The man whose songs helped shape the minds and hearts of America's Baby Boom generation turns 61 this year. Last week his latest album Living With War hit record stores, featuring his politically fashionable song “Let's Impeach the President.” In this crotchety indictment, Neil Young accuses President George W. Bush of “leading our country into war.”
Our country? Although Neil Young is married to an American and has long lived south of San Francisco in rural La Honda, California, he has always carried only the passport of a Canadian citizen. “I’m a Canadian,” Young told Time Magazine in 2005. “I guess I could be a dual citizen, but if I ever had to give up my Canadian citizenship to become American I wouldn’t do it, because I wouldn’t want to hurt Canada. I love Canada. As I get older, more and more I start singing about Canada.” Except when he is singing in favor of ousting a president of the United States.
Canada’s urbane welfare state culture, which shaped Young’s pre-adolescence, was not entirely pro-American either. The immigration issue lately has focused on America’s southern border and on the anti-American desire of some radical Mexicans to reconquer lands from Texas to California that their country lost to the United States. But a similar resentment can also be found beyond our northern border.
When Young was 12 his parents divorced, and his mother took her son to live in the western prairie lands of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He played guitar in small clubs there and in Thunder Bay, Ontario, northeast of Duluth with a folk-rock group called the Squires. There in the early 1960s Young saw those “blue, blue windows behind the stars” in his song “Helpless.” And there he met and began a lifelong friendship with American guitarist Stephen Stills. (In 2004, Stills named his son Oliver Ragland Stills after Young’s maternal family.)
After a brief, failed recording deal with Motown Records, Young and bassist Bruce Palmer trekked to Los Angeles, bumped into Stills, and teamed with him and others to form the group Buffalo Springfield, a name that cleverly evokes natural things but also a famous rifle. This slick, hip folk-rock band was remarkably successful, scoring hits with Young songs such as “Mr. Soul,” “Broken Arrow,” and “Expecting to Fly.” With Young and Stills vying for the spotlight as lead guitarist, however, the band had an ego crash in 1968 and broke apart.
Neil Young signed with his Canadian friend Joni Mitchell’s label Reprise Records. After his first solo album Neil Young in 1969, he formed a backup band named for famed Indian warrior Crazy Horse, musicians with whom he continues to work nearly four decades later. Their first album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” recorded in two weeks and released in May 1969, featured such Young classics as “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Down by the River.”
Young was invited to join a skyrocketing new band renamed Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, whose lawfirm-like name is usually abbreviated to CSN&Y. Stills persuaded band mates David Crosby, veteran of The Byrds, and Graham Nash, who had left The Hollies, to include Young. CSN&Y’s second gig playing together was at Woodstock, and their first album was the 1970 classic Déjà Vu.
Neil Young did not just stumble into a critical view of the United States after the war in Iraq. His composition “Ohio” about “tin soldiers and Nixon coming” was about the 1970 killing of Kent State University student protestors by National Guardsmen, an event that tempered much of the enthusiasm of the anti-war movement. “It’s ironic that I capitalized on the deaths of these American students,” Young later wrote, adding that “Ohio” was “my best CSN&Y cut.”
The Canadian’s third 1970 solo album, After The Gold Rush, included the song “Southern Man.” Along with his later “Alabama,” it was so virulently anti-Dixie that they prompted a counter-attack against Young by name – “I hope Neil Young will remember / that a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow” – by the group Lynyrd Skynyrd in their anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” (Young has conceded that “Sweet Home Alabama” is much more interesting musically than the songs of his that inspired it.)
But Young is no rigid ideologue. In more recent concerts when he played “Ohio,” he dedicated it to the Chinese students slaughtered in 1989 by Communist government troops in Tiananmen Square. Young also wrote the patriotic-sounding, if more ambiguous, anthem “Keep on Rockin' in the Free World.”
Even the old Neil Young's new Living With War album closes with a straightforward, respectful version of “America the Beautiful,” a song many eco-liberals such as CNN founder Ted Turner would prefer in place of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And Neil Young sings it in English, not Spanish.
In the wake of 9/11 Young wrote and recorded “Let’s Roll,” one of the most powerful anthems about the heroic passengers of Flight 93 overcoming Islamist terrorists bent on crashing that skyjacked airliner into the U.S. Capitol or White House. It is a song, if the country took the war on Terrorism seriously, could serve as the “La Marseillaise” of the present moment:
“You've got to turn on evil / When it's coming after you / You've gotta face it down,/ And when it tries to hide, / You've gotta go in after it, / And never be denied,” go the lyrics. “Time is runnin' out, / Let's roll. / Let's roll for freedom, / Let's roll for love, / We're going after Satan, / on the wings of a dove… / Let's not let our children, / Grow up fearful in their youth…./ Let's roll.
So what happened between his writing of this magnificent anti-terrorism anthem “Let’s Roll” and today’s “Let’s Impeach the President,” which attacks and undermines those leading the war against Islamist terror?
Is old age bringing out Neil Young’s more extreme views? Or is he in a “second childhood” reverting to the anti-war 1960s when he first burst onto the music scene? Or is Young trying to revive his career on the cheap as other aging rockers have, by pandering for media approval and publicity by toeing the Politically Correct left-wing line on issues? (He has certainly gotten more media attention for his attack on America’s Republican Commander-in-Chief than he did for “Let’s Roll.”)
Neil Young’s songs often pleased liberals in the music industry and media, but Neil Young was willing to offend them. At one point he even publicly praised President Ronald Reagan. Young was also determined to follow his own experimental path rather than build a career by stamping out the same cookie-cutter sound album after album. This rugged individualism got him sued for $3 million by Geffen Records, as Rolling Stone’s Alan Light reported, “for making what the company called ‘unrepresentative’ albums –albums that didn’t sound like Neil Young albums, whatever that could possibly mean.”
When gray-headed Baby Boom rockers are in their nursing home rocking chairs, they will remember not just the surviving Beatles living out their song “When I’m 64” but also Neil Young’s youthful wisdom in his song “Old Man” and tear-welling love in his song “Harvest Moon.” A Canada’s version of Bob Dylan (who grew up in Hibbings, Minnesota, not far across the border from Young’s adolescence in Manitoba), has left a rich legacy that touched millions. It’s sad that what might be his last turn has been a turn to the Left and away from the songs our culture will continue to hum long after he’s gone.
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