1. “Dead Man” – on Dead Man (1996)
Chapter One: The Dark Center of the American Universe. The curtains open on dead, empty space: fallen trees, empty beaches, and grey skies. The primordial beginnings of the cosmos and the Americas. Neil Young’s soundtrack for Dead Man, like the film itself, lays the foundations of America as a land of death and discovery – the unconquerable western wilderness that lies just beyond where the railroad tracks end. The album’s opening paints the first strokes of this nascent American landscape. A mysterious, vaguely sorrow-laden song centered around acoustic strumming overlaid with jabs of fed-back, echoed guitar, “Dead Man” repeatedly loops from desolateness to intrigue to exciting mystery and a brief moment of glory before returning to its doomed black center, its desolate, undeniable beginning. The tension between the song’s grainy, apocalyptic power-chords and bucolic strummed guitar are the perfect introduction for the constant shifting tension of Young’s catalogue: the balance of excitement and darkness, expectation and disappointment, nature and civilization, the true monstrous face of the world and the cosmetic gardens we cultivate on top. Hollow, warm, and hinting, the song introduces the strange, terrifying beauty of the untouched, poorly-explained native backcountry, freshly assembled in the universe.
2. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” – on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Chapter Two: Creation of the Earth. The opening lines of Young’s “Round & Round” describe orbital ellipses and the formation of the globe. Accompanied by singer Robin Lane, the plaintive archetypal male and female voices characterize earth’s progression as a matter of microcosmic bodies: “Round and round and round we spin / To weave a wall to hem us in.” In essence the spinning of the globe is a matter of threads on a loom: a progressively more-intricate network of entwining fates describing vast shapes of people-continents and weaving atmospheric walls “to hem us in.” Yet the following lines establish the progression of elliptical human lives as fundamentally one of pain and loss: “How slow and slow and slow it goes / To mend the tear that always shows.” The “tear that always shows” is one of Young’s many corporeal/ecological double-entendres. Young is in essence a microcosmic poet, and “Round & Round”, like many of his songs, establishes that the matters of the physical, humanly body and the continental, earthly body are one of the same. Covering “the tear that always shows” refers both to the denial of the aforementioned primordial America, the “tear” in the well-sewn fabric of American folk mythology, and the covering of human emotional wounds: the physical scars on both the American body continent and the American body populace. In essence, the song posits both the creation of the planet and the fundamental idea that the history of the world is based on and moved forward by loss and pain. Yet, as always, Young portrays the whole parade with a certain ineffable warmth and elegance. After all, to be at once both deeply wounded and fleetingly content is at the center of Young’s tragic pastoral myth.
3. “Pocahontas” – on Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Young’s idyllic description of pre-Columbian America begins under the pretense of a historical journal before giving up halfway throughway and lapsing into nostalgic brooding. “I wish I was a trapper,” he writes. “I would give a thousand pelts / To sleep with Pocahontas / And find out how she felt.” In Young’s mournful universe the sexual manifestation of love is intermingled with an understanding of the natural world and pre-modern American civilization. The song begins, ambitiously, from the Powhatan’s point of view (“They killed us in our teepees / And they cut our women down”) before suddenly fast-forwarding to the discontented present (“The taxis run across my feet / And my eyes have turned to blanks”). As such it becomes a rugged journal of Young himself as the body America. The song works as a record less of a historical period than of what it means to try to recollect a history both spatially and chronologically distant. Young speaks of “the homeland we’ve never seen” (again leaving it unclear whether he speaks from the point of view of the Powhatan or modern-day Americans), as though the real America is only a vague antique form that we have built our cities upon, an unknown footnote to the history we have learned. And somewhere in this vague historical limbo paddles the lone figure of Shakey (for the purposes of describing Young as a character in his own songs, we will refer to him by his preferred alias), his voice sounding as though it echoes throughout glacial valleys.
