Some folks embrace Buddha or Gandhi. Others emulate King or Chavez. I turn to Neil Young.
Full disclosure: I own every album the man has officially released, even all the ones recorded after 1972 that almost no one has heard of, and a few unofficial ones, too. I’ve seen him in concert more times than I have fingers to count them on. I love (most of) his music.
He inspired me to learn all three guitar chords as a teenager, and I can still strum most of them. But as an adult, I have other non-musical reasons to admire him. Primarily, I respect the dude for stickin’ to his guns.
Young topped the charts for the only time in 1972. He could have mined his “Heart of Gold” success for decades. Instead, he listened to his muses and recorded the ragged, moody, out-of-tune “Ditch Trilogy” of albums that muddled mainstream expectations. In 2006, again with career kamikaze clearly in mind, he toured a set of anti-George W. Bush songs through the Southern states. In between, he got his record label to sue him for producing “musically uncharacteristic” and “not commercial” albums, and he helped found two successful annual benefit concerts (one for American farmers and another for physically challenged children).
Long short, Neil Young only makes the music that Neil Young wants to make. Neil Young speaks out for causes that Neil Young finds important. Some call that selfishness; I call that severe integrity. I admire his willingness to cash out his celebrity for change. If nothing else, he sparks conversation and debate. I yearn to be that insanely, suicidally true to my own convictions.
Now, Neil Young’s back on (or is it off?) his own bandwagon, taking a vocal stand against oil sands mining.
Left on low heat, that situation reduces down to this: the Canadian government has approved expansion of an oil sands mine in Alberta, the profits from which would bolster Canada’s economy. Doing so, however, encroaches on a treaty signed with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation whose historic lands would be impacted. The expanded mining would also render much wildlife habitat irreclaimable. The government is pro-expansion; environmentalists are pro-conservation; and any outcome impacts the band in the form of jobs gained or lost, and health damaged or preserved.
The radio station in Fort McMurray, the mining town, banned Young’s songs. The Prime Minister’s office sent out deriding press releases that somehow only lent credence to their opposition. And Young, being the dirty stinky hippie that his detractors want him to be, responded by organizing an “Honour the Treaties” tour through Canada to raise money for the aboriginal band’s legal defense fund. All the shows sold out.
Who knows if Neil’s contributions will change anything or not. Certainly, he’s yanked the issue out from under the rug, thrown the rug out the door, and spurred an international dialogue. People are talking about the stakes of oil sands mining. They’re debating the value of selling oil to countries with hardly a smidge of pollution regulation. They’re discussing the preservation of wilderness resources.
Meanwhile, I sit at my computer, despairing over whether or not I will ever hack it as a writer, or if I’ll someday have to eat my own words to survive.
To eat much of anything else, I have to cheat on my muses. Using my scribal powers to save the world would sure be nice. I’d love to wield my pen and fight for local and global causes. But the muses don’t ever consider the little things, like clothing and shelter. So I sigh, pick up the phone, and call that loaded dame Necessity to see if she needs a dinner escort.
Enough nights of this, though, and I think my muses start to miss me. They drop some pretty blatant hints in my path.
Hint 1: The internet at home gave out—AGAIN—mere moments before a deadline. I booked it to the library, where, naturally, the router snubbed my computer. While the wonderful tech gurus at the library worked their mystical magic, I calculated the best trajectory to hurl my laptop out the window. A young golden eagle, its wings still as mottled as the snow-speckled hill behind it, swooped over the river and through my computer’s flight plan. The bird snatched my frustration and carried it to the treetops. I realized that no matter how much technology cheeses me off, the world is still beautiful. I only have to see it.
Hint 2: With the internet back up and running at home, I chained myself to my computer to get ‘er done. My neck ached, my back shrieked, and the unseasonably warm weather beckoned to me. I allowed myself just five minutes of fresh air. The moment I shuffled outside, a spotted feather waved from the doorstep. A red-tailed hawk had delivered an early Valentine that said, “Roses are red, violets are blue. Get up from your desk and live a little, dummy!”
Hint 3: Instead of gettin’ ‘er done one morning, I spent my energy and time on the phone clarifying a little account balance discrepancy. Drenched in fiduciary despair, I engaged in a bit of celebrity voyeurism, brushing up on how Neil Young was saving the world that day. That’s when I read this nugget from environmentalist David Suzuki: The First Nation, he said, “are some of the poorest people in Canada, and they’re telling us there’s more important things than money—like the air, the water and all the other living organisms on the planet.”
Goddamn if they weren’t all right: Neil Young, the First Nation, and my muses. They all inspire me to stick to my guns without shooting myself in the foot. Necessity will always need my attentions, but that doesn’t mean I have to be her gigolo. She could enrich my life instead of draining it, if I bothered to talk about more important things than money and work all the time. She, too, could be one of my muses.
So I pulled out a pen. I wrote. And it was good.
This piece originally appeared in the Durango Telegraph.
(Featured image of Neil Young – and image on the Durango Telegraph – taken at the June 6, 2009 concert in Antwerp, Belgium. Billboard image taken at the February 28, 2004 concert in Albuquerque, New Mexico.)