Guns and Roses song “Estranged” is one of the most sublime rock songs ever written.
Slash’s amazing guitar parts. The piano interlude. Its length and structure.
And most importantly, the subject.
As the song title indicates, the song is about separation in the form of unrequited love, which is a love that isn’t being returned by the other person for one reason or another.
(note: if you don’t care about Guns and Roses, music, and emotion, you can skip down to the section titled “Stability is an Illusion” and start from there)
Emotions and Music
Music is so fundamental to the human experience that some scientists believe that music came before spoken language.
While it’s likely impossible to prove, it could explain why music and chanting are found in all human societies, from secular and religious ceremonies to halftime Superbowl shows.
It could also explain why music is processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, the same hemisphere that predominates in emotional processing.
As any good communicator knows, you must appeal to someones emotions to connect with them. Yet music is so ingrained in our humanness that music doesn’t need words to emotionally move you.
Great music with lyrics containing a relatable theme, that is a winner.
Thus my obsession with Guns and Roses “Estranged”, which I was reintroduced to in July when I saw GNR at Met Life Stadium.
The Genius of Axl Rose
Axl wrote “Estranged” in response to the breakup of his first marriage. Considering what Axl was like back in the late 80s and early 90s, I’m sure he wasn’t some innocent bystander who was unfairly treated.
But regardless, what he sings about, for me at least, is just about the worst feeling in the world besides the death of a loved one.
In the opening verse, Axl sets the scene. It’s dark.
(note: reading lyrics outside the context that the music creates changes how you experience the lyrics. To get a full sense of the lyrics, you have to listen to the song. Video is at the bottom of the page).
When you’re talkin’ to yourself
And nobody’s home
You can fool yourself
You came in this world alone
The breakup has already happened. He finds himself alone. He’s replaying events in his head over and over. Searching for what went wrong.
Old at heart but I’m only 28
And I’m much too young
To let love break my heart
Young at heart but it’s getting much too late
To find ourselves so far apart
Now the rhythm section kicks in:
I don’t know how you’re s’posed
To find me lately
And what more could you ask from me
How could you say that I never needed you
When you took everything
Said you took everything from me
Young at heart and it gets so hard to wait
When no one I know can seem to help me now
Old at heart but I mustn’t hesitate
If I’m to find my own way out
After the piano interlude, at 5:02, the second part of the song begins. The more upbeat music hints at the possibility of redemption and a happy ending. But when you examine the lyrics, it’s clear that reconciliation isn’t going to happen.
In fact, it reflects real life, rather than some Hollywood fantasy model of life that people waste so much time hoping for.
And now comes my favorite verse (the music plays a big role)
When I find out all the reasons
Maybe I’ll find another way
Find another day
With all the changing seasons of my life
Maybe I’ll get it right next time
And now that you’ve been broken down
Got your head out of the clouds
You’re back down on the ground
And you don’t talk so loud
And you don’t walk so proud
Any more, and what for
This is the verse that resonates with me the most. One moment you feel on top of the world, the next moment you have crashed back to earth.
You question the whole experience.
Was it all a lie? What was reality? Was I played for a fool?
So many questions.
All your supposed security has been ripped from its mooring, and you are set adrift with no clue how to respond or where to go. That person who said they loved you and would be there for you, they left.
You realize there was nothing as solid as you believed.
The next question becomes “now what?”
Well I jumped into the river
Too many times to make it home
I’m out here on my own, and drifting all alone
If it doesn’t show give it time
To read between the lines
‘Cause I see the storm is getting closer
And the waves they get so high
Seems everything we’ve ever known’s here
Why must it drift away and die
I’ll never find anyone to replace you
Guess I’ll have to make it through, this time, oh this time
I knew the storm was getting closer
And all my friends said I was high
But everything we’ve ever known’s here
I never wanted it to die
Stability is an Illusion
A big difference between people who are generally happy, and those who aren’t, is in how they react to adversity and pain.
Discounting truly horrible situations, happy people have the same amount of adversity as unhappy people, they just respond to it differently because they think about setbacks differently.
