Neil Young's best performances can be blissful ("Like a Hurricane") or harrowing (almost anything from Tonight's the Night or On the Beach), and a few songs have become so deeply ingrained that they resist commentary ("Cinnamon Girl"). He's been on the right side of some issues (Farm Aid, his support of punk rock, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, "Rockin' in the Free World," "This Note's for You") but his politics can also be baffling ("Let's Roll," "Welfare Mothers," "Cortez the Killer"). Sometimes he seems to give his audience exactly what it doesn't want (Trans). Trying to sum up such a long, varied, and enigmatic career is no way to try to deal with Young's catalog or legacy, so we asked some local musicians, artists, and writers to comment on their favorite Neil Young songs. Here's what they have to say.
"After the Gold Rush"
After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
For years, when I believed he was our greatest living songwriter, I used to argue that Neil Young was a poet. It was often a painful stand to make.
I remember standing on a wharf in Greece in 1980, arguing with a bearded music professor from Auckland. As I always declared to everybody after a couple of beers, I'd told him I thought Neil Young was the greatest living songwriter. "Hey, hey, my my, rock 'n' roll will never die?" he ridiculed. I can remember his scathing New Zealand accent. "That's songwriting?"
As he boarded a boat for a destination other than mine, I remember shouting across the gunwales: "But it's irony! It's irony!"
Maybe it was irony. I don't know. Maybe it was just dumb. Most of Young's lyrics all have a barely first-draft quality to them, as if they were written hastily by a third-grader who was trying to fill in a blank to get out of class. He was part of the first generation of singer/songwriters who were obliged, by the conventions of counterculture authenticity, to write both music and lyrics. You might wish he had an Ira Gershwin or a Lorenz Hart—or a John Keats—to help. Over the years, after the argument with the New Zealander, I began to wonder if Neil Young was a musical genius who just didn't understand words.
Maybe it doesn't matter. Young's 1970 song, "After the Gold Rush," with its plaintive minor chords, is one of the loveliest songs in the history of rock. It's melodically gorgeous. Lyrically it's both evidence of his lyrical ineptitude and an exception that makes you think there's more than meets the ear. "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s"—the line clunked in both meter and imagery even in the 1970s, and the decades since haven't improved it.
And the line "I felt like getting high," significantly loaded before a pause, always got a bigger ovation from live audiences than any other lyric he ever wrote, seemingly reducing the song, in maybe in some minds his career, to the fact that marijuana smoking makes you feel good, a revelation that would stop no presses. Young sometimes presents himself almost as a baby, innocent of complexity, who only knows that he wants more good-feeling things. He has reportedly claimed that he doesn't know himself what his own lyrics to that song mean, that most of his lyrics just reflected whatever substance he was taking at the time. But this same song does include a few fragments that are almost poetic: "There were peasants singing and drummers drumming/And the archer split the tree..." If the image doesn't necessarily make any linear connection to Mother Nature in the 1970s, it can launch you into a revery it's hard to return from.
Then comes, "I was thinking about what a friend had said/I was hoping it was a lie." There's no further word about the friend, or the lie. Still, somehow, it can give you a chill. Maybe Neil Young's lyrics are just notes. It's the ethereal tune that can stop you in your tracks. When it comes on somebody's radio, just try to pay attention to anything else. It may put you under for the rest of the day.
"Heart of Gold"
Harvest (Reprise, 1972)
In May 2004, I decided to pick up an acoustic guitar because I wanted to learn to play two songs that I'd recently heard for the first time: "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" by Tom Petty. I had never thought about actually playing music before, and to be honest I'd spent the better part of my late teens and early 20s listening to some pretty inauthentic stuff—songs that mostly just whined, and didn't really say much. "Heart of Gold" still remains one of my favorite songs because of the honesty that permeates the lyrics and the earnestness of Neil's voice. "I wanna live, I wanna give, I've been a miner for a heart of gold"—Neil's desperation is pretty clear. He wants to be in love and to be loved the same. Simple, yet profound, with a message so clear you'd swear it was a Bill Withers song. Sure, you'll find me turning my radio dial up when songs like "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" and "Southern Man" show up on my iTunes shuffle, but I always come back to "Heart of Gold" as my all-time favorite Neil tune.
