There was a time when rock-and-roll fostered truly original, creative art. Young people from nowhere, like Neil Young, with a talent for guitar, an honest voice, and a gift for ballad phrases and melodies, wrote and recorded great songs, not knowing really how or why. They expressed the angst of nobody-ness, and in turn achieved somebody-ness, even became rich, and it all added dimension to their art. They were too unsophisticated to be inauthentic, too inspired to be contrived. They could express the Everyman soul of doubt and insecurity. Unsure and yet on the big stage, they were drawn to the comfort of drugs and learned the despair of getting hooked. They lived and learned fast.
“My life is changing In so many ways
I don’t know who to trust anymore
There’s a shadow running thru my days
Like a beggar going from door to door”
A Man Needs A Maid
Neil Young was born in Canada, grew up with a divorced mother, was a high school drop out. He was ungainly and quizzical, with a druid-like countenance. He had a peculiar falsetto voice, and a unique strumming style of guitar, pushing and pulling at the chords and notes, and he wrote songs.
The Needle and the Damage Done is one of his best songs. Written in the news of a fellow band member who has died of a heroin overdose, the song captures the haunting, sad consciousness of giving yourself away to getting high, the utter domesday of that path. One senses the despair of the frightening ease in which drugs help you do the very worst, feeling alright as you do, but also horrified, and unable to stop at the same time, like leaning over and falling off a cliff. With drugs you debase yourself without feeling like you care, even though you do, and there is no lonelier feeling. You give yourself away. This song is the lonely howl of that wolf.
The song doesn’t really begin and doesn’t really end. The chords are simple, and they climb and descend, and the rhythm repeats and backtracks, like addiction itself, like trying to walk home, intoxicated. The singing and the guitar come together and separate and come together again with a fine craft.
This isn’t a song written by a song writer trying to write a song. This is a song that comes to an artist ready with the skills to put down, all at once, words and music together, as he feels it. Neil Young, and others like him, somehow got there.
“I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don’t understand
I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a setting sun”