I'll admit it, I came late to Neil Young. There was a time, in fact, back in high school, when I actually hated him. Of course, back then every kid who could strum a guitar had worked up a whiny version of "Rockin' in the Free World"; you couldn't get away from Neil Young, those days. Then about six years ago, I was listening to Harvest Moon one evening and, all in a flash, I finally GOT Neil Young. I could finally look past the torn jeans and straggly hair and realize the bone-deep sincerity of everything he's ever written. Shoot, I've even grown fond of his nasal strangled-cat yelp.
One of the cool things about coming late to an artist is that you get to plunge in and explore his whole body of work all at once. I missed This Note's For You in 1988 because that was when I still hated Neil Young. Besides, with its jazzy rhythms and horn section, it's not a "typical" Neil Young album--the enthusiasts (yes, the same Neilaholics who used to torment me) forget to mention it much. I only recently discovered This Note's For You; it's still a fresh thing on my Uncle Neil playlist. I have to say, I'm loving it.
This song takes melancholy to a whole new level; Neil's mournful voice has a surly edge of self-pity, totally appropriate for a song with the refrain "If I can't have you / I don't want nothing else." It's in the same vein as Nick Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide," without the wry humor; it also reminds me of Marshall Crenshaw's "Where Home Used To Be," but not nearly so wistful. No, this is a guy who's still hung-up on the woman who's left him, and that plaintive sax counterpoint is like one more twist of the knife.
"I got a coupe de ville," he announces, chip firmly on shoulder; "I got a bed in the house / Where you once lived." The house is absolutely defined by her absence--that's misery for you. "I had a few cheap thrills," he admits, grudgingly, "But they cost me a lot more / Than I could give." He's admitting some guilt, vaguely, but I don't hear a whole lot of remorse in that edgy syncopation. "I got a right / In this crazy world /To live my life / Like anyone else," he insists, voice quavering. "How long can I/ Carry this monkey around/ All by myself?"
So what were those "few cheap thrills" that drove her away? At first I thought it was infidelity, but then there's the monkey on his back -- is it drugs? I picture this lonely, stubborn man shambling around his big house (a Coupe de Ville is a luxury car, after all, not what I'd imagine Neil Young driving), and the straggly hair, the torn jeans are part of the picture. He's still aching -- "Well I hit the wall /Woke up this morning / And I hit the wall," he confesses, still in shock. He's not coping very well.
I have no idea if she's ever coming back; that's almost beside the point. The raw hurt is the point. The horns sound so far off at times, the drums a shimmer of brush on cymbal, the guitar line loping like the dull throb of a hangover. This song just kills me. How could I not love a guy who can write a heart-breaker like this?