Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Old Man by Neil Young

When Neil Young released Harvest in 1972 it was met with quite a lot of indifference, to put it mildly. Fans, who appreciated his constantly changing musical persona, got on board, as opposed to the critics, who rated it as quaint, at best, and complete rubbish at worst. Young has never released anything in response to what he was expected to by either fans or critics. By the time one album was released, he was already deeply immersed in folk, screeching electric rock, country, or what would eventually be called grunge.

The song Old Man now has a place amongst the best of Young’s work, and is one of several excellent tracks on the album. Harvest, Out On The Weekend, and Heart Of Gold are all brilliant compositions, and help create a unified theme and texture on the album. But, Old Man is the track that I play most, and extracts a greater emotional response.

Old man is one of those unique songs that allows for multiple interpretations and responses that shift and grow with the passage of time. With age and experience, we gain a deeper appreciation of the perspective of both the singer and the subject.

Many observers thought the song to be Young’s appraisal of his relationship with his estranged father. However, it has been confirmed by Young that the inspiration for the song was the old ranch manager on Young’s farm. But, could the same song have been written if Neil Young had a different upbringing? Clearly, his relationship with his father, even subconsciously, has influenced the choice of words, and style of music.

Regardless of the subject, the themes resonate strongly across a broad spectrum. If confesses all the fears and hopes of us as young men, a few years into adulthood, and all the promises and regrets that go with it. As we slide through our thirties, there is a dual appreciation of each perspective. Not siding with either but having a greater understanding of both. And finally, when approaching fifty, especially with a son around twenty four, there is a clear bond with the Old Man. Never losing sight of what the song meant when first heard, it grows in meaning and depth with each passing year.

It is a tribute to Neil Young’s song-writing ability to produce a work of art so mature, so complex, and so dynamic. And even though he has a huge repertoire of songs just as impressive, this one piece alone places him equally alongside other modern poetic masters, like Cohen, Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Springsteen.

The conviction of Neil Young’s cross-generational conversation rings true with each word sung, and each note played. It is such a beautifully sad and sweet piece of music. Hear the young man pleading for a chance to be heard. Feel the old man pleading for a chance to shake his younger self to listen.

Old Man is a timeless song that you can return to again and again. It’s like a good friend that you comfortably and dependably grow old with. And if you can, you should introduce the Old Man to a younger person and keep sharing the wisdom.


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