today’s song, which is the first song of his I ever heard way back in 1970. It graces Déjà Vu, the album on which he joined Crosby, Stills & Nash to create one of those albums that seems a landmark of its time, more than the sum of its parts. And yet “Helpless” is more than all the rest. The song marked me when I first heard it, all of eleven or so, and still works its magic on me. And it's also the song Neil performed at The Band's farewell concert and it appears on The Last Waltz (1978) with Joni Mitchell on backup vocals.
More recently (the last works I’ve picked up), there was the entirely solo grunge-guitar classic, Le Noise (2010), with production effects via Daniel Lanois, and another Crazy Horse outing, the sprawling Psychedelic Pill (2012)—on both albums Neil offers some songs in a retrospective mood, such as the notable tracks “Hitchhiker” on Le Noise and “Twisted Road” on Pill. Made interested again by those latter day offerings, I picked up Chrome Dreams II (2007), another sprawling effort I have to admit I haven’t “fully absorbed” yet, as indeed I haven't any of Neil’s work since the mid-Nineties. His is a vast body of work, and he continues to work on his Archives, releasing unreleased performances and alternate takes and mixes. Certainly it’s about time someone did a full, in-depth critical study on Young’s career.
“There is a town in North Ontario / With dream, comfort, memory to spare / In my mind I still need a place to go / All my changes were there.” There you have the look backward that shows a rosy past, a past that impoverishes the present, to some extent. One still needs “a place to go,” in one’s mind, because the present oppresses, except to the extent that the changes of the past live on. And Neil's vocal is as pure as any he ever did.
I confess I always heard it, sang it as: “dream, comfort, memory, despair.” For me the parallel was that dreams provide comfort—a possible future—while memory brings despair, because one has failed to live up to its promise or because what is recalled is shaming or undermines the present. Which is why a “place to go” in one’s mind is necessary. But Neil isn’t so glum; he’s recalling a place—in Canada, where he’s from—that provides comfort to his mind.
And yet, when I first fell in love with the song it was in those days of “changes” called childhood into teens. It’s bracing to think of being 11 and recalling “a past” already out of reach—or is it depressing? I suppose there is some comfort in the look back, but it wouldn’t be going too far to say that this entire daily project, this series, is an effort to get out of the past—“the chains are locked and tied across the door” but let’s hope not forever.
Baby, can you hear me now?
Happy birthday to Neil, one of the originals.