See also: “I wish I was an Aztec / Or a runner in Peru / I would build such beautiful buildings / To house the chosen few” – “Like An Inca,” “Ride My Llama”
4. “Cortez the Killer” – on Zuma (1975)
The other half of Young’s chronicle of the destruction of the Americas is a lamentive, electric retelling of the fading Aztec Empire, the meeting place between “Dead Man” and “Pocahontas,” both grim and nostalgic. The music is begrudgingly complicit, insisting on repeating the same chord progression for seven minutes, knowing full well the ending it will come to. Like “Pocahontas,” “Cortez” begins with an impossibly naïve vision (“The women all were beautiful / And the man stood straight and strong / They offered life in sacrifice / So that others could go on”) made intentionally into a mythological fairytale. And again Young lapses into a fantasy of longing for some distant, unknown girl and licking his own scars: “I know she’s living there / And she loves me to this day / I still can’t remember when or how I lost my way”. What we are listening to here is not a lamentation of the Aztecs but a lamentation of the 70’s idea of the Aztecs. Young’s American universe isn’t fabricated as much from chronological history as the patched-together history of Young’s pan-geographical heartache. Shakey mourns the unknown, the corners of history he will never know, and as always these corners are made material by the pain of love and the history-making ellipses of love’s wounds. It is as though Young lost his way in the 70’s and ended up in history – a sci-fi historical universe looking for an answer to its own creation. As such, pre-Columbian civilization becomes a stand-in for unobtainable happiness, and the plummet at the end of “Cortez” and “Pocahontas” to modern-day America is the unpleasant reminder of Young’s contemporary woes, as if he is reluctantly waking from a daydream. At the end of the song, when Young repeats “Cortez, Cortez / What a killer” after seven minutes of wistful fantasy, we hardly know or remember what he’s talking about.
5. “Don’t Be Denied” – on Time Fades Away (1973)
If the past four songs are musical documentations of the raw terrain of America, then “Don’t Be Denied” documents the laying of its roads. These are roads that cut across the Americas, hopeful highways that lead from one place to another. The song begins with a screechy high-pitched glimpse of celestial wonder, before the melody settles into casual, steady hillbilly wandering, and Young’s nascent introduction of Shakey as the starring character in his chronicle of the Youngian Americas: “When I was a young boy / My mama said to me…” A painful and anthemic drinking song, “Don’t Be Denied” is a cautionary tale beginning with the promise and excitement of youth and ending in knowing bitterness. Young begins by preaching to the listener and ends preaching only to himself, reassuring himself that it was all worthwhile while concurrently doubting the whole journey’s validity. Young’s flaxen motif – writing of “the golden rule” and the “golden sound” and advising that “all that glitters isn’t gold” – refers to imposed ideas and dogmas, harvested natural resources, and looted empires. The song, never sure whether to sound wistful or embittered, is constantly on the brink of collapsing under its own weight, before lifting itself up with the pained, self-titled chorus. “Don’t be denied” — repeated over and over with a variety of chord changes so that it sounds at first encouraging and hope-filled, then warning and tragic, and finally burdensome and resentfully-acknowledged – is the simple, brunt phrase of America’s founding, our country’s own golden rule, dominating every step of our evolution, the only way to move forward, even if it leaves us in the same place over and over again. In this way it can be read as Young in some ways coming to peace with the history of the Americas and his own fate. The song paves America’s complex highways: roads that must be explored but which inevitably lead to dead ends and hollow, nighttime cul-de-sacs.
See also: “I come down from the misty mountain / I got lost on the human highway” – “Human Highway”
6. “After the Gold Rush” – on After the Goldrush (1970)
Roads make cities, and cities make suburbs. It is “lying in a burned-out basement” somewhere in the aforementioned suburbs that Shakey – now adolescent and tentatively matured – gives us his state of the union address and the interpretational key to his entire oeuvre. “After the Gold Rush” is Young’s treatise on where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going. It is also perhaps his most symbolically and metaphorically complex work. The song focuses on two Middle Ages: first a shaky drug-induced dream of medieval splendor – a strange counterpart to his aforementioned Mesoamerican voyages into history – and then zooming outwards to the Middle Age of the suburbanized 1970’s, split between the primordial horrors of the past and the superhuman innovation of the future, “flying Mother Nature’s silver seed / To a new home in the sun.” Given Young’s previous associations of gold with harvesting, looting, and imperialism, the song’s title points to a reaped, post-ruination America, fully carpeted and overlaid with post-authentic pop culture. And it is in this context that Young fully explains Shakey, the microcosmic hero. For Young, if anything, is a microcosmic writer. Given what we’ve established so far – that in Young’s songs, a yearning for the loss of the pan-American countryside and culture is mixed with a mourning for the loss of love and of youth – it becomes clear in “After the Gold Rush” that Young’s song catalogue is in essence telling the Bildungsroman of Neil Young the character, who is in turn a stand-in for the Bildungsroman of the American continents. Young’s inner imagination, his ancient fantasies, scenes from history, his place in the 70’s, and his dreams of the future, are all placed in a shared theatre, the common thread of which is Young’s physical self. The “fanfare blowing” in a medieval scene is restated by the “band playing in [Young’s] head,” while Young is “lying in a burned-out basement / With the full moon in [his] eyes.” At once both an American junkie and a pan-historical microcosm, Shakey is constantly dipping his head into past universes but is weighed down by the obstructions of drugs, business, and sex. Young’s constant oscillation between bliss and remorse, between nostalgia and bitterness, is even-handedly an oscillation between his duties as human songwriter and alternately as embodiment of America’s history and evolution. And the geological structure of the song, beginning with nature, then moving to the moon, the sun, and finally returning to a new, reborn nature, is perhaps the best compartmentalization of Young’s work – a miniature cycle of the ages. “After the Gold Rush” portrays a strange shifting parade of past, present, and future, of which Shakey is the bandleader and the band itself.
