Friday, September 19, 2014

Forever Young # 35: "Shedding the Baggage"

Song:  Mansion on the Hill
Album:  Ragged Glory
Released:  April, 1990

Anybody who loves Neil Young’s music has probably been touched at one point or another by his 1972 gem, Old Man off of the ‘Harvest’ album.  It’s a beautiful song, about a young man recognizing himself in someone much older.  Old Man is one of a short list of tunes in Young’s vast catalog where the story behind it is pretty well established.  When he purchased the sprawling, majestic Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California after early success, Young met the elderly caretaker of the place who wanted to know how a hippie like him could afford it.  The musician responded that he was very lucky and tried to emphasize that he was not much different than anyone else.  The impact of this discussion eventually lead to Old Man, including one of the key repeating lines in the song:  Old Man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were”. 

 There is a key word in that line, and it’s the last one; ‘were’.  If the word had been ‘are’ instead, the song would have taken on a different meaning, and could easily have been received as a bit of a slight.  Not a significant one mind you, but one nonetheless.  After all, how could anyone put themselves in the shoes of a person much older….someone with many more years of living under their belt….someone with far more experience in life?  Neil Young knew this for a fact.  How did I come to this conclusion?  It’s because of a song he wrote many years later, this week’s Forever Young entry, Mansion on the Hill, which comes complete with a bonafide classic of an MTV video ( ).  Both video and song need some serious dissecting.  I’m here to serve.

Before doing so, a brief overview is in order.  Mansion on the Hill is a hard rocking song on a hard rocking album; ‘Ragged Glory’.  The entire package is pretty darn impressive without taking anything else into account, but to consider that Young and his entourage, Crazy Horse, were in their mid-40s when they released this disc makes it even more provoking.  In the short history of the middle-aged rocker, there really is no one else to compare to in terms of creativity and spark.  Yes, Neil Young and crew had our attention in 1990, but again, the important thing to remember is that this was a unique (mid-life) stage for any rock musician to be achieving such lofty -and deserved - recognition, especially for something as raucous as ‘Ragged Glory’.  And they seized the moment, in more ways than one.  Much of the album helps explain this, but a few key concepts come together on Mansion on the Hill. 

What follows is one man’s interpretation of this song and video.


I guess I’ll start from the top.  Like many MTV videos in the day, there’s a brief pre-music introduction to Mansion on the Hill (think Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the intro of which was much more expansive overkill).  A deceased Neil Young is prone on a hospital gurney, the doctors and nurses gearing up to tell the family, when to their shock, he rises - presumably from the dead - and states that he’ll inform them himself.  It’s funny, but what’s going on here?  Well, I’ll get to that.  Anyhow, the swinging doors to the hospital room open in front of him to what appears to be the afterlife, and Young steps into the cloudy mist, just as the Crazy Horse backbeat kicks in. 

A few moments later we see a disheveled Young making his way into this mansion-of-a home through the front door, guitar in one hand, amp in the other.  He’s sporting an Elvis t-shirt while appearing to have been through the mill (or at least an extremely intense tour).  At first viewing you would think this is the tail end of the opening sequence.  But it’s not. 

Before I go any further, I think it may be helpful (for me at least) to point out that Neil Young appears to play 4 personas (of himself, or anyone for that matter) in this video (and since I think it accurately portrays the song, let’s go with that too).  And though it’s a relatively short tune for NY & Crazy Horse, there’s quite a bit of complexity playing out with each character trait.  To make it easier moving forward, here’s what I see as the 4 personas:

1. Enlightened Neil: Older and wiser.  This is the Neil who is rising from the dead on the gurney at the beginning of the video and who later jams on stage with his band.
2. Frazzled Neil: Naive and younger, but on the edge of turning it all around.  This is the Neil who walks in the front door of the mansion as the music kicks in (and is not seen again until a bit later in the video, at the gas station, which I will also get to).
3. Preacher Neil: Sees the world in black and white.  While conducting a funeral service for an elderly man (in this video), he initially seems obsessed with the notion of towing the line rather than rocking the boat.  Preacher Neil and Frazzled Neil have much in common, and could actually be one in the same.
4. Toast Neil:  The crazed gas station attendant giving directions.  I’ll get to him.
* Note: there is overlap in all these personas, which is refreshing:  No multi split-Sybil personalities here.

Ok, so with these character descriptions laid out, I can move ahead.  The next part of the video is my favorite, which is a fast-moving, dream-like tunnel sequence as we are introduced to Neil Young’s lead guitar playing (up to that point he can be heard doing a bit of rhythm-guitar back-and-fourth with Frank Sampedro).  Young is accompanied in this sequence by two EMTs.  This appears to be Young transitioning from Frazzled Neil to Enlightened Neil.  It’s fantastic.  And when they finally come out at the end of the tunnel, the lyrics kick in with a jamming, Enlightened Neil, on stage singing:

“ Well I saw an old man walking in my place
When he looked at me it could have been my face
His words were kind, but his eyes were wild
He said I got a load to love, but I want one more child ”

Preacher Neil makes his introduction in the last 2 verses above (starting with “but his eyes were wild”).  At this stage, it appears Preacher Neil is not too happy with how the deceased man’s (lying in front of him) life played out in his later years, but as the scene switches back over to the band, it’s clear that Enlightened Neil is reveling in the notion.  Here’s where the refrain kicks in:

“ There’s a mansion on the hill
Psychedelic music fills the air
Peace and love live there still
In that mansion on the hill “

This first time the refrain is sung, it’s by Enlightened Neil.  I believe he’s trying to explain that there was a part of him that never wanted to let that 60s dream go.  But now he’s singing about that dream in the proper context:  Something to feed on, but not to let it feed on him. 

After a patented mid-song jam, the second stanza unfolds:

“ Around the next bend take the highway to the sun
Or the rocky road, it really don’t matter which one
Well, I was in a hurry, but that don’t matter now
‘Cause I had to get off of that road of tears somehow “

The first 2 verses are sung by Toast Neil, who is giving an elderly woman directions to the Mansion on the Hill.  I interpret this persona as a manifestation of what Young believes is going on in his head when he persists with living in the past.  The elderly woman is driving a hearse:  Could this be “Mort”, Young’s first road-trip vehicle back in the 60s (a symbol of living in the past)?  This concept is reinforced when Frazzled Neil makes his reappearance, singing the 3rd verse above from the passenger seat.  Here, the older woman is now young and beautiful (the passenger’s face is never shown with the older version of this woman…. too revealing perhaps?).  The lyrics fit perfectly; Frazzled Neil is seeing the light.  I think what it’s all saying is that we age rapidly when we live in the past and stay young and vital when we live in the present.  A nice added touch is that the preacher comes around too, singing the enlightened fourth verse above, along with the 2nd refrain. 

In all, a perfect blend of fun and brilliance. 


I think Neil Young took a bullet for the team here.  In comparison to many of us, he’s had little problem moving on; not becoming stale. But I’m sure that shedding the baggage has been difficult for him at times as well. The most inspiring line in Mansion on the Hill is what the older version of Neil Young says to his younger self in the first verse: “I got a load to love, but I want one more child”.  It’s the line that brought me back to Old Man.  It’s the kind of thinking that keeps us charging ahead, in spite of our past successes; to never rest on our laurels.

It’s yet another reason why I write these blog entries.
-          Pete

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment: