Neil Young’s “Thrasher” is a song worthy of Dylan, and I mean Dylan at his best. Rarely are Young’s lyrics so fully realized. He has some great songs and can be surprising with his imagery and how he turns a phrase, but the songs tend to be based more on great phrases or a major image, rather than fully worked out narratives or songs that take a position. Young’s mind, in writing lyrics, tends to be very elliptical and associative. And that’s good enough for most songs. Few song lyrics are worth analyzing as poetry. Mainly we’re concerned with how the song makes its points, and the way it gives us a few memorable phrases that jump out or match so well the melody.
Dylan has many songs that transcend that expectation, and his ability to do that regularly set off a wave of songwriters who would try to do the same. Lyrics became statements and sometimes could be fairly ornate or baroque. Even if you could get all the words to some songs, you didn’t necessarily get what was being got at. Young’s debut album boasts “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” a song that only Neil Young could’ve written, in its oddly drawn-out, disjointed narrative, marked by a very laconic delivery both threatened and threatening. Occasionally there were flashes of that kind of extended imaginative reach in other songs, but “Thrasher” arrived—recorded on the 1978 tour (which I saw at the Spectrum in Philadelphia in September of that year)—in early July, 1979, as a bit of revelation.
I remember the concert fairly well, but even better I remember a July morning in 1979, setting off at dawn for a drive to the Berkshires, lighting up that first bowl of the day and playing a tape of Rust Never Sleeps. I wasn’t driving, so I could fall into quiet contemplation of Neil’s new album, and this song, and “Pocahontas” and “Sail Away” and “Powderfinger” all grabbed me that day. “Thrasher” and the latter are the ones I go back for most. Young had reached major figure status for me—and for many—with the release of the three-LP set Decade in 1977. That career summary let us know that this was a varied and interesting singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He’d already made his major albums, but “Thrasher” and the “rust” tour showed that he wasn’t done yet. “Hey, hey, my, my, rock’n’roll can never die.” From the death of The King in 1977 and the arrival of Johnny Rotten that same year, Young drew the great maxim: “it’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” Almost no one of his generation could keep the rust at bay through the long decade ahead.
The power of “Thrasher” is belied by its very simple vocal. Young usually strains up in a higher register, with a voice shaky and edgy or very smooth and clear. Here, he’s more direct, talk-singing in a way that lets him stress, rightly, the well-constructed lyric.
He begins with one of his favorite images—the life attuned with nature, “planting in the full moon,” such as he celebrated with the Aztecs in “Cortez the Killer.” In that song he speaks of “sacrifice so that others could go on,” and here he gives us “They had given all they had / For something new.” The “thrashers,” though, seem to represent a force of a more mechanized world (I tend to think Young means “threshers” and is thinking of farm equipment, extending it to a figure for forces striking down the farmers themselves).
We then get the singer on the road seeing the thrashers rolling toward him. The scene is full of a delight in the road and the scenes out the window; “Trying to catch an hour / On the sun” gives us a sense of timeliness, the fact that days are numbered, yet “I was feeling like my day had just begun” feels a bit euphoric, a bit ready for anything. The joy of starting out. Something new.
Next, some more nature imagery—eagle, ancient river, timeless gorge—again, the kinds of visions of the beauty of the land that Young likes to celebrate, but there’s a downside. Nature has its consolations, but there seems to be a lack in social interaction. The timeless gorge gets wedded to “changes” and “sleeplessness.” And companions are lost in “crystal canyons”—an image that could be of nature but sounds more like methamphetamine as a major time-waster, so that “the aimless blade of science” that “slashed the pearly gates,” besides being a gesture back at those mechanized thrashers, also includes the wonderful world of chemistry and what people put in their systems, much like what they’re willing to pollute those ancient rivers with, in order to manufacture all that science makes possible. The “pearly gates” are a metonymy for heaven, but heaven—as a spiritual faith—has also been undermined by the “not real unless proven” outlook of science. It’s a verse that nicely compacts a sense of enchantment and disenchantment at once.