See also: “Locomotive, pull the train / Whistle blowing through my brain / Signals curling on an open plain / Rolling down the track again / See the sky about to rain” – “See the Sky About to Rain,” “It’s only castles burning” – “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
7. “Out On the Weekend” – Harvest (1972)
We began this series of songs chronologically, beginning with the dawn of the Americas and moving through their history to arrive at the modern-day introduction of Shakey himself. However, it is not with the same background of tragedy and antecedent that many know Young; rather, they are perhaps more aware of the truck-driving, ranch-owning, guitar-soloing, country-rock-tinged side of Young’s body of work, the side that more frequently makes its way onto classic rock radio stations with hits like “Heart of Gold” and “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World.” “Out On the Weekend,” along with the title track of 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, is perhaps the best embodiment of this strain of Young’s songwriting. These are songs of homely leisure, easy-going inactivity, and subtle longing. For those of us who live in the Bay Area and have spent afternoons driving through Woodside or Half Moon Bay or La Honda, these songs immediately evoke the Northern California wilderness – calmly sunny and tan and green, filled with winding roads leading past quiet shaded houses and the occasional bar or motorcycle gathering. The songs present a place that is immediately quiet and easy and timeless the way old photographs are timeless; hushed, unhurried and unassuming. In these songs Young is able to begin again, to drain his world-view of all the building antagonisms of history and focus on simple country living and drinking and fun and companionship. It’s at these times that Young can forgot that America is a nation built on a mountain of injustice and pain, and can lose himself in the sunny wilderness of California without having to think about the history that same geography represents.
Young’s most archetypal phrase is the opening announcement “think I’ll…” or “wish I…” and “Out On the Weekend” focuses on that oft-repeated Youngian sentiment: the desire to hop in a car and find somewhere new, or somewhere very old. As much as Young name-drops various country activities, he is ultimately a poet of the mind, one who seems more at ease talking about what he wants to be doing or wishes he could be doing as opposed to what he’s actually done. Alternately, songs like “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” – the best Neil Young party song – present a world (“I wish that I could be there right now / Just passing time”) in which Young’s greatest ambition is to let life calmly pass much the way of the wandering roads of La Honda: without incident or landmark, without deadline or timeline. And yet even Young’s seemingly simplest anthems are belied with a more complex meaning. “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” with its lines of “every time I think about back home / it’s cool and breezy,” shares the same exact overall sentiment as the more tragic “Pocahontas” – a realization that the place one is in is not one’s home, coupled with the realization that one’s home is only possible in one’s mind and imagination. And in essence, the entirety of the Ditch Trilogy (consisting of the albums Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night) is devoted to this same sentiment: an acknowledgement of one’s dissatisfaction with one’s self and the world, and a determination to go down all the same swinging and drinking.
See also: “Barstool Blues,” “Walk On,” “Dance Dance Dance” etc. etc.
8. “Journey Through the Past” – on Time Fades Away (1973)
The 70’s are the decade of Neil Young, and his songs are essentially always talking about those same ten years, even before or after the decade itself. They are the stage on which his stories of American longing are set: a place of declining nature and increasingly plastic scenery, that blend of nostalgia and failed hope funneled into druggy cynicism, standing at the rim of the slope down into the ugliness of the 80’s and 90’s. “Journey Through the Past” is one of Young’s most 70’s-sounding songs – reflective, after-the-fact, regretful, polished. The story of a relationship slowly worn apart by fame and middling years, it embodies the strain of Young’s writing dealing with personal failure, the unstoppable build-up of life’s detritus, and the difficulty of synoptic thought through all the murk. The term “Journey Through the Past” itself changes meaning throughout the song: at first a reflection on a couple’s gradual alienation, (“When the winter rains come pourin’ down… / Will you think of me and wonder if I’m fine?”) then Young’s own origin and creation (“Now I’m going back to Canada / On a journey through the past”), before returning finally to that ahistorical fantasy-world of Young’s imagination, the same strange tragic darkness that wanders throughout the American countryside of Young’s catalogue. (“I will stay with you if you’ll stay with me / Said the fiddler to the drum / And we’ll keep good time / On a journey through the past.”) Young is wandering both through his own personal chronicles and the corridors and alleyways of American history. Yet “Journey Through the Past” is also a sign of Young’s fatigue and disillusion. In lines like “Will I still be in your eyes and on your mind?” he sounds as though he’s talking with history and time itself, as though after the initial hump of stardom, he sits wondering if he, too, will become a character in history, or will, like others, fade away rather than burn out. In songs such as this one Young sounds lost, in much the way the 200-hundred-year-old nation is lost – renowned, empowered, tired, confused, and remorseful. A reminder that even the most steadfastly hopeful beginnings can be slowed down by the build-up of years.
