Saturday, May 5, 2012

Appetite for Destruction: "Nightrain"

"A lot of these singers, they've got to have a song that tells you that they can make it, and I don't know about that, I think that's a big turn-off. You go up there, and you're saying all this stuff, and I don't think it turns girls on...anyway, I did one of these songs, just in case it works."
--Shel Silverstein, "I'm So Good that I Don't Have to Brag"

Normally I can't stand any one of thousands of "I'm so bad" songs. Watching Michael Jackson feign street smarts in the "Bad" video is almost as embarrassing at the generation of hip-hop anthems that followed suit. But if you can back up your talk in the music, you join one of the one of the most exclusive clubs in lyricist history. I believe James Brown when he's Super Bad, and I believe GNR when they're on the Nightrain.

"Nightrain" is my favorite song on Appetite for Destruction. There's something intangible about the rhythm in the verses that brings the narrator to life, even before Axl introduces him. The chorus is learnable within seconds. The breakdown duel between Slash and Izzy Stradlin' is as exciting as any rock music I've ever heard. If Slash had died in 1987, and reportedly he almost did, the outro solo in "Nightrain" already would have cemented his Guitar God status.

In Slash's autobiography, he names "Nightrain" as his favorite GNR song to play live, but you can tell just from watching him perform. Onstage, he's Axl's foil, the cool, laconic complement to the mad frontman--Keith to Axl's Mick, if you will. Here in Tokyo, Slash almost breaks character, unable to contain the excitement.

Axl, on the other hand, plays a gasoline-chugging manimal with one chance left in a nine-life cat, ready to wake up his honey so she can take her credit card to the liquor store. On record, he's one of rock music's most engaging storytellers, aligned with Jerry Lee Lewis in his ability to enthrall an audience with his character until his actual behavior gets in the way. But none of GNR's infamy will ever overshadow the perfect rock song that they created with "Nightrain."

I love this show-opening version, from Live Era '87-'93. Listen for the play on KISS' "You wanted the best, you got the best" slogan, and for a performance that catches GNR on top of the world.

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