Comments of the Moment: "Powderfinger" - What the Heck is that Song All About, Anyway?
Lots of interesting comments -- as usual -- on the never-ending debate over the meaning of Neil Young's "Powderfinger".
A comment by Greg M (A Friend Of Yours)
Well, after reading all 80 some comments from the link, and other interpretations over the years, I am not about to take a stab at a definitive take. I was fascinated though by some of the interpretations I never would have even begun to think of, e.g. suicide and nihilism.
Made me think.
I will say this, the name Emmy Lou tells me it is definitely the story of a white southerner. It’s an assumption, but I don’t see an Indian or black woman with the name Emmy Lou. By extension, Emmy Lou being taken by the river tells me the setting is river life somewhere in the south. Moonshiners, TVA resisters, people living off the grid, etc., or the nature and source of threat isn’t really relevant to me.
Ultimately, it’s the story of ill prepared and confused youth - could have been you or me or anyone, but for the grace of God, confronted and overcome by overwhelming forces and circumstances. Although I don’t think it’s what Neil intended. For me, 22 can also be seen as a metaphor for Man as yet still in its infancy, confronted with Life in all its complexity. The heartbreak and sadness is that the overmatched kid simply ended up on the losing end of an attempt at life that we all have to make sooner or later. It may come really early, big and fast, it may come in fits and starts, or it may just be a slow dribble over the course of a lifetime.
The question for me becomes: how have I, or will I face up to my own Powderfinger moment? 22 chose to raise the rifle to his eye instead of running, and died in regret. Was it nobleness in the act of death, or some form of foolishness? Who knows? Life, and the meaning of the life of another, like the song Powderfinger itself, can sometimes seem ambiguous. It all comes down to the individual. How are you going to make your stand? This makes me start to think about the advisability of the individual trying to take the world on by themselves, and all the alternatives to such an individual stance, but I don’t think this is what the song is about.
In the end, it seems 22 just didn’t feel like he had a lot of choice, and suffered the consequence.
Greg M (A Friend Of Yours)
From Matthew Lintzenich:
What HAVE we settled on with this? I mean, obviously there's a kid of barely 22 left alone to protect the ol' homestead, and here comes a white boat, with a red beacon, numbers on the side, a gun, and a man on the rail.
The kid obviously KNOWS that this is not good, remembers the words of his father, who told him to run when he see's red (to me, obviously this is the beacon he's referring to), decides to stand his ground anyway, uncertainly, and terrified, raises his father's rifle, and gets shot by someone on the boat.
His face splashing into the sky is the reflection of his face in the water as he's falling forward.
And he has a few last-second thoughts and regrets, and then that's it.
That's all apparently, to me, obviously correct, but if I recall the debate mostly centered on the SETTING, in terms of TIME AND PLACE, and that's where the confusion came in.
I believe that Neil made it kind of vague so it could be more universally interpreted, that is, you can put your own time and place into it so as to better identify, but I could be incorrect in that.
Neil has been vague about it, which seems to support that theory, but then again...
the names of the people (Emmy Lou and Big John) seem to indicate a very specific intent from Neil - that is, that the time and place are known to him, and are quite specific, but that, in typical Neil fashion, he leaves any direct references to that out, except for the names and description of the boat, so that we have to spend the next 30 years scratching our heads and arguing and debating about it.
heh heh heh.
So was there ever a conclusive agreement on the where/when of the song?
Still not sure what Powderfinger is really all about it?
Or -- more to the point -- what is up with the fascination of some people who analyze lyrics to Neil Young songs anyway?