Left unseen is that all of life is based on conditions. While we aware that conditions change, and we can often identify how changing conditions affect other people’s relationships, we don’t always acknowledge them when it pertains to our hurt.
Our hurt is real, damn it! It demands explanation, apologies, and recognition of the harm that someone did you.
The fact that conditions changed is not sufficient.
Yet the conditions that brought you and someone else together will inevitably change. When the conditions do change, the relationship ends, or you and your partner elect to stay together.
But you have no control over what your partner decides.
If their decision is at odds with your decision, there will be pain.
Happy people deal with this change, and the potential pain it creates, more easily than unhappy people.
They aren’t rigid in their beliefs and opinions. They go where life takes them. They don’t fight to hold on to things that can’t be held on to.
People who resist this reality, and fight to control things they can’t control, tend to suffer.
There is Pain in Separation
This is what my experiences have lead me to believe: when things fall apart and you are staring into an unknown and uncertain future, although your first impulse will be to try and put things back together, resist.
Consider whether your desire to put things back together is done out of fear.
– fear of being alone
– fear of not being able to do better
– fear of getting older and “who will want me?”
All the accumulated wisdom of the world teaches that acting out of fear sows the seeds of your own spiritual self-destruction.
If you can resist your impulse, you’ll probably make a better decision (regardless of whatever choice you end up making)
At the same time you will probably harbor doubts about yourself; maybe think that there is something wrong with you because, this thing supposedly called love– you just can’t get it right.
That’s a lie.
It’s another illusion.
Most romantic relationships don’t work out as originally planned, even if they do end up in marriage.
Don’t for a moment think your broken heart is some sort of punishment for your inability to get things right.
As Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago, life involves pain and there is pain in any type of separation, whether it’s death or a breakup.
No one is immune from a broken heart.
It’s a pain that everyone will experience.
And thank goodness we do!
The experience of a broken heart has produced more memorable works of art, music, and literature than anything other theme in human history.
Plus it creates the ability to empathize with other people’s suffering, which brings us closer together as humans.
The Inconvenience of Feelings
Inconveniently for many people who prefer to avoid them, the fact is that humans have feelings.
If you have feelings, which indeed you must, it’s inevitable that you’ll face pain no matter how much you think you can avoid it.
Think about it: the act of trying to consciously avoid having feelings for another person results in pain and discomfort!
So while the pain is unavoidable, suffering is your choice. If you run from pain, or try to put things back together, you will probably suffer. If you change your relationship with pain, you will heal soon enough.
“Plus Ultra” is Latin for “further, beyond” or “always further”, and was the personal motto for King Charles I of Spain, who served double duty as Holy Roman Emperor.
I gazed upon these wonderful words at a museum in London, magnificently etched into a piece of furniture on display.
The phrase assumes a commanding presence in my mind. As a medieval history buff, it’s origin makes it even more appealing to me.
But beyond its royal origin, I adopted “Plus Ultra” as my personal motto because I believe it reveals a truth about the human existence.
We are happier when we are moving forward, or towards something, towards a goal of some type.
Not doing so leads to apathy, boredom, and reliance on external sources for happiness, which, ultimately, leads to unhappiness.
You must engage your mind in productive activities!
If you don’t, your mind will replay scenes of your “failed” social life over and over again, creating a negative mental state that becomes difficult to escape.
While pain from the end of romantic relationships can seem unbearable at times, you actually can bear it if you train your mind correctly.
Once you realize you can bear it, there is no other option than to keep moving forward.
That’s what I think Axl is saying in “Estranged”, and from my own experiences of staring at the abyss with lots of questions but no answers, and no soft landing in sight, that is what I believe to be true.
It’s what I’ve been doing for the past four years.
When doubts arise, I move forward.
When things don’t work out like I’d wish, I move forward.
If my affection for a woman is unrequited, I move forward.
When I feel pain, I acknowledge it and move forward.
It is such an integral part of my life that it is #4 on my five slogan daily meditation:
“May I always move forward”.
P.S. If you found this post interesting or helpful, please “like”, “share”, or send to someone who needs another perspective on life. You never know what can change someone’s life for the better.