Saturday, March 27, 2010

Neil Young’s “Words” as a koan

I’m not a Zen practitioner. But if ever there was a koan, Neil Young’s “Words” from the “Harvest” release is a koan to beat all koans. At least that’s my humble opinion.

Look at the lyrics. They appear to make sense, tell a story, but there is definitely something else going on.

When I was in high school, one of my English classes took a look at song lyrics and their relation to poetry. For my project, I chose the song “Words.” It was such a powerful song, and at the time – the song was released in 1972 when I was 14, but it wasn’t until I was 16 that I really appreciated it – I wasn’t really quite sure what the song was about. But I thought I would take a stab at it for my class project.

And right in the middle of my presentation, I completely changed my mind. It came to me, it was so clear. I suddenly realized this song was about growing old and being lonely, and that sometimes the affection we show the aged can be perceived as contrived and meaningless. It was like shit, my god; and I know I must have stumbled in my presentation. I can’t quite recall how I began, I knew the song was about growing old, but I didn’t quite grasp the alienation of growing old; I completely shifted gears and went with the new thought. And it was right. Look at the lyrics.

Someone and someone
were down by the pond
Looking for something
to plant in the lawn.
Out in the fields they
were turning the soil
I'm sitting here hoping
this water will boil
When I look through the windows
and out on the road
They're bringing me presents
and saying hello.

The storyline of the song is at the start pretty straight forward. We have someone living alone, looking out the window at people digging for flowers or other plants. Further out this person sees workers in the field. And then we come back to the simple fact that this observer is simply waiting for water to boil. So mundane. And then out through the window, this person sees people coming to him or her, “bringing me presents and saying hello.”

Singing words, words
between the lines of age.
Words, words
between the lines of age.

Words, it’s all just words. And they are “words between the lines of age.” That line has always got me. It’s probably important to keep in mind that Neil Young’s album “Harvest” was largely about the generation gap; that’s what we called it kids, back in the 60s and 70s. The song “Old Man” is such a beautiful ode to closing that gap. But there is something about these words that come “between the lines of age.”

And then I think the real koan starts.

If I was a junkman
selling you cars,
Washing your windows
and shining your stars,
Thinking your mind
was my own in a dream
What would you wonder
and how would it seem?
Living in castles
a bit at a time
The King started laughing
and talking in rhyme.

Wow. “Thinking your mind was my own in a dream.” Shit, that’s like asking someone young to suddenly think about being old; what would they think about? How could they think about it? They are young, not old. But at the same time, are we not everything, if we just take the time to look?

This is probably my favorite Neil Young song. This video is totally kick ass as well, although I apologize for it ending abruptly. Well, why should I apologize? I didn’t make it. But here it is.


  1. These are wonderful verses. I really like those lines. Thank you for sharing. Otherwise, I would not have known about it aat all. What can I say, this is great stuff :)

  2. "Words" is very likely my favorite Neil Young song. "Don't Let It Bring You Down" is another good one. I've always liked his music.

  3. Just wanted to say that I really love your blog (all the pinkness!). Keep up the great writing :)