Where the Grass is Green
Travel Stories: Bronwen Dickey sings a personal anthem to an unlikely travel song: "Paradise City" by Guns N' Roses
02.09.09 | 10:20 AM ET
Once you’ve heard “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses, that epic ‘80s rager, played to death on classic-rock radio and looped during frat parties and sporting events here in America, the thought of hearing it while traveling abroad might not be all that appealing. (Manuel Noriega, as we well know, was no fan of GN’R, and I suspect he’s not alone in that.)
For me, though, “Paradise City” still encapsulates the emotional paradoxes and fatigue-induced hyperkinetic energy of long-term travel better than just about any other song I can think of. It’s exuberant and angry and a bit wistful, too. I’ve now heard it played in almost every corner of the world—including on juke boxes in Central America and Southeast Asia, on a bus in Russia and on a car radio in the South Pacific—but no matter where I am, its rock ‘n’ roll thunder does something to me that other songs do not. That’s because it’s not about travel at all. It’s about home.
According to Slash’s 2007 autobiography, the song that would become the band’s biggest finale number was written on the road, in the back of a rental van. What starts as a cascading guitar riff, a kick drum, and a steady 4/4 time signature is a full-out hell-breaking-loose frenzy by the end. (Not a bad metaphor at all, really, for some of the trips I’ve taken.) Its lyrics have been subjected to all manner of poetic exegesis by diehard GN’R fans and rock journos over the years, but the general consensus is that, like many songs off 1987’s “Appetite for Destruction,” “Paradise City” is about Axl Rose’s lovers’ quarrel with Los Angeles. The city is hard and menacing (“Strapped in the chair of the city’s gas chamber/Why I’m here I can’t quite remember”) and a long, long way from Rose’s hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. Once Rose is confronted by the realities of life in L.A., the small-town Midwest that once held him captive starts to look just a little brighter, just a little more welcoming than before (“Take me down to the Paradise City/Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty ... won’t you please take me home?”)
That schizoid back-and-forth about home—the longing to get away from it, the longing to get back to it—is where I have always been able to hook into “Paradise City” with the most traction, and what makes it number one on my list of travel anthems. Who can’t relate to that sentiment, even just a little? I remember, in the clearest of light, all the years I spent desperate to get out of Columbia, South Carolina, only to look back at it from New York a decade later with nothing but nostalgia. It’s all green grass now.
For me one of the most edifying parts of the travel experience is how it exposes my own potential for ambivalence. I can love a place and hate it, be mesmerized by it and repulsed by it, want to flee it and want to stay forever, all in the same day, the same moment, even. This has been true of Paris and St. Petersburg and Phnom Penh and countless other cities where all the guns in my emotional arsenal seemed to fire at once, but it is most true of the place where I grew up.
For the majority of us fortunate enough to wander the world (and let us never forget how fortunate that is), there eventually will be a flight home. That flight is a process of pure alchemy. Upon arrival, you may see the place you started from through a harsher or a softer lens, but you will see all its colors in a different way. If you hate it, you may always find yourself running from it, and if you love it, you may never leave again. Or, most likely, you’ll feel shades of both. The subsequent trips you take will pivot on the places you leave behind, and your feelings about home will, in some way, inform all the travel you ever do. They’ve unquestionably shaped mine.
If you stay on the road long enough, chances are, you’ll come to miss something about your point of departure.
Maybe that something will be the dirty glitter of the Sunset Strip, or the forever-reaching Indiana horizon that calibrates the world like a carpenter’s level. It could be the taste of a convenience-store hot dog or the smell of detergent in your neighborhood Laundromat. Or maybe it will be the tidy lawns and peculiar blandness of the suburban South that don’t feel as oppressive as they once did.
Everyone, I think, has a particular song that brings his or her hometown to the front of the mind like the click of a slide in a carousel. “Paradise City” is that song for me, because I am still, in part, a girl from South Carolina always looking back. And, really, that is the true greatness of it: it’s a song about where you’re from, no matter where that is.