The joy of analysis is that it’s difficult to actually go “too far,” though one can certainly make claims that cannot be supported.
Here’s an example analysis and the attendant meta-analysis (fancy word for my running commentary). We’ll use an old faithful here: visual analysis. You’ll need to view the following if you’ve never seen them before. You’ll need about 30 minutes to get through them; the first two will eat up almost 20 minutes.
- GNR’s “November Rain“
- GNR’s “Estranged“
- Velvet Revolver’s “Fall to Pieces“
- Velvet Revolver’s “She Builds Quick Machines“
- Other support: Lyrics to McKagan’s “Mezz“
My claim: Duff McKagan’s (saw that coming, didn’t you?) video characters show a strong tendency toward the role of savior. As thesis statements go, this one sucks; it’s far too “facty.” But, it’s a start for now.There are of course, scores of other videos by GNR and VR, most of which do NOT feature this trend. One could as (more?) easily argue the videography of Slash as junkie or Duff as drunk (check out “The Garden,” for instance, which features McKagan for all of about 10 seconds, and if he’s sober in that video, I’ll eat my hat.) None of the AFD era videos demonstrate this trend; it only begins once GNR starts the epic videos, and, while remarkably shorter than the GNR counterparts, these two VR videos do the “storytelling” bit as well. Warning: it’s more playful than a formal essay really allows for.
If we accept that musicians affect roles for their music videos, what can we say about the patterns their roles follow? Take Duff McKagan of Guns N Roses and Velvet Revolver, for instance (please). One might be tempted to argue that McKagan tends to play the role of “savior.” The most explicit example occurs in VR’s “Fall to Pieces,” when McKagan’s character picks Scott Wieland’s character (who is apparently ODing or, at any rate, shooting up) from a nightclub bathroom floor. The video, like many of Wieland’s lyrics, appears to be largely autobiographical: his wife (along with McKagan’s) appears in the video and each band member appears to more or less be playing himself. Weiland is variously seen in scenes with his real-life wife, Mary (those scenes are visually interesting because they are made to look like home videos of a “happier time”) outside the nightclub and within it as well. In the course of the video, McKagan carries Wieland out of the bathroom and upstairs, where the heretofore oblivious Wieland begins to fight McKagan. They struggle briefly then slide to the floor, holding each other in a loose, stylized embrace, with McKagan’s head and hair hanging over the prone Wieland*. It’s a powerful tableau, made all the more interesting by the scenes of a clearly dead young woman (junkie?) which are crosscut with the scenes of Wieland and McKagan. The implication appears to be that Wieland survives because McKagan takes the time to notice that he is missing, find him, and rescue him, whereas the nameless girl is left to die. It’s autobiographically correct; both McKagan and Wieland have discussed the sober McKagan’s role in trying to help the still-strung out Wieland get clean. Whatever the relationship to reality, the roles in the video are unmistakable. This would be mildly interesting even if it were the only example, but it is not.
In VR’s “She Builds Quick Machines,” we see the VR gang dressed up for battle in the old west. Wieland bears a striking resemblance to Eastwood’s Man with No Name; McKagan (bless him) looks for all the world like David Bowie**. This is a much more typical rescue sequence; McKagan gets to help rescue the lovely fallen angel. In a classic Western riff, he walks into a saloon and fist fights the bad guy over the bar, after which he rather inexplicably tries to drown the other guy with Tequila (I know it’s another riff on old Westerns, but it’s nevertheless odd). He also gets to throw a Molotov Cocktail at an apparently empty car. All five VR members participate in the rescue, but Kushner’s role is my favorite—he sneaks up behind a guy and syringes him to death. That beats McKagan’s tequila drowning bit hands down.
One might be tempted to suggest that this is merely a matter of his VR days, but traces of the same can be seen in two parts of the GNR epic trilogy as well (“Don’t Cry,” “November Rain,” and “Estranged”). During “November Rain,” McKagan’s very happy (very drunk?) character gets to “save the wedding” when he provides the wedding band that Best Man Slash apparently misplaced (or forgot—clearly McKagan’s character ended up with it on his finger somehow). In “Estranged,” McKagan rows out on the choppy seas to rescue an apparently drowning Axl, but fails to reach him. Riffing on classic sea rescues, the scene shows McKagan trying to hold onto the oars while reaching out for Axl, who fails to grab McKagan’s awaiting hand. That video is so rich with symbolic detail that it’s difficult not to geek out right here. Slash walks on water in the same video. Have a blast with that analysis, all.
Time and again McKagan’s characters attempt to rescue someone or something. I’ve never seen him comment on this pattern, which could be the result of how he imagines himself or how he is imagined by others (or some combination there of); nevertheless, the pattern in intriguing. In his early, less sober days, his rescues were failures or limited; in the later, more confident era, he’s successful. If we move outside the video world, one can see a similar imaginative pattern in his solo song “Mezz,” wherein the speaker imagines all the possible (often heroic roles) he would like to play in life (Frank Serpico, Mexican freedom fighter (ah-ha—the role in “She Builds”!), Black man in the 50’s South, or someone who cures destructive habits, homelessness, and disease, etc.), while balancing against the apparently comfortable reality that “But I’m me, and that’s all I’ll ever be.”
What I cannot claim: Duff McKagan has a savior complex. I have made that joke before (especially after seeing the video for “Fall to Pieces”), but it’s dicey for me to claim anything about the guy based on what characters he portrays (even if he is, ostensibly, “playing himself”). Typecasting of this kind should be avoided as strongly as, say, assuming that the poet and the speaker are one in the same. Now, as I mentioned, the historical record does provide a bit of support to this end if one wants to play armchair psychologist, but I’ll refrain. At least for now.
*I tried to refrain from pointing this out but I can’t: Possibly the most hysterical thing about this video is that McKagan and Mary Wieland have approximately the same haircut and color. Which leads one to realize that barring the fact that McKagan is significantly taller than either Wieland (and far more tattooed than Mary Wieland), one can confuse the two roles (McKagan and Ms. Wieland). Make of that what you will.
**Not that this is a first, mind you. He did the androgynous Bowie bit in early GNR. Look for the pic of him on the leather couch wearing purple eyeliner. Really, if you’ve never seen it—find it.