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Helpless: On the Poetry of Neil Young

October 23, 2012 | by

There was a fascinating if incomplete musing on the New Yorker website this week regarding Neil Young’s insularity and on the incomprehensible idea that he never reads. It seemed strange that someone who doesn't read would decide to write a book, though it’s often true that writing and reading aren’t necessarily two sides of the same coin. They are often very different coins, operating in very different currencies. When you go to a bank to make change, the exchange rate is never in your favor.

I forwarded the piece to my friend Bill Flicker, out in Los Angeles, who wrote back that he never listens to Neil Young’s words, that they are simply placeholders or crumbs that are scattered on a walk through a musical forest. Actually, I do listen to his words. Not always. But when I listen, they’re remarkably visual and evocative:

Blue blue windows behind the stars.
Yellow moon on the rise.
Purple words on a grey background
To be a woman and to be turned down

How did those windows get behind the stars? I don’t know, but I can see them clearly. Sometimes as a child's drawing. Sometimes as a reflection on an airplane window. There may not be logic involved, but there is something deeper than that. As for those purple words, they shine against the grey background much as Matisse’s goldfish shine through the water they swim in. I can see them clearly reflected on the surface of being turned down. Turned down like a bed, like a stereo, like a deal. A woman turned down. I can see that reflection even if I can’t explain it. If I could, the song might not be as powerful as it is.

What is the color
When black is burned?
What is the color?

I know what that color is but I’m not permitted to say. Joy Williams once wrote that “the children had told her once that the sun was called the sun because the real word for it was too terrible.” She was listening to Neil Young when she wrote that.

Shelter me from the powder
and the finger
Cover me with the thought
that pulled the trigger

Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger. Not cover me with earth. Not cover me with death. But cover me with the very impulse behind my death. Cover me with the will that I should die, that I should cease. That idea, that line, is worthy of anyone you can name. Anyone. It’s large as the sky. Yet small enough to fit into a song. That’s the terrible beauty of it.

Not all of Neil Young’s songs are as evocative or as powerful. Songs pour out of him at an alarming rate, and for better and for worse they are part of an enormous work that’s still in progress, that keeps expanding. There are songs that seem ungainly or odd, that seem to have their gears showing, but I tend to think of these the way I think about those extra widgets or metal bits that come with a Swiss Army knife. I don't know why they’re there, but they seem like they’re there for a reason, part of a larger scheme. Sometime much later, when you’re lost in the forest of the night, that useless whatsit might be the only thing that could save your life. You never know.

The elegant simplicity of Young’s songs does not seem manufactured. There’s neither a faux primitivism nor a childlike celebration of the obvious a la, say, the venerable comic strip Nancy. Rather, they combine a child’s focus and need to meet ideas head on with a zen equanimity. The sense of foreboding we feel isn’t necessarily in the songs but in us. These are reports sent back from a place beyond judgement. from a weatherman used to the cold:

Wind blowing through my sails
It feels like I'm gone

See the sky about to rain
broken clouds and rain

Big bird flying across the sky
throwing shadows on our eyes

According to Alec Wilkinson, who wrote the New Yorker piece, Young has missed out on “examples of language carrying complicated thoughts or feelings, the way they are carried in the poems of writers such as Philip Levine or William Butler Yeats or the prose of a writer such as Isak Dinesen.” Well, yes. And no.

We’d all be better off for having Philip Levine and W. B. Yeats and Isak Dinesen in our libraries and in our heads. But Neil Young operates in a very different and a very special arena. His songs seem to be both post-literate and preliterate in a powerful and distinctly modern way, leapfrogging over logic and seeming to come straight from the unconscious. Maybe not even his unconscious, more out of a collective yearning or out of some deep and mostly hidden national or international dream state. If swamps or lagoons could hum, they'd probably hum Neil Young songs.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City. He last wrote for the Daily on Nick Drake.




  1. Dave | October 23, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    where’s that Joy Williams quote from?

  2. brian cullman | October 23, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    You would have to ask that!!! I think it was from THE CHANGELING. Not entirely sure, but I think it was.

  3. Robert | October 23, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    What Neil wrote can’t really be called “writing”. The book appears to be unedited and unlike his songwriting, the book reads like he’s speaking into a recorder. It’s like Neil’s songwriting career. There are true gems and some hidden treasures and then there’s all the rest, while not quite up to snuff, still fascinating and worth a listen because, after all, it is Neil Young.

