On the demo tape that won him a record deal back in 1991, Bottle Rockets' leader Brian Henneman sang a song about Neil Young. Fittingly, Henneman's portrait (co-written with longtime collaborator Scott Taylor) was more of a woodcut than a watercolor. “Neil once voted Republican,” sings Henneman in one verse. “And that pissed off a lot of fans / He's just a guy who gets confused / He's a lot like me / He's a lot like you.”
The song nails both the confusion and the common touch in Young's politics. Ecology, poverty, the drug, and Richard Nixon are recurring themes, but the overall impression left with the listener is that of a man striking a series of eccentric postures. It is the politics of the wet middle finger held in the air to gauge the breeze.
Yet puzzling out those politics is essential to understanding Young's artistry. Throughout much of his career, and on his latest record, Greendale (Reprise), Young's middle finger has been more than a gesture. It has been a way to tell -- and without a Weatherman -- which way America's political winds are blowing.
Young offered few hints about his politics in his early songs. It was Steven Stills, not Young, who penned Buffalo Springfield's lone hit, the much-ballyhooed protest anthem “For What It's Worth.”
Young's first songs, meanwhile, reveled in self-absorption. Even as his skills sharpened (Buffalo Springfield's “Mr. Soul” and “Broken Arrow,” or early solo tracks such as “The Loner” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”), his lyrics remained fiercely jealous of their own privacy.
Young's initial stint with Crosby, Stills and Nash, in 1969, marked the first emergence of a political side to his music, but it was a surprising spark. After all, CSN's eponymous first record was a pure folk-pop confection, with nary a trace of the previous year's turbulence in its grooves. Yet it was Crosby, Still, Nash & Young that recorded “Ohio,” Young's bleak, anarchic elegy for those who died in the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1971.
Thirty-three years later, “Ohio” remains the touchstone for American protest rock. In its mere 55 words (one repeated verse bookending a repeated chorus), it proved more articulate than any other such song from that era.
Place the economical rage of “tin soldiers and Nixon coming” alongside the Doors' hammy dirges, or the Jefferson Airplane's histrionics (1969's Volunteers), or the hippy-dippy nonsense cranked out by Young's own bandmates (David Crosby's “Almost Cut My Hair” on Déjà Vu, or Graham Nash's hysterical agit-pop sing-along “Chicago” from 4 Way Street). Young's song trumps them all.
“Ohio” gave Young a taste for the megaphone. His first solo record after joining CSNY, After the Goldrush, infused his cryptic contrarianism with a new willingness to tackle issues larger than himself.
There were growing pains, of course. “Southern Man” was dated before the record's August 1970 release. After the Goldrush's title track was more successful: Its symbolism was dizzyingly potent, yet its despairing ecological message was unambiguous.
Young's biggest hit, Harvest (1972), put politics back on the shelf, aside from another slap at the South of George Wallace on “Alabama.” Yet the scandal brewing in Richard Nixon's White House threw politics on the nation's front burner, and America's anger, disillusionment, and sheer exhaustion found its quintessential rock reflection in Young's music of that era.
Much of what has been written about Young's classic mid-'70s troika -- Time Fades AwayOn the Beach (1974), and Tonight's the Night (recorded in 1973, released in 1975) -- focuses on the personal crises that inspired these records. Drug-related deaths among Young's musical colleagues and hangers-on did play a major role in shaping them, but the records also possess oft-ignored political and cultural commentary.
On the surface, there were the bizarre references to Miami Beach (where both Nixon and George McGovern were nominated in 1972) in the liner notes and on tour. The cover of On the Beach features a copy of a newspaper with the headline “Senator Buckley Calls On Nixon To Resign.”
Dig deeper into the songs, and there are many pronouncements. “All day presidents look out windows,” sings Young on the title track of Time Fades Away. “All night sentries watch the moonglow.” On the Beach's final song, “Ambulance Blues,” takes Nixon head-on with a verse that repeats to end the song: “I never knew a man could tell so many lies / He had a different story for every set of eyes / How can he remember who he's talkin' to? / 'Cause I know it ain't me, and I hope it isn't you.”
But it's not only Watergate that bothered Young. He was obsessed with the dark detritus that had washed up in the wake of the changes of the 1960s. On The Beach's “Revolution Blues” ranks among the scariest songs that Young has recorded, catching the gleeful psychopathic mayhem of Charles Manson and his followers in bold lyrical strokes such as “I see bloody fountains / And 10 million dune buggies / Comin' down the mountains.”
