The Unapologetic Cynicism and Honesty of Neil Young’s On The Beach

It’s no secret that in recent years many of us millennials have looked back on the counterculture and hippie movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s in a nearly nostalgic light (ironically, considering we were born long after the hippies reigned). Yes, we all do love to romanticize the ideals of “free love”, Woodstock, and carefree classic rock to the point of obsession -- some of us even swearing to have been born in the wrong generation. But in reality, the late 60’s and early 70’s were something of a gilded age, enabled by a rosy retrospection that probably first took root in the grunge era of the 90’s. A time rife with political and social turmoil, most of us would rather not live in the United States during those years. As a matter of fact, some of those who you could have formerly called hippies railed against their principles, and expressed their disgust through the medium of art.

Hence, in 1974, Neil Young released On The Beach, an album that came as a shock to the public. Many asked what had happened to the Canadian singer songwriter? This was the man who had sung upbeat country-rock songs like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”, basically a figurehead of the counterculture as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Even to this day, many who are only familiar with the songs of 1972’s commercial breakthrough Harvest have a hard time accepting that in only 2 years Young managed to pull such a quick 180.  What awaits the listeners of On The Beach are 8 tracks that chronicle not only the deterioration of the counterculture, but Young’s personal life and mental composure as well. The intricate, thought out production and wistful lyrics of before have been sacrificed in lieu of a sloppy, almost carefree performance and a general feeling of malaise, both in terms of the lyricism and instrumentation. Something felt genuinely wrong. Selling poorly upon release, the album would go out of print for decades (it would finally be released on CD in 2003). However, the album was praised by both fans and critics at the time of release, and in retrospect, it is now considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time, some even calling it Young’s masterpiece. However, what truly makes this album remarkable is its universality. How could an album based around a single era be one that so many people identify with? In truth, the album did not focus on the woes of the counterculture. Instead, it explored the emotional state of Young, using the era as a sort of framing. A dichotomy between current events and psychological woes is established, and Young expresses his depression and anxieties in a manner that is refreshingly honest, refusing to let any outside influences dilute his opinions and tell him that he is making excuses. As such, the album is something of a primal scream, the frustration in all of us being giving a medium, and eventually set free. Times are bad, and it hurts to really think about who and what we are -- and honestly, who knows if it will ever pass. We cannot help the way we feel, and who is anyone to tell us otherwise? This humanistic approach has made On The Beach an album that anyone at some level can relate to, while avoiding the trappings of generic lyrical tropes and generalizations. When a work of art can successfully attain a message relevant to the condition of a single generation, while maintaining concurrency with all other generations, it has reached the pinnacle of expression, becoming something that is immortal; On The Beach is a work of such status.

Kicking off the album is the sanguine “Walk On”. The opening riff has a sound that could be described as something similar to cheerful, but the muddied production is very noticeable. Young enters in a somewhat unexpected manner: he immediately addresses a few of his critics, lamenting that they now see him as something of a downer (since Harvest, Young had embarked on the tours that spawned the aggressively abject Time Fades Away, and the tequila-fueled breakdown Tonight’s The Night), remarking that “they don’t mention the happy times”. It seems that many people will choose to remember us for our worst moments, neglecting to acknowledge that everyone has rough patches. The chorus, almost like an inner monologue, reminds us that this is merely human nature, for we “can’t tell them how to feel”. In the end, we must remember that all things lose meaning with time, and we should instead opt to “walk on”. Young recounts how fun things used to be on the way to the top, and admits that even though the success felt corrupting in the end, he still stayed true to his values. Thus, through both the good and the bad, perhaps the best choice is not to linger on any one moment, but instead continue to “walk on”.

See The Sky About To Rain” opens with the shimmering chords of a Wurlitzer piano, feeling distant, yet not impersonal. The song is connected throughout by a thread of cryptic lyrics seeming to hint at the contrasts of success and contentedness. Fitting that a topic with so little clarity and so much grey area and interpretation is set to such a song. True intent is never quite given away, the only hints dropped being buried in the beautifully heartrending pedal steel and Young’s soulful voice and harmonica. There is a sense of both indifference and longing that constitute the song, a duality that runs through the album, and a balance that often defines life itself. Is it true that we have gotten over the loss of someone or something, or are we using stoicism to hide from the fear of opening old wounds, the recognition that some things can never be the same as before? One of the more abstract pieces to grace the album, it fades out with no answers and only more questions.