See also: “Jesus where is nature gone? / What am I doing here?” – “Love In Mind,” “Who took everything from where it once was / And put it where it was last seen? / Fontainebleau, they painted it green” – “Fontainebleau”
9. “Powderfinger” – on Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
“Powderfinger”’s opening lines (“Look out, Mama / There’s a white boat comin’ up the river”) echo Young’s previous haunting depiction of Cortez’s arrival (“He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and his guns”), and indeed the tragic story of a skirmish between a rural country boy and the local police can be read as a retelling of the destruction of the Aztecs, the same culture clash belying the destruction of contemporaneous civilizations. The contrast between the song’s easy-going country melody and its dark, troubling lyrics only serves to underline the song’s troubling portrait, like “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” of the horror of the pleasant southern landscape. The main 1-4-5 chord progression is comforting and conversational; then the Bm – C refrain, with its background ‘oooh – oooh’ vocals is suddenly, stunningly vulnerable and painful, almost as if two songs, one glittering and charming and one bitterly, horribly honest, are overlaid atop one another, as though their contradictory presentation is the only way they could both be heard. It’s against this backdrop that Young pens the most surprising and melancholy line of the song and perhaps his entire oeuvre; his lament of youth that “fade[s] away so young / With so much left undone.” And yet the song’s transcendental ending (“Shelter me from the powder and the finger / Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger”) speaks not as a unique 22-year-old southerner but as the universal voice of male southern ghosts. The recurrent image of a boat of destruction sailing across the water – the blank, Moby-Dick-like symbol of culture- and decade-ending – resurrects Cortez in the 1970’s and condemns America to reenact the hateful gesture of its founding.
See also: “I got the revolution blues, / I see bloody fountains” – “Revolution Blues”
10. “Thrasher” – on Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
“Thrasher” is the song in which Shakey becomes a man, essentially ending his previous enchantment with companionship and youthful partying. The song’s central image – a threshing machine, or thrasher – is of the natural world being tamed and harvested through progress. The violence of the thrashers rolling through the fields “looking more than two lanes wide,” the taming and harvesting of something that was once wild and free-growing, becomes a metaphor for the loss of the initial magic of both the American wilderness and Shakey’s own nascent adventures. Yet the thrasher is also a catalyst for growth and maturation. Shakey is searching for his friends in “crystal canyons” where “the eagle glides ascending” when “the aimless blades of science / Slashed the pearly gates.” His simple relationship with the landscape and people around him – the easy-going stuff of “Out On the Weekend” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” – is suddenly convoluted with the revelation of the complex machinery underlying all friendships and natural processes. These, too, require taming, thrashing, reaping. What was once wild becomes stationary and suburban, and Young’s companions, his link to the civilized world around him, are “lost in rock formations / Or became park bench mutations / On the sidewalks and in the stations / They were waiting, waiting.” Shakey, the ruins of leisure before him, becomes frustrated with his friends’ descent into corporate American culture and takes his own route, off to where “the pavement turns to sand.” “How I lost my friends,” he laments, “I still don’t understand.”
The tragedy is, naturally, both personal and continental. The thrasher churns not only Shakey’s peers but the grand American landscape he has so long idolized. His initial enchantment with the American legend is reduced to “that great Grand Canyon rescue episode” on TV, while his literary universe becomes punctured with the cheap and urban facets of modern civilization. “Where the vulture glides descending / On an asphalt highway bending,” he writes, inverting the previous “eagle glides ascending” to “an ancient river bending,” “Through libraries and museums, galaxies and stars / Down the windy halls of friendship… / The motel of lost companions / Waits with heated pool and bar.” Shakey’s engagement with his friends is relegated to the mystical land of his imagination we’ve seen so many times before, but even this imagined landscape is now partly-urbanized and tainted with modern imagery.
