Gettin’ old the Young way – Neil comes to Melbourne

I saw the gruff, shaggy looking man pictured above last night at Sydney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. For those who don’t know (shame! shame!) his name is Neil Young and he’s an Old Man with a Heart of Gold, he’s seen The Needle and the Damage Done and he likes - no, loves - to keep on Rockin’ In The Free World. Going by his performance last night, he also loves to Keep Rockin’ In The Free World To The Point At Which You’re Damn Sure The Song Has Ended But Oh No No No It Hasn’t Because Then He Rumbles Through Yet Another Rendition Of the Chorus And The Crowd Keeps Diggin it. It was a varied set, very smoothly delivered, and some of the most famous songs played were The Needle And The Damage Done, Get Back To The Country, Rockin’ In The Free World and A Day In The Life.

Young’s first album was released in 1969 and four decades later he still has that wholesome lilt in his voice; the soothing, earthy twang for which he is known and loved. There is something clean and crisp about his lyrics too – often elegant, even eloquent, but the clear and uncluttered prose of a poet who deeply understands his words and doesn’t mince them. They're not all great songs, but most of them are very good, and when he hits the nail on its head Young summons considerable power and emotion out of unspectacular arrangements. I recall one interviewee in a Bob Dylan documentary I watched a few years back saying that Dylan’s early songs appealed to the people of the streets by using the language of the streets, and the same can be said about a lot of Young’s work.

Note the simplicity of the lyrics of The Needle And The Damage Done:

I caught you knockin' at my cellar door
I love you, baby, can I have some more
Ooh, ooh, the damage done.

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done.

I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don't understand
Milk-blood to keep from running out.

I've seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie's like a settin' sun.

That’s the entire song. It’s very short and I’ve always thought it missed something that might have been able to elevate it from greatness to brilliance – maybe a chorus, maybe another couple of verses. But this says something of Young’s approach: in his best work there is no filler, no beating around the bush; he says what he feels he needs to and that’s that.

My favourite Neil Young performance will always be his amphetamine-caressed rendition of Helpless during the final concert of The Band in 1976. It was captured in Martin Scorcese’s brilliant concert documentary The Last Waltz, and caused a few problems in the editing room: Young had a large blob of cocaine hanging from his nose (dubbed the ‘cocaine goober’) which was removed in post-production.

Check out the Youtube video below. He may be wasted (observe the jaw clenching!) but he sings like an angel.


  1. Classic! Thousands spent on removing a cocaine goober! If only we could get that in real life - you know when you come home from a day of work and you've got a massive piece of seaweed stuck in your teeth that must have been there since lunch and no one bothered to say anything - easily avoided if someone was there editing it out to make you look good!

  2. He and TV on the Radio were the highlights of this year's BDO. Young kicked my ass six ways from Sunday though - for an old bastard he sure knows how to shred!