“If you follow every dream, you might get lost.”
So, don’t follow every dream, then? Tell us your wisdom, Neil Young. This is Young in campfire mode, so he’d probably advise you to follow every winding road and get as lost as you need to before you find your calling, or something along those lines. Don’t mistake this mellow, corny troubadour for the only side of Neil Young, though. Catch him in eco warrior mode and he’ll tell you that your dreams’ days are numbered because the planet is dying and we’re all doomed. Young has toggled between those two extremes throughout his career, and though he’s been as dedicated an activist as any star, it’s still mellow campfire Neil that sells the records. It’s no wonder though; he still easily recaptures that sweet laid back intimacy of his early classics. Songs about love and loneliness never lose their appeal, no matter where the artist or his audience are in life, and as the artist gets older, thoughts about mortality and the passage of life increasingly become the subject. Death and aging are topics Neil Young can handle with grace, having long faced his own human fragility from childhood polio, to living with epilepsy, to raising his own disabled children, to dealing with the death of his father. On the other hand, politically strident anthems – such as those from Young’s recent eco-themed The Monsanto Years – are more likely to be unintentionally hilarious than enlightening. But if sometimes Young’s music sinks under the weight of his convictions, we forgive him, because he always rebuts himself with something personal and beautiful.
You can go out on the weekend, but Neil Young just wants to go home to his ranch. Being lonely out in the world is a recurring theme for him. Being a star is mostly just torture, though he does appreciate having a platform to do good. Yeah, Neil Young is just about as decent and normal of a guy as ever became a rock legend. The fact that he’s a cantankerous old grinch sometimes just makes him look even more decent and normal. And the things he writes about are pretty basic truths; hustling for money, fame, groupies and drugs can kill you; the world is scary and full of injustice; we have to protect what’s precious in the world; in the end, everybody just wants to go home and be with their family, and it’s terribly, terribly lonely when you don’t have that. Also, epilepsy is fucking terrifying, the Monsanto corporation is evil, and old cars are cool.
Oh, Neil! So young and already lamenting your celebrity fate. Because if there’s one thing celebrities love to do, it’s lamenting the hardship of their lives. We get it, rock star life is pretty surreal. Typical song matter. What I actually find interesting about this song is, as someone recently pointed out, it’s an example of the insecure young Young attempting to sing ‘better’. Young has one of the most recognizable voices in the pantheon; it’s hard to imagine that he was once considered a lousy singer. But as he recounts in his autobiography, what was meant to be the debut single of one of his early bands (The Squires? The Mynah Birds? I forget) was released as an instrumental because management deemed his singing subpar. Young was understandably a little traumatized, and spent the next few years trying to sing deeper, or allowing his bandmates to sing over him, or even going so far as to have his vocals mixed down on his own solo album. Here, he seems to be trying to stay in a lower register, and the backup vocals are a little too forefront. Of course, today Neil Young is notorious for giving no fucks and doing just what he wants with no regard for expectations, so it’s really kind of endearing to remember that he used to be too shy to shine on his own songs.
It’s a very tough field, but it’s decided; this is my favorite Neil Young song. It is, I think, a very profound message, delivered in the structure of a nursery rhyme. I’ve always understood it as a simpler statement of the famous bit in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. (‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.) Tennyson’s poem, obviously, is the more refined iteration of the sentiment, but one can’t go around quoting Tennyson, not least because one has never read Tennyson and thus doesn’t understand the context of the lines. You can quote Neil Young, though, because Neil Young doesn’t offer more than you can understand. In a barrage of dumb platitudes that comes at you when you’re feeling your lowest, it’s hard to find words that you can actually hold on to. To me, these lines – so simple, so basic – have always been rewarding to dwell upon.
“About that time when I wrote (“Heart of Gold”), and I was touring, I had also — just, you know, being a rich hippie for the first time — I had purchased a ranch, and I still live there today. And there was a couple living on it that were the caretakers, an old gentleman named Louis Avila and his wife Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep there, and Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep. He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, “Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?” And I said, “Well, just lucky, Louie, just real lucky.” And he said, “Well, that’s the darndest thing I ever heard.” And I wrote this song for him.” – Neil Young
Neil Young is not very articulate for a songwriter, but there you have it. If you’ve read his barely coherent memoirs, you know. He may not lay things out in the most graceful way, but whatever he has to say comes from the heart. And he expresses everything he needs to in his songs, so he really has no need to be well spoken.
This is timely, never mind that Neil Young wrote it in 1970. For those of you who aren’t history buffs, Young was writing about a little incident at Kent State University in Ohio in which National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of student protesters, killing four. Actually, if you’ve had a lick of education and/or were alive at that time, you know that the Kent State shooting was a seminal event in recent American history, one that really threw into start relief the unrest caused by US military operations in Vietnam, the conflict between the establishment and the counterculture, the gap in generational values, and terrifying ease with which the state could turn upon its citizens. Times haven’t changed much; today we are seeing a sharp increase of similar unrest, as peaceful protesters get tear gassed by police in full riot gear, activists die under mysterious circumstances while in police custody, gun violence and police brutality soar to an all-time high, the political process is reduced to a carnival sideshow, the establishment generation pretends its damndest that the status quo is perfectly OK while students organize mass protests, and Neil Young is still righteously pissed off about all of it. It makes you question what exactly those kids who died in Ohio achieved, if we’re still paddling around in circles as a society, still grasping for basic civil rights and unable to agree if the concept of equality applies equally to all animals or not.
Neil Young was and remains a man of his time. His unkempt sense of style hasn’t changed much and neither has his faith in the do-gooding power of music. If he comes off as slightly weird and brain-addled, that’s because he is. Brain-addled in the literal sense of having something wrong with his brain, namely epilepsy. Young experienced his first major seizure in 1966; the Buffalo Springfield song Burned is his creative reaction. This song was also written after a seizure episode and period of treatment (which he describes in quite horrific detail in his memoir.) Young has had more than his fair share of close calls with death, beginning with childhood polio, and no doubt it’s informed his music. There’s an existential streak in even his mellowest and most tuneful hits; there a quite a few songs about death. This one isn’t, on the surface, about death, but it’s baleful and moody, as would befit the mental state of someone who recently spent some hellish time in hospital getting his brain prodded.