This is the second of a pair of articles I wrote about Neil Young in the late 1980s (here's the first one). This one was first written in late 1987 and submitted to the Neil Young Appreciation Society shortly afterwards. When the first article appeared in Broken Arrow No 37, and I realised that the ever-generous Alan Jenkins wasn't just being polite when he said he'd publish the articles, I asked him if I could revise the second one. I did this in early 1990, and it was published in Broken Arrow No 39later that year. Both articles also appeared 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).
As this article has already been revised once, I have made fewer changes to this one that I did to its twin. The differences are mainly fairly subtle ones of word choice and emphasis.
In the first article Neil comes across like film director and writer; here he comes across first as a method actor. Towards the end of the article, there is more focus on paradoxes in his work. This contains the seeds of an idea I had for a third article, which I don't think I ever wrote, around the theme of self-mockery, verging sometime to self-destructiveness, in Neil's work.
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There have been several 'versions' of Neil Young in the public mind over the years: lonesome hippy, Reaganite country singer, godfather of grunge, and now a sort of liberal elder statesman of rock'n'roll. These are just some of the labels that have stuck in the press — there have been others (electronic popster, rockabilly rebel, swinging bluesman) that lasted so briefly that they never really sunk in.
The problem is that the different versions seem to contradict each other: how could Neil say that he supported Reagan's nuclear build-up in an interview in 1985 (Melody Maker, 7 Sept) when he sung Like an Inca in 1983, and has flaunted CND/Ban the Bomb symbols so often since then? In this article I'm not going to try and pin down the 'real' Neil, because I think he has (deliberately) made that pretty well impossible. Instead I suggest that part of the pleasure of his work is how it keeps you guessing.
I am going to concentrate first on Neil's Country music of the early and mid-1980s, when many critics dubbed him reactionary and conservative, as I think this highlights the contradictions and the different interpretations that can be put on his songs. Take the title track of Hawks and Doves: on the face of it this might seem a straightforward declaration of patriotism, threatening anyone who doesn't go along with the singer's way of thinking (Don't push too my hard my friend... if you hate us, you just don't know what you're saying). But, as Robin Hodder suggested in a letter in Broken Arrow 30, it is difficult to take Neil seriously when he sings (in a coarse, very uncanadian accent), I ain't tongue tied, just don't got nothin' to say. It sounds very much as though he is playing a part, rather than expressing his true feelings. If that were the case, you could interpret Neil as even caricaturing or undermining what he says as he says it. Rather than supporting the patriots, he might be attacking them for their simple-mindedness.
When Allan Jones reviewed Old Ways (Melody Maker, 31 Aug 1985), he made a similar sort of interpretation:
Neil adopts the superficially sentimental posture of bucolic redneck values only to savagely undermine the existing platitudes and potential psychopathy of Reagan's troubled America.
For him this was a 'bitterly ironic, violently hilarious record, full of scathing sarcasm'. I think this is fairly clearly true of Hawks and Doves, but when it comes to Old Ways, Neil's sarcasm, if it is still there, has become a lot more subtle and far from 'scathing'. It is much more difficult to decide whether he is being sarcastic or really means what he says. Sure enough, the contradictions are still there if you look hard enough — listen to California Sunset and then listen to L.A. (a truly violent and bitter song from twelve years earlier); listen to Are There Any More Real Cowboys? and then listen to Computer Cowboy — but these are easy to miss and sometimes debatable. Interestingly, when Neil sang Hawks and Doves with the International Harvesters in 1984, he changed the words to make them less obviously caricatured and tongue-in-cheek — I ain't tongue tied, just don't have much to say — reinforcing the shift from parody to a more nuanced pastiche.
One of the things that made it difficult to believe Allan Jones' interpretation was the things Neil said in interviews in support of Reagan during the same period. We accept a little bit of ambiguity in a song, but we expect people to tell the truth in interviews. This was what made Adam Sweeting make Neil out to be so right wing in an article based around an interview with him. But look at some of the other things Sweeting reported Neil as saying in the same interview (Melody Maker, 7 Sept 1985):
Rock'n'roll has let me down... I don't see a future for me there... I'm not 25, I'm not jumping around just doing rock'n'roll, this is me, so I shouldn't try and be something I'm not.
How strange that sounds with the benefit of hindsight! Was neil so deeply 'in character' with his new Country persona that he couldn't get out? Neil's well-documented ambiguity seemed to be on overdrive.
