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The Story Behind the Song: The feverish desperation of Neil Young track 'Down by The River'

Neil Young operates in his own field. A perennial songwriter, what Young was and is able to ascertain from his position as a social observer always provides the most intricate viewpoints on the world. However, perhaps where he is best is elucidating the very fabric of his own constitution. Within these songs, Young’s talent truly flourishes, and he connects with his audience on a deeper level.

One of Young’s most arresting pieces, ‘Down By The River’, taken from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, is a nine-minute quasi-murder ballad and sees Young beginning to flower properly as one of the finest songwriters of his generation. It’s also one of Young’s finest moments on guitar, too. Using ‘Old Black’ a faithful Les Paul, Young delivers some laconic yet searing licks and completes a fantastic track with it. But while the line “I shot my baby, down by the river” has always seen the song fall into a murderous if not iconic position, the truth is, the song is more pertinently about lost love rather than losing a life.

“There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick,” recalled Young when speaking with Fusion magazine in 1970. “See, now, in the beginning, it’s ‘I’ll be on your side, you be on mine.’ It could be anything. Then the chick thing comes in. Then at the end, it’s a whole other thing. It’s a plea… a desperation cry.” If you wanted a neat summary of the song, then there you have it. Young is a naturally gifted songwriter and storyteller, and on this song, he really shows off his skills. What’s more, he completed such a piece while incredibly ill.

Yes, this track is another of the fever four that Young released on the album. For those of you not aware, the story goes that Young was struck down with an extraordinary fever. It left him wholly debilitated and under the complete control of the hallucinations that high heat and cold sweats can bring on. While some would crawl into the corner, curl up in a ball and wait for everything to blow over, Young stretched out for his guitar and wrote some of the most potent pieces of his entire career. Not only was ‘Down By The River’ constructed during these fraught moments of feverish discontent but also ‘Cinnamon Girl’,’ Cowgirl in the Sand’ and the title track of the album ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’.

The debate on whether this song is truly a murder ballad or not will rage on. Though Young did make the aforementioned statement in 1970, he has since offered up multiple readings of the song. Sometimes ignoring the clear lyrics in the song, which depict a man discovering his girl is cheating on him only to then shoot her down by the river, Young has changed the sentiment of the piece. In contrast, on other occasions, he has said the song refers to a man “who had a lot of trouble controlling himself,” explaining: “He let the dark side come through a little too bright.”

Other interpretations have suggested that the track is actually about the need to kill addiction. If you replace the idea of love with either drugs or anything else one may become obsessed with, you can find a pretty accurate thematic structure that allows Young to mow down his addiction with his pistol. There are more than a few songs in Young’s canon that reference drugs, so this isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. But, the reality is more likely that Young saw the vision of a story during his feverish moments and just about managed to get them down.

It’s also a song on which Young delivers one of his finest solos of all time. Simple in construction but powerful in emotion, Young uses ‘Old Blackie’ to lay down one of his career’s more memorable guitar moments. In 2015, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio wrote: “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It’s one-note, but it’s so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It’s like he desperately wants to connect.”

It’s very rare that a nine-minute jam track can neatly flit between rock and balladry. Young at the time was a perfectionist when it came to his work so we’d imagine the jam session was far more regulated than you would maybe believe. In essence, this song is a definition of Young at the time — full of intrigue, mystery, and sheer talent.

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