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Keep On Rockin' In The Free World:
Neil Young and Ronald Reagan

by Russell Blatcher

I wanted to introduce something about Neil Young, partly because of the antagonism towards him in some parts of the Dylan community, but mainly because I just finished Shakey by Jimmy McDonough. This biography is essential reading for any Young fan. McDonough takes you deep inside Neil Young’s world, and deals with most of the questions I would ask Young, if I got the chance. It is to the writer’s credit that although he started as “approved” before publication, he was somehow ousted from the Canadian’s circle. Offers were made to buy back the contract for the book. McDonough’s response was that they might be able to buy back the contract, but not the 6 years he had been working on the book. I guess that Young’s change of heart came when he realised just how much he had revealed in the course of the interviews.

 

Yes, read Shakey, NO, don’t read Johnny Rogan’s appalling tome (which has all of the facts and none of the feelings). McDonough is a Neil Young fan. He describes how he used to harangue strangers in record stores, who were about to buy Harvest, and advising them to buy Tonight’s The Night instead. He appropriately savages all the dire recorded output of Crosby Stills and Nash. Yes, he likes all the same bits I do. He has interviewed everyone with an important role in

Young’s life.

 

A lot of the antipathy to Young in recent years is political, following the widely publicised interviews in which he praised the policies of President Ronald Reagan. Whilst such remarks can be written off, as a put-on or a misquotation, it is more worrying when such views seem to appear in the songs themselves. The latest example was of course, Let’s Roll, which many saw as an endorsement of the American atrocities in Afghanistan:

No one has the answers,

But one thing is true,

You got to turn on evil,

When it's comin' after you.

 

You got to face it down,

And when it tries to hide,

You got to go in after it,

And never be denied.

Yes, it seems pretty clear, but note the “No one has the answers”. Then a little later:

Let's roll for freedom,

Let's roll for love,

Goin' after Satan,

On the wings of a dove.

Now here, just as he appears to be advocating a violent response, is the line “On the wings of a dove”, which is, especially in the States, symbolic of the peace-lover. I accept that there are only hints of ambiguity here, but elements in this fragment point directly back to Young’s most forthright statement on the subject of the U.S.A.’s role in the world, Keep On Rockin’ In The

Free World.

 

Satan appears in the first verse of that song. Again, it refers to the characterisation of America as the Great Satan by some elements in the Moslem community:

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.

“Red, white and blue” of course is the stars and stripes, so the marchers are Americans, and yet they are “sleepin’ in their shoes”, and don’t see the warning. The narrator, like them, declines the satanic label, but refuses to think about why they are perceived in that way (“I try to forget it”). Perhaps a lot of U.S. listeners didn’t notice, or ignored the conflict between the chorus and the verses of this song. In the concert video from the Weld tour, we see a large flag in the crowd, and a number of undoubted patriots punching the air during the chorus. But the second verse is not a scene from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Iran:

I see a woman in the night

With a baby in her hand

Under an old street light

Near a garbage can

Now she puts the kid away, and she's gone to get a hit

She hates her life, and what she's done to it

There's one more kid that will never go to school

Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.

Yes, this is the good old U. S. of A. Young paints as clear a picture of that society as any one in popular music. Then we go straight back into the chorus again:

Keep on rockin' in the free world,

Keep on rockin' in the free world

Keep on rockin' in the free world,

Keep on rockin' in the free world.

What an immense stroke of irony this is, and yet the punchers continue to punch the air, totally deceived by the gleeful anthemic quality of the song. What does Young intend by this contrast? I am reminded of William Blake’s Jerusalem, which, in the setting by Parry, is constantly sung by British patriots, completely unaware of its radical meaning:

AND did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England's mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England's pleasant pastures seen?

 

And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic mills?

 

Bring me my bow of burning gold:

Bring me my arrows of desire:

Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire.

 

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

All the questions in the first two stanzas are clearly answered with a resounding NO. Phrases like “England’s pleasant pastures” and “England’s green and pleasant land” drip with irony. It is especially delicious to me to hear our choirs of patriots orgasmically thunder forth the final stanza, completely missing the clearest metaphor of masturbation ever committed to verse. Blake differs from Young in that he has a clear idea of how he wants to alter society. Blake knew what Jerusalem would be like. Young can only offer the gigantic contradiction between the idea of Freedom and its reality in the ‘Free World’.

 

In the final verse of his song Young continues his snapshot of his adopted homeland:

We got a thousand points of light

For the homeless man

We got a kinder, gentler,

Machine gun hand

We got department stores and toilet paper

Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer

Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive

Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive

The “thousand points of light” of the great American cities shine down on the homeless, while the military of both the U.S. and their enemies cut a swathe round the world. “Kinder, gentler machine gun hand” is typical of Young’s ability to smash images together in a single phrase. “Kinder, gentler” comes straight out of a washing-up liquid advert, from the soothing fantasy world pouring from our televisions (adverts and programs alike). Applying this to “machine gun hand” ridicules the ostensibly ‘well-intentioned’ motives of those who control such weapons as well as the political marketing of U.S. foreign policy to a gullible electorate. But he is not just saying that advertising is like political justification of state violence, he is saying it is the same thing.

 

The market place (“department stores and toilet paper”), which finances state violence, with its ever expanding production of unnecessary goods and packaging (“styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”) is also attacking the planet itself, another hidden price of freedom.

 

Every recent U.S. President has presented himself as “a man of the people”, offering them an illusory hope of freedom, while his real constituency is the big corporations.

 

America expresses its dearly won freedom on the open road (“got fuel to burn, got roads to drive”). Young is a great enthusiast and collector of motor vehicles from Mort the hearse to his great custom-built tour buses. But the final line of this verse contrasts the car as a potent symbol of freedom with the sheer pointlessness of most of all that motoring.

 

I love this song because, in the music and the words Young somehow expresses the half formed, incoherent anger that I feel at the world, but at the same time expresses the joy of creation. The stomping rhythm of the song clashes with meaning of the the lyrics. The apparent failure by parts of his audience to recognise the built in contradictions of the song doesn’t seem to bother Young at all. In fact his love of ambiguity and irony causes him to relish it, which explains I think why he includes all the audience reaction shots in the Weld video. Young’s clear anguish at the Gulf War, going on during the Weld tour again belies the apparent gung-ho attitude glimpsed elsewhere. Hence the yellow ribbon tied to the giant mike stand, and the inclusion of Blowin’ in The Wind in the setlist.

 

In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough quotes a remark by painter Francis Bacon: “The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.” All those who think they understand Neil Young’s view on any subject well enough to condemn it, should remember that.

 

Freedom is the great mantra of the advocates of a market driven economy. What they mean is the freedom to pay their employees as little as possible. The freedom to move money and resources around the world to avoid paying national taxes in any of the countries where they operate. The freedom to dominate markets and control prices. The freedom to manipulate foreign governments while they trumpet their own faith in democracy. The freedom to attack any country of whose government they disapprove. At the moment, the September 11th attacks have given a new lease of life to this tendency in the U.S.A. Anyone who hopes for more reflection on these matters, or circumspection from the U.S. government, will be disappointed for some time. I fear it has already guaranteed George Bush a second term, a disaster for his country and for the world, especially when you remember he did not even win the first election.

 

Because of their history, freedom remains a potent message to Americans, many of whose ancestors, often only one or two generations away, escaped religious, political or racial oppression by coming to America. But it is time that they began to examine the contradictions of this faith in American freedom, just as Neil Young does here. The freedom they cherish is not the ‘free’ market. The tyrannies, which their parents or grand parents escaped from, were close allies of the economic tyrants who rule the world still.

 
 
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