Why Neil Young is so Great

Neil Young is an acquired taste. His unique voice, his chimerical persona and odd occasional success make him someone that most people acknowledge as a seminal figure in rock and roll, but not necessarily someone they enjoy. Like a more interesting and challenging Eric Clapton, people know he’s a major figure, but they don’t necessarily know why.

That Voice

First off, let’s talk about Neil’s voice. It’s strangely wavering, kind of screechy, and expressive. It’s not pretty in the slightest – he’s no meadowlark. It resembles nothing so much as the high notes on a harmonica that make you kind of wince just a little.

But, if you get over the initial cringe, it’s the heart of why you will love Neil Young. It’s kind of like a teenager’s strange facial piercing – repulsive at first glance, but then, if you surrender your internal repulsion and get to know the person, it becomes a part of who they are and a badge of their uniqueness. And, just like a teenager’s piercing, there’s an element of “FU if you don’t like it!” attitude conveyed in Neil Young’s voice. Take him on his own terms, or don’t – but you have to accept him as he is if you want to appreciate Neil Young.

Neil Young’s voice democratizes his music. It’s not like listening to some songbird put down a crystalline version of perfection to admire and never touch. Neil Young songs invite you in to sing a verse or two. They’re not museum pieces, they’re sing alongs with soul. I defy anyone to drink three good beers, crank “Down by the River” and not join in. Breathes there a man with soul so dead?

The Songs

It’s impossible to make blanket statements about Neil Young’s music without opening yourself up to contradiction. He’s been performing for 40+ years, ranging from folk-inspired to inspiring punk. He’s written about history, drugs, divorce, love, war, and environmentalism. There’s no pigeonhole big enough.

But, for me, the thing about great Neil Young songs is that they create a mood. They don’t teach you anything, they don’t argue a point of view. They just bring you somewhere and you feel something powerful.

For me, the seminal Neil Young song is “Helpless” (though I could argue for “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “Cortez the Killer”, “Tonight’s the Night”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “Harvest Moon”, “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”, “Comes a Time”, “Southern Man” or any one of dozens of others. I’m not a big fan of his two biggest hits – “After the Goldrush” strikes me as awkward and pretentious, and “Heart of Gold” has no depth.

But back to “Helpless” – in it, he has evocative lyrics that expand the plaintive sound of his voice.

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.

I suppose you either get that or you don’t but he sings it slowly and powerfully and then you’re feeling as scared and adrift as the artist. It’s a mood, created by words, music and a voice, and he doesn’t resolve it or tie it up in an understandable knot. Neil Young, at his best, doesn’t lend himself to paraphrase. It just is what it is, and that’s enough.

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