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.

Neil Young young!

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.

Neil Young old!

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.

29 Comments

  1. Hi Nicola!
    I am so glad you know Neil Young. Do your children?
    There are so many important songs he wrote and performed that to not know him is to not know the history of yearning and protest in the world.
    I miss the 60’s and 70’s when songs meant something. The songs were trying to make a point, to call for change, and to give a shared memory to people who were yet unborn.
    I think the Vietnam War shaped a lot of the message and that creative protest against bloodshed and mindlessness is what gave context and meaning to our lives.
    Today we’re in the middle of an even grosser and more devastating war — but there are no intellectual voices of protest to be found.
    Where are the young kids who are furious and fed up?
    Where are the next Neil Youngs and Bob Dylans and Peter Paul and Marys stepping forth with wisdom and genius beyond their years to teach us all lessons we forgot we ever learned through timeless melodies we cannot ever unlearn?
    How can we escape our condition and binding if there isn’t a replacement generation of genius to show us the way out?

  2. Grins, they are my children – OF COURSE they know Neil Young – and are currently educating those that they meet.
    The kids that are furions and fed up are fighting and brawling on our streets, shooting drugs and drowning in alcohol.
    They lack the education and language skills to string two words together and music is no long taught as a mainstream subject in our schools and is an optional *expensive* extra.
    TV and videogames are the palliative medicine for the current generation of children, rendering them comatose.
    (Gets off soapbox quickly).

  3. Get back on that soapbox, Nicola, we need you there!
    😀
    You’re right our youth today are disenfranchised. They have no stake in our world or in a future.
    Spending cuts have removed music instruction as a basic right from our public schools just as you so rightly argued and that has left the rest of us living in the past greatness and not encouraging forward movement into the training of new genius.
    The video game and digital cable have replaced the drum kit and the Gretsch guitar.
    I am so glad your children know Neil Young! Yay! He’s a great force to be reckoned with even now.

  4. Gosh, Dave, I hope you get a handle on your blood sugar soon!
    Walking is the best! I do it every day. It helps we don’t have a car so if we want to eat or do anything — you walk! That’s part of the great thing about living in a dense, Eastern Corridor, urban core — you still have walking neighborhoods where everything you need can be had within a mile radius… that… and internet purchasing…
    😀
    Yes, Sugar Mountain is especially pretty during a Harvest Moon.

  5. When I get into the car, I’ll have to tune up my satellite radio to XM46 to see if they’re playing any Neil Young.
    For kicks, I decided to use XMFan’s archive to see when a Neil Young song was last played on one of the XM channels. The Painter was played on XM75 (Starbuck’s channel) today at 9:46 AM ET.

  6. Whenever I hear the name Neil Young, I always start hearing Southern Man playing in my mind. It then fades into Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.

    Well I heard mister Young sing about her
    Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
    Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
    A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

    I must have heard this combination on a radio show at some time in the past and have been programmed to associate these two songs ever since.
    Here’s an analysis that discusses Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the context of the two (and more) songs.

  7. I love music feuds, Chris!
    Neil obviously got under the Lynyrd skin and they bit back much too specifically for the alleged offense.
    All they did was cement Neil’s greatness and importance while diminishing their own by framing themselves as defenders of the Old South.

  8. Hi David,
    I enjoy XM Radio, especially since I’m in the car a lot.
    It’s nice to be able to know what’s going to be on the radio, instead of trying to find a station somewhere in the middle of nowhere where the offerings are sometimes limited.
    It’s usually not a problem in larger metro areas, but travel 50 miles away from the cities and the suburbs and things change.
    There are some places where local radio is filled with strange offerings from low powered local stations. These stations let you know that Mrs. Smith died and you can buy her antiques at an auction at her house on Elm Street on Saturday.
    I chose XM over Sirus a couple of years ago because XM had more subscribers — I felt it had a better chance of survival when it was small. Sirus seems to be catching up with XM — 5 million subscribers to XM’s 7.5 million, according to radiosatellite.org.
    XM is nice because it offers XMPR (XM’s public radio channel with Bob Edwards). I don’t listen to that channel all the time, but it reminds me of the times when I was in high school and college listening to WFIU‘s offering of NPR’s Morning Edition while getting ready for school.
    Of course, Sirius offers NPR on their system, but you can get NPR programming almost everywhere in the nation by searching through the “public radio” band in the 87 MHz – 91 MHz range.
    But, you can’t get Bob Edwards on the terrestrial radio, if I’m not mistaken. 😉
    XM also offers Air America radio.
    Since that network filed for bankruptcy, I’ve found myself tuning in to see what might be happening every so often. The production values still aren’t the best, but I enjoy Young Turks and Al Franken in moderation. There’s something about rooting for the underdog. I might not agree with everything on that network, but I don’t want to see it go away either.
    Having a liberal station keeps me balance because I enjoy listening to Glenn Beck on XM165. And, don’t tell Al Franken — I always seem to tune into Rush on the terrestrial radio. (I remember driving from Toronto back to my house a couple of years ago and being able to find a “Rush” station just by scanning the AM band).
    Listening to both sides allows me to discuss issues with most anyone I come into contact with — especially since the place where I live has been called the 2nd most liberal place in America.
    I take both sides with a grain of salt, so it’s entertaining to listen to both.

