A Generation’s Work Continues: Neil Young’s Living With War

By Daniel Garrett

Neil Young
Living With War
Produced by Neil Young and Niko Bolas
Co-Producer: L.A. Johnson
Reprise/Warner, 2006

“What will people do after the garden is gone? What will people say after the garden?,” asks Neil Young in the song “After the Garden,” connecting his current work—Living With War—to the past work and hopes of his generation, connecting his current work to the general population’s increasing concern with environmental destruction, connecting fears about political leadership to the future. “Won’t need no strong man walkin’ through the night, to live a weak man’s day,” writes Young, whose generation in the 1960s and 1970s were heroes of self-creation, social purpose, and political awareness.

“I’m living with war everyday. I’m living with war in my heart everyday. I’m living with war right now,” Neil Young states, singing sadly in his high voice about his adopted country’s embattlement in Iraq, and his own torment about it. He sings of seeing televised war reports, of praying for peace, of joining protests against the war, stating, “I never bow to the laws of the thought police. I take a holy vow to never kill again.” The guitar and drum sounds are the sparest rock music, with just a bit of organized noise, but the feeling in the song is unusual—a calm disturbance, a deep disapproval, a moving sadness. This is work of both a hurt heart and offended morality. (I think the American writers and thinkers Emerson and Thoreau would understand this Canadian musician.) Neil Young mentions “how the west was won” and advises the listener to think of peace in “crowded streets” and “big hotels” and “mosques” and in “the old museum,” before quoting the lines “the rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air, give proof to the night that our flag is still there,” which seems an acknowledgement that war is part of the American nation’s very foundation.

In “The Restless Consumer,” Neil Young alludes to the American election in which Republicans lost offices to Democrats, in which the ongoing war was rejected, despite the appeal “on the desert sands” of the “Queen of Oil.” Neil Young’s tender voice becomes a firmer, chastising speaking voice. Young repudiates advertising, and the cultivation of desire. He rejects lies. “The restless consumer flies around the world each day, with such an appetite for taste and grace”—and also an appetite for anything that sells; and for efficiency and pace. Young contrasts spending money on war rather than medicine. Neil Young sings in the voice of the poor (that, alone, is a leap of imagination, a rare empathy). “A hundred voices from a hundred lands” are crying out, and need someone to listen, Neil Young declares; and there is more information regarding the state of the world in Young’s short lines than in most nightly news reports. He realizes what could happen and says no to the endless cycle of retribution: “Don’t need no terror squad, don’t want no damned jihad, blowin’ themselves away in my ’hood, but we don’t talk to them, and we don’t learn from them.”

The false intelligence, the expectation of military success, and the early sense of triumph and victory have given way to death, the bodies returning home with little ceremony, to increasing losses on both sides, to grief and bad memories, all recounted in Young’s “Shock and Awe,” with its propulsive, shimmery percussion, jangling guitar notes, and grief-filled horn, a song in which Young recalls, “We had a chance to change our mind, but somehow wisdom was hard to find. We went with what we knew and now we can’t go back, but we had a chance to change our mind.” It is impossible not to see the difference between intelligence and wisdom.

“Families” seems to be about a soldier looking forward to coming home. It could be a song from many perspectives: a dead soldier asking to be remembered; a foreign population asserting its humanity; a soldier, live, and still fighting; a distant artist, or a safely domestic person, reflecting upon war; and a returning soldier, with lines such as “Won’t you celebrate our lives in a way that’s right for our children and family?” and “I want to reach out and tell you how much you mean to me and my family.”

The constancy of war in human existence—with its interruption of family and town life, its dependence on people wanting to do their duties, and its use of the young and strong—occurs in the song “Flags of Freedom,” with an allusion to “Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963,” and “flags of freedom flyin’” and the “president speakin’ on a flat screen TV,” ending with the question, “Do you think that you believe in yours more than they do theirs somehow, when you see the flags of freedom flyin’?” (The flag is not an inviolate symbol for me, and consequently I do not know why, but I find it hard to hear the song without the inclination to cry.)

“Flags of Freedom” is followed by “Let’s Impeach the President,” which lists reasons—lying, abuse of power, misuse of funds, and illegal surveillance of citizens. (People, Elizabeth Holtzman and Lewis Lapham among them, have written books about why and how President Bush the Second should be impeached: the amazing thing is that Congress has not investigated the matter with any degree of seriousness.) Naturally, the country is looking for guidance, for unity, for compassion, for strength, for honesty: “Someone walks among us, and I hope he hears the call. And maybe it’s a woman, or a black man after all” sings Neil Young in “Lookin’ for a Leader.” (I wonder if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama has heard this song.) Neil Young risks seeming naive, partisan, foolish. I do not know what people will think of Neil Young’s Living With War in decades to come. Who can doubt that it’s a fulfillment of his duties as an artist and a citizen?

“Roger and Out” is about an old friend who died in Vietnam: “Trippin’ down that ol’ hippie highway, got to thinkin’ about you again, wonderin’ how it really was for you, and how it happened in the end” and “I know you gave for your country. I feel you in the air today.” Neil Young ends his angry, brave, intelligent, and sad album Living With Warwith a song that could seem ironic, or a declaration of hard-held faith, “America the Beautiful.”

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com