Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Coupe de Ville" / Neil Young

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?


Anonymous said...

Rockin' In The Free World was in the late 80s, I think you are a few decades too old to remember that in high school.

Holly A Hughes said...

Ha ha ha, you caught me. It was "Heart of Gold" that everybody was singing to death when I was in high school. My compliments on your math skills, as well as your musical memory.

But the kids with the guitars singing "Rockin' In the Free World" were off-putting too, even though I was no longer in high school. Or college. Thanks for keeping me honest!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Holly get's called out! I wasn't gonna say anything ;-)


goodson said...

Yeah well that's what you get if you write 3 chord songs like rockin' in the free world. I once was at a talent hunt free stage kind of thing for beginning bands. On one evening I heard 3 mediocre versions of rockin in the free world, 2 mediocre versions of the passenger, and two mediocre versions of blitzkrieg bop :0 Great songs nonetheless ;-)

Good to see Neil's often overlooked 'this note's for you' album getting some attention! To me it's the beginning of a new creative boom in his carreer. Many people see it as a 'genre' album, but as you point out there's some very beautiful songs on it. And I think the combination of his booming guitar with the horns works very well. I'm glad he did it again on ordinary people on his last album (a song that was actually written in his blue note period...)

Richard Sambrook said...

Good call Holly - this song is in my all time top ten, but i never met anyone else who got it !