  9. Chris —
    Thanks for the XM review! It sounds great. Do you lose reception in harsh weather or when you go into a tunnel or over a bridge?
    It’s interesting how many of the Top 10 liberal cities are historically thought of as “minority-centric.” Is there such a thing as a “conservative minority?”
    I hope Air America sticks around. We do need the antithesis voice to the heavy conservative flogging on talk radio.
    I remember driving from Council Bluffs, IA to KC, MO years ago and the regular radio was just awful. It was bad music and bad announcing. I can see how a satellite connection would be grand.
    Does XM broadcast all your favorite shows via the web, too, so you can stream from home?

  10. I saw Neil 25 years ago in Memphis during the “Shocking Pinks” incarnation. Mercifully he did over an hour solo prior to “the Pinks”. It was as impressive a display of musicality as I’ve ever seen.

  11. XM has web access for the music channels, but not the news and talk. XM is also available on the satellite — so I can listen at home, if I wanted.
    I have an antenna set up in the office pointing to the southwest and a transformer, so I can listen in the office by bringing the unit in from the car.
    It’s interesting about the urban core being solid “blue.” Even though Gary is liberal politically because people will always vote Democrat no matter what, there are lots of people who express sentiments that can be considered traditionally conservative.
    I think most people are common sense people who want the best for their children and don’t always fall in line with one label or the other.
    I suspect a lot of the blue nature has to do with the strong unions in the area. The same is probably true for Detroit also. Lots of immigrants and African-Americans came to Gary and Lake County to work in the high paying jobs at the steel mills.

    Currently, the region consists of striking contrasts.
    Gary and East Chicago contain dominant African American and Mexican American populations, with one-fourth of the population living below the poverty line.
    Further south, established suburban communities like Munster, Griffith, and Highland provide a high quality of housing. In 1990, Munster remained the wealthiest community per capita in Lake County.
    New growth, both residential and commercial, occurs south of the Valparaiso Moraine, especially in Merrillville, Schererville, St. John, and Crown Point. During the most recent real-estate boom of the 1990s, these communities built upscale housing.
    Nevertheless, Lake County and the Calumet region suffer from a reputation as a declining industrial district with little appeal for affluent, college-educated suburbanites.
    Even the newest upscale developments contain largely blue-collar populations.

    Source: Encyclopedia of Chicago.
    However, it is interesting that there is an influx of Illinois people seeking lower housing prices and lower taxes who are moving to Northwest Indiana.
    Having new people move into the area might result in a political shift in the county. Of course, the new growth might be fueled by Cook County residents crossing over the state line who are also traditionally Democrats, but who want lower Indiana taxes.

  12. I love your XM setup, Chris! It must be great fun to be able to have crisp, clear, sound in your home and in your car! Can you record the XM feed to replay it later as you wish?
    It’s fascinating how economics drives community belonging. People may not want the area or like the region but they learn to get along because they can save money or — on the other end — exclude those they wish not to live near.
    Gerrymandering is also a terrible conceit. Use the existing city, county and state boundaries to determine voting districts. Leave the “drawing a fine line” around who is in your district or not alone!

  13. Oh, it’s just so crazy, Chris! If you have an overwhelming majority in government then you can just go right in and re-draw the voting districts to earn the votes you need. I can’t believe that is the American Way or the American Dream — I guess it’s just politics as usual.

  14. Hi David,
    Neil Young’s album “Harvest” is one of those albums that everyone should have. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is performed live I believe, and with a great deal of emotion.
    Two of the songs you mention come from that album, and it’s not surprising.
    Any guitarist who’s into folk rock must have played the opening to Needle & the Damage Done to try to get it “right”. Most probably don’t succeed.
    -Fruey

  15. fruey!
    Thanks for the fine comment and you’re quite right about Neil’s incredible guitar talent. You Tube is filled with “fans” trying to play his music. Some are good, most are not.
    😀
    One of my favorite Neil Young albums is the “Unplugged” session he did on MTV. He’s relaxed, the songs are flowing and he’s totally in the beautiful and warm zone.
    It is incredible he’s had such a bright career in music for nearly 40 years. What a talent!

  16. David Crosby is on Imus in the Morning right now talking about his career and he said of Neil Young, “he’s like having wind in your band — he’s there but he isn’t.”
    He then went on to say how Neil is “an incredible and complex personality.”
    He also said he does not get along with Stephen Stills at all. They each “have very different ideas about music.”
    David Crosby admires Neil Young and appears to not respect Stephen Stills.

  17. David (& Chris)
    With respect to Lynyrd Skynyrd and NY, I think you might enjoy the album Southern Rock Opera by the Drive-By Truckers. There is one song devoted to Neil and Ronny Van Zandt. Neil is mentioned in another song, while Ronny Van Zandt and Skynyrd serve as a theme throughout the opera.
    One member of the Drive-by Truckers is the son of one of the swampers mentioned in Sweet Home Alabama.
    What I love best about Neil Young’s art is the diversity. Lovely guitar/harmonica solo songs, hauntingly beautiful country inspired music with the Stray Gators and others (Ben Keith’s pedal steel playing is a perfect complement to Neil’s voice), and thunderous jams with the Horse.

  18. Hi Mike!
    Welcome to Urban Semiotic and thanks for the outstanding recommendation!
    I agree with you that Neil’s greatness is in his musical flexibility. Nothing throws him. He can change and adapt to survive any musical collage.

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