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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Gimme Shelter From the Powder in the Finger Lyrics Analysis


We've always found the analysis of Neil Young lyrics to be quite fascinating.

And we're not the only ones. Of all the mail and comments that we receive here at Thrasher's Wheat, nothing compares with how frequently the topic of "Powderfinger" comes up. While many long time fans sort of roll their eyes at the subject, it seems that no other song so transfixes the more "casual" fan.

A quick recap. The definitive lyrics analysis of "Powderfinger" was done by Mark "Powderfinger" Klus way back in 1995 on the rust@fish server. Mark "Powderfinger"'s original analysis was quickly dissected and expanded.

But even today, the question of what does the song "Powderfinger" mean continues to be the source of endless theories.

So in the spirit of gimme shelter from the powder in the finger, here's just one more opinion on the meaning of the lyrics of Neil Young's song "Powderfinger":
What a song, I agree with so many of the sentiments expressed here in the comments I've read though obviously I haven't quite gotten through them all. From the very opening bars of this song there is an inevitablity of where things are headed and a truly raw edge that pervades a sense of urgency meaning no matter how many times you've listened to it makes it feel just as urgent every time.

The last verse in particular always makes me shake my head in awe. "Shelter me from the powder and the finger" I love that he breaks the act of the gunshot into two seperate parts, the Powder representing the gun and thus as such the means, the finger being the person, persons, institution that executes the action. The point being that in itsef while the Powder has such potential for harm, (thus he asks to be sheltered from it), it's also nothing without the finger behind it that "pulled the trigger" this is deliberately ambiguous as the finger could belong to anyone and is extended to represent the organisation/force/institution that has designs for harm on the young man's life. This line is so touching because it communicates so eloquently how scared and terrified the young man is but yet does not compromise his dignity and still allows him to maintain such a brave face in the face of death. The fact that he asks for "shelter" gives indication of how vulnerable he is and how helpless he feels against this inevitable force that has come to get him, and serves as a heartbreaking reminder that he is still only a boy. The fact that his request is made in lieu of the gunshot that has killed him makes the line even more powerful.

The earlier lines in the song about his father being gone and his brother being out hunting, as well as big John no longer being around to help all serve to build to this point and illustrate so potently that this is not something the boy was given a choice in. There is an inevitability to what has happened as evidenced in the opening line of the song where the boy is instinctively aware of what the boat coming down the river means. There is (and I'm sorry to repeat myself!) such a sense of urgency throughout this song in Neil's guitar and vocals and never more apparent than in this verse, without giving the listener time to breathe or digest this lyric he's already moved on to the next line.

"Cover me in the thought that pulled the trigger" is such a beautifully crafted line, so poignant and says so many things at once. Firstly he is asking to be remembered not by the action that killed him, this being the gunshot, but more importantly by the thought behind it that caused the action to be taken. Thus the boy seeks his death to represent so much more than the tragedy that is always present in the loss of life in one so young but to go further than that and underline the tragedy that is the inevitability of this event and the conflict that has led to it, it is a much broader statement than the untimely death of one young man but rather a heartrending rage at the inevitable and yet brutally unnecessary conflicts that have always pervaded human history and into the modern day, something Neil has referenced in so many of his songs throughout the decades.

The next two lines are much more personal and give a much greater insight into the boys own motivations and thought process throughout these events. "Think of me as one you'd never figured" you can almost picture the smile on the boys face as he falls to the ground for the last time with this thought running through his head. While there is no doubt a bitterness here that his life has ended so young this line is also amazingly bittersweet as you realise how romantic this moment is to the boy. There is so much going on here, firstly "Think of me as one you'd never figured" would imply that this is not something that would have been expected from the boy or at least that is how he perceives it. His brother out hunting is no doubt an older brother (given he is the one taking the responsibility of going out to find food) and thus would actually be be the one to take this stand were he present, with father no longer around and Big John a drunken mess you realise that this is not a situation the boys should actually be in making it all the more difficult to stomach.

This notion of being the hero however obviously appeals to the boy and his death is something that he appears to have already accepted as a circumstance of fate.