One of the best uses of ambiguity in Neil's Country period was, I think, his Live Aid performance — particularly Nothing is Perfect, which, since it has still not been released, remains tied in many people's minds with that event. Neil started off his Live Aid set with Sugar Mountain, The Needle and the Damage Done and Helpless. These were all very safe, nostalgic songs (none less than thirteen years old) that gave the audience a reassuring feeling — in a similar way to the inclusion of old songs on Freedom of which Neil said, 'People can hear these songs... and relate them back to whatever they like about me fifteen years ago... it's like a root' (BBC Radio 1 interview, broadcast 16 Dec 1989). Without this safe introduction from his so-called 'hippy' era, I don't think Nothing is Perfect would have sounded the same to the audience. Neil is very aware of the different approaches an audience can take, as he said in a New Musical Express interview (7 May 1988):
The audience decides everything. They're in control. The artist is just singing the songs. The way they are interpreted is what's really happening.
True, but the artist decides which songs to sing. And most artists at Live Aid stuck throughout to their Greatest Hits: few if any took the risk of playing unreleased songs.
What about the song itself? Judging from the audience cheers at lines like
There's women and men on the workforce
Doing forty hours plus overtime
So the hostages held at the airport
Can come back to something worthwhile
many would have agreed with Adam Sweeting, who described the song as
a strikingly forthright declaration of Young's current absorption with family life and almost gung-ho enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan's America.
But I see nothing forthright about it, only ambivalence. Should you be enthusiastic or distressed that We've got soldiers so strong they can bury the dead...? And within the context of Live Aid, can you escape the irony of
There's plenty of food on the table...
We've got so much to be happy about ?
Swept along by the nostalgia of the early part of the set, and by the self-congratulatory nature of the whole event, it seemed that a lot of people could escape it. On the other hand, some may have been reminded of what the even was really about.
It doesn't really matter what 'side' Neil was on, or what his real point of view was. What matters is that, by presenting awkward and contradictory points of view, he was making people ask questions.
In some of his more recent song Neil has been asking questions about his own position as a maverick artist with a conscience. In Prisoners of Rock'n'Roll he appears on one take to be poking fun at the disenchanted rockers who don't want to be watered down, taking orders from record company clowns and condemn themselves to obscurity because they don't want to be good. Yet here the irony is inescapable in the context of Neil's stormy relationship with Geffen, which was just breaking up at the time the song was release. If Neil is playing a character, as in Hawks and Doves, it is an appropriate character, uncomfortably close to home. If the song represents his own voice, should we take it seriously that he doesn't want to be good?
In Rockin' in the Free World Neil gives this reflexivity on his own position a political twist. It is in in microcosm a demonstration of the cleft stick that faces any songwriter who entertains the idea of making a difference to the world through their songs. As Neil said in his BBC Radio 1 interview:
the song is an anthem on the one hand — a Bruce Springsteen kind of a thing — but on the other hand it's not, it's the opposite, the negative side... From the chorus you'd think it was going to be 'Hooray for us', but it's not...
The verses describe poverty, homelessness and ecological problems. Next to these, the chorus seems vacuous and fatuously irrelevant. By extension you might think that the vessel that carries this empty message — a rock song — was irrelevant. It is, but then again it isn't. Strangely the chorus sitll exerts a pull as an anthem and gives the song a momentum and an import, as though keeping on rockin' really might make a difference after all. What this contradictory mixture points to is the ability of songwriters to draw attention to political problems using a catchy tune and a driving beat, but also their total inability to do anything about those problems directly. The ambiguity here does not involve choosing one interpretation or another, but choosing both at the same time.
We should not try to smooth over the tricky contradictions in Neil's work in an attempt to find out what he really thinks or what his real message is. This is the paradox of the line Take my advice, don't listen to me from 1986's Hippie Dream: if we take his advice and don't listen to him, then how can we take his advice? We should not worry about Neil's intentions but just let the songs create their own singers. To give Neil the last word,
The thing to do when you listen to my music is not to think that the every character in every song is me.
(Interview with Dave Fanning, Broken Arrow 29)
Written by David Jennings, 1990, 2003
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The 'Cretan Paradox', of which the title of this article is a variant
Neil Young's Live Aid set list — I have only heard the first five songs, which are all that were broadcast in the UK