Neil Young has never exactly been reticent to speak his mind. A populist pundit in the strictest sense, he’s dealt with subjects as far ranging as the ravages of drugs, rebellion against the recording industry, support for finding a cure for autism, the need to champion America’s farmers and a desire to maintain an independent streak in ways that have often put him at odds with his bandmates and often put off his fan, as well (Trans anybody?). He’s been painted as a difficult personality, the man that short-circuited Buffalo Springfield in its original incarnation, thwarted its reunion and bowed out of reconvening with Crosby, Stills and Nash despite numerous planned projects. Even an affable soul like Graham Nash found it necessary to take him to task in his book “Wild Tales,” describing him in so many words as one of the most difficult and confounding individuals he had ever met.
It’s not surprising then that Young’s never made much of an attempt to stifle his political views. Although he’s never been as overt as some of his fellow performers—Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez or Tom Morello, to cite three obvious examples—he can claim a long history of venting against the political system. In recent years, his rage has come rapidly to the fore. During the past decade alone, he’s released three albums (Living With War, The Monsanto Years and Earth) that make no attempt whatsoever to hide his thoughts about the politico-economic system that’s plunged America into a bitter divide and an ever-worsening malaise. For those who may be shocked by Young’s directness in dealing with these issues, it’s worth noting several other songs in his well-stocked catalogue that have found him venting and postulating his particular point of view. Here, then, are Young’s 10 most assertive political statements conveyed in song.
The title track of last year’s angry riposte against the agrochemical giant was shocking in its direct assault, even by Young standards. With his new backing band Promise of the Real in tow, Young lashes out at the company’s aggressive overreach, the way it’s allegedly poisoning the food supply and destroying the livelihood of the American farmer. The music is visceral, unapologetic and biting in its overall indictment of this corporate monolith. Granted, this isn’t exactly the kind of material that encourages its listeners to hum along, but the live performances offered in its immediate follow-up, Earth, show that even while railing against the system, air guitars are not inappropriate.
In 1970, Young not only invoked the ire of those residing below the Mason-Dixon Line, but initiated one of the most fabled feuds in all rock ‘n’ roll feuds. It started when Lynyrd Skynyrd took issue with his blanket indictment of southerners as blatant racists. Skynyrd even went so far as to name drop him in the song they chose as their reprisal, “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Southern man don’t need him anyhow,” they argued. Young laid it on thicker with 1972’s “Alabama,” a blanket indictment of the namesake state’s history of racial persecution and its reluctant embrace of civil rights.
Culled from his epic live opus, 1989’s Rust Never Sleeps, “Welfare Mothers” found Young appearing to lean to the right once again with what seemed to be a statement of support for President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to trim the welfare rolls. “Welfare mothers make better lovers… Divorcee! Hard to believe that love is free now.” This ill-affected attempt at sarcasm had many people scratching their heads, particularly those in the press who had never mistaken him for a Reagan Republican. Years later, Young insisted the song was really about taking action in the community and people doing for themselves what they had depended on government to do for them in the past. The song that follows on the album, “Sedan Delivery” disses the drug trade, perhaps further ingratiating Young to the Reagans by suggesting that “Just Say No” is really alright.
Adapting the famed battle cry used by the passengers on the doomed jet that was forced down in Shanksville Pennsylvania on 9/11, “Let’s Roll, released a year later, shored up America’s determination to fight back against terrorist aggressors. We’re “going after Satan on the wings of a dove,” Young declared, offering an unmistakeable call to arms. While other musicians sang soliloquies, Neil made no bones about his tougher intents.
Young may bare his teeth and flex his muscles from time to time, but like most of the elders of his generation, he’s also prone to smoking a little weed and musing on the mellower things in life. Some 40 years ago, legalization of marijuana was simply a hippie daydream because society’s elders considered the herb the first step on the road towards serious drug addiction. Still, it’s worth remembering that Young saw the effects of substance abuse firsthand with the death by overdose of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, an experience he detailed on an earlier song, “Needle and the Damage Done.” This gem, recorded circa ’75, offers a live and let smoke ethos. “Homegrown is a good thing,” Shakey insists. “Plant that bell and let it ring.”
Young’s environmental concerns didn’t start with the Monsanto Years, not by a long shot. In 1974, he wrote a telling tune that decried those who waste the earth’s resources and suck its natural treasures, like vampires do their victims.
Young is, if nothing else, rather prophetic in his worldview. In 1987, the threats were different but the goals were the same—kill Americans, run rampant through the Middle East and take over through terror. This track, taken from Life, finds Young railing about American policy. The song’s narrator vents the frustration that results from trying to put an end to seemingly endless strife.
I went lookin’ for Khaddafi
Aboard Air Force One,
But I never did find him And the C.I.A. said, ‘Son
You’ll never be a hero
Your flyin’ days are done
It’s time for you to go home now
Stop sniffin’ that smokin’ gun.’
Remarkably, this was written a number of years before the rise of Al Qaida, ISIS and the failed governments of Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. It’s amazing how some things never seem to change.
A reverberating anthem, this song became the track that really resonated from Freedom, the 1989 album that found Young unleashing his energy and emotion in such a way as to rally the troops. Taking aim at the first President Bush, Young decries his kinder, gentler America as little more than a “kinder, gentler machine gun hand” willing to send more American kids to die in a faraway foreign land. The song allegedly took root in a comment by Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro, who, while watching reports of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral, noted the “angry mobs who were burning American flags. “It’s probably better we keep rockin’ in the free world,” Sampedro supposedly said. Thus, a classic chorus was born.
Written in the immediate aftermath of the student massacre by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, Young’s brazen indictment of Richard Nixon and his “tin soldiers” put Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the forefront of the Vietnam protest movement. The song gave voice to the outrage and anguish that occurred as a result of the shootings, eloquently expressing the disbelief that such a thing could transpire on a college campus. Recorded two and a half weeks after the incident occurred, “Ohio” was rush-released to capture the urgency of the moment. “How many more?” Crosby wails in the song’s final fade, while literally weeping as the song concludes. It was, Young later claimed, the biggest lesson ever learned at an American institute of higher education.