So what has Neil Young got to do with waging heavy peace?
Unlike many musicians who have come and gone through my life, Neil Young is one of those great artists who continues to turn up periodically and visit like an old friend. Such was the case recently when a mate drew my attention to his most recent album Psychedelic Pill. Curiously this happened only days after I had spotted his new autobiography in the bookshop. I think its title Waging Heavy Peace is eminently suitable for an ageing hippy!
But what has Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse got to do with my most treasured priority in life, that of the reconciling explanation of the human condition? In my case as it turns out, quite a lot.
I first became aware of Neil Young, when I was about 16. Being the son of a Welshman I grew up listening to records of powerful male voice choirs belting out songs of defiance and marches to freedom. I also loved the softer welsh ballads of love conquering all. So when my friends introduced me to Neil Young’s self titled album, I immediately liked it, but for an extra reason. It was probably the first time I had realised that this was my generation being spoken to. Young’s music is both powerful and poetic just like the Welsh hymns of old but this music was definitely speaking to a new generation. A restless, unsatisfied generation.
In my opinion, good music has the power to lead you on a journey into life’s deeper issues as well as to inspire a hope that something good will come out of life’s struggle. As Young says in his autobiography ‘Music is a storm on the senses, weather for the soul, deeper than deep, wider than wide. It is more than you see or hear. It is what you feel’ (Neil Young, Waging Heavy Peace, pg.143).
Unsurprisingly, Young’s early lyrics are littered with examples of ‘this struggle’. There’s fear and optimism and anger and hope. For example the last three lines of Here We Are In The Years agonisingly spells out the alienation of modern living: ‘Lives become careers/ Children cry in fear/ Let us out of here!’. And his song Tell Me Why from his 1970 album After The Goldrush is a classic restless search for answers. This is the first verse; ‘Sailing heart-ships/ Thru broken harbors/ Out on the waves in the night/ Still the searcher/ Must ride the dark horse/ Racing alone in his fright./ Tell me why, tell me why’. In slight contrast, Young’s earlier work with Crosby Stills and Nash produced a series of popular optimistic songs. One in particular titled Teach Your Children is a youthful plea for an ideal future; ‘And you, of the tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by/ and so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die’.
Sadly the ideals of the ‘hippies’ and the flower power era were mostly short lived. The idealistic 60s gave way to the anger and resignation of the 70s and 80s, and history’s ‘inspired moment’ seems to have been lost in a cloud of disillusionment. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but on reflection I think the music of the 60s and 70s helped enormously in keeping my search for answers alive. But it wasn’t until the early 90s, (1991 in fact) that I discovered Jeremy Griffith’s book Beyond The Human Condition. I devoured it. I loved every word. Jeremy seemed to be rationally discussing and more incredibly, explaining, all the big questions of life in good, plain, bold, unesoteric English that was so incredibly fresh and true. It was the full story that music could only hint at.
I later read Free: The End Of The Human Condition, Jeremy Griffith’s first book, and it was here that I found the following quote about the role that music has played in the lives of humans living in the darkness of the human condition. It has become so meaningful to me that I read it at my father’s funeral in 2003 as part of his eulogy. ‘In such rare instances of compassion as sometimes appeared in our music, we have been able to find great truth, peace and serenity. In our music we could hear it all…Our music said that with monstrous courage, humanity was going to win the world’s fight (to find understanding and reconcile our spirit with our soul) and it has.’ (Jeremy Griffith, Free: The End of the Human Condition pg.83). I wanted to shout those last three little words ‘AND IT HAS’ from the rooftops because I wanted my Dad to know that the answers are here! All the great Welsh male voice choirs that inspired in me such a love of ‘never give up the fight’ passionate music, kept us going till the answers arrived and landed us at the gates of heaven! As Jeremy rightly says ‘In our music we could hear it all’!
Neil Young’s passionate ‘metal folk protest music’ still resonates with me today but the tempo is very different from his younger days. My wife commented recently that she just can’t relate to his most recent album Psychedelic Pill with its long droning almost painfully laborious jams. I think I know why. Older men will know why. The answer is in the first verse of his bitter/sweet honest song titled I Want To Walk Like A Giant; ‘Tried to have for long and strain/ We were riding on a desert wind/ We were pulling in the spiritual/ Riding on the desert wind/ We could see it in the distance/ Getting closer every minute/ We saw the lights and spiritual shining/ Getting closer every minute/ Then we skipped the rails, and we started to fail/ And we folded up, and it’s not enough/ Think about how close we came...’.
I’m tempted to think that every older male can relate to this. It is the moment in our lives when the utter depression of life hits us and we lament and think our journey has ‘skipped the rails’...was it all worth it? For 16 long minutes the guitars in this song wail out their depressing message and the dry bass drum thumps monotonously in the background.
But then the message suddenly changes and with what seems like a final gasp of life Young lets us know in no uncertain terms that there’s still hope; there’s still work to be done, and a smile from a loved one is all it takes to get us back on track; ‘When I’m seeing your blue eyes shining/ And hear your happy laugh/ So the moment came, and the big sky rained/ And a pool of fire served in my desire.../ I want to walk like a giant’.
I love this song because it re-centres me. It reminds me that although my journey with understanding the human condition and the confrontation that its tidal wave of truth necessarily brings can get intensely challenging at times, I am reminded that I have the most incredibly exciting and important project all happening right in front of me and that Jeremy Griffith has provided all the tools we need to bring about the ‘heaviest peace’ this world has ever known. There’s a terrific quote in Young’s autobiography where he asks the real question that all humans have been asking since time immemorial, where he says; ‘Ways to serve and preserve the health of the planet are all around us, yet we stumble and repeat our old habitual ways, ignoring that which speaks to us so clearly, not seeing the signals and signs. Somehow can we break the cycle? Somewhere can we see the light?’. Now with the explanation of the human condition in our grasp we can move on from the great anthems of our human-condition-afflicted generation that so defiantly shout out that despite all the pain and all the suffering in this world, we will never give up the fight for the real freedom our species so heroically needs and deserves. We can simply get on with bringing that Freedom to every last person in every last corner on the planet and it seems fitting to give the last word to another Neil who lives closer to home…as WTM Member Neil Duns (Dunsy) says in his affirmation... ‘hell Yeah!’ and with those two simple words of transformation the whole world lights up with possibility!