  4. karenbarryschwarz | October 24, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    you have hit the power of neil’s music head on. bravo.

  5. mark | October 24, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    The poet Tom Clark published a book in 1972 titled _Neil Young_(Coach House) that played off of Young’s lyrics. It’s interesting that even at the beginning of his career, Young has managed to draw in literary types.
    By the way, Young does write in his memoir about buying a Clive Cussler book. As well, there are many examples of book metaphors in Young’s songs. I suspect he was being funny with the “I never read” comment.

  6. Charles Z. | October 25, 2012 at 8:59 am

    I am completely puzzled not by Young’s words but by the idea that anyone likes his music. His melodies and chord progressions are the simplest pap, with zero interest or attraction to them that I can hear. He overlays that musical nothing with his whining alto voice to totally alienate me. Well, I know I lot of people like his “music,” but I’ll never know how or why.

  7. Gil Michael | October 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    My first encounter with Neil Young music was when I was about 10. My mother used to play his then new album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” so from an early age his music entered my soul. Charles Z’s comment amuses me because I do hear that opinion from others. What they fail to understand is you cannot analyze Neil Young’s music on any conscious level. Comparisons or critiques are useless. You have to have the capacity to actually FEEL the music and words as one. It is truly wonderful once you can do that. But some will never get there because they are turned off for very superficial reasons. Young’s music grows on you. Not everything he has done is great but there are some beautiful songs in his catalog if you take the time to feel them.

  8. Jonathan Kiddrane | November 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    I compared seeing N.Young in concert to watching a light flickering in a candle. No one can actually decipher the intensity if the flame but we watch it burning and cannot take our eyes off it. He is a true original with a career that spans 6 decades! How many artist on any music chart today will have that kind of staying power? Keep smiling and rock in!

  9. Arwen Curry | November 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Really so very well put, Brian. I agree about the pocket knife. Directness from Neil Young is maybe what makes “Ohio” or “Southern Man” or “Heart of Gold” (though all are great) less appealing to the soul on the hundredth listen than “Helpless” or “See the Sky About to Rain.”

  10. Gabe | November 25, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Some good points about Neil, he’s a kind of spirit guide, and his music is imbued with an unflinching honesty; he lets you see right inside. “Elegant simplicity” is a brilliant way to describe many of his lyrics, and I think its the ideal for a songwriter as the form doesn’t really allow for too much complication.

    A quick point I wanted to make is that you shouldn’t be too surprised that he doesn’t read and can write such brilliant lyrics: novelists and poets don’t have a monopoly on words. Songwriters have been using words as an integral part of their art for a long time now, and Young no doubt places a huge value in them, in finding the right phrasing and the right expression, in giving his art an emotive spearhead when it is so needed.

    On a pedantic note the first four lines you quote are actually from two different songs if my memory serves me (the first two from Helpless, the second two from Cowgirl In The Sand).

    Thanks for the article, a great read. When Neil hits form the beauty of it really is astonishing.

  11. ted | January 12, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Charles Z lol another angry,failed musician

  12. bryan wodaski | June 3, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Neil Young’s music makes me feel connected. Like the line about lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in my eyes. I felt that and saw it in my head as a teenager. He and his music felt right and nothing fake. Lots of soul sung in a childs voice.

    The only odd thing is his ability to continue to evoke those feelings in me though I’m 57. His words still feel strong and lasting as a river.

  13. Lizzy | July 2, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    If in fact Neil Young isn’t much of a reader, he certainly grew up in a very literate environment. His father, Scott Young, was a journalist and wrote novels as well as YA fiction. Literature can’t ever have been a stranger to him. Perhaps Mark is correct that Young said he doesn’t read in jest–or not.

  14. ask | April 25, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Having read this I thought it was really enlightening.

    I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this information together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a significant
    amount of time both reading and leaving comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  15. Barry | December 5, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    You got the words to “Helpless” wrong!

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  1. […] Read this great article by Brian Cullman in The Paris Review on Neil Young’s music and the value of lyrics that sometimes seem incomplete but are always visually/emotionally evocative. […]

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