Why Neil Young Doesn’t Need To Be Well-Read

A review of the rocker’s new book dismisses his work as “artless” because his lyrics aren’t influenced by literature, but music isn’t really about words.

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I went to a close friend’s wedding over the summer, and the most emotional moment of the ceremony was when she walked to the altar to meet the groom as a friend strummed the chords of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” on an acoustic guitar. I choked up. You don’t need to hear him or anyone else sing “I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again” to key into the feeling of the song, and those words only scratch the surface of the vibe evoked by those simple, lovely chords. There’s a billion ways to say “I love you” in a song, and they’re not all the same. “Harvest Moon” is casual and unpretentious; it’s the sound of a worn-in, comfortable love. The decision to use this song as the soundtrack to a wedding said something very specific about the people getting married. It matched the tone of their relationship, and recognizing that made me feel happier for my friend and her husband. They were lucky to have this sort of love, and to be these kind of people. I felt pride and a touch of envy.

Young is no one’s idea of a lyrical genius, and his words are mostly besides the point of what he does. His lyrics essentially serve as subtitles for his music, getting across the basic thought and sentiment at the heart of the song while letting the sound evoke the deeper, more complex aspects of what he’s trying to say. He’s not unique in this respect, this holds true for most music produced in all genres. Lyrics can resemble poetry, but the real poetry in songs happen on a strictly musical level, where it’s purely abstract and intuitive. Young’s music is particularly powerful and enduring because he fully embraces this, and understands that music is not just some delivery system for writing.

A review of Neil Young’s new memoir Waging Heavy Piece by Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker argues that the veteran rocker’s vast body of work would be improved if he had been exposed to “examples of language carrying complicated thoughts or feelings, the way they are carried in the poems of writers such as Philip Levine or William Butler Yeats or the prose of a writer such as Isak Dinesen.” It’s a gallingly condescending take on Young, who Wilkinson presents as some sort of simple-minded artistic savant. He describes his words as “insipid and sentimental,” and notes that Bob Dylan’s music and memoirs are far more cerebral and writerly, as if that was the most important criteria to judge a musician and their work.

Much of Wilkinson’s review is really a love letter to books, and he says that a lot of the appeal of reading for him comes down to it enabling the reader to “enter intimately into minds remote in time or place from my own.” He argues that music does not “easily embody complex ideas,” and that’s true in the sense that it’s a terrible way to convey pure information or didactic arguments. There are absolutely ideas and arguments that are, as he says, better suited to fiction and prose, but music is amazing because it’s so effective in communicating thoughts and emotions, particularly knotty, ambiguous feelings that are very difficult to put into words. But really, it’s sort of ridiculous to pit these very different modes of expression against each other – all art forms have their strengths and weaknesses, and you can easily fault novels and poetry for their relative lack of immediacy and concision.

Wilkinson can only consider Young in light of his biases about literature and hangups about what an intelligent artist should be like. He says he reads to gain access to thoughts and experiences that are not his own, yet recoils when he does not see a reflection of himself in Young. He recognizes the value of Young’s music, but dismisses it as “artless.” It’s aggravating, because it’s all just an ill-considered bias in favor of the written word, and stubborn refusal to acknowledge that it takes just as much (if not more!) intelligence to convey - and decode - complex thoughts expressed through art forms that rely so much on intuition.

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