But perhaps Tonight's the Night strikes the most abrupt note, with the explicit rejection of the Woodstock where CSNY had performed and subsequently celebrated with a cover of Joni Mitchell's song on that record's “Roll Another Number (For the Road)”: “I'm not goin' back to Woodstock for a while / Though I long to hear that lonesome hippie smile / I'm a million miles away / From that helicopter day / No, I don't believe I'll be goin' back that way.”
When critics tout Tonight's the Night as a link in the evolutionary chain that created punk, it's usually these lyrics that they point to as proof. But these words -- along with the much-debated “Campaigner,” which appeared on his 1977 three-record greatest-hits collection, Decade -- were also Neil Young's final spade of dirt on the era's idealism and agony.
Re * Ac* Tion* Ary
“Campaigner” is a song that is much misunderstood. It has been cited countless times as the dawn of Young's reactionary politics, mostly due to the tune's repeated insistence that “even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
Extended and ultimately fruitless exegeses aside, let's simply observe that the song turns that notorious phrase over and over, as a cat might toy with a trapped mouse. What can be said with little dispute is that the era to which “Campaigner” belongs is the one in which Young transformed himself from an observer to a pundit of sorts.
1979's Rust Never Sleeps has been justly celebrated as one of Young's best works. Haunted by history, obsessed with aging and violence in equal measure, the record boasts some of Young's best work. But it also held hints of a newly minted reactionary strain in his songwriting. “Welfare Mothers” ranks high among the meanest songs that he's written, a theme song of sorts for the bashing of the poor that heralded Ronald Reagan's election.
It was around this time that Young began giving interviews in which he made himself out to be something of a redneck, insulting Jimmy Carter and celebrating Reagan's defense policies. Young's songs of the era made similar noises. Check out the title track of 1980's Hawks & Doves, which wallowed shamelessly in its jingoism. Once again, Young's wet middle finger had caught the wind of political change.
Just as his records in the 1980s and '90s ruthlessly shed musical skins (soft country to metallic rock to something akin to Kraftwerk on Trans), they also took up multiple causes and spoke with multiple voices. The effect was jarring and confusing. The voices not only mixed, they ultimately shouted each other down. There's Young championing the family farm at Farm Aid. There's Young railing against the corporate takeover of music on 1988's This Note's for You. There's Young touring with the ultimate nostalgia trip, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Young's restless contrarianism had become something closer to aimlessness.
It's a state of mind best summed up in Young's most popular song of the period. 1989's “Rockin' in the Free World” recycled the scuzzy street scene that he's been fond of evoking since 1973's “Time Fades Away.” There's anger in the song, but it's a directionless anger, bouncing from anti-American hatred (“Don't feel like Satan / But I am to them) to self-loathing and dread (“We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler / Machine-gun hand”). “Rockin' in the Free World” is less an anthem than a Babel of image and sloganeering that perfectly echoed its time rather than interpreting it.
Whether Young had lost his touch by the turn of the millennium was an open question. The terrorist attacks of September 11 didn't rouse his muse in any useful manner, if the blundering hamfistedness of “Let's Roll” (“We're goin' after Satan / On the wings of a dove”) on Are You Passionate? was any indication.
But Young's latest record, Greendale, offers strong evidence of his continuing relevance. Not that Greendale isn't complicated or messy or contrary -- it's all of those and more. But the record's gambit of short stories set in an imaginary town does yoke Young's political sloganeering to a sturdy narrative.
Greendale's story pivots on the senseless shooting of a cop in a sleepy, complacent town, and Young layers the voices of characters and shifts perspectives in a way that conjures the complexity and grit of HBO's terrific serial The Wire (which also essays America's war on drugs). It creates a space for Young to adopt personas who opine on politics, law enforcement, the media, and the environment.
The record is filled with gems of observation that recall Young's best work. On “Leave the Driving,” he relates the incident that shakes the town's complacency, then pulls back for a second to put this small tragedy in a larger context that “Let's Roll” notably fumbled: “The whole town was stunned / They closed the coast highway for 12 hours / No one could believe it / Jed was one of ours. / Meanwhile across the ocean / Living in the Internet / Is the cause of an explosion / No one has heard yet.”
Greendale's clumsy cops, earth freaks, and exploding nuclear families represent a refreshing return to form for Young -- and not a moment too soon. In a musical culture that's increasingly escapist, the contrary and changeable Neil Young is now the closest thing to a bastion of reality in rock and roll. That Young is once again saying something meaningful from that platform is a welcome development.
Richard Byrne's writing on music, politics and foreign affairs has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The Boston Phoenix and New York Press.