commission work for Columbia: singing, strumming the acoustic gibson and go.


  • EightE1

    All due respect to Ms. Crow and her commissioned work, the song needs the riff — it’s integral, necessary, crucial, vital, essential, indispensible, etc. etc. I liken it to Clapton’s snoozy unplugged version of “Layla.” I know lots of people liked it, but without that riff, acoustic “Layla” puts me to sleep.  To each his own, I suppose, but I wonder whether the movie producers thought the riff would scare the kiddies or what.  Crow can throw down when she feels so moved; she coulda pulled that off.

    Thanks for the comment, though, Mike.  Appreciate the insight.

  • Dk

    Listen to Sheryl Crow’s version long enough and you’ll hear the strings picking up the riff not long before the bridge.  I kind of admire the restraint shown by trying to perform the song with the riff left buried, as if for the unconscious.  Overall, however, this version does little for me.

    Also, regarding “the riff”: one of my favorite ways to enjoy “the riff” is in some of the mash-ups that were littering the net a few years ago.  “Lenlow” at luke.enlow.net/music.html, “Faultside” at faultside.com, Alex H at http://www.alexh.org/, and a few others I think.  Some would make it the center of their mash, while others would use it as a late additional spice in the potpourri.  The riff’s prolific movement (overused in segues, etc) into other sound environments speaks to just how good it is.

  • EightE1

    I’m gonna check those out.  Thanks, Dk!

  • http://twitter.com/joey_nz Jos B

    Thanks. Unfortunately for me, I am not in the US and Spotify does not work for me :(
    I like Steinman also, and I think I know the song you’re referring to. I’m not so sure about Steinman’s German vampire musical thing tho…