Neil Young makes me cry in the noble, touching, way genius creates art that erupts into an intellectual and emotional explosion of the senses in a single moment of blinding understanding. When you’ve experienced a Neil Young song in that manner you don’t look at other musicians the same way because not only can they never inspire you they cannot even inspire their own spirit.
If you were born in the last 30 years or so you probably have no idea who Neil Young is or why he’s important to you now as he was in 1971 when he burst upon our lives in a glorious golden crash of stardom from Canada. When I used Neil’s song “The Needle and the Damage Done” to teach issues in Public Health to my graduate students at UMDNJ, I was met with blank stares and questions.
None of my students knew Neil Young. To help my students understand Neil’s importance, I presented to them, and now to you, The Neil Young Primer: Why Genius Never Fades as irrefutable evidence of his greatness as an artist in three choice songs. We’ll start in 1971 with Neil’s heartfelt “Heart of Gold” performance on the BBC.
The reason this performance is so stunning is because Neil is so young and he explains his music while chatting with you about his harmonica. Today Neil is a bit of a Sphinx where context and meaning and inspiration must be divined by your listening. In 1971, Neil was more willing to directly talk to you. This song is great because of its quality of universal yearning for a pure and true love. The most memorable lyric:
I’ve been in my mind, it’s such a fine line That keeps me searching for a heart of gold And I’m getting old.
“Old Man” is the opposite of “Heart of Gold.” In this song, the jaded 24-year old looks back over his life and the life of an older man to witness the pain in living and the spontaneity of encroaching death. Neil is young and of a pure, ringing, voice and he shares the story behind the song before he sings. Here is the best idea expressed in the lyric:
Love lost, such a cost, Give me things that don’t get lost. Like a coin that won’t get tossed Rolling home to you.
We end our three-song Neil Young Primer with a celebration of life, “Long May You Run.” This fine song closes the circle of human decay expressed in “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” where the singer — now older and wiser — wishes only the best for his lost friend, and himself, and he offers an everlasting wish for a long and loving life for everyone. Beware how the jaunty melody belies the deeper regret of loss and heartache in the emotion of the lesson.
We leap 30 years forward in time to a VH1 special where Neil Young, older now, is joined in this song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Neil used to sing and tour with those three making the name of the band: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — but Neil was, and is, a ghost of his own willfulness: He does as he pleases. Neil floated in and out of CSN and their lives to their constant consternation and disappointment because Neil made all three of them better.
One of my favorite Neil Young quotes was struck when he decided to quit a cobbled-together CSN-Y tour that was about to start. He said: “Sometimes the speed at which these collaborations come together is the same speed at which they crumble.” You cannot argue with that logic, though CSN did argue with him and all three held a years-long rope of hurt and resentment against for Neil dropping them. This performance of “Long May You Run” — with CSN singing backup — is a bit of a reconciliation of the four talents; but you can certainly still feel the tension in their bodies even as their voices freely sing. The best of the lyric are the first words you hear:
We’ve been through some things together With trunks of memories still to come We found things to do in stormy weather Long may you run.
The truest mark of genius is when it bleeds beyond you and into others: Creation breeds imitation. I will finish this Neil Young Primer with a performance not from Neil, but from his fellow Canadian k.d. lang, singing “Helpless” — a Neil Young song. k.d. sings this song better than Neil and gives it a whole new emotional spin of a young person alone in a field looking up at the stars and wondering about the world beyond the horizon and hoping there’s another place to call home beyond the current destiny. The song begins with a stinging, desperate, lyric that k.d.’s voice calls out with a wanting hope:
There is a town in north Ontario, With dream comfort memory to spare, And in my mind I still need a place to go, All my changes were there.
This wraps up our three-song (okay, maybe four!) Neil Young Primer
— but remember — there are still plenty of other incredible and beautiful songs Neil wrote and performed over his long career waiting for your discovery. I’ve set the seeds. The breadcrumbs are thrown. The time is yours to take the next step into the timeless enjoyment of the genius of Neil Young.