This week’s Free Ride honors the Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young, who turned 65 yesterday. Born in Toronto, he formed his first band in junior high, and then joined the Mynah Birds, a band fronted by Rick James, who had fled the States to avoid the draft. Young dropped out of high school, went to California, where he met up with Steven Stills and the two of them formed the Hall of Fame group Buffalo Springfield. I am always amazed when I think about the incredible creativity of his early life, amazing songs like Sugar Mountain he turned out as a teenager.
For the Free Ride theme, we turn to one of Young’s later compositions, Rocking in the Free World from his 1989 album, Freedom. The song blasts many of the social ills and cultural values of 1980s American life, from homelessness and infanticide to drug abuse and environmental degradation to the feel-good presidential promise of a thousand points of light and a “kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” The impetus for the song was supposedly a comment from a friend who saw on the news some of the anti-American protests going on in the Middle East, and said that they should steer clear of that part of the world and keep on rocking in the free world. Hence the oft repeated line of the chorus.
The driving guitar riff from the godfather of grunge lets us know that this is no feel good patriotic song celebrating the land of the free. It is a biting critique, and I’m surprised it didn’t engender another Lynyrd Skynyrd response, as Southern Man provoked the Van Zants to write Sweet Home Alabama.
Whatever you think about a Canadian’s critique of the red, white, and blue, the song does give me pause to think about the ironies of freedom. Our most prized virtue is exactly that which gives us our most despised vices. Go ninety miles south of Florida’s keys, and you will see a culture without the foundational freedoms Miami enjoys, but also without gun violence, street gangs, and drug cartels preying on poor kids. We give up a lot of security in order to rock in the free world. Freedom is at its best when it is coupled with responsibility, but the star-spangled banner doesn’t yet wave o’er the land of the responsible. So we have to be brave, if we want to keep on rocking in the free world.
The YouTube link above is a great version of the song, with the Boss joining Neil Young on stage for a 2004 performance. Here are some of other covers of the song you might find interesting:Pearl Jam and U2 G3 (guitar shredding trio) Govt Mule Bon Jovi