This was written as a part of an English class called Writing Rock.
Working in the radio business for over 40 years, my dad has lived around music and music culture for much of his life. Folk rock, blues-rock, psychedelic, whatever; he grew up through the 60s and 70s, listening obsessively as music matured and stretched across decades. His record collection is rich and extensive, rivaling that of any self-respecting, music-loving baby boomer; a music library that I never connected to, that I never valued—at least not as much as my older brother did.
Zach marveled. He scavenged through every appealing piece of wax, devouring one after the other. While I frequented blogs, searching for free downloads of music by young, struggling rappers nobody had ever heard of, he absorbed weathered classics like Abbey Road and Tommy. I cut through Nas verses and tried to learn every word from Outkast tracks while he grappled with Hot Rats, doggedly trying to understand the obscure oddity that is Frank Zappa. Zach knew these were treasures, and more importantly, he had the patience and wonder to dig them out.
I shrugged off those classics for hip hop. It set me apart. It gave me a whole new history from that of my dad’s records or my brother’s interests. It was a body of music that went untouched in my household until I brought it in. I took pride in that. But when you’re surrounded by such a wide set of music and a deep history in torn record sleeves, it’s hard to ignore.
From an early age I was spoon-fed the classic rock my dad grew up on. It seemed natural that he would pass down these musical artifacts from his past, allowing me to understand more fully the years of his childhood, or more broadly, the history of the late 20th century. But it never occurred to me until later that these father-son music lessons might be unique to my generation—a generation of kids whose parents grew up in the 60s and 70s. For our parents Rock and Roll was rebellion. It was the force that slammed their bedroom doors, quieting their immigrant parents’ conservative views of proper American ideals. But for me, and many my age, this music wholeheartedly embodies American ideals. This music is classic. It’s what surrounded our parent’s world, and what shapes the pop culture we consumetoday.
So while I knew hip hop was something new, political, and valuable, I also understood that the music my father was handing me was worth the lessons and inspirations it provided. I caught on and I listened, tentatively sifting through lyrics and letting heavy guitar parts and melodies pluck ring through my head.
There was something about Neil Young that stopped me at first glance. Maybe it was his nasally, whiny, wail of a voice that sang sorrow so perfectly; or the flexibility that allowed him to move between raw, electric, scruff-ridden noise rock and sweet, acoustic, melancholy ballads; or even his fascination and representation of utter Americana themes despite growing up in Ontario. I don’t know—but there was something about Neil Young that made me ask questions.
My dad has told me countless stories from the 70s: his years of donning tight jean shorts, growing shoulder length frizzy hair, and following Neil Young around the Northeast, sneaking into every and any venue, desperate to catch a glimpse of the folk hero’s live show. He has seen him in Boston, Montreal, and countless New York City venues. His favorite memory is of Young’s flat and unapologetic temper—the time he took an impromptu intermission because the crowd wouldn’t quit yelling out song requests. The year was 1970, my dad was 21, and Neil Young was playing Carnegie Hall.
These stories came alongside early albums of Young’s: After The Gold Rush, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Harvest. He walked me through the history of his favorite tracks, breaking down lyrics, and tracing influence. “Southern Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Ohio”—they all had rich back stories to uncover: racism, drugs, and police brutality. I was impressed. I was rapt by how Young could so seamlessly weave political, statement-driven narratives into his lyrics, while creating songs that remained fervent and attractive. It was the same lyrical quality that drew me into hip hop, just a completely new perspective and a drastically different landscape. In a way it taught me something that now seems so obvious: all music is interconnected and influences everything that comes after it.
But “Old Man” is different from those other Young tracks my dad broke down for me. “Old Man” has no blatant declaration or radical message. It’s sandwiched between potent, dogmatic tracks like “Helpless” and “Journey Through The Past,” but unlike them it’s wholly introspective. There’s a special affect about “Old Man” that stuck with me the first time I heard Harvest, Young’s fourth studio album. Maybe it’s questioning what lasts or asking someone with years beyond you to put themselves in your shoes and to trust you. Young claimed he wrote the song for an old caretaker on his Northern California ranch, but it’s hard not to think of a son asking his father questions about love and happiness. Questions that lead into conversations that I bet my dad never shared with his hardheaded German father. But as he played “Old Man” for me years ago—steeped in his nostalgia—I couldn’t help but feel its emotion in the context of him and I.
“Old Man” is a meditative, simple, and heady track. It’s perennial enough to remain relevant across decades and resonate through generations. The song was officially released in 1972. It was the second single off Harvest. But a little over a year before Harvest hit shelves, Young sang “Old Man,” along with other yet-to-be-released works, in an intimate, acoustic performance at Massey Hall, a historic concert venue in Young’s hometown of Toronto, Canada. A recording from Massey Hall on his 1971 Journey Through The Past tour was released in 2007 as a part of the his Archives Performance Series.
