Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Neil Young | 10 Songs, 10 Stories

PHOTO BY JASON GONULSEN

Neil Young makes his long-awaited return to St. Louis tomorrow night, playing a solo show at the Fox Theatre. The show is sold out. John Hammond will open the show.

Here are ten of my favorite Neil Young songs, accompanied by personal stories.

See you tomorrow.

Heart of Gold

Two distinct memories stick out about this song. The first being driving on the highway a few days after 9/11, listening to the radio, and the DJ saying something like "here's one to bring you some comfort." He was right -- something about hearing this song during a time when the world seemed different -- was different -- I immediately felt like a human being again, connected to other humans (and not monsters). I cranked it up so loud and rolled down the windows, and I can feel the air blowing through my hair as I type this. Maybe I felt comfort that, at that very moment, many others were listening with me. "I want to live...I want to give..."

The second memory is always listening to this song with my Dad on our many road trips across the Midwest. We would listen via cassette. When I came home from college for the first time, the cassette was still in his car and he had been listening while I was gone. But he had misheard the lyrics and started singing, "keep me searching for a pot of gold!" I was dying laughing. No, Dad. Heart of gold.



Old Man

I bought Harvest with my parents' money at Best Buy, and much of my alone time growing up was spent listening to this album -- and this song -- while reading books by Stephen King. I have this strange memory of listening to "Old Man" on repeat while I read King's Four Past Midnight. And every time I see a copy of that book, I think of this song.



Ambulance Blues

I worked a summer job at the Illinois Department of Corrections, and a lot of my time was spent with a guy named Ron Gray. He loved this song. We would close his office door and blast it while we talked about the lyrics. Like, he would often stop the song and say, "DAMN! YES! Hook and ladder dreams!!! Oh Mother Goose!!!! You're all just PISSING IN THE WIND!!! You don't know it, but you are!!" It was an educational summer.



Razor Love

I think of my cousin Amanda whenever I hear this song. I think it has something to do with listening to the Silver and Gold album for the first time while driving to Springfield from St. Louis in a torrential downpour. Do you ever remember times like this? Something about mellow music while the rain is pounding on your windshield. Magic.



Pocahontas

Growing up without the Internet was not frustrating when you were living through it. In many ways, we can all benefit from the imagination that the unknown can bring. Today, there is no unknown; the mystery has been removed. I can read about Pocahontas and Marlon Brando whenever I choose. Back when I first heard this song, I had no idea what the "Aurora Borealis" was. And because I never really did pay attention in history class, I had to rely on my imagination to decipher who Pocahontas was or might have been. "They killed us in our teepees, and they cut our women down..." I guess I relied on this song, too. I prefer the Unplugged version to this day.



Powderfinger

I always think of my brother when this song comes on. In fact, we often text back lyrics to this song (and "Pocahontas," too). I think we both heard it first listening to the Live Rust album, and the first lines, "Lookout mama, there's a white boat coming up the river," had our immediate attention. Also, I wrote a short story once inspired by the line, "I think you better call John 'cause it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail." Something about the words in this song. The imagery. The panic.

 The tragedy.

Walk With Me

This song got me through so many tough times. So, so powerful. I love how urgent and honest it is. To me, it's a desperate plea to the world -- that I can't do it alone, and neither can you. We need each other. Walk with me. Shine me a light. The essence of life. The patience of unconditional love. It made me feel like everything was going to be okay.



Walk On

Sooner or later, it all gets real. I believe in karma, and I'm much, much better at letting things go because of songs like this. With so many things being temporary in life, be careful of what you choose to dwell on. Walk on, walk on.



Cortez the Killer

My favorite song ever. It will always be.

Last year at Farm Aid I got to photograph Neil's set with Promise of the Real, and here's what I wrote about that experience (and this song):

The PR staff at Farm Aid is ridiculously good at what they do. But even they did not know if Neil Young would be performing solo, or with Promise of the Real. There wasn't even a guarantee that we would be able to photograph his set. I traveled all the way to Pittsburgh for the possibility. Soundboard at best, I thought. One song? Yeah, something like that.
But it was so much better than that.
We were told we'd be split into 2 groups, each getting 2 songs, and maybe a third. I was picked to go in the second group. I'm excited, waiting...Neil comes out with Promise of the Real and begins "Fuckin Up." It's raw, it's powerful, it's what only Neil Young can do. He could have come out with an acoustic guitar and done the bare minimum. Instead, he's giving everything. He's moving. He's feeling it. He's almost 72.
The next song is my favorite song of all time: "Cortez the Killer." I loved it the first time I heard it at 13, especially that mysterious second verse.
But I had a "problem"...I was still waiting to enter the photo pit. Not looking good for me. To photograph Neil playing my favorite song ever.
But this photo exists because a security guard walked up to our PR leader and said "Look, this is a 15 min song..I know his songs....we gotta get them out." And since "Fuckin Up" was a 15 min version as well, I was in business.
I'm walking into the pit. There's 20,000 people behind me.
And Neil Young is *just about* to begin the second verse of Cortez. My favorite verse.
Here's the moment when he backed off from the microphone after singing "and I know she's living there / and she loves me to this day / I still can't remember when / or how I lost my way..."
It's something I never could have imagined at age 13.
It happened at age 38.

Thank you.



The Painter

Finally, I think of my cousin Peri whenever I hear this song. A song of hope, of dreams. You can't follow them all, but you get to choose your path, and you must live with your decision. "It's a long road ahead..." Peace and love forever.