Friday, May 9, 2014

Forever Young # 19: "Coping Mechanisms"

Song:  Ambulance Blues
Album:  On the Beach
Released:  July, 1974

 A month ago, my son Peter wrote a fantastic essay on the World War I book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ focusing on the stages of emotion that a German soldier, Paul Bäumer, goes through; from patriotism to disillusionment to despair.  Peter used song lyrics to get many of his points across (a requirement), primarily quoting the songs of Eminem.  I reviewed the essay before he handed it in and I must say it was a learning experience.  First off, Eminem is a bit deeper than I had given him credit (though unlike many of my contemporaries, I’d like to think I had some genuine respect already, based on both the movie ‘8 Mile’ and Peter’s admiration for this rapper’s music).  The bigger insight for me however was that, like myself, Peter was gaining valuable lessons in life through music.  Has he been reading my blog?

 It’s been a treat witnessing Peter connect with his musical interests beyond the superficial entry point.  I’ve never really pushed my own tastes on my children, although long drives on vacation trips and the like have called for us all to comprise and listen to one another’s selections on occasion.  Ultimately, however, music is specific to the times it was written and experiencing that period oneself (or experiencing the period soon after) is important to make the connection.  To expect another generation, before or after, to relate with the music of your times can be a futile quest.  Not impossible, mind you, but at the very least an uphill battle.  Besides, I believe what we really want to see is our kids making their own discoveries within the context of their times, no matter how great we think our music is.  That’s what Peter has done with Eminem and a handful of other musicians. 

 And yet, there are artistic statements out there that not only immerse themselves within the times they were created but also transcend beyond those times. These works, be they a book (i.e. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’), a movie (i.e. ‘8 Mile’), or any other art form, are truly meant for any generation.  In these blog pages, I have made several attempts to explain the power of a great album in comparison to an individual song or a compilation of songs (i.e. “greatest hits”).  Albums are the only way a musician can achieve this lofty achievement of immersing within and transcending beyond a time period.  Songs are simply not all-encompassing enough, and compilations are often too contrived. 

 ‘On the Beach’ is one of these albums that can speak to all of us.  It is a period piece for sure, of the mid-70s, with references to Patty Hearst, Charles Manson and the Woodstock aftermath.  The general vibe is all 70s as well, including the powerful rhythm section of Levon Helm and Rick Danko on Revolution Blues (at their ‘Last Waltz’-period peak) and the album cover, one of Neil Young’s best; a beach scene full of symbolism, including a Cadillac supposedly having sunk deep in the sand (all that is exposed is the rear fin) and a newspaper with the headline “Sen Buckley calls for Nixon to resign”.  Yes, for those of us familiar with the 70s, this is the real deal.

But ‘On the Beach’ is not stuck in its times.  On the contrary, it is far reaching.  The album does this with an overriding theme:  That of coping - carrying on, dealing with difficulty, starting with the opening harbinger, Walk On.  We can all relate to these emotions.  One could argue Bob Dylan may have taken note with the release of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ just six months later, which dealt with similar themes.  Neil Young was turning a corner with this album.  ‘On the Beach’ has a feel that Young was in it for the long haul, albeit far removed from his 60s blind-faith glory days.  He comes to terms with this new reality here, but in doing so, he stands true to his principles.  After listening to this album again for this entire week, it is not surprising to me that Neil Young is one of the few 60’s musicians still creating in any meaningful way.  Read between the lines, with the knowledge we have now about this man’s career, and longevity is all over the place on ‘On the Beach’.

The central coping theme in the songs on this album is a response to personal loss and generational disillusionment, though it’s the latter that gets the mother lode of focus here.  But Young does not abandon his generation.  Rather he admits to being part of its failures and shows solidarity with his peers by rejecting the alternative paths of prior generations.  The final cut, Ambulance Blues collects all of this together – the times, the coping, the comparisons to other generational norms - in brilliant fashion.  One verse in the song is particularly poignant:
“You’re all just pissin’ in the wind
You don’t know it but you are
And there ain’t nothin’ like a friend
Who can tell you you’re just pissin’ in the wind”

Many have read into these lyrics.  From my perspective this is referring to a comment made by an elder Torontonian to Neil Young at a farmers market.  This catches Young at a low point, but other lyrics respond to this comment, including a seeming response to a first responder’s attitude toward hippies (at Woodstock perhaps?):  

“So all you critics sit alone
You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown
With your stomach pump and your hook and ladder dreams
We could get together for some scenes

…and a reference to the Nixon scandals at the end of the song:

“I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he's talking to?
Cause I know it ain't me, and hope it isn't you”

 Although Neil Young has moved on from certain songs in his vast catalog, he remains connected to this one despite its first-listen time stamp feel.  An outstanding rendition of Ambulance Blues is on the 2009 Neil Young documentary ‘Trunk’:

Reconnecting with my initial comments about Peter’s essay, there’s a link there to ‘On the Beach’.  Neil Young went through a transition from enthusiasm to disillusionment in the early 70s, but unlike some of his brethren (and the protagonist in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’), he never succumbs to despair.  This speaks to a positive take from the 60s that lasts to this day: Openness.  The Beatles, Neil Young and others of that era showed us all that we could be far more transparent than earlier generations.  Perhaps there was more of a need for secrecy in the eras prior (i.e. WWII memories) but this did not have to carry over to the Baby Boomers and we made sure we broke the mold.  The 60s allowed the 70s and beyond to play out this way, and I personally benefitted from it.  Some of the highlight moments of my friendships over the years have been frank and open discussions on life, love and faith.  Heavy one-on-one conversations with Pat, Dave, Luc, Rocco, Kurt and others come to mind when I think of how I have been blessed by this generational characteristic.  I can thank the 60s era for this.

 With that said, what I really gained from that learning experience of reading Peter’s essay was a sense of a continuum that appears founded in the blues; from Bob Dylan to Neil Young to the Clash, to Nirvana to Green Day to Eminem.  Many rock and roll musicians espouse upon the influence of blues music to their own success.  For the longest time, I could not make the connection, but in recent years I’ve begun to see the light.  Blues music is rooted in bare-bones openness, no matter the revelation.  Ambulance Blues has this in spades.  It’s aptly named:  A raw, naked song that cuts straight to the soul.

 -          Pete

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