An earlier version of this article was written in 1987. It was submitted to the Neil Young Appreciation Society in late 1987/early 1988, and then I more or less forgot about it. By the time it was first published in Broken Arrow No 37 (late 1989?), I already felt uneasy about some parts of the original argument. That version was subsequently published again in Alan Jenkins (ed) Neil Young and Broken Arrow: On a Journey Through the Past, Neil Young Appreciation Society, Bridgend, 1994 (ISBN 0 9523082 0 7). David Downing was kind enough to cite the article in his Neil Young biography A Dreamer of Pictures.
The overall shape of this updated version of the article is unchanged from the original. I have taken the opportunity to tone down some parts of the argument that seemed tangential or tenuous. For example, the original version included a paragraph about Brechtian 'alienation effect' (Verfremdungseffekt) — I think that had more to do with the fact that I'd just read about it in Terry Eagleton's Marxism and Literary Criticism at the time. However, though Brecht is now left out of the picture, Jean-Luc Godard is added in: although it wasn't until 1988 that I read an interview where Neil mentioned Godard directly, I'm surprised he wasn't in the original, as he is clearly relevant. The advent since 1987 of the Web and Google also makes it easier to research such links, so I can use this 1973 review of Neil Young's Journey through the Past film to back up my case. I've put some more relevant links at the foot of the article.
Another more subtle change is that the original version of this article attempted to impute Neil's intentions from his songs: I was more or less saying 'this is how I read the song, and I think this is the way Neil intended us all to read it'. The old 'intentional fallacy'. I've aimed to remove such suggestions in this version, so the focus is on what the songs say themselves as texts, without speculating about what was going on in their author's head.
Please do post a public comment on this article if you have anything to say about it.
There has been one major thread running through Neil Young's songwriting and performance, particularly throughout the 'genre' albums he has recorded over the past decade, which has been passed over in all discussion of his work. This has been the influence of Neil's interest, not to say preoccupation, with movies, film-making technique and characterisation.
Evidence of this interest is not hard to find. Neil has made three full-length films over the past decade and a half — Journey Through the Past, Rust Never Sleeps and Human Highway — though all have since drifted into obscurity. After the Goldrush was inspired by the movie project of the same name by Neil's friend Dean Stockwell, and now Neil has a cameo role in a couple of recent movies — Made in Heaven and '68, with the probability of more to follow. Finally, in an interview transcribed in Broken Arrow 29, Neil is quoted as saying,
I make these stylistic records which are like little movies, it's a character thing. Maybe if someone has asked me to make a movie, I would have done that instead of making a record.
In a second article I shall discuss the implications of this 'character' approach for the different political and cultural readings that can be made of Neil's work in the 1980s, but first I want to consider a couple of songs which can be read as miniature movies themselves: Powderfinger and Bound for Glory.Powderfinger: the thought that pulled the trigger
Powderfinger was quite possibly originally intended for the 'Stars' side of American Stars'n'Bars (intended to explore the mythologies of American folk hereoes) — if so, it would not be the first time the concept got shelved before release. We appear to have a song detailing the heroic, and ulitmately tragic, last ditch resistance of all-American youth to an approaching gunboat which threatens his family's homestead existence. The scene is reminiscent of the US Civil War, and the main character who narrates the plot in the first person is perhaps the son of one of those founding fathers of the USA so beloved of certain rhetoricians to this day.
But something is not quite right. Somehow, lines such as 'Big John's been drinking since the river took Emmylou' jar because they sound just that bit too archetypically all-American, like a caricature or cartoon. Other lines put in the narrator's mouth show him up as a simple, plain-speaking man, with quite a trite line in rhyme:
And I just turned twenty two
I was wondering what to do
The closer they go, the more those feelings grew
And the last line of the song 'Remember me to my love, I know I'll miss her' only half convinces if the narrator is aiming for extra pathos: the lover is previously unmentioned; our empathy is not fully engaged.
The ultimate trick in the song is that the character singing it is dead by the end, or at least on his death bed.
The cumulative effect of these anti-naturalistic elements is to flag up the artifice of the song: we are not being offered a straightforward, unmediated 'slice of life'. Instead the song is constructed, it has a subjective point of view, and as such it is open to question.