The vintage live album received unanimous high praise and it’s clear why. The setlist alone is a striking display of Young’s brilliance, a beautiful marker of how prolific a singer and songwriter he was at 25. But alongside the songs, what makes Live at Massey Hall such a rare listen are the interludes, lead-ups, and raps before tracks. Young’s famous temperamental charm is evident too; as “Old Man” begins he candidly requests the audience stop snapping photos during songs because “the clicks are out of time and it makes [him] take [his] mind off of what [he’s] trying to do.” His demeanor flips at the first high-strung chord of the song, as his soft and sullen and utterly convincing voice slips in. The song is a testament to timelessness and years that have passed. It’s a statement of universal needs, of the eternal worth of memory and companionship. There’s a blatant longing in these lyrics: “Live alone in a paradise/ that makes me think of two.” Or simply his repeated need for “someone to love me/ the whole day through.”As a stripped down, acoustic, live recording, the Massey Hall performance is smooth, raw, and gripping. At 25, Neil Young was as powerful and enchanting as his 40-plus year career has proven him to be.
“Old Man” is a song based in yearning, based in a desire for maturity. It’s about acknowledging the value of an individual’s wisdom and life experience—young and old—and the mutual admiration that accompanies that acknowledgment. The foreman of Young’s ranch that “Old Man” was written for saw him as a quick-moneyed 20-year-old with no care in the world. The song is in direct response to that notion. It’s Young reaching out to the old man and asking for his consideration and respect. Maybe the father-son themes are obvious, maybe it’s a passive, surface-level takeaway, but it’s too salient not to address. It’s too perfect a representation of familial, cross-generation relationships to just ignore.
While I was home a couple of weeks ago I asked my dad what “Old Man,” and Neil Young’s discography, meant to him. I asked him why it’s one of his favorites. He was quick to point at its exhibition of loneliness, something that’s been central to Young’s music since his debut album, evident from his first solo single, “The Loner.” My dad also spoke of Young’s recurring expression of companionship and help. He turned to “A Man Needs A Maid” and “If I Could Have Her Tonight” as examples. “Old Man” carefully threads those career-long themes; it’s Young at his most powerful.
As a 21-year-old, moving on from college in a few short months, trying to balance advice from my parents, aspirations, and reality, “Old Man” feels right. Between my father and me, it’s true, as Young sings, “I’m a lot like you.” I have the same restless tendencies, the same indecisiveness, and wily spirit. But with drastically different childhoods and lived environments, where I am at 21 is utterly unlike his 1970. Quite simply, the world was a different place. So while I often wish to mimic the experiences he’s had, pulling from the nostalgia-soaked stories he’s told me, I know that’s naïve, cliché, and idealistic. What rings truer is Young’s idea of “things that don’t get lost;” the want for an endless remembrance. It’s a longing for lessons, memories, and legacies that have real staying power. Material possessions are fragile and finite, but stories and principles can continue on. These are the things that move through generations.
Young wouldn’t return to New York’s coveted Carnegie stage again until early this year, and this time I was in the audience. For a capacity crowd he dug deep in his discography, pulling out early 70s classics and performing them with renewed vigor and control. “Old Man” came at the tail end of the first set and as Young sang it—with his black cowboy hat brim low—it felt both reminiscent of Massey Hall and yet freshly sentimental. A verse like “I’ve been first and last/ Look at how the time goes past/ But I’m all alone at last/ Rolling home to you” seemed to take on newfound meaning, as Young’s elder wisdom replaces his youthful wonder. At that 1970 show Young was 25—wide-eyed and full of promise. But even now, at 68, he showed effortless command, shuffling around a stage filled with half a dozen guitars (gifts from Steven Stills and others), two pianos, a keyboard (for an oddly necessary synth part on “A Man Needs A Maid”), and a grand pump organ (solely for performing “Mr. Soul”). Young’s musical touch is mesmerizing and his demeanor’s intimate, earnest, and unassailable. I know the song is claimed to be a modest homage to his late ranch handler, but as Young yowled “Old Man” that night, I realized that for me, it’s a song that will always have to do with being a son.
My dad wasn’t at Carnegie Hall this year because of a last minute business obligation, so I sat there with my mom and two brothers and a house full of middle-agers with concrete, life-long memories attached to these songs. Surely they resonated with those of my father’s age on a much deeper level than I would experience, but I just closed my eyes, listening, and tried to imagine what it was like for my dad to watch Neil Young in this storied room in 1970. And of course the songs still prove relevant, pointedly so, after 40 years since being written.
“Give me the things that don’t get lost,” Young pleads in the refrain. Well, with a catalogue of records as deep as my father’s, these things—songs, feelings, doctrines—won’t get lost, but live on as long as I listen.