Uncle Neil Captured in his Prime, Remaining as Poignant and Punk as Ever
It’s 2021 and the world is nuts. The acceleration of culture over the last 50 years has left us in a dismal state. We’re uncertain of who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and how we’re going to do this and that and that and this. Each day it feels as if these fears are more prescient than ever before — continually amplified by the wizard boxes in our pockets that notify you when someone likes your latest photo and tell you that you should buy something called Dogecoin.
Ah, yes, I hear there’s another viral piece of content I need to watch on Netflix! And, um, this time it has squids instead of tigers? All right! We’re all wading our way through the seas of modernity, one fleeting viral piece of life at a time. Click to share this statement on TikTok! Or something!
That’s how we want to think, anyway, us curmudgeons who love to talk about how the world is going mad. It’s true, yes, that things were probably cooler in New York City ten years ago than they are now. But who cares? I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong — but the fact remains that things have always been a little bit nutty.
Back in December of 1970, it was just a different flavor of cultural insanity. In those days, the CIA was secretly testing LSD on people in the name of mind control research. Teenagers regularly got shipped off to die in a foreign country for a political war that no one, let alone them, understood. College students were murdered on campuses by soldiers for protesting said war (the kicker being that those soldiers probably agreed with the protestors.)
Yeah, your pocket didn’t vibrate all the time, but the human brains of culture were constantly rattled against their skulls. “Land of the free, home of the brave” takes on a new meaning when you realize America’s always been a twisted hellscape of confusion.
It’s in this world in which a 25-year-old Neil Young stood on concert hall stages across North America, playing his newly minted songs of poetic heartache and optimistic pessimism. A sweet spot in the history of modern music, just following his break from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Buffalo Springfield, 1970’s After The Gold Rush, and a bit before his follow up in 1972, Harvest. (A bit more context: At this point the man hadn’t even yet officially released “Old Man.” I mean, come on.)
Find out which classic Neil Young song landed on the list of the decade’s 50 best songs.
Carnegie Hall 1970 isn’t new to those who know Neil. It’s one of those legendary sets that’s always existed on cassette tapes, burned CDs, and mp3 message boards. This concert happened on December 4 of that year on the Journey Through The Past solo tour that later took him through Toronto and gave us Live At Massey Hall.
But now we’ve got Neil’s take on this fabled night in NYC where people lined around the block to get in. It’s been released as the first of what is expected to be a five volume bootleg series, and is the kind of holy grail that Neil fans never thought they’d actually experience — at least not through his ears.
Over the last few years, as Young’s looked back on his archives and dug out the tapes from closets, he’s looking through a long lens at his career, an opportunity to revisit various critical historical moments in the career of one of the modern era’s great musicians.
Young’s pleading lyrics — which would routinely and valiantly attempt to make sense of the nonsensical for the next five decades — laid against his simple and cascading chord progressions remain the highlight, even if we’ve heard this music for what seems like forever. These songs are canon. What else is there to be written about tracks like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Wonderin’”? (The answer is nothing.)
At the time, though, something revolutionary was happening. And Carnegie Hall 1970 captures the magic of that moment, a vibrancy that’s so evident through Neil’s quick-witted remarks and quiet idealism. He’s sheepish, yet confident — a smooth and elegant presence that was never matched by his peers of the time. Frankly, it’s flat-out incredible to hear. So young and already full of lore. He knows it, even if he really doesn’t. Evocative stuff, isn’t it?
The beauty of these bootleg tapes being given official life by Young himself is that we’re listening to a moment of cultural history in America — interpreted by the man who, whether purposefully or not, created his own myth. Despite his Canadian roots, there’s arguably no musician who represents the idea of America more than Young. He’s spent his career boozing and doing drugs across this great land, writing incredible music about getting lost in the dream, losing the will to live, and somehow pushing forward. Embracing nihilism while blindly and boldly pressing into the future. What could be more American than that?
Young ends with a rendition of “Ohio,” a song he wrote with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He introduces it plainly: “This is a song I wrote about the Kent State tragedy.” He then plucks away at that very familiar guitar line, creating that buzzy acoustic sound that only Young’s guitar can produce. The lyrics, now over 50 years old and yet as poignant as ever, stand tall in their defiance: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run if you know?” When he finishes the song, the crowd erupts — a clear standing ovation.
It’s in these moments where it’s evident that the concept of “Uncle Neil” exists among fans for a reason. A man who has become synonymous with our culture — someone we look to for guidance and tough love when we’re lost, for inspiration when we’re downtrodden. How to push forward? Stand tall. Remain punk. Embrace the chaos. Just remember to never stop chasing the truth; it’s that quest that makes us human.
Neil Young Carnegie Hall 1970 Track Highlights
Track 6: “Wonderin’”
This is the moment captured on tape when it’s evident how special this performance was. Young’s voice has always been distinguishable — that pleading and poignant tenor, so recognizable — and the simple chord progression of “Wonderin’” from After The Gold Rush allows that beautiful desperation to shine. The real joy comes at the end of the track, when Young playfully interacts with the audience: “You’ll have to pardon my little list… There’s a lot of songs I’m gonna do tonight. I have to have it.” Everyone chuckles.
Track 7: “Helpless”
As perhaps one of Young’s most recognizable songs, this performance of “Helpless” happened only a few short months after its release on Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s Deja Vu. There’s a freshness to its sound as Young recalls his Canadian roots on the most important stage in America. “Blue, blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise,” he sings, sounding almost like he’s singing it for the first time.
Track 8: “Southern Man”
“I was hoping to find George Wallace and sing this little tune for him,” Young says through a laugh as he introduces “Southern Man.” Never one to shy away from controversy, this After The Gold Rush cut is one of Young’s most overtly political songs — an aggressive screed against the racist south — and typically it’s played on electric with a full band, which fuels the middle finger nature of the lyrics. Instead here we have a stripped down acoustic rendition, yet through this quiet approach the fervancy of the song is felt on a more intimate level. You don’t have to be loud to be punk.
Track 16: “Flying on the Ground is Wrong”
When Young steps behind the piano, it’s a true display of his versatile musicianship, and his evocative songwriting skills really shine. “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” a track he cut with Buffalo Springfield in 1966, is a meditation on the hedonistic 60s. On Live at the Cellar Door, another live album from this same tour, Young explicitly says that the song is “about dope,” and that “it’s about what happens when you start getting high, and you find out that people you thought you knew, you don’t know anymore, because they don’t get high and you do.” The early 70s were a time of reflection on the hippie dream of the previous decade for Young and his ilk. Was it all worth it? That’s a question with which he still might be wrestling.
Track 21: “Ohio”
From the review: He introduces “Ohio” plainly: “This is a song I wrote about the Kent State tragedy.” He then plucks away at that very familiar guitar line, creating that buzzy acoustic sound that only Young’s guitar can produce. The lyrics, now over 50 years old and yet as poignant as ever, stand tall in their defiance: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run if you know?” When he finishes the song, the crowd erupts — a clear standing ovation.
Track 22: “See the Sky About to Rain”
Here’s another poignant moment of Uncle Neil behind the piano. This track — which would be officially released a couple years later on 1973’s On The Beach (which, side note, might be Young’s best album) — is a lovely examination of those thoughts we have while staring at the clouds. Young has always had a special ability as a writer to find meaning in the in-between moments, and his elegant questioning here while on stage at Carnegie Hall is some of his finest work. “Some are bound for happiness, some are bound to glory,” he sings. “Some are bound to live with less, who can tell your story?” A simple question, indeed, but a simple question that always remains. Not too dissimilar from Young himself.