Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Certain Songs #1274: Neil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World” | Medialoper

Album: Freedom
Year: 1989

Recorded at Plywood Digital, Broken Arrow Ranch on March 10, 1989

There were a lot of warning signs that Freedom was going to be a major album for Neil Young: not only was it was his first album with his hand-scrawled title since Rust Never Sleeps, it was only the third (and final, as of this writing) of his albums with different versions of the same song opening and closing the album.

But for those of us who wanted, needed, craved a great new Neil Young album in our lives, what really clinched it was his performance on Saturday Night Live the weekend before the album came out. While I’m sure that there was early buzz on the album, and the song called “Rockin’ in the Free World” that bookended it, there was no way we could have been prepared for what the song actually was.

According to Jimmy McDonough’s biography, Shakey, Neil brought his trainer, and lifted weights and did calisthenics in order to get to get to mid-show levels of adrenaline — to play with the blood, as it were — and mannnnn did it show. Accompanied by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on rhythm guitar, along with Keith Richards’ rhythm section of bassist Charlie Drayton & drummer Steven Jordan — subbing for Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell, who had played on the album version Neil just blows the fucking roof off of the place, running around the stage, jumping off of the drum riser, and generally acting like someone half his age.

It was easily the man’s best on-film performance, and not only did I get Freedom when it came out that Tuesday, we almost instantly started playing it in Sedan Delivery, and I even stole Charlie Drayton’s high harmonies for the backing vocals, even if I couldn’t play the off-beat accents that both Jordan and Chad Cromwell played after those choruses.

Nearly twenty years later, with the entire global political situation turned upside down and seemingly changing every single day, it’s hard to convey what an incredibly historical moment we were witnessing with the fall of the Berlin Wall just a month later, and somehow “Rockin’ in the Free World” felt so incredibly in sync with that moment.

There’s colors on the street
Red, white, and blue
People shuffling their feet
People sleeping in their shoes
There’s a warning sign on the road ahead
There’s a lot of people saying we’d be better off dead
Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them
So I try to forget it any way I can

This is sung over the biggest, fattest, heaviest, dumbest, catchiest riff that Neil had come up with since “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” and with Cromwell playing double triplets heading into the chorus, it was pure magic.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world
Keep on rockin’ in the free world
Keep on rockin’ in the free world
Keep on rockin’ in the free world

One one hand, “keep on rockin’ in the free world” might seem like a jingoistic “fuck off” to the unfree world; or maybe an update to the Stones’ shoulder-shrugging of “What can a poor boy do / but sing in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” but to me, it wasn’t either. I had a theory back then that the technology that was then binding the world together — that allowed me to watch, in real time, the Berlin Wall being torn down — was also what was going to help people who were living under dictatorships decide to overthrow those dictatorships.

To put it bluntly: Western popular culture, smuggled behind the iron curtain in the form of the Beatles or the Velvet Underground or Green Acres, or The Godfather or Peanuts, was going to give people an actual glimpse of what it meant to be free, and once they saw that, once they saw what they could actually have, they would want to have the freedom to pursue better lives.

In 1989, I certainly bought that explanation way more so than “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And, of course, “Rockin’ in the Free World” was also about how we should get our own house in order:

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
There’s an old street light
(Near a garbage can)
Near a garbage can
(Near a garbage can)
Now she put the kid away and she’s gonnna get a hit
She hates her life and what she’s done to it
There’s one more kid that’ll never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool

One of the things I’ve always loved about this verse is the stealing from then contemporary hip-hop by adding stacked staccato backing vocals on specific words like “kid,” “hit” “done to it” and especially “never.” And while you would never in a million years mistake any part of the rumbling “Rocking in the Free World” for any kind of hip-hop, it was still a nice touch.

After that, the first guitar solo, Neil ripping note after note after note from his guitar like there’s no tomorrow, just in time to call out then President Bush, worry about the effects of late stage capitalism on the planet, and quote Jesse Jackson in the final verse before reminding himself that his role is to just keep doing what he does.

We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand
We’ve got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive

“Rockin’ in the Free World” wasn’t a pop hit or anything, but there was video on MTV that got some airplay, and it made it to #2 on Billboard’s rock charts, but one of the weird thing about Neil in the 1980s was that — except for the too retro Everybody’s Rockin’ and the too country Old Ways — he got tons of rock radio airplay throughout, so that wasn’t anything new.

What was new was that the airplay, and the notoriety that went along with a song that topical, helped make Freedom his first gold album since Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young was back, baby, and he would follow up the hodgepoge of Freedom with the most focused electric and acoustic albums of his career, a run of three albums that would match any run in his career.

“Rockin in the Free World”

“Rockin’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live, 1989 (WATCH THIS NOW!)

“Rockin’ in the Free World” video (edited version)

“Rockin in the Free World w/ Pearl Jam, 2012

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