Monday, December 22, 2014

Forever Young # 47: "The Great North American Narrative"

Song:  Peaceful Valley Boulevard
Album:  Le Noise
Released:  September, 2010

Often during the writing of this ‘Forever Young’ series I have contemplated Neil Young’s place in the broader context of the ever-evolving story of America.  To this end, a term has played out in my mind: “The Great North American Narrative”, the story of North America in the modern era.  To my knowledge, nothing like it has been written.  It may be too all-encompassing.  There’s Mexico, and the United States, and Canada and the Caribbean, and Central America and Native America, and the interplay between these entities.  But despite all this diversity, there is a commonality.  There is a story there.  It’s about trailblazing and risk and opportunity.  There are many subplots, a number of which are centered on historic events.  But the vast majority of the narrative is about individuals; people who made a difference. 

Neil Young is now an undeniable piece of that Great North American Narrative, and so are several of his musical contemporaries, including Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.  Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that this bluesman (Johnson) and beatnik (Guthrie) and folkie (Dylan) and hippie (Young) are now a part of the narrative, right up there with the likes of Henry Hudson, and Samuel de Champlain and Alexander Graham Bell, and Tecumseh, and Lewis and Clark, and Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln and Geronimo and Pancho Villa, and Charlie Chaplin and Judy Garland and Joe DiMaggio and Al Jolson and, and Ernest Hemmingway and Crazy Horse and Babe Ruth and Fred Astaire, and Martin Luther King and Teddy Roosevelt, and Walt Disney and Albert Einstein and Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain and John Wayne and Thomas Edison and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Hank Williams.   

Who would have thought?  Forty years ago, such a declaration would have been scoffed at.  But the times, they have changed, and the contributions of these musicians, with others on their heels, are getting recognized now as revolutionary in their own way.  Yes, these men have helped shape the American experience.  Dylan himself was recognized in this regard with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the highest honor that can be bestowed on an American civilian. 

Neil Young is certain to be a future recipient of this distinguished medal. This long haired, flannel loving, self-proclaimed hippie has climbed to the top of the mountain.  He’s done this in both the depth and breadth of his works, which has come with a boatload of independent thinking.  He’s done this by taking his own personal story and thrusting it out there for all to hear.  In the process, we have learned that Neil Young is not proud.  In fact, he’s just the opposite, which has allowed those of us who listen to his music to relate, and in turn see our place in the narrative as well.  To know an open, honest musician the likes of Neil Young is, in many ways, to know ourselves. 

Neil Young’s story covers large chunks of the North American narrative.  He identifies himself as a Canadian and a citizen of the United States.  He connects with Native Americans too.  One could even make a case that he has tapped into the New World Hispanic experience (case in point, the ‘Freedom’ song Eldorado).  Neil Young is urban and rural, prairie and coastal, ancient and modern, and almost all of it traces to those American roots. 

I just finished the Levon Helm book, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, a fascinating story of The Band.  One take-home was the role Canada (particularly the Toronto region) played in the evolution of Rock and Roll in the early 60s.   When we think of Rock and Roll origins and its early evolution we think of the Deep South and Memphis and New York and Chicago and San Francisco and Detroit and Cleveland.  The intriguing thing about the Toronto region is that they picked up on this new sound relatively early.  This interest drew in the Southern rockabilly bands.  Musicians like Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm found they could make more money north of the border.  In turn, Canadian upstarts like Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Rick Danko got a leg up on young musicians in other parts of North America simply by being there.  Soon, they were being recruited by those Southern rockabilly bands that had made their way North.  At the same time upstarts including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were establishing themselves in Toronto.  A scene had been established in the Yorkville district of the city and soon expanded to the entire region. 

I bring this Toronto scene up because I believe it is where Neil Young began connecting those North American dots.  He was in a very advantageous position to be living there at that time, albeit in a precarious, almost day-to-day existence.  I lived in Canada for a year, Ottawa, Ontario to be specific, and in the process I made some great and lasting friendships.  At the time and in the years since, I’ve come to gain a bit of insight into what Canada brings to the Great North American Narrative table.  It’s about proximity to the USA, our common language (for the most part) and Canada’s love of the good things that come out of this country.  Where many of us in the States tend to take cultural shifts a bit for granted, or simply not see the tide changing, the Canadians hone in.  Often, they become so enamored with some of these trends, that they push the envelope and make the original concept better.  They’ve done it with comedy (i.e. Second City improvisation), they’ve done it with baby-boomer self-absorption (i.e. Trivial Pursuit) and, as explained above, they’ve done it with rock and roll.

From that original scene, Neil Young continued to make all the right moves which ultimately tied him to the entire continent, both musically and geographically.  This is what puts him in the narrative. 

There are numerous songs in Neil Young’s catalog that dig deep into the American psyche.  A prime example is this week’s Forever Young entry, Peaceful Valley Boulevard ( ).  This song has historical context; that being the struggles of the early western settlers.  But it also delves into current events, namely the heavy, overarching issue of global warming.  Young ties it all together, in a way only he can do.  It’s all about cause and consequence, despite the passage of time that would have most of us thinking otherwise.  There is outrage in this tune; however this sentiment comes with an undertow of love for his home land, respect and reverence mixed with anger.  It’s this ability to hit you from both angles that makes Neil Young a rare spokesperson for his generation.

One more Forever Young entry to go.

Merry Christmas!

-          Pete

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