Neil Young Mitch Cohen - Essay

Mitch Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A 1988 undergraduate seminar—American Rock Romanticism 202. The midterm exam question: "Music historian Antoine Ferrand describes the music of Neil Young as 'a body of work that tells us more than we'd like to know about the feelings of despair, betrayal and helplessness that characterized a segment of America during the 1970's.' Using Decade as your primary source, discuss how Young's music over his first ten year period supports or refutes Ferrand's assertion. Be specific (quotes, titles)."

It's that kind of album. Like a Faulkner anthology. And it turns out that Neil Young is a figure to be seriously reckoned with (how else?; he is the most humorless of major rock artists). Decade probably shouldn't have been necessary to convince us of that, but here it is, and it states its case for Young as a Significant Talent with thoroughness and minimal special pleading….

There is little joy in the Neil Young represented on Decade. "I could be happy the rest of my life with a Cinnamon Girl." Couldn't we all? What he finds instead is that love is a thorned rose, unpickable. With the best of intentions, the purest and wildest of dreams, simple desires, what's confronted is confusion and longing, loneliness and violence. "Some get strong, some get strange." "I want to love you but I'm getting blown away." "I've been a miner for a heart of gold." Death on the mainline, where "tonight's the night" isn't sexual anticipation but a danger signal. And, of course, "helpless, helpless, helpless …"

Before Tom Robbins, he knew that cowgirls get the blues, and he made more rock and roll than many of us might remember. He was the only one to name Nixon by name, the first to stake out the 1970's as such, and he continues to make hairpin turns. I think of him like the coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. Lead over the edge, he doesn't begin to fall until he realizes where he is: unsupported in the air. Then, with a look of lost resignation, involving us in his predicament, he plunges. Next scene, he's up again, readying another scheme that's doomed to backfire.

Mitch Cohen, "Records: 'Decade'," in Creem (© copyright 1978 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 9, No. 10, March, 1978, p. 59.