If a single word sums up “Revolution Blues”, it would easily be paranoia. Not just one man’s paranoia, but an anxiety that oozes from all of society, both the innocent and the wicked, the followers and the visionaries. These themes are understandable, considering the song’s connection to Charles Manson. One of the major catalysts of the death of the counterculture, the infamous murder spree that the Manson Family engorged themselves upon horrified society. To see individuals so horribly warp words that once stood for unified love was a grotesque occurrence, delivering a sudden gut punch of cynicism to the conscience of the American public. Young was actually an acquaintance of Manson before the murders, later remarking that he was a talented song writer, but had always seemed rather unstable, and that being turned down by the labels “really pissed him off”. Little did he know what would soon transpire. The song takes the perspective of man of similar views to Manson (perhaps it is Manson himself). The rhythm guitar (played by David Crosby) and bass and drums (played by both Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band) mix to create a churning groove, one that is sickeningly intoxicating, beckoning even. Young references his “trailer at the edge of town”, his wide collection of guns, and his disconnection from society, before declaring that he needs you, the listener. Young is outlining how with enough charisma, most people can be swayed to do anything, but at the same time, there is no friendship in the partnership. The trust and human reliance of the counterculture is dead. “So you be good to me, and I’ll be good to you, and in this land of conditions I am not above suspicion, I won’t attack you but I won’t back you” Young intones. Never has human contact sounded so cold and detached. With the following verses, he becomes more and more threatening, forcing his way into the listener’s life and psyche, doing with it what he will. Following a pointed solo, Young spews out one of the most abhorrent verses ever penned. He finds humor in the shooting of those who fail to take him seriously, and blurts his visions of “revolution blues”, dreaming of finally rallying his supporters as he sees “bloody fountains and ten million dune buggies coming down the mountains”. At his final breaking point, Young expresses his disdain for the celebrities of his native Laurel Canyon (also where Manson was from) and their culture, declaring that he “hates them worse then lepers” and will slaughter them all for their way of life. The song flies off the rails with frenzied soloing as the it fades out, leaving the listener horrified at the prospect of how one viewpoint can, with just enough manipulation, bloom into a bloody carnation, opinions spurred into passion warped into bloodlust.

The destitute “For The Turnstiles” crawls forth with a lethargic banjo line. Young’s voice is ragged and hideous, and aside from Ben Keith’s dobro playing, the song is lonesome in its instrumentation. Each verse recounts in different scenarios how anyone who has ever attempted glory is either now dead, or will quickly be abandoned by the public once their two minutes are up. People may have respect for the craft or the achievement, but rarely do they actually care about the fate of the icon, because this is all they are reduced to: an icon, not a human being. Young hints at the invading pessimism that comes with this realization, remarking “You can really learn a lot that way. It will change you in the middle of the day”. The song hits harder in that it is not overblown and overly dramatic in its sound. Instead, it sounds like Young is shrugging his shoulders, as if he has come to terms with such a dystopic reality. But in what is perhaps the most sickeningly nihilistic line of all, Young reminds the listener that “though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter”. If life is such a farce, what does it matter that you personally will not be cared about for your contributions, when we all end up in the ground anyways? The second the going gets ugly, “In the stands, the home crowd scatters for the turnstiles”.

A jagged, gloriously sloppy blues riff and bassline usher in the hilariously sarcastic and nonchalant “Vampire Blues”, and blatant attack on the petroleum industry. Verses are mumbled and tossed off with little care, as Young plays perhaps the laziest guitar solo of all time, slapping a single note on his low E string. Verses pile up with absurdly awkward rhymes and wordplay (“Well I’m a vampire babe, sell you twenty barrels worth”). The song itself almost seems like a play on the impassioned environmentalist embarked upon by Young and his peers only a few years earlier. Perhaps the sluggish track hinted at a pervading mindset that little can ever be done to convince bureaucrats to consider the environment first, that effort is altogether pointless, and attempts at reform are about as useful as sitting back and lazily chastising the state of the political climate.

Side one of the album concludes with “Vampire Blues” and it is clear that the remaining three songs of side two take a different mindset to the distraught, outright frustrated songs of earlier. Young would later admit these tracks were recorded under the influence of “honey slides”, a mix of fried honey and marijuana that would leave the musicians in a catatonic state, reportedly “much heavier” than even heroin. It is fitting that the anger of the first side collapses and gives way to the world weary, depressed side two, a reflection of how with enough time and rejection, passion can drain from even the most sacred of our convictions.

