Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 250
Thurs. Nov 7, 2013
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I woke up this morning with Neil Young’s “Helpless” in my head. It was kind of strange; it always is, when songs that I never connected with immediately resonate with me on the state in between sleep and wakefulness. Historically, “Helpless” hasn’t really been one of my favorite Neil songs, until I saw The Last Waltz and I found a new appreciation for this Young classic when I heard Neil Young performed this with The Band and Joni Mitchell singing harmonies. Watching sparked an immediate epiphany; instantly reawakening a renewed admiration for the gloriously eternal sounds of Neil Young’s classic, “Helpless.”
Did you know that Neil Young actually recorded his first version of “Helpless” as a member of Crosby Stills Nash & Young? Actually, Neil wrote this before joining the band, and it was this song that sealed Neil’s fate, when Stephen Stills took David Crosby to Neil’s house in Topanga to convince Young to join their band. Crosby shared what happened when they arrived at Young’s abode when he told Crawdaddy, “He [Neil} played ‘Helpless,’ and by the time he finished, we were asking him if we could join his band.”
That’s how good Neil Young song was at its first and earliest incarnation and “Helpless” remains equally as timeless as it did on that day in 1969. Nash was one of the few members of CSN who was at first reluctant to let Neil into the band but all that changed after Young shared “Helpless” with his new bandmates as Graham explained, “Neil’s effect on the band was immediate and very fulfilling. He adds a certain edge to the sound and, of course, he is an incredible musician. We became a better band because of the inclusion of Neil Young.”
Author Jimmy McDonough had one of the best descriptions of “Helpless” in his book Shakey: Neil Young’s biography, when he wrote, “The one great pleasure is the cut Young failed to capture with the [Crazy] Horse, “Helpless,” a ballad so spare not even Crosby, Stills and Nash could muck it up. William S. Burroughs once said, “The function of art and all creative thought is to make us aware of what we know and don’t know. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already.” Primordial, aching, trancelike, “Helpless” is something you already know, and it makes you believe Young is the only messenger of his work. It’s the only one of his songs I could actually imagine Otis Redding singing.”
Although, one of the things that kept me away from Neil’s song was all the plethora of artists that wouldn’t stop covering “Helpless,” now, I would have loved to have heard Otis Redding take on Neil’s classic. I always felt like Just like Leonard Cohen’s most famous song, “Helpless” was to Neil Young’s “Hallelujah,” both songs have been covered way too many times. But still, both songs are two of the greatest songs written in modern times. And it can’t be a coincidence that two of the most covered songs in the last twenty years were written by these two Canadian born songwriting giants, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. And now I understand why all of these artists covered this Neil’s classic, once you feel the magic of Young’s lyrics, and you’re left to share the beauty of “Helpless” with everyone that you know and love. Two of my favorite covers have to be KD Lang’s, which you can hear above and Patti Smith’s mystical rendition from her 2007 album Twelve right here, down below.
When asked by Esquire, Young shared what he felt like was his best moment in music when Neil explained, “Sometimes when I’m playing my guitar, I get to a point where it gets very cold and icy inside me. It’s very refreshing. Every breath is like you’re at the North Pole. Your head starts to freeze. Your inhalations are big — more air than you ever thought there is— starts pouring in. There’s something magical about it. Sometimes when it happens, you wonder if you’re gonna be okay. Can you handle it?”
Neil’s right, for years I wasn’t ready to handle the vivid reflections of his most classic song. Maybe it was simply the title and theme of the song. For the longest time, I’ve had this aura of helplessness that surrounded me in my life of confusion and Neil’s song was just another reminder that I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my life. 2013 changed everything when I accepted my calling as a poet. After I finally got accepted into Graduate School, I started this quest of going back and trying to experience a lot of the music, movies and art that I may have accidentally overlooked because of my insecurities. “Helpless” is one of these songs that I’ve only started to treasure. The more I spin the various versions of Young’s song, I’ve discovered that Neil’s lyrics aren’t promoting surrendering to the inevitable but more of embracing these moments of vulnerability and beauty that most people take for granted in their every day lives.
Neil Young shared the perfect anecdote that reflected the theme of his most covered song, “Helpless” when he told Esquire in 2005, “The wisest person I ever met had to be my companion in the hospital a few months ago. I was recovering from complications after an operation to remove an aneurism in my brain. She was about eighty-five years old and maybe five feet tall. An old black lady from South Carolina. This young nurse wasn’t really in touch with what she was doing, and the old lady would tell her how to do what she needed to do without telling her. She never talked down to her, just gave examples. I felt that this old woman must be deeply religious, but there was nothing forceful about her. I woke up one morning at a quarter to six and looked out the window. Fog was on the bridge outside the room, and I said, “Well, that’s just beautiful.” And she said: “Yes, it is.” She turned toward me with this eighty-five-year-old face that didn’t have a line on it, no strain, nothing, and she said: “So the master’s not taking you. It’s not your turn.””
Now it’s your turn to rediscover the classic. Don’t be like me and let you’re insecurities hold you back from experiences vintage songs like Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Give into the glorious sounds of “Helpless” and Neil Young will help set you free.