Friday, June 27, 2014

"Ohio" /
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Wrote this 2 months ago. No idea why I didn't post it until now. Go figure.

What a winter I had. Okay, yeah, we all had an awful winter weather-wise, but I'm not just talking weather. In fact, for me the blizzards and ice-storms were totally appropriate: they reflected the life-changing miseries of having brain surgery and sitting at my only brother's bedside as he slowly, agonizingly died. Can't lift your head off the pillow? That's cool; life sucks so badly that head-lifting is no longer considered an option.

And then, when I most needed to believe that life could still be good -- I spent 48 hours in April in my hometown of Indianapolis hanging out with my grade-school friends. Not high-school, mind you, but grade-school, though I ought to explain that this wasn't your normal grade school class but a hand-picked crew of ostensibly gifted and talented weirdoes. We were kept in the same socially awkward corral together for 4 years, long enough for us all to embrace our inner geeks, and to give up on ever being cool (though some of you folks are in retrospect the coolest human beings I've ever known).

Who else would so get into the trivia quiz I invented? I've never seen adults so eager to tackle a pointless exercise, just for the fun of knowing stuff. Watching you all obsess over the quizzes, I suddenly realized I had come home to MY PEOPLE. You are the core of who I have become, for better or worse, and screw everyone who doesn't understand why it's cool to just be fully alive in the geek-o-rama moment.

And when I asked the (trick) trivia question: "To what is Neil Young referring when he sings, "Three dead in Ohio"?  Bless you, you all came back with, "It was FOUR dead in Ohio, and it was Kent State."

Because our generation -- at least the thinking parts of it -- will never forget the images of college students like ourselves being mown down by scared-shitless National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970. Neil Young, ever quick to record the national temperature on such matters, released this song with his CSN colleagues in June 1970 (lightning fast response, in those days). Life, as it is lived.

The Kent State Massacre (yes, let's call it by its proper name) happened on May 4 and by May 21 songwriter Neil Young had gathered in the studio his colleagues David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to record the song Young had written. (Parenthetical aside: Forgive me, but I've never really been a fan of CSN; it's only when you add Young into the equation that I get interested. Why is that?)
The fast-track release of this song fascinates me. You'd never get that nowadays. But how important was it that this song got onto the airwaves when this tragedy was still fresh in our minds? Today the recording industry is all bottom-line and post-production folderol, but in 1970? This song mattered, and so the record label suits (probably not suits in those days) did what needed to be done to get it out FAST.
The lyrics are dead simple, really, and the main thing is the lightning-bolt courage of that first line: "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We're finally on our own." To call the National Guard "tin soldiers" was pretty ballsy, even in 1970, but to call out President Nixon on his role in this tragedy took major cojones.
Once you've named Nixon, the battle lines have been drawn, and so "This summer I hear the drumming, / Four dead in Ohio." I love that evocation of ominous jungle drums, the youth culture rising at last to draw a line in the sand. 
And it was this photo that galvanized us all, one of the great photo-journalism shots of all time. The second part of the verse sums it up: "What if you knew her /  And found her dead on the ground /
How can you run when you know?" Okay, so Neil didn't get it quite right; it's a guy on the ground and a woman keening over his body. That doesn't change the emotional power of this image.

 Oh, and that great crunchy guitar line, and Uncle Neil's whiny urgent vocals. This song cried out to us as a tale that NEEDED to be told.  We didn't need Facebook to pass around the counterculture meaning of this thing, and enshrine it as a cultural milestone. Let us take note: The jungle drums worked better than the internet, when the message meant so much. A trending hashtag? Please -- we invented that, along with unspoken filters that would have kept Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus marginal for good
This is what it meant to be a teenager in 1970 -- scary and powerful and incredibly sad. Is it any wonder that I should feel bonded for life to these peeps?

1 comment:

NickS said...

Who else would so get into the trivia quiz I invented? I've never seen adults so eager to tackle a pointless exercise, just for the fun of knowing stuff.

If you are in the mood for a minor, but fun, documentary you might enjoy Triviatown which tells the story of an annual trivia contest in Stevens Point, Wisconsin which has become a focus and reference point for the whole town. It's endearing, in part because it's so human. It's on a grand scale compared to the average radio trivia contest, but it's still something which can be put together by a couple of dedicated people.