So it is that Young retreats to his farmer-like existence, however ruthless. With his “own row left to hoe / Just another line in the field of time,” Shakey ends his journey with a new understanding of the thrasher and those “aimless blades of science” and a sorrowful disillusionment with the mystical landscape he once idolized. And so ends Young’s sojourn into the history of the Americas, his tragic pastoral vision of the tension between the natural and civilized worlds, which, for a while, he was able to balance on his fingertips.
See also: “If you’re looking for me / You’ll find me resting in the shade / Of the mountains and trees / Beneath the cool summer breeze / And I don’t mind if you stay / Everybody’s alone” – “Everybody’s Alone”
11. “Albuquerque” on Tonight’s the Night (1975)
As with all Bildungsromans, there is a dark period. Tonight’s The Night finds Young at his darkest moment. Nearly every song on the album sounds as though it takes place late in the night or early in the morning, after a long night of drinking, when that bleak, synoptic moment of clarity and revelation occurs. “Albuquerque” is the song that finally unites Young’s contradictory drinking tunes and historical reminisces, and it does so in the bitterest, most fatigued manner imaginable. If “Powderfinger” finds Young resurrecting the gesture of post-Columbian imperialism, “Albuquerque” finds him resurrecting its arena. Young returns to the Mesoamerican landscape – Albuquerque, an 18th-century Spanish outpost, elicits similar imperial imagery to the invasions of Cortez – but it is not as a dreamer but as a lost wanderer that he visits. The song begins with the assertion that “they say that Santa Fe / Is less than ninety miles away.” As always, Young is describing geography, but this time it is not for the purpose of evoking landscape but for mapping the span of dull highways, or counting the minutes of hasty travel. The rumor-sharing tone of legend is to this end not used for exploring but for going somewhere else as quickly as possible. He moves on to say: “I got time to roll a number / And rent a car,” evoking the same spontaneous desire to go somewhere new as in songs such as “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.” However, this time there’s no girl and no nostalgic dream of home or new beginnings; instead, it arises out of a simple desire to be alone. “I’ve been starvin’ to be alone,” he writes. “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am.” Such it is that the idea of wandering as exploring is replaced with wandering as simple escape. When Young finally gets to the chorus – “Ooh-oh, Aaa-aaa-aaa-aa-aa-aaa-aal-buh-querque…” – it sounds like a long, tired sigh before a tedious but necessary drive.
Shakey’s dark drive into the night in this case is his (and America’s) lost period in the 1980’s, when most of us lost touch with his music, before his creative resurgence in the 1990’s. Another of Tonight’s The Night’s songs, “Roll Another Number,” finds Young similarly struggling to find his way home in the darkness, with a similar acknowledgement that it will take the assistance of drugs to get there. In the darkness Young distances himself from the good-natured community of Woodstock, and the pain and murkiness of the late 70’s, and he expresses a longing to go home but an uncertainty of where that is. As such, his car becomes home in many songs, traversing the lost highways of his youth. In the darkness, Young says goodbye to the nostalgic imagery of Old America and the fading good will of the 1970’s with the same wave of his hand.
See also: “I’ve been down the road / And I’ve come back” – “Mellow My Mind,” “I been standin’ on the sound / Of some open-hearted people goin’ down” – “Roll Another Number (For The Road)”
12. “Unknown Legend” – on Harvest Moon (1992)
The curtains reopen on Shakey a decade later still in the anonymous desert, now in a bright nameless diner, and again yearning for a woman, another modern-day Pocahontas: “Somewhere on a desert highway / She rides a Harley-Davidson / Her long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind.” As always, his love for a girl is tied into a love for the American landscape, but this time the landscape is an expression of solitude and the quiet fading of anonymous lives. Instead of focusing on the great legends of American creation-myth, Shakey is now interested in the “unknown legends” of quiet lives, and indeed this is the kind of poet he finally becomes: sitting in his truck, praising the country life, environmental responsibility, and the working man; sequestered on a ranch in Woodside, away from the violence and pain of the Ditch. Similarly, the legendary Pocahontas-like women that birthed America evolve into the unsung heroines of isolated suburban houses: “Now she’s dressin’ two kids / Lookin’ for a magic kiss / She gets the far-away look in her eyes.” Young’s chronicle ends with the same airy and ethereal acoustic strumming that began “Dead Man.” Whereas the tragedy of the Americas began in a primordial swirl of death and timber, this is where the tired, drained United States settles: into a fading contentment, the humble end-of-days, a restful collection of unknown legends.
See also: “I’m thankful for my country home / It gives me peace of mind…” – “Country Home”