The Emotional Resonance That Is Neil Young
Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, NY, April 24, 2011
Photo by Norman Y. Lono
(Click photo to enlarge)
Sometimes folks will ask why we do what we do here.
And sometimes we wonder ourselves. But every now and then you get a note that touches your soul and the answer becomes self evident... what we call "Neil Stories".
So pull up a chair, sit down, clear your mind, and ponder this letter from Shane.
Thought maybe you might be interested in hearing this, as it is always something that has put a smile on my face (and maybe a few tears in my eyes).
I don't recall the exact time I really started to get into Neil's music, but once I did I devoured everything I possibly could find. This would have been right around the time that Prairie Wind came out, and I was entering my late teens. Working through Neil's back catalogue is a truly rewarding experience, as I'm sure you're well aware.
Needless to say I was hooked, and would play Neil albums whenever I could. This meant a lot of long road trips in Canada to university with my parents and them listening to my Neil Young cd's the entire way. While my parents grew up during the 60s and 70s, I wouldn't say they were big fans, but they knew a good deal of the songs. The acoustic-based songs especially. My mother in particular loved (as do I) Neil's version of "Four Strong Winds," and would always ask me to put it on whenever I played any Neil music. I always loved to do so because it felt good to share this common love for the music with her, even if it meant listening to her attempt to sing along!
Anyways, in the summer of 2005, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. This was obviously a trying time for everyone in our family, even if my mother approached it with a positive attitude. I found it especially difficult being away from home for a significant portion of time at university. While I had (likely naively) thought that this would be something that my mom would have to deal with for a number of years (and hopefully beat), in November of 2007 I was phoned early in the morning and told to get to the airport to fly home. My mother was in hospital, dying.
It is hard to put into words the scene of entering the hospital room, seeing friends and family gathered around my mother lying in the bed. She was still alive, but in a coma-like state where she couldn't speak to us, but she was able to react if we talked to her, if only in a limited fashion. I've never felt a worse or more hopeless feeling in my entire life, and I couldn't stop thinking about my mom in that position, still conscious that we are all there but unable to communicate with us. It was heartbreaking and terrifying.
I don't know what lead me to think of it, but I had my iPod with me from the flight home, and of course I had some of my Neil Young albums on there to listen to as well. I decided that if she was conscious of what was going on, that it was probably a terrifying situation for her. I had always felt like my mother and I were cut from the exact same cloth, so I just did what I thought I would want. I asked my dad if it was okay, and I put the earbuds in her ears and put on Neil's version of "Four Strong Winds" for her to listen to.
I hoped that if she was going to die, that at least one of the last things she would get to hear would be this song that she always loved, and that we were always able to share together. After I put the song on for her, we could see her lips moving to try and sing along to the song. She couldn't actually speak, but I know from her reaction that she could hear what I was playing for her. I really truly hope that it provided her with some measure of comfort and warmth in that moment, and I really believe that it did.
Come April 2009, I was ecstatic because I was going to finally be able to go to my first Neil Young concert, in my hometown no less (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario). It really wouldn't have mattered what he played because I was just beyond excited to be at the show, but in the back of my mind I really hoped to hear "Four Strong Winds." I like to follow Sugar Mountain and read the set lists from previous shows, and I had noticed that in the previous 5 or so shows in Canada prior to the Sault show he hadn't played the song. I wasn't really expecting him to - there are so many songs he could play.
But then, during his acoustic set, it happened, and he played it. I don't know why he chose to play it (maybe due to going out to western Canada, it fits the lyrics), but in the time that song was being played it didn't matter. I thought of my mother the entire time, and i know that I welled up with tears in my eyes. Even though I know it's not why it was played, it didn't matter, and it still doesn't matter. In that moment, it felt like the song was played for my mother, and it felt perfect for me. I don't think any other concert experience I will ever have will eclipse the emotions and feelings for me there.
I thought on the cusp of a new Neil Young tour, it was an appropriate time to share this story with you. To me, it shows the transcendental nature of music, and live music especially. It's not even a Neil Young-written tune - but it doesn't matter. His version to me will forever be THE version of the song, and that performance will forever be a personal moment I'll never forget. It just makes me think of all of the different ways people can interpret and be affected by Neil's music - a song will mean something to Neil specifically, but it might mean something else entirely to one of his fans who hears it.
To me, that's the beauty of music, and of Neil's music in particular. There's an emotional resonance to it that sticks with you - it comes from an honest place and stirs something inside of you. He turned this Ian Tyson song into something intensely personal that I'll have forever more as a link between my mother and I.
Thanks Shane for sharing. wonderful memories. May the four strong winds always blow your way.