—James Trimble, lead singer of the Dirty Guv'nahs
"Don't Be Denied"
Time Fades Away (Warner Bros., 1973)
"Don't Be Denied" is the side-two opener on Young's album Time Fades Away, which has never been released on CD. It's one of the most emotionally driven albums in Young's career, and falls in line directly before the hard-hitting On the Beach and Tonight's the Night. The key track for me is this autobiographical song. What begins as a story of divorced parents and schoolyard fights winds up following Young's early musical career, and then his dealings with record executives and fame. Some might see "Don't Be Denied" as a bitter take on the idea that you get what you deserve, but I believe it to be more like a warning from a friend. "Stand for what you believe in, and make your life what you want it to be." That's something Young has indeed accomplished. It's about not living according to others' expectations, but making your own moves, not about getting what you deserve, but creating your own results. Young takes growing pains and props them up with a shaky country-rock anthem that is one of his strongest, most personal statements. A blistering tale, a black Les Paul screeching in the face of adversity and standing tall.
—Graphic designer and artist Chad Pelton
On the Beach (Reprise, 1974)
My favorite Neil Young song? That depends. Which album? See, the man made albums, all different and with this attitude of I-don't-care-if-the-critics-get-it-or-you-even-like-it. True Neil fans will argue all night over his best album: Harvest? (Frat boys.) Tonight's the Night? (Stoners.) After the Gold Rush? (Folkies.) American Stars 'n Bars? (Country rockers.) Time Fades Away? (Really stoners.) Or my favorite, On the Beach. Before I continue, I must say those are my top five albums, and each one has songs or even individual lines that speak to the listener: "It's a cold bowl of chili when love lets you down," from "Saddle Up the Palomino" on Stars 'n Bars. Hell, I'll even drop a needle on Trans (techies) or Everybody's Rockin' ('50s rockers) but only once, only once, on Landing on Water. Neil, if you are reading this, regarding that album: WTF?
So it's the album I owned on 8-track and left on the "endless" setting—the 1974 release On the Beach and the song "Motion Pictures," a song I still cover, although sometimes I substitute "I hear the valley is doing fine" for the line "I hear the mountains are doing fine." It painted life on the road (and not in a flattering light) before I even became a road denizen. And it has a message to your friends who chose a "normal" path: "All those people who think they've got it made, I wouldn't buy, sell borrow or trade/anything I have to be like one of them/I'd rather start all over again." That album is so depressing, even compared to other albums of Neil's, but it leaves me with this sense of hope. "Newspaper headlines, they just bore me now/I'm deep inside myself but I will get out somehow." I don't know if he got out, but he got in me. Damn Canadian. I think of that album every time I'm on the road staring down a hotel television and drifting away for even a moment: "Motion pictures on my TV screen/A home away from home and I'm living in between."
—Singer/songwriter Scott Miller
"For the Turnstiles"
On the Beach (Reprise, 1974)
I love this song, but I can't say exactly why. I think one of the coolest things about Neil Young's music is the way his songs show you instead of tell you. He lays out all these great words like pieces of a puzzle, one that maybe doesn't fit together perfectly, but that's part of what keeps it stuck in your subconscious. I wonder about the "pimps with tailors who charge $10 at the door," and the "bush-league batters, left to die on the diamond." "Turnstile" is just a great-sounding word for a song, and the idea of the home crowd scattering for them is both funny and kind of scary. It's one of those songs that once I hear it, I'll be turning it over and over in my head for the rest of the day.
Neil Young's songs always seem to have this great, genuine honesty, even if they're honestly self-conflicted. Whether he's singing about girls, rock 'n' roll, war, or electric cars, I always believe him. That voice would never lie to you.
