Back in his mid-teens, Neil Young was part of the rather Winnipeg dance circuit with The Squires, as their booming instrumentals tried to imitate the likes of the Shadows and the Ventures. Then, out of nowhere, Bob Dylan and The Beatles came along and shook the Etch-a-Sketch of popular culture.
As Young recalled in a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe: “I never forget that every time a new Beatles or Dylan album came out, you knew they were way beyond it. They were always doing something else, always moving down the line.” This seismic shake-up that they were part of prompted Neil Young to pick up a pen and start writing his own introspective lyrics and shun the big band scene that seemed to be dated almost overnight.
He soon found himself accomplishing the canny feat of having his heroes turn into admirers as both Dylan and the Fab Four expressed some enthusiasm for his work. However, not everything he cooked up could please them, and the famously thorny John Lennon later voiced his disdain for one of his latter-day lyrics in particular.
The lyric in question is when Young seemed to lay down his own mantra for the ways of rock ‘n’ roll on the Rust Never Sleeps track ‘My My, Hey Hey’ with the line: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away…” Which Lennon perceived to be about the self-destruction in a more nebulous sense as opposed to a creative blaze of glory, which he found particularly condemnable given the time of its release.
As he told Playboy in an interview in 1980 shortly before he was murdered: “I love all this punky stuff. It’s pure. I’m not, however, crazy about the people who destroy themselves.” When asked whether Young’s line fell on the wrong side of this, Lennon replied: “I hate it.”
Going on to explain: “It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It’s the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison … it’s garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They’re saying John Wayne conquered cancer… he whipped it like a man.”
While John Wayne, who died in 1979, can hardly be considered a hero for his own dark reasons, Lennon’s sentiment about succumbing to cancer is one that deserves far more condemnation than his own reading of Young’s lyric. The former Beatle went on to less than judiciously state: “I’m sorry for his family, but he didn’t whip cancer. It whipped him. I don’t want Sean [his son] worshipping John Wayne or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it’s garbage, you know.”
He then went on to add further caustic disdain, citing: “If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”
Young would respond to this two years later by saying: “The rock’n’roll spirit is not survival. Of course, the people who play rock ‘n’ roll should survive. But the essence of the rock’n’roll spirit to me, is that it’s better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity. Even though if you look at it in a mature way, you’ll think, ‘well, yes … you should decay off into infinity, and keep going along’. Rock’n’roll doesn’t look that far ahead. Rock’n’roll is right now. What’s happening right this second. Is it bright? Or is it dim because it’s waiting for tomorrow – that’s what people want to know. And that’s why I say that.”