I was reading Smithsonian the other day, and it mentioned that Tuesday will be the 40th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre.
I'd had this half-gestated idea for a post about "Ohio" and the fuzzy nature of Neil Young's politics for a little bit now, so I took the Smithsonian snippet as a sign that it was time to sit down and write the post already.
The timing is a little unfortunate, I'm pretty sure. My last two posts centered around music that's almost older than I am, and this is gonna make it three straight, yikes.
People are gonna think I'm just an old fucking burned-out hippie or something.
I'm trying to think of other songs which might be as intrinsically linked with an American historical event as much as "Ohio" is.
There ain't many. "The Wreck of the Old 97," maybe. Or perhaps another wreck: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." But "Old 97" has been done so many times by so many artists that I think the impact has been diluted a little bit; it's just an old country music standard at this point. And the Lightfoot song is great*, but I'm not too sure that many people understand the song was based on a real event.
Everyone knows Kent State was all too fucking real. And everyone knows Neil Young wrote "Ohio." No mistaking the event, no mistaking its interpreter. No mistaking its call to arms.
Well, OK, maybe there HAS been some mistaking its call to arms.
Thrasher's Wheat quotes a now-offline "Analysis of Music and Lyrics in Relation to American Culture in the 1960s"
One of the most outspoken songwriters of this era and calling was Neil Young. Whether it was with Buffalo Springfield or with his other group, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Neil Young expressed his opinion at every opportunity that presented itself.A teacher at Rutgers writes about "Ohio" that
Young was one of the most adament [sic] protest singers, and through this song, he was able to use the events at Kent State to call into account the absurdity of the war in generalA recent story on the Cleveland Plain Dealer site says:
It was more than just another protest song. "Ohio" was a cry of anguish, penned by Neil Young after seeing pictures taken at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
The famous story is that CSN&Y were hanging out in a cabin in the woods somewhere, and Crosby showed Neil the Life magazine with the photo of the 14-year old girl over the face-down body with the look of horror on her face and her hands flailing frantically in the air. Then Young either disappeared for a couple hours or wrote the song on the spot, but every story agrees that the band booked the studio time to record that very day. Crosby had provoked Young into a response.
It wasn't the first time that a member of CS&N had tried to provoke the Y into some political outrage. In late 1969, Graham Nash had gone to Chicago to join the protest outside the courthouses that were trying the Chicago 7 trial. Nash hoped to get Stills and Young--who both cut a less activist profile than Crosby and Nash--to join him, but Neil (and Stephen) had remained unswayed.
Neil was without question on what he would later call a "major folkie trip." But the focus always seemed to be on what the hippies of that era might have called "inner space," Neil prodding himself, seeing what happens. Isn't that funny, it doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you? or In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster? and Will I lay my burden down?
Young's buddy Crosby said that Young's calling Nixon's name out in the lyrics was "the bravest thing I ever heard," and would clarify by saying that people who were upfront about disliking Nixon had a way of getting shot.
Silly deluded hippie: the bravest thing about the song is not that it drops Richard Nixon's name, but that it calls for violent revolution.
Take a look at the lyrics again. Young himself has called them a "call to arms." They were neither about "the absurdity of the war in general" nor were they "a cry of anguish." They were angry, and they interpreted Kent State as a sort of Lexington and Concord, a place where the battles begin. "We're finally on our own" makes sense in no other context. The pretense of unity is dissolved, and it is the sound of military snare drums you hear. How can you run, when you need to engage?
Young had not been one of "the outspoken songwriters of this era," and he had not "expressed himself at every opportunity." He'd mostly looked inward, and mumbled to himself, truth be known.
But say this: once he'd been goaded into it, he held nothing back. "Street Fighting Man" doesn't hold a candle, not when you really peer inside. McDonough calls the "Ohio" "a lumbering D-modal death march," and as I've written this post over the last three days, I've found myself thankful that the dread Young conjured, and the war he called for never in fact happened. Crosby should have best let that shit lie.
Living With War angered a bunch of people, Bill O'Reilly and 3/4 of the conservative blogosphere included. Neil Young News called LWW "the most courageous album of 2006," which made me think of Crosby, but also kind of bugged me. Maybe I prefer Young's cryptic weirdo lyrics about thrashers and llamas and shit to his straightforward confrontational ones (or maybe not), but it definitely does bother me that no-one talks about Living With War for what it truly is: a howling testament and tribute to the power of Old Black's front humbucker.
I think there is only one way to label Neil Young's politics. There's only one way to account for "Ohio" and "War Song" and "Campaigner" and his support both for Reagan and for Farm Aid and for "Rockin' In the Free World" and "Let's Roll" and ultimately for "Let's Impeach the President." It's not that Young is necessarily an activist folkie or a millionaire hippie leftist or a grizzled and disappointed conservative--although he has played all these parts.
It is that he is a reactionary.
Longtime manager Elliott Roberts told McDonough that
Neil's a that-day guy. If he sees something in the morning on the news, he'll talk about it that day--but a week later it's gone. Neil doesn't read newspapers, he doesn't really read Time or Newsweek very much. It's gotta be something he sees--if he watches TV on the road and there's a CNN special on Bosnia, Neil wants to do a record and a benefit within two days. Or he can ignore it forever if he doesn't see it.
Which is why "Ohio" and Living With War got done--and why they were so furious. But before Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert make Young a hero for all the wrong reasons, it's important to understand where the motherfucker's coming from. He did these records--he supported Reagan and did Farm Aid--not because of devotion to any ideology but because he thought Something Needed To Be Done.
Living With War is good. It's real good. The lyrics are designed to provoke--just as Crosby and Nash once provoked Young--but what's awesome about the thing is how Young plays with visceral abandon, how he cranked up Old Black, recorded the whole thing quickly and loudly, then managed to resist any urges he might have had to overdub or layer, and just got the fucking thing out there. The speed with which LWW moved through its production process may actually be its truest congruency with "Ohio."
Living with War made me realize that the whole Red State/Blue State thing (that still has not gone away, even with Obama's election) is nothing more than the scar tissue left over from the sixties. Those wounds have never healed; I was taught in school thirty years ago that they'd healed, but they haven't.
If you search the web like I have over the last few days, you'll see that there are still the Love It Or Leave It types who still say that Neil Young had no right at all to pen his lyrics to "Ohio." Forty years on, people are still saying this, so it's no surprise that O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin have issues with Living With War.
The fact is though, as much as Young may have tried to goad people with that record, as much as it may deserve a reactionary label, it still comes nowhere near "Ohio," which was as dark and martial and scary a place as Neil Young has ever gone.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Ohio.mp3
File under: Nixon Rock
Neil Young - Living With War - 07 - Let's Impeach The President.mp3
File under: Metal Folk Protest
These files was removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.
*Don't fucking try to tell me it's not (Return)
**Neil's words. (Return)