—Singer/songwriter and former Tenderhooks frontman Jake Winstrom
Tonight's the Night (Reprise, 1975)
The discussion of "authenticity" in music is a losing game, but Neil Young's album Tonight's the Night certainly sounds like a genuine expression of guilt, regret, anger, and misery, punctuated by the occasional good time. The death- and drug-obsessed sessions led to a batch of unlikely beautiful songs, and "Borrowed Tune" stands out as a teachable moment in the vagaries of the Neil Young aesthetic. It's Neil alone with harmonica and piano, his voice tired and shaky after too many sleepless nights and pharmaceuticals. The lyrics sound made up on the spot, the piano playing is rudimentary and the harmonica grates. When he cops to taking the tune he's playing from the Rolling Stones (it's "Lady Jane") because he's too wasted to write his own, he pulls off the not easy task of being both as self-reflexively meta and uncomfortably confessional as can be. It's a stark song, existential to the bone: "I hope that it matters/I'm having my doubts" goes the refrain. As "woe is me" songs go, it's too genuinely pitiful to identify with or sing along with, yet it still registers as brilliant pop music. He apparently doesn't perform this song live much, and who can blame him?
"Long May You Run"
The Stills-Young Band, Long May You Run (Reprise, 1976)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969)
I think my fave Neil Young track would have to be "Long May You Run." The lyrics to this song are so deep to me, and I just looked up what it means to him and apparently it's about an old car! I guess I should've known—"with your chrome heart shining in the sun." Another fave is "Cinnamon Girl." Our 18-month-old loves to dance to it so apparently it is her fave too! One thing is for sure, songwriters like this don't exist anymore. There is such emotional depth to his music, and that is why everyone is a Neil Young fan.
—Sarah Lewis, lead singer of Jag Star
"Weight of the World"
Landing on Water (Geffen, 1986)
Never was much of a Neil Young fan. Growing up as a Detroit Rock City kid, the only songs by him that I'd heard on the radio were "Cinnamon Girl" and the one about how much better it was to burn out than fade away. His reedy vocals were simply no match for Geddy Lee's operatic highs, and I suspected he had played country music at some point. But right after college, I picked up my first Neil Young LP, Landing on Water—one of his least popular of all time. Its weird combination of hard-rock guitars and stuttering synths created a sort of new-wave/industrial sound that annoyed just about everyone who heard it. I thought it was kinda cool, and I was most taken by the first song, "Weight of the World," because that's pretty much how I felt at the time. Once you enter the world as an "adult" and discover that you might not immediately succeed, life suddenly becomes a lot more serious. Impatience and an inability to connect with, well, anybody makes it seem as if living in this world is a burden that you're ill-equipped to bear:
I knew some people used to dance all night
But not me
I never knew if it was wrong or right
To be so free
I used to close my eyes
And try to hide from the light of love
Spent all my time with the darkness inside
That was me. So, yeah, I was in a bad mood. Today, I realize that was actually the most carefree time of my life and I had absolutely no right to mope. In fact, if I had listened to the song closer, I would've realized that Young intended it as a feel-good number: "I was alone for all of my life/Until you came my way/I dropped the weight of the world..." Of course, he got sued by his record label shortly thereafter for being willfully uncommercial, but in his own mind I bet he thought he was making a radio-friendly hit. So, I guess the lesson here is: Don't take things so seriously right now—they could get a whole lot more serious on their own later.
Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 1979)
You're a young man who's barely started living—an overgrown kid, really—and you've never really been off the family place other than maybe a trip to the next town over. But there are armed men steaming up the river, and though you can't quite sort out their intentions (you're not much for your letters and so on), they ain't friendly. Since you're pretty much what passes for menfolk right now, whatever happens next is up to you. You're taking fire and all but beaten by the time you get your old rifle cocked, as a descending riff clanged out repeatedly over the course of five and a half minutes telegraphs even if the verses didn't spell it out, but you pull the trigger anyway. Your lifeblood spills out and soaks the soil of a young and violent country, and how a Canadian hippie moving on into the mid-1970s reached back into the continental collective unconscious and found you relating your last moments with such poignance and Faulknerian economy is God's own mystery. If Greil Marcus ever gets around to a sequel to Mystery Train, his epochal 1975 book about the profound representations of America found in the music of Elvis, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and others, hopefully he'll look into it.