Neil Young's new 'metal folk protest music'


April 28, 2006


On May 15, 1970, 11 days after the National Guard shot four students to death at Kent State University during protests against the war in Vietnam, Neil Young entered the studio with Crosby, Stills & Nash and recorded a song he'd written through teary eyes after David Crosby handed him a magazine with a famous photo of a young woman grieving over the body of a classmate.

"There's nothing I did before 'Ohio' that would be in the same category -- and very little since," Young says in Jimmy McDonough's 2002 book Shakey: Neil Young's Biography. "It's a kind of a political song as well as a feeling song, and it's dated to a particular incident, kinda like 'Rockin' in the Free World.' I just don't write that many of them."

Now, almost exactly 37 years later, Young has given us an entire album of "political as well as feeling songs," quickly recorded in another sudden burst of inspiration, emotion and anger prompted by the war in Iraq. "Living With War" officially appears as a free audio stream this morning on the artist's Web site, It will be available for sale as a digital download on numerous sites starting Tuesday, and it will arrive in conventional record stores shortly thereafter -- "as soon as we can manufacture the CDs," according to Young's label, Reprise.

None of the nine originals -- plus a concluding cover of "America the Beautiful" recorded with a 100-member gospel choir -- tops the subtle brilliance of "Ohio," which speaks volumes about the tragedy of young lives full of possibility ("We're finally on our own") senselessly cut short by forces beyond their control ("Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming"). But in terms of the heartfelt directness of its lyrics and the rousing electricity of its music, Young's newest matches the anthemic power of "Rockin' in the Free World," and it stands as a late-career highlight among the artist's harder-rocking efforts, nicely balancing last September's introspective and acoustic "Prairie Wind."

In interviews promoting Jonathan Demme's recent concert film "Heart of Gold," Young said he felt the urge to plug in again and make a quick and dirty rock record. The basic tracks for "Living With War" were recorded in three days earlier this spring with a core trio of guitar, bass and drums. Some were then augmented by backing vocalists and a soulful horn section -- Young's best use of these instruments ever -- and the entire project was finished in two weeks, evoking a slightly more polished, less feedback-heavy version of "Ragged Glory" or "Rust Never Sleeps."

"Metal folk protest music," Young calls it, citing Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan as his inspirations. Echoes of Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" can be heard in Young's "Flags of Freedom," which portrays a girl listening to Dylan as she watches her brother march to war. "Have you seen the flags of freedom?" Young sings. "What color are they now?/Do you think that you believe in yours more than they believe in theirs?"

Young takes a broad view of the war throughout the disc, writing about grieving families and suffering soldiers on both sides of the conflict. In "Shock & Awe," he sings:

Back in the days of shock and awe
We came to liberate them all
Thousands of children scarred for life
Millions of tears for a soldier's wife
Both sides are losing now.

But there is no empathy or ambiguity in his view of the man he deems responsible. After the horns briefly echo "The Star Spangled Banner," the band crashes into the pounding rhythm of the disc's most controversial track:

Let's impeach the president for lying and misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him and shipping our money out the door.

The singer goes on to enumerate what he sees as a list of Bush's betrayals of the public trust, including illegal wiretapping, the failure to save New Orleans from flooding and "dividing our country into colors and still leaving black people neglected." The song also includes several famous sound bites that find the president vowing to impose frontier justice on al-Qaida and find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"Let's Impeach the President" is already inciting heated arguments pro and con in the political blogosphere, and these are sure to grow louder when the full album is released. But one fact that's being overlooked by Young's critics on the right is that the artist remains emphatically humanistic in his worldview and non-partisan in his politics. He believes the president should be ousted, but in "Looking for a Leader," he's as open to replacing Bush with a Republican as he is with a noted Illinois Democrat:

Maybe it's [U.S. Sen. Barack] Obama but he think that he's too young
Maybe it's Colin Powell to right what he's done wrong
America has a leader but he's not in the [White] House
He's walking here among us, and we've got to seek him out.

Though he remains a hippie icon, the 60-year-old Young is no knee-jerk leftist. Shortly after 9/11, he recorded a song called "Let's Roll" about the hijacking of United Flight 93 that some critics labeled jingoist for urging action in "going after Satan." Yes, he attacked the 37th president in "Ohio," but in the song "Campaigner," he noted, "Even Richard Nixon has got soul." He excoriated the first President Bush in "Rockin' in the Free World" for providing "a thousand points of light for the homeless man," but a few years earlier, he famously championed Ronald Reagan.

"Neil is more American than anyone, even though he's Canadian," Young's veteran manager and lifelong friend Elliot Roberts says in Shakey. "Japan and France and England -- he thinks they're all enemies and we should nuke everybody. Neil's an isolationist. ... One minute he's a leftist Democrat and the next minute he's a conservative."

These words could just as well describe the great majority of non-doctrinaire Americans who don't adhere to one political philosophy but react to the events around them. In this regard, judging from recent polls, Young is speaking for a huge number of people who are frustrated, saddened and disgusted by the war in Iraq, and he is doing it with as much lyrical and musical passion as he's shown throughout a four-decade career that remains one of the most extraordinary in rock history.