Thursday, March 20, 2014

Forever Young # 12: "Lock Picking"

Song:  The Loner
Album:  Neil Young
Released:  November, 1968

 I was an avid Marvel Comics reader in the mid-70s.  One of the comic books I read was a then new series titled ‘The Defenders’.  It centered on a ‘non-group’ of superheroes, a creative idea, published at a time when Marvel was at the top of their game.  Each of the original non-members of ‘The Defenders’ were already known through their own series, including the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, the Submariner and the Hulk (the series got better and better over the first few years as the Defenders morphed to include a handful of more obscure non-members).  None of these characters had been cast by Marvel as the congenial type; not a one with any semblance of a personality that would be enamored by the thought of going to battle with others.  But the writers of this series found unique and often amazingly bizarre ways to bring them all together, one episode after another, only to have them part ways at the end of a storyline (usually in a huff).

Several weeks back as I listened to the music of Buffalo Springfield (see Forever Young # 8), I thought of ‘The Defenders’ and the difficulties that can crop up when trying to keep a group together.  For many reasons Buffalo Springfield was destined to be short lived, and the biggest reason of all was Neil Young.  In the comic series, the character who proved the most difficult to rein in was the Hulk; a loose wire, far more antihero than hero.  Concocting ways of incorporating the Hulk into a storyline was where the writers earned their keep.  Buffalo Springfield on the other hand had no such cohesive entity, and despite early success, the abundance of talent in the band, and the potential for grander achievements, it was not long before the loner in Neil Young took over, leaving the band several times before finally calling it quits for good in 1968 after less than 2 years.  If Buffalo Springfield had a Hulk, it was Young. 

Why was this?  Why would Neil Young leave a sure thing in the dust?  Reasons I’ve heard are legitimate enough given the career path which would follow, including the need for full artistic control, and his chameleon like qualities.  But I think there’s another deeper explanation that has not been explored, at least in the literature I’ve read.  Yet, it’s there for anyone to interpret in Young’s very first solo single, The Loner ( ), a song far more apropos than could have been obvious at the time of its release.  There are some very important lyrics in The Loner that help explain Neil Young’s need to go it alone.  The first is the refrain, which I first latched on to while enjoying this song back in the 70s:
Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It’s the loner

 What has always intrigued me in this refrain is the “Step aside, open wide” line.  It’s telling to me in that there’s a respect here which needs to be recognized in this individual’s makeup.  Why?  The concept goes against the grain!  You step aside (and open wide) for a leader, not a loner.  A leader can galvanize crowds.  A leader can make a difference.  A leader can get people to do altruistic things.  As for a loner, the term is more synonymous with words like eccentric, or introvert, or outcast, or even loser.  But Neil Young is praising the loner in this song. 

It had me digging deeper.

Early this week, as I thought more about The Loner and this refrain, another of Neil Young’s great songs kept looping through my conscience:  Helpless.  At first I concluded the reason was fairly superficial:  To understand Young it helps to understand his childhood, which this song is most certainly about.  Simple enough.  But then I picked up on a common analogy in the two songs; that of chains, keys and locks….and something clicked (no pun intended). 

In Helpless there are these lines:

The chains are locked
and tied across the door,
Baby, sing with me somehow.

And in The Loner there are these lines:

He's the unforeseen danger
the keeper of
the key to the locks.

I began thinking these analogies were linked (ok, pun intended this time).  In both cases the locked chains appear to be referring to youthful innocence and the unlikelihood that you can reconnect to these ideals once you lose them.  The thing about the hero in The Loner is he’s figured out how to maintain that connection….but at a cost (hence the title to the song).  This thought process actually brought me back to the Hulk, a simple minded brute who could only relate to the pure-at-heart (and even then it was precarious).  I always loved this angle in the Hulk storylines…. that being his zero tolerance for even an iota of superficiality (a similar trait to several people I know). 

Interestingly, listening to the studio version of this song there is an audible second “of” in the line about locks: “He’s the unforeseen danger of the keeper of the keys to the locks”.  That other “of” is not captured in any subsequent printing of the lyrics, including the in-sleeve of the original album (the self-titled ‘Neil Young’).  Is this a Freudian slip?  The additional ‘of’ changes the meaning some:  Instead of actually being the keeper (of the key to the locks), he’s a threat to that keeper.  I like this meaning better.

One other line in Helpless reverberated with me this week as well:  All my changes were there”.  In other words, nothing else was going to mold Neil Young…. not Buffalo Springfield, not CSNY, not the Stray Gators, not even Crazy Horse.  He was already shaped in his very young life.  By the time he released Helpless in 1970, he knew this.  It’s not so much a bold declaration as it is a submission to what he sees as fact. 

Growing up, I connected with far more loners than insiders.  I’m not sure why this is, as I was likely the most extroverted of the crowd I hung out with (in a musical context, I enjoy musicians who can survive in a band more than those who need to break away).  Regardless, I feel blessed:  These connections shaped me, and made me a better person. 

At the very least, they allowed me to relate to someone like Neil Young.

-          Pete

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