Neil Young has made a career out of nostalgia, even from the start he was longing for the past and making us jones along with him. Sugar Mountain is one of his earliest songs, and is a lament for his lost youth, written just after he became unable to visit his favorite teeny bopper joint with his friends, because he had turned twenty one, or as a clearly horrified Joni Mitchell put it in 1970, at the Royal Albert Hall:
“In 1965 I was up in Canada, and there was a friend of mine up there who had just left a rock n’ roll band …he had just newly turned 21, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favorite haunt, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you’re over 21 you couldn’t get back in there anymore; so he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends and everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know, but it’s one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn’t play in this club anymore. ‘Cause he was over the hill…. So he wrote this song that was called “Oh to live on sugar mountain” which was a lament for his lost youth…. And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there’s nothing after that, that’s a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope. It’s called The Circle Game.”
If Neil isn’t reminiscing for lost youth at 21, or Last Trips to Tulsa in his very first album – (come on buddy, you will go there again, you were only fucking 23 years old!), or harking back to the days of the pioneers and the wild West in songs like Pocohontas, Powderfinger, Broken Arrow and just about everything on After the Goldrush and Harvest, he was stuck fixating on lost love and past days in everything from that Harley Davidson song – Unknown Legend to the gorgeously simple jam that is Helpless.
Neil Young simply made a career out of the past – his own, America’s, his friends and the days which shine gold for most of us over time, but he was already pining for when he was barely out of diapers himself. Neil is eternally young searching for the old, the past and the forever gone. It is as if he exists in longing and in reaching back, as if he lives for that mile back up the highway and that time five minutes before that wasn’t beautiful until after it was gone.
Joni was right, it is pretty bleak, Neil. It is pretty harsh. Joni tries to boost him up, remind him that those “wheels they go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down” and good times come back again as time marches on, but Neil prefers to be frozen in the moment that he suspects will be gold, that is always just out of reach. Hey, if that is what it took to write and create and burn out not fade away, then who am I to tell him to cheer up, we are not dead yet? What if he cheers up and can never write another note again? What if he pulls himself out of the funk of longing and that is curtains for his creativity? That is ok, Neil, I am sure nothing will ever be as good again, I would tell him, as I patted him on the back and told him how good his hair looked yesterday.
I couldn’t live like that. I would shove a broken arrow into my left eye as I call for the spaceship to come pick me up and out of the black into the blue while mother Nature is only on the run and not totally run over and obliterated. Who can live in a state of perpetual longing for something gone? Who can find any happiness existing in the past only? Without the sneaking suspicion that tomorrow might be better really, isn’t it all just a bit pointless? Hey hey, my my, Neil, you say rock and roll can’t die, but it is has been dying before it was even born. It is all a false note, a failing light. “And once you’re gone, you can’t come back” he wails, as he harmonica winds out a desperate note, and you know, he is right. There is never any going back, there is only moving forwards, and fucking hell, Neil, what a bummer, what a downer, what a fucking drag. Did you really have to point it out?
I think I’ll let Neil do the thinking and the wistful desperation. I might even go burn my harmonicas, or at least offer them to some hobo so he can make a few cents blowing the mouth-harp on Polk, except we can’t do that I guess, not through a mask.
Modern life is a drag, and Neil knows it. That is why he tells the Old Man to take a look at his life, points out how similar their lives are, when he was just a kid buying a ranch with the CSNY money.
I always tell people I don’t like Neil Young, that isn’t true, I love his music and his songs, I even like him, it is just that his lens is twisted towards the darkly alone, the sadly lost, the wishful thinking. I can’t live in the past. Neil was always meant to be an old man looking back, and I was never meant to be an old lady with anything to look back on: I should have leapt into the great beyond aged 27 with some gutter trash hauling my body into a dumpster after I OD’d on china white in some shooting gallery in a city that never realized I really existed.
We are both searching for that Heart of Gold, which is why I keep listening and he keeps singing. I wonder what it feels like to be old, when he spent his entire youth wanting to be younger? If you sing “I’m growing old” at 29, how do you cope with being 75?
I suppose you never really have a chance if your name is Young.