Monday, August 4, 2014

Forever Young # 29: "Into the Mystic"

Song:  Prairie Wind
Album:  Prairie Wind
Released:  March, 2005

Back in early 2006, Nancy and I went to Landmark Theatres in Kendall Square, Cambridge, with close friends Madeline and Jeff to watch the limited-release Neil Young concert film “Heart of Gold”.  The film documents the live-version premiere of ‘Prairie Wind’, along with interviews and an extended set of songs from Young’s back catalog.  Given the high-definition quality of the theatre’s technology and the close-up footage, it’s about as intimate as most of us would ever want to get with Young and entourage.  Use of binoculars to witness a musician’s interactions with bandmates and the crowd is one thing.  Pixilation that captures a person’s nose hairs is on another level entirely. 

Aside from the high resolution, the aspect of the movie that stuck with me the most were several of the brief interludes between songs (oddly enough considering the great music) when Neil Young discussed the then-recent decline and passing of his Dad, Scott Young, to Alzheimer’s.  There was a poignant moment when Young mentioned to the Nashville crowd that he and they were now taking on a new role as elders, making the educated guess that most of those in attendance were contemporaries.  Another great moment was when Young tried to lighten his personal heartache with a funny anecdote about his Dad, who had temporarily snapped out of memory loss months before his death while sitting in the passenger seat of his son’s car as they were driving down the highway.  The elder Young spotted a vehicle behind a billboard, and, as Neil Young described it, his Dad snapped to attention and blurted out “Cop!”.  Telling this story, Young’s smirk belied the heavy emotions in his eyes.

From what I have read, Scott Young appears to have been a fascinating character in his own right.  He was a Canadian journalist in a variety of genera’s including as a professional hockey sportswriter.   One of his biggest claims to fame was standing up to the NHL in 1948 by writing an article in the Toronto-based Maclean’s Magazine titled “Hogtied Hockey”, which exposed the virtual lifelong servitude a hockey player in those days had with the team who discovered him, regardless of the number of years the player had initially agreed to in a contract.  Scott Young was ostracized by the powers that be in Toronto, but never let this stop him from doing what he believed to be honest journalism.

“Heart of Gold” (the movie), as well as the album that spurred it, ‘Prairie Wind’, reveals Neil Young at a time when he was facing his own mortality.  Between his father’s passing, and reflections of 911 (which he sings about here on No Wonder, a song that has a Steve Earle Copperhead Road feel about it) and a bout with a brain aneurism, and the death of other close associations (including Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer and the mother of his first child, Carrie Snodgress), there is much that can be linked to the fragility of Young’s psyche and music during this period (the song It’s a Dream is enough to come to this conclusion).  And it sounds as if he’s reaching in directions he rarely had before, including explorations of faith (When God Made Me). 

But it’s the music of the inexplicable and mysterious that captures the imagination on ‘Prairie Wind’, none more so than the title track ( ), a song reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Cold Irons Bound in its rhythmic intensity.  This chugging pace kicks in immediately, and soon the lyrics turn things up a notch:

Trying to remember what my Daddy said
Before too much time took away his head
He said we’re going back and I’ll show you what I’m talking about
Back to Cypress River, back to the old farmhouse

The small town of Cypress River in Southwest, Manitoba is in the heart of prairie country, and was where Scott Young was born and raised, later moving to Ontario after meeting and marrying Neil’s Mom, Rassy.  After Neil’s parents split when he was in his teen years, he moved back to southern Manitoba (Winnipeg) with his Mom.  To this day, he considers this region his home.  The prairies capture the imagination of Neil Young in a handful of songs on ‘Prairie Wind’.  Here I see yet another connection with Dylan, in relation to the latter’s song Highlands, which has the feel of prairie longing as well.  Dylan’s reference is a bit obscure, as would be expected from the man.  With Neil Young, however, there is no ambiguity. 

What is it about the prairies, those vast expanses of open space where the sky is big and the tall grass is endless?  Neil Young dances with this question in Prairie Wind.  There is reference to Plains Indians, and to the “northern lights” (the Aurora Borealis), and the wind.  When I first heard the song I thought the refrain was “prairie wind blowing through my hair”, but it’s “head” not “hair”, which exponentially magnifies the meaning.  All of this revolves around his Dad’s roots, a concept which is always close at hand.  But the question asked at the beginning of the song is never answered; Neil trying but failing to recall what his Dad told him years earlier:

“There's a place on the prairie where evil and goodness play
Daddy told me all about it but I don't remember what he said
It might be afternoon and it might be the dead of night
But you'll know when you see it 'cause it sure is a hell of a sight”

This is where the song glides into inscrutable shaman territory.  Most artists would lose me here, but there are a few talented musicians that can be so convincing in these kinds of convictions, they keep me glued.  Van Morrison is one, with his numerous mystical examinations of his Irish homeland (hence the title of this blog entry).  Neil Young is another, and his connection with mysticism is mostly driven by his adopted Native American interests.  Which for me begs the question:  Was this interest the case with his Dad as well?  The lyrics to Prairie Wind certainly support this hypothesis. 

Neil Young has always presented himself and his music from a North American perspective, including as a Canadian, an American, and a Native American.  Its one reason he has a substantial fan base this side of The Pond; a base that crosses races, creeds, and political affiliations.  Young has seized these connections, traversing the continent and identifying with its treasures - both cultural and natural - in ways very few others have.  Apparently the prairies have factored in heavily to this identification.  It makes sense:  There is no equivalent anywhere else in the world.  The closest similarities are Patagonia in Argentina and the steppes of Central Russia.  But the prairie is a uniquely North American phenomenon.

Neil Young must have been quite young when his Dad took him back to Cypress River to partake in the experience described in Prairie Wind.  I say this because an older and wiser Neil would likely have clung on to every word uttered by his Dad during such an event.   But thinking back to our earliest memories most of us can easily slip up when trying to recall important moments that others (his Dad in this case) considered vital at the time. The other extreme end of the spectrum can bring the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, the unfortunate ending to many people’s lives.  And so, forgetfulness at the beginning of life can come back full circle at the end.   

Is this the concept that is at the core of Prairie Wind?  It’s hard to say.  The song is wrapped up in so many mystiques.  Some questions you just have to leave hanging out there, tossing and turning, in the prairie wind.

-          Pete

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