What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Neil Young

In previous posts in this series, I looked at Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. This week, it’s the turn of Neil Young. And if Springsteen and Dylan are the masters of the vivid striking image, and Cohen is the master of wit and erudition, then Neil Young is the master of simplicity. If any writer wants to eschew purple prose and – like Hemingway – chop away the dead wood and just deliver crisp, sparse lines, then they should look at Neil Young.

Young’s lyrics are so deceptively simple that sometimes it takes a second reading just to see how powerful they are. Take, for instance, these lines from “Long May You Run”:

“Well, it was back in Blind River in 1962
When I last saw you alive
But we missed that shift on the long decline
Long may you run

Long may you run, long may you run
Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run

Maybe The Beach Boys have got you now
With those waves singing “Caroline No”
Rollin’ down that empty ocean road
Gettin’ to the surf on time”

There is so much memory and loss and longing contained in these very simple lines. The interesting thing about this song is that it was actually written about a car. Yes, a car. And not just any car, but Neil Young’s first car, which was a hearse. However, just as the lyrics themselves are deceptively simple, so is the story behind it. Because while it is ostensibly about the car, he was driving this car at a time when he had just joined his first band, Buffalo Springfield, with Stephen Stills. So the memories are not just of a car but of everything that the car and that time in Young’s life embodied.

These lyrics also bring up a question that I haven’t dealt with in this series yet: how much of the lyrics are tied to the voice and the music? The answer is, of course they are. The music that underpins the lyrics and the voice that carries them across add so much to the emotion. This is certainly true of Neil Young. Perhaps, these lyrics aren’t as moving on the page without the beautiful steel guitar underneath them and Young’s high-pitched, plaintive voice that almost makes it into a lament.

But, if that’s the case, then there’s a lesson there for writers too – the importance of the writer’s voice. Anyone can write the line, “Rollin’ down that empty ocean road/ Gettin’ to the surf on time”, but it takes Neil Young’s voice to infuse it with such emotion. In much the same way, any writer can write a particular exchange of dialogue or a particular scene – for instance, one character speaking about how they feel about another character – but it takes a writer’s distinctive voice to put it across in a way that hasn’t been done before and that speaks to the reader.


(Image: Click the pic for credits)


3 thoughts on “What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Neil Young

  1. Bob Seger was just inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. There are so so many musicians from this era that wrote lyrics that high-lighted their sound. I am off to listen to Neil Young right now. Thanks for the reminders of the great ones. Lesley

  2. “But we missed that shift on the long decline”
    I have no idea what it means, really, but it sounds so cool. Thanks for giving me something to think about this morning.

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