Being a helpless old man down by the river, I love Neil Young. His voice effortlessly and expressively moves from a fragile tenor to growling snarl while delivering rock’s most poignant and relatable lyrics.
And he can rock really hard. O Canada indeed.
So many choices, but I settled on the ultra-aggressive “Revolution Blues” from 1974’s “On The Beach”. The music is a fairly simple western shuffle, but the lyrics are amongst the most vicious around. The outro line sends up Charles Manson – “Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / but I hate them worse than lepers / and I’ll kill them in their cars”.
Again, endless choices. I couldn’t pass up “Journey Through The Past” and its unbelievable 1971 rendition. Neil did a solo acoustic tour and stopped at Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall. Listen for the hometown crowd’s cheer for “Now I’m goin’ back to Canada / on a journey through the past”.
Sidenote: This concert was officially released in 2007. It debuted at #1 on the Canadian charts, 46 years after the performance.
This was an easy pick. Off the timeless “After The Gold Rush“, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is the all-time song about being dumped. Neil wrote it for CSNY co-conspirator Graham Nash after Nash’s breakup with Joni Mitchell. The thing (love) that many people want the most can also cause the deepest hurt. “I have a friend I’ve never seen / he keeps his head inside a dream”.
On the other side of heartbreak, we’ve got revenge. “Down By The River”, on Neil’s solo debut “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, is one of the hardest rockers in Neil’s oeuvre, featuring a trademark one-note solo. Neil wrote half of that classic album in bed with a 103 degree fever. I’ve done very little other than vomit and diarrhea rocking that high a temp. Basically, a jilted lover kills his girlfriend after she cheats on him. “Down by the river, I shot my baby”.
5. Fuck Everyone, I’m me.
“On The Beach” opens with “Walk On”, in which Neil metaphorically eviscerates the credibility of his detractors. The 70s Southern California rock scene was grossly excessive. That excess had claimed a lot of Neil’s contemporaries and friends and he wanted out. “Some get stoned, some get strange. But sooner or later, it all gets real.”
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, the debut’s title track, perfectly captures being young and disillusioned. You’re in the place you thought you wanted to be, and it sucks. “Everybody seems to wonder what it’s like down / I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around / everybody knows this is nowhere”.
Neil’s impressionist lyrics are no less outstanding than his narrative work. “Helpless” perfectly captures the forgotten beauty of things you’ve left behind . “Blue blue windows behind the stars / yellow moon on the rise / big birds flying across the sky / throwing shadowds on our eyes”. I chose the “Last Waltz” performance for this. I think Joni Mitchell’s backup vocals add gorgeous fragility.
“Oh Lonesome Me” is an aptly titled song about lost love. There are probably times in everyone’s lives when someone tremendously important breaks it off. Neil captures it perfectly. “Everybody’s going out and having fun / I’m a fool for staying home and having none/ I can’t get over how she set me free / Oh, lonesome me.”
Any still-living 60s/70s musician has certainly dealt with a lot of loss. Drug and alcohol abuse were rampant. Heroin was the drug of choice for many musicians. Some made it out, a lot didn’t. At Massey Hall, 1971, Neil introduces “The Needle and The Damage Done” with “And I got to see a lot of, um, great musicians who nobody ever got to see. For one reason or another. But… strangely enough, the real good ones… that you never got to see was… ’cause of, ahhm, heroin. An’ that started happening over an’ over. Then it happened to someone that everyone knew about. So I just wrote a little song.”
“Tonight’s The Night” is Neil’s darkest album. After the success of “Heart of Gold”, Neil said “This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there”. The rampant excess of touring life had claimed lives of some that Neil was close to. “New Mama” is a sliver of optimism on a wholly depressing (but great) album. “New mama’s got a sun in her eyes / no clouds are in my changing skies / each morning when I wake up to rise / I’m livin’ in a dreamland.”