The singer then speaks of trying to get away from that world (“I’d had enough / Burned my credit card for fuel”—a line with some bite in the summer of gas shortages), heading to “where the pavement / Turns to sand” (a nice image for the desert wilderness), looking for truth, but losing his friends along the way. The verse, in 1979, a bit like Dylan’s “I don’t know how it all got started / I don’t know what they do with their lives / But me, I’m still on the road,” in 1975, arrives as a pronouncement on what became of the Sixties generation—their generation—as they gave up on the kind of searching and remaining unsettled that is the poet’s prerogative but pretty much cloys for everyone else, past a certain age. Young mulls on what became of them—leading comfortable lives, “there was nothing that they needed / Nothing left to find.” That’s the kiss of death for him. To give up on finding something else, something not yet known, is to be self-satisfied, smug, “poisoned with protection.” The singer says he “got bored and left them there”—harking to the “Maggie’s Farm” claim, “they say sing while you slave / But I just get bored.” The boredom of the comfortable life, the unexamined life (if you like), the life with no real needs, no concern with the basis of its contentment. “They were just dead weight to me,” the singer says, “better down the road without that load.”
He then recalls “that great Grand Canyon rescue episode,” which he saw while “watching my mama’s TV.” The childhood recollection doesn’t seem tied to anything in particular—a good example of Young’s odd associative leaps—but it comes up because dropping the dead weight “brings back the time when I as eight or nine.” It could simply be that that was a very unburdened time, and that the rescue in the Grand Canyon touches on the “timeless gorge of changes,” “the crystal canyons,” and “the rock formations” the song has already mentioned. These friends need to be rescued from those gorges and canyons and rocks where they have become petrified.
Perhaps struck by this leap, the song then leaps further, with Young cramming a range of images into the next verse: the eagle has become a vulture, descending rather than ascending (as in the third verse) and the ancient river has become an asphalt highway. We’re in a world of much less possibility, a world denatured, of death, where the highway extends through those mausoleums of culture, the libraries and museums, and even the galaxies and stars. The Space Age has denatured—or we might say has commodified—all of space, all of knowledge. Young extends his discontent to the “windy halls of friendship”—an awkward figure that he buttresses with “the rose clipped by the bull whip,” a great figure for something delicate and fine destroyed by something aggressive and domineering (and it’s hard not to think of so much good “eclipsed by the bull shit”), and then goes further with: “the motel of lost companions waits with heated pool and bar.” Almost a riposte to my post on “King of the Road” where the vagabond life never meets with such amenities. Now even the lonesome traveler can kick back in some version of comfort, pleasure and recreation. Because what else is there, friends, but comfort, pleasure and recreation?
But the singer’s not buying it. “But me, I’m not stopping there / Got my own row left to hoe.” “Let us tend our gardens,” Candide says at the end of his many adventures and trials. “Go hoe your row,” the singer suggests. Get to work, “just another line / In the field of time.” Now we’re to imagine ourselves as corn in the field awaiting the thresher, but Young gives us a stranger image to chew on: “I’ll be stuck in the sun / Like the dinosaurs in shrines.” Enshrined dinosaurs takes us back to those museums, and the thought (I guess) that all that work an artist does is only to end up in such, preserved, perhaps escaping the big thrasher of fate a bit longer. It’s an image for a certain kind of fatality—“I’ll know the time has come / To give what’s mine”—which is why I appreciate the song so much.
The ending is oddly elliptical, not telling us where he is as it ends, nor what he is prepared to do. Dylan’s “I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking / But I’ll know my song well before I start singing” comes to mind, as Young grabs up some of that same determination. I’ve still got something to give and I’m going to stand here until I do, even with those thrashers bearing down on me. In Dylan’s case that claim came early in his career. For Young, in 1979, there’s a sense that, with Decade, he had already been relegated to the “museum” and had to make this effort to insist on a day just begun.
But for me, in 1979, I heard that prolepsis as definitive. If only the dead weight could be shed, much might lie ahead.