“The world is turning, I hope it don’t turn away” is the opening line of the album’s title track. Lyrically, I find “On The Beach” to be perhaps the most poignant on the album, in that it eschews all social standards when it comes to its complaints. Typically, we hold back some sentiment when venting about what burdens us, or are told to do so by someone (I’m sure everyone’s parents have told them before that “there are people who have it far worse than you”, so therefore, you’re not entitled to complain). “On The Beach” opts to acknowledge this, with lines such as “though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away”, striking a vital nerve and mindset that all of us can understand: “Sure, there are people who are going through far worse tribulations than I am, but how can you bastards ever expect that to make me feel better or get rid of my suffering?” I would venture to say that most of us have had similar mental outbursts as the one above, and as despondent as this view is, it is seriously important to consider the ramifications of the idea. Anybody who has ever scoffed off depression as being “overly dramatic” has clearly never experienced it themselves. Depression is a fickle beast, tormenting us when least expected, coming and going with little warning, and rarely making any sense. We can’t justify our feelings, but they still exist, and that is all that matters in the end. “I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day” captures the paradoxical anguish that resides in depression. We feel repulsed by what society has become around us, and want to keep our struggles to ourselves, yet our soul-searching will never relinquish, for all we want in the end is to find someone who can share our burden, but we are too afraid to seek such comfort. Young expresses these feelings in a decidedly Hemingway-esque approach to his songwriting, drawing away from broad societal comparisons and allegories and instead expressing himself through menial details. The line “all my pictures are falling from the wall where I placed them yesterday” narrates how we take our time to organize our thoughts, framing everything in a way that makes sense to us so we can finally feel content with ourselves, only to find that this facade of false hope has been shattered at a moment’s notice, and we have been thrust back into our torment, and realize that no progress has been made. Perhaps the most painful of lines comes with “Now I’m living out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach”. Young is attempting to squint at the ugly truth that lies in all human ambition. Even when we have reached the apex of our achievement and have attained our goals, we still long for something more, something unattainable, something that we know will taunt us until the day we finally die. In the end, the almost minimalist instrumentation and the sparse yet gut wrenchingly tragic solo contributes to one of the most depressingly honest songs Young has ever created, one that is simple, yet not afraid to hold back. But this isn’t just pissed off cynicism, “'Cause the world is turnin', I don't want to see it turn away…”

In the album’s first glint of optimism, “Motion Pictures” commences with a mellow acoustic melody and slide guitar. It feels very rustic and intimate, and the coldness of previous songs is supplanted with a certain warmth, like Young is conversing with you, an old friend. Young remarks that “some people have got their dream”, and pauses momentarily before adding “I’ve got mine”, as if he is reassuring himself of this. Young ruminates on the permanence of nature and the mountains, likely reminding himself that human problems really are impermanent. With this, he reaffirms “Yes, I’ve got mine”. Like in “Walk On”, Young reminds himself that he has stayed true to his values this whole time, and instead of capitulating, he’d “rather start all over again”. In the final verse, Young beautifully ties together his personal feelings, concluding “Well, all those headlines, they just bore me now. I'm deep inside myself, but I'll get out somehow, and I'll stand before you, and I'll bring a smile to your eyes. Motion pictures, motion pictures.” Finally having come to terms with his own emotions, Young takes one last glance back at society.

The only piece that could have ended the album, “Ambulance Blues” is a 9 minute epic that resembles the talking blues style of folk singers like Woody Guthrie. In it, Young bounces from subject to subject, remembering his early days as a singer, and how all of his local haunts have long since been closed, disappearing from memory like a lost love. He paints a vivid picture of nothing in particular, visualizing crying waitresses in the rain, longing for their boyfriends, and burn-outs pathetically stubbing their toes on garbage pails through the Navajo Trail. The only theme seems to be that in this cruel world, everyone is lonely when you get to the core of it. Young tosses off references to Patty Hearst and the violent shootings carried out by the SLA, the loss of trust in political figures, and indeed, in anyone in the post-Watergate world. Young recalls an encounter with an old farmer at a farmer’s market, eulogizing his parting words: “You’re all just pissin’ in the wind. You don’t know it, but you are. And there ain’t nothin’ like a friend who can tell you you’re just pissin’ in the wind”. Suddenly, Young has acknowledged to presence of another to share the suffering, someone whose shoulder he can cry on. The album ends on this idealized partnership, that there is indeed someone else. Perhaps the preoccupying sorrow and loneliness that defines the human condition is what brings us together. Maybe it is best to disregard the maladies of society, and instead look out for each other. In the end, we, like nearly all else in the world, are defined by paradoxes. But it is how we choose to live with those paradoxes that shapes our outlooks. Albert Camus once spoke of absurdism, of how our existence in the universe makes little to no sense, and how we as a collective conscience will never be able to understand what our purpose is, or find inherent meaning in nature. However, he proclaimed that we should embrace the absurd, and continue to push forward, seeking what we know is impossible to find, yet searching for it anyways.

Though I don’t believe Young was directly inspired by the works of Camus, I can say that these parallels expose the underlying humanity of On The Beach. It is an album that makes very little sense, yet captures our psyche in the most accurate of ways. Young is not yelling down from the mountain at you, defining what reality is; he is just another man experiencing the same emotions as us, and is simply looking for some else to share a human connection, a friend. The finest of art can eschew logic altogether, and communicate purely through emotion. This visceral quality is what defines the On The Beach, and is what makes it an eternal testament to honesty and human will.