What questions we ask is up to us. Different people will make different judgements. You can probably tell already that my approach is laden with a liberal scepticism for American homesteader mythologising — but I'm not claiming that this approach is more valid than others, or necessarily closer to Neil Young's conception.
The cleverness of the song's construction is that it gives a story in the first person, but at the same time it gives the feeling that we're looking at the narrator in the third person. The artifice in the narrator's words gives us a distance from him; it undermines the empathy that one might naturally feel from an account of a David being gunned down by a Goliath, so that we can reach a cooler appraisal of the young rifle-bearer. Was his act heroic, or foolhardy and futile? How do we respond to the one truly poignant couplet in the song:
Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Is this regret or defiance, or both? The song doesn't give any easy answers, and it doesn't analyse or pass judgement on the thought that pulled the trigger. It's an existential moment of choice with drastic consequences, but we aren't being told what to think; we're being shown a picture.Bound for Glory: celestial bodies and bedrooms
Bound for Glory is another song that seems to deal with archetypal American characters, this time the kind you often find in the canvases of Country songs:
One fallen-asleep trucker
And a girl hitch-hiking with a dog
The story also follows the traditions of genre as the two lonely travellers take a brief step outside their personal histories to help each other make it through the night. With Waylon Jennings sharing the vocals with Neil, and customised clichés like 'looking for love at second sight', expectations are firmly set in line with well-known Country and Western traditions and tropes.
But, when we get to the chorus, something is wrong with this picture.
They were bound for each other
Like two comets heading for a bed
There could hardly be a more inappropriate metaphor for a human relationship, if it had any sense of being loving or profound. The word that jars is 'comets': comets are rarely 'bound for each other'; they speed through the cold depths of space, passing only fleetingly within sight of other bodies. And when did you last hear of comets heading for a bed? By substituting the word 'blankets' for 'comets' in the last reading of the chorus, Neil simultaneously draws attention to the use of 'comets' (by means of contrast, confounding expectations established by the previous choruses) and tips us the wink that the use of the word is conscious and deliberate — it wasn't just that he couldn't think of a better line.
So the spell is broken: the illusion that the song presents its narrative and characters as a direct, unmediated 'photograph of reality' is undermined. As with Powderfinger, we are encouraged to look further to see how Neil has transformed the tale to subvert, and comment upon, the Country ethic from which it was derived.
The personal histories we are given of the two characters are sketchy and, for the most part, banal:
He had an '84 International
And two kids he left back home with his wife
The vehicle gets top billing in this portrait of a man, followed by his children, with his wife being relegated solely to a support role for them. And this was 'Everything he wanted, till it all turned out to be a jar'. Meanwhile she had 'A new way of thinking...', though her behaviour suggests the opposite — she follows the hackneyed moral code of Country tradition — and 'Some say she had a broken heart' (of course!).
The book Bound for Glory, the first installment of Woody Guthrie's autobiography, sets out an engaging archetype, poetically observed, of a dustblown rural America, where the down-and-out can still find fulfillment and dignity, despite missing out on the material self-improvement of the American Dream. Neil's song, meanwhile, provides what is superficially an updated version of the same picture, but the perspective is very different. Where Woody's account is a straightforward valorisation of its characters, Neil's is much more ambivalent. The two strangers spending the night together in a trucker's cab are stuck in another existential situation (as with Powderfinger's narrator), and how they deal with it may be loving or it may be futile, but at the end it just is. There are enough seeds of doubt to wonder if the love they make is only a delusion.
By substituting crass, clichéd outlines for Woody Guthrie's tender, intricate portraits of characters, the song uses the original Bound for Glory as a counterpoint and contrast to itself. This account of a brief affair is far from being romanticised, as the physical intimacy (the bed) is set against a bleak emotional loneliness (the comets).The Movie Connection
I think it is useful to compare these two snapshots of ordinary people in exceptional moments with the late 60s/early 70s work of the school of American film directors, including Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson and Monte Hellman, whose films have been described as existential in outlook. The characters in Hopper's Easy Rider and Rafelson's in Five Easy Pieces are articulated by showing their contrasts with, and often opposition to, the world view and lifestyles that surround them. In the former, the contrast is with the communal ideals of the hippy movement, while in the latter it is with the Old World cultured intellectualism of the main character's family. In each case the films, like Neil's songs, show protagonists that are superficially part of some social tradition, but at the same time seem alienated from, or denied, the senses of connectedness, belonging and community that these traditions are supposed to offer. The central characters are on their own, thrown into a world where they must make decisions without God or Good to guide them.
