"Imagine", It's Easy If You Try
It was -- without a shred of doubt whatsoever -- Neil Young's finest hour...ever.
On September 21, 2001, just days after the 9-11 terror attack on the United States, Neil Young performed John Lennon's "Imagine" on the worldwide broadcast musical benefit telethon "America: A Tribute to Heroes".
Simulcast live from London, New York and Los Angeles on the four major TV networks, international networks and globally streaming via the Internet, the program was seen by an estimated 89 million viewers and netted roughly $230 million in donations.
For many, Young's performance was emotionally wrenching and heart felt. Surrounded by burning candles, performing on a grand piano and accompanied by a small orchestra of violins, Young's rendition of Lennon's "Imagine" spoke to many of us who were suffering from the terrible tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Notably, Young changed the lyrics from "imagine no possessions, to "I wonder if *I* can". (thanks Marilyn)
Those in the studio that night, reported that Young appeared to be on the verge of tears upon completing the song. Pulse Magazine wrote that Young's performance of "Imagine" on the Benefit telecast was "one of those moments you never forget."
From an interview (Pulse Magazine, April 2002) with Neil Young in which he was asked about "Imagine" and the night of "A Tribute to Heroes":
Neil Young: Well, first of all, I guess it was the night before that we first practiced it.
So we ran through it about 10 times, until finally it started to gel and we knew what we were doing. We used the original charts from the original record, and did everything we could to do justice to the original version--we weren't trying to do anything other than that.
Just trying to make it like John Lennon, basically.
It was just such a great song for the moment.
Pegi, my wife, got an email from a friend of hers after the 11th with the words to "Imagine" on it. And it was at the same time as I was trying to figure out what to play, because we only had two-and-a-half, three days' notice to do the show. And that seemed to be a good sign to me. So we went ahead and got the lyrics, the ones I couldn't remember, and I just learned it, practiced it, and when we did it that night everything just came together. And obviously, those are the nuts and bolts, but the real emotional part ...
Well, it's just so obvious why it was the way it was.
That's one of the things about being a musician or a singer or a songwriter--when these things come up, it's a chance to do your job, to do what you do and have it really be what it's supposed to be.
Sadly -- and ironically -- the song "Imagine was banned from most American radio stations by Clear Channel Communications following the attacks on 9/11.
From a comment by Donald G.:
What also made Neil's performance of "Imagine" so powerful was, in the days preceding, it was widely reported that US radio stations were not to play "Imagine" on the air lest its lyrics (particularly "Imagine no religion") offend anyone. Clear Channel specifically was reportedly ordering its stations not to play certain potentially incendiary songs and this one was at the top of the list.
When I heard Neil play those opening notes to the song on live TV, I got tears in my eyes and I threw my fist in the air, because it was not only so poignant, but in that moment it was defiant. He would not be denied to react -- and grieve -- the way he felt most appropriate. He was sending a message, and not just in the words he was singing.
(More on John Lennon and the song "Imagine" and lyrics.)
Young's next response to 9-11 came as he was writing "Let's Roll" for the Are You Passionate? (title references Jimi Hendrix's 1967 album "Are You Experienced?") album. The song tells the story of a passenger's (Todd Beamer) heroics on a hijacked Flight 93 (which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers stormed the cockpit. Young reportedly made a donation to the Todd M. Beamer Foundation.
From an interview (Pulse Magazine, April 2002) with Neil Young in which he was asked about the song "Let's Roll":
Neil Young: Obviously, watching the whole thing unfold on television, I'm doing what everybody else is doing.
Then I heard the wife of one of the passengers --Lisa Beamer--talking about the phone call that her husband made to the operator, and the operator relaying that he said "Let's roll." And she was talking about how he always used to say that with the kids when they'd go out and do something, that it's what he said a lot when he had a job to do.
And it's just so poignant, and there's no more of a legendary, heroic act than what those people did.
With no promise of martyrdom, no promise of any reward anywhere for this, other than just knowing that you did the right thing. And not even having a chance to think about it or plan it or do anything--just a gut reaction that was heroic and ultimately cost them all their lives. What more can you say?
It was just so obvious that somebody had to write something or do something. I think it's a legendary story that's gonna go down through the ages--it'll never be forgotten.
So I was very surprised that I didn't hear any songs. And I'm thinking, "I can hear this song in my head, nobody else has written it when I thought everybody was gonna write it."
So I just wrote it. I couldn't stop it anymore.
The events of 9-11 continued to haunt Young through the following decade.
