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Music

The Neil Young song that tells the story of his life

Neil Young is one of the most well-respected musicians in history. The ‘Godfather of Grunge’ has inspired countless musicians to pick up a guitar and start songwriting. Many of our favourite artists from the 1980s, ’90s and beyond owe much to him, and if you were to trace the lineage of alt-rock back to its roots, there at the conception you would find everybody’s favourite Canadian troubadour. 

Kurt Cobain, Radiohead, and even Noel Gallagher have all discussed their love for Neil Young on numerous occasions over the years. Whether it be his work with Crazy Horse, CSNY or solo material, his introspective lyrics and emotive guitar work became two critical elements that enabled the proliferation of indie and alternative music. 

There are many moments across Young’s career that are stellar, from ‘Cinnamon Girl’ on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to ‘Harvest Moon’ from the 1992’s album of the same name. Whilst many of his best cuts have the power to be extremely emotionally affecting, there is one that is perhaps the best indicator of his skill as a songwriter. 

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This is ‘Ambulance Blues’ from 1974’s On the Beach. The album is noted for the melancholy that colours it, as at the time, Young was stuck in one of his darkest periods, inspired by the death of close friend Danny Whitten and the infidelity of his partner Carrie Snodgress, and the pinnacle of this was the last track, ‘Ambulance Blues’, which closed our proceedings in a fittingly depressive manner.

The song clocks in at just under nine minutes, and in the track, Young journey’s through his past, trying to make sense of it. He kicks off proceedings with: “Back in the old folky days / The air was magic when we played.” Harking back to his early days as a musician in Toronto, Young sings, “The riverboat was rockin’ in the rain”. 

The Riverboat was a club in the city’s Yorkville area, and the seat of all things folk-rock, where the likes of Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot also cut their teeth. Here, he’s clearly looking back at the halcyon days of his career before he endured all the death and adultery that led to the arrangement of On the Beach

One of the most famous lines in ‘Ambulance Blues’ is the lament, “Oh, Isabela, proud Isabela, they tore you down and ploughed you under.” For a long time, this incredibly moving moment had fans confused, wondering just who Isabela is, particularly as the stream of conscious style of the song and the confessional line, “It’s hard to say the meaning of this song” cover it in mystery. However, it has since emerged that Isabela is a reference to a building in which Young used to live in, and not a person.

In John Einarson’s 1992 book, Don’t Be Denied, it is explained that Young lived in a flat at 88 Isabela Avenue in Yorkville in 1965 when he was trying to get his break as a musician, playing shows across the city, hoping for a recording contract. During the brief period that he lived there, he was performing in Four to Go, and the drummer of the band, Geordie McDonald, owned the apartment. 

The most famous part of the song is undoubtedly the cynical line, “I still can hear him say / You’re all just pissin’ in the wind”, which comes towards the end of the song. Allegedly, the line was lifted directly from Asylum Records co-founder Elliot Roberts who was Young’s manager for 50 years and a big helper of Joni Mitchell in her early days. He also worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and is rightly hailed as one of the ultimate musical svengalis, but that’s a tale for another day. 

Unsurprisingly, Young gets political during the track. He references the 1945 film, Along the Navajo Trail, singing: “All along the Navajo Trail / Burn-outs stub their toes / On garbage pails“. The film follows the story of a US Marshal, Roy Rogers, who goes undercover as a travelling poet to stop a posse of villains from ousting a family from the farm to run an oil pipeline through it. It’s arguable then that by referencing the film, Young uses it as a metaphor, defending the environment and ordinary people, something he has always done. 

It has also been claimed that Young gives his two cents on the former President Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign from office in August 1974, only a month after On the Beach was released, due to the damning Watergate Scandal. In an apparent take on Nixon, Young sings: “I never knew a man could tell so many lies / He had a different story for every set of eyes”.

What’s even more interesting about ‘Ambulance Blues’ is that in Jimmy McDonough’s biography, Shakey, Young confesses to stealing the melody of the song from one of the most influential folk musicians of all time, Bert Jansch. He explained: “I always feel bad I stole that melody from Bert Jansch. F–k. You ever heard that song ‘The Needle of Death’? I loved that melody. I didn’t realise ‘Ambulance Blues’ starts exactly the same. I knew that it sounded like something that he did, but when I went back and heard that record again I realised that I copped his thing… I felt really bad about that.”

‘Ambulance Blues’ is without a doubt one of the best songs Neil Young has written. The stream-of-conscious journey through the opacity of his mind is an incredible one, and across its almost nine minutes, he delivers some of his sharpest lyricism, elevated by the pathos his voice conveys.

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