Lent with Neil Young 2017
Each year during Lent, I try to focus some of my musical attention on an artist and/or album from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find lessons for the Lenten journey. In past years we’ve considered the music of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In 2017, I will pay attention to the long, strange wilderness journey of Neil Young. Few artists have had as long and varied career as the Canadian singer-songwriter, who sang in folk clubs in the 1960’s with Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell, got the public’s attention with the band Buffalo Springfield, and began the 1970’s by joining Crosby, Stills, and Nash, adding darker tones and textures to the music of that remarkable group. That year also saw him release his breakthrough solo album, After the Gold Rush, which was one of the most formative albums in my life.
After that, Young’s career went on to follow a long, winding road with many detours, side trips, breakdowns, and refreshing oases, and it’s still going today. This complex journey makes it difficult for me to choose any single album as representative of what Neil Young has meant to me as an artist, poet, songwriter, and performer. Should I focus on After the Gold Rush, with its melancholy and sometimes mournful tones, Young’s plaintive, vulnerable vocals, its jagged, driving, angry social statements like “Southern Man,” and its simple, intimate tributes to romance? One review calls this album Young’s “requiem for the 60’s,” saying this:
But more than any of this, After the Gold Rush puts an end to ’60s idealism through a mix of songs that cut specifically — the meditative title track, a piano-driven ballad that ranks among Young’s very best — and more abstractly (the album’s opening cut, “Tell Me Why”) into the deep, overriding sorrow that runs throughout the record. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s,” he sings on “After the Gold Rush,” pretty much sealing a fate nine months into the new decade.
Well, that’s Lent all right — the end of idealism beside a flowing stream of sorrow. Mother Nature on the run.
But Neil Young soon went on to even darker and deeper explorations into mortality. After his most successful commercial record, Harvest, his friend, former Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten died of a drug overdose. And Young went from singing songs like the popular “Heart of Gold” to edgy, chaotic rock songs, such as those captured on the 1973 live album Time Fades Away. This, along with two other albums, Tonight’s the Night, and On The Beach, formed what came to be known as Neil Young’s “doom trilogy.”
Sounds right up the ol’ Lenten alley, huh?
Well, at this point we’re only in the mid-1970’s, folks, and since then Neil Young has found more ways to reinvent himself and comment on life’s mixed bag than I have time to tell in one blog post.
So many of his albums, then and in subsequent years, would be appropriate to consider during this season of mud and muck leading to rebirth. Therefore, instead of choosing one album on which to focus, I will take time during Lent to explore the Neil Young catalogue, finding songs that speak to me of this journey, the incredible mix of romance and loss, fragility and strength, quiet whispers and overwhelming roars, and life and death that makes up Lent.
All these contrasts and more can be found in the music of Neil Young, my Lenten muse in 2017.
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For my selection today, here is a performance of “Philadelphia,” which Young wrote for the Jonathan Demme movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. It was nominated in 1994 for an Oscar for Best Original Song. It also received a nomination for the Best Male Vocal Rock Performance Grammy in 1995. It is one of Neil Young’s most poignant songs, written for a story about death and ultimate triumph of life and love.