It’s either the tail end of 1968 or the very first few days of 1969, and Neil Young has a fever. This would become a legendary illness, not because of the detrimental effects it’s having on Young (this is the man who survived polio, after all), but rather because of what Young would do to combat the sickness.
With little energy to do anything but strum a guitar, Young decided that the best way to battle the fever was to write some new songs. In a single day, Young produced four of his greatest compositions of all time: ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Everbody Knows This Is Nowhere’, ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘Down by the River’.
The last of that iconic lineup is a murder ballad that featured some of Young’s most confrontational, sloppiest, and most enjoyable guitar playing of his entire recording career. Sprawling for nine minutes of absurd morbidity, Young lets loose and allows the song’s ferocious and savage energy to take him over fully.
However, according to Young, the eponymous trip to the riverbanks and the unforgivable action that was done there is metaphoric, not literal. When talking to journalist Robert Greenfield a year after the release of ‘Down by the River’, Young claimed that “there’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperate cry”.
In that context, the song becomes a pained lament rather than a barbaric case of uxoricide. It also makes the lines “It’s so hard for me staying here all alone/When you could be taking me for a ride” far less sinister, clarifying that she could still come back now that she’s not six feet underground.
Young would either backtrack or disregard the metaphoric reading of the lyrics when asked in the future. The malice of the lyric’s literal interpretation slots it closer to the murder ballads of the blues than making it simply another song about heartbreak. Still, the vivid imagery of deliberate death and destruction gives the song its grotesque pull.
Whether it was because of the dire straits he was in physically when he wrote it – or because of the furiously violent content of the song’s central theme – the desperation in Young’s voice as he belts out the chorus is palpable. ‘Down by the River’ would be a classic that Young favoured throughout his performing career, and whether the lyrics are truly metaphoric or literal, the stirring power that Young conjures whenever he plays it is what really matters.