Monday, December 05, 2011

15. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Powderfinger" (1979)


Neil Young is obviously fascinated with American culture and hailing originally from Canada has always, I suppose, been at a good vantage to observe it. But it still amazes me that he can reach so far back into primal American experience and just pull something out like this. It's a Civil War story, evidently not on the fields of battle, about an anonymous young man (and Southern, at that) killed in an ambush. There's not much to it: the attacking boat appears on the river, the kid foolishly tries to defend against it even in the absence of elder male family members. He can't, and he dies. The moment of his death is recorded: "Raised my rifle to my eye / Never stopped to wonder why. / Then I saw black / And my face splashed in the sky." It's a particular moment I have found myself pitching headfirst into, so stark and matter of fact and profoundly universal. It's breathtaking—the whole thing is. I can't think of many other moments in all of rock that get to such depths with such economy and so little bombast. A few years ago Phil Dellio compiled an exhaustive list of Neil Young covers, and identified six for this song, by the Beat Farmers, Chris Burroughs, the Cowboy Junkies, Tonia Sellers & Laura Hagen, Uncle Tupelo, and Yung Wu. "Not sure why," he writes, "but this is one case where any voice other than Neil’s seems to automatically diminish the song." Young offered an early version of it to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the mid-'70s, perhaps some kind of response in their mutual "Southern man" quasi-contretemps (or whatever it was). I wish we could have heard what they'd done with it, but their faces splashed in the sky first.

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