Life with Neil

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Neil Young
Released: October 1977
Label: Warner Bros.
Cover art: Tom Wilkes

Told by Brian Kenny

This came into my life in fall of 1977. I was a freshman at the University of Illinois. Beautiful Urbana, Illinois. Cornfields everywhere. But a beautiful, big university.

I lived in a dorm. One of the other guys had this album; a guy down the hall who ended up becoming one of my best friends – Dave Crain. He started working at a record store in the 1980s, called Secondhand Tunes. Ended up owning it, changed it to Dave’s Records, and later he made the Rolling Stone list of the top 10 record stores in the country. It’s in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

When I started, it was all about side four. “Ohio,” “Soldier,” “Old Man,” “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Harvest,” “Heart of Gold” and “Star of Bethlehem.” Kind of the popular stuff.

And then side three became huge for me. “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “I Believe in You,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Southern Man” and “Helpless.” Oh man.

I was mostly listening on headphones. It just took over. I was just amazed.

“After the Gold Rush,” for whatever reason, got in my head. I remember being at my mom’s house, sitting on the front step – she had this cast-iron bench on the porch – I was sitting out there one summer night, home from school, just playing that song over and over again. Part of it is, I still don’t know what it means. I’ve seen different interpretations. The first part is a whole medieval thing; he sings about a dream: “I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming, saying something about a queen.” And then “the archer split the tree.” The second verse, “I was lying in a burned-out basement.” And then the last verse, “I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying.”

Meanwhile, the piano part is amazing. But it’s mostly the lyrics. What’s this medieval thing going on? And then: “I was lying in a burned-out basement.” It was a very military kind of image. I always imagined a World War I scene. Then he sees the full moon, and then the sun bursts through. I’ve seen other people saying he means a nuclear blast. Then the first verse ends with “mother nature on the run in the 1970s.”

He’s such an artist: he just throws it out there. The last line, an environmental thing: We’ve ruined everything. We’re just going to take the spaceship off to the next place. The piano part is unique; I’m not a musician, but oh my goodness. That combination. It’s riveting. It just gets in you.

“Down by the River” and “Cinnamon Girl” are on side two. Rockers. And that’s the thing with this guy: he can do finger-picking, he can sing songs like “Sugar Mountain,” one of the first songs I really knew of his, a whole coming-of-age thing. But then he’ll go to this searing rock: “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Down by the River,” and the one that’s got me lately, “Cortez the Killer.” It opens with almost three-plus minutes of a solo. But it’s not boring. Neil can play a solo with anybody.

The other thing about “Cortez” with Crazy Horse…remember they released an album called “Ragged Glory?” I think every Crazy Horse song should be called Ragged Glory. It totally expresses what they are: the best garage band ever. The grunge guitar, the distorted sound in the background, it’s just brilliant. So when the words finally come in, you’re like, my goodness.

This album, it’s hard to imagine my life without it. I can’t imagine not having these songs in my life. Like I said, the lyrics, there’s a plaintive quality to them, and also sensitivity. With “I Am a Child,” just the idea of conveying that perspective: “What is the color when black is burned? What is the color?” You could just see a three-year-old asking that. Just that sensitivity, and then he can beat the hell out of that Gibson Les Paul.

Last thing: This album reminds me of my mom. I would play it at home. My father wasn’t big on rock music. My mom liked Peter Paul & Mary and country music. But ever afterwards, she’d say, “Who’s that guy you like, who can’t sing?” She knew I liked Neil Young. Knew he was important to me.

33hifi interviewed Brian Kenny, a Denver-based library and archives manager, in December 2017. To this day, he still hears “Heart of Gold” when he thinks of his wife Theresa. Ain’t that sweet?

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