“Canada is trading integrity for money” – Neil Young.
Let’s start with disclosure: I am a Neil Young fan, to the point where being a Neil Young fan has done much to shape my taste in music. To explain that, I need to go back to the late 80’s when I was sharing an apartment on Royal Ave with my brother.
I was raised in the Kootenays on a healthy diet of classic rock (although at the time we just called it Rock) and “Metal” (in quotes, because at the time that referred to a strange amalgamation of Zeppelin and Glam that went by names like Poison, Ratt, Quiet Riot, et al. my god.) because that was the playlist of the only real FM Rock station we could hear – “ROCK 106! KEZE!” out of Spokane, Washington.
When I moved to New West, CFMI was still Top-40, and one of the AM stations (CHRK 600) decided to go Classic Rock (probably the first time I heard that phrase in the context of 60s and 70s Rock music). Despite the hopeful WKRP-feeling of the whole enterprise, it was risky. AM came with questionable sound quality and more onerous Canadian content rules. This last requirement made for some difficult programming choices. All that BTO and Guess Who was bad enough, but the seemingly hourly appearance of the Whiner in D Minor caused me to turn Classic rock off. So safe to say Neil Young entered my consciousness in a pretty negative way.
A year or two later, I was sitting in the Quad at college and “Rocking in the Free World” came on the TV (tuned to MuchMusic, of course), and my opinion changed.
Looking back, it is a hard to understand how powerful that song was. Perhaps this has something to do with “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” by Milli Vanilli being #1 on the charts the day that Young’s Freedom was released. Here was this old rocker, screaming angry lyrics about the fate of the world as America was plundering the depths of Bush I Conservatism. Between scenes of LA viewed through the eyes of a homeless man, we see Young standing in a dystopian junkyard beating the living shit out of his guitar – a solo so angry and violent that the strings were stripped off the instrument. The feedback and distortion are perfect for the angry chaos of the song. It might have been a Rock anthem, but it was more punk than Punk. The lyrics of the bridge (edited out of the video for MTV) lay the blame for the ills of the world on no-one but us:
“We got a thousand points of light, for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.
Got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people, says ‘keep hope alive’
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.”
A quarter-Century later, in a post-grunge era, the distortion and chaos of the song sound pretty tame. At the time, it was stunning in mainstream rock, and this album was my (admittedly late) gateway drug to Sonic Youth, Dinosaur (Jr.), Fugazi, and the Pixies. But that’s a whole different story.
I bought Freedom on cassette, and became a pretty big Young fan at that point. Such that I can look back at where I was and what I was doing by Neil Young concerts: Solo acoustic at the Spokane Coliseum (I was working at a ski shop in Trail); with Crazy Horse at the Pacific Coliseum (undergrad at SFU); with Booker T and the MGs (around my Brother’s wedding, working in a bike shop, living on Hastings street); etc. His album “Harvest Moon” even played a significant role in my courting (or being courted by) Ms.NWimby.
The question is why am I such a fan? His rock music is pretty straight-forward, even derivative. His ballads are simple – 3 verses and chorus. His vocal style is distinct, but not particularly elegant. He is pretty good at the guitar (if you like extended one-note guitar solos), ok on the piano, and probably should avoid future banjo work. His styles change like the wind, and for every work of genius like “After the Goldrush” there is a “Trans” or an “Everybody’s Rockin”. However, with all the ups and downs of his discography, there is one thread that runs through: integrity.
He has spent a life surrounded with chaos (broken childhood home, 60s folk scene, 70s drug scene, etc.), and, when he occasionally found himself flirting with middle-of-the-road success, he once famously said:
“Traveling there was really boring so I headed for the ditch“.
Every seemingly-strange fork he took in his long career (Trans, Shocking Pinks, Greendale), he did with purpose, and because he felt it served his creative drive. He has never been afraid of being unpopular – he was once sued by David Geffen for making records that didn’t sound enough like Neil Young (Geffen lost). He seems to have limited interest in the machine that feeds him – rock and roll stardom. A lesser-known song on “Freedom” talks about the state of the music business at the time when Milli Vanilli was #1 on the charts:
“The artist looked at the producer, The producer sat back
He said ‘What we have got here, is a perfect track
‘But we don’t have a vocal, so we don’t have a song
‘If we could get these things accomplished,
‘nothing else could go wrong.’
So he balanced the ashtray, as he picked up the phone:
Said ‘Send me a songwriter, who’s drifted far from home
‘Make sure that he’s hungry, make sure he’s alone
‘Send me a cheeseburger, and a new Rolling Stone.'”
