On The Beach by Neil Young


I resumed duties at The Samaritans today. Obviously, I’m not going to write about anything that was said to me but it was good to know that other people are going through a tough time. I guess that makes me a terrible person and completely unsuitable to offer support. I guess I mean that it did me good to know that however I feel about things, there are always people out there who don’t really have a lot going for them. I discussed finance, loneliness, physical health and neighbours today and I realise that any issues to do with a schizoid dog, a broken computer and uncertainty about whether to go inside a pub or not are trivial and desperately egocentric and introspective.

The 38th best record of all time is “On The Beach” by Neil Young. It was the studio follow up to “Harvest”. The live album “Time Fades Away” had been released between “Harvest” and “On The Beach”. It shows Neil Young in his most rough and rowdy way. Whereas “Harvest” was polished, this sounds like it was mostly first takes – a ‘warts and all’ type of record. There are a lot of misconceptions about this record. Rolling Stone called it “one of the most despairing albums of the decade” but that’s not right. In my opinion. I think the key line is at the end of “Ambulance Blues” which is the last track on Side Two and it’s the line where Eliot Roberts (Neil Young’s manager) criticises Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for wasting time and feeling sorry for themselves. “You’re all just pissing in the wind. You don’t know it but you are.” Neil Young then goes on to say “Ain’t there nothing like a friend who can tell you that you’re all just pissing in the wind”. My interpretation is that this hard hitting truth is a wake up call to Neil Young and I would agree with William Ruhlmann on “AllMusic” that Neil Young is “saying goodbye to despair, not being overwhelmed by it”.┬áThe next album that Neil Young recorded was “Zuma” which is much more upbeat and he is not feeling quite so sorry for himself. Confusingly, the next album that Neil Young released, “Tonight’s The Night” was recorded before “On The Beach” so this album is really the last of the “Ditch Trilogy”. I think the album is taking self-pity to extremes (at times, quite humourously) in order to leave these feelings behind.

“Walk On” is bright and breezy and lyrically sets the tone for the album. Neil Young reminisces about “the good old days” and how his old friends assume that he’s still the same. However, Neil has grown up. “Sooner or later it all gets real”. It’s time to “walk on”.

“See The Sky About To Rain” is haunting with just a keyboard accompaniment for the first verse before drums and a pedal steel kick in. Lyrically, he is feeling sorry for himself and it’s about to rain. The final verse is “I was down in Dixie Land, played a silver fiddle. Played it loud and then the man broke it down the middle.” I find that funny (although the destruction of musical instruments is never a laughing matter – just ask Pete Townshend). Get things in perspective.

“Revolution Blues” is a great song. It was, presumably, inspired by Charles Manson and is sung from the viewpoint of a murderous revolutionary. The final lines are “Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, but I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.” Musically, this song really rocks with great guitar by David Crosby and Neil Young and drums from Levon Helm. Murder isn’t funny but it’s a bit like I said at the start; Neil Young realises that he can’t really feel sorry for himself when “rape, murder – it’s just a shot away”.

“For The Turnstiles” consists of Neil Young on banjo and Ben Keith on harmony vocals and dobro. Johnny Rogan wrote “Young presents an analogy between baseball players and rock stars as a comment on his own career. This song gets to the heart of the artist’s neuroses – how to effect change in the mummifying arena of rock stardom”.

“Vampire Blues” describes how oil companies are destroying the environment. I wonder if Daryl Hannah heard this forty years before she got together with Neil Young? Feel sorry for yourself if you like but the earth is being destroyed while you’re staring intently at your own belly button.

Apparently, Neil Young wanted the sides swapped and I can see how that would work. Side One describes a range of different scenarios which are more deserving of our concern than feeling sorry for oneself. Side two which is mainly acoustic is much more introspective. Swapping the sides would have made the album more of a journey. Start with a song where you’re so obsessed with your own problems that you can’t function and end with a song which puts everything in perspective and where “Mother Nature is on the run”. It starts with “On The Beach”. If Neil Young had got his way, this would have been the opening song and it’s a statement of where he is. “Although my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away”. He is deep in despair, navel-gazing, unable to see a way out. It’s going to be a couple of songs before his manager tells him to grow up and get over it. This song features a fantastic guitar solo which I remember reading about at the time, describing it as stuttering and hesitant. I think that’s the whole point. It’s how he feels, unable to express himself. “I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone.” At the end, he decided to “get out of town” and find somewhere better. I interpret this as he wants to change his attitude – “I’ll follow the road but I don’t know where it ends”. Another guitar solo comes in again towards the end but then he sings another line as if the solo came in too early. Finally the solo starts again and plays out the song. It’s one of my all time favourite Neil Young songs.

“Motion Pictures (for Carrie)” is a song about his relationship with his wife, Carrie Snodgrass. By the time the record came out, their marriage was over but the song was written before he was aware that she was being unfaithful to him. Ironically, Neil Young was unfaithful too but her “screwing around” was too much for him. Different times, I guess. One of the key lines is “All those headlines, they just bore me now”. He is disillusioned by fame and fortune and unsure how his life is going to pan out.

“Ambulance Blues” finishes the album and is, a masterpiece (although I prefer the title track). Johnny Rogan wrote that this song is the “summit of Young’s achievement as a singer songwriter. The most likely candidate as his greatest and most memorable composition.” The lyrics are complex and explore the events of Neil Young’s past. This is quite a common theme in a lot of Neil Young’s early songs. The B side of five of his singles between 1968 and 1975 was “Sugar Mountain” in which he regrets leaving his teens behind. “You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain, though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.” Another example of Neil Young ruminating on his past is the title track from “Time Fades Away”. In my mind, the kernel of the song is the fifth verse. “I guess I’ll call it sickness gone. It’s hard to say the meaning of this song. An ambulance can only go so fast. It’s easy to get buried in the past. When you try to make a good thing last”. I think he is telling himself to stop feeling sorry for himself. he can’t rely on other people – “an ambulance can only go so fast” – there’s only so much help he can get from other people. Stop ruminating over the past, get over it. The last verse is commonly assumed to be about Richard Nixon. “I never knew a man could tell so many lies. He had a different story for every set of eyes. How can he remember who he’s talkin’ to? Cause I know it ain’t me and I hope it isn’t you”. The cover, which shows Neil Young standing, er…on a beach, has a newspaper buried in the sand and all we can see are the headlines “Senator Buckley calls for Nixon to resign”. Personally, I prefer to conclude that Neil Young is talking to himself here. He is deluding himself (“telling so many lies”). It’s a bit like “Barstool Blues” on the follow up album, “Zuma” where he sings “once there was a friend of mine who died a thousand deaths”. It’s him. Himself.

Get over it Neil. Wake up. Move on. Walk on.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

6 thoughts on “On The Beach by Neil Young

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