The second half of this verse represents the culmination of the arc in the boys final thoughts "With so much left undone, Remember me to my love, I know I'll miss her" is the bitterness that compliments the sweet romance the boy has realised in death. While the boy is obviously attached to the notion of the romance of his heroic stand and tragic end he is also so young and scared much as he has painted a brave face. This theme is subtly interjected in the lyrics throughout the song such as when he states "Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassurin' " you can feel the conflict of emotions that the boy is going through so vividly, his pride in making his stand to protect his home, and his terrible fear of death that still pervades. Whether the notions/beliefs that lead him to take this stand are misguided is deliberately questioned "Raised my rifle to my eye Never stopped to wonder why" and yet also beautifully irrelevant in that in giving up his life in this fashion and at such a tragic age the question of motives becomes no longer relevant and is overtaken wholly by the wrong committed by "the trigger" .

The goodbye to his love as has been referenced in many of the comments I've read does not necessarily relate to a love that he has already found. If he were in fact saying goodbye to his lover he would appear to be giving her something of a raw deal as she has not otherwise even entered into his thoughts up to this point. It seems more likely therefore that this farewell is addressed to the love he had yet to meet, which would tie in perfectly with the simultaneous tragedy and yet beautiful romance he appears to recognise in his end. The fact that he is dying "with so much left undone" would further lend itself to this theory as after all falling in love or finding "the one" represents in itself a huge swath of what the vast amount of people themselves seek to find in life.

If you've managed to get through all of this then I'm truly quite flattered you thought enough of my ramblings to get to this point, and hope you get as much of a kick out of this song as I do the next time you hear it! and apologies for eating up so much comment space...

Whew!? No problem on the comment space.

Probably the last word on the meaning of the lyrics of Neil Young's song "Powderfinger"... ;)

Not enough yet? Here's "Powderfinger" by Neil Young and The International Harvesters, circa ~1984. Classic.

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At 12/07/2011 06:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be pedantic but I believe the line is "Shelter me from the powder and the finger."


At 12/07/2011 07:51:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

mere technicality

At 12/07/2011 09:11:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

Jo - yes, you are correct ... technically. :)
Thought we'd be clever and give a wink to the Stones.
But sometimes we think we're too clever for our own good.
Not to be pedantic. ;)

At 12/07/2011 09:53:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

Ya had it from the start T.

Musta been of a borrowed tune.

At 12/08/2011 07:33:00 AM, Blogger MARIAN M. said...


How delighted I was to read this post! I always love to start my day at "your place."

This song has always had a special spot in my heart. It's a song that just seems to be one that I've known all my life with no recollection of the first time hearing it (like I usually do with songs).

Also, I've never known a song before or since that has had so many interpretations and theories...I so enjoy hearing all of them.

I rejoice that the song exists!!!

Now "Powderfinger" is going to be in my head all day long...lots of fun!

Music is love,

Marian M.

At 12/08/2011 09:13:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...


Nothing like having those first few chords and "Look Out Mamma there's a white boat..." stuck in your head.

That short music intro always reminded me of that "back at the ranch" scenerio from the old serials where you know it doesn't look good for the protagonist.

When I was re-reading "Heart of Darkness" to my kids to vocally express dramatic foreshadowing in literature, I kept visualizing a young man coming out from the darkness and getting a glimpse of the boat -- shit man, this doesn't look good -- watching his future descend upon him. Taking his future in his hands.

A snapshot from Conrad's story but in reverse from a different perspective. Instead of taking place in the "dark jungles of Africa" the story is taking place under a canope of flickering green trees along side a river somewhere. I get the feel for the Bayou sometimes, but I also get the feel of the old Flipper adventure stories from the old days.

I also watched a lot of kid videos and it reminds me of that one scene when Penny is trying to escape from her captors.

I suspected the images in that song grew from a young boy's fantasy who grew up reading comic books, playing in the woods, and listening to mystery theater.

Neil's songs we know come out of his collective conscieous so I thought, too, that maybe Stills or Levon Helm had some influence there in the development of the setting. Or maybe it was Neil hallucinating while watching the "Rescuers."

I dunno.

