Neil Young

Living With War

(Reprise; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 12 May 2006

May 4th, 1970: The National Guard attempts to restore order at Kent State University by killing its students. After days of protests (sparked by the discovery of the Nixon Administration’s illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia, expanding the parameters of the War in Vietnam) that saw the burning of the school’s ROTC building, the Guard decided to show who was in charge. Amid a hail of rocks, the unit retreated to higher elevation. They then made an about face, in unison (clearly following an order), and opened live fire. Four students were killed and nine wounded, including at least one who had nothing to do with the protests 700 feet away. No one was ever prosecuted.

The Kent State Massacre was the turning point in the anti-war movement, because it made its participants face up to reality. The debate that followed it wasn’t whether the Guard’s actions were defensive (since no serious person can look at photographic evidence and argue so) but whether they were meritorious in the face of unpatriotic and ungrateful youth, and the prevailing answer by the silent majority was “yes.” Power was show its ugly, brutal face that day, and the Decent People of America had backed it, none tougher than they. Suddenly there was no time for sentimentality; suddenly it was serious, and stakes were even higher for them than previously thought. They were, finally, on their own.

David Crosby was the group’s outspoken politico, but only Neil Young could’ve written “Ohio” for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. No one else had the spook, for one thing, to come up with the dread, anger and sheer confusion of the song’s opening riff. But Young had the instincts to leave well enough alone, to simply present Points A and B as fait accompli. It was connecting dots without giving the connectors, sheer juxtaposition. “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming / we’re finally on our own.” “Soldiers are gunning us down / shoulda been done long ago.” There’s not even a second verse; where one would appear is just a cruel parody, harmonies that are barked and not sung. And why not? “Ohio” wasn’t for the kids, it was for Nixon: they were singing to dogs. This wasn’t “We Shall Overcome,” but “Fuck You, You Monster.” That’s why “Ohio” is probably the best thing CSNY ever did, because it’s the point on record where it has
something to lose, where something matters.

It’s hard to judge whether the stakes are there during Living With War, appearing almost thirty-six years to the day of Kent State. One would think so: one found in the floodwaters of New Orleans a mirror to the moral bankruptcy in the Bush administration impossible to spin away, to say nothing of an illegal invasion of Iraq and a now threatened nuclear war with Iran. “The news is not for a sick man,” James Baldwin wrote in one of his novels. “It’s not for a well man, either.” So why does the music Young wrote for this project sound pastoral; why does it sound like a party? He enlists a 100 piece choir to help him with a few melodies, and for his part he gives them very strong ones, stronger than anything on his last three records (more like ten). Save for the ragged “Shock and Awe,” everything on here sounds like coffeehouse bonhomie, “We Shall Overcome” and no “Fuck You Monster.” (Although there is a ditty called “Here’s a Pie in Your Face, Lying Monster,” since retitled “Let’s Impeach the President.” It’s stupid, broad-stroked fun, but it is fun, doubtless because it’s pinching the melody from “The City of New Orleans,” but so what? Folk music and rock n’ roll have rampant plagiarism in common, and good thing. Besides, the president did lie, and he should be impeached.)

Of course the stakes are still there, but the parameters are different. For one thing, today we have an all-volunteer army fighting an unpopular war (the poverty draft notwithstanding). Another, the right wing is now far more organized than the left ever was, to the point where even the sneak attack of Living With War was met with coordinated anti-Canadian talking points. So the audience has changed, and like “Ohio,” this album is written for that audience, the one that doesn’t see itself as exceptionally radical but clings to a forgotten sense of outrage and parade.

That audience sees these things as patriotic, hence the allusions to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the closing “America the Beautiful.” This is a loaded gesture and deeply unsatisfactory in a protest record, because it’s primarily defensive. I say it’s a loaded gesture because patriotism is the rug under which crimes are swept, and it’s defensive for that same reason. You’re saying that just because I criticize my country’s policy actions doesn’t mean I don’t love my country, elementary to the point of obvious everywhere else but here. But in attempting to give lie to criminals wrapping themselves in the flag, one instead gives recognition to the fallacy that the flag is somehow bulletproof. Young seems to recognize this elsewhere on the record: on “Flags of Freedom,” he muses on soldiers marching past American Flags to their deaths, asking if you believe in yours or theirs. He talks about coffins wrapped in flags (flags as a weapon of obscurity, as a mask of the death of the young, the world’s ultimate crime) in no less than two songs. This means either he wants it both ways or that, again, he’s singing for his audience, who recognizes that they have no truck with egghead theorists anymore than the scum who inhabits their capital.

And I’m fine with that, especially since Living at War is, really, Young’s best record since at least Mirror Ball and probably Ragged Glory. I think this has less to do with his outrage over the present administration as much as he’s in his best mode: moving quickly. This is the one thing good rock n’ roll has in common with revolutionary politics: these things represent youth, and so they have to happen immediately, as soon as possible, because they represent both the impatient tendencies of youth and the movement, the vitality of things that are wildly and irrepressibly alive. That doesn’t leave enough time for nuance, but that’s partially the point, because you have the force of the wave behind you, poised to crash and wash it all away. I’ve no idea whether it will change a damn thing about American politics or just make life harder on Young with immigration, but if there’s ever going to be another time like the sixties of youth, outrage and culture, it needs to happen the way he’s just prescribed it.