With 2003's Greendale , Neil sounds the alarm that something had gone terribly wrong on a number of fronts. 2006's Living With War was a direct confrontation of the need for a call to action. And, 2009's Fork in the Road -- the 3rd installment of the post 9/11 trilogy -- reveals Neil coming to grips with the fact that first you recognize a problem, then you call out the need to address it, and finally you do something about it.
You can make a difference if you try really hard, if you will...
Back tracking into the 20th century, Neil Young's 1987 "Mideast Vacation" was adapted to the post 9/11 world -- "I went lookin' for Bin Laden aboard Air Force One".
"I went lookin' for Bin Laden aboard Air Force One"
Neil Young with Crazy Horse performed "Mideast Vacation" from 1987's Life at the Bridge School Benefit concert on Oct. 10, 2001. This marked Neil Young's first post 9-11 performance (note NYFD hat) at the zeitgeist of 2000's paranoia.
The original key lyric "I went lookin' for Khaddafi [Libya's Muammar Gaddafi] Aboard Air Force One" was changed for the concert to "I went lookin' for Bin Laden aboard Air Force One".
So where does today's news leave Freedom v. 2011?
Are we celebrating the end of the Global War on Terror?
Or just getting ready for a repackaging of terror and the politics of fear into a kinder and gentler machine gun hand?
Well, just another song in a long line of Neil Young prophecies, 1986's "Mideast Vacation" captured at the zeigeist of 1980's paranoia.
But I never did find him
And the C.I.A. said Son,
You'll never be a hero
......Your flyin' days are done
It's time for you to go home now
Stop sniffin' that smokin' gun."
~~Neil Young, "Mideast Vacation, 1987
It's a very, very angry world indeed.
1989's "Rockin' in the Free World" -- the rock and roll coda for the Cold War song -- has also been invoked in association with the War on Terror. From Neil Young … Don’t Feel Like Satan… | LikeTheDew.com by Jeff Cochran:
As Neil Young alluded in “Rockin’ In The Free World,” to some, America is Satan.
That notion rankles.
All the same, resolving to no longer participate in “wars of choice” and to not be so ravenous with the world’s resources can only improve America’s image. Therefore, it’s a good time to realize that our feelings of pride, joy and love of country are not best displayed in gatherings that seem like boisterous frat parties. Along with our joy, there should be moments of reverence as we again honor the courageous actions of those who died saving others on 9-11: the first responders in New York City and the brave passengers of Flight 93. Their faith, courage and selfless bearing reflected the qualities free people hold dear.
In the long run, America’s new-found exhilaration can make the greatest impact as we celebrate the stirrings of democracy in the Mideast, the region where the now-vanquished terrorist first conjured his deadly games. He [OBL] can no longer exploit those he claimed to be his people.
Let us look forward to the day that they too are rockin’ in the free world.
From "Imagine": 2001 to Today by Greg "A Friend Of Yours":
Call me a "dreamer", but I have faith that the truth of the song "Imagine" will come to pass, not through the efforts of any wolf in sheep's clothing secular or non-secular world organization, but by the earth itself, by Life protecting Itself, and by Creation being true to It's eternal promise. Another conversation, I know, but that's my faith.
In the meantime, songs and performances like this, and the fact that "I'm not the only one", help to sustain me.
From John Lennon's "Imagine", 9/11 and Neil by Angela:
It's a perfect message for all the world and all peoples. It is pro-spiritualism...beyond religious confinements.
Freedom = love, truth and beauty.
A vision of an ultimate utopian idea of where we should be striving for.
Neil Young News: "Imagine": 2001 to Today by SH:
I remember watching this live then and it blew me away-the fact that Neil wanted to contribute by performing and instead of using the platform to play one of his own compositions he played Imagine- perhaps the MOST appropriate of songs for the occasion, at a time when we were being inundated with little American flag stickers and cries of bloodshed in the name of patriotism.
Not to open a can of worms but in the weeks and months following 9-11 it seemed even the most staunch of Doves became blood thirsty Hawks (myself included). We were pissed man- and with good reason. This was a terrible tragedy for the people, but I believe our sorrow, anger and confusion was taken advantage of (my opinion). Imagine receiving radio air-play did not go along with the required post-911 mindset, but I think this performance was a simple gesture reminding us to not lose sight of that idyllic promised land that is always within reach- if we want it.
Cairo, Egypt - February 12, 2011
War is not the answer. All we are saying is give peace a chance.
ps - What's so funny about peace, love, & understanding anyways?