At 12/08/2011 09:17:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

Doesn't it amaze you how many people start clapping through the beginning of that song? And then yell, "YEEEEAHHHHHH." it's like somebody talking through a good movie.

SHUT THE F*CK*P: Another topic entirely.

At 12/08/2011 09:28:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

I also hear a plea from a person addicted to coke saying something like separate me from the powder and finger because Idon't have any control over what happens when I do...

And maybe it's just a song.

At 12/08/2011 11:06:00 AM, Anonymous set list thief said...

I love how, on the Rust Never Sleeps tour, Neil introduced Powderfinger as a folk song. Which it truly is, of course. Its power never fades whether performed solo acoustic or with a full band. And that turnaround guitar phrase after the final line of each verse is pure genius in its simplicity.

I've always regarded the line "just think of me as one you never figure" as autobiographical. Perhaps that'll be the title of his memoirs.

At 12/08/2011 02:33:00 PM, Blogger Old Black said...

Neil has played the leads differently throughout the years (ususally two leads but I've seen him play three)but when he goes to the Bm-C progressions, it's almost always the same. He shows great respect for the song.

My favorite line: "Red means run, son - numbers add up to nothin'". Ain't that the visceral truth.

At 12/08/2011 04:28:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Is that Joel Bernstein playing acoustic guitar in this clip from ACL?

At 12/08/2011 05:20:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

all in a dream, all in a dream....
yeah I know, after the gold rush, but after reading on this last night I dreamed I was hanging out with you Thrasher, of cousre you looked mostly like Rick Danko from about 1970 needing a shave, but hey, it was my dream, what could I do? we were actually in a shelter somewhere. So maybe it was the gimmie shelter reference afterall. I aint knocking it, but hopefully we don't both end up in a shelter somewhere. Unless of course we're helping out.

At 12/08/2011 09:05:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@Marian M. - Thanks so much. You're too kind.

Music is love, love is Music.

@MNOTR - "re-reading "Heart of Darkness" to my kids to vocally express dramatic foreshadowing in literature."

3 things - 1) re-reading a classic always seems to bring about more than the first read. 2) HoD to the kids?! Now that's really some bed time reading material. lucky kids. 3) HoD certainly has some serious foreshadowing. speaking of foreshadowing ... how about that rumblin'...

@set list thief - Powderfinger as a folk song works on a lot of levels. It started acoustic and went electric, an epic tale where we don't know who, when or what happened. go figure.

@jonathan - check again.

@SONY - pls don't dream about me.

At 12/09/2011 12:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ho hum 36th time iv seen this thread

At 12/09/2011 11:17:00 AM, Blogger SONY said...

it's ok T - I've been in the bars with Neil a few times too.

...people say I'm crazy, dreamin' my life away...

At 12/09/2011 02:39:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

ok it's either Poncho or Larry Cragg - I can't tell; there's not a decent enough clean shot of him...come on T...

At 12/09/2011 04:32:00 PM, Blogger Jill said...

I`d have said that was Joel Bernstein too! And I often see Neil in my dreams - doesn`t everyone???

At 12/09/2011 06:37:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

That is Joel playing. And as for the bar dreams, the ones I can remember were a freaking riot. I woke up all psyched up. Usually some episode where there's only about 50 people in the place and new songs playing. Oh well, who can control it anyway

I'll see you in my nightmares
and I'll see you in my dreams
and I might live a thousand years
before I know what that means

At 12/10/2011 05:00:00 AM, Blogger Jill said...

Thank-you SONY! Those dreams of yours sound pretty wild…I`ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours!

Great vid by the way thanks Thrasher, I love this version. Shame it wasn`t included on A Treasure. Actually I love any version of this song - it`s one of those Neil classics that give you a thrill every time you hear the opening bars, no matter how many times you hear it or whoever`s playing it with him.

At 12/10/2011 07:47:00 AM, Blogger SONY said...

Already there Jill!

At 12/12/2011 09:48:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

Life is too silly, riding a lionel train with Neil and others in lala land last night. I must need some real help, or better 'mothers little helpers'. Oh well, fun while it lasted.


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