-Crime in the City (Sixty to zero)
He more famously (clumsily, unkindly) lampooned corporate ownership of music and using music to shill products:
Young’s integrity doesn’t stop at his music, though. He has, for more than 20 years, run an annual benefit for the Bridge School– a school for kids with communications challenges related to various disabilities (his own son is non-verbal with cerebral palsy). He worked with Willie Nelson to develop the Farm Aid movement. Just as he has never shied away from musical experiments, he has never been bashful about his political opinions, from “Ohio” to “Living with War”. I don’t know if he is right in his opinions, I’m sure we can all pick opinions of Young’s that we don’t agree with. However, when he speaks about something politically, we can be sure it is coming from him. You cannot doubt his sincerity, or his integrity.
Hearing his interviews since this whole thing started, the answer is easy to find. Young is a tinkerer, and has always expressed ideas around sustainability. Exploring his film-making side, he decided to drive his electric car to Fort McMurray and see what all the fuss was about. I take him completely at face value when he describes getting out of his (electric) car, smelling the air in Fort Mac, and recognizing something was amiss with the boreal forest. Being a life-long advocate for aboriginal rights, he connected with local first nations, and was told of their concerns. Clearly they made an impression, because he made a commitment to help them out if he could. Turns out he could.
Did Young then contact the Canadian Association of Petroleum producers to get the “other side of the story”? Did he surf over to Suncor’s website to see the myriad benefits of oil extraction? Did he read the most recent International Energy Agency forecasts for recoverable reserves and cross reference against human rights abuses in other petroleum producing nations? Possibly. More likely, he looked in the eyes of his Athabasca Chipewyan hosts, smelled the bitumen in the air, and said something along the lines of “this shit ain’t right”. Then he set about doing what he could to help raise the profile of the issue, and maybe raise money to help people he saw as needing some help.
The reaction from the Oil Industry and their shills was predictable, alternating between obscuring the point he was making to ad hominem attack on him as a “Rock Star”, “Aging Rocker” or a “Bad Canadian”. Perhaps the most ham-fisted rebuke of Young’s statements was made by Harper Government spokes-flaks. A response easily and compellingly retorted by Young. Watching that exchange, it is clear which side is speaking with integrity.
To Ezra Levant and his astro-turf shills behind “Ethical Oil”, who have started an anti-Neil Young website, I ask: Where is your integrity? They call Young a “drug lifestyle icon” after the man has been public about his sobriety, and some of his most poignant songs are about the friends he lost to drugs. But if the quality of Young’s “lifestyle” is to be questioned, we should start by looking at his 40-year body of work, his commercial, artistic, and critical success. One might conclude that we all would benefit from a little more of whatever Neil is on.
They further criticize Young for not protesting against OPEC dictatorships, while also suggesting he shouldn’t meddle in Canada’s politics, as he doesn’t live here (try to square that circle). They never address the actual points that Neil Young is making, and the entire issue of the Constitutional rights of First Nations – the centre of all of Young’s arguments – is conveniently ignored by those interested in “Ethical Oil”. Instead, they then call Young a hypocrite for fueling his “rock star lifestyle” with oil, not realizing that they are making his point. They are correct that Neil Young is reliant on fossil fuels; We are all reliant on fossil fuels. That is the fucking problem!
Um… sorry, got a little heated there. I know I should be used to it but now, but I’m still surprised when it is suggested that our society may need to think about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and critics react by arguing “but we NEED fossil fuels, we can’t live without them”, as if that is a counter-argument, and not just begging the question. If this isn’t addiction, what is?
I’ve seen Neil Young talk, and I’ve heard his critics. I’ve seen Neil Young walk the walk and put his time and money where his mouth is. I see a person raising a conversation about the largest industrial development in the history of Canada’s hinterland, and I hear critics telling him to shut up. I see a person standing next to First Nations leaders and trying to help a community who feel powerless against global Multinationals and the government that covers for them. I see the Government trying to reassure an increasingly suspicious public that everything is fine: “Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive”, indeed. I see an
aging rocker legendary artist, humanitarian, and Officer of the Order of Canada using his name not to fill his crib, but to raise a conversation about an issue that is important to the future of the planet, important to the nation of his birth, and important to a small community in eastern Alberta that touched him. I see one man acting with integrity, and taking the slings and arrows that often follow those that choose that path.
I’m with Neil.