Neil Young sings for the Stringman, and everyone


“Take the simple case of the sarge who wouldn’t go back to war
‘Cause the hippies tore down everything he was fighting for”

And so we find Neil Young, unaccompanied but for his own voice and the keys under his fingers, singing mournfully for a sergeant without a battle. It’s a contrarian way to view the end of a war, and it beautifully illustrates Young’s uniquely sympathetic ear.

“Stringman” first appeared in the solo sections of Young’s 1976 tours with Crazy Horse and finally surfaced officially on his 1993 Unplugged album. Simple, plaintive and alone on the piano, he winds his chronicle of a series of lonely spirits who just want to rest their heads for one night without the stress and heartbreak.

It’s funny that he singles this out as a “simple case,” when it’s anything but. Likewise, little in his career has been simple, whether it’s the tactic he takes in delivering his music or the characters he chooses to detail.

He has a history of taking sides that seem to be contrary to his own, previously declared leanings. He sings in “Campaigner” about a lonely politician and notes in a compassionate voice that, “even Richard Nixon has got soul.” “Union Man,” from 1980’s Hawks & Doves, foreshadows his pro-Reagan rhetoric by four or five years, while similarly hawkish messages turn up in “Mideast Vacation” and “The Long Walk Home” from 1987’s Life.

He later explained his Ronald Reagan defense as him defending the person, not the policies. And through all his stances, they all share the characteristic of siding with the person against the attacking force. The Life songs are actually tales of soldiers sent off to fight in unfamiliar terrain. He started Farm Aid with Willie Nelson to help the American farmer. Moving through his catalog years later, he stood against the first Bush administration with “Rockin’ in the Free World” and the younger Bush with his entire Living With War album. He’s circled back to the farmer on this year’s The Monsanto Years, detailing their plight in ever-so-specific language against the corporate giant that seems to be strangling independent farms.

His most effective songs in this vein come when he really delves into the soul of his subject, fictional or otherwise. And in “Stringman,” he seems to betray his entire audience, siding with an officer of war over the cause of peace. Where he differs so much from so many of his peers is that he’s taken the time to think about what could be going on in that man’s head, what he feels and where his life has taken him.

Later in the song, he winds back to his title subject, the Stringman himself, “who lately lost his wife / there is no dearer friend of mine that I know in this life.” There’s speculation that he’s singing for Stephen Stills, who he jilted on the doomed Stills-Young tour just before hitting the road with the Horse in ’76, another talented-yet-tortured artist of the decade who was nearly swallowed up by excess and on more than one occasion. He had his fights with Stills, first in Buffalo Springfield, then in the on/off lifespan of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and by that year, the aborted Stills-Young Band era. They’d fall in and fall back out again after that. As recently as 2012, Young pulled the plug on a Buffalo Springfield reunion to bring back Crazy Horse, once again leaving Stills in the wake of Young’s whims.

When something becomes a problem, or when the music begins to move a different way, he moves with it. But he doesn’t seem to leave everyone in his past completely, and he mourns the fractured relationships the same way he sympathizes with those on ever walk of life, those who are fighting a battle alone. Within the span of a song or even a single lyric, their fight becomes his.

He sings for the Stringman, the sarge and the lovers on the blanket, all souls lost and confused and trying to work back towards a life that makes sense. His ability to find that spirit among the forgotten is part of what has given his music such singular authority, and what keeps them all so fascinating so many years on.

“You can say the soul is gone and close another door
Just be sure that yours is not the one.”

July 29, 2015

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