Neil's Bound for Glory finds parallels of a sort in Rafelson's remake of James M Cain's existential novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. In this film, the two lead characters (played by Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange) are given only the most perfunctory of introductions. They are drawn together in a brief burst of passion, their affair being motivated by lust and then greed in the here-and-now.
Of the film-makers I have mentioned, Neil's most direct connection is with Dennis Hopper. My My, Hey Hey... and Thrasher are used in the soundtrack of Hopper's film Out of the Blue, and Hopper has a role in Neil's film Human Highway. Some of Hopper's work, particularly The Last Movie also shows the influence of another tradition in cinema: that of European modernist 'auteur' directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. One technique that these directors adopt, in common with modernists in literature, is the foregrounding of the process and the means by which their narration develops. This reflexivity in the work directs the audience's attention to the creative transformation, and hence the subjectivity, involved in the work's construction. In interviews Neil, like Dennis Hopper in the early 70s, has cited Godard as a major influence on his film work, so I don't think it is too far-fetched to suggest that Neil might have attempted to emulate this approach in the Journey through the Past versions of Alabama and Words, in which, edited into the songs themselves, are outtake sections which document some of Neil's decisions concerning the arrangements of the songs? This structure closely mimics Godard's film of the Rolling Stones playing Sympathy for the Devil in One Plus One.
Another technique particularly favoured by these film-makers is the cutting up and rearranging of narrative into non-linear sequences. Many of Neil's songs similarly feature 'jump cuts' between scenes separated in time and space. Cortez the Killer, Sedan Delivery, Misfits, Look Out for my Love, and Around the World all have distinct, and sometimes multiple, discontinuities in their lyrics. To try and fix any definitive interpretation on these montages would be foolish (although Neil's preoccupation with time travel may be relevant to some, as referred to by Johnny Rogan in his biography, and by Neil himself in interview with Adam Sweeting in Melody Maker, 7 Sept 1985). My point is simply to flag the way Neil seeks to translate techniques from film-making to songwriting, drawing from the avant garde often with surreal effect, such as in the juxtaposition of 'Star Wars' military proliferation and the fashion world in Around the World. Compare this with the montage in A Movie made by experimental film-maker (and fellow Devo collaborator) Bruce Conner, also known to be friendly with Neil.
In concluding, I must add a few caveats. Debate about an artist's intentions is always inconclusive, and it must be conceded that, if Neil has been influenced by film-making in the ways I have outlined, the implementation has often been only partially successful. As with experimental films, the effect of some of the songs is to leave the listener more baffled than enlightened. Secondly, what I have tried to do in this article is to unravel some of the construction and meaning of some of Neil's songs. This is inevitably a partial account, which does not address — and does not deny — other factors and vagaries in Neil's notoriously idiosyncratic writing process. Finally, Neil's use of cinematically inspired techniques and scenarios does not necessarily make them good songs. My account does not explain why Powderfinger stands out as a high spot in Neil's work while Bound for Glory is merely mediocre.
What I have tried to show is that Neil's interest in film-making provides a useful lens — forgive the pun — for approaching some of his songs to make more sense of them, and that, in many cases, 'There's more to the picture than meets the eye.'
Written by David Jennings, 1987, 2003
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Neil Young film credits as composer, actor, director, producer (IMDB)
Bob Rafelson filmography including The Postman Always Rings Twice (IMDB)
Bruce Conner filmography including A Movie and Devo's Mongoloid video (IMDB)
Article (1990) about Bruce Conner's multimedia work
Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory (Amazon.com)
Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One
Broken Arrow/Neil Young Appreciation Society
Review of documentary covering the context of Dennis Hopper's, Bob Rafelson's and Monte Hellman's films