Neil Young: ‘He wasn’t romanticising the 60s, he was burying the 60s’
Love for Ambulance Blues triumphs technical challenge
I found this take, recorded on my phone, the other day. I think this is the only time I’ve played it all the way through without having to have a swig of whisky at the halfway mark. I love singing songs, but goodness is it challenging. All those strings to be plucked, all those words to remember, and you have to put the two together, in real time…. It’s Herculean to sing a song.
This song, in particular, is quite the mountain to scale. ‘Ambulance Blues’ is on a Neil Young album called ‘On The Beach’, which came out in 1974. The cover shows Neil on said beach with a wrecked American automobile buried in the sand (for years I thought it was the engine of a crash-landed spaceship, but it’s actually the tail fin of a Cadillac). Neil has his back to camera, staring out to the sea: the party’s over (though very recently, because he’s still wearing a party-animal silk jacket), the good times are fading, and now he’s checked out on all the fun and he’s shacked up on a beach, trying to make sense of it all, trying to make a new start maybe, though he’s pained by the knowledge that somehow the utopia the 60s promised turned into a massive 70s comedown, and he has to try and make sense of the past before he can move on from it.
It’s only six chords, but I reckon you pluck the strings about 600 times in the course of the five-plus minutes it takes to play. The lyrics, incidentally, are way complicated — 330 words or so, and there’s no chorus as such, so you sing one verse and what sounds like a chorus but it’s actually got different words each time. It’s five sets of verses, and five sets of chorus. Each verse contains two couplets, and each couplet contains a vignette. Each line is full of imagery, but there’s no obvious narrative: it’s a load of pictures stuck together and you have to try and make sense of it (whether you’re listening to it or singing it). Waitresses crying in the rain, parents whose children have been kidnapped, an apology of sorts to a casually treated lover, a bitter putdown of a music journalist, an ode to friendship, a dystopian city without people… More than that, the verses are sung low, then the ‘chorus’ section goes much higher, which is tricky to pull off.
Right from the off you get a sense of displacement. It opens with ‘Back in the old folky days, the air was magic when we played’ — but this was written in 1974, so those ‘old folky days’ were about ten minutes before the author went into the studio. He wasn’t romanticising the 60s, he was burying the 60s, which was pretty brave (or savage) when he’d also played a part in the evolution of the decade.
For the remaining 317 words, Neil seems to be reimagining himself as some sort of lonesome outsider who’s been around a lot, and seen a lot of people mess up their lives, and encountered some women along the way, and he’d found that, far from being some sort of saviour in the firestorm of romantic love, he’d actually made their situations worse by his very presence, and he’s kindof disenchanted both with himself and with the way he got embroiled in other people’s lives, and he’s decided that it’s pointless to try and ‘save’ people — to try, he suggests (verse five), is ‘just pissing in the wind’.
After all this meandering about, the final chorus identifies the culprit of much of the mayhem — an expert liar and charlatan, a man with charm who possessed power but failed to put it into the service of something useful. Who is this man? It could be a politician: Neil bigly dislikes politicians. If it was written today it might be about the Boris Johnson/Donald Trump genre of giant fibbers, but back then it was probably Richard Nixon, who in 1974 was deeply embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Maybe he’s blaming the then-president for poisoning, one by one, the utopian possibilities put forward in the 1960s. But it could just as easily be one of his LA bandmates he’s lambasting, or it could be one side of himself, the one that likes to play to the gallery. Hey, it could be his manager, we’ll probably never know and actually it doesn’t matter. As he says, ‘it’s either that, or pay off the kidnapper.’
The kidnapper, by the way, could be you, the audience, the folks who highjacked his high moral stance and chopped it up for money and fame and left him to recover his sanity on this aforementioned beach. ‘Ambulance Blues’ is life as dilemma — your dilemma becomes my dilemma, and our dilemmas become society’s dilemma, and the finger-pointing goes round and round and eventually rocks up at the door all over again, whatever beach hideaway you manage to relocate to. The artist says what he or she has to say, and says it on behalf of everyone whose lives have been discoloured by events they apparently have no power over — except the power of wholesale and explicit rejection (like going to live on a beach, or joining a cult).
There’s an ambulance motif running through the whole song too, like maybe the narrator has had an overdose and is now being transported to hospital, jumbled thoughts scattering through his mind with no particular rhyme or reason. It’s a mystery — it’s also a song I absolutely love, from the brisk, pared-down musical structure to the wild ambiguity of the lyrics. It gives me a great big kick to play it, I only learned it this year (you have to tune all the guitar strings down one step is the key). To sing it, you have to go through all the emotions, which is both exhausting but also curiously uplifting.
Cheers to life’s troubadours and, just in case you wanna give it another listen, here is is again!