Saturday, October 18, 2014

Forever Young # 39: "Not Ad-verse to a Little Sugar Coating"

Song:  Sugar Mountain
Album:  B-side to The Loner
Released:  February, 1969 (written 5 years earlier)

A few years back, Brother Joe and I found ourselves in downtown Nashua, New Hampshire on a drizzly Thursday nite.  We’d had dinner and were now looking for a place to knock down a pint or two.  After canvassing a few blocks we finally settled on a rustic place by the river called The Peddler’s Daughter, where we wandered in and bellied up at the bar.  This being just after a day at the office, Joe was dressed for success and I was most likely dressed in casual civvies with perhaps several days’ worth of facial growth; which at one time was standard fare for me and a good number of my USGS colleagues (Joe regularly jokes that a beard is a prerequisite to working at my agency). 

It was not long before we got the sense that we were being watched.  The two of us took a look around and began to take in the fact that we were by far the oldest ones in the pub.  Yes, this was a very young crowd that surrounded us, and a number of them had already come to this same conclusion.  There was a snicker to our left, and an offhand ‘old man’ comment to our right.  Joe and I chuckled.  A few of the young whippersnappers did the same.  And then we all carried on with our own agendas until Joe and I decided we’d do better to find another locale.  No biggie, but it was clear we were out of place (on our way out the door, I do believe I heard a comment from inside about it being past our bedtime). 

I recollect now that somewhere along the lines that evening I thought of Sugar Mountain; that place in Neil Young’s dreams where “you can’t be 20, though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon”.  Young wrote Sugar Mountain - a song that laments the loss of youthful innocence - on the occasion of his 19th birthday.  This amazes me, because you would think that a song on such subject matter would be written after the fact.   But that would not be Neil Young’s style.  Even at such a young age, he was looking at the world through a slightly different prism than most of us. 

Neil Young has stated that he wrote over 120 verses for this song, but in the end he chose just 4 of them for the official recording.  The lyrics focus mostly on his then-recent experiences at the tender age of 18, but do not discard his even-younger days (for example with his parents at the fair).  It’s perfect that he covers the gambit of his lifetime experiences to that point, because the dividing line is made clear:  Life before and after the age of 20.  This is a major demarcation, because it’s around this time that many of us break off on our own.  One key line to the song is the following:

Now you say you're leavin' home
'Cause you want to be alone.
Ain't it funny how you feel
When you're findin' out it's real?

As I listened this week, I recalled that moment for me so clearly.  It was the end of the summer of 1980 and I would be off to college the very next day.  I was feeling as if my whole childhood was flashing before my eyes as I packed my stuff.  As I’ve discussed in other entries, Franklin was such a great place to grow up and it was all I really knew to that point.  This transition was going to be tough and it was all hitting me at once as I loaded my Lincoln Mercury Capri for the drive west down the Mohawk Trail.  I’d ultimately make the adjustment, but will never forget that feeling.  To this day it remains a powerful memory.

What was I leaving behind?  Well, what do most of us leave behind?  There’s family, and friends, and jobs, and hangouts.  There’s the first time you did this and the first time you did that.  There’s this 7-year-old memory over here and that 17-year-old memory over there.  There are the uptown experiences and the natural experiences and the educational experiences.  There’s that sense of na├»ve wonder and risky discovery and youthful exuberance and unrestrained joy.    Moving on from such a comfort zone can be difficult (but paradoxically, oh so necessary).  Sugar Mountain captures it all in song.

This week, listening to Sugar Mountain again and again, I reconnected with those bygone days.  In the process, I got thinking:  What were those never-heard lyrics in the other ~ 120 verses of Sugar Mountain anyhow?  Some of them must have been very good, because Neil Young has stated that one of the verses he retained, about being “underneath the stairs and giving back some glares” was intentionally chosen despite the fact that he thought it was the worse of them all.  Why do this?  I believe it goes back to that ideal of youthful innocence and naivety:  Why exclude the emergence of a songwriter from such a concept? 

Still, I chewed more on those lost verses and decided to fill in some of the gap myself.  And so, in an attempt to honor the spirit of Sugar Mountain, below are my own 4 verses:

Family treks in the Volkswagen Bus
The bond was there in all of us
It was felt regularly at home
And reaffirmed each time we roamed

Now you’re hiking the railroad track
And your friends have got your back
Conversation can run deep
All this meaning you hope to keep 

Back at home after a long night
Chair in the kitchen looks just right
So you sit, talk to old faithful
And reflect on why you’re grateful 

So it’s almost time to go
Daily life that once seemed slow
Catches up in record time
Now your leaving on a dime

The iconic image of Neil Young arising on top of those super-sized speakers in the movie ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, was my first real inroads into connecting with Sugar Mountain.  In this opening track to the movie and concert ( ) , Young impresses upon us the emergence of a songwriter.  But it’s more than that.  What is really being portrayed here is the emergence of a man.  And yet as the lyrics to Sugar Mountain attest, this is a man who is not going to forget what got him there. 

The fortunate among us are those who can relate.
-          Pete

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