Death by Power Ballad: Whitesnake, “Now You’re Gone”
As I understand it, when a hunter mortally wounds a deer, the deer very rarely goes down and stays down. Most times, the best kill shot is from behind, aimed for the area behind the left shoulder. It’s a shot to the heart—literally, not poetically. The stricken animal will actually live on for a bit, wandering off, gradually losing blood, sometimes for hundreds of yards, before expiring in a heap. The end result? A winter’s supply of venison steaks and bologna. I believe Ted Nugent also gets a royalty, particularly if it’s doe season.
Likewise, when high-haired, big-willied rockers lose their women, it’s like a shot to the heart—poetically, not literally. How many mah-wuhmoan-done-gone songs have we heard in our lives? Hundreds, if not thousands. Those monuments to broken men are a blues staple, and blues was the music most hair bands wanted to ape and amplify, even as they teased their hair and squeezed into nut-numbing pants.
Which brings us to David Coverdale.
For the bulk of his career, Coverdale has dutifully coiffed his flowing mane, numbed his British balls, and broadcast his high, manly caterwaul to largely loving audiences. He has often, however, been accused of having an identity problem. He joined Deep Purple in 1973, filling (with bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes) the considerable platform footwear of Ian Gillan, forced by virtue of the position to scream “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star” every night.
When Purple folded (or, more accurately, caved in), he formed Whitesnake, which for years got him tagged as a purveyor of Paul Rodgers-style bluesy cock rock, culminating in the wicked cool Slide It In (1984). By 1987, though, his focus had shifted toward howling Robert Plantisms, in keeping with the tenor of the times (a little Kingdom Come, anyone?). Whitesnake’s self-titled record of that year had one of the best faux-Zeppelin thrusters in “In the Still of the Night,” and Coverdale got to take his Plantian scream out in front of stadium crowds the world over.
The follow-up—1990′s Slip of the Tongue—was a different animal. Though the Zep thing was never quite pushed to the side (see “Judgment Day”), Coverdale found a howl all his own on the record. Granted, the extensive use of synths and the wild-ass wee-diddle-diddle gee-tar of Steve Vai gave Slip a very un-’Snake-like lite-metal sound, but much of the record still holds up, from the breathless blast of the title track through the re-recording of the classic “Fool for Your Loving.” To these ears, it’s one of Coverdale’s best vocal performances; it’s almost as if the ascendance of the band to a stadium-headlining juggernaut had loosened something within him, enabling him to become the bestest Coverdale he could be.
It also featured one of the great behind-the-shoulder kill shots in all the power ballad arts, a little thing called “Now You’re Gone.”
Now you’re gone
I can feel my heart is breaking,
And I can’t go on
When I think of the love that you’ve taken
It’s a deliberately paced proclamation, a slow-burning sentiment that leaves the first-time listener unprepared for what is to follow. The song bursts wide open, as drummer Tommy Aldridge and the bass-lickin’ Cuban thumper Rudy Sarzo kick down the synths and kick up the tempo into serious rockin’ mode. Coverdale, too, is more animated, lifted into his upper register by the sudden noise, and also because he hasn’t had much lovin’ since she left:
In the night I pray for your embrace
Every time I close my eyes
I can’t escape your face
Doesn’t that suck? You’re tossing and turning in a bed you used to share, praying to be held, and you can’t get the chick’s face out of your mind? It’s enough to make a man proclaim his love and beg for redemption. And that’s exactly what Coverdale does in the chorus:
You’re all I want
Can’t you feel the love in this heart of mine?
You’re all I need
So maybe we could turn back the hands of time
Maybe we could give it another try
One more time
The song proceeds at a solid pace, through another verse and chorus before something extraordinary happens: namely, the guitar solo. Now, Coverdale and hard-core ‘Snake fans might portray the band as a blues-based hard rock act, and that’s fine, but it makes you wonder what the hell Steve Vai was doing in the band, since there were few popular guitarists at the time less steeped in the blues than Steve Vai. Vai’s stock in trade was speed, melody, and more speed, a nod toward his days as Frank Zappa’s chief transcriber and stunt guitarist. And while his work on Slip of the Tongue is fabulous, it ain’t the blues. So why have him there in the first place?
You have him there to rip off the coolest solo evuh, that’s why. In this little 35-second blurt, he makes an ultra-fast run, does some two-handed tapping, and throws in a little harmony finger-slide thing. He even takes the song into another key, fercryinoutloud. It’s a marvelous expression of six- (or, in Vai’s case, seven-) string prowess, all in the service of the song.
And what a song. “Now You’re Gone” might not get the airplay or mad power ballad props that something like “Here I Go Again” gets, but it is one of the great moments of Coverdale’s long career, a kill shot to the heart like few others in the genre.