November 30, 2020

Lent with Neil Young

Lent with Neil Young 2017

Each year during Lent, I try to focus some of my musical attention on an artist and/or album from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find lessons for the Lenten journey. In past years we’ve considered the music of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

In 2017, I will pay attention to the long, strange wilderness journey of Neil Young. Few artists have had as long and varied career as the Canadian singer-songwriter, who sang in folk clubs in the 1960’s with Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell, got the public’s attention with the band Buffalo Springfield, and began the 1970’s by joining Crosby, Stills, and Nash, adding darker tones and textures to the music of that remarkable group. That year also saw him release his breakthrough solo album, After the Gold Rush, which was one of the most formative albums in my life.

After that, Young’s career went on to follow a long, winding road with many detours, side trips, breakdowns, and refreshing oases, and it’s still going today. This complex journey makes it difficult for me to choose any single album as representative of what Neil Young has meant to me as an artist, poet, songwriter, and performer. Should I focus on After the Gold Rush, with its melancholy and sometimes mournful tones, Young’s plaintive, vulnerable vocals, its jagged, driving, angry social statements like “Southern Man,” and its simple, intimate tributes to romance? One review calls this album Young’s “requiem for the 60’s,” saying this:

But more than any of this, After the Gold Rush puts an end to ’60s idealism through a mix of songs that cut specifically — the meditative title track, a piano-driven ballad that ranks among Young’s very best — and more abstractly (the album’s opening cut, “Tell Me Why”) into the deep, overriding sorrow that runs throughout the record. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s,” he sings on “After the Gold Rush,” pretty much sealing a fate nine months into the new decade.

Well, that’s Lent all right — the end of idealism beside a flowing stream of sorrow. Mother Nature on the run.

But Neil Young soon went on to even darker and deeper explorations into mortality. After his most successful commercial record, Harvest, his friend, former Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten died of a drug overdose. And Young went from singing songs like the popular “Heart of Gold” to edgy, chaotic rock songs, such as those captured on the 1973 live album Time Fades Away. This, along with two other albums, Tonight’s the Night, and On The Beach, formed what came to be known as Neil Young’s “doom trilogy.”

Sounds right up the ol’ Lenten alley, huh?

Well, at this point we’re only in the mid-1970’s, folks, and since then Neil Young has found more ways to reinvent himself and comment on life’s mixed bag than I have time to tell in one blog post.

So many of his albums, then and in subsequent years, would be appropriate to consider during this season of mud and muck leading to rebirth. Therefore, instead of choosing one album on which to focus, I will take time during Lent to explore the Neil Young catalogue, finding songs that speak to me of this journey, the incredible mix of romance and loss, fragility and strength, quiet whispers and overwhelming roars, and life and death that makes up Lent.

All these contrasts and more can be found in the music of Neil Young, my Lenten muse in 2017.

• • •

For my selection today, here is a performance of “Philadelphia,” which Young wrote for the Jonathan Demme movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. It was nominated in 1994 for an Oscar for Best Original Song. It also received a nomination for the Best Male Vocal Rock Performance Grammy in 1995. It is one of Neil Young’s most poignant songs, written for a story about death and ultimate triumph of life and love.


  1. moonless sky
    and echoing dumpster
    absorb the night

  2. Burro [Mule] says

    I been first and last
    Look at how the time goes past.

    But I’m all alone at last.
    Rolling home to you.

    Neil’s been in a sour mood ever since I was slow dancing with Skippy Benz to ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’.

    • Clay Crouch says

      You take my hand,
      I’ll take your hand
      Together we may get away
      This much madness
      is too much sorrow
      It’s impossible
      to make it today.

      It’s been more the 45 years, but I remember exactly where I was when I heard this for the first time.

  3. My wife really likes Neil. I can take or leave ’em–mostly leave.

  4. Brad Lockner says

    Neil Young is an interesting guy indeed — read his rambling but fascinating autobiography. A small town Canadian kid who has a unique style all his own. By the way, he has a “classic” Canadian accent!

  5. I hope Lynyrd Skynrd will remember,
    Neil Young don’t need them around anyhow…

  6. “Old man look at my life,
    I’m a lot like you were.
    Old man look at my life,
    I’m a lot like you were.”

    yes, I remember those days when we would never grow old and Neil Young’s song was for a young generation. Now I see those words, and I identify more with the ‘old man’ and that’s okay. Lenten music? yes, it works for me …… he had a voice that hymned a plaintive chant

  7. What strange beings these Earthlings are.

  8. Way, way long ago, I was doing restaurant work and came back to my parents at dark thirty. Still wound up ( the life of a busboy/ waiter) I lay on the living room floor playing Harvest, with the headphones on. Trying to natch Neil’s vocals, my poor dad thought some kind of wild animal gad made its way I b side.

    Guess he was righr…two wild animals, more if you count Crazy Horse….
    Still love that Neil Young, but some of the songs are a little too long.

  9. I’ve been a fan of Neil ever since I saw him play in Atlanta way back in 1972 when I was 12 years old. Paid $4 (!) for the ticket. He came out and played a few numbers off Harvest but most of the set were the songs that turned into Tonight’s the Night and Time Fades Away. Haunted and haunting.

    Some artists are simply ubiquitous and part of your soundtrack. He’s one of mine.

  10. The day (last week) when the Humvees descended on the protest encampment at the Dakota Pipeline crossing, I got the words of Ohio suck on my mind and hummed or sung it all day. Glad in this case, no one died or were injured.


    Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
    We’re finally on our own.
    This summer I hear the drumming,
    Four dead in Ohio.

    Gotta get down to it
    Soldiers are cutting us down
    Should have been done long ago.
    What if you knew her
    And found her dead on the ground
    How can you run when you know?

    Gotta get down to it
    Soldiers are cutting us down
    Should have been done long ago.
    What if you knew her
    And found her dead on the ground
    How can you run when you know?

    Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
    We’re finally on our own.
    This summer I hear the drumming,
    Four dead in Ohio.

  11. When I visited my family in Italy during my college study in Germany, my oldest cousin had a band. His best friend, also in the band, was a fan of the “Harvest” album and played it for me in his very cramped room.


  12. Grew up listening to a lot of Neil Young, learned to play many of his songs (acoustic) on a number of early albums and my Neil Young obsession led me to Buffalo Springfield and a big appreciation for Stephen Stills (Manassas album was great stuff).

    There’s a light on,
    over my head,
    My Lord

    And my Lincoln,
    is still the best thing,
    built by Ford….

    Did my best to imitate his hammering on Old Man and Needle… and his voice was something I couldn’t butcher too bad… but he is a bleedin heart thru and thru…..

  13. There’s colors on the street
    Red, white and blue
    People shufflin’ their feet
    People sleepin’ in their shoes
    But there’s a warnin’ sign on the road ahead
    There’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead
    Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them
    So I try to forget it, any way I can…

    Keep on rockin’ in the free world…

  14. Michael Bell says

    You would think as a Canadian that I would be more acquainted with Neil Young, but truth be told, I left for Africa before I was old enough to appreciate his music, and didn’t get into his genre of music until the mid 80s.

  15. Second year at Michigan State University, 1978, I first heard this song. It changed my DNA.

  16. Bob Caygeon says

    I went insane like a smoke ring day when the wind blows

  17. susan glatzel says

    my heart and soul….always .

  18. susan glatzel says

    My heart and soul always

  19. Peter Haas says

    Um, I think it’s more widely known as his “Ditch Trilogy.” That is all.