Friday, January 17, 2014

Forever Young # 3: "Carpe Diem"

Song:  Someday
Album:  Freedom
Released: October, 1989

One positive effect from attending a large number of concerts is that sooner or later you get a feel for the strength of a show in relation to others.  Are the musicians going through the motions, or are they jacked up? Does the band sound unfamiliar with each other or are they tight? Is the principle songwriter in a creative lull or on a creative roll?  Is the band reunited simply for the nostalgia and money or are they trying to capture a spark from yesteryear with the intention of building something new?

Looking back, that first Neil Young show I attended with Bob Bouvier in 1986 was off the charts (first discussed in Forever Young # 1).  There was something about it at the time that said to me “this guy is still extremely viable.  Even after all these years, he has plenty of reserves in the tank”.  This was a great feeling to have at a show.  So often I’d heard stories from long time concert-goers of those epic 60s and early 70s rock events along the lines of “yeah, this was good, but you should have seen them in their prime!” 

Several years later, with the release of the album ‘Freedom’, Neil Young proved me correct:  He was still in his prime.  ‘Freedom’ was a brilliant album; one of a triumvirate of strong albums produced in 1989 by three of rock’s top-drawer trailblazers, the others being Bob Dylan with ‘Oh Mercy’ and Lou Reed with ‘New York’.  All these albums were heavy, and I listened to each incessantly that year.  I also attended concert tours by these artists that showcased all or parts of their new material (Reed the most memorable, performing ‘New York’ from beginning to end at the Shubert Theatre in Boston).  Reed’s ‘New York’ and Young’s ‘Freedom’ also had similar biting lamentations on the struggles of the poor and misguided in the inner city.  The music had a moral authority to it.  Toss in those majestic Stones and Who tours and yes, it was indeed a great year for rock and roll, 1989.

 ‘Freedom’ is deep, and consistent, and all-encompassing, and passionate.  I believe there is a concept throughout, and it centers on the album’s title.  Once tapped into this concept of freedom, you find there is no point in the album that strays far from it.  Freedom (or lack-thereof) has so many connotations here.  At face value, the ideal is there (although not without consequences) in the only hit on the album: Rockin in the Free World.  But freedom is what has been lost in most all the other songs….in the broken world of a cheating man (Wrecking Ball); in the missed opportunities of a lost soul (Too Far Gone); in the yearnings of someone trying to shake his addictions (No More); in the downtrodden of the albums one cover song (On Broadway).  When freedom is found, as is the case in Hangin on a Limb, it appears to lead to the end of the very relationship that allowed it to happen.

And freedom is the common ingredient in each stanza of this week’s song, Someday.  I love all of the mini-stories in this song, each of which leaves enough to the imagination to keep things interesting with every listen.  There’s the t.v. preacher (note the whispering, barely audible "we all have to sin" backing vocal masking Neil Young's last wording of the phrase in the stanza - wow).  There are the pipe-line workers (or is it the barons that are making the profit perhaps?}.  The stanza that hits me hardest, however, is the opening one, which goes like this:

Rommel wore a ring on his finger
He only took it off
when he flew his plane
Once he told me why
He said we all have to fly
We all have to fly

Now there’s no need to look into the meaning of the name Rommel .  This is not the German field marshal of WWII renown:  He was not known for his aviation skills.  Nor is it any other famous flying Rommel, at least when trying to track the name on the internet.  I decided early on this was not something to key in on, at least without direct communication with Neil Young (which I do not have).  Another thing I decided to shrug off was the interpretation of the word “fly” to really mean “die”.  Nah, too easy, that analogy, for this song and this album.

Fly as a metaphor for freedom though?  Now we’re talking.   This is a deeper meaning, and more important, it gets to the core of who Neil Young is.  The removal of the ring is about Rommel losing the inhibitions that go with identity and seizing the moment.  It’s about risk.  It’s about not resting on your laurels. It’s about choosing the strong possibility of failure over complacency.  It’s about following your muse. 

It’s about Neil Young’s career. 

Therein is the reason why Neil Young could produce an album like ‘Freedom’ 25 years into his life as a songwriter.  His ability to always follow the music, and in turn not suffer the same pitfalls of many of his contemporaries, kept him open to this possibility through the experimental music and the roots music and the folk music and the old-rockers, and the grunge.  We all have to be free someday.  It can start at any time, and Neil Young insists on making the jump start to get there far more often than most of us.  There’s something to be learned there…. strip those barriers down to your own inner freedom whenever possible.  Forge ahead.  Make things happen.  Carpe Diem.

Last week, Neil Young played Carnegie Hall. The shows got rave reviews, the critics virtually unanimous in their praise of Young playing a set list that consisted primarily of his late 60s and early 70s hits.   Someday was tucked in there, however:  A stray from the norm of the evening (and a rarity, being something I had never heard him play live before).   Below is a link to the studio version of Someday followed by the recent Carnegie Hall live performance of the song.

-          Pete
Neil Young Someday, Carnegie Hall, January 2014


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