“I want to live, I want to give. I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. It’s these expressions, I never give. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold.” The words from “Heart of Gold” ring true to many. We are searching for a heart of gold; all of us in one way, shape or form. Neil Young, like some of the others I have written about, is our conscious. Like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin, he sang about us. Our trials and tribulations. Like Dylan, he told us what was wrong in the world – he could just play a meaner guitar.
To appreciate fully the greatness of Neil Young, I would encourage you to give some compilation of his songs a listen on a long trip somewhere. I have a CD called “Decade” which is a two disc set, which seem to always have one of the two in my car’s CD player. Yes, I am an Old Fart, I know. One of his conscious testing songs still resonates today – “Southern Man.” Read on and tell me if you agree: “Southern man, better keep your head. Don’t forget what your good book said. Southern change gonna come at last. Now your crosses are burning fast. Southern man.” Please know that I am from the south. Yet, there are cadres of people who have become quite exclusionary, which is giving the south a bad name once again. This is very frustrating to many, but our voices aren’t as newsworthy as the loud and proud neighbors we have.
Another favorite is “Old Man.” It tells the tale of how the old man was once just like the young rebel. “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…. Old man, look at my life, twenty-four and there is so much more.” The times were different, but the arguments are similar. Let me live my life. It is mine not yours. This argument has been going for years and will go on tomorrow. Mark Twain once lamented how stupid his father was when he was a teenager and how smart he became once Twain got in his twenties. That was written more than 125 years ago. He could write it 125 years into the future and it would still be true.
One of the best tunes he wrote with a very distinctive title is “Cinnamon Girl.” He describes her as “A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night. You can see us together, chasing the moonlight. My Cinnamon Girl.” I think he uses Cinnamon as it is spicy and often used with something sweet. At least that is the conclusion I like to believe is true. But, the song is evocative in many ways. Give it a listen and see if you concur.
There so many to choose from – “Helpless” is a favorite. If you get a chance to see The Band’s final concert movie “The Last Waltz”, look for Joni Mitchell singing a haunting back-up to “Helpless” with Young. “Ohio” is an anthem against President Richard Nixon for allowing the national guard to be called out on college students at Kent State, where an itchy trigger finger caused students to die. This was one of the more avoidable tragedies in our country and was a damn shame.”Down by the River”, “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Like a Hurricane”, “Long May You Run” and “Sugar Mountain” are all terrific. He has so many songs, that I have likely left off someone’s favorite.
Let me close with one he wrote during the time of the first President George Bush, back when our homeless problem was becoming worse, the war on drugs was failing miserably and we tended to speak in platitudes, some of which you may recognize. “Keep on Rockin in the Free World” is an anthem*. To me it says, I am still here and this is a great place to be, but quit screwing people over: “We got a thousands points of light, for the homeless man. We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand….Got a man of the people says to ‘keep hope alive.’ Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive…Keep on rockin in the free world…”
One of the reasons I like this song is politicians and leaders like to speak in buzz words or say things that sound great. Yet, talk is cheap. You need to make a move to make a difference. People were dying on the street, yet little was done by leadership. Plus, I like it as he showed he still had the knack. The 1980’s had some good songs, but it was a decade of big hair bands whose lyrics and music were fairly straightforward and similar. This song made a statement by its words, as well as made a statement by its tune. But, the other reason it resonated as one month after its release, the Berlin Wall fell and it became an anthem for “rockin in the free world.”
Neil, you have been our conscience for a long time. We love the important words, the storytelling and the music. We love that you stand up for what you believe. Keep on rocking for a free world and mining for that heart of gold.
*Note: Here is Neil Young singing “Rockin’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live in 1989.